“You have to take care of your eyes and your legs,” said 95-year-old Elmer “Mike” Miguelgorry of Camino. That’s advice coming from a man who still mows his yard and prunes the trees on his 1-acre property.
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Miguelgorry is a piece of Camino history — a charter member of the Apple Hill Growers Association who lives in a home built by John Larsen and the former owner of a 30-acre orchard planted by the Larsens, a pioneering family who have been a strong part of Camino’s agricultural community since 1860.
He no longer walks the half mile to his mailbox out on Hassler Road, not because he can’t do it, but because it isn’t safe, not with groups of wine-tasters driving past the road to his home. When Miguelgorry bought his 30-acre orchard in 1960, Apple Hill wasn’t yet Apple Hill and the hustle and bustle came from the growers, picking and packing their pears to be shipped all over the nation.
“We came up here because my oldest son, Mike, had terrible asthma,” said Miguelgorry, “and the doctor said a change of location would help.” He took a leave of absence from his job as a telephone installer for Pacific Bell in San Jose to look for a better home and found Camino.
“We liked the property as soon as we saw it,” said Miguelgorry. “We” was wife, Mary, daughter Suzanne and sons Michael and Dan.
Miguelgorry had been raised on a ranch in the Santa Clara Valley. His family was Basque, hailing from southern France and his father had been a shepherd before he married.
As the oldest son in a family of three older sisters and a younger brother, Miguelgorry was no stranger to hard work.
“I grew up doing everything on the ranch — spraying the fruit with a 70-foot hose, milking the cows, cleaning the barn and taking care of the horses, chickens, pigs and rabbits.”
When he graduated from Fremont High School in Cupertino in 1935, Miguelgorry continued to work on the ranch and picked up a job at the Schuckles Cannery. “We processed fruit from all over California — pears, grapes, peaches, apricots. The Santa Clara Valley was a big agricultural area then.”
He didn’t date much. “When you can’t afford a wife, you don’t think about dating.” But he loved to dance, going to dances three times a week and attending Portuguese chamaritas.
In 1942, the draft caught up with him after his deferrment for farm work ran out, and Miguelgorry enlisted in the Navy. After basic training in Farragut, Idaho, he went to electrical school in St.Louis, Mo., and then on to further training in Washington, D.C. He was assigned to the USS Whitney, a destroyer tender that provided supplies, service and repairs to destroyers and other craft in the South Pacific and Phillipines from October 1943 until the end of the war.
“Crippled and destroyed ships came to my ship to be repaired,” said Miguelgorry. “If we didn’t have the parts, we had a machine shop that made them.”
Miguelgorry, with 17 men working under him, was in charge of the three huge generators that supplied power to the ship.
“In my training I learned the most current and modern techniques, but the Whitney was an old ship. We still used steam.”
After the war was over and he was discharged, he was acting chief petty officer. Back home in Sunnyvale, he went to work on the ranch, repairing the things that had fallen apart in his absence and working the family fruit and vegetable stand on the Bayshore Highway that divided his family’s ranch in half.
“It didn’t look like a job that was going anywhere, ” said Miguelgorry. A frequesnt cutomer told him where to apply for a job with the telephone company in San Jose. He did apply and was hired for $44 a week and a year’s work credit.
In 1960, when the family relocated to Camino, Miguelgorry kept his full time job, transferring to the Pacific Bell Co. in Placerville and worked his new orchard of pears and apples. He remembers sprinkler pipes in the orchard, 20 feet long, that had to be changed every morning and evening. Pear blight hit the area soon after he arrived.
“Our root stock was susceptible to it and we fought it with spray. I had to buy a new one-man spray rig.”
For the first two years, he was a member of the Placerville Fruit Growers Association and took his fruit in to Placerville to be packed. Then he began sending his fruit to the packing shed at Boa Vista.
“My fruit was shipped to the Safeway Stores Corp. in Richmond for distribution.”
One of the 16 original ranchers who created the Apple Hill Growers Association in 1964, he enjoyed participating in the ranch marketing development of Apple Hill — a new idea for many of the growers who were used to shipping their fruit out, not having people come to their doorstep to buy it.
Mary Miguelgorry was the first treasurer of the Apple Hill Growers Association and she baked pies for customers to buy on the weekends.
“She would bake 14-15 pies a day and we’d be sold out,” said Miguelgorry. “At that time it was just word of mouth.”
“Every ranch had its own media notable to interview them and there were media picnics to promote Apple Hill,” said Dan Miguelgorry. “Dad always had really nice fruit and took a lot of pride in it. It was even featured in a Sunset magazine article. When people would come to the fruit stand, he always gave them samples and they really liked his quiet, simple personality.”
“I employed a lot of people, “said Miguelgorry with pride. “I paid them 25 cents an hour and their living quarters. The same gang of Filippinos came every year.”
“It was always exciting when all their cars came rolling in the day before picking,” said Dan Miguelgorry. “They were these 60-year-old guys with these beautiful 20-year-old wives.”
In 1979 Miguelgorry took a bad fall from a telephone pole and decided to retire from the telephone company after more than 30 years.
“I still meet people in the county whose phones I installed.”
He sold the 30-acre orchard to Gale and Joan Barsotti that same year.
Mary Miguelgorry died after an eight-year bout with cancer in 1988. They had met in 1949 at the telephone company in San Jose where she worked as a switchboard operator.
Miguelgorry has three adult children, Suzanne Cistulli of San Jose, Michael Miguelgorry of Folsom and Dan Miguelgorry of Somerset. He has eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He has been married for 19 years to his second wife, Lena, whom he met at the Mission Oaks Tea Dance.
Mike and Lena still love to dance, but don’t do it as often as they used to. In 2009 they were chosen King and Queen of the Seniors Ball held at El Dorado High School and they have traveled the world.
The roads once traveled only by farmers and pickers are now thronged with buses and cars during Apple Hill season. Miguelgorry watches them pass from his home in John and Pearl Larsen’s dream house built from trees in the 4-acre parcel next door.
“We lived in the old Larsen ranch house for five years. I was going to tear it down and build a new house, but the Larsens offered to rent me this beautiful house because they didn’t want the old house torn down. It had been there for 60 years. I ended up buying this house and the old ranch house is still standing.”
So is Mike Miguelgorry.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5068 or [email protected]