Marsha Bettinelli

The Bettinellis

Interviewer: Mari Martinez
Interview Date:  March 23, 2014

MARI: My name is Marti Martinez and I work here in the St. Helena Public Library as a Spanish Services Associate, and today is March 23, and with me is…

MARSHA:  Marsha Bettinelli, living now in Pope Valley, but having grown up in Yountville, actually in the countryside of Yountville.  So, you just interviewed my husband and he told you the story of his family together.  As he said, we married in 1977, but together we have many, many centuries, seems like… If not many centuries, then many generations of farming.  Our children who live here now, and our grandchildren are 6th generation.  Larry, I wasn’t here when he started, but his family emigrated from northern Italy and Switzerland in the 1860s.  My family emigrated from Germany and Switzerland in the 1870s, on both sides of my family.  One of my grandmothers emigrated in the early 1900s from England.  So, we’re mostly Swiss Italian parentage, both of us.  Both sides of my family… I’ll tell you first about my father’s family.

They emigrated from a place called Landstadt, Germany in the 1880s, and began to farm in the Yountville area.  They did all kinds of general farming.  There was one particular brother who came, but siblings came as well.  They ended up acquiring some land on State Lane in Yountville, which is still in our family.  And they farmed there, they did farming for other people, they ran hay crews.  My grandfather worked at Stag’s Leap when it was a place to come from the Bay Area, like a springs, to take the waters.  They farmed on State Lane ultimately, all different sorts of grains, pigs, turkeys, some fruit, and of course, vineyard.  My father, one of four children in that family, having grown up and born on State Lane, he ended up spending his entire life there.  He was well planted in the ground.  He went to school at the Red School House, you know, on Silverado Trail.  He and all his siblings went to school in a pony cart, and my grandfather would bring hay and put it in the fields, so that all the kids along the way, it was about three miles to the school. The kids had a big age spread; it was about nine years.  So, they would pick up kids along the way and go to school, and leave Snowball, the pony, in the field for the day, and go to school there.  It’s a rich history.

MARI:  Do you remember stories?

MARSHA:  Oh yeah.   There are lots of stories.

MARI:  Do you remember the farm?  Being in the farm?  Seeing your parents?

MARSHA:  My grandparents were both deceased when I was born, and that farm had changed hands.  But my father reacquired that farm… It left the family in World War II, but my father reacquired some of that land in 1950.  It was just down the road, so that’s where he farmed as well.  He also had another job because there was much less farm land there. 

But, there’s a rich history.  My great grandmother was very famous for her chickens.  She was a chicken fancier and she had many different kinds of really exotic chickens. That was a great-grandmother; she was widowed young and she had four children.  She continued to farm, and there’s a lot written about her in the county records of her character and my great grandfather’s character.  There are wonderful pictures of them doing picnics in Rector Canyon, before there was a dam there. That was a really nice place to go back on Sundays.  By the time my father was born, most of the ranch had turned to grapes.  It was a little untimely, because Prohibition came along, so it made farming very difficult, as Larry recounted in his story. 

So, we have lots of Prohibition stories.  Our family continued to make wine during that time, and they sold wine, and they had relatives in the Bay Area, so that helped to support the family and to keep things going.  One story is that there was a system all throughout the valley during Prohibition.  When the government people would come to inspect if you were making the allowed amount of wine, there was a system where the farmers would notify each other that they’re coming.  Sort of, each one telephoned the next one, or send somebody and say, “You know, they’re in the area, so be careful.  You need to do something with your wine cellar.  So, one day my grandmother got that… This would have been just after Prohibition had started, so my grandmother got a call.  She was a very proper English woman.  She got a call, and she had four little kids at home.  She had twins when she was 45, and my dad was one of those twins.  So, she got a call that the revenuers were coming, and her husband wasn’t home and she didn’t know what to do.  They had a big wine cellar.  So, she hurriedly took all the bungs out of the barrels that they had in their cellar.  And the government agents came and said, you know, “We need to look at your cellar.”  And she said, “Well I couldn’t possibly let you in because my husband isn’t home.”  It wouldn’t happen today, but it did happen then.  So, she said, you know, “I don’t know when he’ll be back, but you’ll have to come back.”  And so, they looked in the wine cellar.  They didn’t want to come back, because, you know, they had their route to do.  So, they looked in the wine cellar, all the bungs were out of the barrels, and they knew if you had good wine, your bungs wouldn’t be out. So, they just said, “Oh, there’s nothing here,” then they left.  So, she kind of saved the family day in that manner.  They had a wonderful life, a hard life, but a wonderful life on the farm.  It was self-sufficient; they raised all their own meat, all their own vegetables.  They had wonderful summer times, lots of hunting, steelhead in the creeks and hunting rabbits.

MARI:  Tell us about your story.  So, this is your grandmother?

