By LANCE ARMSTRONG
Editor’s note: This is the eleventh part of a series regarding the history of the “four corners” of Watt and El Camino avenues.
Certainly most people in the Arden and Carmichael areas are familiar with Country Club Centre, the 60-year-old shopping center on the southwest corner of Watt and El Camino avenues. But few people today remember a man in that area who was simply known as the “Goat Man.”
But there was a time when just about anyone who was familiar with the area understood what one meant when they referred to the “Goat Man.”
This man, whose real name was George Gust Zwerkis, was a sort of legendary figure of the area.
In about 1924, Zwerkis, who was an old country Greek, purchased 24 acres at the northwest corner of Watt Avenue and Cottage Way, and it was in that area that he acquired his nickname.
Prior to purchasing the property, Zwerkis worked for several years as a sheepherder for the Swanstons, the well-known, local landowners. The Swanstons operated a ranch and meat packing plant near Arden Way and the railroad.
It is no wonder why Zwerkis was known as the “Goat Man,” as he would seldom be seen without his goats.
And being that today’s Country Club area was quite rural, Zwerkis had plenty of places to roam with his goats.
One of the places where he would spend time with his goats was on the site of today’s Country Club Centre, just north of his home, which was about a 20-foot by 20-foot shack that was accompanied by an outhouse. His home was located about 50 feet off Watt Avenue and about 30 feet off Cottage Way.
Zwerkis also brought his goats to open grassland areas along Arden Way, Eastern Avenue and to a site at Marconi and Watt avenues.
Among the people who remember the “Goat Man” is Carmichael resident Sylvia Bringas.
“My late grandparents, Paul and Anna Zvalo, knew George Greek, the ‘Goat Man,’” Bringas said. “This is what everyone called him. I remember the ‘Goat Man’ crossing Watt Avenue, which was nothing but a two-lane country road. George was a very frugal man, who kept to himself and his goats. That area was country and my grandparents had a home nearby a mini farm on Marconi (Avenue) at Watt (Avenue). My grandparents were from Czechoslovakia and English wasn’t their first language. My grandfather was the original groundskeeper at Del Paso Country Club there on the corner of Watt and Marconi (avenues).”
Jerry Thomas, a 1963 graduate of Encina High School, remembers seeing the goat man during his youth.
“The goat man, all the kids were terrified of him,” Thomas said. “The goat man was dirty, meaning everyone thought he was a bum. You would drive by his house, which was set back off the road and there would be a Cadillac out in front, and somebody would say, ‘That’s those real estate people trying to buy (his property).’ Eventually they did. They talked him out of his property, because it was a really hot place. He didn’t want the money. That was the whole thing, but they kept bugging him and bugging him and bugging him. And then we would hear these silly stories and I think they were just myths. ‘Oh, it broke his heart when he had to leave his property’ and ‘the real estate men have cheated the goat man out of his land.’ This (north area) property out here in that neck of the woods is really very useless as a farming area. It’s hardpan.”
In 1976, the longtime local educator Herbert E. Winterstein (1908-1981) – who was memorialized through the naming of the Winterstein Community Park and the Herbert E. Winterstein (elementary) School (now the Community Collaborative Charter School) at 900 Morse Ave., adjoining the park – wrote his own memories about the “Goat Man.”
In these writings, he noted that Zwerkis told him that he sold his 24 acres for $165,000 in 1954.
Additionally, Winterstein described the “Goat Man,” as follows: “(Zwerkis) was a friendly, talkative neighbor, who somehow knew what was transpiring everywhere. He was difficult to understand, but he was alert and loved company. Yet he was something of a recluse.”
Winterstein noted that the “Goat Man” was proud of his new neighbors at Country Club Centre and loved to drop by the shopping center for coffee and doughnuts.
Another Sacramentan who recalled Zwerkis was Dr. Pat Melarkey, a longtime local dentist and former county supervisor.
Melarkey, 81, said that he first saw the “Goat Man” as a teenager in the mid-1940s.
“In 1944, I became the stable boy for the (Merle) Foster family on the corner of Morse (Avenue) and Cottage (Way), right where Kaiser (Permanente) Hospital is now,” Melarkey said. “They had five acres with a stable and some stalls and horses. So, we had the horses there and I used to take two or three of them and get on one of them and go down Cottage Way, east, and cut through the ‘Goat Man’s’ grape vineyard there. He would tell me not to cut through his property, but I would do it anyway. There were no fences. There was nothing out there then, just a few houses on Cottage Way. All that land over there, where Wal-Mart is there (in Country Club Centre), was all open, so we would just gallop the horses around and exercise them. So, I would see George herding goats, and, of course, I was there many times when traffic stopped and he was driving them across Watt Avenue or El Camino (Avenue). It was all open and he would just take them over (to different properties) to keep the grass down.”
Melarkey said that on at least two occasions, Zwerkis was photographed for a local newspaper.
“He was shown with his hands up in the air leading his goats across either Watt Avenue or Fulton Avenue with some heading like, ‘Traffic problem on Watt Avenue,’ which was quite funny, since neither one of those streets ever got much traffic back then,” Melarkey recalled.
Zwerkis’ goats, Melarkey noted, ranged in numbers, depending upon the time.
“He had a minimum of 25 goats, but sometimes he had 75,” Melarkey said. “And he had them kept in pens and a lot of those little ones he kept in the shack with him. He was really into husbandry.”
Melarkey added that the “Goat Man” also owned dogs that he used to herd the goats.
“He had five or 10 (dogs) at a time,” Melarkey said. “He had some beautiful sheep dogs. The neighbor (local butcher Dick Rogers, who resided at 3229 Cottage Way) around there found this one (dog that belonged to Zwerkis) in their garden and it was half dead. I brought (the dog) home and my mother (Eunice) got him well. It took about three or four months for him to get well. I then used to bring him out there (around Zwerkis’ place), and as soon as George saw the dog, he said, ‘That’s my dog,’ in so many broken words. And I said, ‘No, this dog was given to me by somebody else.’ The dog’s name was Bill. It had those white eyes and it was very distinctly marked – light brown and white. It almost looked like a calico cat.”
Bill eventually became a very strong dog, much due to the fact that he would accompany Melarkey on his daily Sacramento Union route.
Melarkey said that he experienced a sad moment in his life a few years later when Bill died, as he was one of several dogs in the area that were randomly poisoned with strychnine.
With a bit of a chuckle, yet with a fond tone to his voice, Melarkey said, “No matter what (the temperature) was (Zwerkis) was out there with an Army overcoat, a great, big hat, rubber boots and his goats and dogs. The ‘Goat Man’ was quite a unique guy.”
After selling his Watt Avenue and Cottage Way property, Zwerkis moved to Elk Grove, where he died at the age of 72 on May 15, 1955.
Winterstein and those who were interviewed for this article recalled that the “Goat Man” had left a wife back in Greece.
Regarding this woman, Bringas said, “(Zwerkis) stashed the cash (from the sale of his north area property) in his mattress. Subsequently, he died and a wife no one knew about showed up direct from Greece and claimed the money and went back home.”
Despite his passing, the “Goat Man” left behind a legacy as one of the north area’s all-time notable characters.