Something from Nothing: The Incredible Dream of Baldassare Forestieri

When Baldassare (bahl-dah-sAHR-ee) Forestiere was 22 years old, he left his native Sicily for good, he had little more than dreams to help him along. But this dream, this grand vision in his mind, was enough to motivate him, to give him hope and direction. Baldassare wanted to own a citrus farm. He dreamt of sunny orchards, stretching as far as he could see in the hot sun.

He arrived in America in 1901, and obtained his first job was in Boston. It wasn’t where he wanted to stay: he was employed to help build the great city’s first subway tunnels.  His dream must have felt further away than ever in the cold, subterranean tunnels beneath the bustling city. But Baldassare was a man of great faith, so he worked and worked, living sparingly and saving everything he could for his own citrus farm.

Boston, circa 1900

It took five years, but he finally saved enough for a start. He headed to California, to a place called Fresno. According to the ads and word of mouth, the land was cheap and fertile, and the warm climate was perfect for growing fruit.

To Baldassare’s great delight, Fresno was indeed hot and the land was cheap. He purchased 80 acres for $80, earned from his five long years of digging tunnels beneath the city of Boston. What little money he had left went for citrus plants, but it was worth it. He worked for local farmers during the day. It was enough for survival, and his time to himself could be completely devoted to his citrus farm. It was all perfect, and everything had happened just as it was supposed to: he had worked hard and it was all about to pay off.

tree roots require significant space

A cruel twist of fate awaited Baldassare. When it was time to plant his trees, his shovel struck a concrete-like substance just a few feet below the surface. He later learned it was called hardpan, one of the hardest rock substances in the world, and it went several feet down. Tree roots cannot grow through hardpan.

Baldassare’s dream had hit a literal wall.

Hardpan, Fresno area

His options weren’t appealing. He could stay in Fresno and help out on other farmer’s land. He could go back to a big city and save again for years.

Baldassare was no ordinary man. His dream was fixed in his mind. This was his land. It would be his citrus farm. So he took his simple tools––a pick axe, a wheel barrow, a dragged scraper, and a shovel––and he set to work. Initially, it was merely a tunnel, but it already yielded something: Baldassare lived in what was initially little more than a cave. It was cooler there, at least 10 degrees cooler than the hot surface.

It was the beginning of what is now known as Forestieri Underground Gardens, a subterranean world filled with garden courts, and a real residence. Baldassare dragged large planters into his underground world, far beneath the land surface and the hardpan. He created tunnels all the way up to the surface so he could plant his citrus farm and still have light and rain to allow his trees to grow.

an open air courtyard

Baldassare had visited the catacombs as a child, and he still remembered his childlike joy in them. More practically, he could put his experience creating subway tunnels in Boston to work on his farm. Gradually, his underground world was no longer a series of caves, but a beautiful place with arches fortified with the very hardpan that threatened to kill his dream.

Soon, his home had everything he needed: a stove, an icebox, and a bathtub. Later he added electricity. He had another idea he was eager to try grafting different types of trees, so that one tree would eventually bear multiple fruits. And he did: he successfully grafted multiple trees to bear oranges, lemons, and grapefruits. One tree becoming his masterpiece, bearing 7 different fruits. His open-air courtyards were partially shaded by grapevines, and Baldassare made his own wine.

As his trees grew and he became more successful, Baldassare was able to buy two mules. By the time he was 44, Baldassare had excavated and planted over 10 acres.

Baldassare’s icebox
Baldassare made clever use of his space

 

Baldassare once told a family member he had so many ideas they overwhelmed him. He wanted to make his underground world a resort, where people could escape the Fresno heat and eat his citrus fruit. His underground complex became tri-level, and he even built a glass-bottomed aquarium.

Baldassare’s aquarium (now empty) and steps leading to another level of his underground world

Baldassare passed away unexpectedly in 1946, after a bout of pneumonia.

In total, Baldassare created the underground gardens that feature nearly one hundred chambers, passageways, courts, and patios, with only rudimentary tools. It’s beautiful and so inspiring. It is proof of something Benjamin Franklin once said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”

a photograph of Baldassare behind his original tools

Baldassare knew he had done something remarkable. There is a quote of his you can see at the Underground Gardens: “To make something with a lot of money, that is easy; but to make something out of nothing – now that is really something.”

If you find yourself in Fresno, you should make time to visit! There’s much more to see and learn about Baldassare, and photographs can’t do his work justice. It’s best to reserve tickets online at least a day in advance and call to make sure the gardens are open on the day you plan to visit.  It is open during the pandemic. http://www.undergroundgardens.com

Baldassare’s first planter

 

 

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