Monday, December 3, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 10 of 10)

Intermarriage intertwines West Marin's Swiss families

By David Rolland

If the intertwining of Swiss immigrant families seems confusing, imagine how it must have struck Vicki Martinelli of Point Reyes Station's Martinelli family.

As a student at Tomales High in the early 1970s, she became smitten with recent graduate Fred Genazzi. The pair began dating. After a few months, the relationship started growing serious.

Then Vicki's uncle Stan delivered some startling news; he told her he thought that she and her boyfriend were related.

"You've got to be kidding," Vicki said she recalled thinking. "When that's told to you, you get a numb feeling."

Although the relationship suddenly felt "weird," Vicki said, she and Fred kept dating for another year.

Martinelli joked that at the time she figured she'd have to date people in Petaluma to ensure that bloodlines wouldn't cross. Ultimately she never did learn exactly how she and Fred Genazzi are related.

(Actually, The Light has turned up the answer. Martinelli is the great-granddaughter of Olympio Martinelli, who was the half brother of Isa Campigli, Fred Genazzi's great-grandmother. In short, Vicki and Fred are third cousins with one great-great-grandparent in common.)

The problem, Martinelli said, was that her grandparents never passed on much of their family's history. "They never told any of us ... anything about what they did when [their ancestors] got off the boat ... I think it's really sad for my generation."

Tangled genealogies

As Martinelli's story demonstrates, the genealogies of Swiss descendants are often an elusive tangle. Lineages and marriages span two continents, and unraveling family histories is a challenge even to those who work at it.

Another great-grandchild of Isa Campigli, Fred Gilardi of Point Reyes Station, built a family tree for an anthropology assignment while attending Chico State University in the 1970s.

His project left his professor and classmates awestruck. The branches of his tree included Swiss and Italian names such as Tomasi, Lafranchi, Yelmorini, Soldati, Mazza, Pomi, Giammona, Bolla, Bianchini, Sartoris, Giacomini, Grossi, Bettinelli, Scilacci, Garzoli, Muscio, Lucchesi, and Conti.

Now a teacher himself, Gilardi has assigned similar projects to elementary school students in Petaluma and West Marin, sometimes to his pupils' consternation.

"I inevitably got some poor kid who was related to the teacher and didn't want to admit it," Gilardi said with a laugh. So many immigrant families here are related that "you can't step on someone's toe without someone else yelling, 'Ouch!'" Discovering family trees

Like Gilardi, Swiss Professor Giorgio Cheda, Modesto resident Rae Codoni, and the late Lauren Cheda -- all of whom are distantly related -- spent years trying to figure out family trees.

Codoni, a cousin of Tocaloma rancher Don McIsaac, has flown to Corippo, Switzerland, several times to search church records dating back to the 16th century. He has written a book on the subject called The Corippians.

Giorgio Cheda, a professor at Locarno's Teacher's College, has studied Swiss emigration for 30 years and has interviewed West Marin residents for two books on Swiss immigration to California.

One clan's emigration

The clan that eventually included Chedas, Codonis, and Gilardis began with two teenagers from Maggia, who emigrated to West Marin in the mid-1860s: Peter Campigli and Louis Cheda.

The pair established a pattern that would be followed by generations of other young men from the Valle Maggia. First, they land jobs milking cows on dairy ranches owned or leased by earlier immigrants from their home town.

Then, after about a decade of saving money, they returned to Ticino to claim wives. Many of them returned to West Marin, gambling that the New World would be a better place to raise families.

Campigli married Isa Martinelli. Cheda married Isa' sister Nina. The two couples -- along with the Martinellis' half-brothers Santino and Olympio Martinelli -- returned to West Marin, and the family tree starting branching.

Campiglis & Genezzis

Today, it would be difficult to find Swiss or Italian descendents in West Marin who are not in some way related to the early Chedas, Martinellis, or Campiglis. Few of these family links became more entangled than those connecting today's Campigli and Genazzi families.

Two of Pietro and Isa Campigli's children, Erminia and Armando, married a brother and sister, Fred and Dora, from the immigrant Genazzi family.

