Burt and I were talking about the repeal of Prohibition, the 18th Amendment, in 1933, a year when the Great Depression was roaring.
On the Coastside, the end of Prohibition instantly put a lot of rumrunners and bootleggers out of business. No more “mother ships” carrying whiskey from Canada visible from the South Coast, Miramar, Princeton-by-the-Sea and Moss Beach.
When liquor was illegal, the key players made fortunes. Moving down the “food chain,” the rewards were worthwhile for anyone.
In San Mateo County, 1933-34 was the year Bay Meadows Racetrack opened, with pari-mutuel betting [meaning the state government controlled the proceeds.] The humble Thoroughbred Seabiscuit, the “people’s horse” treated like a Hollywood movie star.
Now, putting it all together, 1933-34, a year when the costs of the Great Depression were steep, gambling and alcohol were legal.
Do you think that a solution to our government’s financial woes is to make everything that is illegal, (prostittuion and illegal drugs) legal, and tax it?
I didn’t know anyone had actually lived in the El Granada Bathhouse–and used it as a home. When I arrived on the Coastside in the 1970s, the bathhouse was gone but I saw remnants of a road, big chunks of which had been and were still being torn apart by the highest of the high tides. If there had been a road there, then, clearly there had also been a lot of terra firma on the west side, the ocean side of the concrete, land once planted in rich fields of artichokes and Brussels sprouts. All gone now as Mother Nature shows us who rules.
The two-story “Bathhouse” was originally part of the Ocean Shore Railroad era, built in the early 1900s as a place for beach-goers to change into their bulky, old-fashioned swim-wear.
By now you know that the railroad’s “mandate” was to open up the isolated Coastside and provide the farming community with a new economy based on tourism. But Mother Nature, tough competition from the Southern Pacific on the other side of the hill, and a powerful love affair with the automobile took the Ocean Shore down.
Then the funniest thing happened: Alcohol, one of the popular drinks being whiskey was banned by the Prohibition Act, and, the dry law, like any law that says you can’t do something, encouraged the innovation of human nature to quench thirst. The natural response was to figure out a way to beat Prohibition. What the law breakers needed was a place to land the illegal booze, an isolated, secluded beach, recently abandoned by the railroad—and fearless men and boys to carry out the rest.
In the mid-1920s Gino Mearini and his family moved into the El Granada Bathhouse. Gino was just a kid, a teenager, smart as a whip, the son of Alesseio, who left his home in Tuscany seeking a better life in the US in 1914– at the beginning of WWI.
Alessio arrived without his wife and children; when he was doing better, he’d bring the family to live with him. The first job Alessio took was working in the dismal Pennsylvania coal mines before heading west to the Coastside where fellow Italians were farming artichokes and Brussels Sprouts.
(Photo: Gino Mearini stands in front of his bountiful orange tree.)
It was inevitable that Alessio would meet Dante Dianda, the big man in El Granada, the Coastside’s “Artichoke King.” Dianda, in partnership with John Patroni, who ran the Patroni House in Princeton-by-the-Sea owned two large ranches, encompassing Princeton, El Granada and Miramar. (Later, when Dante temporarily moved his family from El Granada to San Francisco, the farmer discovered that he enjoyed working at the busy San Francisco Produce Market much more than overseeing the two sprawling Coastside ranches.)
“Can you cook?” the Artichoke King asked Alessio Mearini.
“Yes!” was the younger man’s reply and Alessio was offered a job cooking for the men at the ranchhouse up the canyon in El Granada.
Alessio Mearini possessed a solid work ethic and business sense. Soon his cooking days were over and he was Dante’s partner, helping to manage the El Granada-Miramar ranch.
Earlier this week I was invited to Gino Mearini’s home in Cupertino. His lovely daughter, Janet Mearini Debenedetti was there, too–the owner of six cats, one of them most entertaining as she wrestled with Jo-Jo, Gino’s 10-year-old irresistible, recently shaved Pomeranian. Janet’s house stands across the street from her dad’s, and she said they bought the property on their street a long time ago, when the area was more rural. The climate reminded them of Italy, she explained.
