Columnist’s Note: After more than a year of preparation, the Merced County Courthouse Museum opened the “Grazie America! From Italy to Merced County” exhibit on March 16, 2017. The exhibit collected personal stories from more than 130 contributors. As this successful exhibit came to an end on August 6, the process of documenting and preserving their stories continued. This resulted in the publication of a 2-volume book with the same title which will be released this Saturday, July 14, at the Courthouse Museum at 1:00 p.m. The following is Ezio Sansoni’s story, one of the many sweet memories and enduring struggles of the Italian Americans in Merced County.
The patriarch of the Sansoni family in Merced was Aniceto Sansoni, who grew up in the small Italian village of Vellano in the region of Pistoia, located in the mountains between the cities of Lucca and Florence. Aniceto’s future wife, Amelia Allegranzi, came from the nearby village of Lanciole. Aniceto’s father, Enrico Sansoni, was a basket weaver who traveled around, selling and repairing baskets. Aniceto accompanied his father on these trips. He met Amelia while attending school in her village.
Aniceto and Amelia became engaged in Italy. He sailed to America first, about 1920 and worked to earn money in order to bring her over. She came to America two years later. She had sailed as a steerage passenger, was seasick for the entire voyage and then had visa difficulties at New York’s Ellis Island. The promise of a nanny job by a U.S. sponsor finally cleared her way to travel to California and marry Aniceto.
The newlyweds found work in Sanger at one of the Louie Rasconi farming operations where Aniceto’s sister, Mary, was already employed. Aniceto soon gained a managerial post while Amelia prepared three meals a day on a wood stove for 20 to 40 employees, depending upon the season.
In time, the Sansonis were transferred to Rasconi’s Meadowbrook Ranch, some two miles west of Merced. Rasconi fell on hard times during the Depression and in lieu of paying Aniceto’s back wages, he gave him title to a 30-acre piece of land on Merced’s Franklin Road. Excited by the offer, the senior Sansoni sped to the county courthouse and managed to file the papers shortly before closing time, preventing a request the next day to revoke the gift.
Aniceto and Amelia were the parents of three sons: Henry, Aldo and Ezio Sansoni. Ezio, who was born in 1938, recalls that it was the Franklin Road property where the family began raising tomatoes, tying them to stakes with tules cut with a scythe and gathered from swampy areas. “The ladies would wrap the tule around, give it two twists, tucking one end inside the other, and they never came apart,” says Ezio. In addition to the tomatoes at the heavy-soil Franklin site, the family grew grapes on sandy property in the Cressey-Livingston area.
The family mostly spoke Italian at home, especially at the dinner table. Ezio would speak English with his brothers. He expanded his English vocabulary by reading comics, using the pictures to visualize the words. He attended Franklin and Our Lady of Mercy schools, bringing his lunch from home. His favorite noon meal was pasta-sauce sandwiches made by his mother. When Ezio began as a student at OLM School, his mother told the sister superior that if the boy needed punishment, “You punish him on the spot, then call me and I’ll take care of him when he gets home.”
During the Second World War, Henry Sansoni was an Army cook in the Philippines. Back home, his Italian-born parents had their firearms and cameras confiscated by the sheriff, including a short-wave radio that was original equipment in their 1941 Chevrolet. Several of the items were damaged when they were returned after the war. In 1948, the family returned to Italy for a visit, flying on a four-engine TWA Lockheed Constellation. “It was the trip of a lifetime,” Ezio states. He was 10 years old.
Ezio’s father helped him to fulfill his dream to attend the University of Notre Dame. “It was 1957,” he remembers. “My father sat down and wrote a check for room and board, $450 per semester, and $450 for tuition. When my daughter went to Notre Dame in 1990 the tuition was $18,000 per year. Just from one generation to the other. How times change!”
Aldo and brother, Ezio, served in the Navy: Aldo during the Korean War and Ezio at the time of the war in Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis. While Ezio served in the Navy, his father died. He returned to Merced to assist his brother, Henry, and they formed a partnership. The business eventually focused on raising almonds as Sansoni Farms Orchard. A warehousing sideline operates under the name Sansoni Agri Enterprises.
Ezio met his bride-to-be, Eleanor Dahm, in the choir loft at Our Lady of Mercy Church, where he sang and she was the organist. Eleanor now performs that task at the Buhach Immaculate Conception Church. Ezio and Eleanor have two children: Julie Anna and Joseph Benjamin. After college, Julie worked in the family business until she married. She and her husband now reside in Union City. Joseph works fulltime at the family business.
As a hobby, Ezio cures olives, proudly adding, “It’s what I do best!” He has four trees. He cures the olives with lye and salt, using 10-gallon plastic containers and making five-gallon batches at a time. Born and raised in Merced, Ezio has seen many changes over the years, from the shutdown of the Yosemite Valley Railroad to the closing of Castle Air Force Base. Ezio says, “It’s a great community. It has been good to us. We have good friends here. We have a great college and now we have the university. We’ve got a lot going for Merced.”
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at email@example.com.