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Tocquerville, Utah is a small agricultural town of about 700 people on the way to Zion National Park. Toquerville Cemetery is the last resting place of Louis Cornero, known to old-time St. Helenans as Louis Stralla. How did Mayor Stralla, who died in St. Helena in 1981, come to be buried in another state under a different name?

Louis Cornero was born in the Piedmont region of Italy in 1901. His family immigrated to the United States in 1904 after his father lost the farm in a card game and a fire destroyed their harvest. Cornero’s father died a few years later and his mother married Luigi Stralla, a former suitor from Italy. After their arrival in San Francisco, Cornero used the aliases Louis Cornero and Louis Stralla.

Louis’s brother Tony “the Admiral” Cornero became a rum-runner during Prohibition. His customers included many high-class customers and nightclubs. According to Wikipedia, Tony used shrimp boats as a cover to smuggle Canadian whiskey into Southern California, with his ships able to carry up to 4,000 cases of bootleg liquor in a single trip. Cornero would unload the liquor beyond the three-mile limit into his speedboats, which would bring it to the Southern California beaches.

Gambling legalized in Nevada

In 1931 when gambling was legalized, Louis and his brothers Tony and Frank moved to Las Vegas, and took an option to purchase a piece of desert land outside Las Vegas. They soon opened Green Meadows Resort, one of the first licensed casinos in the Las Vegas area. Soon the Mafia demanded protection money. When the Corneros refused to pay, The Meadows mysteriously burned to the ground. In the same year Louis married Fontaine Naegle in Utah. The couple moved to Los Angeles.

In the 1930s and 1940s Louis, Frank and Tony Cornero operated gambling ships outside the three-mile limits of the U.S., the SS Rex and SS Lux. The success of Cornero’s floating casinos enraged California politicians.

After Earl Warren became governor of California in 1946, he declared he would shut down gambling ships outside California waters. The former Cornero-Stralla gambling ship SS Lux was seized by the federal government in 1947. It was brought to a shipyard in Napa for scrapping. The Corneros also ran a Ukiah resort called “Lane’s Flat,” where conspirators tried to organize a slot machine racket in California.

Stralla arrives in St. Helena

In 1933 Louis Cornero, now Louis Stralla, arrived in St. Helena with money to invest. The St. Helena Star noted, “L. Stralla, of Los Angeles came to St. Helena the first of the week and let it be known that he is in the market to purchase a large quantity of grapes.” One week later, “L. Stralla, representing a company of capitalists who are interested in the manufacture of wine, has been in the Napa Valley for several weeks with a view of buying or leasing a winery in or near St. Helena. He has leased the Moffitt Cellar at Krug [train] station.” He named his enterprise “Napa Wine Company.”

Stralla hired knowledgeable winemakers as he had no knowledge of wine. The lease would run until 1940. Stralla began to ship tank cars of bulk wine to the eastern U.S., shipping 50,000 gallons in 1934. He also began to bottle Sauterne and Burgundy in 12-ounce bottles which sold for 15 cents under the “Betsy Ross” label.

When the Krug lease ended in 1940 Louis Stralla bought the Covick Winery in Oakville, which had been built by Frenchmen Brun & Chaix. He moved all his tanks and equipment there until he had over a million gallons of storage capacity. After a few years Louis thought there was not enough profits and sold the winery to Roma Wine Company in 1945, owned by the Cella Brothers. He became a grape buyer and owned some vineyards of his own. John Daniel Jr. bought Stralla’s 120-acre vineyard in Yountville and named it Napanook in 1946.

Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas, Tony Cornero was working on a new project, the Stardust Hotel & Casino. He bought 40 acres of land, but then discovered his past criminal record disqualified him from receiving a gambling license. Turning to some mobster friends, Tony got someone else to run the casino and obtained loans for construction. The money ran out just before the end of construction in 1955. He needed more money to equip the casino.

