The Wild, Crazy, Adventurous Life of Jonas Winchester (Part 1)

Jonas Winchester was one of a kind . . . .

The year was 1871. Hope was in the air, in the tiny mining town of Monitor, California. “General” Jonas Winchester and his wife had recently arrived from back East. And word was that the Globe Gold & Silver Mine was finally going to be pushed in earnest.

The title of “General” appears to have been self-applied. Jonas had no military experience (at least none that we’ve been able to find). In addition to that confident title he also adopted an equally confident motto: “Push things.” And promote he did! Advertising flyers screamed about the Globe Mine’s prospects — its ores, they said, were “believed to be incalculable in quantity.” And best of all, they could supposedly be worked cheaply. Winchester assured investors he had “invested all his own fortune in the business,” and intended “to reside permanently at Monitor.”

But despite such bravado, things actually weren’t going terribly well for the Globe. It did have a mill, but the ore was yielding just $10 a ton. Its workmen being unpaid, both mill and mine were soon shut down. In April, 1871, Winchester candidly acknowledged to a fellow miner that there had been “too much coyoteing” going on. A family feud may have been part of the problem; Winchester  complained bitterly about the “treachery” of a brother. The Globe’s mill had also barely escaped a devastating fire, he said, and there was a “need for re-organization of its finances.” Prospects were looking gloomy indeed.

A little glorifying never hurts a mine’s image. Here, an ornamented cement front adorns the tunnel opening of the Globe. That’s Winchester himself in the white coat, posing atop the steps.

By July, however, the mood had switched from gloomy to gleeful. A rich copper vein had just been struck in the Globe, and there was “every indication of a mammoth copper ledge” just ahead. Early assays produced up to $75 in copper and $20 in silver, and ore as rich as 36% copper was said to have been found in the deeper levels. That summer, Winchester also had one more cause for celebration: his third wife, Laura, presented him with a son on August 10, 1871, born there in Monitor.

Continuing the work on the mine, of course, required a continued influx of capital. Winchester put his best literary skills to work in an 1872 prospectus, teasing investors with fabulous statistics. Capitalization of the company was now a rich $650,000. Progress thus far included a 5.5  x 6.5-foot double-tracked tunnel, “nearly” 1,500 feet long (a shameless exaggeration, as later facts showed). Rail had been extended conveniently from the mine to an adjacent 45’ x 60’ mill, which was almost ready to work the ore. “When finished,” the mill should be able to crush 40 tons of ore a day. A 30-horsepower engine and boiler had already been purchased, and 500 cords of wood were on hand. Hoisting works had been erected, and the company’s claims crossed “some half dozen or more veins.” The promised return to those willing to invest? “25% per annum in gold.” How could you go wrong?!

By fall, the Globe again found itself unable to pay its bills. But Winchester’s glowing advertising evidently did the trick. Frank Winchester (a son by Jonas’s first marriage) arrived in Monitor in October with enough cash in hand to pay off the debts of the Globe. And, as an added sign of confidence, Frank signed a contract to extend the tunnel another 100 feet. Frank quickly departed for the East again, but his father, “General” Winchester, remained behind at Monitor as mine superintendent.

Winchester may have been a terrific mine promoter, but he’d apparently had little experience running a silver mine before. What he lacked in practical know-how, however, he made up for with sheer bravado. And on top of his naturally boisterous personality, Winchester was a firm believer in Spiritualism. He firmly believed that he had been personally chosen by the “Ancients” to run the Globe, and that the spirits would guide him to make the mine a success.

1867 advertisement for a “world-renowned Astrologer and Somnambulistic Clairvoyant” named Madame Remington.

Spiritualism was a quasi-religious movement that depended on mediums to communicate messages from the spirit world to convey wisdom to the living. Seances and “table-rapping” sessions were in great vogue in the 1860s and ’70s. Even newspapers in such remote outposts as Silver Mountain and Monitor carried advertisements like those of “Madame Remington” and “Madame E.F. Thornton,” promising to send readers a picture of the “very features of the person you are to marry” — for a mere 50 cents, remitted to the medium by mail.