We gathered at the kitchen table, a light-filled room (Burt sat across from me, with Gino at the head of the table, Janet at the opposite end. Janet grew up on the Coastsider, attending school with well known “Princetonians” Eugene Pardini and Ronnie Mangue.
I noted the small stack of books, all historical: Barbara Vanderwerf’s “Granada, A Synonym for Paradise;” Michael Orange’s “Half Moon Bay: Historic Coastside Reflections, ” and two of mine, “Half Moon Bay Memories: The Coastside’s Colorful Past,” and “Princeton-by-the-Sea.”
Gino wouldn’t like it if I revealed his age, but he has the spirit and curiosity of a young guy.
. (Photo: Gino Mearini looks at a page in Michael Orange’s book.)
Gino and his mom traveled from Italy to El Granada about 1921. At first they lived in a little house near where the El Granada Market stands today. A few years later the Mearinis moved into the vacant El Granada Bathhhouse.
The era belonged to Prohibition–and while the Bathhouse had become a home– when a light in the upstairs bedroom was flicked on past midnight, that was the “come on in, boys” signal–and the rumrunners boated in to El Granada Beach the bottles of whiskey unloaded from the Canadian mother ship anchored 12-mile out in the Pacific.
This was very, very serious business. Big money was involved. Thousands of cases of booze. The product had to be protected.
“There were bootleggers, armed with revolvers, looking for liquor hijackers at Miramar and El Granada,” Gino told me. But if it came down to a close chase with the Coast Guard, headquartered at Princeton, “We’d rather throw the load overboard than lose the boat. They had two Liberty motors, and they were fast engines.”
Gino, a teenager at the time, earned $25 for two hours of work, helping to drag the booze, that might have been tightly packed in gunny bags, across the sand dunes on homemade “sleds.” If John Patroni wasn’t around to pay Gino, “Otto and Anderson,” the Norwegians connected with the Canadian Mother ship, did.
What happened to the whiskey then? Gino said, “It was packed in straw, hidden in a nearby barn, and later picked up by some young guys driving a maroon colored Chrysler. There were velvet curtains covering the windows, maybe seven passengers could fit in there, boy, was it big.”
The drivers of the maroon Chrysler worked on contract, picking up at locations all over the county.
John Patroni was the “padrone,” the man who took care of the local Italians. He had nice cars, first a blue Packard, and then the fancy Cadillac. But who did John Patroni work for? I still can’t answer that question……
During our delightful conversation, Gino would correct things I had written. Clearly, while John Patroni had his own wharf at Princeton, where lots of whiskey was also landed, the El Granada Bathhouse may have played a much bigger role. In one of my books, I mentioned that booze was hidden beneath seawood mounted on a raft and pulled in. No, Gino said, “not possible.”
(Well, maybe it did happen but it sure sounds like nickel-and-dime stuff compared to the thousands and thousands of cases landed at El Granada.)
By 1933, the financial depression was hitting the Coastside hard, and because Prohibition was repealed, there was no more money to be made from illegal booze–but Gino had saved $600, all earned from working for the rumrunners.
The Mearini family moved out of the Bathhouse in February, 1932, and headed south of Half Moon Bay to isolated Lobitos where they rented John Meyn’s big white house. They later purchased land near where the trailer court is located on Airport Blvd., between Princeton and Moss Beach.
WWII on the Coastside is of particular interest to me, and Gino confirmed that all Italians without citizenship had to move from the beach side of the highway to the east side. (The Coastside Japanese had been interned.) In the town of Half Moon Bay, the center of Main Street was the dividing line. Gino had a lot of empathy for the “women and widows that had to move.” Unfortunately, most of the stores were on the west side of Main Street, causing much distress.
The Prohibition years were heady ones for the teenager, Gino Mearini, but one thing sticks out in his memory. At 6 a.m. in 1924, his mom called to him: “We’re going to get washed away.”
