By Andrea Wright, Valley Ag Voice
When loss affects a local farm family, the community tends to come together through their trust and faith in God to honor and remember those who have passed on. The story of the Del Papa Family is one from the heart and is prompted by the losses of the farmer’s daughter, Deborah (Debi) Lynn, May 13, 2021, the farmer, Frank, October 6, 2021, and the farmer’s wife, Evelyn, January 20, 2022. Frank and Evelyn were married for 71 years.
Frank and Evelyn Del Papas’ journey is the story of two local farming families. Frank is the son of Kern Lake pioneers John and Amelia Simoni Del Papa. Evelyn is the daughter of Old River pioneers Jack and Hilda Sandrini Rossi. John Del Papa was born near Lucca, Italy and he came to America to join his brothers and settled south of Old River, also known as the Kern Lake area, and farmed cotton and alfalfa. He later opened a bar in Pumpkin Center where Cousin Herb, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard performed. John met his wife Amelia Simoni and they had one son named Frank, born on May 6, 1928. Frank attended Ordena, Lakeside, and Fairfax School after his father bought a ranch in the Fairfax area. Like most farm children, hard work was expected at a very early age; Frank started farming on his own at about 16. He later lost his leg in a farming accident when he was 37 years old. The community pitched in to help, but Frank was back to work as soon as possible. Frank enjoyed racing and was an original member of the Smokers Racing Club. He later entered the tractor-pulling arena, with several versions of his modified tractor, Alkali. He was known as “Big Daddy” and was proud to be a lifetime member of Cal Poly’s tractor pull team.
Evelyn’s parents Jack and Hilda Rossi were from Northern Italy near the Swiss border. Jack came to America in about 1911 seeking the American Dream when he was 17, arriving first in New York, then later moving to San Francisco where he joined family friends. He first worked as a dishwasher in San Francisco and later worked on a dairy farm in Fresno. While in Fresno, he heard of work on George Sandrini’s dairy in Bakersfield which is where he met his wife, Hilda, who was one of George’s daughters. The story goes that Jack was going to return to Italy to find a wife, but George told him that he had two daughters to choose from, and Jack chose Hilda. Hilda came to America around 1916 when she was about 12 years old. Hilda’s story is that upon arrival in New York on the 4th of July, she was handed a banana to eat, and having never seen one before, she tried to eat the entire banana, peel and all. Jack and Hilda had four children: Elmer, Alyce, Melvin, and Evelyn. All their children were born at their Old River home located by the Monte Carlo Saloon where Old River Road and Taft Highway meet. They all attended Old River Elementary School (part of Lakeside Unified School District) and Kern County Union High School. At some point, Jack started his small dairy, and he and Hilda married. Later, he got his own plot of land and farmed on Taft Highway and Old River Road. Jack and Hilda were hard-working and together they milked cows, raised chickens, grew a garden, and made bread, butter, salami, sausage, and wine. Hilda would sew, knit, and crochet. The brothers, Elmer and Melvin, served in the military and then continued the family farming tradition on Old River. Theirs was truly an “American Dream Story” beginning with nothing and becoming successful.
Frank met his wife, Evelyn Rossi, through her brothers and the Italian community in Old River. At the time, Evelyn worked at the Bakersfield Hall of Records. Frank and Evelyn wed in 1950 at the age of 21. Their first daughter Deborah (Debi) was born on Christmas day and their second daughter Patricia (Pati) was born a few years later. Frank and Evelyn moved into their house in 1956 and were delighted to call Old River their home. Proud to be the oldest Italians left in the Old River area, they remained there until their recent deaths in 2021 and 2022.
Debi was a farmer’s daughter and she loved her country life. She lived just around the corner from her parents. She attended Lakeside Elementary, West High School, Bakersfield College, and Cal Poly. She began her 32-year career as a teacher, primarily at Buena Vista Elementary, where she taught kindergarten through third grade at what was then a little country school. When her son Bernard was born, Debi transitioned into the role of a mother. Debi’s faith was especially important to her and she was a kind person that always had a smile on her face.
Frank and Evelyn’s daughter Pati continues to keep the family memories deep in her heart. Farming was a basic human existence for the Del Papa family. They were connected to the soil, air, and water. Frank cultivated his land, while Evelyn sought a simple life with meaningful work and pleasures. It is a life of successes and hardships, demanding work and sacrifice, and a strong belief in God. It is amazing how this farm family in their very own corner of the earth created such a lasting effect on their daughters, grandson Bernard Ansolabehere and his wife Diana, great-granddaughter Betty and great-grandson Will, and the other family members.