Just who was the mysterious hermit who lived on Jasper Ridge a century ago? Why have fragments of his story endured and become legend? His name was Domenico Grosso, but folks called him Domingo. Behind his back, children called him “Caramba” because that was one of his favorite expressions.
It turns out that the hermit of Jasper Ridge was not actually a loner. Indeed, he was a very popular fellow. Although he lived alone on Jasper Ridge, behind today’s Pinon and La Sandra Drives in Portola Valley, he regularly received guests and was himself a frequent dinner guest in Portola homes. Yet an aura of loneliness and mystery surely surrounded him.
He seems to have arrived in the area in the 1870s when he was probably in his forties. Despite a friendly personality, he discouraged inquiries into his background. However, rumors were plentiful. It was said that he was born in Genoa, Italy. He fought with Guiseppe Garibaldi. He was a servant to Italian noble families. He was such a skillful horseman that he received a medal from the king of Italy. He spent some time mining in Chile. He lost a fortune in a bank failure. Was any of it true? Was all of it true?
One especially intriguing detail was his frequent mention of “Julia”. He would say, “Julia keeps my place in good order.” Or, “I must take Julia with me.” Who was Julia? The theory was that she was a long lost wife or sweetheart. His prior life, which forever remained a secret, was just one of the mysteries surrounding him.
By all accounts, Domingo was a handsome and courtly man. He was slight with erect posture, bright eyes and white, even teeth. His red beard turned white over the years and reached halfway down his chest. He was always immaculately clean and meticulously groomed. He wore his clothes with a flair. He always carried a white handkerchief to dust off a chair before he sat down. He spoke and read Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English.
He worked on the ranch that eventually became Westridge, Arrowhead Meadows and Ladera. About 1891, when William O’Brien Macdonough bought the land, he moved to what has become Jasper Ridge and made his home there until his death in 1915.
Quite a home it was. Although rustic, his house had two well-furnished rooms that were always spotlessly clean. Pictures and “No Smoking” signs in four languages decorated the walls. His stove and pans were polished. He served guests with good china and silverware. Outside he has a chicken coop, a stable, and a dog house. He had a vineyard, an orchard, flower and vegetable gardens, a network of paths, and an interlocking wooden fence to keep out cattle. On his flagpole he flew the flags of the USA, Italy, Genoa, France, or Chile.
Sunday afternoon was the favorite time for the local people to visit the hermit. They would bring their out-of-town guests. Valley children were especially welcomed. Stanford students regularly appeared. Even Mrs. Stanford came. He treated everyone courteously, offering occasional overnight lodging or refreshments of biscuits and his homemade wine, white for strangers and his best red for friends.
Reports on the quality of his cooking vary. One friend said his wine wasn’t good enough to make vinegar from, but guests wouldn’t refuse his hospitality. He made a special bread in his outdoor oven which local children treasured. At lease one saved his to use as a paper weight. Others have reported the wine and hardtack were good, as were the dinner entrees of wild game .
During his years on the ranch, he had roamed the nearby hills searching for precious metals. He professed to have found silver and persuaded his employers to hire experts and secure mineral rights. None of them found enough promise for full scale mining. Nevertheless, prospecting became an obsession and a way of life for Domingo, and the mineral rights eventually came to him. His tales of lucky strikes and his jars of mineral specimens created more of the legend.
Apparently no one ever knew if Domingo struck it rich on Jasper Ridge, but everyone wondered. He dug an extensive series of tunnels and pits in his search, some six to eight feet across and as deep as seventy feet. He kept mysterious bags under his house which he claimed contained ore of the same quality as that in his display jars. About once a year, he’d take the bags to Redwood City in a rented buggy, presumably to cash them in.
This served as proof to some that he had found gold or silver. What else could the bags have contained? How did he support himself if not from successful prospecting? People knew he was too proud to ask for public assistance. But his needs were few, and he’d always carry a sack wherever he went, to collect vegetables or other supplies offered him. He hunted for food or grew his own. Some evidence suggests that a former employer’s widow gave him regular money.
In the spring of 1915, when Domingo hadn’t been seen for a while, a friend found him in bed in his house. He’d suffered a stroke and died in the county hospital, with all his mysteries unexplained. Before long, vandals demolished his house, presumably searching for the hidden gold. Only they knew what was there. And apparently they didn’t talk.
Traces of the hermit’s stay on Jasper Ridge remain today. Docents can take visitors to two of the deep prospecting pits and to some stone terracing, although thick stands of poison oak obscure the area. Perhaps it’s easier to picture him in your mind at one of his favorite activities: at night, when he couldn’t sleep and the moon was bright, this enigmatic man would take his homemade broom and sweep his paths. Sweeping, and dreaming perhaps of Julia and of striking it rich, must have brought comfort to the mysterious hermit of Jasper Ridge.