Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Gene Pedrotti, the owner of the Ace Hardware store located at 830 Southampton Road, is one of those thoughtful, committed citizens and he and his family have been providing nearly 100 years of helpful to our communities.
A third generation native Californian with strong roots in the community, Gene and his family have operated the hardware store that bears his name for the past ninety-eight years, and his commitment to the community is apparent. Pedrotti’s paternal great-grandparents settled in Marin County after the Gold Rush, and became local leaders in the growing community. In fact, one of Pedrotti’s ancestors, Matias “Matt” Pedrotti, became president of the Bank of San Rafael, and served as Marin County Supervisor at the same time. This ancestor helped rebuild the city of San Rafael after the devastating 1906 Earthquake.
He was so civic-minded, he actually bequeathed a ranch in Marin County to provide for the medical needs of the homeless.
Of course, much later the land was appropriated by the federal government in an eminent domain proceeding that gave the land to the Hamilton Field Air Base, in Novato. Decades later, though, the Air Base was decommissioned, and some of the acreage was set aside for affordable housing. In a way, “Matt” Pedrotti’s final act as benefactor for the homeless finally came to fruition. Besides being civic leaders and part of the pioneer community that settled the area, the family opened a hardware store in Crockett in the 1920s, and continues the business here in Benicia to this day.
At the beginning of the pandemic in March, the state responded to the health crisis with a lockdown.
Hardware stores are considered essential services, though, and Pedrotti’s Ace Hardware stayed open with the employees wearing face masks and shields, maintaining social distances, disinfecting surfaces and limiting the number of patrons allowed to enter. Initially, Amazon could not supply basics to Benicia residents, but Pedrotti’s stepped in and responded to their need for essentials like toilet paper, soaps, sanitizers, and everything else. The hardware store actually benefited from the pandemic, with record sales. Right away, Gene saw the toll the pandemic was taking on other local businesses, with a number of store closures taking place in Benicia and environs. Back in 1997, Gene, as owner/manager of the Ace Hardware, won the nationally esteemed President’s Cup for the best Ace Hardware in the U.S. His dedication and the extra hours spent on the job enabled Gene to be able to make the necessary commitments to his suppliers, and obtain the necessary products for his customers. The relationships he had built with suppliers and corporate higher-ups over the decades worked to his advantage during the darkest days of the pandemic.
According to Gene Pedrotti, the symbiotic role between business and community became obvious as the pandemic continued in Benicia, and business owners either shut their doors or reinvented the way they did business.
To-go meals, curbside service, outdoor service and pick-up orders became the new normal, and allowed businesses to continue operating on a limited basis. A tough election complicated the situation, resulting in some discordant feelings between stakeholders. Recently, however, with a COVID vaccine on the horizon, residents and business owners can be hopeful that there will be a return to a semblance of normalcy in Benicia.
Gene Pedrotti has some ideas on how to revitalize business in Benicia.
First, once it is safe to do so, he thinks it would be a good idea to plan a grand re-opening celebration of the downtown shopping area. Maybe some re-branding is in order to put an inviting face on our downtown. Maybe the old movie house can be refurbished, and put to better use. Perhaps now is the moment to put affordable housing in the city, as many city workers cannot afford the rents here in town. Affordable housing has been a predicament since the 1970s. Pedrotti himself has stated, “We need to cultivate and accommodate affordable housing, and the diversity which it brings to the community.” It is refreshing to see a business owner view their loyal workers as human beings, and not just as the means to a profit. It is inspirational to see a business owner wish to reward the efforts of his workers with affordable housing. And once this pandemic loosens its grip on our local economy, we have an opportunity to make important changes. Thoughtful consideration of what we want for our town should steer our next actions.
A Q&A with Gene Pedrotti (not featured in print):
How come we never see you in the hardware store?
