Local Business

Saturday, Dec 29 2012 10:30 PM

LOIS HENRY: Prohibition pushed Bakersfield bootlegger underground ... literally

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Quinn Miller in the basement/gameroom of his home that is in the possible path of the Hwy 58 extension. The room was used in the distant past by then owner Rosso Barsotti as an underground facilty for making whiskey.

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  2. 2 of 9

    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Judging from an old Bakersfield Californian clipping from 1938, Quinn Miller believes these are the original stairs from when the distillery was busted by the federal government.

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  3. 3 of 9

    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    This basement at the Health Unlimited business 3899 Stockdale Hwy is thought to be connected by a tunnel at one time to an illegal still blocks away so the booze could be sold at this location.

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  4. 4 of 9

    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    A steel grate covers the opening where there once was a hydraulic lift. Owner Quinn Miller is at right.

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  5. 5 of 9

    George and Josephine Barsotti stand on the porch of their house with a large group of friends and family. This was the Barsotti's main house, which used to face Brundage Lane just east of Stine Road. Behind the house, George had a chicken house under which was the large vault where he made whiskey and wine during prohibition. This photo was likely taken about 1928.

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    George and Josephine Barsotti had two daughters, Lilly standing to the left and Evelyn on the right. The girls knew their dad made liquor but never knew it was illegal until his still was raided in 1938.

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  7. 7 of 9

    George "Rosso" Barsotti came to Bakersfield in the early 1900s. He was called Rosso for his red hair. The date of this photo is unknown.

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  8. 8 of 9

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    George Barsotti's headstone is in the lower left. He died in 1967 and was buried in Union Cemetery. A cemetery worker wipes off another Barsotti headstone.

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  9. 9 of 9

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    George Barsotti's headstone in Union Cemetery.

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By The Bakersfield Californian

I have to wonder if Gaetano Egidio "George" Barsotti were alive today whether he would want me to write this story.

His wife, Giuseppina "Josephine" Lorenzi Barsotti, would most likely be tickled to have their somewhat notorious adventures chronicled in her adopted hometown newspaper.

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George Barsotti, though, was a complicated man. He is described by those who knew him as loving, protective and generous, yet cunning, devious and suspicious.

In the large, extremely tight Italian community here in the 1920s and '30s, "Rosso" as he was known for his red hair, was highly respected, even feared.

I'm guessing publicity wasn't Rosso's thing.

Either way, I have found both Barsottis fascinating characters who were significant threads in the rich tapestry of Bakersfield's history.

And before the last physical remnant of their lives is wiped away, I thought I'd tell as much of their story as I could piece together.

First, I should thank Caltrans for introducing me to the Barsottis. It's because of the proposed Highway 58 extension that I first learned of them.

I got a call from a man named Quinn Miller, who now owns a house that was built on top of a

large underground vault the Barsottis once owned. It's way too big and complex to call it a simple basement.

Miller thought the vault might qualify for historic significance and push the 58 extension off its current preferred route, which is right through his house on South Garnsey Avenue just south of Stockdale Highway.

Caltrans didn't find it historic because part of it had been remodeled.

Miller suggested I come look at the vault following my story on the possibility that bomb shelters built a few doors down during the Cuban missile crisis might be historic. (Caltrans has yet to get back to anyone, me included, on that.)

Historic or not, the Barsotti vault is fantastic. It's 2,000 square feet with ceilings higher than most houses. It had a hydraulic platform elevator, electricity, drainage system and special ventilation. It also appears to have had a tunnel or passageway that may have led to a nearby canal.

A large chicken house was built over the top of it.

The vault was home to a large-scale bootlegging operation that may have been operating for as long as a decade.

It's clear from the vault that George Barsotti was no backyard moonshiner.

This was big business.

And dangerous business.

***

An outlet for a buzzer can still be seen in the vault. Back in the day, it connected to the main house and was hidden in a linen closet.

