Remembering the history
Laura Del Rosso shows Reika Rigling highlights of an exhibit detailing the artichoke roots around Pacifica. Kyle Ludowitz / Pacifica magazine

Long before Linda Mar became a hot spot for surfers and hikers, the area was known as Pedro Valley and its biggest attraction was its farms.

Settled by different groups of immigrants throughout the years, Pedro Valley became an agricultural cornucopia during the late 19th century, though not without some effort. Irish, Italian and Portuguese settlers of the time grew the crops they knew best — potatoes and grains. Some grains, such as oats and barley, did fine but the moist climate was a disaster for the potato and wheat crops.

Luckily, Coastsiders were nothing if not adaptable, and they soon started growing crops better suited to our Mediterranean-like environment with its sea fogs and rich soil.

Among these crops was the much-coveted artichoke. It’s thought that Italian farmers experimented with growing artichokes in Pedro Valley. The crops took off and spread to Half Moon Bay and other parts of San Mateo County. Soon, the region became known as “Artichoke Gulch” and by the 1900s, long rows of artichokes were planted in more than 500 acres of Pedro, Salada and Bright Beach valleys.

Laura Del Rosso is the daughter and niece of Pacifican artichoke farmers and as Erika Rigling, president of the Pacifica History Society, puts it, “Pedro Valley is in Laura’s blood.” Ringling explains that after taking her docent training class at the historical society, “Laura got very interested in the era from when Sanchez ‘fell of his horse and died,’ to the era when seven farms in the Pedro Valley were sold in one day to developers." The historical society didn’t have a lot of information about that massive sale and the era of the artichoke farms, but Del Rosso had the right background and passion to delve deep into that part of Pacifica’s history.

“She picked up on it and has been doing a heck of a job researching it,” says Rigling, “with interviews of old-timers like the Mori descendants, running down to search the land records in Redwood City, and talking with a professor at San Francisco State (University), spending many months on the search.” Del Rosso and society board member Pat Kremer have also put together a DVD on the topic using materials from various documentaries. The culmination of their activities is an exhibit at the Pacifica Coastside Museum, which Rigling says “the PHS has committed to featuring for this quarter under the theme, ‘From Ranches to Ranch Houses ... from Artichoke Farmers to builders,’ and to explore the part of Pacifica formerly known as San Pedro Valley. And now known as Linda Mar.”

Del Rosso believes it was a serendipity that her background and her recent training at the historical society led to research into her roots. Born in Pacifica, Del Rosso says, “My family lived in the same house that had been part of the artichoke farm. I was actually born after they sold the artichoke farm, but my father kept about an acre around our house so he could see continued farming as my brother and I were growing up.” Her aunt and cousins lived next door, and they had witnessed the era of artichoke farms all over the valley. “I grew up hearing about all these stories about what it was like. A lot of the friends that my parents had were the old farmers from the period before the construction of Linda Mar.” She rattles off a list of names such as the Green family and the Bolivars, and of course, the well-known Tobin family. “We really knew a lot of the old families.”

Del Rosso’s research into Pacifica’s farms took her to Redwood City and the San Mateo Historical Association, where she was able to sort through some of the old deeds. She was lucky enough to find a memoir written by Julia Gervais, whose family moved to Pacifica after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. The only work in the valley at the time was in artichoke farming. In her writings, Gervais paints a picture of how artichokes were harvested by hand, and packed by size in sheds, then boxed for shipment to the East Coast by train.

“It's an amazing memoir,” says Del Rosso, “because it's the only kind of written account that we have of what it was like living there in the early 20th century on this artichoke farm where coyotes would come up to the door.”

In addition to pulling from Gervais’ memoir, Del Rosso was able to speak to descendants of farming families. “Pedro Valley in those days, the farmers got up in the morning really, really early and they drove these big trucks to the produce market in San Francisco after they had packed them.” The grandfather of one of the people Del Rosso interviewed was one of the first people to ship artichokes across the United States to the East Coast in refrigerated rail cars. Local farmers were paid 5.5¢ per artichoke and each sold for 75¢ each in New York.

Del Rosso also found photographs taken by an Italian photographer from North Beach whose work was used in a PBS documentary on Italian immigrants in California. Says Del Rosso, “I got a hold of the guy who owns the negatives and so we're going to have four or five of those photos in the exhibit, so you can get to see how the farmers on the coast actually transported all these crops to the produce market in San Francisco.”

The exhibit on Pacifica’s artichoke farms is currently open at the Pacifica Coastside Museum, with a History Roundtable gathering and an artichoke tasting in the works. For more information, please visit https://pacificahistory.org/pedro-valley.

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