Natalie June Foletta Hannah was on the phone to me a few weeks ago.
The Westport area resident was calling in praise of a recent Courier feature story on Ceres historical figures buried in Modesto. The story featured a photo of a Scenic Avenue cemetery scene which was dominated by the elaborate 1881 tombstone of her great-great-grandfather.
I knew then that I wanted to meet this descendant of John Vivian, for whom Vivian Road west of Ceres was named. She welcomed a request for an interview.
I was sure that this spry and spunky 86-year-old native of the Westport area west of Ceres would be interesting. She did not disappoint. Natalie is, after all, a descendent of several immigrant families, the daughter of an early-day Ceres school district trustee, a former student of the defunct Jones School - it was actually located in her front yard - and a graduate of Ceres High when Harry Truman was president. Then there is this strange family coincidence where births seem to be connected to historical milestones or holidays; more about that later.
Pulling up to her spacious country home within sight of Westport School's play yard, I see a sign propped up against a brick column noting the "Jones School site." I was about to receive an education on Jones School, which now only exists in memories and photos. To confess, I didn't know much about the school. Her home, I would soon learn, was built on the playground where Jones School students once frolicked.
She invites me in where daughter Janet has joined in the interview. Playing in the background for the next two hours is the soft sound of Swiss music with lively accordion. It was the type of music you might hear waiting in line for the Matterhorn bobsled ride at Disneyland. It was a nice background as she steeped me in her Swiss geneology.
Natalie was ready for my visit and had dragged out albums filled with photos and propped large framed photos against her fireplace. An especially wide panoramic photo of the students of 1924 gathered in front of the old bricked Ceres High School building grabs my attention. Natalie's father, Leo Foletta, appears prominently in the photo. In moments she would show me her June 6, 1949 CHS diploma which her father personally signed along with other members of the Ceres School Board.
Natalie was born to Leo Foletta and Hazel Moore Foletta on June 3, 1929 in Modesto, just four months before the stock market crash and beginning of the Great Depression. The family was living at the old Moore family homestead - Ollie Moore was her grandfather - at the southwest corner of Keyes and Crows Landing road. Three brothers - Lowell, Warren and Leo - would follow Natalie.
Leo and Hazel would later be gifted an 80-acre family plot with a small house at 1612 W. Grayson Road, or the southwest corner of Ustick and Grayson roads.
Mother Hazel Moore was Natalie's connection to the pioneer Vivian family. Hazel was the daughter of Viola Vivian, who was the daughter of William Henry Vivian, the son of John Vivian. John was born in Cornwall, England in 1821 and came to the United States four years before the Gold Rush. He became a lead miner in Wisconsin and upon the news of gold being discovered in California, headed with wife Mary to mine in Tuolumne County. After three years of hard work, the Vivians had enough of gold mining and headed to the Valley where they raised cattle on land near Ceres. By 1880 Vivian's 4,000 acres were used to also raise sheep, hogs and wheat in a day without irrigation. He died in 1881 and Mary followed in 1910. The graves are located near busy Scenic Avenue directly across from the former Scenic General County Hospital.
On Natatlie's dad's side are the Folettas who were of Swiss heritage. Harry Foletta, Natalie's grandfather, came to the United States from Switzerland to seek work. He joined brothers in Pescadero south of Half Moon Bay where they milked cows and he learned English at school. Natalie remembers a slight Swiss accent in that he could not correctly pronounce the "th" sound. It always came out "ta." Thus, the word "that" would come out as "tat."
In time Harry earned enough money to buy cattle which he moved through the mountains over to the Los Banos area. Harry realized that the Valley was promising with irrigation and came to buy 68 acres in Los Banos in 1907. The story is that he talked the Quisenberry family to sell them their two-story house at 530 W. Grayson Road. While Mrs. Quisenberry reportedly wasn't happy about the transaction, the two families remained friends since.
"That's the way people are when they're out here - they're all friendly and helpful," said Natalie.
Harry Foletta helped to get the Swiss Club started in the area and Yori's Grove.
Both of Natalie's parents attended Jones School, which was formed as a district in May 1868 with 26 boys and 18 girls. Natalie also attended there from 1935 to 1941. Miss Lillooet Bent was her first grade teacher and later became principal when Natalie was in the fifth through eighth grades. According to Natalie, the first one-room Jones School was located across Carpenter Road from where the current Westport School is located. The Laird School was located about two miles away on Laird Road. Jennings Road had its own school.
Natalie remembers four grades sitting in individual rows in one classroom because the numbers were too low to warrant additional teachers.
"I had very, very good learning."
She admits that she was a better student when younger.
