I first noticed the satisfying form and variety of the common hubcap while walking by Rolling Stock on South Van Ness. From a distance, or in a passing car, the shiny array is just a pleasant, eye-catching adornment for Rolling Stock's chain-link fence, but up close the hubcaps reveal their unique personalities. I began to pay attention to other hubcaps, on parked cars, on stopped cars, sometimes on slow-moving cars. It wasn't a very good hobby, but I did begin to identify some patterns: Volvo is consistent and highly pragmatic, using narrow spokes that emanate from a center circular emblem without flourishes; Ford is more fanciful, often trying to suggest suns, flowers, windmills, and tick-tack-toe boards; but Dodge captures the best of both worlds, fashioning martial-style shields as well as more elegant and complex forms you might expect under the sea or drawn in colored sand by Tibetan monks. I tried to replicate one of these Dodge specimens -- a 1985 Caravelle -- on a piece of wood, but I am no painter. I came across Collie Ryan's work, full-color mandalas on the surfaces of old hubcaps, but as beautiful as they were, I thought the inner essence of the hubcap was mostly lost. In the end, I realized, all I really wanted was to spend one full day looking at and thinking about hubcaps, so I might move on.
California Historical Landmark No. 939, better known as Hubcap Ranch, is located in Pope Valley, just a short drive north of San Francisco. Road signs leading up to the site indicate proximity with a single, gleaming hubcap hanging from each pole, but there's no mistaking the ranch once you've arrived. Thousands upon thousands of hubcaps shimmer along fences surrounding the bottom 62 acres of the property, glinting in the sun, rattling in the wind, and offering a surprise to both drunk drivers and willful cows. Begun in the 1950s by Emanuel "Litto" Damonte, the Hubcap Ranch is a lovely sight.
The Hubcap King of Pope Valley originally came from Italy to cut marble for Hearst Castle and the Stanford Chapel, but he stayed to lay out all the sidewalks in the Sunset District. After finishing 48 avenues and the dividing wall along the Great Highway, Litto Damonte retired to the country. This was long before grapes had leveled the land and lowered the water table in Napa Valley; rivulets and creek beds still pocked all the ground west of Damonte's ranch. No one could avoid losing his hubcaps traveling across that terrain day in and day out; as a courtesy Damonte gathered up all the hubcaps and hung them along the outside of his fence so they might be reclaimed.
"Thing is," explains Mike Damonte, Litto's grandson and reigning regent for great-grandson Litto III, "people didn't take the hubcaps, they hung up more. Pretty soon, my grandfather was hanging hubcaps everywhere. He'd sit at the top of the driveway in his red hat, surrounded by his hubcaps, and people would come with salami and bottles of wine and they'd drink and laugh. He's what you would call a party guy."
The dirt driveway, which leads to a small house and two sheds covered in Litto Damonte's most prized specimens, was once paved in hubcaps, but dozens of torn bicycle tires later, all but one hubcap have been removed. Still, the driveway is a spectacle, framed on either side by shimmering fences and augmented by street signs and children's toys embedded in cement.
"That's how we learned to pick up our toys," says Mike. "If you left them out, he'd snatch 'em up, paint 'em, and stick 'em in the ground."
As children, Mike and his six siblings spent their school week in South San Francisco and their weekends on the ranch doing chores and hanging hubcaps.
"Monday morning, we'd get up at 4:30 a.m., do our chores, and get driven back to the city in time for school," says Mike, clearly warmed by the memory. "That was before all the traffic. Today, I wouldn't raise my kids anywhere else but here."
Two cattle dogs trail our heels as we pass by an old barn across which "Litto" has been spelled in hubcaps (a chrome offering for Grandpa's 90th birthday). Sam, Mike's adopted 12-year-old special-needs son, invites us to pet his horse, the same old beast Mike used as a roping horse as a child. Six-year-old Litto III jumps over the fence of a nearby pen to flush the newborn calves out from under their mothers' legs so we can see them, then he jumps back over, rolling over a barrel until his little legs hit the ground.
"He's fearless," chuckles Mike. "Wants to be a rodeo clown."
Mike gives us a tour of the giant tractor tires his grandfather salvaged and painted brilliant colors as the surrounding land was made ready for vineyards, and shows us the lacy strings of pull tabs that still dangle delicately from rafters on the porch.
"He kept everything: plastic bottles, cans, TV dinner trays, pie pans. If it was shiny, he hung it up; if it wasn't, he painted it. At Christmastime he'd take the foil wrapping and wallpaper the house." Mike pauses to listen to his walkie-talkie. "I'm a firefighter, too. Sometimes you'll hear, 'There's an accident, location unknown, but it's about two miles from Hubcap Ranch.' Everyone knows the place."
Of course, given that the number of hubcaps at Hubcap Ranch has more than doubled since the death of Grandpa Litto in 1985, it's a good guess that if there's an accident along this stretch of road, the car in question automatically surrenders all its hubcaps to the cause, even if it's not one of the Damontes reporting to the scene.
"We get garbage bags full of hubcaps left at the gate," says Mike. "Sam picks 'em out and wipes 'em clean. Litto and I wire 'em up. It's part of taking care of the ranch. It's a good life."
Mike Damonte and his sons excuse themselves. Today's the day when they hike up to the top ranch to cut down two Christmas trees, one for their front porch and one for the school where Mike has appeared as Santa Claus for the last 20 years.
"I serve on the school board with two guys who used to sit on my lap as kids," says Mike, shaking his head as he walks us to the front gate, his smiling face and his life reflected in hubcaps.