A Weekend in Fresno

When I put together my 2019 Must Visit List I focused on local points of interest with two notable exceptions – the Grand Canyon (still pending) and Forestiere Underground Gardens. The latter is located in Fresno which isn’t exactly just around the corner. Since it’s a bit of a haul I decided to make a weekend out of it and a few weeks ago made my way to the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

Forestiere Underground Gardens is  both a national and California State Landmark and a true man made phenomena.  Hand-built by Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere over a 40 year period it’s a massive underground complex consisting of gardens, a home and so much more.

I can’t remember the first time I heard about the Forestiere Underground Gardens…I’m guessing I saw them on Huell Howser…but they’ve long been on my list of things to see. Often, when I want to see something for a long time it can’t help but disappoint when I finally get around to it. Not Forestiere Underground Gardens! It was so mind blowing that I was in awe during my entire tour and now consider it one of the best places I’ve ever seen.

During Baldassare Forestiere’s lifetime he created a massive 10 acre complex digging up to 25 feet below ground. What’s even more mind boggling is that he did it entirely by hand (no power tools!) and cut through hardpan which is as hard as concrete. Why on earth did he do this? Well, Fresno can get really hot and he realized that by moving underground he could live a comfortable life away from the punishing sun.

His ultimate goal was to be a citrus farmer and over the years he managed to grow lemons, grapefruit, oranges and more all underground. Today, some of the trees still thrive and continue to produce fruit.

Baldassare worked on his underground masterpiece from the early 1900’s until his untimely death in 1946. He never married and had no children so when he died there was a chance his life’s work would be destroyed. Luckily, his brother understood what an immense achievement it was and made sure much of his work survives to this day. In fact, the Forestiere family continues to operate the garden and through their efforts Baldassare Forestiere’s legacy lives on.

After exploring the underground gardens I decided to continue my immersion into Fresno history and headed to the Kearney Mansion, another national landmark.

When Baldassare Forestiere arrived in town Martin Theodore Kearney was a titan of the area known as the “Raisin King of Fresno.”  An English immigrant he came to Fresno (by way of Boston) to invest in the area’s agricultural development, specifically grapes. A self made man he grew enormously wealthy and planned to create a farm colony called Chateau Fresno. Due to his sudden death the project never came to fruition and the land is now a public park.

Kearney Park, 225 acres of lush landscape on the outskirts of the city, is home to the Kearney Mansion – Martin Kearney’s lavish home and centerpiece of his business operations. Today, the home is managed by the Fresno Historical Society and open for weekend tours.

I arrived just in time for the last tour of the day and was treated to an immersive introduction into the history of Fresno. The mansion remains largely as it was during Kearney’s day and features most of its original features including the century old wallpaper!

As an avid visitor of historic homes this is a rare treat indeed and I was awed as I explored the massive property.

Baldassare Forestiere and Martin Theodore Kearney are both fascinating fixtures of Fresno history and exploring their legacy made for a fun first day in town.

I spent a relaxing night in nearby Clovis thanks to a complimentary stay at the Fairfield Inn & Suites.

The hotel is located adjacent to Old Town Clovis and is a clean, modern spot offering a variety of amenities from a fitness center and pool to complimentary wifi and breakfast. It’s a popular spot to stay and I spent a wonderfully restful night there.

The next morning I headed downtown to check out the Old Fresno Water Tower (also a national landmark). Built in 1894 it operated until 1963 and is just about the most beautiful water tower I’ve ever seen!

Today, it serves as a visitor information center and gift shop but was, unfortunately, closed at the time of my visit. Next time I’m in the area I’ll definitely need to check out the inside.

Since I had a long drive home it was time to head out of town but not before one final stop at Simonian Farms.

Founded in 1901, Simonian Farms has been serving the area for over 100 years. Not your typical farm-stand, it’s covered in wonderfully restored antiques and is a true slice of roadside Americana.

I love antiques and, had I had enough time, I could have spent hours checking out all the pieces on display.

But it’s not all about the antiques…after all it is a farm-stand! So, I went inside to grab some fresh, local strawberries before I headed home.

The strawberries were inexpensive, delicious and a wonderful souvenir of my weekend in Fresno. This was my first true visit to the city and I was considerably impressed. Fresno is often overlooked when it comes to tourism and that’s a shame. It has a fascinating history, a rich agricultural heritage and a friendly population that made me feel welcome the entire weekend. I have so many wonderful memories from my short visit and I know I’ll be back again.


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