By Cory Peterman
Familial Ties to Sierra County
Over two years ago, I wrote an article about well-known people that once called Sierra County home. However, there are several other well-known figures that have familial ties to Sierra County, and though I do not have the space to include all of these people in this article, I’ll include a few below.
The American Broadway musical composer Cole Porter (1891-1964), though born in Indiana, was descended from Sierra County pioneers. His mother, Kate, was born at Brandy City in 1862. Her parents, James Omar Cole and his wife Rachel Henton Cole, had come out to Sierra County during the Gold Rush from Peru, Indiana. The elder Cole worked in various mining endeavors around Brandy City and nearby Oak Valley. After over a decade in Sierra County, the family returned to the midwest town of Peru, where James Omar Cole would later become “the richest man in Indiana.”
Another famous American composer with familial ties to Sierra County (through his second marriage) was Irving Berlin (1888-1989). In 1926, Berlin married Ellin Mackay, the granddaughter of Comstock baron John Mackay and his wife, Marie Louise Antoinette Hungerford, who came to Downieville at the age 10. Before her marriage to Mackay, Ms. Hungerford was married to Dr. Edmund G. Bryant, Sierra County’s first county physician. The couple would stay connected to various communities in Sierra County (primarily Downieville, Poverty Hill, and La Porte, which was then part of Sierra County) until the doctor’s death in 1866. The young widow then married John Mackay, himself a former Sierra County resident, the following year. Ellin Mackay Berlin, the granddaughter of the Mackays, wrote several books during her lifetime, including The Silver Platter, published in 1957, which chronicles her grandmother’s youth in Downieville.
Another well-known figure in the entertainment industry descended from Sierra County pioneers was Verna Felton (1890-1966), a voice actress who worked primarily with Disney. She voiced Mrs. Jumbo in Dumbo, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, just to name a few examples. Verna Felton’s mother, Clara Lawrence, was born in Sierra County, and spent her youth in Port Wine and Forest City. The Lawrences were well-known miners and hoteliers in Sierra County. The 1883 Lawrence House still stands on Main Street in Forest City. Clara Lawrence married Dr. Horace W. Felton in Forest City in 1886, and the couple left Forest City shortly before the birth of their daughter Verna in 1890.
One living figure with familial ties to Sierra County, though quite distant, is Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson (born in 1969). Perhaps this may excite many residents of Sierra County, a strongly Republican county (the last Democrat to win a majority in the county was Jimmy Carter back in 1976). Carlson’s great-great-grandfather was Cesar Lombardi (1845-1919), a Swiss-Italian immigrant that came to the United States around 1860. His brother was Pompeo John Lombardi (1861-1938), who settled in Sierra Valley in the 1880s and is buried in Loyalton next to his wife Angiolina Ramelli.
In an article written by Philip Bump in The Washington Post, much is discussed about Tucker Carlson’s immigrant ancestor Cesar Lombardi, who wrote a series of letters which were published in 1948 as Autobiographical Letters of Cesar Lombardi to his Grandchildren. In these letters, Lombardi wrote about his experiences as a young immigrant and his familial connections to Loyalton. Upon arriving to the United States, he spoke only Italian, later recalling he “felt like being deaf and dumb among people whose language I could not understand… I also began to feel some of that desolate lonesomeness that comes of being completely out of relation with our surrounding.” Things didn’t let up for the young Lombardi upon learning English. He wrote “some of the boys disliked me because I was so different, I suppose, and teased me about my pronunciation and made life miserable for a time.” It’s rather ironic to hear the words of Tucker Carlson on Fox News in comparison to the words of his ancestor…however, this isn’t a political article.
Cesar Lombardi wrote that he was from a family of eight children, six of whom survived infancy. In one letter to his grandchildren, he wrote about his other siblings. “Ferdinand is in business at San Francisco, member of the largest private firm in the exclusive vineyard and wholesale wine trade in California. The other is Uncle Pompeo of Loyalton, Sierra County, California, a successful and wealthy farmer, stock raiser, and merchant. He is by far the ablest business man of the family… [Sister] Adelina Filippini, lives on a ranch with her children near Loyalton, California. Uncle Pompeo sold a ranch of 1,000 acres to her boys some years ago on credit, just to start them and today they have paid for the ranch in full, bought more land and have a large herd of cattle. They are industrious and successful business men.” Lombardi also wrote that his maternal cousins were the Ramellis. To this day, the Lombardi, Filippini, and Ramelli surnames can be found in Sierra Valley.