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Part 2 - Memories of Monticello and the Berryessa Valley

By Carole Noske

The Berryessa Valley proper was occupied by a single family, that of Jose and Sisto Berryessa. On November 3, 1843, Governor Micheltorena gave the Berryessa brothers one of the largest Mexican land grants in Alta California, eight square leagues bounded by the range of hills. The papers granting the final patent some years later were signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Their adobe hacienda was located about a third of the way up the valley, and contained five large rooms. There were tales of wild gambling parties taking place at Rancho de Las Putas with the greatest portion of the land being lost for about twenty-five cents an acre, and the last of their estate went to a man named Edward Schultz to satisfy a debt of less than $2,000.

Schultz now owned the bulk of the valley and sold it in 1866 to John Lawley, J.H. Bostwick, and William Hamilton. These three cut up the land into farms, reserving enough land at the lower end of the valley for the tiny town of Monticello, which in 1950 had fewer inhabitants than in 1867. After the subdivision the value of the land increased 500 percent, pioneer settlers discovering the valley’s rich soil, bought all of the farms in a single year. The roads to Sacramento and Green and Gordon Valleys were impassable when Putah creek was swollen by rain, but soon there was a bridge across the creek and a road to Napa over which T.S. Scribner drove the stage as early as 1870.

This road was extended in the other direction to the Redington Quicksilver Mine at Knoxville to haul freight to the mine that employed 300 men. A six-horse stage carried passengers to the mine after changing horses in Monticello. The barn was still standing when the town was demolished.

In 1866 E.A. Peacock erected the Berryessa Hotel (or Peacock Hotel, as it was more commonly known), it was the first commercial structure of importance in Berryessa Valley, and stood until it was burned in the late 1930’s. Abraham Clark drove a four-horse wagon over Wild Horse Mountain with twelve hundred feet of lumber, the first in the valley.

In 1867 B.F. Davis built a home and opened a blacksmith shop, David Talley built the Fitch Hotel and I.N. Van Neys started a general store. The first burial was in 1868, when J.J. Dean was interred in what became the Monticello Cemetery in 1897. The cemetery was relocated to higher ground at Spanish Flat when the dam was built.

Alex McKenzie arrived from Nova Scotia in 1869 and worked for Lawley, Bostwick and Hamilton on their ranch. Noble H. and Mary E. McGinnis arrived in 1876 and by 1878 there were two blacksmith shops, two hotels, a saloon, and Alex McKenzie had opened a carriage and harness shop across the street from George McKenzie’s merchandise store. When George became sheriff of Napa County in 1888, brother William arrived to run the store.

In 1880 Abraham Clark constructed a three story, twenty-two room mansion on his Adobe Ranch, which he had named for an old adobe building located on the property. The property later became the home of his son Reuben’s family. When Reuben’s children were older, Reuben purchased the Vallejo home A.D. Starr had build in 1869 so that his children could attend high school. Reuben continued to maintained both homes. The house on Adobe Ranch burned in the summer of 1926 despite the best efforts of everyone in town.

In 1890 men were earning from $1.50 to $2.00 a day as skinners hauling timber to the Knoxville mines, grain to Napa, and general merchandise back. Mule trains hauled the grain to Napa taking three days to make the round trip. They started out at daylight, using eight or ten mules (about one ton per mule.) The first day they traveled from Berryessa to Windy Flat, and the second day to Napa where they unloaded and returned to Windy Flat. On the third day they returned to Berryessa, reloaded, and started out for Napa the following morning. The large ranches like the Clark and Gosling had their own mule teams.

The roads were covered with two inches of fine powdery dust in the summer months and travelers arrived parched and choked with grit. A whisky keg in the cellar of the McKenzie store offered a free drink to the travelers and a saloon was handy for others.

In 1893 William McKenzie became a citizen, married Rosamond Little, a member of another pioneer Berryessa Valley family, and went into partnership with W.C. Cook. They purchased the store from his brother George McKenzie and later, after the fire of 1895 destroyed their store, the adjoining property from the Phillips blacksmith shop. William McKenzie served as postmaster of Monticello from 1897 until his retirement in 1940. He was also a director of the Berryessa Fire Protection District, the California Prune and Apricot Growers Association, and trustee of the Monticello Cemetery District.

Early residents were forced to ford Putah Creek in any manner possible. The trickle of water in summer became a raging muddy river after the winter rains came. They built the Putah Creek Bridge in 1896 from locally quarried sandstone at a cost of $19,500. It was the largest stone bridge west of the Rocky Mountains. The bridge was so well engineered that it withstood the raging waters of the creek and still remains at the bottom of Lake Berryessa.

Just before the turn of the century Johnny Gardner took over the stage line renaming it the Monticello Stage Company. He soon discontinued the stage to Knoxville and a two-horse stage provided service to Capell and Wooden Valleys, to Samuel Springs and back to Monticello and it would later run to Winters. Knoxville had a Wells Fargo Office, post office, hotel, school, general merchandise store and a cemetery. Mine production reports were issued from 1862 to 1905, and only periodically thereafter, suggesting the town had a fluctuating economy.

