More than one hundred years ago a young man from Sicily dreamed of immigrating to America, buying some land and growing citrus fruit. He ended up doing much more by creating a historical treasure that endures to this day.
Baldassare Forestiere came to America from Sicily in 1901 at the age of 22. Upon arriving in America, he found work digging subway tunnels on the East Coast. After several years, he had saved up enough money to head to Southern California, where he planned to buy land and become a citrus grower.
In 1906, after finding land in the citrus growing region of the San Bernardino Valley too pricey for his budget, he headed north to Fresno where he heard land was dirt cheap and the climate was suitable for citrus.
However, he got what he paid for. When he tried to sink a shovel into his newly purchased land, he discovered hardpan under a very skimpy layer of topsoil. His misery didn’t end there, Forestiere soon learned of Fresno’s staggering summer weather, routinely reaching well over 100 degrees.
Needing a way to escape the brutal heat, Forestiere remembered the coolness of the underground cellars where he grew up. Drawing upon his knowledge of digging subway tunnels, he decided to hollow out a cellar on his land where he could keep cool during the worst heat of the day. Using little more than a pick, shovel, wheelbarrow, his two mules, Dolly and Molly, and his imagination, he soon excavated his first room.
He found such relief from the heat that he excavated a few more rooms. After a little more tunneling, he had a suitable abode with a small wood stove for cooking and heating in the winter.
His dream of growing fruit didn’t die. He began to experiment, thinking he could grow trees in his underground dwelling. Building a planter using chunks of hardpan as bricks, he then filled it with soil. A skylight was carved out of the top of an experimental underground room and the first tree was planted. With the right quantity of sunlight, water, and care, his citrus tree flourished.
The underground location provided protection from the occasional frost. As more trees were added to his underground garden, Forestiere began grafting onto his trees to bear three or more varieties of citrus fruit. One tree was grafted to bear seven varieties: Valencia, navel, and bittersweet oranges, ponderosa and sweet lemons, grapefruit, and Italian citron.
Forestiere said, “It takes the same amount of water and fertilizer to have a tree with three types of fruit as with one, so you might as well have a variety on one tree.”
He didn’t stop there. Forestiere envisioned a subterranean resort featuring delicious fruit trees and grapevines. For the next 40 years, he picked and scraped at the rough hardpan in pursuit of his vision. Eventually he created a complex of underground rooms, alcoves, grottos, courtyards, passageways, an 800-foot auto tunnel, garage, chapel, kitchen, library, bath, fishpond and aquarium across ten acres. His graceful stonework and arches were fashioned after the catacombs in Europe that he had seen as a boy. Eventually, his underground rooms numbered somewhere between 65 and 90.
Forestiere told a reporter in 1923 that the visions in his mind overwhelmed him. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish and open his resort. He died from complications of hernia surgery before he could complete the work.
Close to a third of the labyrinth was destroyed during construction of Highway 99 and neighboring buildings in the 1950s and 1960s. However, what is left remains much as it did when Forestiere died in 1946.
While not on the scale he had envisioned, Forestiere even ended up with several small citrus orchards. After forty years of digging, the dirt he had excavated mixed with soil conditioners and natural fertilizers provided enough topsoil to support ground-level citrus trees. Today, many of the trees and vines Forestiere planted are between 65 and 90 years old and are still producing fruit!
Forestiere once said, “To make something with lots of money, that is easy—but to make something out of nothing… now that is something.”
Dave Helgeson and his wife, Cheri, promote RV and manufactured home shows in Western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the RV lifestyle. See Dave’s blog, “Adventures in RVing,” at rvlife.com.
IF YOU GO
Forestiere Underground Gardens are near Highway 99 in Fresno. Take exit 140 and travel two blocks east on Shaw Avenue. The address is 5021 W. Shaw Ave. Since this is an underground attraction, the site is hard to see from the road, and the signage is poor. Only street parking is available, and RVers should plan on arriving before the first tour when parking is plentiful.
The gardens are a California Historic Landmark and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
All tours are weather-permitting. This means the ground must be dry enough to walk on.
The gardens are in full operation from Memorial Day through Labor Day, with tours conducted on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The gardens are closed in December, January and February and have limited hours other times of the year. For current schedules and admission prices, visit undergroundgardens.com. Phone: (559) 271-0734.