Once upon a time there was a ranch outside Boonville where they raised special pigeons for their down, which was used to make the finest cloth. Tended by 75 mountain men who never left (and who doubtless only spoke Boontling), the flock was so enormous that it would obscure the sun for hours when the birds took flight. Really!
No, not really. It was a tall tale - a once-popular genre of newspaper stories sometimes called "quaints" that were intended to fool readers (and if possible, reporters and editors) as introduced in an earlier essay. Here, traveling salesman I. F. Ramacciotti pulls one over on The Denver Post, the hoax mirthfully reprinted by the Press Democrat.
(RIGHT: A pre-plucked pigeon. Photo courtesy Patty Hiller)
The PD's introduction suggested that "Rammi" was familiar to locals, although I suspect he was a seasonal visitor known mostly to the businessmen who idled in the downtown saloons. He had no direct ties to Santa Rosa, living most of his adult life in San Francisco; I can find only a single reference of him being in Sonoma County, and that appeared in an advertisement just a year before his death. When he died in 1911, neither paper mentioned his passing, so it's safe to assume he had no family or deep frendships here.
But the more I stirred around through his dust, the more he intrigued. He was such a fine example of a guy who struggled his hardest to make a go of it in the late 19th century West, yet never found traction. He couldn't leverage his good connections back East, and apparently couldn't (or wouldn't) tap relatives for a grubstake. In California he became a hustler who could obviously spin a swell yarn; he owned a business (briefly); he was also a deputy, and after that allegedly a crook. He was truly the spiritual ancestor of poor, damned, Willy Loman, the everyman supremely confident that fortune would fall into his lap if he only kept plugging away.
Italo Francis Ramacciotti was born in New York City in 1855, the third of five children to father Francis Ramacciotti, who found a way to make a better piano bass string. Such an invention might invite a good yawn today, but until the birth of the amplified loudspeaker in the 1920s, pianos were the primary source of musical entertainment. Papa Ramacciotti's company and a few others became so powerful that in 1913 there were Congressional investigations into piano string price fixing to see if their monopoly on the valuable commodity was a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. (Take a moment to cringe for having drifted from funny phony pigeon farms to the forlorn weeds of century-old House Ways and Means Committee hearings.)
Italo was settled in San Francisco by the time he was thirty with a wife and two young children. Voter records list him as a "manufacturer" in 1886, a clerk two years later, then an "agent" in 1889. The next year he was a deputy sheriff, assigned as bailiff for a Superior Court judge. Asked why the sheriff had replaced the existing bailiff, he was quoted in the SF Call as saying he believed Ramacciotti was a better man.
For the next twenty years his trail is cold, except for 1896, when he was arrested on three counts of forgery and one of obtaining goods under false pretenses. He was charged with passing forged checks made out to himself to two San Francisco grocers, and passing another fake check in Los Angeles. None of the amounts were over $25. According to the Call newspaper, Ramacciotti was "a small politician" and recently "a traveler for the well-known St. Lous brewers, Anheuser & Busch." One of the articles sneered, "Ramacciotti is well known in this City and has held various positions of trust, but on more than one occasion was found wanting." Was he behind bars at the turn of the century? Of all the millions of newspaper pages and old documents now available through the Internet, nothing can be (currently) found.
Except for this pigeon nonsense, we don't hear again of him until 1910, when opportunity's door appeared to open. Thanks to his father and elder brother who took over the string-winding biz, the family name was famous in the music world, and now I. F. Ramacciotti became president of the Manufacturers' Piano Company, San Francisco. Both the job title and company name were misleading, however.
The Manufacturers' Piano Company actually manufactured nothing - it was a nationwide retailer based in Chicago, and "president" I. F. Ramacciotti owned something like a franchise. They sold obscure brands of generally poor quality - yet the company prospered for about thirty years, thanks to a unique business model. Piano stores at the time were like awful car dealerships; no prices were marked, and unless you were foolish enough to pay the arbitrary price quoted by a salesman, you dickered over the cost. At a Manufacturers' store, however, there was a sticker price posted on every piano.
Ramacciotti's store seems to have had everything going for it, including a prestigious address on San Francisco's Sutter Street "piano row," but he couldn't make a go of it; the display room opened in February and was closed by July. The trade press then reported he was traveling East to "settle all existing obligations, for which ample funds will be provided." It sounds like it may have been an expensive trip - maybe ruinously so.
The last we hear about Italo is in Santa Rosa, appropriately enough. A couple of months after his store closed, he was in town to liquidate the stock of the Barrett & Decker music store at 250 B Street. The ad that appeared in the Republican paper called him a "factory representative."
I. F. Ramacciotti died on Nov. 9, 1911, his minimalist obituary published in the San Francisco papers by his Elks lodge. He was 58. He likely died a salesman still, even though success always eluded. Hopefully for him it was enough that there would always be something that he could find to sell, and a real corker of a story he could tell along the way.
HIS LATEST STORY IS A "CORKER"
Commercial Traveler Gives Interview to Reporter of the "Denver Post"--Santa Rosa Gets Mention
Here is "Rammi's" latest. "Rammi," as he is familiarly known to his friends in Santa Rosa, and in the commercial traveler's world on the Pacific Coast, is I. F. Ramacciotti, of San Francisco. His latest was told to a reporter of the Denver Post, while he was a visitor in the Colorado city recently. A copy of the Denver Post has been received at the Press Democrat office. He gave Santa Rosa and Mendocino County a "boost" in his interview, which is as follows:
"I. F. Ramacciotti of San Francisco, one of the principal owners of a unique industry, is at the Oxford. He has a pigeon farm of 10,000 acres situated on an almost impenetrable mountain top, not far from Boonville, Mendocino County, California. 30 miles from the Pacific coast. The company has 80,000 pigeons and the down is mixed with Australian wool and a cloth of the finest texture made. The wool is bought by the Oregon Wool Company, which pays $2.90 per pound for the down to the owners of the pigeon farm.
"The industry is the result of a secret discovered by George Maxwell, Santa Rosa, Cal. The feed given the pigeons makes the down valuable. There is a trick in the shearing of them that no one else in the world is said to know except the employees of this particular farm. Mr. Ramacciotti says it has cost a fortune to start the unique industry, but it is now on a paying basis.
"The farm had its inception from a flock of about 300 fancy imported pigeons brought to America from Australia by Mr. Maxwell. They cost about 60 cents each and the duty and other incidentals run the cost of each pigeon up to $1 before they were installed in California. The average loss in the number of pigeons about 3 per cent in shearing. In the past it has been the practice to kill the pigeons after they were sheared about three times and bury them instead of selling them for squabs, as they were too old.
"Each pigeon gives from 2 to 3 ounces of down at each shearing. They are breeding so rapidly that the owners cannot keep track of them. The pigeons are allowed to fly about the farm and never leave it. And most of them are in action the sun is obscured for hours.
"There are about 75 employees on the farm and many of them have never seen a railroad train. They were born in the mountains and are content to live their lives as caretakers of the big flock of pigeons. The farm is worth about $4 per acre. It was established five years and in that time only one man has visited it. He promised on honor not to reveal anything he saw. Two of the men with shotguns guard the place at all times of the day and night."
- Press Democrat, May 19, 1908