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Andy Mattern, 71, uses an oar and a log to try to lever free a grapevine planted by his grandfather in 1926 at his home in Coyote Valley, before it was flooded to create Lake Mendocino near Ukiah in 1958. The middle of the lake, where the Italian immigrant community thrived, was exposed because of the drought when the photo was taken in October 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Drought uncovers long-ago family homestead site hidden beneath Lake Mendocino

Andy Mattern knew exactly what he was looking for as he scanned the receding edges of Lake Mendocino.

Finally, he spotted the tops of a handful of wooden stakes protruding from the mud and bird droppings along the shoreline.

Cut from virgin redwood almost a century earlier, those stakes had been driven into the ground by his grandfather, Lorenzo Fracchia, to support his grapevines.

That was early in the 20th century, when there was no lake.

Coyote Valley was home to a vibrant young settlement of immigrants from northern Italy, struggling farmers and families, the Fracchias among them.

And now it was as if the drought-ravaged lake’s receding waters had opened a window to the past for Lorenzo Fracchia’s descendants.

A week earlier, Mattern and his brother had taken their 93-year-old mother, Jeanette Fracchia Byland, to the same spot, the place where she’d lived the first 12 years of her life.

The trip was reminiscent of one Mattern had made 44 years earlier with his grandmother, the last time the lake was this low. Back then they were able to see the foundation of the family home, the one Jeanette grew up in.

“I’m kind of living my life all over again.” — Jeanette Fracchia Byland

This time, everything was buried under decades of lake silt.

Still the water had withdrawn enough to reveal dozens of gnarled vines that Lorenzo Fracchia planted there in 1926 and that had been underwater now for more than 60 years.

“Wow,” Mattern said. “My grandfather’s vines. That’s amazing.”

Mattern pried loose a few stakes to take home for family members as keepsakes.

“You could still stake a vine with them. That’s how good they were,” he said.

Recent rainstorms have raised the lake level enough to submerge the area again, but those recent visits remain vivid, as do the memories they refreshed.

“I’m kind of living my life all over again,” Jeanette said.

Andy Mattern, 71, walks out to the middle of a dried out Lake Mendocino in October 2021 to the site of his grandfather's home and vineyard planted in 1926 when the Italian immigrant family moved into what was then Coyote Valley. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Andy Mattern, 71, walks out to the middle of a dried out Lake Mendocino in October 2021 to the site of his grandfather's home and vineyard planted in 1926 when the Italian immigrant family moved into what was then Coyote Valley. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

***

It was a trek to get out to the northern edges of Lake Mendocino, to the muddy fringes of water pooled toward the center of the lake bed at the peak of the drought in mid-October.

Before construction of the dam that would help tame the Russian River and form part of the region’s complex water supply system, immigrants from the Piedmont region of northwest Italy came to this place to settle the land and build their lives.

Coyote Valley prior to 1958, when Lake Mendocino was filled.                   (Historical Society of Mendocino County, Ukiah, California)
Coyote Valley prior to 1958, when Lake Mendocino was filled. (Historical Society of Mendocino County, Ukiah, California)

Many, like Lorenzo Fracchia, planted wine grapes to sell and to use in their own wine, carrying on the customs of their homeland and laying the groundwork for the viticultural traditions that still dominate the area’s economy.

There were the Aggis, Accorneros, Ghiringellis, Massavellis, the Fracchias and the Garzinis — the growing family of Batista Garzini, who arrived in the valley in 1907 and was the first of the northern Italian immigrants to put down roots there.

The Dal Pozzos, Guntlys, Bartolomeis, Parduccis and others would arrive a bit later.

For half a century after Garzini settled there, properties in the Coyote Valley were divided and sold and farmed until finally the homes were emptied and purchased by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built a dam and flooded the valley more than 60 years ago.

Lake Mendocino plays a critical role in providing flood control and delivering water to domestic and agricultural users along the upper reaches of the Russian River.

It is also a popular destination for recreation. Until the drought, speedboats and Jet Skis plied its waters.

Coyote Valley School Class, 1935. (Historical Society of Mendocino County, Ukiah, California)
Coyote Valley School Class, 1935. (Historical Society of Mendocino County, Ukiah, California)

Where bass and catfish normally reside now, farms and country roads, orchards, vineyards, a dairy and two schoolhouses once provided the backdrop for a hardscrabble life that tested the Fracchias through the age of Prohibition, the Great Depression and an emerging World War.

The most dramatic family stories are well enough known to Lorenzo Fracchia’s children and grandchildren.

There was the day, for instance, in 1929 when he was arrested and jailed overnight for bootlegging potent grappa, a pomace brandy made from the grape leftovers from winemaking, which helped sustain his family during Prohibition.

There also was the time after “the killer freeze” of May 1930 that destroyed the region’s grape crops, including Fracchia’s. When the bank came for his tractor, Lorenzo Fracchia reputedly climbed atop it with his shotgun, and said, “You take my tractor, you take my life,” his grandson said. “And they let him keep the tractor.”