Winchester, a firm believer in Spiritualism, was convinced that a band of “Ancients” could speak to him through mediums. The leader of this spiritual band was supposedly an Atlantean named Yermah, while Yermah’s wife was the towering six-foot “Queen” Azelia. Winchester went so far as to name his newborn son Yermah, and a subsequent daughter, born in September, 1873, after the spirit Queen.

Jonas Winchester and his wife Laura on the front porch of their home in Monitor, about 1871. Laura is probably holding son Yermah, named after the “Chief” of the spirit band.

Winchester wasn’t alone as a devotee of Spiritualism in early Monitor. Fellow resident O.F. Thornton (no relation to the clairvoyant) corresponded regularly with both psychics and fellow Spiritualists, including one William H. Sterling. “The Spirit World is on our side, and they will take care to bring us success at the right time,” Sterling assured Thornton in one letter in September 1871. Meanwhile, Spiritualism may also have had a practical application. Sterling confided to Thornton that he was using “Spiritual topics” to persuade an investor to sink money into Thornton’s Good Hope mine.

The opportunity for profit from this connection with the “Ancients” was not lost on Winchester, either. In early 1871, he reached out to acquire rights to a set of “spirit pictures” drawn by a pair of San Francisco mediums while in a trance. There was profit potential in selling the images, he was convinced.

Despite the helpful advice of the “Ancients,” Winchester’s stewardship of the Globe was roundly criticized. One aggrieved investor concluded that Winchester’s “reckless and incompetent manner of doing business would prevent forever any success, no matter how rich or extensive the mine should prove.” Winchester was simply a “reckless spendthrift,” he added, notwithstanding supposed selection “by the Ancients as the only man in the world” for the job.

The main street of Monitor, about 1871. This is one of the photos Winchester had made to promote his mining endeavors.

Winchester did manage to push the Globe’s tunnel some 1,000 feet into the mountain, with several side-drifts. A steam furnace and boiler were installed in a separate building at the mouth of the tunnel, and the steam conducted in insulated pipes to an engine and pump located in an underground chamber. Marketing genius that he was, Winchester also had a series of beautifully-detailed photographs taken of the mine and surrounding settlement to help induce investors to continue to float the operation.

Despite the massive work done on the mine, the Globe’s stout 4” Cornish pump eventually proved unable to keep up with water flowing in. The boiler’s steam capacity also proved insufficient to work the pump and the hoist. By the end of 1873, work at the Globe was abandoned. As one mining report concluded, the mine’s sad history had been one of “difficulties, delays, expenses, and disappointments.”

Winchester and his family finally shook the dust of Monitor from their feet in November, 1873, and moved west to San Francisco. He brought along his “well-magnetized desk” to their new abode (perhaps magnetism helped the spirits to focus). Soon he was hawking those “spirit pictures” he’d acquired in a new “Spirit Art Gallery.” Winchester managed to bring in about $6 a day from his gallery, at least for a time — enough to cover costs, though not enough to afford him a salary. Ever upbeat, he claimed to a friend he was simply happy to “re-enter upon civilized life.”

Yermah, “Chief of the Atlantians,” was supposedly the head of the Spirit Band. This is an example of the pencil-drawn “spirit paintings” reproduced in Winchester’s gallery.

Winchester’s  Spirit Gallery featured reproductions of pencil portraits of 28 of the “prehistoric and ancient spirits.” These included “Yermah” and other natives of Atlantis from 16,000 years ago, plus the “progenitors of the Mississippi mound builders, and the architects of the lost cities of Central America. In case you’d never heard of  Atlaneans, there was also Confucius, Gautama, Jesus, and Mother Mary. Included in the mix was a “Hindoo Necromancer and Alchemist” from 8,000 years ago who, by the way, had discovered the Elixer of Life. Not to be overlooked: a Magician priest from Ancient Ninevah, and another learned Egyptian from the time of Moses. Visitors to the Spirit Gallery could acquire a photographic reproduction of these sketches: just 50 cents for a card-size picture or $1 for a larger cabinet card. Such a deal.

