An island of crops in a sea of homes: Imwalle’s endures
When the Imwalle brothers, Joseph and Henry, arrived from Hanover, Germany, in the 1880s to put their green thumbs into the fertile soil of the Santa Rosa Valley, they found a few enterprising Chinese men growing vegetables in a small garden alongside the railroad tracks north of town. They were irrigating their garden with water dipped in buckets from an open well and delivering produce to households in baskets carried on poles across their shoulders in the time-honored Asian way. The vegetables were excellent. Bu the amount of produce was severely limited by the archaic system. And Santa Rosa, 30 years after its founding, was growing. (While it is not an integral part of the Imwalle story, it is important to note that the peak of anti-Chinese feelings in the 19th century Sonoma County was in the mid ‘80s, when the Anti-Chinese League was formed here and citizens were asked to boycott Chinese businesses. The boycott reduced the Asian population dramatically, as many returned to China and others to the comparative security of San Francisco’s Chinatown.) The Imwalles, trained in European horticulture, saw an agricultural and business opportunity. They leased a Creekside field from Dr. Willard Burke near his sanitarium on Mark West Springs Road and built an irrigation system, running water from a hillside spring down a wooden flume to a damn and pond – one of the first of the hundreds of farm ponds that would be built, under the direction of professional agricultural advisers, on Sonoma County dairies and farms in the next 75 years. With a larger garden and considerably more produce to sell, the Imwalles’ distinctive vegetable wagon, drawn by a team of horses, quickly became part of the Santa Rosa scene. The Imwalle Gardens are still very much part of the Santa Rosa scene. The brothers had moved closer to town by the 1890s, renting property north of the city, not far from the old Chinese gardens. Two years later, Henry moved south to another fertile region, the Santa Clara Valley near San Jose where he started his own gardens and orchard. Joe married Mary Stephanie, another German immigrant in San Francisco in 1897 and, the same year, bought 12 acres on West Third Street, where his family’s gardens still grown. The gardens, surrounded by the development that engulfed the area west of town in the 1980s, are now a 20-acre island of agriculture in a sea of homes. Joe III, 53, and his wife, Maria, run the business today. As a third generation enterprise, it is one of the slender rank of Santa Rosa businesses- Traverso’s, Corrick’s, Lena’s, Pdersen’s, Hardisty’s and Imwalle’s- that have been in the same family for three and four generations. Joe doesn’t really answer when you ask him how long he thinks the family can hold out against rising land values and development pressure. You ask if he gets offers and he nods, shrugs, smiles somewhat enigmatically and shows you the barn his grandfather Joe built with its hayloft and stables for the horses that pulled the wagon and the plow. And he shows you his grandfather’s original greenhouse, where he grew his remarkable pansies from seeds he imported from Switzerland. The old greenhouse roof is sagging, but Joe says he can’t bring himself to tear it down. There was a time – before the Gold Gate Bridge opened, when it wasn’t just a long hour’s drive to San Francisco’s produce district –when all the produce sold in Santa Rosa was grown in Santa Rosa and Imwalle Gardens was one of a series of truck farms on the good land that lines Santa Rosa Creek on its way to the laguna. There were the Bertoli gardens and orchards west of Imwalle’s and the Bassignani family gardens and the Bertolini gardens. Many of the Italian gardeners worked for Joe Imwalle when they first arrived. Joe I was gardening whirlwind. His horticultural skills were put to use beyond the borders of his farm. The city, recognizing his expertise, hired him to plant the rows of palm trees that once lined Fourth Street east of E Street, stretching past Fremont Park. In the West Third gardens, he directed the cultivation of the fields, which he doubled with purchases of adjoining land. He tended the bedding plants, and he drove the vegetable wagon himself, taking great pride in the beauty of the produce. His method of loading the wagon was like an artist’s creation. He would allow nothing in crates. The carrots and beets and green onions, the piles of cauliflower and radishes and bunches of mustard greens would be precisely placed. His family recalled he would work until midnight getting his wagon ready for the morning