Armando and Dora Campigli were the grandparents of Ed Campigli who lives in Point Reyes Station with wife Jackie. Jackie is a sister of Butch and Joe Giammona, who are of Sicilian descent, not Swiss. The brothers run an unlikely pair of businesses: City Sewer Service and Joe's Diner.

Before marrying Fred Genazzi, who had moved here from Maggia in 1896, Erminia Campigli had first been married to Silvio Codoni, the son of Joseph Codoni, who immigrated from Corippo of Ticino's Val Verzasca in 1868. (Silvio died a young man.)

Silvio Codoni's sister was Nellie McIsaac, mother of Tocaloma rancher Don McIsaac.

Fred and Erminia Genazzi in 1917 bought the Riverside Ranch in Point Reyes Station which Pietro Campigli had been leasing from the Righetti family. Son Harold Genazzi, who lives there with his wife May inherited the ranch in 1945.

Harold and May are the parents of the second Fred Genazzi, who as a youth unwittingly dated his cousin Vicki Martinelli.

The Martinelli family

Vicki Martinelli belongs to the fourth generation of a family directly descended from immigrant Olympio Martinelli, the half brother of Isa Campigli and Nina Cheda.

Nowadays all this may seem only befuddling, but years ago these extended family ties could be worked to an advantage.

As a young immigrant, Olympio Martinelli worked for his brother-in-law Louis Cheda, bought the Olema Store with his cousin Attilio Martinelli (who went on to be a county supervisor from 1920 to 1940), and then rented and later bought his father-in-law Battista Tomasini's ranch, from which Tomasini Creek and Tomisini Canyon derived their names. Olympio Martinelli and Flora Tomasini are the parents of the late Elmer Martinelli, who in 1965 opened the dump in Point Reyes Station that is now the controversial West Marin Sanitary Landfill. Elmer Martinelli's widow Hazel and their children Leroy, Patricia, and Stanley, today own the landfill with a minority co-owner, Jim Wyse.

Apples, garbage & produce

Intriguingly, the landfill owners are related to Stephen Martinelli, who in 1868 at the age of 26 founded the Martinelli Apple Juice company in Watsonville. He had left the village of Maggia only nine years earlier. As it happens, Olympio's brother Santino "Sam" Martinelli for a time worked at the apple juice company.

Still another branch of the Martinelli family settled in Bolinas, where today they operate an organic farm in Paradise Valley. They are descendants of EB Martinelli, who was a two-term state senator beginning in 1908.

Senator Martinelli's father Lorenzo Martinelli had been a fry cook during part of the John Fremont expedition which blazed a trail through the West and reached San Rafael in 1846.

Martinellis in Bolinas

EB's son Jordan Martinelli Sr., a Marin County Superior Court judge, over time bought three small ranches in Bolinas, beginning in the late 1930s.

Since then the ranches -- together called Paradise Valley Ranch -- have been used for dairy, beef, and sheep ranching.

But recently the Bolinas Martinellis have converted their ranch to new forms of agriculture. In 1983, the family leased part of their land to Warren Weber for organic vegetable growing, and last year they leased another portion to Don Murch, who now "dry farms" potatoes.

A few months ago, Peter Martinelli, great-great-grandson of immigrant Lorenzo Martinelli, followed suit by by starting Paradise Valley Ranch Organic Garden.

The Cheda family

Unlike the different branches of the Martinelli family, who still are involved in agriculture to various degrees, members of the Cheda family abandoned dairy ranching early on -- a rare move among the immigrants.

The early ranching Chedas evolved into shopkeepers, garage owners, and a prominent mortician.

Rancher Louis Cheda, whose wife Nina was a sister of Isa Campigli, was the great-grandfather of Adolph "Sonny" Cheda, who with his son Gary runs Cheda Chevrolet and garage in Point Reyes Station.

Sonny's cousin Vernon Cheda formerly owned Cheda's Market (now Beckers' deli) on Point Reyes Station's main street. Vernon's brother Leroy is a mortician with Russell and Gooch Funeral Chapel in Mill Valley.

Vernon's aunt Erma Scilacci, now 92, married Wilford "Bill" Scilacci, who in 1922 bought the Point Reyes Emporium (later the Palace Market) at auction after feed merchants seized it from his father for unpaid bills. Bill Scilacci died three years ago at age 99.

