It would have been a restful night had the phone not rung.
Banta farmer Dave Colli had no choice but to answer the call from his farmhand at 3:50 a.m. in early October and find out that someone was on his property trying to roll away with a few hay bales.
Colli raced shirtless out the door to catch the rustler.
He hopped into his Chevy pickup and sped away, backing in front of the thief’s truck to block him in.
“I pulled right up and shined my lights on him,” Colli said.
As Colli sat in his cab, windows up and doors locked, the man gave up his attempt to escape, hopped out, pushed the five bales out of his pick-up bed, popped his hood and started pouring water on the radiator.
San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputies pulled up a few minutes later to lay down the law.
The thief told deputies he was just cooling the radiator. But the straw all over the guy’s clothes gave him away.
“He was caught, but he did know exactly what he was doing,” Colli chuckled.
As does Colli himself. As a farmer and owner of horse stables and an inn, he’s a jack-of-all-trades. Stopping the hay thief was all in a day’s work, even in 2007.
Colli’s life is a hectic mix between restaurant-bar manager (as of little more than a year ago, when he bought the Banta Inn), farmer, investor, stable owner and father.
“He can fix just about anything — except a computer,” said Johnni, 20, one of Colli’s two sons.
On a typical day, Colli will get up early to chat with the inn’s chefs to line up everything for the day and then head back to the farm to get the hay baler out with his son. The two will spend hours flipping and baling the alfalfa and grain hay, deliver the bales to buyers, fix up the tractors, balers and other mechanical equipment on the 200-acre farm, then head back to the inn for another quick visit with staff.
With enough time, they might enjoy a dish with Colli’s “Italian-cowboy” flair, like balsamic steak, country potatoes or chicken cacciatore.
Colli can’t even guess how long his days are, in the everyday helter-skelter.
“I don’t count the hours,” he sighed.
Having grown up in a farming family, Colli didn’t pick up the habit of keeping a schedule.
“I’m done when the job’s done is more the way it works,” he said with a laugh.
Born in Stockton, Colli was raised in Banta, the small, unincorporated township outside Tracy. The 47-year-old has never wanted to leave.
When his parents died, he bought the house he grew up in, which means he’s even lived in the same house his whole life.
Last May, he formed a partnership with Henry Costa, a 63-year-old dairy farmer in Banta, to buy the 127-year-old Banta Inn and refurbish it. Colli has known Costa since he was 8 years old and Costa was 24.
“There’s no one I’d rather do business with,” Costa said. “I’ve known him since he was a kid. I used to give him hell for shooting pigeons at the dairy farm. But he’s such a polite, caring man. When you seem him in the inn, he’s always talking to people.”
Even after his divorce, Colli’s managed to stay good friends with his ex-wife, going so far as to entertain her and her new boyfriend at the inn.
Colli led the inn’s remodeling, without straying from its roots as a traveler’s inn, haunted by ghosts and decorated with 1950s road-trip kitsch — dinged up license plates, street signs, bumper stickers, resin-glazed photos and newspaper clippings on the tables.
On one wall hangs an antique scythe, saw and machete.
Outside, Colli kept the hitching post to encourage diners to ride up on horseback, just like the old days, which in Banta wasn’t that long ago.
“It’s a lot like the Old West out here,” Colli admitted. “But I want to encourage that, with, you know, people bringing their horses here and coming to meet with people they’ve known their whole lives. Or meet new ones.”
Chef Ray Ellis’ banter about the inferior quality of steak at chain restaurants drifts from the kitchen into the adjacent dining room.
“It’s true,” Colli chuckled. “No one cooks up a steak like us.”
The backyard fence is painted to resemble a ghost town, with a one-dimensional saloon, bank and blacksmith.
A stage for live entertainment sits across from the painted enclosure, and a smoker’s patio is right outside the inn’s dining room, barred on one side by a gate Johnni made entirely out of welded horseshoes.
“He’s an artist,” Colli said proudly. “Like I said, a farmer knows a little of everything.”
His son Johnni’s interest in farming encourages Colli more than anything else.
“Family is really important to me,” he said. “If there’s anything to say about me, it’s that they mean everything in the scheme of things. And Johnni taking an interest in what I’m doing means a lot.”
“I’m just hoping that my kids, my boys, will want to take over something,” Colli reflected. “One morning, the cook at the inn didn’t show up, but Johnni was there, just ready to help me cook breakfast. And that’s how we do things. He’s taken a strong interest in what I do.”
Colli talks proudly of all his children but works more closely with his eldest son. Daniel spends most of his time playing football or studying. His daughter, Genna, is busy at work as a preschool teacher in Tracy.
Because Colli’s dad and his father before him were farmers, continuing that tradition has taken on deeper meaning since he’s had two sons and a daughter of his own.
The Colli family emigrated from Italy in the 1920s first to Santa Maria, then to a little town in Mendocino County called Elk, off Highway 1, where they rented a dairy farm.
After they raised enough money, the Collis moved south to Banta, which then was little more than a vast expanse of raw land, checkered here and there by plowed plots, punctuated by the occasional farmhouse.
The Roy Colli Dairy opened its doors on California Avenue in 1928. It stayed open as a dairy until some changes in wastewater treatment laws in the 1970s made it difficult to keep the small operation running.
“The dairy was too small to keep up with the laws,” Colli recalled.
So he converted it to what it is now — Banta’s Double D Stables, where he boards 80 horses. He owns three horses himself.
But more than horse-sitting, it’s the hours on end of inn-keeping and alfalfa farming that claim most of Colli’s time — and puts him in contact with the most people.
“Everyone in Banta knows each other,” he said.
“And everyone knows my dad,” added Johnni. “Most of them are old friends.”
Colli nodded in agreement.
“There aren’t many people who haven’t been friends their whole lives out here. It’s part of why Banta is the way it is. I hope it doesn’t get swallowed up by the city of Tracy.”
What keeps Banta rural?
“I don’t know. But it’s stayed much the same for years, aside from a few houses popping up in the last two years. I love it for that. And for its history,” he added, referring to Banta’s storied past as a rest stop along the cross-country Lincoln Highway.
But it’s his own family’s history that has the strongest draw for Colli.
“This is where I’m from. And I hope my sons can feel this way about what I do.”
From the looks of Johnni and his dad rushing off to attend to their chores around the inn, the tradition is likely to live on.
• In the Spotlight is a weekly profile in Our Town. This week’s interviewer was Our Town Editor Jennifer Wadsworth. To nominate someone to be In the Spotlight or to comment on this week’s column, call 830-4225, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.