San Juan Bautista was one of the first of the California Missions, having been built in 1797.†It is a remarkable structure that I have visited twice now. The Mission occupies one side of a town square that also fronts a number of historic buildings. The one that immediately captures your attention is the Plaza Hotel.
The Hotel was originally a barracks designed to house the handful of Mexican soldiers whose task it was to guard the Mission. In 1846, when the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo* was inked, Mexico ceded Alta California to the United States and the barracks became the property of the Anzar family who turned it into a store to supply the many adventurers who passed through on the way to the California Gold Fields.
In the mid-1850’s that Angelo Zanetta, an Italian immigrant, rented the old barracks and converted it to a saloon. Zanetta had come west after working as a chef at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans. The hospitality trade came easily for Angelo as his father had been a successful innkeeper in Italy.
The opening of the bar was timed to coincide with the 1856†fiesta of San Juan, which falls on Summer Solstice. The fiesta was very big in this town (seems obvious: San Juan Bautista) and that year attracted upwards of 10,000 people. As the only saloon in town, Zanetta did a huge business that day, taking in about $3,000 in 24 hours.
At the time that was a large amount of money. Consider John Breen, the 16 year old son of the Breen family that survived the Donner Expedition and arrived destitute in San Juan. When the gold rush†hit, he journeyed to the fields and returned several months later with $10,000 in gold dust.¬† With the money, his family bought Castro House,¬†¬†a large adobe that had been home to Juan Castro and the Mexican government and 400 acres!¬† Angelo’s $3,000 take had to be worth $50,000 or more by today’s standards.¬†
Within a couple of years, Zanetta, who was working as a master chef at a restaurant on Third Street, bought the property which also included a guard tower from the Breen family for $450.¬† He went to work¬† adding a second story to the building and opened it in January, 1859 as the Plaza Hotel.
The Hotel was elegant for its era and locale and became very popular with travelers who passed through San Juan Bautista.¬† There were plenty of them, too.¬† Up to eleven stage coaches a day came and went from the thriving town.¬† Angelo brought his considerable skill as a chef to bear on the dining room creating¬† dishes that were seldom seen west of St. Louis.¬† It was his desire to focus on the food that caused him to bring in a partner, John Comfort, to oversee Hotel¬† and bar operations.
Angelo’s Hotel, Bar and Restaurant were so successful that he purchased what had been a dormitory for Mutsun Indian women, across the square from the Hotel.¬† He tore the building down, and using the best of the adobe bricks that demolition left, built Zanetta House, the largest home in town.
In 1874, John Comfort opened the stables that sit across the square from the Hotel to accommodate the very active stage coach trade.¬† It is ironic that transportation was so important to the growth of San Juan Bautista;¬† it was also important to its demise.¬† Col W. W. Hollister, a very powerful man who drove sheep from his home in Ohio to the 37,000 San Juso Ranch, prevailed on the Southern Pacific Railroad to route through his ranch rather than through the logical choice of San Juan Bautista.¬†¬†With the coming of the railroad, the stage coach traffic declined . . . and so did the town.¬† Many of the businesses uprooted and moved to the new town of Hollister and by the late 18th Century, many of the structures in San Juan Bautista were abandoned.
I am intrigued with the story of Angelo Zanetta.¬† First, he emigrated to America from Italy.¬† Lots of people did that, but most didn’t.¬† The ones who did were driven by an adventurous spirit and the desire to make something from nothing.¬†¬† He established himself in the civilized environment of New Orleans, then left that to do it all again, coming to California in search of more opportunity and adventure.¬† Opening the Bar seems so obvious today.¬† It’s the old west, you have thousands of people passing though town; a saloon seems to be an obvious addition.¬† But I bet it looked risky at the time.¬† It had to.¬† Otherwise someone else would have beaten Angelo to the punch.¬† And, successful as it was, the bar was not enough.¬† Zanetta needed to grow into something bigger:¬† a Hotel.
When we think of the American capitalist spirit, we usually thing of the big industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries:¬† people like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.¬† I think Angelo Zanetta, virtually unknown by comparison, ¬†is as good a symbol, if not better.¬† Over and over he took what he had — which at times was just himself — and made something bigger out of it.¬† He is an American hero for me.
This remarkable photo is of the bar on its last day of operation before the State took over the building as an historical site (1933).¬† I found it o Flickr.¬† It had been scanned from the Ottoboni family collection. The man on the right is identified as C.C. Zanetta, perhaps a grandson of Angelo?
*Interesting: the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed that the property ownership rights of Mexicans living in the ceded territories would be respected, which they sometimes weren’t.¬† It also guaranteed that the Spanish language and culture would be accepted alongside English and the American culture.¬† California was supposed to be a bi-lingual state!¬† The treaty originally stated that Mexicans remaining in the territory would automatically become American citizens after one year.¬† That language was changed to citizenship being granted when the Congress determined the time was right . . . whatever that means.