Swiss in Pt. Reyes

Scilacci's widow this week told The Light the market was one reason so many Swiss immigrant families became intertwined. Downtown Point Reyes Station, and especially the market, served as a meeting place, she said.

"Everybody was very friendly," Mrs. Scilacci recalled. "You just felt like one big family."

As with many other Swiss descendants who came to play dominant roles in West Marin, Mrs. Scilacci has enjoyed an unusually long life. At 92, she suffers from merely "a little arthritis, but that's all. I shouldn't complain."

What's the secret of her countryman's longevity? After a pause, Mrs. Scilacci answered brightly. They're made, she said, from "good old stuff."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 9 of 10)

Isolation limited Ticinese in choosing their spouses

By David Rolland

Just as geography often determined which families intermarried back in the Old Country, so too was the case in West Marin.

The Lafranchis, the Dolcinis, and the Barbonis -- three ranching families who own much of north-central Marin County -- became neighbors early on but soon became relatives.

Fredolino "Fred" Lafranchi, the father of Nicasio rancher Willie Lafranchi, left Maggia in 1908 at age 17 and traveled to Marin with the late Tomales rancher Giocondo Cerini.

Fred "had heard all these glowing things from his uncle and others who were over here -- wonderful things about California," Willie LaFranchi said.

Brothers meet

Fred's brother Piero of Locarno, Switzerland, told The Light that he didn't even meet his older brother until Piero was a teenager. That was in 1930, when Fred returned home to visit their parents for the first time since emigrating.

In West Marin, Fred found work on an uncle's dairy ranch at Red Hill. Later he tried chicken ranching when his brother Alphonso joined him from overseas.

Like his son Willie, who has served more than 30 years as a trustee of Nicasio School District, Fred joined numerous boards and civic organizations, including several dairymen's groups.

The connections with the Dolcinis came in 1919, when Fred married young Zelma Dolcini of the Nicasio Valley. The couple immediately rented a Nicasio dairy ranch and bought it in 1938. Today, son Willie owns the ranch.

Citizenship revoked

As is the case today, immigration laws in the early part of this century could seem absurd. Although Zelma Dolcini was born in the US, she lost her citizenship when she married Swiss immigrant Fred. Between 1907 and 1922, federal law required American women who married foreigners to take the nationality of their husbands.

As a result, Zelma "had to go through the same procedure as people entering the country," her son Willie said. "My father became a citizen before my mother did."

Zelma was the daughter of Pietro Dolcini, who immigrated in 1870 and married Anita Martin, the daughter of enterprising immigrant Charles Martin (formerly Carlo Martinoia), who, like the Dolcinis, hailed from the town of Cevio. Banking success

Martin went on to be a prosperous banker. He served as president of the Petaluma National Bank and the Marin Bank of San Rafael. He was also a director of Hill Bank of Petaluma and the Swiss American Bank of San Francisco. When he died in 1905, Martin's estate was worth $1 million.

The Dolcinis have since parlayed their share of Martin's estate into 12 ranches consisting of more than 8,000 acres, making the family the largest private landholders in Marin County.

Unlike some ranching families in West Marin, the Dolcinis expect to remain ranchers. "Most of the ranches where my generation resides do have [children] that do carry on," noted Hicks Valley's Peter Dolcini, 70, a grandson of Pietro Dolcini.

"You have to like the life," he said. "If you didn't like it, you'd get out."

Barboni marriage

Dolcini's ranch sits adjacent to the Circle B Ranch, now owned by Bill Barboni, 74, another descendant of a Swiss immigrant.

Peter Dolcini's cousin Irene Dolcini married Joseph Barboni, Bill's uncle, and the two began raising a large family on the ranch.

Tragedy struck in 1927. Both Joseph and Irene died within six months of each other; he of appendicitis and she during the still-birth of the couple's tenth child.

With the nine orphans facing separation by adoption, a judge persuaded Joseph's brother Charles Barboni, Bill's dad, to adopt all the children. Charles, who had dropped out of school in the fifth grade to start dairy ranching, was only 32 at the time. He and his wife Effie already had two kids of their own.