A solicitation for subscribers penned by Winchester in 1874 promised that the “locked-up knowledge of prehistoric ages” would soon be opened, thanks to the “lost arts and occult powers” of the ancients communicated through “highly-developed” mediums. “Let a cordial welcome be given to these ancient spirits,” he wrote, who come “offering the priceless boon of knowledge.” The spirits were prepared to share “an outpouring of ancient lore which will bless mortals and point the way to an era of brotherhood which shall no longer be a dream of Utopia but a living reality.”

“Priceless” that ancient wisdom may have been. But the spirit pictures proved a commercial dud. In May, 1874, the local press in Monitor noted Winchester’s current “financial impecuniosity, resulting from his late adventure in the ‘spirit picture’ business.”

1875 advertisement for Winchester’s patent medicine.

Perhaps aware of the benefit of diversifying, Winchester had his finger in more than one entrepreneurial pie about this time. In addition to the spirit picture business, he also was engaged in selling a patent medicine, under the catchy title of Winchester’s HypophosphiteHis own signature was prominently featured on the label.

Winchester’s patent medicine was hardly a novel idea, but it made use of all the recognized ingredients for snake-oil-style success. As one tongue-in-cheek article advised readers in 1872, the “Recipe for Getting Rich” from a patent medicine was:

Get any simple stimulating compound or tonic, or take cheap whiskey and color it, adding any cheap stuff to give it a medicinal taste. Adopt any name you choose, the more nonsensical or mysterious the better. Get up fanciful bottles or boxes or labels. Look out that the package, contents included, don’t cost over 5 to 8 cents. Invent 50 to 100 or 1,000 wonderful cures wrought by your medicine, giving names in full, with residences, date etc., but be careful not to blunder into giving any real name of any person living in the same place. If you connect with your medicine a touching story about some old mythical person, or Indian, or South American, all the better.
This magazine advertisement ran the same month as Winchester’s death: February, 1887.

Eventually, Jonas Winchester took up “fruit-growing” near Columbia, California. And on February 3, 1887, the wild and crazy life of Jonas Winchester finally came to an end. He was 76 years old. His obituary described him — accurately — as energetic, warm-hearted, and a man of high intelligence. He was laid to rest in the Odd Fellows graveyard at Columbia, Tuolumne County, California.

As for Winchester’s family, his obituary reported that in keeping with Winchester’s own Spiritualist views, the family “rejoice in the assurance that the dear patriarch still watches over the loved of home, and will see that no evil attends their footsteps.”

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So, just how did Jonas Winchester manage to get to Monitor in the first place? Ah, that’s a wild and crazy story in itself! Tune in next time for the rest of Jonas Winchester’s amazing story!

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Copyright K. Dustman 2019

Stalking Perry Mason: Following the Footsteps of Erle Stanley Gardner in Ventura

What’s not to like about a lawyer who got kicked out of law school?! His best-selling Perry Mason novels aside, Erle Stanley Gardner would still be legendary for that un-lawyerly feat!

Erle Stanley Gardner with his signature pipe.

Born in 1889 in Malden, Massachusetts, Erle Stanley Gardner managed to stay enrolled at Valparaiso University’s law school for only a few short months. Legend has it that Gardner was sent packing after organizing an underground boxing match in which he himself became a pugilist. It probably didn’t help that Gardner also claimed to have slugged a professor.

Never mind his lack of a formal law degree. Gardner managed to get himself admitted to the California Bar by passing the test in 1911 at age 21. He’d spent three years working as a typist at a law firm in Oxnard, so perhaps that experience gave him sufficient insight into the mysteries of the profession.

The following year (1912), Gardner eloped with one of the secretaries at the firm, Natalie Talbert. A hasty wedding it may have been, but the marriage lasted — officially, at least — until Natalie’s death some 57 years later.

The former Ventura County Courthouse where Gardner practiced – now Ventura City Hall.

