Stockton , CA





California’s physical landscape and seemingly endless opportunities were appealing to Italian immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Italian Diaspora refers to large scale migration of Italians to other parts of the world from 1861 and the unification of Italy through World War I. Between 1861-1900, seven million Italians left their home, and the majority of them were from Northern Italy. Between 1900-1929, nine million Italians left home, primarily from Southern Italy and Sicily. Some came as birds of passage and some immigrants permanently made California their new home. The city of Stockton, San Joaquin County, was founded in 1849 by German immigrant Captain Charles Weber who was also a farmer. Stockton’s agricultural roots continue to the twenty first century as produce is shipped around the state, country and globe. Paola Sensi-Isolani and Phylis Martinelli point out, “Thus what further distinguishes Italian immigration to California from that in the East and Midwest is the high percentage of Italians who worked in the agriculture sector and in fishing and who as a consequence, settled in the countryside and in small towns.” (pg.3) Italian immigrants mined, fished, canned, made wine and worked in dry sheds in California. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 linked the west and east coast by bands of steel. Combined with the advent of the refrigerated car in 1877, California produced the most fruit and nuts in the world by the 1880s. Originally there were four million acres of wetlands in San Joaquin county; a number reduced to 4000 today. By 1926 peaches and apricots were the most dominant fruits in California, and the city of Stockton contributed to this fact. According to Stockton business owner Mike Calosso “the Tuscanos and Neapolitans farmed the wetlands, the Delta, and the Piedmontese, Genovese and Sicilians went east.” Calosso grew up in the neighborhood near Wilson Way and Channel Street, an area he described as “85% Italian and there were quite a few Germans and Americans too.”

Business & Agricultural Opportunities

Some of these immigrants are well known, and some like most Italian immigrants to the United States, settled for their piece of the American Dream. Who could have predicted that Italian immigrant Domenico Ghirardelli’s name would become synonymous with chocolate in his new homeland, the United States. Ghirardelli took a circuitous route to California. He was born in Rapallo, the region of Liguria in 1817. He worked for a candy maker in Italy and then headed to Peru to open a candy store in 1838. Right next to his Peruvian store was a cabinet store owned by James Lick, an American. In 1847 Lick left for San Francisco taking 600 pounds of his friend’s chocolate with him. ( Like other venture capitalists of the nineteenth century, Ghirardelli sailed to California in 1849 after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. He opened a store in Stockton where he sold goods as well as chocolate and biscuits to the miners. His real estate also included several ranches in this newly founded Central Valley town. A fire destroyed his shop in 1851, and while he wisely kept his ranches in Stockton, he left for San Francisco and “greater prospects for commercial development.” (Maiello 155) Today a square bearing his name sits on San Francisco’s waterfront and is visited by millions of people annually.

Not all immigrants enjoyed the great fortune Ghirardelli did, but the hard work of many immigrants and their children in the fields earned California the moniker, breadbasket of the world. Rodolfo Mussi was born in Bridgeville Pennsylvania in 1914 to an Italian immigrant father who worked in the coalmines. Rodolfo’s mother died at a young age forcing the family to return to Italy. The village of Riccione in Northern Italy did not offer much hope to the young Rodolfo who at age sixteen returned with his father’s permission to the United States. His father let him leave Italy on one condition: that he head to California not Pennsylvania. At sixteen with little money, no family or friends or command of the English language, Rodolfo went to work in the mud baths in Calistoga. He later moved to Stockton and went to work on a farm. He noticed a plot of land that was not being farmed and inquired about the property. He had no money to purchase the land or equipment to farm it, but his determination impressed the landowner, Mr. Lucas, who leased the land to Mussi. After thirty years, Mussi secured a twenty-five year lease and his sons still lease and farm the same land today. In fact Rudi Mussi, Rodolfo’s son, recalls his first language was Italian, second Spanish which he learned by playing with the children of the Mexican laborers, and finally English was his third language he learned after his older brother started school. Soon the 6,500 acres were producing asparagus, grapes and tomatoes. Mussi’s idea of a contract was a handshake. In 1948, he returned to Italy as he did every two-three years, met and married his wife. He was inducted into the San Joaquin Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1992 and was a member of the Sons of Italy and the Italian Gardner’s Society.