View of Coyote Valley overlooking the Wolfe and Scammon Vineyards, before creation of Lake Mendocino. (Historical Society of Mendocino County, Ukiah, California)
View of Coyote Valley overlooking the Wolfe and Scammon Vineyards, before creation of Lake Mendocino. (Historical Society of Mendocino County, Ukiah, California)

***

Only twice since Coyote Dam was raised in 1958 to hold back the East Fork of the Russian River has there been drought so severe that artifacts of the Fracchias’ early life were revealed.

The first time was 1977, when the reservoir reached its lowest level ever after two years of historic drought. Rosie Fracchia, then 79, made the trip across a stretch of dried lake bed that year with Andy Mattern, now 71.

They saw the grapevines that time, too, planted shortly after Lorenzo and his bride purchased 30 acres on the east side of the East Fork Russian River in 1926.

Byland was living out of state at the time and has since moved back to Northern California to live with her son. So when the water dropped low last month, she seized a chance to make the pilgrimage to her family’s Coyote Valley homestead.

“I was curious, you know?” she said. “It brought back lots of memories, and I was excited to get back out there because I know that my mother went out there when she was in her 70s.”

Only a narrow stream traced the snaking path of the river’s east fork along the east side of the valley, and she had to hike through a broad swath of parched weeds reaching above 6 feet at the northernmost edge of the lake basin.

She then had to cross a dense band of seedling cottonwood trees that have cropped up since the lake bottom became exposed.

Jeanette Fracchia Byland, left, and her son, Andy Mattern, both of Redwood Valley, in the middle of the exposed Lake Mendocino lake bed, at the site of Byland's childhood home. Photo taken in October 2021. (Jeanette Fracchia Byland)
Jeanette Fracchia Byland, left, and her son, Andy Mattern, both of Redwood Valley, in the middle of the exposed Lake Mendocino lake bed, at the site of Byland's childhood home. Photo taken in October 2021. (Jeanette Fracchia Byland)

After that, Byland boarded a fat-tired garden cart to which her son had lashed a lawn chair for the rest of the trip across a wide plain of dried, cracked mud with fractures deep and wide enough to insert a hand.

A younger son, Erich, 67, had traveled out from Elko, Nevada, to join the expedition. They were accompanied by Andy Mattern’s wife, Pauline, as well as a young family friend.

Byland says one thing that really struck her was how flat and uniform the terrain had become without the fruit trees, gardens, farmhouses and fences, and the natural rise and fall of the landscape that she remembered from more than 80 years earlier.

“You’d have to check the mountainside to see where you are,” she said.

A point of land on what’s normally the western shore, a place once known as Vinegar Hill, was the site of an old winery operated by the Garzini family.

It offered a reference point for finding the Fracchia homesite east of the river and what had been Highway 20, which had cut diagonally across the valley before it was rerouted around the new lake.

Finally, they found a familiar mineral spring sprouting gently from the lake bed. Byland remembered that it bubbled up near the family chicken coop in earlier times, confirming the family group had reached its destination.

Not from there, near the water’s edge, is where they found the vineyard stakes.

Andy Mattern had pulled some out in 1977 and recalled that they came out of the soft, wet ground easily, having been underwater not quite 20 years at the time.

His brother came to visit the site this year primarily so he could retrieve some as well, “and see what my grandfather’s work looked like.”

“Here’s something that’s been underwater since 1959. It was made 100 years ago, and it’s still viable,” Erich Mattern said later. “I mean, I used it as a walking cane coming back.”

***

Jeanette Fracchia Byland, 93, of Redwood Valley was born in Coyote Valley near Ukiah in 1928, two years after her family moved to the small Italian immigrant community. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Jeanette Fracchia Byland, 93, of Redwood Valley was born in Coyote Valley near Ukiah in 1928, two years after her family moved to the small Italian immigrant community. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

For Byland, the trip brought to mind memories of industrious “Piemontese” families whose first-generation parents spoke the same French-influenced dialect of her parents and shared favorite pastimes from home, like bocce.

There were gatherings at the Aggis when Byland was a young girl, and the women would flock to the kitchen for conversation that did not interest her.

So she would join the men in the front room, where they stood in a circle, arms around one another’s’ shoulders, belting out Italian songs. At least one of them always had a stogie.

“I didn’t like the smoke, but in order to stay with the men, I had to stand it,” she said.

She remembers hiding at times behind the seat of her father’s old Model T so she could sneak along with him to the Pallini’s deli in nearby Forks, where the men would rake the gravel to make a bocce court.

On other occasions, Byland walked east to the Hoopers’ Dairy Ranch to play with Barbara Hooper. “She had dolls and stuff and had a bush by the house that made an interesting play area,” she recalled.

On Sundays, there was Sunday school and in the evenings Christian Endeavor — a popular youth ministry in the early 1900s — as families gathered at the schoolhouse, which doubled as the church, for barbecue, potlucks and games.

