Tuesday, June 13, 2006 • Basque book features section on Susanville

Publisher’s note: This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, June 13, 2006, edition of the Lassen County Times.

 “Susanville’s Basque colony was probably in its heyday during the 1950s and 1960s when Basques herded sheep in the surrounding mountains or worked in the nearby lumber mills,” according to “A Travel Guide to Basque America,” by Nancy Zubiri, of Venice, Calif.

Just released by the University of Nevada Press, the Basque travel guide’s description of Susanville’s place on the Basque map positions it between descriptions of the Lake Tahoe region and Alturas. As descendants of Europe’s oldest culture, Basques trace their line back to stone-age inhabitants of the Pyrenees Mountains straddling the border between France and Spain.

Zubiri’s introduction to the second edition, published six years after the first, says the book is an attempt to keep Basque culture alive “by recording the many Basque establishments and activities that are still in existence today.”

She invites readers to use the book as a resource guide, carry it when they travel or read it at home for “an armchair voyage along the Basque trails across America.”

The book says many young men from poor villages in the Pyrenees were among those who poured into California during the gold rush of 1849. Though few made a fortune in gold, many stayed and flourished herding and later raising sheep.

Successful shepherds followed the “typical practice of sending for other family members and neighbors,” according to Zubiri. The practice ensured a steady stream of Basques arriving, though just as many returned to the old country after accumulating enough money to buy property in France or Spain.

As the number of men available to herd sheep dwindled after World War II, sheepherder bills, passed in the 1950s brought in hundreds of Basques. Many came to Susanville to herd sheep in the mountains or work in lumber mills.

“The sheepherders would come into town in the fall, after shipping out the lambs, and stay for three or four months,” she wrote, “filling up the few boardinghouses in town.” Lumber mill workers got jobs with Fruit Growers Supply Company, later Sierra Pacific and Lassen Lumber and Box. Despite the closure of mills and the end of sheepherder jobs, “a core of Basque families has remained” in Susanville.

The book mentions Richard and Angie Goni as former operators of the St. Francis Hotel, which Richard’s mother bought in 1947, with the Basque coat of arms in faded red, green and gold on the outside wall. Zubiri wrote the St. Francis was the last of several Basque-owned hotels in town.

“When young Basque men were plentiful here, the St. Francis sponsored a dance with accordion music at the end of every month,” she wrote.

The book also mentions Idaho Grocery and the locally well-known story of Ignacio Urrutia, who died in 1999. When Urrutia jumped ship in the 1930s, he took the name Idao. The first foreman he worked for on a Boise ranch misspelled the name Idaho, which Urrutia used for 12 years.

When he went back to the family business of grocery store work, Urrutia named his Susanville store Idaho Grocery. He worked for the former owner for 22 years before buying the Main Street business in 1966.

The travel guide also highlights the local Basque club and the GL&L Smokehouse “real Basque Chorizo.”

The Basque club holds an annual picnic at the Lassen County Fairgrounds. The dinner and dance evolved into a longer celebration with afternoon weight-lifting relays, a dance group performance and a wood-chopping exhibit.

The club also holds a tournament in March or April and an annual lamb stew feed on the first Saturday in May.