Pioneer family’s Angels Camp adobe in urgent need of fix

By Francis P. Garland, Lode Bureau Chief
Stockton Record, December 28, 2004

ANGELS CAMP — A pair of huge wooden braces is in place to fortify a crumbling Gold rush-era landmark, but one of its biggest boosters says much more is needed to keep the place from collapsing completely.

Adrian Nestor, an Angels Camp resident who more or less has adopted the old Romaggi adobe house, is putting out an S.O.S. to help restore the huge, two-story structure.

Nestor spearheaded the formation of the Save the Romaggi Adobe Foundation to take on the restoration project, and the group so far raised $10,000. But that account is running close to empty since the bracing project was completed last month, and the foundation is seeking grants and donations.

“We need to get more money quickly,” he said. It’s not that Nestor or the foundation is greedy. It’s that the house is losing its battle with time and harsh weather. It is in danger of falling apart. The old adobe structure already has given way in spots, which is why the foundation put up the two large braces last month.

Nestor said an architect designed the bracing system, and a contractor and some volunteers built the structures. Two huge boulders — one 2 tons and the other 1 ton — were obtained from a nearby quarry to hold the front and rear braces in place.

“What we’ve done is to fortify the walls to get through the winter,” said Nestor, who offered a quick tour of the work during a downpour Monday afternoon. But Nestor said it would take $1 million to enable the foundation to rebuild the one-time house and business hub and to restore its surrounding grounds to their former glory.

“That’s a big nut to crack,” Nestor said. “But that’s what we want to do.”

The foundation’s goal is to create what it calls the Gold Country Family Museum, honoring the pioneer families who came to the area in search of mining riches. They eventually became merchants, farmers, attorneys and key cogs in the community.

Nestor already has tracked down 11 members of the Romaggi family and hopes to display pictures, clothing and other artifacts family members are willing to donate. Among the items Nestor has in mind is a $10 gold piece that James Romaggi, the family patriarch, brought with him to California. He traced the piece to a member of the Romaggi family living in Vallejo.

“Those are the things we want to show in the museum,” he said. “We’re not interested in seeing picks and shovels. You can see those in any museum in the area.”

According to Nestor’s research, James Romaggi came from Italy around 1850 and wound up in an enclave called Albany Flat, south of what is now Angels Camp. He parlayed $1,000 worth of placer gold he had mined into a stake in another mine. Romaggi earned $30,000 in five months.

A stonemason, Romaggi built his large, two-story home out of schist stone in 1852 in a design reminiscent of his old family home near Genoa, Italy.

In addition to providing a home for the Romaggi family, the structure served as a small store, a card room, a bar and a stagecoach stop. According to a Web site the foundation has launched at www.save-romaggi-adobe.com, the home was rented out in the 1920s but was vacant by the 1930s. Hobos burned the flooring for heat during the Depression. Ernest Wiltsee of San Francisco bought the home in 1940 with the idea of restoring it, but he died before that could happen, and the property wound up in the hands of six separate interests.

However, none of them actively kept the place up, and it deteriorated badly before the foundation could obtain ownership late last year. Nestor has spent more than a year working to have the place designated a national historic landmark and to obtain grant funds, both of which he’ll continue to pursue in 2005.

He also plans to keep speaking to groups about the project. “People are very receptive, and think it’s a great idea,” he said. “It’s just moving a lot slower than I thought. But I can’t give up hope. We have too much invested in this.”

Nestor said the foundation also plans to have a silent auction fund-raiser in the spring, with paintings and items, including a quilt that features the names of Mother Lode gold mines, up for grabs. “We’ll do anything we can do to try to raise money,” he said. “Until we get some kind of a grant, we’re stuck trying to raise our money locally.”

Bob Fienberg, an Angels Camp resident who recently joined the foundation’s board of directors with his wife, Anne Forrest, said it would take more than just a local effort to rebuild the Romaggi Adobe. “It has to be broader than that,” he said. “But an awful lot of people come up here from out of the area. And if they see the signage and read about what’s being done, I think the support can be expanded beyond the local area.”

Fienberg said he’s always been fascinated by Gold Rush history, and in part that’s why he and his wife moved to the foothills a couple of years ago. “The adobe is part of that whole scene,” he said of the Romaggi home. “It’s just a shame to see something like that disappear.”