Over time, Napa County has been called ‘home’ by a diverse cross-section of cultures, including immigrants from most European countries. Two of the earliest of those European immigrant groups to settle in Napa County were Italians and Swiss-Italians.
Both the Swiss-Italian and Italian immigrants began to arrive in Napa County in the 1860s. But while the Swiss-Italian immigration was fairly consistent over the next seven to eight decades, the Italians journeyed here primarily during three specific eras — 1860s-1880s, 1905-1920 and 1935-late-1940s. Also most the first Italians to settle in Napa County were from the provinces of Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria in northern Italy. The hometown of many of these individuals was Liguria’s largest city, Genoa.
Once here, the new arrivals frequently found language and societal prejudice to be barriers to jobs and assimilation. In an effort to relieve their isolation and to just survive, the Italians and Swiss-Italians established neighborhoods composed of their fellow countrymen. Oftentimes, these enclaves were in close proximity to their places of worship and job sites.
For instance in Napa, the two primary Italian speaking neighborhoods were the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church area and East Napa. Eventually, each Napa County community had enclaves of Italian-speaking immigrants.
As with many newcomers, typically, their first jobs were as unskilled laborers. However, some of the Italians and Swiss-Italians were skilled craftsmen sought out to build many of the local buildings and structures. But the balance of these new arrivals continued their agriculture-based trades from back home — vegetable and dairy farming as well as winemaking.
The first Italians to arrive and settle in Napa County were the Carbone brothers — Nicola, Lorenzo and Antonio. In 1863, they left their natal city of Genoa and arrived in Napa. Seven years later, 1870, the Carbones were able to buy 125.74 acres in the Coombsville area. On that property the Carbone brothers continued the trade they had practiced in Italy — vegetable and produce farming. It was the first “Italian garden,” or truck garden, in Napa County. They also grew grapes and produced wine.
With the large influx of Italian immigrants into California and its communities, the percentage of acreage devoted to vegetable cultivation increased substantially, as did the availability of fresh produce in local markets. Many of these grocery stores were owned and operated by either Swiss-Italians or Italians, including Bartolomeo Semorile. In 1889, he established his local grocery store within his newly constructed brick building on First Street. This downtown Napa building currently houses The Bounty Hunter.
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As for those who were early local winemakers, the list is long. They were both Italian and Swiss-Italian immigrants who settled throughout Napa County, including the Migliavacca, Salmina and Nichelini families.
Another early Swiss-Italian immigrant who arrived in Napa County sometime between the late-1860s and early-1870s was Frank Guigni. Shortly after settling in St. Helena, he established a stone-cutting business that catered to contractors. His stones were used to construct many local structures, including Napa County’s first stone bridge, Pope Street in St. Helena. For that project and the others to follow, Guigni persuaded a number of highly skilled and talented Italian, Swiss-Italian and European stone masons to immigrate to Napa County.
Also during the first Italian immigration period, Giani Baptista Ferroggiaro settled in Napa. Later, in 1881, he established what would become a local institution, the Depot Saloon on Soscol Avenue. The eatery was eventually renamed the Depot Restaurant.
As the years passed, the Italian and Swiss-Italian immigrants as well as their descendants significantly contributed to the development and enrichment of Napa Valley life and living. These contributions were as varied as the individuals themselves.
Napa Valley’s Heart and Soul
If you are interested in discovering more about “Napa Valley’s Heart & Soul: Its People & One-Time Cultural Diversity” please join me on Tuesdays evenings, Sept. 11-Oct. 2, from 6-7:30 p.m. For more information and/or to register and pay for the four-week course, #91600.01, please either call the Napa Valley Adult Education office at 707-253-3594, visit adulted.nvusd.org, or drop by their Napa office at 1600 Lincoln Ave. Please be aware this class is subject to cancellation if its minimum enrollment is not met by Thursday, Sept. 6. I hope to see you there! Thank you!