And in the summer, when chores were done, “we could give a Tarzan yell to the Garzini kids, and if they were outside they could answer and we would go down to the river and go swimming,” Byland said.

Lorenzo and Rosie Fracchia in the 1960s. (Andy Mattern)
Lorenzo and Rosie Fracchia in the 1960s. (Andy Mattern)

Most of her childhood memories, however, focus on labor and how much of it everyone did, most especially her parents, but kids of all ages, as well.

Lorenzo Fracchia had come to California as a very young man and worked as a cooper, making wine barrels for Asti Swiss Colony Winery near Cloverdale, his daughter said.

Later, he was working as a groundskeeper for a wealthy businessman in Albany when he met his future wife. She had grown up only 20 or so miles away from him in Italy, but it wasn’t until both had arrived in California that they were introduced at an Italian-American social club in Oakland.

They wed in 1921. A year later, their twins, Eda and Mario, were born. Five years after that, the young family followed a friend and fellow emigrant from Lorenzo Fracchia’s hometown to the growing Piemontese settlement in Coyote Valley, according to a historical account of the community.

Together, the Fracchias cleared the land of brush, trees and stumps, using mules and stump pullers, assisted by neighbors, their son, Mario Fracchia, told a local historian at one point.

Lorenzo Fracchia chopped firewood in the surrounding hills to keep money coming in and cut scores of vineyard stakes from freshly logged redwood stumps in the hills around Comptche, in order to plant his vineyard.

They built the family home and barn, and raised nearly all of their food — chickens, rabbits and squab to sell in Ukiah and put on their own table; vegetables grown in a huge garden and fruit from trees planted on the farm and preserved by Rosie Fracchia in a huge copper boiler.

Jeanette Fracchia Byland, 93, points out the site on a map where her parents settled in 1926, in Coyote Valley near Ukiah, during a visit to her current home in Redwood Valley November 2021.  (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Jeanette Fracchia Byland, 93, points out the site on a map where her parents settled in 1926, in Coyote Valley near Ukiah, during a visit to her current home in Redwood Valley November 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

They made huge batches of bread in a brick Dutch oven Lorenzo Fracchia had built and in which he would make a large fire of manzanita and old grapevines, heating the oven overnight while the dough rose. When the oven was hot enough, everything was scraped out and the surface inside cleaned so the loaves could be inserted and baked “to make a tender flaky crust,” Byland said.

For the kids there were always chores: weeding and suckering vines, picking fruit or bundling alfalfa for the rabbits.

Mario Fracchia described using a BB gun to shoot robins for dinner when they were drawn by the dropped pears on the ground in winter. His father watched and waited for quail to catch when they were attracted to discarded grape pomace from winemaking and became drunk.

The children also picked prunes and hops at neighboring farms.

“That’s how you survived,” Byland said.

A section of a 1920 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tactical map showing crop production along the East Fork Russian River where Lake Mendocino is now. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
A section of a 1920 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tactical map showing crop production along the East Fork Russian River where Lake Mendocino is now. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Byland remembers that the Pomo Indian residents of the Coyote Valley Rancheria near her childhood home largely kept to themselves, though she remembers riding the school bus into Ukiah with some of the kids for fifth and sixth grades. Some of the people from the Rancheria also attended Christian Endeavor.

Byland was aware of the poverty and outsider status of the Pomos, but also identified with it, to an extent, given how her own family and friends were viewed in town.

“We weren’t considered top quality people because we were wops,” she said with the same matter-of-fact expression with which she delivers most information.

Byland said her father’s grappa cooking continued to be a source of friction between her parents, though he could use it as barter during lean times — for fare on the ferry that would take him across the bay to sell his grapes, for example.

It foreshadowed some of the hardship she would face herself through two turbulent marriages to alcoholic men, both of whom died from their disease, before she met the man she married and loved for 38 years.

In 1939, when Byland was 12 and her twin siblings had grown, her mother decided she had had enough of the still and took her youngest daughter to Berkeley, closer to cousins and other family. She bought a small grocery store there that soon profited.

The couple later reconciled, and Lorenzo Fracchia joined them after a short spell, their daughter said. They stayed in the East Bay through the war, when the senior Fracchias, not yet American citizens, were restricted in their travel and activities.

By 1944, they had traded up in the grocery business and saved enough money to purchase a large ranch south of Ukiah where they grew pears, prunes and grapes.

Though Lorenzo Fracchia had given up cooking grappa, he made himself another still — this one, battered by his angry wife at one point, then repaired, now resides in the Mendocino County Historical Museum — and resumed making the high-proof brandy, primarily for home consumption, Byland said.

Byland finished high school in Ukiah and was soon off to start her own life as a married woman, living out of state in Nevada and Idaho for decades but visiting home for weeks at a time.

She said she doesn’t remember her parents reflecting on their time in Coyote Valley, on the hardships of that early part of their lives, though she’s not sure why. And it’s not something she dwells on much either.

“Once it goes under the water,” she said, “you don’t think too much about it anymore. It’s not your valley anymore.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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