Driving up Highway 99 in Central California for many may be something to get over with as soon as possible with its summer heat, expanse of nothingness, desolate-looking towns and heat. Did we say heat? Look again: Smack in the middle of the state, curious travelers can find the Forestiere Underground Gardens, just a stone’s throw off Highway 99. The Underground Gardens tourist destination offers an intriguing tale for all ages that is well worth a stop.
The Underground Gardens is what it sounds like: A weaving labyrinth of caverns, rooms and passages all dug underground and filled with fruit trees, vines and plants in spaces that open to the sky. This oddity was built – or shall we say, dug – by Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere for about 40 years starting in 1906.
Since his death in 1946 (without a wife or children), the gardens have been through some tumultuous times. In recent years, however, his grandnieces have run the underground maze as the popular tourist site it is today. And it does attract many many people during its open season between about March and October or November (depending on the weather). Hourly tours typically sell out. We toured the gardens in May 2017 for a closer look at the site and its levels of tunnels that go from 10 feet to 23 feet under the earth.
Underground Gardens leave you in awe of what one man did
Despite shaking your head a few times during a tour with the thought, “What was he thinking,” a visitor to the Forestiere Underground Gardens cannot help but be amazed at what one man did. Over the course of a few decades, he tunneled away through the hardpan dirt in this area of Fresno County to create – as the story goes – a cool summer “home” underneath the ground, which of course sizzles in warmer months on the surface.
Back when Baldassare acquired the parcel, he had 80 acres. Of that, he dug his underground network beneath about 10 acres. Over the years after his death, the parcel has been whittled down to today’s not quite five acres.
This whittling down in size came partly from inheritances that split up the grounds, which resulted in some being sold off decades ago – his siblings mostly considered his “lifework just a bunch of holes in the ground,” according to grandniece Lyn Kosewski. But the shrinking of the Underground Gardens also was due to area roads and Highway 99 being widened as the growing town swallowed up once empty farmlands and, yes, to some past family tussles and family interest (or not) in the site. Even recently, all has not been smooth in running the tourist site or agreeing on how or who should operate it, according to a local news outlet that covered an intra-family lawsuit and its resolution.
In fact, the other half of the once-10 acre site sits next to the current open gardens, fenced off and overgrown with weeds and has recently been sold for development, Kosewski said. She also explained that there are photos of some underground areas that were on that parcel, too, as well as a winding waterway, islands and paths, plus a smokehouse and wine cellar. He was Italian of course!
What you do see on a visit to the Underground Gardens in Fresno
A tour of the gardens lasts about an hour (although they seem traditionally to go longer). On the tour, you walk through about three acres of the remaining underground network, passing through approximately 25-30 “rooms,” although the definition of a “room” makes that number fluid. Historical accounts in the ‘20s note there were about 50 rooms but, per Kosewski, he continued to work many years after that.
There is a “summer bedroom” that is open with more ventilation for breezes, a “winter bedroom” that is dug into the wall with a narrow opening that would have been covered for protection from the cold, a kitchen, what was an aquarium, and many other rooms and passageways. In addition, there are deep open caverns where fruit trees grew tall so someone could conveniently pick fruit at arm’s level from raised walkways or from above ground to get the top fruit. There is also a so-called “Fresno Scraper” on display, a device that was invented by a Fresnan to dig ditches, and Baldassare used one for a time too.
At one point, Baldassare decided he could transform the network into an underground resort and also began to dig an underground access driveway so guests could drive right under the earth. That was never finished.
Upcycling, recycling and creativity by Forestiere at Underground Gardens
Money of course was not unlimited so Baldassare took advantage of resources. He mixed mortar from the dirt he dug out, creating his own concrete and bricks. In the ceilings and walls, one can also see everything from steel rails, mattress springs and barbed wire that he used as reinforcements.
Once he started mulling a plan for a resort, he then created “plaster” from the dirt and covered the barren walls for a smoother look.
As an immigrant with farming background, he also didn’t just plant one tree, but he grafted various kinds of fruit onto a tree to get more bang from his buck. For example, one tree had seven kinds of citrus fruit on it.
In a creative move, he also dug out “peep holes” (see photo, above, of the summer bedroom, and the sign pointing out one such peep hole) so he could see guests at a door but they couldn’t see him, and he dug low peep holes that allowed you to see the feet (and shoes) of somebody approaching so you knew who it was. (Those days folks only had one or two pairs of shoes so you recognized them!)
Past and future at Forestiere’s Gardens
If nothing else, the Fresno Forestiere Underground Gardens has been a family affair. Ric Forestiere, now 89 and the son of Baldassare’s brother, Giuseppe, owns what is left, and Baldassare’s grandnieces (Ric’s daughters) Valery Forestiere and Kosewski own and operate the tour business at the Fresno travel destination. Kosewski says her grandfather, Giuseppe, who had also immigrated to Fresno from Sicily, wanted to complete the resort Baldassare had planned, which is why he bought back the then-10-acre remaining site after the 80-acre parcel was split among his siblings. A brother (Baldassare’s grandnephew), Marc, does a lot of the restoration, which is an ongoing process with rains and vibrations from nearby roads. Another local Sicilian man, Silvio Manno, who is a writer and a retired teacher, spends many days caring for the grounds (see photo, above). He was toiling in an orchard when we visited and stopped to show us the garden tool he was using since it had been Baldassare Forestiere’s – making the hoe 80-100 years old. Manno has also written a small book on Baldassare, the gardens and history.
When Shaw Avenue, a main thoroughfare through town was widened about 60 years ago, it sliced off part of the Gardens front, leaving the Gardens looking a little forlorn and out of place on a busy road. There, it is surrounded by fast food, strip malls, burger joints, chain outlets and liquor stores.
With the California High Speed Rail slated to go in nearly next door, the family worries that construction and a major overpass there could do huge damage to the already aging underground network of gardens.
Meanwhile, Kosewski said the property is owned by the family trust and is to be passed on to Ric’s children and grandchildren. “My siblings and I have spent our lives taking turns caring for this place and sharing it with the world,” Kosewski said. “We don’t view it as a commodity.”
Once the family stepped back in to operate the gardens, members also took action to protect Forestiere Underground Gardens. It was registered as a State Historical Landmark in 1978, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
If you have always wanted to go or are passing through the area — perhaps zipping along Freeway 99 — the Underground Gardens remain a wonderful travel destination in the San Joaquin Valley and a good stop along the road through the Central San Joaquin Valley.
Enjoy a quick photo tour of the Underground Gardens.
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