run. Later, his son would recall his father’s boast that the horse-drawn vegetable wagon “is as beautiful as a Rose Carnival float when it leaves in the morning.” Family legend has it the horses knew the route as well as Grandpa, including which houses to stop in front of – and when to head for home. The gardens themselves were as orderly as the wagon. And as beautiful. Joe, whose old country training was in ornamental horticulture, grew flowers as well as vegetables. His horticultural display won a gold medal for the best general exhibit at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, in competition with growers from all over the world. That medal, and the many ribbon sand certificates his produce had won at the state fairs, were lost when the original Imwalle home on the garden property burned in 1924. Joe and Mary and their family (three daughters and two sons) moved to a home on McDonald Avenue, where Joe died in 1948 at the age of 80. He had retired in the early ‘40s, turning the gardens over to his sons, Joseph II and Henry. Joe II was the gardener. Henry was a partner in the business. In the next three decades, the Imwalle brothers expanded their agricultural endeavor, buying a prune orchard and a hop yard west of the gardens. The 60 acres they owned was split by the Highway 12 freeway in the 1960s. The old vegetable wagon had long been retired, replaced by the delivery truck that visited the restaurants and, still, the homes of regular customers. The Imwalle truck also made two trips a week to the Bay Area produce markets – and a seasonal journey to San Jose to bring apricots from the orchards of their Imwalle cousins. In 1957, Joe II would tell Press Democrat farm editor Mike Pardee they had introduced no new vegetables to the gardens since his father’s original plan. Joe I’s tall corn, big squash and giant onions had won him the ribbons he was so proud of. His sons saw no reason to depart from his wisdom. Joe III, who took over the business when his father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1966 (and later bought his Uncle Henry’s share), has not changed the crop much either. Leeks were important then and still are. Joe III recited the litany of vegetables he grows –beans, cukes, squash, broccoli, tomatoes, corn, pumpkins. “We grew head lettuce when my Dad was alive, but it requires so much spray we don’t anymore. We buy lettuces from John Balletto (another Santa Rosa truck gardener whose fields are on Guerneville Highway). We grow a lot of our own bedding plants.” Joe II’s widow, Cecilia (who is a daughter of Nate and Virginia Bacigalupi, the pioneer Italian family in Santa Rosa), still lives in the house she and Joe built next to the gardens in 1935, four years after they were married. Joe III and his wife, Maria (Marcoux), who he met when they were students at ST. Rose School, live in a newer home on the other side of the barn. Imwalle’s still delivers to resurants, but no longer makes house calls. Joe III converted his grandfather’s wagon shed to a neat produce market where third-and fourth-generation customers shops. He, too, makes twice-weekly trips to the Bay Area markets to keep his customers supplied with all that is available. The fourth generation is already in evidence. Joe and Maria’s older sons, Joe IV and Charles, work in the business with their father. Paul, 18, and Angela, 13, are familiar with garden chores. Joe III learned the business “following my Dad around, moving irrigation pipe, picking prunes and hops.” He was still in college when his father died, and credits the coaching and support of a 70-year employee, who was one of the best “vegetable men” in the county. That would be Mike Rossi, who went to work at the gardens in 1912 and worked there until two weeks before he died, at age 92, in 1984. Joe III calls himself Rossi’s “protégé.” Mike had learned from Joe’s grandfather, and it was old-style gardening. “We went by the moon an awful lot,” Joe told farm writer Tim Tesconi at the time of Rossi’s death, “to plant certain things like onions, carrots, beets and leeks. There’s a 10-day period in which you plant them. Now I go by my almanac, but Mike just seemed to know.”
Joe Imwalle with his prize-winning 40-pound falt Dutch cabbage. This and the above photo are included in photographer Peeter Vilm’s slide show on Sonoma County agriculture, produce for Farmlands. Imwalle Family
Joesphe Imwalle I, who considered a carefully loaded vegetable wagon to be a work of art, drives his work of art past the Spring home on Fifth Street in the 1890s. Imwall Family
The Press Democrat
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