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New book celebrates Occidental’s rich history

Barbara Gonnella has long been a lover of Occidental.

Decades ago, Gonnella’s great-grandfather would tie his horse outside the Occidental Union Hotel and regularly visit the saloon in the hotel, which Gonnella now owns with her husband.

Now, she aims to share what she calls “a long-beloved history” of the town in her new book “Occidental,” part of the Images of America book series. The book was produced with Gonnella’s sister, Mary Pozzi, and close friend, author Bob Dougherty, with help from other local historians.

Part of Gonnella’s goal with the book is to share photographs, articles and more memories from the archives at the Union Hotel. The hotel was once a boardinghouse; now the second floor is the Gonnella family’s office space, including a private historical library with materials documenting decades of local events and families.

The book describes the evolution of the town as it was home to European immigrants, ranchers and later, the counterculture movement, Gonnella said.

“One of my favorite notes in the book is that (Occidental) survived pandemics, it survived the 1906 earthquake, it survived various fires,” she said. “The community has pulled together.”

An online book launch at 4 p.m. on Sunday, hosted by the Occidental Center for the Arts, will highlight the new book. Local writer and artist Marylu Downing will open the virtual event with an excerpt from her novel “Tales from the West Pole.”

Press Democrat columnist and local historian Gaye LeBaron will discuss “Occidental” with Gonnella and share tidbits of the town’s history. The event is free on YouTube Live. Donations to the Occidental Center for the Arts are accepted.

Gonnella said the nature of Occidental’s history will encourage locals to participate in the event, noting that many have special ties to the area.

“So many families have had second homes and memories of stopping in Occidental for a family dinner. It was a big deal to go there as a family and go to one of the restaurants,” she said.

Occidental’s history and past residents include an influx of Italian immigrants from the 1880s to the 1920s, Gonnella said, a group which included her great-grandfather and her husband’s great-grandparents. These immigrants created a sort of Italian village, with Italian restaurants that quickly became popular as tourist attractions.

The Union Hotel is the oldest of these restaurants, Gonnella noted. As one of the current proprietors of the hotel, Gonnella has seen this connection first-hand at the hotel’s restaurant and saloon.

“So many people had their first Shirley Temple at that restaurant. So many first dates, so many wedding receptions, so many baptisms, memorials. It has embraced all aspects of life,” Gonnella said.

For more information on the upcoming book launch, visit the Occidental Center for the Arts website at occidentalcenterforthearts.org and click on events. Watch the YouTube event at bit.ly/2Q5rFDf

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