'A good businessman'

Along with his brother's kids, Charles moved from Petaluma and assumed ownership of Joseph's debt-ridden ranch. Bill Barboni recalled his father as generous and "a good businessman ... That's how we wound up with four ranches."

Charles Barboni may have inherited his generosity from his father Constantino, who had left Ticino for West Marin in the 1890s.

Some years later, Constantino heard through the grapevine that back in Switzerland was a girl named Josephine who longed to move to California.

Bill Barboni told The Light that his grandfather sent $200 to Josephine's parents, promising that if they sent their daughter to West Marin, he would marry her.

Josephine soon joined Constantino. Together they returned to Switzerland in 1905 and lived there five years. In 1910 they changed their minds again, came back to West Marin, and started a dairy ranch at Red Hill.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 8 of 10)

Religion changed more for Swiss who emigrated

By David Rolland

For the Ticinese Swiss, the core of social and cultural life has traditionally been the church. Locarno's Piero Lafranchi, 81, recalled the devotion of his mother, who gave birth to of one of his sisters while in the high Alps where the family summered its cattle.

Just out of labor, his mother put the baby "in one of those basket things they carried on their backs, and brought her down to the village so that she could be baptized," he said.

"That same day she went back up again to the mountain -- the day she had given birth -- all the way down and back up again with the child, about a four-hour journey each way just after giving birth," he said.

Such devotion was not uncommon, and the Italian Swiss carried their beliefs with them when they resettled in West Marin. Over time, however, the traditional faith has in some ways and in some families diminished. Less practiced here

As explained by Lafranchi's nephew, rancher Willie LaFranchi of Nicasio, "The church has always been the center of everything, [but in West Marin] some Swiss families went to church, and some didn't go to church."

As for his own family, "My parents were pretty strict churchgoers, especially my dad. He was from over there."

Indeed, Willie Lafranchi's aunt Virginia (another of Piero Lafranchi's sisters), immigrated to the state of Washington and returned to Ticino only once -- to pray to the Virgin Mary.

"Her son was in the war in Japan," Piero Lafranchi explained. "Of the group of soldiers he was with, he was the only survivor of a bomb. All his companions were killed.

"When he came back alive, his mother made a promise to Madonna del Sasso [Our Lady of the Rock] that she would come back here and go up to the sanctuary in person to give thanks."

Comfort for the afflicted

Such faith, Piero Lafranchi said, was rooted in poverty; the Church offered consolation and guidance to the impoverished villagers.

Piero's nephew Luciano, who with his uncle spoke to The Light at a cafe alongside Lake Maggiore, noted that to the minds of villagers, it was the Madonna who saved them each time someone misstepped and fell in the mountains while herding cattle, which happened frequently.

These days, the village of Maggia (population 750) has two Catholic churches. In one, two walls are covered with pictures depicting the Madonna saving Ticinese from all manner of catastrophes. They were all painted by Antonio Vanoni of nearby Aurigeno.

Monuments to Madonna

In addition, religious monuments mark spots in villages and on mountainsides where the Madonna spared various lives.

"It is superstition to think that this one didn't die because the Madonna interfered, no?" asked Luciano Lafranchi.

But, he said, for his father and grandfather's generations, "you must not forget that what we now call now superstition was for them religious faith, and it helped them to live and accept these conditions.

"What the priest would say was accepted. It wasn't questioned. Religion was accepted without criticism. The priest was the most important person in the village."

Even today, Catholicism is generally stronger among the Swiss in Ticino than among their relatives in West Marin, for the departure from the Old World was not only geographical but also cultural and religious.

Pressure to conform

For some, Catholic dogma felt oppressive, and provided additional incentive to leave Ticino. In Maggia, "you were blackballed if you didn't stay in line," noted rancher Harold Genazzi of Point Reyes Station.

Swiss families who emigrated to West Marin generally consider themselves Catholics, but nowadays worship seems somewhat less obligatory. Church attendance among the Swiss descendants is down, matching the trend in the general population.

"We've always been Catholics," said Hicks Valley rancher Bill Barboni. "We received communion and everything when we were young." But, he said, the rigors of running a dairy ranch made regular church attendance difficult.

