Tunneling immigrant leaves heirs the ultimate man cave

Ric Forestiere inherited one cool man cave – five acres of elaborate tunnels, rooms, courtyards and gardens in Fresno, California. His uncle Baldassare dug the labyrinthine grotto by hand, using only a pick and shovel.

“It’s a subterranean world that harkens back to Baldassare’s Sicilian boyhood,” said Ric’s daughter Lyn who, with her sister Valery, maintains the site for their 88-year-old dad.

The women tell their family’s story on the latest installment of the Fox Business Network series “Strange Inheritance” with Jamie Colby on March 5 at 9 p.m. ET.

Baldassare’s catacombs were far more extensive at one time, Lyn and Valery said. They explained to Colby that their great uncle immigrated to the United States intending to start a citrus farm. Instead, he first took a job digging the Boston subway, before a 1904 newspaper ad for cheap farmland lured him west.

“He made a $10 gold coin down payment for about 80 acres,” Lyn said.

The land turned out be 80 acres of “hard-pan” – covered with a five-foot-thick layer of silt, sand and clay. It was tough as concrete and unsuitable for farming.

Baldassare at least knew how to carve out of his sun-baked spread a place to escape the oppressive summer heat.

“He remembered how cool the subways were back east,” Lyn said. “If you went below ground it was very cool, like the wine cellars back in Sicily.”

So he grabbed a shovel and started digging. Before long he had cut a series of tunnels and rooms below the surface of his property. Down there, it stayed 65 degrees year-round.

Gradually, some of his brothers and sisters joined him in California, and they continued digging – using only hand tools. Ultimately the underground marvel expanded to 20 acres, with bedrooms, dining rooms, ballrooms, elaborate murals and even an aquarium.

Baldassare also dug deep enough to hit soil hospitable to all those fruit trees he’d originally hoped to plant. So he added underground gardens of oranges, lemons, kumquats and pomegranates.

“It’s a unique architectural creation,” said architect Bob Theis, who has studied the site, and is helping the family maintain its structural integrity. “The hard pan made it really easy for him to do all of this tunneling and room creating.”

Forestiere was hoping to turn it into an underground resort when died in 1946 at age 67.

Not all his brothers and sisters who inherited the property liked that idea, however. As land prices increased, they steadily sold off their strange inheritance to developers who filled in much of the tunnels.

Ric Forestiere’s father, Giuseppe,did share Baldassare’s dream. Hoping to make it a reality, Giuseppe leased his part of the property to a developer. The family was aghast when the developer turned it into roadside attraction that beckoned travelers to “the secret world of The Human Mole!”

“This beautiful accomplishment that he’d spent forty years doing. Somebody was trying to make it something weird,” Lyn said.

The developer’s lease expired in 1960, and the gardens were closed to the public. More of the tunnels were lost to eminent domain, until the family got a state landmark designation and reopened the attraction in 1973.

Since 2012, Lyn and Valerie have run the operation. They’re confident the next generation of Forestieres will also step up.

“Some are interested, some are not -- right now,” Lyn said. “I don’t worry too much. There’s a magnetism about this place.”