Dave Cavagnaro was far more than a successful businessman. Known as the unofficial “Mayor of East Napa,” Cavagnaro made it his life’s work to enhance local life in a variety of ways. He is credited with bringing the circus to town, orchestrating the annual fair-time parades, organizing a volunteer fire-fighting unit and establishing immigrant assistance programs, among other things.
Cavagnaro lived all but the first few years of his life in Napa. Born on April 15, 1880, at Cammenchi in Calaveras County, California, Cavagnaro moved with his parents and grandparents to Napa, around 1882. They settled in the local Italian immigrant enclave known as “Little Italy” or “East Napa.” This neighborhood was located on the east side of the Napa River and reached into Alta Heights.
When the Cavagnaro family moved to Napa, the town was only about 35 years old. So, as Dave grew up so did Napa. He remembered Napa as being “primarily a resort town where the streets were full at night with men seeking entertainment. There were few women in Napa then — the ratio was probably one woman to every four men.” He added, “As a result, the ‘fast houses’ flourished and became one of Napa’s major industries. There were 23 hotels and boarding houses at one point.”
One of those establishments, the Brooklyn Hotel, was purchased by Dave’s grandfather, Dominic Cavagnaro. The building still stands on its Third Street lot between Soscol and the railroad tracks. The ownership and management eventually passed on to Dave’s father, Henry, who ran it until his death in 1889.
Following Henry’s untimely passing, his widow married Laurence Guisto. Together they ran the Brooklyn Hotel. Their union also provided Dave and his four brothers with three half-siblings, Nellie, Lillie and Louis. As a side note, the latter became one of Napa’s first professional baseball players.
Returning to Dave Cavagnaro and the Brooklyn Hotel, the Third Street establishment became his in 1905. He renamed the business Dave’s Plac. A year later — Jan. 29, 1906, he married Nellie Lagoria at St. John’s Catholic Church. Over time, their family welcomed three new members, a daughter, Anita and two sons, Ray and Robert.
While Dave and Nellie made a happy home for their family, he turned Dave’s Place into the local hot spot, the “it” place to be and be seen. During his 53 year tenure as its proprietor, his namesake business became a local institution where he welcomed his fellow Italian-Americans and other Napans too. His goal was to brighten their lives, even if only for a few hours.
Cavagnaro was able to serve his clientele even during Prohibition as Dave’s Place always had ample libations to quench even the greatest of thirsts with boot-legged liquors. Cavagnaro avoided being shut down compliments of his brother Henry, AKA Punch. As a Napa County Sheriff’s Deputy, Punch would receive word of pending raids. He, in turn, would inform his brother if Dave’s Place was a targeted raid site. This advanced notice gave Cavagnaro the opportunity to “dry out” the old Brooklyn Hotel.
Cavagnaro offered locals other ways to enliven their lives. Possessing a great love for the circus, he arranged for circus companies to make annual appearances in Napa. His enthusiasm was contagious. By 1930 he and his followers formed the “Circus Fans” group who booked well known Big Top acts for the local audience. They also built three replica circus wagons. They were regular parade entries in the annual fair-time processions which Cavagnaro chaired for decades. During those years, many Napans considered those local promenades to be second only to the Pasadena Rose Parade.
In addition to putting some fun into local life, Cavagnaro also provided a helping hand. In 1902, all the Cavagnaro brothers — Dave, George, Leo, Bill and Henry — became charter members of the newly-formed “East Napa Fire Company.” The city of Napa financed the department as well as purchased the fire-fighting equipment for that East Napa volunteer brigade.
Besides being ready and willing to risk all to protect the property, possessions and lives of his East Napa neighbors, Cavagnaro also assisted new and confused immigrants. Being fluent in Italian, he would patiently assist the non-English speaking individual by translating all those papers required for naturalization or citizenship. Cavagnaro also helped those immigrants and others, trying to settle down in Napa by extending warmth, hospitality and friendship.
Realizing the need for this guidance and networking was greater than he alone could fill, Cavagnaro organized the Italian Catholic Federation. Known as the San Guiseppe Chapter, this mutual benefit religious society was founded in 1927. Also understanding the importance of a good education, Cavagnaro was a major supporter of St. John’s Catholic school.
His desire to improve the quality of life was a lifelong endeavor and included many other philanthropic acts. In appreciation for all he did for the entire community, Cavagnaro was given the ceremonial title of “Mayor of East Napa.” And those who knew Dave Cavagnaro speak of how he always greeted everyone with a smile and a warm hello followed by their first name. According to these individuals, his love for life, fun and especially his generosity inspired them to follow in his footsteps.
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