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Life in the Past Lane

Mary Segarini
Robert Scheer

California Dreaming: Longtime Santa Cruz resident Mary Segarini walks through her garden. She has seen many changes here in her 91 years.

A stroll through time and the legendary gardens of Mary Segarini

By Mary Spicuzza

NOT MANY LOCALS CAN SAY they lived when taking a ride to the Boardwalk meant strapping a carriage onto the family's horse and trotting down Pacific Avenue. Fewer still celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary or take care of themselves into their 90s. Then again, Mary Segarini, a Santa Cruz native celebrating her 91st birthday this month, is quite an extraordinary woman.

Segarini's wisdom shines through her hazel eyes and sweet smile. With her small stature and curly white hair, she looks like anyone's fantasy grandmother. Mary would be the first to insist she's no one special, yet she could teach most of us a thing or two about Santa Cruz history.

This town may be known for its hippies, surfers and sun-loving tourists, but Surf City has a legacy that stretches back to long before the Summer of Love or Steamers Lane. Segarini has lived here through most of the century. She knew a Santa Cruz with several wharves and a fully functioning Henry Cowell Lime & Cement Company.

When Mary first married Peter Segarini and moved to Ocean Street Extension, it was known as Il Gardino Italiano, the Italian Gardens. "Eleven Italian families, including the Monte Verdis, Pedamontes and Ferraris, lived and farmed along this road," Segarini explains. "Cherry orchards spread across the land for acres. The grapes of the Christian Brothers Vineyard covered the hills above, all along Graham Hill Road." The vineyards provided both wine for Mass and a little pocket money for the good fathers.

Segarini was born Aug. 26, 1906, the year of the San Francisco earthquake. Her parents, Augustino Puccinelli and Ida Meschi Puccinelli, came from the small town of Aqui Laya in the province of Tuscany, a region of Italy known for its beauty and culinary tradition. They lived with their two daughters, Mary and Lena, in an old wooden house on Encinal Street. The house no longer exists but once stood near the Bocci's Cellar Italian restaurant just off River Street.

The Puccinellis were part of the large community of Italian immigrants who settled in Santa Cruz during the late 19th and early 20th century. Some, like the Stagnaro family, fished out of the harbor, some farmed, while others like Segarini's father worked for the numerous local tanneries and dairies. When Chron Tannery on River Street closed down, Augustino Puccinelli lost his job, and the family focused on operating its own small dairy.

At home her chores included "cleaning out the coal-oil kerosene lamps every day" and taking care of her mother's animals, which included a cow, a horse, a pig and over a dozen chickens.

As a child, Mary attended Holy Cross Elementary, run by the Sisters of Charity. "The nuns were so strict in those days," Segarini remembers. "But I do remember them sneaking brandy during Prohibition. Not to drink, of course. They made an alcohol-based medication to protect us from the Spanish Influenza."

Trees Company

IN HER 91ST YEAR, Mary Segarini is as spry as a middle-aged milkmaid. With a shrug of her shoulders and wave of her arms, she tells a visitor, "My head doesn't work. I have a horrible memory." In the wake of that complaint, she launches into a wild ride of tales ripe with local history and lore.

Segarini remembers when a trip to visit friends in Soquel was an all-day event, and Chinese families still inhabited the downtown strip of land along the San Lorenzo River. She worked at the old Mission Hardware and knew almost every family in town. "Even John Steinbeck passed by the shop in his travels. I recognized his face from pictures in the paper," Segarini explains.

Listening to her stories while strolling through her garden's beautiful trees, all heavy with plums, lemons, oranges and pears, past budding black mission fig and chestnut trees, one can catch fleeting glimpses of a Santa Cruz few today ever knew or can remember. "I've told Jeff Larkey, co-owner of Route One [which leases the land]," she explains, "that as long as I'm alive, this land must always remain orchards."

She met her husband, Pete Segarini, when he helped Mary and her father deliver milk from the Segarini dairy after an accident disabled the family automobile. "Ever since I first met Peter, I thought he was so good-looking," she says. Pete worked harvesting cherries in his family's orchard (Pete's parents became so attached to their farmhouse that when they moved to another plot on Ocean Street Extension, they pulled their beloved home along with them).

Pete and Mary Segarini were married in February 1924 at Holy Cross Church and set up a home of their own down the street from his family. Together she and Pete weathered the floods of 1955, which wiped away several acres of their cherry orchards. When the cherry trees died of oak root fungus in the '50s and '60s, the couple turned to harvesting persimmons and other fruit trees.

The couple lived together for more than 70 years until Pete passed away in 1995. With the help of neighbors and her two daughters, Evelyn and Ida, both of whom live in town, feisty Mary is doing quite well on her own. "I just buy my bananas ripe these days," she says.

Hoe in hand, Segarini still has a story for every tree in the orchard, and photographs of her roses taken by a neighbor have won awards and even inspired a faraway fan to write a poem about them titled "Mary's Garden."

Last year Mary's entire neighborhood threw her a 90th birthday bash, with a cake declaring her "The Queen of Ocean Street Extension."

Highway 1 farmer John Kenney simply explains, "Mary is a local treasure."

Neighbor June Smith agrees. "When I see Mary in her garden, it's like all is right in the world."

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From the Sept. 10-17, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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