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Story of a Corner


The corner of Oak and Brown Streets was the center of history for Napa as an American town. Napa was a winter retreat for gold miners, who bought groceries and supplies from its downtown stores, enjoyed hot meals and baths in hotels and boarding houses, and drank whiskey at Main Street saloons.

Until ferries began operating in 1848, travelers had to swim their horses across the Napa River. Two years later, the first steamship, the Dolphin, began to run from here to San Francisco, carrying hay, lumber, coal, and people. The streets were made of silt (sand and clay): impossible for horses to walk when it rained. Bales of hay were dumped on crosswalks in front of hotels on First and Third, but people still fell into mud into which the year’s garbage would also sink and disappear forever. Public drunkenness was so rampant that in 1855, Napans came close to ratifying Prohibition: 198 for and 205 against.

By 1852, Napa housed only 300 permanent residents. That year, silversmith William Jacks bought land and built his house near what is now known as Oak and Brown Streets. In l860, Jacks married Abigail Woodruff, and the couple lived the rest of their lives in that house, which included a botanical library and a nursery, which extended to the Napa River.

Lumberyards, warehouses, and seven wharves ran along the waterfront by 1870. Steamers delivered industrial and agricultural products, sometimes entire flocks and herds of livestock. Factories could ship their goods to San Francisco and beyond. A local pamphlet proclaimed, “There is work for men and women here. Young man, come west! Come west to Napa to start a factory.” And they did.

While visiting Napa from New Hampshire, Albert Sawyer noticed that local butchers were discarding sheep pelts with wool still on them. He began purchasing a pile of discards and established a wool-pulling business on the banks of the river. His family founded the Sawyer Tanning Company on South Coombs Street and invited Emanuel Manasse from San Francisco, to come to work for them. Manasse rapidly developed new methods for tanning sheepskin and buckskin. In 1886, Emanuel Manasse built his home at what we now call 443 Brown Street south of Oak, which became known as the Manasse Mansion.

In 1878, Edward Churchill was hired as the cashier of the James H. Goodman Bank, and he and his wife, Mary, moved here from Rochester, New York. They built their home on the corner of Oak and Brown. Their nearly 10,000-square-foot manor was said to be the largest in the valley. San Franciscans would sail up the Napa River to attend large parties at Churchill Manor. Edward and Mary raised two children there; after Edward’s death in 1903, his wife and daughter continued to live in the home.

Augustine Giovannoni arrived in San Francisco from Italy, and moved to Napa in the early 1920’s. He worked in a quicksilver mine in Calistoga, married Josephine Lanaro and they opened Giovannoni’s Market, across from Churchill Manor. The family lived on the second floor and ran the market on the first floor. Augustine Giovannoni worked as a painter at a local shipyard and drove a horse drawn ice cream cart.

Son Larry Giovannoni recalled his boyhood: “I remember going around with my father to get grocery orders. Most people didn’t have a phone.” After going door-to-door taking orders, they would return later with the deliveries. Augustine Giovannoni picked up groceries at the wharf down the block from the corner of Oak and Brown. After unloading cargo, the boats packed fruit from Napa orchards to carry back to San Francisco.

Edward’s granddaughter Dorothy lived on at Churchill Manor, married twice, and raised her daughter Alice there. Like their Italian neighbors, the Churchill family suffered during the Depression. Dorothy rented the first floor for wedding receptions and took in boarders on the second and third floors. In 1956, she sold the house. Several families remained on the second floor, the third floor was for college students, ranging from psych techs to commune members. The first floor continued to host weddings.

In 1975, I moved to Napa and lived at Coombs and Oak Street, one block away from Churchill Manor. By then, the home was deteriorating, and plans were made to tear it down for apartments. Fortunately, Napa County Landmarks saved it, and in 1977 Churchill Manor became the first Napa residence to be placed on the National Registry. In 1987, a photo of Churchill with the caption “Want to own a mansion?” was run in the real estate section of the Napa Register. It was purchased on New Year’s Eve of that year by Joanna Guidotti and Brian Jensen who have been the innkeepers ever since.

Emanuelle Manasse’s great grandson, Peter, became the manager of Tulocay Cemetery in 1989 after sorrowfully closing Calnap Tanning Commpany. “I know more people out at the cemetery than I know in the town of Napa,” he said. In 2000, the Manasse Mansion was renamed the Violet Mansion, now also a Historic Landmark. The Giovannonis sold their market to Ignacio Magallanes in 2007.

By 1978, I had married Bill McCune and we were living with daughter Caitlin on Riverside Drive on the west side of Giovannoni’s Market near where William Jacks’ home once stood. The house itself? His descendent Debby Fortune writes, “We believe it was likely lost to the river. There are some palm trees and a few other unusual plants on the edge of the river that may be a hint of where the home and nursery once were.”

Peter Manasse quote courtesy of Napa Valley Register, July 18, 2009. Larry Giovannoni quote courtesy of Napa Valley Register, October 2, 2011.

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