Joseph Solari II’s great grandfather immigrated to Stockton in 1877, and his family was among the first to grow cherries in the area. Four generations of Solaris farmed in Stockton and their products are sold around the country. His family was part of the California Fruit Exchange founded in 1901. The cherries and plums were packed on the Solari Ranch then sent to the east coast via the Exchange. The Solaris were also involved with the founding of two additional organizations: the San Joaquin Marketing Association (1922) and the San Joaquin Cherry Growers (1935).

In addition to cherries, Stockton was also known for its tomatoes. Two families cornered the market for quality tomatoes and tomato products: the Cortopassis and Lagorios. Dino Cortopassi, co-owner of Stanislaus Food Products, narrates his family’s history through photos. ( The family business began in 1942 with fresh-packed canned tomato products. Today their products are available only through food service distributors in the United States and Canada. George Lagorio began farming in 1945 on thirty acres. Today the Lagorio Family of Companies farms over 10,000 acres. The ACE Tomato Company founded in 1968 ships worldwide today. Their Specialty Products include olive oil, walnuts, cherries and wine grapes. George’s daughter, Kathleen Lagorio Janssen and her husband Dean expanded the family business a few years ago with the purchase of olive orchards. Now the company produces extra virgin olive oil. Both companies, Stanislaus Foods and Lagorio Family of Companies remain family businesses.
Italian immigrants owned and operated groceries and delis in Stockton just as they did across the country. Genovese immigrants Joseph & Emilio Silva operated a grocery store on Main and East Streets from 1890-1925, and a number of their wholesale providers were also Italian: Paul Brichetto (produce); Giuseppe Paravagna (produce) and Ravenna & Co. (pasta). Caesar Gaia, born in 1892 near Torino, left home at age seventeen to follow his brother Frank who left for California years earlier. Gaia first worked on ranch in Gilroy before moving to Stockton in 1914. He, along with Louis Delucchi, bought E. Fontana’s Ravioli Factory which later became the site of Gaia & Delucchi’s at 320 East Market St. The grocery featured ravioli, salami and other Italian delights for their customers in San Joaquin county.

Frank Lucchetti was born in Stockton in 1911 and he sold newspapers, The Stockton Independent for two cents each on the waterfront as a child before heading off to school. At age sixteen he went to work for PG&E. Years later he left a job with PG&E to purchase thirty-four acres of cherry and peach orchards in his hometown. His brother-in-law taught him how to farm. In 1947 The Fruit Bowl started out because Frank couldn’t decide what to do with all his peaches that were not in demand in the San Francisco market. He and his wife Ina started selling peaches on the road around 4th of July, and they couldn’t pack the peaches fast enough to sell. Later a hot dog stand was purchased from the State Fair to sell the fruit and finally in 1991 the fruit stand was built. The Bake Shop featuring pies and gelato was added in 1998, and today Ralph Lucchetti runs the business his parents started in 1947.

Italians enriched the city of Stockton beyond the orchards and markets. Manlio Silva was born near Genoa in 1893. After graduating from the Conservatory of Chiavari he immigrated to the United States at age sixteen. By day he was a pharmacist and by night a music conductor who was the founding music director of the Stockton Symphony in 1926. Education was also important to Christina (Ina) Lucchetti who was born in 1920 in Corfino. She never graduated from high school due to rheumatic fever. Ina emigrated to California at age seven, and this was the first time she saw her father who left Italy before she was born to go to California. According to Ralph Lucchetti, Ina’s son, “She went back to school because she was always a teacher, even though officially she wasn’t, because she always taught Cub Scouts and 4H. She actually went to Delta College when my brother Dave was going there. They were in some of the same classes together. She wanted to get her Teacher’s Credential. She did get a provisional credential but she never really got the full credential, but she taught Catechism (CCD) for sixty-five years.” Because of the efforts of Ina and F.M. “Luke” Lucaccini, children’s Italian classes were taught by Maria Marchesi in the 1950s in the basements of Italian members of the community and later on at the Catholic schools in Stockton. The Central California School of Italian Language and Culture was founded in 1974 with the mission “to embrace, preserve, and perpetuate the Italian language and culture in central California,” and the school continues to educate children and adults today.