Gardner had his own law practice in Merced for a short time. Then in 1915 he was invited to join the trial law firm of Frank Orr in Ventura. He abandoned law briefly in 1917, working instead as a salesman. But by 1921 he was back doing trial work for the Ventura firm. He seemed to most love representing legal underdogs: “I have clients of all classes except the upper and middle classes,” he once wrote his father.

Meanwhile, Gardner was trying his hand at writing pulp fiction on the side. His typewriter clacked late into the night in the study over his garage. But would-be writers can identify with Gardner’s early tribulations. His initial efforts produced only a growing pile of rejection slips. Finally, in 1921, Gardner’s first short story appeared in print. Some claim it was “The Shrieking Skeleton.” Others say it was the equally-alliterative “Nellie’s Naughty Nightie,” a bit of pulp fiction that generated all of $15 bucks. (Gardner’s mother reportedly refused to read it.) But Gardner had found his true calling. Over the next decade, he would crank out an astonishing 600 short stories and novelettes in his spare time.

The Ventura Pier today.

A daughter was born in 1923. Gardner would soon happily begin teaching her to fish off the nearby Ventura Pier.

Things were apparently going well in his professional life, too. In 1926, Gardner’s law firm moved into offices in a newly-completed bank building at the corner of California and Main. Although Main Street itself was still unpaved, the building boasted the finest accoutrements, from sparkling chandeliers to the city’s very first elevator.

Gardner’s office was in this building at 21 California St., Ventura

The four-story office building was conveniently situated in the heart of downtown, with the Ventura Courthouse just a short walk up the hill. Gardner was able to enjoy some of the finer things that Ventura had to offer, including steak dinners at his favorite Pierpont Inn.

As Gardner’s publishing credits began to grow, his agent encouraged him to try his hand at book-length works. And there in his third-floor law office in 1932, Gardner would crank out the opening pages of what would become his first Perry Mason novel. Some say it took him a mere three days to finish his first draft.

Front door of Gardner’s office building.

The book, “The Case of the Velvet Claw,” debuted in 1933 and became an immediate success. Soon, Gardner was spending just two days a week as a lawyer. The rest of his time was devoted to writing. Before long, Gardner gave up law entirely and devoted himself to writing full-time.

Although he pounded out stories at first as a two-fingered typist, Gardner quickly figured out that he could produce far more by dictating. A chance encounter with Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn (where she worked as a hostess) led Gardner to offer Agnes a job as his secretary. The dictation system worked so well that he soon hired her two sisters as secretaries, too.

Gardner met his secretary, long-time companion and eventual wife Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn.

Some sources say Gardner set himself a goal of 4,000 words a night; others say his target was 10,000 words every three days. He regularly churned out some 100,000 words a month. That meant he could produce between three and six books a year — a track record that would make him any writer’s idol!

Gardner and first wife Natalie acquired a newly-built home on Foster Avenue about 1936. But Gardner himself didn’t live there long. Although they never formally divorced, the couple lived separately beginning about 1935. In 1937 Gardner purchased “Rancho del Paisano” in Temecula. It would be his home for the rest of his life.

Natalie passed away in 1968. A few months later, Gardner married his long-time secretary and companion, Agnes.  He was 79 years old. Gardner lived just two another years, passing away of cancer at his home in Temecula in 1970.

All-told, Gardner authored nearly 100 detective and mystery novels, more than 80 of them featuring the quintessential sleuth, Perry Mason. His books have been translated into 71 languages, making him the most-translated American author. Despite this incredible record, Gardner claimed “no natural aptitude” as a writer. He was simply a “good plotter,” he once said — and oh yes, “one hell of a good salesman.” His goal was to offer his readers “sheer fun.” And readers loved it.

The historic plaque on Gardner’s former office building at 21 California St., Ventura.

