Debbie Croft: Two famous figures in industry came out of one ghost town

January 25, 2013 


The ruins of an old brick building sit in the center of town. Two stories tall, trees grow in and around the structure. A wood and wire fence keeps intruders out.

This crumbling edifice at one time had customers coming through its doors, intent on purchasing supplies and confections. Many of whom were miners looking for gold in nearby Burns Creek. The location of the establishment is Hornitos.

Domenico "Domingo" Ghirardelli was the original store owner's name. It's pronounced, Gear-ar-delly, some research shows.

This Italian merchant was apprenticed at a young age to a candy maker in his hometown of Rapallo, Italy. At the age of 20 he boarded a ship for the Americas, settling in Uruguay to work in a coffee and chocolate shop. He sailed to Peru a year later and opened his own confectionery store.

Hearing of the California gold strike in 1849, Ghirardelli relocated to the Jamestown- Sonora area to try his hand at prospecting. Unsuccessful as a miner, he opened a general store in the Stockton area and another one in Hornitos. Sources differ as to which store opened first.

Within two years this clever businessman moved to San Francisco for further trading ventures, where he lived for more than 40 years. In addition to the chocolate factory, Ghirardelli owned a hotel and a soda fountain. After two 1851 fires destroyed much of San Francisco and nearly half of Stockton, including his properties, he rebuilt.

The eventual purchase in 1893 of an entire city block on North Point Street became Ghirardelli Square as we know it today. It is one of the few original California businesses still in operation. The company owns the 160-year-old building in Hornitos.

Ghirardelli's chocolates are famous nationwide.

A little more research also revealed that before manufacturing cars, John Mohler Studebaker and his family built wagons.

He was one of 10 children in an immigrant family from Germany. They settled in Pennsylvania, eventually moved to northwest Ohio and then to South Bend, Ind.

While J.M.'s father and two older brothers worked in the wagon business, his gaze turned West. Arriving in Hangtown (known today as Placerville, near Sacramento) in August 1853, only 50 cents clinked in his pocket. He was eager to begin prospecting.

Word soon spread that the town blacksmith was in need of a wagonmaker. Studebaker accepted the position at the advice of a stranger.

Once hired, Studebaker learned he'd be making wheelbarrows, not wagons. It didn't take him long to get accustomed to building with pine, rather than oak and hickory. He worked there for five years, saving $8,000.

According to local legend, he was at one time a visitor to or resident of Hornitos. But most records fail to mention it.

In the spring of 1858 Studebaker went back east to visit his brothers in South Bend. There he remained, buying out his brother Henry to join the family wagon and carriage business. He soon married and started a family.

Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Co. became a successful enterprise by the late 1800s. Two wars and mass migration to the West contributed to the growth of their business.

At the turn of the century, new developments and inventions were changing American life.

While most people viewed the horseless carriage as an expensive novelty, the Studebakers were optimistic. By 1896 they were in the experimental stage of designing their own horseless carriages.

Choosing electricity over steam and gasoline and working with an electrical engineer, by 1902 the Studebakers presented their first production automobile. The Electric Runabout was sold within a week of the company's 50th anniversary. On level ground its top speed was 13 miles per hour.

Thomas Edison purchased one of the first Studebaker Electrics.

When the Garford Motor Co. of Cleveland began manufacturing gasoline engines Frederic Fish,

J.M.'s son-in-law, proposed a partnership. That was in 1904.

And as they say, the rest is history.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at

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