Looking Back: Cesare Bini, a Santa Clara Valley Vegetable Peddler

Cesare's Graham Brothers truck with its custom built bed.
Image: Cesare's Graham Brothers truck with its custom built bed. A hand crank was used to start the engine. Photo courtesy of the Bini Family.

As a three-year-old living on Singletary Avenue (off The Alameda), I recall a vegetable peddler who would stop near our house.  We and our neighbors would go out to the flatbed truck and see what sort of vegetables might be available that day.  This was in the early 1960s, and after we moved in May of 1963, I never saw nor heard about vegetable trucks again. The milk man disappeared not long after that, leaving only the ice cream man with his lonely tune as he makes his way along our neighborhood streets…and it seems that I haven’t even been hearing him lately.

I don’t know who that Singletary Avenue vegetable peddler was, though I heard that our route had once belonged to a peddler named Cesare Bini. Cesare had been born in the Tuscan village of Staffoli, Italy in 1888, marrying his wife Anna from a neighboring village about 1910. After their eldest son Abramo (Abraham) was born in 1913, Cesare was encouraged by cousins and fellow villagers to join them in the Santa Clara Valley, where there was a promise of a good life for hard working men.

Cesare Bini about 1914.
Image: Cesare Bini about 1914. He came to the United States from Italy with his brother's suit, fifty dollars, and the promise of work. Photo courtesy of the Bini Family.

Cesare's first jobs in the Valley included setting ties for the railroad, working at a mill, cooking for the University of Santa Clara, and working for the Quito Olive and Vine Farm on Quito Road. About 1915, he'd saved enough for his wife and son to come over. Cesare and Anna had their second child Mary in 1918. By 1922, Cesare was working at the Pieracci ranch near Seventeenth and Rosa Streets (now Hedding Street), and purchased property nearby to begin construction of a home. It was also about this time that Cesare began peddling fruits and vegetables. He intially used a horse and wagon, then acquired a Graham Brothers truck. Cesare's third child Lou (Luigi, 1926) recalls making the rounds with his father as a young child. Lou remembered driving out to North Market Street to purchase fresh produce from farmers, and driving the various routes (different routes on different days) to neighborhoods and businesses. He remembers that as a five-year-old, he would mind the truck if his father needed to attend to something, help carry baskets of fruits and vegetables to customers' doorsteps, and even drive the truck short distances on residential streets. Cesare kept track of all transactions (payable monthly) on a piece of cardboard that he kept in the truck.

Growers Market on Taylor Street
Image: In 1932, Growers Market on Taylor Street opened to give farmers and peddlers an improved location to conduct business. Part of Bini's Restaurant is just visible on the right. The restaurant was started by Cesare's eldest son Abraham in the 1930s (first as Bimbo's, then as Bini's). Photo courtesy of the Bini Family.

At the end of the week during the Depression years, Cesare would drive out to an area referred to as an "Okie Camp" in Campbell to sell his remaining produce. Driving along and even into the Los Gatos Creek beds near Hamilton Avenue, Cesare would sell his remainders at low prices to the hard-working Oklahomans who'd also ventured to California in search of a better life. With the encouragement of his wife, Cesare remained happily self-employed as a vegetable peddler until his retirement in the mid-1950s. He passed away at 90 years of age in 1979.

Cesare with his new 1941 GMC truck.
Image: Cesare with his new 1941 GMC truck. He had a custom horn hooked up to his exhaust pipe which gave a unique announcement of arrival to his residential customers. Photo courtesy of the Bini Family.

Further Reading in the California Room