MARSHA:   This is my grandmother on my father’s side, and my grandfather.  So, I was raised on that same property that my father acquired, and it was the only house we ever… He lived there his entire life.  You know, his heart was just in that place. 

But, before me, my mother also came from a farming family from Yountville, Swiss Italian on both sides.  They emigrated, as I said, in the 1880s.  They had six children, six or seven children, and they were raised in Yountville.  My great-grandmother was a saloonkeeper, and my grandfather operated a still up towards Dry Creek.  And he made butter, and he kept the butter warm in the creek, and once a week… He lived out in the hills and my grandmother lived in town with the children.  So once a week he would take the butter… he kept the butter cool in the creeks.  They would make the butter and just throw it in the creek for the week, until he came down to town.  And then he would ship all his butter to San Francisco, and they just got a grocery credit, so they could order sacks of flour or sacks of potatoes.   That grandmother was quite colorful.  She was willing to live on the edge at that point, so being a saloon keeper in Yountville was a pretty lucrative business, and she ran a little bit afoul of the law a few times, and at one point, in her 50s, she was actually arrested for having a still and providing unauthorized alcohol in this saloon.  So, at 50 she said, “I’m a very old woman.”  She got a jail sentence and she applied to the governor for clemency.  She said, “I’m very old and I’m in poor health.”  Of course, to us, that seems silly to us, because she was only 50.  But that was in the early, early 1900s.

MARI:  Did it work?

MARSHA:  It didn’t work initially.  They wanted her to pay a fine and she just did not want to pay the fine.  It was $500 and she just thought, “You know, I don’t think I should pay that and I don’t want to.”

MARI:  What year was this?

MARSHA:  This was in the teens…I don’t know exactly what year, maybe like 1918.  Now we laugh about it, but it was buried in our family history.  None of her children ever talked about it.  That would have been my grandfather.  So, they have a wonderful, long history in Yountville as well.  

MARI:  Did you go to St. Helena High School as well, with Larry?

MARSHA:  No.  In Yountville, I was on the other side of the dividing line, so I went to Napa High.

MARI:  He spoke about that.

MARSHA:  Yes.  And when we grew up, we had a dairy cow, just one, for the family.  We raised a lot of our own meat.  We had a little vineyard.  My grandfather had been the son of that grandmother, that great-grandmother that I just told you about.   So, my grandfather actually worked for John Daniels at Inglenook, on that ranch that is in Yountville now.  He was a very skilled teamster.  He could drive, like, you know, maybe eight mules at a time, or ten mules at a time.  He was very skilled; he did a lot of hauling by mules and wagons out of Chiles Valley, grain and things like that.   Then as he became, um, a younger man, he did that early on.  He was probably about… he was in his late 20s when he started working for John Daniels, for Inglenook.  He took care of that vineyard.  He was one of the last farmers to do plowing with horses.  That was his love, you know, the fieldwork with the horses.  So that was the grandfather that I did know, very well.  He loved Yountville.  He never left there.  I think he went to maybe San Francisco four or five times in his life.  He had never been to the ocean until he… like Bodega Bay, until he was like, about 60, 65 maybe.  So, we had a really lovely upbringing on State Lane, three daughters, on a little farm.  And we still have that farm.

MARI:  So, you had sisters only.

MARSHA:  Yes.  Only sisters.  And we have four grandchildren now, and they spend time on the farm, learning some farming ways.  So, they’re our sixth generation.

MARI:  So, you met Larry working on farms as well?

MARSHA:  No.  I met him in a social situation in St. Helena.  But our backgrounds were very common.  Ancestry was common, Swiss-Italian ancestry was common, and actually our families came from the same little valley in Switzerland.  So, it was quite interesting.

MARI:  I know, it was meant to be.  And now you’re working with the family and the farming, what you loved, your backgrounds, and now your children.


MARI:  And how old are your grandchildren?

MARSHA:  Our grandchildren are five and under.

MARI:  Oh, babies.  Do you see them running, possibly, the farming that came along in the family?  Do you see them staying in the farming?  Well, if they’re too young though…

MARSHA:  Oh, yes.  No, we just like when they play in the dirt.  And we love it when they have exposure to animals.  And they do… they’re in and out of the vineyard.  That’s an outdoor… They’re outdoor sort of families.  No, it’s our children now who now are, should be taking the lead… as they begin to, in the farming.  They can pass it off to them later.

MARI:  Oh, it’s incredible.  Your grandchildren will hear about that.  “Oh, it’s in our blood.”

MARSHA:  They’ll hear lots of our stories, yeah.

MARI:  Oh, that’s wonderful.  Thank you for sharing. 

MARSHA:  You’re welcome.

MARI:  We’ll have to have you back.

MARSHA:  You’re welcome.  That’d be great!