Parma Park: The Dream Realized

In winter, Parma Park lies stark against a cold blue sky. Sycamore trees drop golden leaves onto threads of new grass, and brittle stalks of mustard sweep the hillsides where, in summer, red-winged blackbirds harvest seed. Along the creek, the bay is pungent, the creek dusty and dry despite the shade of live oaks.

The climb to the top of the firebreak road is rewarded with views of the Pacific, the undulating wooded hills of Montecito, and the craggy wall of the mountain behind. To the west, rising up a lower knoll, lies an old olive orchard with the ravine of the creek beyond. In the park, an old wooden water tank, decayed posts held up by barbed wire and a collapsed metal roof are all that remain of the former ranch.

A network of trails, many of them built by Rowe McMullin, whose efforts are honored by a brass plaque near the picnic table at the top of the hill, crosses the hilly park, sweeping north to Mountain Drive, west to El Cielito and east toward Coyote Canyon. The Montecito Trails Foundation and Los Padres Trail Riders helped build and maintain trails in the park for many years.

The park is a gift from the Parma Family to the citizens of Santa Barbara and Montecito. In 1973, Harold, John A., Agnes and Mary Margaret Ambrose Parma donated 200 acres of the family ranch to Santa Barbara City Parks as open space for hiking and equestrian pursuits. In 2002, the Parma Family Trust set up an endowment fund for ongoing maintenance of the park. These acts of philanthropy reflect the fulfillment of an American Dream, the dream of an unlettered Italian immigrant, Giovanni Batista Parma.


Born in the village of Tolceto, Italy on April 5, 1849, Giovanni was orphaned by 1864 and placed in the custody of his sister-in-law who “vigorously punished me anytime I have done something wrong,” he wrote in his memoirs. Giovanni wished to go to school, but his sister-in-law sent him out to the fields to supervise and work alongside the men on the family farm. He wrote, “As I had a broad disposition of going to school, many times I deserted from the field of work and gone to school so that I could be able to write my name, but at night, in place of going to bed, I was compelled to sleep in the barn for punishment.”

When his oldest brother returned from his search for gold in California with a “pretty sum of money,” Giovanni begged for an advance for a ticket to New York. Eventually, the brother gave Giovanni a ticket and 25 francs, and with that he made his way across Europe to Germany where he boarded a steamer.

He arrived in New York in 1867 with 5 francs in his pocket and youthful hope and ambition. “I went to the Perasso Boarding House and I did not lose any time in looking for work and in which I had the good luck to find a job after the third day in arriving in New York,” Giovanni wrote, “and on the same day I started to go to school working in the day and going to school at night.

“Six weeks after, I had the bad luck to fall from a high tree and hurt both hands very severely and remained unable to work for over three months,” Giovanni went on, “but as I was working in the Brooklyn Park the government officials allowed me the full pay while being sick, which gratitude I will remember as long as I live.”

Four months later, he was off for California via Panama and arrived in San Francisco in January 1867. He joined his brother in San Jose and worked as a dishwasher for several months. Then he followed a variety of jobs and enterprises up and down California; vegetable farm laborer, grocery clerk, gold miner in Baja California (where he lost all his money), ranch laborer, fruit peddler and laundry worker.

Giovanni wrote, “So in 1872 I came to Santa Barbara and got a job in a fruit store working sixteen months balancing up my account and debts and had the small balance of five dollars but established a good reputation, and I started a fruit store of my own with an indebtedness of one thousand dollars for which amount I simply gave my note and in one year’s time I paid back the amount, continuing in the business ever since.”

Giovanni established a “Variety Store” in the 700 block of State Street in 1874. In 1905, he formed a partnership with John Lagomarsino that lasted until 1920. They had two stores, one a liquor and cigar store at 735 State Street and the other a grocery store at 709 State Street. After dissolving their partnership with Lagomarsino, the family incorporated as the Parma Company with John A. Parma as president and Catarina J. Parma as vice-president.

Realizing the Dream

As the grocery store prospered, Giovanni started investing in land. In 1879, he purchased 133 acres of land from John Flores for $575. In 1885, he added more than 112 acres to his holdings by paying Elizabeth Greer Newman $2,000 in gold coin. On these lands, he planted an olive grove, built an olive press for oil, and established a farm. In 1891, Giovanni invested in another type of oil when he purchased 100 acres of the “Surprise Oil Claim” near Rincon Creek from Juan Garcia for $5.

Old maps show the extensive holdings of the Parma family. In fact, the road from the narrow bridge in Sycamore Canyon to Parma Park was once called Parma Road. Today it is Stanwood. In the early 1900s, portions of the ranch were rented out for various enterprises; a dairy, cattle grazing and a goat dairy.

On November 24, 1881, Giovanni Bastista Parma married 18-year-old Catarina J. Pendola, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Though Giovanni never attained the education he sought, the prosperous little grocery store made sure his children did. Of their seven children, Rosamond T., and Harold Arthur studied law. Edward became a banker. John A. (Jack) and Leopoldo Andrew kept the grocery/liquor business going after Giovanni’s death in 1912. In fact, all of the offspring did a stint working in the store or elsewhere to help earn the money for college. John’s daughter Arlette married Dee M. Westmoreland, a lawyer, and John’s son, Lawrence, who worked at the Parma Grocery Company from the age of 9, also became a lawyer.

Giving Back

Giovanni’s Morning Press obituary of December 28, 1912 reveals little beyond the bare facts of his life and a list of those who survived him. One must look elsewhere to find clues to his character. One of his unsung acts of kindness occurred in 1892, when Giovanni, a Catholic, purchased grave lot number 239 in the Island Section of Santa Barbara Cemetery for $25. Though granted to G.B. Parma and heirs, it was purchased for Giuseppe Jose Lobero who, in despair over his financial ruin, had committed suicide and was denied consecrated burial at Calvary Cemetery.

The children Giovanni and Catarina raised became leaders in the business and civic community. For instance, John Angelo Parma served as City councilman and was director of the Santa Barbara Cancer Foundation, the Museum of Natural History and the Montecito Water District, among many other things. Harold Arthur Parma was also a civic leader and involved with Santa Barbara county water districts.

The opportunities that were given to Giovanni by his adopted country and which were made manifest by his hard work, have been repaid a hundred times over by the Parma Family through their civic involvement and charitable donations.

On this cold January day, only the sound of leaves crunching beneath my boots and the swoosh of a low flying hawk interrupts my musings as I ascend the trail into Giovanni’s orchard. There, underneath the dusty green of the olive trees, one can sense a time long gone when the word “America” was full of promise and dreams were realized.

(Sources: Parma Family Papers at Santa Barbara Historical Society; Judy Pearce’s 2002 Montecito Journal article; Mark Rauch of Santa Barbara City Parks and Recreation Department; city directories. Special thanks to Kathi Brewster, a historian who pointed out the Lobero connection.)