These days, however, despite the declining numbers at Mass, Barboni said he's getting to church more often, with the encouragement of his wife Rosemarie. Swiss picnics

Religion, of course, was just one tradition Swiss carried across the Atlantic more or less intact. Another was the Swiss picnic, for years a much anticipated annual respite from the relentless, back-breaking work of dairy ranching.

Late historian Jack Mason, in his book Earthquake Bay, writes of one such celebration in Tomales in 1889, a commemoration of the 582nd anniversary of Swiss independence.

At that event, patriotic banners and bunting festooned the streets. A wagon bearing a portrait of Swiss hero William Tell went through town "behind a band playing Swiss airs," Mason writes. "Aboard the wagon were representatives of each of the 22 cantons [there are 28 cantons now] in the old Republic...

"CF Cavalli, editor of the only Swiss newspaper on the Coast printed in the Italian language, gave an oration in Italian." More songs and speeches followed, with festivities building to "Mme. Martinoni's closing of the Star Spangled Banner."

Picnics in other towns

Although not always so extravagant, Swiss picnics continued as a tradition through the first half of this century. Willie Lafranchi and Peter Dolcini of Hicks Valley both recall attending the annual Swiss picnics at California Park in San Rafael during their youth.

"That was the big event of the year," Lafranchi said, "to go to the Swiss picnic. We never missed that. [The Ticinese] were so anxious to see their old friends."

Added Dolcini: "Each of the families would come, and you'd congregate with your own clan or with your friends. There was no yodeling or anything like that, but we would whoop it up. They had bands, lots of singing -- no shortage of wine."

Swiss clubs waning

Although a few Swiss clubs still hold social functions around the state, they are not nearly as well attended as they once were, in part because immigrant families have become "diluted" with other nationalities, Dolcini said.

Aside from the picnics, other forms of recreation for Ticinese immigrants included one distinctly American pastime -- baseball -- as well as regular Saturday night dances.

During the 1930s and 40s, semi-pro baseball teams from San Francisco and elsewhere would come to play at Nicasio Square. "It was big before the war," Lafranchi said, "and then after the war it started up again for a while."

Rodoni baseball tradition

Although baseball was a new sport for the Swiss, there were soon Blooms (formerly Fioris), Righettis, and Rodonis on local teams. Among the Rodonis were current Point Reyes Station residents Fred Rodoni Sr. and his brother Julius.

"Fred...was a good baseball player," recalled Lafranchi, "and Julius too." In fact, Rodoni Sr., 77, is still going at it; the Point Reyes Station insurance salesman is the starting pitcher for his team in the West Marin Softball League.

Bars and dances

There were saloons, of course. "At one time, I think, there were four bars in Nicasio," Lafranchi said, adding that there used to be 26 dairy ranches in Nicasio Valley, compared to three today.

But it was the weekend dances that young Swiss looked forward to most. Indeed, many of them met their future spouses on the dance floor. "The Saturday night dance was held over there in Nicasio," Peter Dolcini said. "You'd pick your wife or your husband within the territory because you all socialized together."

Friday, October 12, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 7 of 10)

Ticino has found prosperity since war

By David Rolland

Directly east of Point Reyes Station's Green Bridge is the ranch of Harold Genazzi, whose father Fred Genazzi immigrated from the Swiss village of Maggia in 1896.

A century later, Maggia is still tiny (750 residents compared with 675 in Point Reyes Station), and its lord mayor is Elio Genazzi, a cousin of Harold.

Mayor Genazzi has never set foot in West Marin, but in describing his own town on a recent Wednesday afternoon he might easily have been talking about Point Reyes Station.

Vacationers -- typically Dutch, German, and Italian -- boost Maggia's population to 1,000 in summer, crowding the town and making some villagers unfriendly toward outsiders.

As is true throughout West Marin, strict land-use regulations maintain Maggia's traditional appearance but often frustrate property owners. Real estate prices have become exorbitant.

The tourist-based prosperity is only a fairly recent phenomenon. Life, for many Ticinese, generally began improving as the villages modernized after World War II.

Genazzis epitomize change

The Genazzi family itself epitomizes the change. Mayor Genazzi, 42, a bespectacled, soft-spoken man, noted that around the turn of the century, when virtually all Maggia residents were poor, the Genazzis were especially destitute.

