My Grandfather, My Inspiration
My grandfather, Peter Danna, was a hardworking man who immigrated to the United States when he was only 8 years old. In 1908, he boarded a ship with his aunt and several cousins and headed towards a new life in America. He was one of thousands of Italian immigrants escaping the ‘Old Country' with dreams of a better life. His mother and father were not with him. After going through Ellis Island, my grandfather survived a childhood in the slums of major cities as they worked themselves West, ending up in the apple orchards in Eastern Washington.
As a young man, he learned the 'Old Ways’ of feeding the family. Hunting, fishing and growing your own food. His teachers were pioneers, planters, farmers and courageous souls who lived in the orchards of the Pacific Northwest. Grandfather was ahead of his time and tree grafting became one of his specialties.
In the 1920’s, my grandfather married the love of his life and they moved to Portland, Oregon where they would settle down and start a family. He then went to work for Pioneer Fruit and was there for several years. In the late 1960’s, my grandparents decided to visit the Old Country. They took a train back to New York, boarded a steamship and sailed back to Sicily to visit family.
During their visit, he discovered an old fig tree on his family’s property that he had not remembered from his youth. He took a few cuttings off the tree and a few from the family’s old grape vines. Knowing that federal customs, back in the US would not let him return to the USA with any live plants, his wife Louise slipped the grape cuttings into her wallet and Peter rolled the fig cuttings into his dirty laundry. When they returned to their home in Portland, he successfully grafted both the fig and the grape cuttings into viable plants and trees.
Later, my grandfather’s notoriety in the Fig tree world blossomed amongst the Portland orchard growers and gardeners. He became very popular when he successfully grafted and rooted the little fig cuttings that would become “Pete’s Honey Fig.” This fig tree is prized nationwide and is hailed as a superior fig by gardeners and orchardists across the country. This tree is named after my grandfather, to celebrate his contributions to horticulture in Oregon and in the US.
He truly was a great man. He fed our large Sicilian family with his amazing garden, his shotgun and clamming shovel. The Grandparents would take the boys hunting every Fall for Pheasant. The family structure I grew up in was very traditional, the men hunted, and the women prepared the food. As one of the grandkids, we all worked, and we loved it! Razor clamming is an art form not for the weak. As a child I could read a tide book long before I could even comprehend a schoolbook. We had a special location on the Washington coast that had huge clam beds. Depending on the times of the tides, we were out of bed early in the dark mornings, freezing and wet. Summers on the Washington coast were not what you call swimsuit Summers. As kids we worked. I was the youngest of the boys, my big brother was the first male born in the family, that’s a big deal in the Sicilian world. I felt fortunate for my little Sister and Cousin hung with Grandma and they would end up cleaning several hundred clams in a few days. It would take them the whole day after we returned, depending on our catch. As boys we were taught to respect the ocean for it could take our lives easily if we weren’t paying attention. We would face the ocean with clam shovels as our weapons and buckets as our ammo. We would do this crazy stomping dance in circles to bring the clams up closer to the surface. There was a special technique to get your shovel in the wet sand fast enough to pull out a couple of loads of sand and then drop to your knees and force your hand into the cold wet sand to catch the clam by feel. Remember, this is done in the surf. It was a race and the clams mostly won. The reason they are called razor clams is that the shells are razor sharp, if you hit your fingers on the shell just right it would slice your fingers in the cold salty ocean, we learned how to cuss in Italian at a very young age, because it happened to all of us, almost every time out, it was like a rite of passage! But if you could feel that shell you knew you had a chance, for if you could pinch the top of the shell it would release the digger foot and you could pull your prize out of the hole, before the next wave hit you! If the clam was too small you had to throw it back into the hole. We were allowed to catch 40 clams a day, for us the men we did not stop until we ALL had our limits plus some. And if the hunt was good, we were told to take our catch up to the cabin, empty our buckets and start over, we only had so much time before the tides would cover the clam beds again. To this day you put a tide book in front of me, I can show you the best times to go clamming, it’s all in the moon. Grandma’s and Grandpa’s goal every Fall was to fill the freezer with Pheasant, Rabbit and Deer then again, every Summer with Razor Clams and canned fruits and vegetables. In the Spring we would head to the Sandy River for the annual Smelt run, we would come home with several hundred pounds of smelt. He shared stories about his life experiences in the Old Country and his past experiences taught to him by his elders. But we didn’t just listen to gardening stories, we worked in his garden and fruit trees right beside him, for me he was such a blessing. Grandpa’s garden was heaven and each of the families had a garden as well that included apple, fig and nut trees. We could truly feed ourselves from our gardens thanks to Grandpa’s knowledge and passion.
And now after all these years, my life has come full circle. As I plant and reap the goodness of the Earth, I honor my grandfather’s spirit and his legacy for his contributions to horticulture and gardening in this wonderful country of ours. Pete’s Honey Figs and my passion for gardening are both testaments to the contributions my grandfather left behind.
Thank you for your interest in my inspiration.