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The Italian Gardeners: A Tradition of Cultivation and Community

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Stockton and San Joaquin County have been called home by countless migrant communities in their history. German, Dutch, Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Portuguese, African-American, Basque, Japanese, Punjabi, Filipino, Lebanese, Greek, Armenian, Mexican, Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao, Thai, Mien, Afghan, Pakistani, Russian, Assyrian, Samoan, Ghanaian, Nigerian and Arab communities have all called our region home, not to mention the indigenous Yokuts and Miwok peoples who have occupied this land for centuries. One diaspora community that has left a sizable imprint on the regional landscape is the Italians; since the 1880s, Genovese, Lucchese, Piedmontese and Lombard Italian families have moved to the area in and around Stockton, looking to pursue the American dream. The Italian Gardener’s Society has been an integral part of our Italian community for over a century.

From the beginning, the Italian community looked to organize to improve community welfare. In the 1890s and 1900s, many Italian immigrants worked as truck gardeners, small-acreage family farmers with diverse plots full of vegetables and fruit that could be sold out of a truck at the Stockton Grower’s Market. The farms were the backbone of the local grocery business; records from the County Historical Museum and newspaper accounts from the 1890s show Italian, Japanese and Portuguese truck farmers selling arugula, asparagus, basil, beans of all kinds, beets, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, eggplants, lentils, lettuce, onions, oregano, parsley, parsnip, peas, radishes, rhubarb, tomatoes, turnips, spinach, squash, strawberries, watermelons and zucchini.

These farms required sweat equity, as entire families would put in long hours of labor to ensure that produce made it to the market. Profits were not always high, and times could be lean. Sensing a need for community support, grocery store owner Gaetano Alegretti decided to organize the Italian truck farmers of South and East Stockton, and thus in 1902 the Societa Italiana dei Gardinieri, or the Italian Gardeners Club, as it was then called, was formed.

The Italian Gardeners Society provided mutual aid assistance to truck farmers, including health care and funeral benefits, the occasional loan and community event assistance. The organization helped start the San Joaquin Marketing Association to better advocate for small farmers, which allowed local Italian farms to expand into the San Francisco and Los Angeles produce markets. The hard work put in by both the organization and its members led to the opening of an Italian Consulate in Stockton in the 1920s, as well as to commendations by the governor of California and various dignitaries in 1927.

In addition to economic support, the Italian Gardeners held annual picnics in Micke Grove Park and hosted a float or procession in most annual parades in the Stockton area. Throughout the 1920s, the society competed vigorously to win awards at the annual Fourth of July parades in downtown Stockton, as well as at the San Joaquin County Fair. The community elected an annual queen, who was feted at the annual picnics. As an organizing force, the Italian Gardeners Society is often credited as helping to provide structure and a community gathering hub for the Italian communities of San Joaquin County.

The organization still exists today as a 120-year-old grand dame of community organizations in Stockton.

Story by: Phillip Merlo