You’re right, and herein lay the biggest regret I have in retail; suffering from chronic pain, I can no longer work the sales floor. Since teenagers, my twin brother and I have suffered back problems and aging has not been kind. Working a sales floor is all about standing upright and when I’m on my feet stationary too long, I pay dearly that night. Drugs help but I deliberately under-medicate so as not to develop an addiction. One is enough!…. hardware. At least once a week in the middle of the night I must relocate and bed down on the floor; this is exhausting but necessary. A good ergo- chair and taking frequent breaks are essential, but I do work very long hours… during Covid, 70+ hours a week. I have to work like hell – making sure my shelves are fully stocked.
Can you tell us about how your ancestors came to settle in this area in Solano County in the 1800’s?
In the late 1800’s, the first Pedrottis, came over on a ten-year immigration plan with Switzerland, working dairies in Marin County. A rancher would sponsor an immigrant – often a teenager who was escaping poverty at home – who would work for one year paying off the travel debt. Afterwards, the young men were free to work other dairies or start their own. My great uncles each came over under this plan.
Your family has been quite successful in this area for decades. To what do you attribute their (and your) success?
Dairy work, like all ranching, is tough. In the 1800’s, butter was gold, sometimes reaching today’s equivalent of $30 pound; it was the economic engine behind dairies. This was long before refrigeration and long before cement floors, two developments that later radically changed the industry. Cows need milking twice a day, twelve hours apart. So you’re up at three am, milking at four, working the ranch mid-day, and then back to afternoon milking. Hard work becomes second nature. Let me share some brief snippets of brothers Matt, James and my great-grandfather, August. Their determination, drive, and humanity were like that of many early California pioneers and serves as the basis of my success.
Well familiar with Marin ranches, my great-uncle Matt became a land appraiser for the Bank of San Rafael. In true rags-to-riches American fashion, he became the president of the bank! We have currency, five and ten dollar bills, signed M.J. Pedrotti! He also served on the San Rafael City Council – as Chairman or Mayor – and was elected to the Marin County Board of Supervisors in 1907, where he served both as Mayor and Supervisor at the same time! Extremely generous and sensitive to the poverty and blindness of his sister, he supported many causes – one favorite was the San Rafael Military Academy, which took in many poor students. It is now the Marin Academy. When Matt Pedrotti died, he left a diary to Marin County for the care of the homeless. An honorable man, he worked the dirt and wore his heart on his sleeves. This is a characteristic which I am proud to say extends throughout the Pedrotti family.
Born in 1850, my great-uncle James immigrated to California at age 16, initially working mines in Virginia City, Nevada and, later, Eldorado County. Four years later he moved to Bolinas and began a life of dairy work. Land was cheap – in 1895, he purchased three tracts of land in Bolinas from his in-laws for $20, which is about $600 today! Later, with the help of the Stornetta family (now part of the Clover Milk family), he moved his herd to Sonoma County, purchasing the Wright Ranch, part of which is now Goat Rock State Park (their home now serves as barracks for park rangers). He would send his butter to Duncans Mills where it was shipped to San Francisco. In 1907, he relocated to Napa County where he purchased the 656 acre Hathaway ranch near what now stands as the Napa Airport. It was one of the largest ranches in Napa. He died in 1913. In the late 1920’s, his wife, Mary retired to San Francisco and sold the ranch to C&H Sugar Company so that they could send its artesian water across the brand new Carquinez Bridge to Crockett. The wells dried up two years later.
My great-grandfather, August, immigrated to America on the ship, Heela in 1869; he was sixteen years old. Working dairies in Bolinas, he and brother, James, married the McGovern sisters of Petaluma, Margaret and Mary. August and Margaret raised five girls as well as my grandfather, Ralph Pedrotti.
Fast forward. At age 71, August suffered a wicked death. Tending to his prized bull one afternoon, he tripped and the massive animal slew him in a brutal attack. On October 7, 1924, Petaluma Argus reported: “Mr. Pedrotti was leading the big animal by a chain in his farm yard when the animal, which had several years ago been dehorned, suddenly made a lunge at his owner, knocking him down. The chain became wound about the body of the prostrate man who was made helpless and the vicious beast repeatedly butted him and dragged him about the yard. Mrs. Pedrotti was nearby and saw the attack and she tried to extricate her husband from the chain and was also knocked down by the bull but she managed to get away and hastened to the barn and secured a pitchfork and jabbed the animal which infuriated the animal all the more and she finally had to make her escape and call the neighbors… but the aged owner was dead and his lifeless form was conveyed to the house…” There is more gory detail and the story carried up and down the state, even appearing in the Los Angeles Times.