Clubs & Organizations

Recent Italian immigrants and established Italian Americans worked together, went to church together and also formed social alliances. One of the oldest of these organizations is the Italian Gardner’s Society founded in 1902. The Gardner’s were initially established as a mutual aid society providing health and death benefits, and members made an effort to recruit other Italian speaking gardeners, farmers, and ranchers despite their Italian region of origin. Gardner’s dominated the fruit and vegetable markets in the area. Stockton business owner Michael Calosso is the third generation of his family to be a member of the Gardner’s Society, and he received his fifty year pin. His grandfather, Lorenzo Calosso, emigrated from Piemonte, befriended A.P. Giannini and moved from San Francisco to Stockton to take over a ranch that produced peaches, walnuts, and cherries. Lorenzo later founded The Box Company in 1924, and Mike is in charge of the family business today. In reference to the Gardener’s Society, “It was formed basically to protect their own Italian culture. It started as a society. In those days $250 paid for your funeral. I still think member’s families get $250, but that won’t pay for a funeral today. It (the Society) was to keep the Italian community close.” (Calosso) The Italian Gardner’s Society, also popular for family picnics, is over 100 years old.

The Italian Athletic Club on Cherryland Ave. sponsored a number of teams and athletes over the years. The Club features bocce courts, leagues and open play complete with a Wednesday Night Bocce Menu and Thursday Lunches. Team Bella Bocce was the first women’s team to win a National Championship A Division Gold Medal. ( The Waterloo Gun & Bocce Club founded in 1953 provided another social organization for the Italian community. In the late 1940s Louis Cadamartori and Roy DeVencenzi, who enjoyed shooting trap, founded the Calaveras Blue Rock Gun Club. They rented two acres of their current thirty-five acre site from Fred Tozi and Emil Delucchi. Soon after bocce players shared the facilities and the club was renamed the Stockton Waterloo Gun and Bocce Club.

The Pacific Italian Alliance (PIA) founded in 1991 is “celebrating Italian heritage, promoting Italian culture, and partnering with the community, educators and Italian government.” Dino and Joan Cortopassi, George and Evelyn Lagorio, Frank and Irene Garavano, and F.M. “Luke” Lucaccini founded the Alliance which “seeks to provide a steady culture and heritage program to our members through close collaboration with the Italian-American community groups and other cultural organizations in the central valley and Italy.” ( The founders of the PIA wanted to culturally enrich their community. Robert Benedetti, PIA member and University of Pacific professor, believed that one way to accomplish this goal was to have a sister city in Italy. Parma turned out to be the perfect choice, and there was another local connection. Diana Maccini Lowery’s father was an Italian POW during World War II, and he was held nearby in Lathrop. He met his wife in California; they married in Italy and eventually returned to Stockton. Lowery, a Stockton City Council Member, said she still had family in Parma, her father’s hometown. With support for the project from both sides, Parma and Stockton, the vision soon became reality. Lowery was both president and vice president of the Stockton Sister Cities Association and Chairs the Parma, Italy Projects.

The Italian immigrant experience in Stockton’s agribusiness is unique in that many of the businesses and ranches continue to be family owned. Third and fourth generation Italian Americans run businesses their grandparents built. These immigrants and their children did not shy away from hard work, a fact that remains true for many immigrants to the Golden State. Sensi-Isolani and Martinelli remark “The history of California is in many ways unique. In no other state were some immigrants so successful, and in no other state did they leave such an indelible mark. Yet Italians in California provided much of the cheap labor that allowed agriculture, lumbering, mining, construction and industry to develop.” (16-17) These laborers also suffered discrimination, and still some persevered and moved up the socio-economic ladder. The farmer, cannery worker, wine maker, and truck farmer passed on the pride of their craft to their children. Some of these farms and businesses passed from one generation to the next Subsequent generations had to adjust to the global economy and learn a new language just as their foremothers and forefathers did. The new language of the global economy has a vocabulary including words like internet, website, email, electronic distribution and tweets. This generation adjusts to the changing technology utilizing the web to communicate and secure future customers, and many of these business owners belong to the same churches, social clubs and civic organizations as their ancestors. For the farmers, they still have to adjust to cash flow problems, inclimate weather patterns and water shortages in California. They, like their immigrant family members, adapt to the changing seasons and times and continue to contribute to the rich history and culture of the Golden State.

Dr. Teri Ann Bengiveno