When Gino looked out the window he saw it coming towards him: a series of giant, hungry waves, an old-fashioned “Tidal Wave,”… a modern Tsunami. The family got out before the chicken house, packing shed and squealing pigs were swept away (the pigs survived.)
But when it was all over, the Bathhouse had been turned around a bit, and moved into the artichoke field. The beach around the house was gone. Years later as the sea chewed on more of the cliffs and sucked out the sand dunes, the waves finally claimed the Bathhouse as its own.
Occasionally, Gino Mearini visits the Coastside, and amusement crosses his face when he comes to the spot where the El Granada Bathhouse once stood. Actually, there is no such spot.
Over time the action of the waves has so altered the geography of what was here and what was there in the 1920s, that Gino can only smile and point, “The bathhouse, it’s out there, where the ocean is.”
was built during the Ocean Shore Railroad era, in anticipation of serving beach-going visitors, but when the iron road failed, the Bathhouse became home for the Mearini family. This is the first I’d heard of anyone living in the Bathhouse–that no longer stands at El Granada Beach.
From the email I received today:
” Gino Mearini was a teenager, and helped to bring the whiskey ashore [during Prohibition] after it was unloaded from the boats that were anchored out in the bay. He and his family lived at the “Bath House” in El Granada. He can tell you about a high tide that caused waves to slam against the house, and wash away some of the out buildings and chicken coops into the artichoke fields, etc. etc…”
The El Granada Observer looks forward to visiting Mr. Mearini soon!
All along Paul Pane had been amused that officials could not find him. No wonder. Since the 1924 raid at Ano Nuevo, south of Pescadero, Pane had been working in a restaurant located directly across the street from the San Francisco Prohibition office.
But Paneâs luck ran out when police recognized him while he was traveling through Los Angeles. Brought back to San Francisco, Pane, along with his partner, Tom Murphy, was indicted on conspiracy to violate the Prohibition Act and IRS laws.
Now the former intrepid bootleggers prepared to face trial in federal court in 1926.
At the trial, South Coast farmer J.F. Steele testified that Paul Pane and Thomas Murphy first visited him in 1923. At that time Steele agreed to load contraband liquor at $1 a case and that he did so on several occasions. Each time Pane and Murphy supervised the operation.
âTo save my hide, I made a statement to Prohibition Director Rutter that my place was used as a landing for illegal liquor,â? explained Steele who admitted he knew he was violating the law.
Steele also testified that prior to the 1924 raid, hijackers came to his ranch and bound and gagged him., threatening to throw him over the cliff unless he revealed the hiding place of eight barrels of whiskey. He refused to cooperate but changed his mind after his wife was kidnapped, leading the rogues to the whiskey.
Teamster Joseph Soto had worked at the Ano Nuevo ranch during the raid by Prohibition Director Rutter. Arrested along with Steele, Soto agreed to be a government witness. But when Joe Soto took the stand in federal court, he was suddenly and inexplicably unable to identify the defendants, Paul Pane or Tom Murphy.
The jury deliberated for an hour-and-a-half before returning with guilty verdicts on all the indictments. Paul Pane and Tom Murphy were each sentenced to two year prison terms.
By that time, Pane and Murphyâs boss, Joe Parente, the king of all the Pacific Coast rumrunners, was also a hunted man. After a fierce gun battle with Prohibition agents on present-day Skyline Blvd. in 1927, Parente was arrestedâbut he jumped bail, heading north to the safety of his lavish Vancouver, British Colombia hotel suite.
A year later, during a violent argument, an associate shot Joe Parente.
âWe not only learned enough to uncover one of the biggest bootleg rings in the country,â? boasted Mobile Prohibition Supervisor John Exnicios, âbut we also have the names of all of the prominent members of the ring.â?
Leaked to the press was the news that Giovanni Patroni had revealed the identity of the Vancouver company that furnished the liquor, names of all the rumrunnerâs boats, and to whom the booze was consigned.
Under pressure, Patroni had fingered Tom Murphy.
When the authorities finally located him, Murphy admitted that he had contracted with a major bootlegging ring in Vancouver to carry contraband liquor from Canada to the San Mateo County Coatside, making deliveries in small fishing boats at Princeton.