If Josephine ever saw a strange car driving up to the house, which faced Stockdale (then Brundage Lane), she pushed the buzzer to alert workers to shut everything down and hush up.

It's impossible now to know how much whiskey and wine Barsotti sold out of the vault. But it wasn't just a few bottles.

Lilly Kelly, Barsotti's oldest daughter, who lives in Bishop, remembers trucks coming and going, always at night. She and her sister Evelyn knew about the vault and what was made down there. They even played on the elevator. But, she said, her mom and dad protected them from knowing too much. They were told to just say their dad was in business for himself if anyone ever asked.

"And that's what we did," said Lilly, now 88 and still sharp as a tack.

While most families were just scraping by in the '20s and '30s, the Barsottis drove brand new cars, had tailor-made clothing and enjoyed summer-long vacations at the beach.

Lilly and Evelyn took tap, violin and piano lessons. They never knew hard work and deprivation.

"We were like little Mafia princesses," Lilly said chuckling. "Mother and dad spoiled us rotten and we didn't know there was anything wrong or illegal going on."

***

George Barsotti was born in September 1888 to a large family of 10 or 13 children in Lucca, Italy, according to his granddaughter, Paula Carrington.

Records show he arrived at Ellis Island in April 1906 at the age of 18. He couldn't read or write, had $17 in his pocket and a ticket to Ogden, Utah, where records say he intended to stay with friends.

There was a Lorenzo Barsotti living in Ogden back in 1906 who worked as a "confectioner," according to city directories. George's granddaughter Cynthia Moody remembers stories of George working his way across the country including a job at a bottling plant in Utah.

His name and birth year next pop up in the 1910 Census in San Mateo, Calif. He was living with as many as 15 other people, including several other Barsottis. He's listed as a "hired man."

Exactly when George came to Bakersfield and what he did for a living are mysteries, according to the family.

There was another family of Barsottis here. The patriarch, Fortunato "Frank" Barsotti, was a distant cousin to George, Lilly thought. That family was very large, with 12 boys. But Lilly didn't recall they had an especially close relationship.

George was definitely established here by 1913. In fact, he was arrested in May that year in east Bakersfield for beating a horse "without any apparent sense," according to an article in the Morning Echo, which Bakersfield High School history teacher Ken Hooper helped me find.

He was still here in 1917 when he registered for the draft during World War I and listed his occupation as a laborer with no present employment.

At some point, according to Lilly, her dad was living in a boarding house with another Italian immigrant named Leopoldo Lorenzi.

The two became friends and may have been in some kind of business together, though a World War I draft card for Lorenzi lists his occupation as a helper for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

It was through Lorenzi that George met his future wife.

***

Josephine Barsotti was born in 1905 in Genoa, Italy, and had an older sister and younger brother. She was 16 when the three entered the U.S. in 1921, according to a ship manifest. The siblings were coming to live with their father, Leopoldo Lorenzi, in Bakersfield.

"None of them spoke English and she said they came over third class and it was really awful," remembers granddaughter Paula Carrington.

Josephine and her siblings had it rough long before emigrating. Their mother had died when they were little and their father had remarried a French woman.

As soon as Leopoldo left, the French woman kicked the kids out onto the streets, according to Josephine's grandson, Matt Kelly, and pocketed all the money Leopoldo sent from Bakersfield to buy the family passage to America. She eventually skipped out with another man.

Meanwhile, Josephine and her siblings scavenged for food in garbage cans, Carrington remembers.

Josephine also sometimes told her grandkids that she and her siblings had lived in the Colosseum and eaten cats to survive, according to Matt Kelly. (Considering she came from Genoa in northern Italy and the Colosseum is in Rome in central Italy, I'm betting the story was just a reminder for her grandchildren to appreciate the comfort of their own lives.)

Leopoldo was able to scrape up more money and get the children to Bakersfield. That's when Josephine Lorenzi first set eyes on George Barsotti.

Though he was 17 years her senior, Josephine was smitten, Lilly Kelly said of her mom.