Today, modern-day Perry Mason fans can still follow in Erle Stanley Gardner’s footsteps on a visit to Ventura. A bronze plaque flags the downtown building on California Street where Gardner had his third-floor law office — and drafted his first Perry Mason tale. The Courthouse just up the hill (now Ventura’s City Hall) is where Gardner, as a real-life lawyer, once argued tenaciously on behalf of his clients. The Ventura pier where Gardner taught his daughter to fish has since been rebuilt, but still juts out proudly into the Pacific. The Pierpont Inn, where Gardner tucked into delicious steak dinners and where he met Agnes Jean Bethell, remains an iconic Ventura attraction.

The former Gardner home at 4240 Foster Ave, Ventura, listed by eXp Realty.

And you’re really eager to follow in Gardner’s footsteps, you can even purchase Gardner’s former home at 2420 Foster Avenue. It’s two stories, 2,770 square feet, with a killer view overlooking town. And it’s on sale right now for just $1.79 million.

 

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Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

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For further reading about Erle Stanley Gardner:

IMDb biography of Gardner

Kingston Pierce blog

“Thrilling Detective” blog 

L.A. Times story by Jane Hulse (1/11/1996) 

L.A. Times story by Gary Gorman (9/23/1990) 

Wikitree

Wikipedia

And the eXp Realty listing for 2420 Foster Ave

There’s More to the Lillian Virgin Finnegan Story!

Sure, you’ve probably heard of Lillian Virgin Finnegan — one of the founders of the famous Genoa Candy Dance! But here are a few things you probably haven’t heard about this hometown Genoa gal.

Lillian was born in Genoa on October 6, 1878, to parents Daniel W. Virgin and the former Mary Raycraft. Older brother William had arrived in 1871, and sister Ellen in 1873. So when Lillian put in an appearance five years later, she was the “baby” of the Virgin family.

Wedding photo of Judge Virgin and his wife, Mary. (Picture of the original framed photo, at Mormon Station State Park.)

Lillian’s father was known to just about everyone as “Judge” Virgin. But here’s a tidbit of history I didn’t know: the good Judge wasn’t actually a judge for most of his long legal career! Sure, he served as the first elected judge in Douglas County, from 1865-66. But the vast majority of his career was actually spent as District Attorney. Virgin served in that capacity in Nevada’s Territorial days (from June 2, 1863 until Statehood arrived in 1864); and went on to serve an amazing eleven non-continuous two-year terms as D.A. beginning in 1874 and ending in 1910. (And by the way, Judge Virgin was no quitter; he actually sought re-election to the post of D.A. four more times after 1910, losing each time to F.E. Brockliss.)

As an attorney, Virgin had a hand in some of the most prominent legal battles of his day. Remember the famous 1870s water-rights case in which Henry Van Sickle sued J.W. Haines over the water rights to Daggett Creek? Representing Haines in that epic battle was none other than Daniel Virgin, whose vigorous defense propelled Haines to victory in 1872 before the Nevada Supreme Court, based on the doctrine of riparian rights. (It would be a short-lived precedent, however, quickly reversed in favor of the “doctrine of prior appropriation.”)

Advertisement for Virgin’s law practice in Carson Valley News, May 15, 1875.

Lillian grew up in Genoa’s Pink House, purchased by her father from merchant J.R. Johnson in April, 1884, when Lillian was about five years old. Johnson himself hadn’t built the Pink House (at least most of it); the central two-story portion is thought to have been built back in 1855 by Martin Gaige for John Reese, near Reese’s grist mill on Mill Street. (Judge Hyde himself is said to have met assembled Genoans in this same house when he arrived to organize the first local government!)

In 1870, Johnson purchased the former Reese house and had it moved to its current location on Genoa Lane. And Johnson, it’s said, was also the one who first had the house adorned with its signature “pink” paint. And finally, in 1884, Judge Virgin bought the Pink House from Johnson.

Judge Virgin’s purchase of the Pink House was noted in the paper in 1884. (Genoa Weekly Courier, April 4, 1884).
The Pink House, purchased by the Virgins in 1884. (Dustman photo).

