If one were to light all 99½ candles on Milton Cavalli’s birthday cake, they wouldn’t be half as bright as the man himself.
A few years have passed since Cavalli was born Jan. 22, 1913, in La Honda, but his memory is as clear as ever — as are his stories. He plans to share some of these recollections Saturday at a half-birthday party thrown by the La Honda Historical Society.
“He’s sharp as a tack,” said Kathy Wolf, Cavalli’s cousin, who is 45 years his junior.
At the party, ask him about everyday life, about his memories of making trips to the creek running through his family’s La Honda property so that the family might have water. Cavalli might divulge where he used to get gas for his Model T, or what used to be under Reflection Lake.
He also spins yarns about how his family owned and operated a host of La Honda institutions like the Cavalli Brothers “Bandit Built” Store, saloons and hotels.
Indulge in a love story. He married his Pescadero High School sweetheart, Marie, after she graduated from San Jose State University and he attended a school in Oakland to become an airplane mechanic and eventually an aircraft supervisor for United Airlines.
Or just talk about his current interests. He’s quite the motorhead and plans to drive his antique car collection until he’s 100.
Here’s a taste of what it was like to grow up in La Honda way back when.
— Sara Hayden
Q: You were born in 1913 and grew up in La Honda. Do you remember how much a loaf of bread cost in those days?
A: Fifteen cents. A quart of milk was 20 cents.
Q: How did modern amenities change the way you lived?
A: Oh, gosh. That changed our lives tremendously. My mom and dad got married in La Honda. My dad had a house built for my mom in 1907. It was plumbed, but there was no water hooked up to it (so I got water from the creek). In those days, there wasn’t any electricity … We had the house wired for electricity. Otherwise, we used kerosene for light and a propane tank to supply heat throughout the house.
Q: You also helped bring water to other people in the community. How did you do that?
A: We found springs, and we’d develop them. We’d put a tank pretty close to them and run a pipe through. The creek supplied water to people in La Honda to San Gregorio.
Q: What’s on that land?
A: It was a 900-acre farm that belonged to the Woodhams. Developers bought it and subdivided it. Today, it’s Cuesta La Honda. They have an artificial lake, tennis courts, a pool, a clubhouse, a horse corral. It’s a nice community.
Q: Your father and his brothers helped operate the Cavalli Brothers “Bandit Built” store, starting in the early 1900s. What was the store?
A: The general store had everything in it: sugar, flour nails … There was a partition down the middle — store on one side, and bar on the other. We’d play cards there. There was whiskey for five cents a glass, and steamed beer. There were also hardboiled eggs. You’d buy your glass of whiskey, and if you wanted a hardboiled egg, you could take it.
Q: Although you were a La Honda resident, you commuted to Redwood City for part of your high school career. What was that like?
A: We came from La Honda to Sequoia High School. I found various ways of attending this school. My folks had a Chevy touring car. We all piled into that Chevy and I drove over. Students paid $10 a month, and the school paid $10. (Another way) was catching a bus bringing freight. Then my dad bought me a Model T Ford for $75, and that was great transportation for me. I’ve had others since.
Q: Then you transferred to Pescadero, where you met Marie, your wife of 74 years. Do you remember the exact moment you two met?
A: I lived in La Honda and she lived in Pomponio Canyon. On the way to school, I sat in the front seat of the bus. When she came to sit next to me, I occupied most of it and made her uncomfortable. I changed my ways.
Q: That’s how you stole her heart?
A: Our teacher had a party, and everyone had to do something. Mine wound up being having to push a potato across the floor with my nose. That’s one of my better achievements in life.
Q: Why did you wait to marry?
A: I graduated in 1931, she graduated in 1932. They wouldn’t hire married schoolteachers back then … So we finally got married in 1938.
Q: Any town scandals?
A: Frank and Minnie Roderick. We’d see them in town. In little towns, people get to know each other. Frank was a mean guy, not the most desirable of husbands, I understand.
They hired a San Quentin jailbird as a farmhand, who started this little lovey-dovey thing with (Minnie).
This guy shot him and dumped Frank in a well. When Frank wasn’t showing into town, the sheriff got suspicious. They started digging the well out … There was a shoe — with a foot in it.
They arrested this fellow for murdering Frank and put Minnie in prison as an accomplice.
Q: What was a night on the town like? What did you do for fun?
A: They had movies there (in Half Moon Bay) — black-and-white, silent movies, I guess you’d call them. And they had a woman down in the front of the theater on piano who’d play music for the movie. Saturday nights, there’d be a dance somewhere. The orchestra would have a piano, a banjo, a sax, a drummer. On Sunday, I used to go to the car races, or we’d go on a picnic down on the beach or in a San Mateo County park.
Q: Did people outside the community reach out to La Honda much?
A: There were quite a few camps around La Honda. People used to come out in the summer for three months from the city and establish a campsite. They’d live outdoors, you might say.
Q: You’ve been all over the world. What keeps drawing you back to La Honda?
A: When I worked for the airline, I worked all around the (Bay Area), but I never found anywhere I liked as well as here.