Law enforcement and the judicial system were erratic during the Prohibition era. Despite Tom Murphyâs indictment and confession, he did not serve jail time but continued his bootlegging career with partner Paul Pane at Ano Nuevo.
By 1924, Prohibition Director Sam Rutterâs agents had become tougher and armed themselves with sawed-off shotguns. When Rutter learned 240 cases of Canadian Club whiskey were arriving at Ano Nuevo, he raided the South Coast ranch. But by then Pane and Murphy had vanished from the beach into the darkness and werenât found.
J.F. Steele was arrested but granted immunity for furnishing Rutter with evidence leading to the indictments of Pane and Murphy, according to newspaper accounts. Steeleâs life was threatened and he received protection from the authorities.
A year after the Ano Nuevo raid, Pane and Murphy had still not been found. Then, in a bizarre twist, the San Francisco Prohibition office received a report that Tom Murphy had barricaded himself in his apartment in the City. He was armed and vowing to resist arrest.
A squad of heavily armed federal officers surrounded Murphyâs residence but when they rushed the door the agents found the rum baron sitting quietly by a window counting $30,000 in cash. He submitted to arrest without protest but his trial would not begin until his partner Paul Pane was also in custody.
Three years earlier, in 1921, Paul Pane and Tom Murphy began their bootlegging operations at Princeton-by-the-Sea, some four miles north of Half Moon Bay. With the collapse of the Ocean Shore Railroad, Princeton was a failed resort and some residents were ready for any kind of business.
Overlooking Princeton Bay for many years was the Patroni House, a seafood and Italian restaurant owned by Giovanni Patroni. Fishing boats docked at the nearby wharf, also called âPatroniâsâ?.
Born in Genoa, Italy in 1878, Giovanni, the son of farmers, learned the hotel business in San Francisco before moving to Princeton in the early 1900s. Patroni also formed a partnership with El Granada artichoke farmer Dante Dianda. Together they owned 400 acres.
In 1921 when Patroni was 43-years-old, bootlegger Thomas Murphy approached the restaurant owner, convincing him to let his wharf be used to unload illegal liquor.
A few months later, in the fall, fishing boats delivered $60,000 worth of illegal whiskey from Vancouver to Patroniâs Wharf. Tipped off about the shipment, agents led by Mobile Prohibition Supervisor John Exnicios raided the Patroni House, confiscating thousands of dollars of bonded liquor.
Arrested for violating the Volstead (Prohibiton) Act, Giovanni Patroni confessed that he was a member of a bootlegging ring smuggling thousands of dollars worth of high-grade whiskey into Princeton. Patroni was released on bond in return for testifying before the grand jury he received immunity.
The information Exnicios extracted from Patroni made him optimistic that booze smuggling on the San Mateo County Coastside had been smashed.
â¦to be continuedâ¦
(Photo: San Mateo County History Museum. Visit the museum at the historic Redwood City Courthouse)
It was dark and the bootlegger Paul Pane was standing with his men on an isolated beach near Ano Nuevo. His job was to signal the Canadian vessel, Prince Albert, with a flashlight, using a special code to give the all clear signâallowing the skiffs aboard the rumrunner to sail through the surf with cases of illegal booze destined for Half Moon Bay and San Francisco.
But the night didnât feel right. Pane sensed something was wrong; even some of his men were acting peculiarly. For whatever reason, Pane and his partner, Tom Murphy, the last of the old line of bootleggers, smelled serious trouble at Ano Nuevo in 1924.
Without apparent warning, the pair bolted, leaving so fast that Pane abandoned his suit jacket with the secret code book still inside. Pane and Murphy escaped to Santa Cruz. They had little choice as the Half Moon Bay Road, present day Highway 92, was closed for repairs.
