Monday, February 25, 2008

The Story of Anton Nichelini & His Family

by Kathy Kernberger and Shirley Penland

St. Helena Star, Discover St. Helena, Summer 1998

Edited by Douglas A. Patterson

Between 1875 and 1910 world wide depression, poor crops and political unrest in Italy drove thousands of Italians and Swiss-Italians to the United States, with many of the Swiss-Italians settling in the San Francisco Bay area. Most sought opportunity in the large cities like San Francisco but some who knew about both farming and business chose to look for opportunity in the countryside like in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Anton’s father, Franceso Nichelini, was a prime example of this type of immigrant and Anton followed him there later on once Francesco had earned enough money for Anton’s passage. Anton was born Giuseppe Antonio Nichelini on November 22, 1862 to Francesco and Carolina Cotti Nichelini in Verscio, Canton Ticino, Switzerland. The family included six children.

At the age of nine, Anton was sent to Paris to live with his uncle Martino and aunt, Antonesca, in order to learn the art of stone masonry. While living with them, he was able to go to school, and it was thought that for a time he was an altar boy at Notre Dame Cathedral.

At the age of 17, he returned to the family home in Switzerland, an accomplished stone mason. These skills were later put to use in building his house and winery in Napa County’s Chiles Valley. The Nichelinis were one of the Patriziato or leading families in Verscio, good businessmen and, among other things, owned and operated the local grist mill. A visit to the local Catholic church in Verscio today will show that they were very influential in the church with their many crypts honored in the walls.

The records of the church in Verscio start in the year 1600 and there is a Nichelino recorded who, after his first wife died, married another woman and changed his name to Nichelini as best we can tell. All Nichelinis today are descended from him.

The romantic story, not proven, is that in the late 1500’s this fellow Nichelino lived in Nichelino, Italy, a suburb of Turino. His last name was Righetti, and he had fallen in love with a woman with whom neither family approved. So, they eloped, with sufficient money, of course, to Verscio, Switzerland, and became Patriziato. They sort of bought their way in. Supposedly, in those days in Italy one was not allowed to have the name of a town or city as one’s own name. No longer being in Italy, and wanting to have a unique name, they picked Nichelino, their home town. No one the town of Verscio had a name ending in the letter “o”. So, when he remarried, he changed the “o” to an “i”, or so the story goes.

Anton’s uncle, Giuseppe Secondo, had immigrated to San Francisco in 1849. He found gold, not in the Sierra Foothills, but in a pasta factory which he started in 1853.Guiseppe sold the pasta factory in 1865 for a tidy profit which he mentioned far and wide on his return to Switzerland.

Lured by the tales of his brother, Anton’s father, Francesco, came to San Francisco area to seek his fortune as things were looking pretty bleak at home. In 1875, he applied for a homestead grant on the Sonoma side of Mt.Veeder.

Here, he started a vineyard, built a house, and made plans for his family to join him. After he had saved enough money, he sent for some of the children to join him. In typical fashion, the mother sent the oldest child over first, his sister, even though Francesco had asked for Anton, who was younger to be in the first, as he was the most educated and able. He had to wait.

In 1882, at the age of 19, Anton arrived in Sonoma County. He thereafter changed his name to Anton, the French version of Antonio. He emphatically said that he was Swiss and not Italian, an important distinction as the Italians had just replaced the Chinese at the bottom of the local socio-economic ladder. There, he went to work for pioneer winemaker Joshua Cheuvet, who had originally come from France.

Under Chauvet’s guidance, Anton added the skills of viticulture and winemaking to those of stone mason. It also helped business that Anton was very fluent in French, Italian and German with so much of the population first generation Americans. His English textbook was a dictionary, which also helped him with pronunciation as well as understanding and meaning and he very quickly became fluent in his new country’s tongue.

In 1884, Anton decided to apply for a homestead in Napa County. He had heard about the Napa Valley from the Chauvet family, and decided to apply for a homestead of 160 acres in Chiles Valley.

Named for J. B. Chiles, the area was not well known to many people. However, he found a property that was rich in both chrome and magnacite, the later an alloy used in the making a special steel. In addition, Anton felt that hillside grapes were better for making quality wines than fruit on the valley floor. This was the place he hoped to settle and, someday, raise a family.

At that time, in order to acquire a homestead, it was necessary to become a citizen and make a certain amount of yearly “improvements” to the property. Anton, with Caterina’s later help, fulfilled these requirements and was granted a homestead by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892.