On October 27, 1900, the Vacaville Reporter carried the following front-page story: Oil Strike in Napa County. An oil strike has been made in Berryessa Valley, which is said to be rich with the finest grade of petroleum. It has created considerable excitement in Napa and the locality in which the new oil fields are located. Thomas A. Finnel, an expert, representing a company of San Francisco people, is the man who made the new discovery, and has filed papers to take up 1,900 acres of land in the new oil belt. Mr. Finnel says that the oil has a paraffin base, and is much more valuable than the asphalt oil. Napa capital is being invested and it is proposed to employ artesian well borers and develop this new petroleum strike. Many companies have also been formed in the town of Monticello. As soon as the news of the rich strike reached Vacaville a party composed of George Arnold, A.M. Stevenson, Dr. W.P. Inglish, J.M. Burns, and Henry Peters started for Monticello with the intention of locating on land in the vicinity of the newly discovered oil fields. The party returned but no claims were located, as all the lands within a radius of five miles of the strike had already been taken up.

A follow up story appeared on February 23, 1901, as follows: Berryessa Oil. There is every prospect that Berryessa valley will become one of the great oil producing sections in California. Since Thomas A. Finnel, and expert of forty years experience, discovered oil on the I.W. Harris place three months age. Napa capital has been invested daily, and now there are ten companies incorporated. It is estimated that $50,000 of Napa County money has been put in oil stock, from which the investors expect to reap rich returns.

The Monticello Municipal Band played Sunday afternoon concerts in the early 1900’s. Members of the band were: Hamp Geer, Dutch Meyers, Cliff Clark, Frank Swift, Deck Little, Howard Clark, Fritz McKenzie, Clyde Shively and Curt Buford. Wade Little leased the Peacock Hotel from 1900 until 1908, when he married Emma Mangels. Emma’s father, Louis, set them up on a prune ranch in the Rockville area.. Joe Morre was a young blacksmith in 1905 and married Genoa Clark in 1915. He ran the Clark ranch for her mother Amanda Jane from 1919 until her death in 1946, at which time he bought out the other heirs and owned the ranch until the dam was constructed. Joe served as Napa County Supervisor from the Monticello district for 18 years.

Farmers in the early years predominately raised cattle, sheep, hogs, and horses. Large ranches of rich bottomland and rolling hills offered summer and winter grazing within the valley area. Grain was abundant, and table food was supplied to all the ranchers.

The orchard business started in 1920 when Cook and McKenzie bought the Buford ranch, which had a small orchard, and developed it. William McKenzie’s ranch totaled 350 acres when the valley was flooded. Mr. Eccleston put in about three hundred acres of pears and built a packing house with a cooling plant. When his first crop began to bud, blight hit and killed nearly all of the trees.

There were five schools in the valley, named Cherry Valley, Pumpkin Ridge, Monticello, Knoxville and Oak Grove. The Monticello Methodist Church was organized as a community church and Brother Cultan came over from Winters every other Sunday to preach. Mr. Caleb Gosling was the Sunday School Superintendent and put-up the preacher on Saturday night, dinner was served after services on Sunday and then the preacher traveled back to Winters. The church burned in an arson fire in 1912, and a community hall was built on the site in 1921. It became the home of the Community Club when it was organized in December 1925 by William D. McKenzie who was the club’s only life member. The club was renowned for many years for it’s annual Monticello Rodeo. Usually the first rodeo of the season, it drew spectators by the thousands. The focus of year-round planning by the community, it was Napa County’s largest attraction.

The rodeo developed out of an early round up held on the Scribner Ranch and a grandstand was built in 1922 at a cost of $1,005. In 1926 the Community Club took over and the event showed a net profit. The program included a brass band, two outside baseball teams, a barbeque, and a cake booth run by the women’s auxiliary. The event ended with a dance in community hall. The club disbanded during the depression years from 1933 to 1936, and later talk of a dam destroyed morale and interest in community affairs.

The Monticello Telephone exchange was authorized in June 1926. Before then, service had been provided using the barbed wire fences as transmission wire since 1905. The lines were adequate during the summer, but grounded out in the winter when the soil was wet. Light was provided by candle, kerosene or gas jets previous to 1927, when the Great Western Power Company ran its lines into the valley.

Fires spread easily in the dry brush of the valley and a volunteer fire service was quickly organized by the pioneers. In 1927 a fire district was organized, governed by directors appointed by Napa County Supervisors, the directors managed the district and spent the tax dollars collected.

The Mervyn Eaton ranch was the site of the Sugar Loaf Golf Club, which he planned and laid out with oil sand greens in the rolling hills of this sheep ranch. It was opened to the public in 1929, and golf became the favorite topic of conversation. There were few “golf widows” as most of the wives also enjoyed playing.

In the 1940s residents of the town realized that the Monticello Dam project was going to flood their valley, and families began to leave. Despite a desperate last-ditch effort to kill the project, the dam was ultimately completed in 1957, completely submerging the Berryessa Valley beneath Lake Berryessea. The Putah Creek Bridge is now all that remains of the town Monticello, sitting at the bottom of the lake, a bridge to nowhere.

The story of Berryessa Valley continues with Part 3 by Nancy Dingler


Published November 5, 2007 on the website for the Vacaville Heritage Council