Paneâs instincts were on target. Minutes after the two rum barons departed from Ano Nuevo, armed men raided the South Coast smuggling operation, a seaside ranch belonging to J.F. Steele. (Steele had been âconvincedâ? into cooperating with the bootleggers). Embarrassed and frightened, Steele was arrested, then released on his own recognizance. Other men were also arrested, two of them Pane-Murphy gang members who were later killed in a shootout with hijackers in Los Angeles. Also taken into custody was Steeleâs employee, Teamster Joseph Soto.
Collecting evidence at the crime scene, Prohibition Director Rutter gathered bottles of the Canadian Club whiskey for testing by the governmentâs chemical analyst. Rutter also took into evidence Paul Paneâs coat jacket with the bootleggerâs name stitched inside. Reaching into that coat pocked, Rutter pulled out the prized secret signal code book. Flipping through it, he realized he had the key to all the bootleggerâs flashlight codes: wait; delay all clear; danger; get out; return tomorrow; return to San Francisco; return to ship; and go to Santa Cruz.
Paul Pane and Thomas Murphy were declared fugitives from justice for violating the Volstead [Prohibition] Act. A manhunt for them in the Santa Cruz Mountains turned up nothing. Pane and Murphy had escaped, perhaps as far north as Canada.
When the San Mateo County Coastside was identified as a major depot of smuggled Canadian whiskey during Prohibition., pioneer liquor buccaneers Paul Rubio Pane and Thomas Murphy called themselves exporters—but they were hardened professional bootleggers who needed the cooperation of locals to unload hundreds of cases of illegal booze on isolated Half Moon Bay and Pescadero beaches.
Destined for thirsty customers in San Francisco, the whiskey earned Pane, Murphy and their rum-running masters huge profits.
By 1924 Paul Pane and Thomas Murphy had been using South Coast farmer J.F. Steele’s Ano Nuevo seaside ranch as their home base for more than a year. They often ate breakfast at Steele’s place south of the Pigeon Point lighthouse and might have passed as locals. But they took their orders from the notorious Joe Parente. Headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, Parente was the king of all the Pacific Coast rumrunners.
After convincing Steele to collaborate with them, Pane and Murphy established a routine. Electricity had not yet reached the Pescadero on the South Coast—and in the evening the road was eerily dark.
Pane and Murphy supervised the nighttime loading of 100 proof-plus Canadian Club whiskey onto trucks—liquor delivered secretly to a secluded beach cove by two small skiffs.
The operation went smoothly until the spring of 1924. As 240 cases of illicit whiskey were being loaded onto trucks, Paul Pane’s sixth sense alerted him to trouble—and trouble usually meant the police. He even felt suspicious of his partner Thomas Murphy, the co-owner of the Prince Albert, a vessel registered in British Colombia.
As usual the Prince Albert’s final port of call was Ensenada, Mexico. Unless witnesses to a crime, the Coast Guard did not board vessels headed for ports outside of the United States. Packed with a full load of whiskey, the Prince Albert sailed south from Vancouver along the Pacific Coast, carefully observing the 3-mile limit near Steele’s Ano Nuevo ranch.
From his position on the beach, Paul Pane, using his secret code-book, signaled the Prince Albert with a flashlight, advising the vessel that it was all clear. A high-powered motorboat rendezvoused with the Prince Albert, taking on board the cases of liquor. From the motorboat, the cargo was transferred again to small skiffs that sailed through the surf and onto the cliff-lined beach. With the loud pounding of waves drowning out conversation, Pane stowed his flashlight, automatically slipping the secret code-book into his coat pocket.
In an earlier post I wrote about Mario Vellutini who worked for John Patroni, also known as “Big Daddy”. Patroni owned the aptly named Patroni House, a prohibition roadhouse that once stood where the Half Moon Bay Brewery is located today in Princeton. Not only was the Patroni House centrally located– but Mr. Patroni was a key figure, as in “the man”.
Patroni also took pride in the food he served and cleverly outwitted the competition.
“When the Prohibition agents headed for Patroni’s,” Mario Vellutini told me, “somebody called from Redwood City to warn him.” (Redwood City was and is the county government seat.)