In St. Helena, Stralla was becoming an upstanding citizen. In 1944 he was one of the founders of the Napa Valley Vintners. Originally an eating and drinking club, the other founders were Fernande de Latour of Beaulieu Vineyard, Felix Salmina of Larkmead Vineyards, Charles Forni or Napa Valley Cooperative Wineries, Robert Mondavi of Mondavi & Sons, John Daniel Jr. of Inglenook Vineyard, and Louis M. Martini of L.M. Martini Winery.

The club met at St. Gothard’s Inn (now Las Alcobas). Soon it was clear the vintners needed to represent their interests in dealings with government, so the group became a trade association. Stralla sold his vineyards and the Napa Wine Company in 1946-47 and became a manager at Christian Brothers and a grape buyer.

Appointed to St. Helena City Council

In 1953 Roy Fisher resigned from the St. Helena City Council and Stralla was appointed to replace him. At the next election two months later, Stralla defended his seat. In those days the city council chose one of their members to be mayor and Stralla was chosen in April 1954.

Many important infrastructure projects were before the council at this time. The water supply needed be expanded, so the city bought water rights to Bell Creek and built the Bell Canyon Dam and water treatment plant on Crystal Springs Road. The rickety old wooden city hall building was in danger of burning down with all the fire trucks inside, so a new fireproof city hall was urgent. The council placed a bond measure on the ballot to build it, but the voters defeated it. The council approved the low bid for a cement block city hall with no frills. Funds from the water department and general fund paid for it. The new city hall was dedicated by Governor Goodwin Knight on Feb. 2, 1955.

Mayor Stralla’s brother Tony died under mysterious circumstances in Las Vegas on July 31, 1955. On that day there had been a Stardust investors’ meeting and Cornero revealed he needed more money to open the casino. Later that day, Cornero was playing craps in the Desert Inn Casino when he fell to the floor and died. Rumors soon arose that someone had poisoned Cornero’s drink. The rumors gained credence when Cornero’s body was removed from the casino floor before anyone contacted the authorities. Cornero’s drinking glass was taken and washed before investigators had the chance to examine it. No autopsy was performed.

The Star wrote Tony Cornero “made a million dollars before he was 30 as a bootlegger and in 1929 … was sentenced to two years in McNeil Island federal penitentiary.”

The next day the Stardust Casino board of directors met and elected Lou Stralla president and general manager. He resigned as St. Helena mayor and flew to Las Vegas. St. Helenans received this news from radio broadcasts. Stralla announced he would devote his time to running the Stardust, which was to open a few weeks later.

A week later, the Star reported that “stories he [Stralla] would quit as mayor were misinterpretations of statements he had given to reporters when he arrived at Las Vegas following the sudden death of his brother. Stralla said he will be able to continue as president of the board operating the Stardust, commuting to Las Vegas as required.” In 1958, the Stardust Resort and Casino finally opened and became the largest hotel in the world. The Stardust would remain a huge success until its demolition in 2007.

Lou Stralla was re-elected to the St. Helena City Council in 1956 and 1958. He stated he would rather not be mayor, but his colleagues insisted. Because of the large role he played in obtaining the Bell Canyon water rights, the Chamber of Commerce proposed in 1959 that the lake behind the dam be named “Lake Stralla.” The city’s Louis Stralla Water Treatment Plant is named after him. In January 1960, Stralla resigned from the city council.

‘Citizen of the Year’

As the debate over the Napa Valley Ag Preserve raged in 1968, Stralla campaigned against it. He believed property owners should be able to do whatever they wanted with their land, including subdividing it. Along with a group of others, he filed suit against it. The suit was appealed to the California Supreme Court, but lost in August 1970.

In 1980 the Chamber of Commerce named Louis Stralla their “Citizen of the Year.” At the time he was in the hospital so the honor was not bestowed upon him until January 1981. A month later, on Feb. 9, 1981, Louis Donald Stralla died. He was buried in Toquerville, Utah, the town his wife was from. Fontaine Stralla died in 2002 and is buried beside him. The gravestone says “Cornero.”

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Mariam Hansen is research director of the St. Helena Historical Society. She may be reached at shstory@shstory.org.

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