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The Underground World of Baldasare Forestiere

Some people called him "The Underground Man." Some people called him "The Human Mole."   Some people laughed at him and called him names and said he was crazy.   His parents in Sicily thought all of America was laughing at him.   One woman refused to marry him unless he built her a house above ground.   He never got married.  

His name was Baldasare Forestiere and he came to this country in 1902.   He was 21 years old, the son of a wealthy Sicilian fruit grower, a man seeking his own fortune and personal independence in a new land.   Little did he know that literally it would be "in" the land.

He didn't speak a word of English and the only work he could get was digging the New York subway system.   That was the beginning of his underground life:   It didn't take him long to realize all the money he made went for food and rent and the only land he dug belonged to the city of New York.

He wanted his own land.   He wanted vineyards and orchards.   He wanted to plant his own roots,   in 1904 Baldasare Forestiere moved to Fresno, where he bought 700 acres of land — only to discover that beneath the surface was a layer of hardpan, the third hardest natural rock in the earth.    He cursed his luck almost as violently as he cursed the hot California climate he wasn't used to.

Then he got an idea:   Why not live in this hard ground?   It wouldn't support fruit, but maybe it would support him — protect him from the harsh California sun.

So he started digging.   Forty years later he was still digging.

When he died of pneumonia in 1946, he had completed more than 90 underground rooms, passages and courts covering seven acres of land. He dug a chapel, an 800-foot automobile tunnel and a huge, 5,000-square-foot room — all underground.

"All that I have done is for nothing, for it required very little money, perhaps $300," he told a reporter for the Fresno Bee in 1924.   At first he supported himself by working for other farmers. But in time he had his own fertile land and other people working for him, so he could spend most of his time digging.

And dig he did.   He dug most rooms 10 feet underground, each with an open hole to the surface for light and water, and each with a fruit tree in a planter immediately below.   He had one level 23 feet below and another few rooms 35 feet below the surface.

His main tools were hand tools:   A pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow.   A horse and small scraper were used to move large rocks.   Sometimes he would allow his brother Giuseppe to help with the cement work, but as soon as Giuseppe left he would completely redo his brother's work.
 
"I have been doing this for fun," Baldasare once told a reporter.   "Money?   What do I want with money?   If I had a million dollars I couldn't spend it.   Neither couid you.   Nobody could.   I am broke but the cavern and all the work it represents are worth more than a million dollars to me."
 
Today it's called the "Forestiere Underground Gardens," located just seven miles north of downtown Fresno, two blocks east of Freeway 99 on West Shaw Avenue.

At first all you see are a bunch of "bushes" growing out of the dirt.   Look closer, however, and you'll notice these "bushes" are actually the tops of trees growing from deep underground.   There's one citrus tree 22 feet below the surface — just one tree growing seven different fruits:   Navel oranges, Valencia oranges, cedrons, tangerines, sweet lemons, sour lemons and grapefruit.

There are also pomegranate trees and pear trees and persimmon trees and almond trees and palm date trees and mulberry trees and strawberry trees.   Yes — Baldasare Forestiere grew strawberries on trees!

There are red grapes and green grapes and rosemary and myrtle, all growing underground, all growing toward the skylights that Forestiere planned, shaped, controlled, designed to give incredible life to his underground world.
 
There are fireplaces and benches and shelves etched out of the stone walls.   There are arches and tunnels and grottos and patios and gardens everywhere. There's a pond where Forestiere used to store fresh fish-he caught in the San Joaquin River until he was ready to eat them.

There's another pond — a glass-bottom pond 15 feet below ground where he used to keep exotic fish. And 10 feet below that is another area where he could sit and look up at the fish and the skylight above them.

There's a well for water and "sump pits" to drain the winter rains and an underground bathtub with a hose leading to a metal tank above ground where the sun would heat his bathwater.   And there's one huge room, 35 by 100 feet, which Forestiere dreamed of turning into an underground restaurant, but he died before it was completed.

"There's a whole lifetime down here," said Rosario ("Rick") Forestiere, now 48, who used to play hide-and-seek in "Uncle Baldie's-' caverns.   "There's one hell of a lifetime down here." 

Rosario remembers his uncle well.   He remembers how Uncle Baldie would bless and kiss each plant he put into the soil — each branch he grafted onto his citrus trees,  He remembers his uncle making his own wine and calling it "Sangre di Christo" — "the blood of Christ."   He remembers Baldasare in front of his old radio listening to Lowell Thomas. Or sitting in his underground study reading Eleanor Roosevelt and Booth Tarkington in McCall's Magazine.   "He was never at a loss for words," Rosario said.   "He read a lot and used a lot of big words I never understood."

During World War II Baldasare violently criticized the American government for putting his Japanese neighbors in detention camps    "Everyone thought he was unpatriotic," Rosario said.   "I remember how ashamed I was of him. 'How can you respect a government like this!' he used to say.   'How can you respect a government that puts its own people behind fences!' "   Because of that, Baldasare refused his American citizenship and died an alien.

"I used to love being with him," Rosario said.   "I used to love watching him work.   I remember once 1 criticized him for not making his underground rooms perfectly round.   'Any fool can take a piece of string and make it round!' he shouted.   "To make it crooked and have it look nice — that's    ,, the real work!' "

Today Rosario and his wife Lorraine keep five of Baldasare's original seven acres open to the public. But because of financial problems, the Underground Gardens will not be open daily until the summer of 1977, except for the week between Christmas and New Year's, when they will be open to the public at large.   Now admission is restricted to advance group reservations only.

"God, you'll never know how much' I regret never meeting Uncle Baldie," said Lorriane, who married into the Forestiere family long after Baldasare had died.   "And yet I feel like I have met him," she says,   "i keep looking at these walls and seeing his life all around me.   I keep saying:   Hey, Baldasare — thank you!   Thank you for opening something up in me!

"I can't help it," she says.   "You can feel it.   You can sense it.   Look around.   Look at these walls and arches and gardens.   Look at this world down here;   You can see how much he loved people — you can see how much he loved life!"