But George would have nothing to do with such a young girl. Perhaps on the rebound, Josephine married Pete Di Giovanni, according to records obtained by family members. It didn't last, and they divorced in 1922.

She was still in love with George. Eventually, he relented -- somewhat. As everyone in the family told me, he wouldn't marry her until he knew she could get pregnant.

She did and they were wed in December 1923.

***

Whatever business George was in before marrying Josephine, it's clear he was well into bootlegging and whiskey running after they said their "I do's."

In fact, the same night his first daughter, Lilly, was born, March 8, 1924, he was arrested for selling whiskey to cops in a sting operation.

A March 9, 1924 Morning Echo story reproaches George for his "frequent arrests and convictions on prohibition law violations," saying he and friend A. Ghilarducci sold liquor to the cops despite several past arrests by those very same officers.

The article notes Ghilarducci was so blase about his illicit doings he brought along his wife and four children to the sale.

They were caught with five-gallon containers of moonshine whiskey.

All of which was most likely by design, according to George's grandson, Matt Kelly.

"They had barns around the countryside where they would store some of it and he had all the local cops paid off," Kelly recalled from conversations with his grandparents. "So, when the feds would come around, the police would say they got a 'hot tip' and then lead them out to these barns.

"That's how he (George) and the cops appeased (the feds), let them catch a little bit here and there."

George ended up getting fined $750 for that March 8, 1924 sting, according to a later article. It doesn't say whether he actually paid that much, if any. Either way, for 1924, it was a huge sum.

But business was apparently booming.

***

Numerous city officials were paid off, according to remembrances that Josephine shared with Lilly and her grandchildren. From the police chief on down, most people just looked the other way. It was an open secret.

Even children riding by on school buses could smell the sour mash.

"They (Evelyn and Lilly) just said it must be the chicken house and we all accepted that," remembered Maxine Scatena, a friend of Evelyn's.

George would buy his grain at night from the watchman at a grainery in Bakersfield. Their electric bill was tremendous and trucks came and went all night long.

Josephine herself had to lend a hand on occasion.

She told Carrington how she would drive the flat bed truck to late-night meetings at the foot of the Grapevine.

"She had to drive with her lights off," Carrington recalled. "And one of the last times she did it, she was chased by the FBI and shots were fired."

Kelly recalls another tale in which Josephine drove the truck up the west side of the valley half way to San Francisco where the whiskey was unloaded and she was given a passenger to take back to Bakersfield.

"He stayed with them and other places in town," Kelly said. "Supposedly he'd done something bad up north. She said he was like a hit man or something and needed to hide out for a while."

Both Kelly and Carrington believed those stories. Their grandmother was a large, feisty woman, very determined and, after her difficult childhood, somewhat fearless.

Though danger and nefarious characters lurked around the edges, Kelly said, his grandparents weren't part of a "crime family."

"Though they did sell whiskey to those types."

And they apparently used part of their profits to make sure they kept a certain distance.

"When they got into the business, she (Josephine) remembered the (Los Angeles) Mafia did come around, and they demanded a percentage," Carrington said. "She was listening in the next room and heard them say if he (George) didn't pay up, his wife and children would be at risk. And, oh yeah, he paid."

***

As Prohibition continued through the 1920s and into the early '30s, George enjoyed the fruits of his labor, Lilly recalled.

He bought various properties and built rental homes on the acreage he owned at Brundage Lane and Stine Road. Most of those homes are still there, though the family's main house is gone.

George had a close friend named Gennaro "Gere" Restituto who'd come over from Italy in 1919, according to a 2003 article by local historian Gilbert Gia.

Gia writes that Bakersfield was a "dry" town in the 1920s and that Restituto "made some money during Prohibition," based on interviews with his son Sam Restituto.

Lilly Kelly remembers Gere Restituto as her father's partner.

"They would dress alike in suits they had made at Frank Chesna tailor shop," she said in a 2009 tape recorded interview with Ted and Peggy Murphy. "And well, they dressed like gangsters and they both bought these big Cadillac convertibles."

