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Seattle's P-Patch godfather ditched the gold rush for gardening

Roots of Tomorrow: An Italian family laid the groundwork for Seattle's best urban idea -- then watched as the city took over.

Editor's note: This article is a part of "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a weekly series on northwest urbanism. Start from the beginning with Parts 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance", Part 2, "Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes," and Part 3, "The car that broke the back of Seattle's bike craze".

It is also the second in a two-part segment on urban gardening in Seattle. Read Part 1, "Yuppie-free and horsedrawn: The original Seattle farmer's market."

“The next change to Seattle’s skyline may be ears of corn between the Seafirst Building and the financial center as Seattle possibly turns back to the earth.” — Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 7, 1973 

Seattle was once dappled with urban farms, but over time plots within city limits dwindled. South Park, University District, Georgetown and Rainier Valley farms were overtaken by residential development and commercial and industrial expansion. But a few outliers remained, and one in particular played a pivotal role in maintaining an continuity in urban agriculture that set the stage for its modern-day revival: the Wedgwood neighborhood’s Picardo farm.

The Picardo family immigrated from a hill town north of Naples, Italy. They arrived in the 1890s with a mind to join the Klondike Gold Rush, but instead went into farming down on the Duwamish.

The Picardo clan outside their home in South Park, before their move to north Seattle. Family photo, courtesy of Louise Picardo Hundertmark

In the early 1920s, the family patriarch, Ernesto Picardo — known in the family as The Boss — moved the family to Green Lake and acquired a piece of wet bottomland in Seattle’s far north end, now Wedgwood, called the Ravenna Swamp. The soil was rich and Ernesto and his brothers started a farm that supplied produce to Pike Place and other local markets.

When it began, it was just north of the city limits and covered the equivalent of nearly 35 city blocks, spanning – as Ernesto’s granddaughter Louise Picardo Hundertmark describes it – NE 75th to 82nd and 25th to 30th Ave E. The extended Picardo family worked the farm seven days a week with the help of Japanese and Filipino workers. The men delivered produce to the grocery stores in the morning, then sold what remained at the Pike Place Market.

The Picardo family and friends, harvesting crops at Wedgwood Farm, circa 1924. Patriarch Ernesto Picardo, wearing hat, is leaning on truck on the right. Family photo, courtesy of Louise Picardo Hundertmark.

Norma Picardo Vangelos, Louise’s cousin, worked the farm with her mother as a young girl and also helped man the stall at Pike Place during the WWII years. “It wasn’t a tourist spot then,” says Norma. “People were selling for life and death.” The weekends brought a break – Sunday was a half-day. The women went to church and cooked and, after work, the men played bocce ball in the field. A spaghetti feed followed. The Picardo men, she says, all had big personalities.

Like many Italian immigrant families, the Picardos made and consumed wine – even during Prohibition, when they buried the beverage in ceramic jugs on their Wedgwood farm to hide it from inspectors. Louise’s father, George Picardo, one of Ernesto’s sons, debunked the myth that they pressed the grapes with their bare feet: “He said they always wore new boots.”

After the war, Norma says, many of the Picardo sons who had gone away to fight didn’t want go back to farming. Ernesto’s son Rainie was the only one still working and, when Ernesto eventually passed away at age 89 in 1961, he took over. By that time, the Picardo property was surrounded by development. The family had sold off some of the land for post-war housing and the city had taken some for Dahl playfield.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 10:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow! What a great story! I've lived here my whole life and didn't know how the name P-Patch came about. I thought it was a universal term for community gardens. Thanks once more, Knute, for educating us on our own history in Seattle.

suemezzo

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Love this story, Knute! Several years ago the P-Patch phenomenon inspired my family to start a vegetable patch in front of our Roosevelt District home. Gradually the patch expanded to fill the entire (small) yard. Now it supplies us with vegetables year round, and passersby with food for thought. Try it! My Crosscut story describing the process is at http://crosscut.com/2011/08/23/crosscut-blog/20477/Frontyard-veggie-garden-in-city/

Posted Sun, Oct 27, 8:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the memories, Knute. My family moved to the hill above the farm in 1950, and I remember walking a path through it on my way to Wedgwood Elementary School. By the time I was ten, tho, most of Picardo's land was replaced by housing, something which, even in my adolescent eyes, diminished the charm of the neighborhood. Just as a side note, this northeast patch of Seattle was fertile ground for food culture in other ways - the original PCC started in a small appliance store just south on 65th, and Angelo Pelligini's plot was nearby.

oscar

Posted Mon, Oct 28, 4:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes. I used to shop at that PCC, and met Pelligrini, who was a great friend of my uncle's. We often used to see the Pelligrini family on Box Day. His writing about local food (his book, and his great column in the Weekly back in the '70s) were way ahead of their time. You're right, that's all good context.

Posted Tue, Dec 17, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a terrific article about one of the gems in Seattle, the Picardo p-patch. Last year, my wife and I entered a video contest and decided Picardo would be a great subject. I thought I would share it: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2dk8vHcyL6U

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