More than a century ago, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco purchased land in the heart of the Napa Valley and put Father Dennis O. Crowley in charge of a school for boys ages 9 to 18, teaching them how to work with their hands, raise crops and learn a trade.
From 1902 until its closure in 1928, the St. Joseph’s Agriculture Institute served as a model agrarian estate dedicated to benefiting poor and homeless boys from San Francisco.
Father Crowley described it as “a college in which can be taught theoretical and practical farming . . . including horticulture, viticulture, beekeeping and dairying.”
In “Frankie’s Journey — The Silk Road to Napa” (The Mousetail Press, $18.95), Napa Valley College professor-librarian Stephanie Farrell Grohs and Napa historian Lauren Coodley retell that story through the fictional diary and narrative voice of Francis Patrick O’Connell, or “Frankie.”
His tale reflects that of other city boys who traveled by steamers and trains through the small towns of Rutherford, Napa, Vallejo, Schellville and Petaluma on their way to St. Joseph’s School for Boys, which was located where Round Pond Family Estate Winery now stands.
Grohs and Coodley discovered the school’s history while researching Napa County crop reports. They were fascinated by the transformation of boys to men through agriculture and decided to tell its story using the fictional details of Frankie’s life.
He lived in San Francisco with Irish immigrant parents, but his life changed dramatically with the 1906 earthquake. His mother died shortly thereafter, and his father was honored when his parish priest Father Crowley offered to take Frankie and 30 other city boys to a school in Rutherford.
The book documents the strictness of the school, but also the opportunities created when the philanthropic Ladies Silk Society asked the school to grow mulberry trees for the production of silk-producing worms.
In reality, said Grohs, “The society influenced the state legislature to support equipment purchases that would provide opportunities for the young. As a result, the boys worked and became educated in math, animal husbandry and the agrarian way of life.”
The book is short — fewer than 100 pages — and is written in an easy-to-understand style designed for a younger audience. It features historical figures, including Napa Valley landowner David Wheatley, vintner Georges de Latour and Helen Dare, a well-known San Francisco journalist and contemporary of Jack London who wrote a newspaper story about the school.
“It’s an illustrated book for all ages,” said Coodley, an independent historian. “It gives kids a sense of what Napa was like.”
A book launch party takes place 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Rutherford Grange Hall, 8550 St. Helena Highway.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Lauren Coodley no longer works at Napa Valley College. This story has been updated to correct the description of her employment status.
Contact Napa Valley Towns Correspondent Doug Ernst at NapaValleyTowns@gmail.com.