From Penniless Immigrant to ‘Wine King’
From Los Angeles’ birthplace there arose a “Wine King” who would soon attract thousands of other Italian immigrants to Southern California-- and who built a town that bears his name.
Italians were already an established presence in Los Angeles in 1883 when Secondo Guasti dismounted after a ride from Arizona--a trip that really began in 1881, when he left his hometown of Mombaruzzo in the Italian province of Piedmont.
Within 20 years he had founded his own vineyard and town, and his name became synonymous with Southern California wine. Establishing the Italian Vineyard Co., he transformed a tumbleweed wasteland in Cucamonga into a 5,000-acre agricultural oasis. Today, unincorporated Guasti stands as a landmark that once sheltered Italian and Mexican immigrant wine workers.
Guasti was penniless when he arrived in the land that Italian immigrants had nicknamed “New Italy” for its Mediterranean climate. He was hired as a cook at the Avila Adobe, then called Hotel Italia Unita and run by the Amillo family.
Guasti’s cooking impressed even the Amillos, and when the owner’s wife asked him to cook up “a spaghetti dinner in true Italian fashion,” Guasti agreed--demanding, half in jest, the hand of Amillo’s eldest daughter, 15-year-old Louisa Anna, in exchange. It turned out to be the best venture of his life.
A gruff yet generous man, he poured his passion for life into his marriage and his business deals. Soon, Guasti--built more like a laborer than a businessman--began purchasing grapes from the French Vignes family and opened a winery on Aliso Street. Within a decade, he was expanding and recrafting the red-wine tradition of his native land, and he moved to a larger building at 2nd and Alameda streets.
Not satisfied with having to buy his grapes from others, he began looking east for good vineyard land. Assisted by a skeptical group of Italian vintners and field laborers who dubbed him the “crazy Italian,” he dug holes in the arid landscape of Cucamonga--once the site of a Native American village named Cucamongabit, meaning “Place of Many Springs.” There he found moist, sandy soil fed by an underground water table.
Taking a risk on land where others had tried to grow grapevines and failed, Guasti organized a group of investors and bought what would become eight square miles for $15 to $35 an acre and founded Italian Vineyard Co. in 1900.
Nestled in an area now bounded by Archibald and Turner avenues, railroad tracks and old Route 66, Guasti’s winery grew, along with a town he ruled with autocratic flair.
More than a decade before socialist Job Harriman rebuilt the abandoned utopian desert town of Llano, and a few years before socialist Alfred Dolge envisioned “Dolgeville,” a felt-factory Eden near Alhambra, Guasti established his town.
In his enclave of 1,200 Italian and Mexican immigrants, Guasti paid out of his own pocket to build a fire station, school, market and bakery, blacksmith shop, rows of clapboard homes, dairy, hog and chicken farms, doctor’s office, library, a boarding house that later became a restaurant and the mission-style San Secondo d’Asti, a replica of the 17th-century church in Guasti’s hometown.
The town lined the railroad tracks. Italian immigrants, for the most part, lived in the clapboard houses on dirt roads north of the tracks; Mexican Americans and other migrant workers lived first in tents and later in cinder-block buildings in the “camp” south of the tracks. Workers on both sides were lulled to sleep by rumbling trains and awakened by tooting horns.
Guasti survives virtually intact, the only remnant of Southern California’s turn-of-the-century utopian colonies.
Although he managed his vineyards from his main office in Los Angeles, Guasti often visited and worked hard in the fields alongside his men, speaking fluent Italian and Spanish and bringing a jug of wine to share. The Guastis’ visits were marked with barbecues, Easter egg hunts, potato sack races or grape fiestas.
Celebrating Columbus Day in 1909 by raising money for an English-language night school in Los Angeles for Italian immigrants, the Guastis chartered a special train with nine coaches to transport 1,200 invited guests to Guasti for a barbecue.
“I hope you will always put the English language first and the Italian language where it belongs,” Dr. C.E. Moore, Los Angeles schools superintendent, lectured the crowd.
Although weekly wages came in the form of a jug of wine and scrip redeemable only at the local grocery store, the workers sang Guasti’s praises and shared one another’s ethnic foods and recipes.
As the winery thrived, Guasti and his wife hired architects Hudson and Munsell to build an elaborate Beaux Arts-style villa at 3500 W. Adams Blvd. in Los Angeles. When it was completed in 1913, at a cost of $500,000, they filled it with European ornaments and antiques.
Despite rumblings that Prohibition would ruin the wine industry, the optimistic Guasti continued making his favorite dessert wine, Grignolino, and increased his planting of grapevines. From 1914, when the winery had 150 employees producing 1 million gallons a year, it had grown by the 1920s to almost 450 workers producing 4 million gallons of medicinal and sacramental wines annually, in spite of Prohibition. Grape concentrate was sold legally to home winemakers and surreptitiously to bootleggers.
During a 1925 trip to Italy, when that nation’s king awarded him the country’s highest honor, “Grand Ufficiale,” Guasti made fast friends of Benito Mussolini, who gave the Californian an autographed picture inscribed, “To the one who represented Italy abroad with honor.”
The year before, the Guastis had moved their Guasti home, the wood-framed “Big House,” to another site, and replaced it with an Italian Renaissance revival mansion, built next to the stone winery at a cost of more than $100,000.
It was surrounded by groves, Italian statuary, an aviary and tennis court. Its private wine cellar held a valuable collection--and, allegedly, a private speak-easy, a favorite stopping place for film stars traveling between Hollywood and Palm Springs.
The wine scion died in 1927 in his Los Angeles villa. Five years later, his widow and son, Secondo II, hosted a reception for Mussolini’s son, Vittorio, who was negotiating to build a film studio in Italy with the help of producer Hal Roach. But politics soon put those plans to rest.
The year Prohibition ended, 1933, Secondo II died unexpectedly at age 42. His mother stayed on in the Los Angeles villa until her death in 1937, when the estate and its contents were auctioned off for $200,000 to Hollywood choreographer Busby Berkeley.
Berkeley, his mother and some of his six wives kept alive the Guasti tradition of hosting lavish parties. In 1954, the Los Angeles County Physicians Aid Assn. bought the house and turned it into a retirement home for doctors. Two decades later it became the headquarters of the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, and it is now part of the West Adams Historical District.
In Guasti, Mass is still held at the old stone church, and the mansion is rented for weddings and parties, while the old residents of Guasti hold reunions and continue to toast the man who founded their town.
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