In 1890, the Chauvet family urged Anton to go to San Francisco to meet a charming young lady named Caterina Corda. Also a Swiss immigrant from Ticino, she was working at a hotel there. She claimed the Hotel owners would never let her out and it was really more like a prison.

Anton followed the Chauvet’s urgings, and three weeks later, the couple was married in Santa Rosa on July 7, 1890, with Henry Chauvet acting as Anton’s best man.

Family lore has it that Caterina, who was born in Switzerland in 1869, had fallen in love with a man in Switzerland whom her family considered “unsuitable.” Forbidden to marry him, she had come to San Francisco.

On her first “date” with Anton, as the story goes, they had gone for a ride in his buggy. During this ride, Caterina, obviously, a very forthright lady, is said to have asked Anton if he “had honorable intentions” and if so, was he going to marry her or not, and how long it would take him to do it.

After their marriage, not having a house of their own, they lived with relatives. One day, they went to see his homestead in Chiles Valley. Greatly taken with the beauty of the property, she told him “This is where I want to make our home.”

Shortly after, they moved to the small cabin, which Anton had already built on the property. The first four of their twelve children were born in this little cabin. The cabin is still on the Nichelini property today.

The decade from 1890 to 1900 was a busy one for the growing family. Anton worked as a magnacite miner for the Stanley and Bartlett Mines in Chiles Valley. He also started making wines from the vineyard which he and Caterina were expanding. Their growing family required more space than the small homestead cabin could provide.

Anton started building the hand-cut stone winery, and the family home that sits above it. It is still a familiar site for travelers on Highway 128 near the intersection of Lower Chiles Valley Road.

These buildings were completed in 1896. A gala housewarming included more than 100 guests with the as yet unfinished upstairs used as a dance floor with music provided by the Miller and Payne’s orchestra. A midnight supper completed the celebration.

Later, the upstairs was partitioned into the four bedrooms that remain today. Eight more children were born to the couple in the “new house” with Anton acting as “midwife.”

The dozen children were William, Joseph, Josephine, Ida, Rosa, Catherine, Mary, Frederic, Allen, Emma, Antoinette, and Inez.

Dates of the births spanned the years from William in 1891 to Inez in 1916.

In 1902, Father Blake, of the St. Helena Catholic Church, baptized all the five older girls at a family gathering.

“Brother Allen” became a noted football player. At a game between rivals, Napa and St. Helena, he played so well that the Napa fans forgot themselves and began cheering for the St. Helena High School team.

At St. Mary’s College, he was one of the “Galloping Gaels,” under the leadership of coach Edward Madigan. As an All American, he played on the winning team in the Shrine East-West game against President Gerald Ford.

Professionally. Allen played for both the Chicago Cardinals and Los Angeles Bulldogs. And in 1973, he was inducted into the National Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. One of his helmets remains on display there.

By 1910, Anton was Superintendent of the Red Mountain Mining Company in Livermore. When World War I broke out, he returned to Chiles Valley to work for the Tulare Mining Company. He patented several commercially successful magnacite ore smelting techniques which were later successfully applied to borax mining, including mines in Death Valley where he worked for a while bringing them on line.

His own property had also had chromium deposits that he developed. In 1916, he sold four of these mines to a San Francisco group.

Heart problems caused his health to begin to fail in 1934. On November 9, 1937, Anton died at the St. Helena Sanitarium (now St. Helena Hospital) after a severe heart attack.

Caterina lived until August 19, 1952. That year, she celebrated her 83rd birthday at a party with her 11 children (her daughter Rosa died in 1932). Many of her 29 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren also attended the party. Many people remembered both “Ma and Pa Nick” for their many acts of kindness and open hospitality.

Today, the winery which Anton and Caterina started is still family-owned, making it the oldest continuously operated family winery in Napa County.

Great grandsons Joseph and Philip Sunseri supply the grapes from vines, some of which were planted by Anton in the late 1920s. Another great grandson, Jim also supplies grapes from his Chiles Valley vineyard.

Yet, another grandson, Greg Boeger, and his son Justin Boeger, and great great granddaughter Aimee Sunseri, all UC Davis graduates, act as winemakers. Sitting literally at the edge of the road, the winery also contains Anton’s original Roman style wine press. To this press, believed to be the only one of its kind in left in tact in California, is well worth a visit. Otherwise, stay, have a glass of wine and enjoy playing bocce ball.

Our thanks to Inez Nichelini Boeger for her help in this article. Also, to Pauline Locey for her help.

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