What do you consider to be the qualities and strengths Benicians and other Solano County residents possess that will help them survive the current financial crisis?
Benicia is lucky to have very strong economic demographics and employment; this and local industry provide a solid economic base. It has a rich history which is celebrated in many ways across town, but especially in the downtown. Its citizenship is involved and concerned, forcing debate on many important issues. I know it may be controversial to say this, but it can be a bit selfish, particularly when it comes to affordable housing. Individualism was fundamental to early development of the state but we are no longer young and certainly no longer small. We must move beyond selfish individualism if we are to succeed as a community. If there is any lesson in the Covid pandemic, it is that we must pull together to support each other. Providing affordable housing is a fundamental responsibility by every community.
You recently acquired and renovated a rundown, trailer park that had been in a state of disrepair for years and turned it into an updated, safe, short-term RV park. Do you have any future plans for the property?
Six years ago, after a year-long search for flat land, I purchased the trailer park at 5th and N Street; it was the only one acre parcel available in town. The park was under-funded and under-managed in that it became an eyesore; aging mobile homes were falling apart, roofs were tarped, and hoarding was a problem. Within two years, nine units were destroyed or removed, a very expensive process. I tried to close the park; this required that we fund the relocation of almost all residents for two years. But late in the process, I discovered how limited affordable housing was in Benicia, and some might literally be homeless thereafter. No way would I be part of that. The Pedrottis have a rich history of being helpful and I was not going to ruin that by making folks homeless. Instead, I withdrew the plan and announced a $100,000 contribution to the Benicia Community Action Council over ten years.
We’ve gone to great lengths to clean up the park; new water lines, new pavement, new laundry and regular landscaping. The clutter of dozens of mailboxes in 5 gal/concrete was ugly, so I put in pedestal mailboxes; this saves the post office a hundred hours a year! Trailers must be ten years old or less, terms are short stay only, two to six months. We are down to only two mobile homes. Fortunately, we are now at market rates, which funds these improvements.
What do you envision lies in store for our community in the near future? What do you think members of our community should do to maintain the level of prosperity that Benicians enjoyed prior to the pandemic? What is your hope for the future?
Rebuilding after Covid is going to be a gargantuan task, no doubt the largest effort in our generation. As local businesses struggle to rebuild, it is important for residents to shop and support them, now, as they get on their feet. This is a great time for local residents to explore Benicia – get outside and wander around First Street.
As the pandemic pressure eases, the public will be anxious to do the same, go out and explore. Indoor mall shopping will fade, giving way to outdoor malls and experiences. In fact, I would anticipate a huge pent up demand for all things outdoor – shopping, restaurants, tourism. Benicia has a great location – close to much of the Bay Area with a unique coastal location and with a variety of shops and historic attractions. And, downtown Benicia is authentic, a real downtown, not a fake or a reproduction!
This will be the time to push tourism hard – advertise, market, and promote throughout the Bay that Benicia is a great experience. It is also LOCAL. Full of HISTORY. Full of ARTS. From a branding perspective, this is the time for civic organizations, the Benicia Chamber, Downtown Benicia, as well as the City, to coordinate, build and grow upon past efforts as well as create new activities. It may be time to re-brand marketing efforts, to zero in on those changes in consumer habits brought by the pandemic.
One thing that remains at the top of my list is the rebuilding of the Majestic Theatre.
I know many folks have tried to approach the owner… I have. But it’s time to revisit. Imagine a beautifully rebuilt iconic Majestic Theatre and the power it could have in pulling tourists and shoppers downtown. A historic rebuilt theatre and a historic state capitol across from each other – what a draw these could be!