Thus John Patroni avoided the stinging penalty of too many raids. A raid could also mean that a roadhouse– or “resort” owner like Patroni had failed to honor the custom of the time by making certain the appropriate officials got their regular “salary”.
“Patroni gave big meals at low prices,” Vellutini divulged, “and if people stayed for the weekend he gave them discounts.” Mario recalled seeing 500 people in Princeton at one times–a tremendous crowd. Those were the days when folks traveled to the Coastside to dine on the delicious local mussels.
Louis Miguel–whose father built the beautiful Palace Miramar Hotel, now gone–once told me his family’s restaurant “served mussels 12 months a year. There was no such thing as poison mussels like there is today.”
Until it was time to serve them, the shellfish were kept fresh in the ocean, held in sacks, tied with rope. Miguel said his family “never got the mussels until low tide. People nowadays get mussels up high where they get a lot of sun and moon and that’s what poisons them. But in those days we served them all year ’round and nobody got sick.”
The Patroni House building was owned by John Patroni but it was located on real estate belonging to Coastside landowner Henry Cowell. Cowell, recalled Mario Vellutini, kept raising Patroni’s rent, ultimately igniting a feud.
The “padrone” hit upon a plan to outwit Cowell and avoid the steep overhead by buying the adjacent property. One night, under cover of darkness, Patroni moved his entire building over to the the newly purchased land. Outraged, Cowell retaliated by building his own restaurant next door to Patroni’s.
But, chuckled Vellutini, “While people lined up to eat mussels at the Patroni House, nobody went to Cowell’s new place.”
Note: Mario gave me this photo. it’s of the beach between Miramar & El Granada and shows some men on motorbikes.
Mario Vellutini in the front yard of his El Granada home.
I used to watch Mario Vellutini bending over in the fields bordering Highway 1 in El Granada. That’s where wild daisies the color of butter grew in abundance, waist-high.
Wearing baggy gray trousers and a worn hat, the thin, pale old man searched for clumps of wild mushrooms where the ground was rich. For dinner he cooked them with chicken, country Italian style.
One day while Mario was gathering mushrooms I went to talk to him. I hoped he would tell me secrets about Prohibition, when the Coastside was home to shadowy figures, rumrunners and bootleggers– and a madam or two who called the shots.
He didn’t disappoint.
(A little history about Mario: He was 17 when he left his home in Italy in 1913 for Half Moon Bay–where he got to know every Coastside field, working on ranches from Pescadero to Montara.)
He delighted me when he talked about his close relationship with John Patroni, a powerful man during Prohibition. Patroni owned the popular Princeton restaurant called the Patroni House–the old roadhouse was torn down in the 1950s and today the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. stands near the site.
Some people called the husky Patroni “the padrone” for he was the boss of Princeton-by-the-Sea in the 1920s and 1930s when the sale, possession, and drinking of any kind of alcohol/liquor/whiskey was illegal.
(Can you imagine enforcing this one?)
John Patroni was the Coastside padrone but Mario Vellutini, who, when he was in his early 20s lived at the Patroni House, called the padrone, “Big Daddy.” John Patroni was the kingpin and a wealthy rumrunner, Mario Vellutini, who lived at the Patroni House, told me.
A narrow thoroughfare separated Patroni’s lively roadhouse from what is known today as Pillar Point Harbor but in the 1920s the high seas weren’t interrupted by a breakwater system. During Prohibition rumrunners used the pier across the way to unload whiskey at night.
Mario worked for Big Daddy, and rumor has it that Vellutini watched out for the best interests of his boss, making certain that nobody was cheating him.
Those were heady times for the Coastside, famous up until then for the endless fields of artichokes. But the artichokes took a back seat to Half Moon Bay which became better known as one of the biggest supplier of illegal booze on the West Coast.
When the Prohibition agents headed for Patroni, the 81-year-old Vellutini said, somebody called from Redwood City to warn him.
Thus John Patroni avoided the stinging penalty of too many raids. A raid could also mean that a roadhouse or a owner like Patroni had failed to honor the custom of the time by making sure the appropriate officials got their regular “salary.”