Prior to acquiring the Pink House, Judge Virgin and his family had been living in a sturdy brick house on Main Street that Virgin had owned since March, 1869 (the very same brick house, by the way, that had formerly been owned by the ultra-unlucky Lucky Bill Thorington). We don’t know exactly why the Virgins decided to move in 1884. But we can hazard a good guess! One gigantic hint: the Avalanche in the winter of 1882 had swept away two houses located just above the Virgins’ brick home, depositing a pile of rubble and debris in their back yard. That likely unnerved Mary Virgin just a tad, and might have helped prompt the family’s search for new quarters.

According to local legend, Lillian and her aunt, Jane Raycraft Campbell, were the original brain-storming pair who came up with the concept for the fundraising Candy Dance in 1919. But it turns out the truth may be a bit more nuanced.

Some say Genoa already enjoyed a traditional fall Harvest Dance every year — locally known as a “Thrashers Ball.” At least one local claimed the initial idea for a fundraising dance was the brainchild of the “Hot Stove League,” a group of local men who passed the time at the General Store. Still others say that Lillian herself had the idea, inspired by a dance she attended on a cruise ship, where silver trays of candy were passed around among the dancers.

However the idea for the dance originated, locally-made candy was indeed a treat at Lillian and Jane’s initial fundraising dance in 1919 — though it was not the advertised focus of the event. But after Lillian and Jane began treating guests to tasty treats crafted by the local ladies of the town, it didn’t take long for the name “Candy Dance” to emerge. Genoa historian Billie Rightmire believes the name was officially bestowed sometime about 1923.

Nobody ever talks much about Lillian’s husband, Louis Serratt Finnegan. They were married in 1907, when Lillian was 28 years old and Louis Finnegan a good twenty years older. Finnegan is sometimes described as a wealthy miner from Goldfield and Tonopah. But as his obituary put it, he actually “made and lost several fortunes” over his lifetime. Louis and his bride settled down in Genoa for a few years, then made their home in Southern Nevada for a few years more, before eventually returning home to Lillian’s beloved Genoa. In later life Louis gravitated to Texas, where he was said to be “engaged in the contracting business” as a mining middleman.

Lillian’s mother, Mary Virgin, passed away in 1918. Judge Virgin was getting on in years, and Lillian returned to live at the Pink House to care for him. Then in 1926, Lillian’s husband Louis died suddenly in Texas. Her father, Judge Virgin, passed away two years later, in 1928, at the age of 93. Lillian herself lived another decade. Too ill to attend one last Candy Dance in 1937, she passed away in February, 1938 at just 59 years of age. Lillian, her parents, and her husband all are buried in the Virgin family plot at the Genoa Cemetery.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of that first special Candy Dance in 1919. And oh, Lillian would have loved the Centennial attention for the event she helped to start so many years ago! 

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DON’T MISS THIS FUN NEW BOOK!
     Genoa Historian Billie Rightmire has just written “Genoa Candy Dance: The First 100 Years (1919-2019).” You can find the book at Candy Dance this year (Sept 28 and 29, 2019), or look for the book at local merchants in Genoa!

Cafe Zack: A Foodie Find & A Hero’s Tale

It was the last day of our Ventura vacation when we wandered into Cafe Zack for lunch. You won’t find it jostling its culinary competition among the bright lights of downtown. Instead, Zack’s welcomes guests more quietly from a charming bungalow closer to midtown. A fairy-tale garden cascades beside the front steps, a tiny hint of the magic that awaited us inside.

Someone has a great eye for colors, shapes, and textures in this cascading planter — a warm welcome to Cafe Zack’s.

We’d settled in at a table by the window and were checking out the menu when our energetic host appeared. “Welcome to Cafe Zack,” he beamed. “I’m Hector Gomez, the owner. Try the passion fruit iced tea. It’s very good.” It was like a thousand-volt jolt of lightning had just entered the room.

Hector is clearly passionate about his restaurant. And he’s equally passionate about pleasing guests. Looking for something vegan? He’ll pop in the back and chat with the chef, just for you. Trying to avoid gluten? No worries; they’ll happily make your dish gluten-free.

It didn’t take us long to realize that both Hector and his cafe were totally extraordinary. The food, for one thing, was amazing. The bread was fresh; the passion fruit tea as refreshing as promised.