George's signature touches were a large diamond ring and a horseshoe-shaped diamond stick pin, Lilly remembered.

By then, she and Evelyn, who died in 2009, were attending St. Francis parochial school then on Truxtun Avenue. It was destroyed in the 1952 earthquake and has since moved.

"We'd be so embarrassed whenever dad would come in that big, stupid convertible and honk the horn for us," Lilly said in the Murphy interview.

Prohibition was coming to an end, however, and by the mid-1930s, Lilly said, Restituto and George were exploring other endeavors.

Restituto eventually built the famous El Adobe motel on Union Avenue, where Lilly later had her wedding reception.

Meanwhile, in what would become a fateful decision, George put all his ill-gotten loot into the Bank of America.

***

He had never paid any income tax, ever, Lilly said.

"He couldn't read or write. All he knew was how to sign his name," she said. "He had me write out the checks and he would sign them."

At some point, someone from the bank apparently ratted to the feds about all of George's money.

Sure enough, they swept in and raided his vault, according to a Bakersfield Californian front page article, complete with several photographs, on April 21, 1938.

Just like Al Capone, he was busted for income tax evasion.

Lilly insisted George was chicken farming in earnest at that point, but the article notes that George was "bound over to the Federal District Court ... on a charge of possession of 100 gallons of distilled spirits and 150 gallons of wine."

It also details how agents found "an elaborate underground plant where bottles, casks and barrels were placed and equipment for making wine was found."

Lilly, who was away at boarding school in Los Angeles during the raid, was sure that equipment hadn't been used in years. The feds were just trying to make their case, she said.

She noted her dad was never actually arrested, or taken away from the family's home and he wasn't deported though he still wasn't a citizen.

And no one in the family has ever found or remembered any court papers, or any documentation at all of the charges. I also couldn't find any such documents.

I also couldn't find a follow-up story in the paper detailing fines or jail time, though the 1938 article's headline says "George Barsotti Must Face Trial."

The case simply seems to have gone away.

"He sold his properties to pay off all those crooked federal people," Lilly said. "He was kind of bitter about it the rest of his life."

***

Life changed for Lilly and Evelyn after that, though she said it was never "hard."

No more boarding school. They both attended Kern High School (now Bakersfield High).

They had to learn how to "candle" the eggs her dad sold to make sure they weren't fertilized. And her mom, who had gone to night classes to learn English and gain her citizenship in the 1930s, went to work as well. She worked for many years at an Italian bakery and then a dry cleaners.

"He still made a good living as an eggman," Lilly said. "Not like the bootlegger days, but we were comfortable."

George was also still bossy, arrogant and "didn't buy stupidity well," Lilly said.

And he may still have had a few tricks up his sleeve.

Everyone in the family agrees that he never learned to read and write. But he somehow got his citizenship in the early 1950s, according to family.

Lilly and her husband were living in Bishop with their three children, Cynthia, Paula and Matt. George and Josephine briefly moved up there, but didn't like being so far away from their circle of Italian friends and moved back to Bakersfield.

While they were there, though, George made a trip to Bakersfield by himself. When he came back, he showed them all paperwork declaring him a citizen.

No one recalls him ever going to classes as Josephine did. And, in fact, he was denied citizenship in 1943 because he "failed to prove good moral character," according to a Californian article. (Likely a hangover from that tax evasion thing.)

Some of George's mysteries might never be solved.

But that's OK for Lilly.

"He was awfully good to us, my dad. He provided so much ... all from a man who didn't go beyond the second grade."

***

And until the day he died in 1967, George continued making wine, Lilly said.

"I had to write to get a permit so he could make domestic wine and he always made sure he had that so he wouldn't get in trouble again. But he always made wine in the cellar -- Dego red -- horrible, sour stuff."

He and Josephine, who died in 1983, are buried side-by-side in Union Cemetery, surrounded, of course, by fellow Italians.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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