The Life of Helen Bacigalupi – 60 years of grape growing excellence

Helen Bacigalupi photo by Bonnie Durrance

Helen Bacigalupi photo by Bonnie Durrance

I was born Helen Kathryn Long in Utah on December, 1925 at 8:30 p.m. My father’s side of the family was from Iowa, where he was born. My mother was born in Hungary and came to the U.S. as a small child. My aunt was already here working as an indentured servant and was able to arrange to send for my mother to come to the U.S. My mother and father met in Utah and that is where they married and started a family. I have a sister named Doris who is a year younger than I. I also had two brothers, Louis and Gwynn who were both older.  When I was three my mother died of stomach cancer and after her death our family was split up. It was the Depression and my father could not afford to work and raise all four children. Doris went to live with my aunt and my two brothers and I stayed with my Granny, my father’s mother. Neither my father nor Granny liked to talk about my mother after her death and I was so young when she died so I don’t have any memories of her.

We came to California because of the Depression. There was no work so we moved around a lot as my father looked for a job. He worked in the oil fields in Wyoming, we spent some time in Idaho, and a few other places. We had a tough time during the Depression and we were very poor.  I had always loved school but I dropped out of high school during the war and went to live with my aunt in Los Angeles. I worked in a valve factory for about a year and saved up some money so I could go to college. I worked the night shift because we got five cents more per hour and eventually saved up $1,000. Now that doesn’t seem like much today but back in those days that was a lot of money. I quit my job the day World War II ended and started to focus on my education.

Helen on horse Peggy

Helen on horse Peggy

I decided I wanted to be a pharmacist and to get my prerequisites I came to the Santa Rosa Junior College. I was the first person in my family to attend college. Although my grandmother was supportive of my education I did it all on my own.  I continued to work while attending the JC that was when I met Charles. I was taking a zoology class and no one wanted to try and pronounce those foot long words. Charles at the time had a horrible stutter and struggled over the words something fierce. He eventually asked me out on a date and we went together all the way up through the JC and into University. I eventually got to my senior year at UCSF Medical Center and graduated. Shortly before I was set to take my state boards I went into the hospital to have a kidney operation. When I was healed from the operation and released from the hospital I stayed with Charles and his parents in Santa Rosa. I was able to finally take the state board test and passed on my first try. Charles and I were married on September 11th 1951 in a small church in Sonoma. It was just the two of us and Charles parents at the ceremony. Following the wedding we spent a week out in Bodega Bay. Charles folks had a house there and he spent many summers learning how to sail on the bay

Once we were married, we were both ready to start our careers. A friend that I had known at CAL worked at the county hospital in Santa Rosa and let me know there was an opening for a pharmacist there. Charles had a family friend who had a dentist practice in Healdsburg and the office had room for another dentist. Charles family was from Healdsburg so moving there meant we could be closer to them. We were able to buy a house in town on Fitch Street and lived there for about 5 years. We had always talked about moving out into the country when Charles friend, Eddie Beeson told us about the Goddard Ranch being for sale. The ranch was about 5 miles outside of town off Westside Road. The Goddard’s had lived on the property for over a hundred years so it had been in the family a long time. We walked the property with the family and decided that there was an ample water supply so we said that we would buy it. Everyone told us we were crazy to move out here and start farming grapes but we did it anyways. We purchased the Goddard Ranch on April 1st 1956 for $30,000. It was officially 121 acres with mostly pasture land, quite a few acres in fruit trees, mostly prunes and some 20 acres of grapes. The fruit trees were craggy things but the fruit they produced was fabulous! There were apricots, figs, peaches, and two acres of cherries that we harvested.

Helen Bacigalupi - first harvest 1956

Helen Bacigalupi – first harvest 1956

When we first started out there were only a handful of people to sell the grapes to. We sold to the Foppiano’s, Seghesio’s and of course there was Gallo. At first we didn’t get much for the grapes, maybe $50 a ton, barely enough to pay to farm them. I did all the contracts for the grapes. Charles was never very good at negotiating. I think because I grew up during the Depression, I felt it was important to get the best price possible. But there were times when we didn’t even know how much we would be paid until the bulk wine was sold. Very often there were no signed contracts. Just a handshake and a verbal agreement. In the early 1970’s Rod Strong was one of the first people to give us a written contract and specified price before the grapes came off the vine. That was one of the major turning points for the grape growing industry. He opened the spigot and others followed suit, he really shook things up. From then on we were able to get a guaranteed price for the grapes.

I did all the grape contracts up until about 5 years ago when my daughter-in-law Pam took over. So much has changed now since we started in the business. Almost everything is done via email and on the computer. I enjoy the slower paced life now. I spend a lot of time in my garden, I have many fruit trees that I look after and still keep track of some of the paperwork for the ranch. I love the ranch and feel very fortunate to be able to live out the rest of my life here. I always say that I’m going out of here in a prune box and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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