Refreshing passion fruit tea was a great pairing with delicate tomato soup. And oh, that fresh basil!

The tomato soup when it arrived (laden with glorious chunks of bread) was delicately-seasoned and sprinkled with fresh licorice-basil ribbons on top. Our tostada salad came piled high with grilled fresh vegetables and rested on a baked (not deep-fried, thank you) whole wheat tortilla. Yumm.

Grilled vegetable salad.

But the real treat was getting to meet Hector. When he told us he was approaching his 19th anniversary as owner of Cafe Zack, we asked where he’d come from and how he’d happened to buy this special place. So he pulled up a chair and told us.

Turns out his story is worthy of a Horatio Alger novel — a real-life fairy tale come true. The saga (and it is a saga) of how Hector became the Cafe Zack’s proud owner is a testament to both his willingness to leap and never giving up. We asked if anyone had ever written a story about him. Hector just shook his head slightly at the odd question, as if what he’s done is nothing special.

No, it’s definitely special. It’s hero’s journey worth celebrating, an ode to hard work, a message of inspiration. We’re tickled to be able to pass the wonderful story of Hector and Cafe Zack along to you.

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Hector’s arrival in the world was a tad, well, inconvenient. He was born in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to a mother who wasn’t married and an airline-executive father who was — to someone else.

When he was eleven months old, Hector’s mother went off to seek work in the States, leaving him in the arms of his grandmother. “I first met my mom ten years later, when I was eleven,” he says with a shrug. There’s no trace of animosity as he describes his parents. “They had their own lives.”

Grandmother Elia was good to him. But counting Hector, her household numbered eleven people, spanning four generations, all in one tiny house. And out of those eleven, Elia was the only breadwinner. She worked as a maid for a local family in a private residence.

By the age of 8 or 9, Hector began walking a mile after school every day to the home where Elia worked, to help his grandmother. “I would sweep floors, I learned to clean pools,” he says with a shrug. And when her usual workday was over, Elia sometimes would walk the neighborhood, knocking on doors to ask if there were clothes she could wash or iron to bring in extra money. Hector would help his grandmother carry two big metal wash buckets loaded with laundry down to the river, a mile and a half from their home. Elia would beat the clothes on rocks there to scrub them clean.

One day when he was 12, Hector announced he was going to find a job. “I want to help you,” he told his grandmother firmly. He requested permission to serve as a greeter at a local restaurant, opening taxi doors for arriving guests and offering a hand to help ladies out of the cab. “I made that my little business,” Hector smiles. “I wasn’t on the restaurant’s payroll, but sometimes guests would tip me.” A few months later, he moved up to a job as a dishwasher. He was 13 years old.

At 14, Hector begged a manager at another local hotel for a job as a busboy. The man quibbled about his age and tried twice to turn him away. “Don’t pay me,” Hector pleaded. “I just want to learn.” The man relented, and Hector spent the next year and a half as an unpaid “busboy for the busboys,” pulling silverware and cleaning ash trays. “I worked hard. Really hard,” he says. “And I did it for no pay.” There’s a far-away look in his eye, as if he’s remembering. “Sometimes I made a little in tips from the busboys. But there were also days when there were no tips at all. I’d come home cussing.”

Those were the nights his grandmother would console him. “Just remember, mijo, you are there to learn,” she told him. “Someday it will pay off. One day you’ll have your own restaurant.”

Hector finally got a real job as a busboy when he was 16. He looked up to some of the waiters at the restaurant (“my favorites”), who “dressed so beautifully and smelled so nice.” Some waiters spent half of every year working in the States, returning to Mexico to spend the other half working at the resort. Hector yearned to follow their example. He made up his mind he was going to go to the Bay area to find work when he turned 18. He spoke no English.

The following year, fortified with $100 and a backpack, Hector flew to Tijuana and eventually found his way to a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco. But once the bus reached Ventura, Hector saw the beautiful ocean passing by on his left. “I wanted to check it out!” he says. He got off the bus and walked down Thompson Boulevard — his steps taking him past the restaurant he would someday own. It was like Fate was calling him.