"I didn't do so well fourth, fifth and sixth (grades). I got to foolin' around. I was maturing and growing up and felt very self-confident."
Because her mother and Miss Bent were longtime friends, Natalie knew if she did anything wrong that she'd "get punished doubly at home."
She got a fair amount of education at home from her mother who had intended to become a teacher before she abandoned her studies. Hazel Moore dropped everything at Modesto Junior College when she and Leo fell in love and got married.
"Dad said he had his eye on her from grammar school. She had a Model T and drove all four years to Modesto High School. Dad got on the bus and went to Ceres where he played sports. And then they got together at junior college."
Hazel raised her children as Leo raised dairy cattle at Jennings and Grayson roads. Natalie remembers "herding my brothers around."
"I played around with milking. I was sheltered by my Dad more than my mother. I was spoiled and I knew that."
Her mother instilled the idea that Natalie needed to serve others "and that was just comfortable for me."
"My mother loved to garden but there were days when she'd say, ‘Natalie, you and I are going visiting.' The meals were all straightened out, we'd all had food, all the mending and ironing was done and we went to see so-and-so and whatever they were doing we pitched in helped."
During World War II Natalie helped collect scrap metal and rubber, for the war effort. She remembers how her dad let her drive a tractor around to Westport neighbors to collect.
"People were turning everything in and any money you had went to war bonds. You saved it because you were going to need it someday."
Natalie attended Ceres High School where she was a good student.
As her relationship with Dave Hannah was developing during lunch times, a CHS coach pulled her aside and admonished her to "set a certain standard" because her father was a board member.
A day after her graduation, Natalie and Dave were married privately in the county clerk's office.
"I was supposed to be going to junior college as far as my mother was concerned. You don't need to write that. She didn't finish her education and I was to do that. I didn't want to go to junior college. I wanted to get married and have a family."
Janet chimes in that Natalie's "mother was mad" when she learned of the unannounced marriage ceremony.
At first Hazel didn't like son-in-law Dave but in time grew to respect him.
Natalie said Dave's mother taught her children to live through parables in the Bible. Dave Hannah was born "dirt poor" and drove an ice truck for money the first year of their marriage. He wanted to be more so he got a job with L.J. Zimmerman repairing electronics. Dave struck upon the idea of making TV antennas and installing them and formed Modesto TV with the partnership of Natalie's brother Warren and his best friend Dick Smith. The business was located where the former Rainbow Bread factory was on Tenth Street. Their reputation for integrity and quality caused the business to grow with an expansion into Fresno. Hannah later started Inland Electronics on Carpenter Road.
"He was quite a business minded man," said Janet. "He was a forward-thinking man, honest and trustworthy."
The Hannahs lived for many years in north Modesto where their four daughters, Kathleen Smart, Diane Dominguez, Elaine Hannah and Janet Hannah, attended Sylvan schools.
"He had made sure that I could be the overseer of the family and he often didn't get home until after 10 with the business," said Natalie.
When her parents passed away, the Jones School site went to Natalie and Dave Hannah. They had a modern custom house built and moved in June 1984. Occasionally evidence of the school pops up when a tractor or shove uncovers old inkwells and marbles buried on the school site, now planted in almond trees.
"My husband really appreciated the Swiss heritage that I had. He never drank and he never criticized other people."
The couple's peaceful retirement years together was rudely interrupted during a family vacation in Hawaii when Dave suffered a stroke in 2004 which paralyzed the left half of his body. The couple was stuck in Hawaii for a week with Dave receiving medical care there. Dave eventually came home and was able to stay at home with nearly full-time help until he passed away two years later on July 27, 2006. Tracks still bolted to the ceiling, used to hoist him around the house, are evidence of the family's time as caregivers to Dave.
Oh, about the weird coincidences of births. Get this: John Vivian was born New Year's Day in 1821. Daughter Kathleen was born New Year's Day in 1948. Diane was born on tax deadline day, April 15, 1951. Daughter Elaine was born Christmas Eve in 1952. Janet, well, she notes she was born before Groundhog's Day in 1955.
The coincidences don't end there. Natalie's pop, Leo, was born in Soledad in Monterey County, a day before his mother felt the ground shake during the San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906.
Two hours had passed quickly and I needed to go. Natalie's exuberance for life, as she approaches 90, was something I wanted to remember so I could emulate at her age. She's both interested in the past and still looking to the future. She finds laughter and joy in each day, or at least appears to want to try. Natalie Hannah is also surprised that time has ripped by at freeway speeds.
"I didn't expect that it would be like this but I look in the mirror and see Grandma Moore, my mother's mother and she was almost 90."