Those first two nights in Ventura Hector slept in empty cardboard box near the railroad tracks. Then Fate stepped in one more time. Buying lunch the next day at a burrito stand, Hector met a man named Frederico who hailed from his home state of Jalisco. That chance meeting would shape his life.

Frederico offered to let Hector to stay at his home. “There were 29 guys there already in a four-room house; with me, it would be 30,” Hector says. But it was better than a cardboard box. Frederico’s friends at the house shared a rumor that the Elephant Bar might need a busboy. Hector applied for the job and, as he puts it, “the rest is history!” But a single job didn’t bring in enough, so Hector soon picked up a second job as well. He did room service, worked as a busboy, learned to cook, and eventually became a server for various local restaurants.

Meanwhile, his roommate Frederico had a job as a cook at the restaurant Hector had walked past on his first day in town — yes, the very same one that’s now known today as Zack’s. Hector stopped by one day to say hi, and the owners asked if he wanted to be a server. “I didn’t speak a lot of English at the time,” Hector grins. “They handed me a menu and a wine list, and that was it!” And oh yes, he kept his two other jobs, too.

Hector worked for the restaurant owners for seven years, eventually picking up both lunch and dinner shifts. That meant 14-hour days, but it also meant he was able to ditch his side jobs. In 1993 he met Frederico’s sister, Suzie, who’d arrived with her parents from Mexico. Eight months later they were married. Things were on the up-swing. The restaurant owners treated him like a son. Hector had even been talking with them about purchasing the restaurant someday.

Then in 1998, he returned from a short vacation to devastating news. The restaurant had lost its lease. Instead of offering the business to Hector without the security of a solid lease, the owner had decided to sell it instead — to the landlord’s niece.

It was a tough blow. Hector swallowed his disappointment and continued to work at the restaurant, for the new owner. It was a difficult transition, and despite her enthusiasm, the new owner struggled to make a go of it. “She was young and inexperienced,” Hector says kindly. “It wasn’t for her.” Eleven months later, on November 1, 2000, Hector was able to purchase the restaurant himself. Astonishingly, he’d saved enough over the years to pay for it in cash.

Cafe Zack’s the vibe is upscale with a foodie flair. Fresh flowers; linen tablecloths; and an imaginative menu.

“One of my best memories,” he tells us, “is when I called up my Grandma and told her I’m going to buy this place. I’ll never forget — we both cried on the phone together. She told me, ‘Remember when you used to bitch about working for no pay, and I told you that you would own your own business someday?’”

Today Hector is a U.S. citizen. He has three children, who’ll be 21, 17 and 13 this fall. He tells his oldest son to stay in school: “Life is not easy, mijo.” Grandmother Elia passed away nine years ago, but she was able to visit several times and see the restaurant. Hector has purchased a 4-plex, where his wife’s brothers and others in the extended family now live. Three family members help him in the restaurant. Still a workaholic, Hector describes the restaurant as “my life.” But he proudly adds that he never misses special occasions with his family.

Hector is a living example of the power of gratitude. “God gave me this –” he pauses to find just the right word — “this gift. I’ve always had lots of energy. I’ve been doing double shifts for the last 25 years. I’m just really thankful for all the people who helped me along the way.”

The irrepressible Hector Gomez, in one of his rare moments sitting still.

Between the great food and Hector’s outgoing personality, Cafe Zack has built a devoted following. Most of its customers are locals, a statistic Hector shares with pride. “Ninety percent of the people who come to the restaurant are repeat customers, not tourists,” he emphasizes. “We know them by name; they come to my home. They know my kids. We are like family.”

It’s easy to see why. As we leave, Hector offers us each a hug. It’s warm. It’s sincere. We may have walked into Zack’s Cafe as strangers. But we leave as friends.

Here’s Where To Find It Yourself:

Cafe Zack

1096 Thompson Blvd

Ventura CA 93001

(805) 643-9445

www.cafezack.com