"They were considered the poorest family in Maggia," he offered matter of factly. "Even today in Valle Maggia, people talk about what a terrible time my family had to survive."

These days, aside from being the lord mayor, Elio Genazzi works as an urban planner for the City of Locarno and has just been elected to Ticino's canton (or state) parliament.

"Boy, things have changed," exclaimed Evelyn Gilardi nŽe Genazzi of Point Reyes Station, when she learned from The Light how well her cousin was faring.

The mayor, who is also a cousin of Tomales rancher Romeo "Butch" Cerini, recalled with a touch of pride what family members who stayed in Maggia managed to endure 100 years ago.

"At that time it was important to have some land," Genazzi said through an interpreter. "But the only land that they had was right up in the Alps -- in the mountains -- the farthest away from their house."

A dangerous life

Work then was hard and dangerous. Transporting hay down from the Alpine meadows was especially tricky. At the time, men and hay descended the mountainsides in gondola-like slings, which were ridden at high speed.

On one occasion, Elio's uncle Ubaldo Genazzi had not yet reached the end of the line when Mayor Genazzi's father Marco sent a bale of hay careening after him. The hay plowed into Ubaldo and knocked him off the crude sling. He fell some 50 feet and broke both legs.

These days, cable cars have replaced the slings, making the task far safer. The post-war era

If life has improved, the improvements by no means have come free of complications.

A decade ago, after 40 years of modernization and an influx of wealthy residents, civic leaders in Maggia grew concerned about some very West Marin-style issues.

New residents were building modern houses or remodeling old ones, and the resulting loss of historic character and scarce open space prompted a wave of land-use politics.

"If we allow everybody to build where they want, future generations will find themselves with no land, no green open space," said Mayor Genazzi. "Today that's one of the biggest problems we have here -- to plan what to do with the land."

Genazzi acknowledged, however, that some property owners feel paralyzed by new zoning laws and building codes. "Now it's almost to the point that it's practically suffocating people," he said.

"There are so many rules and laws they have to conform with that people say there's no liberty anymore. But it has been necessary to make these laws."

Genazzi, who has been mayor for eight years, is particularly pleased by a recent architectural trend celebrating traditional stone houses.

Homogeneity lost

Some changes city planners can't stop. Historically, villages in Ticino were defined by the families who lived in them. Cevio was the home of the Respinis and Dolcinis. Giumaglio was home to the Cerinis and Sartoris. In Someo were the Tomasinis and Righettis. The Codonis and Scilaccis came from Corippo.

The automobile, however, brought an end to the villages' isolation. Outsiders have moved in and the townspeople themselves have been freer to leave. Communities are far less homogenous than they were before World War II.

"Up to about 1960 in Maggia, the Genazzi, Martinelli, and Garzoli families were the majority," the mayor said, "but today, those families are just a few. The new arrivals have nothing [historically] to do with Maggia."

Unclaimed estates

Intriguingly, the changing character of Ticino's villages may hold financial significance for some West Marin residents.

As many older Ticinese have died, their property has fallen into legal limbo. Under Swiss law, all relatives of a deceased person must be asked if they want to put in a claim for his or her property.

Among those with outstanding claims to property in Maggia are the Swiss branches of the Campigli, Martinelli, and Genazzi families, the mayor noted.

"The relatives that are here can't dispose of an estate until they know all the heirs," he said. "It creates quite a problem, [for] we know there are heirs in America.

"But those heirs are afraid to admit who they are because they fear that maybe in the inheritance there are some debts, and maybe they'll have to pay."

Some heirs don't realize they may have a claim to valuable land in Maggia, he stressed.

Lived in both locales

Eva Giubbini of the village of Intragna has lived for years in both Ticino and West Marin, and has watched both regions evolve along somewhat similar lines.

Giubbini was born in Intragna but grew up in Inverness. She returned to Ticino with her family in 1948 when she was 19.

While living in Inverness, "my parents always said [Ticino] was the most beautiful country in the world," Giubbini said,

Inverness in the 1930s was no less rustic than Intragna at the time. When her family arrived, "Inverness still did not have electricity whereas Intragna already had electricity," she recalled. (Electrical service finally reached the Point Reyes peninsula in 1939.)

"My mother for one year cried every day...she was that homesick."

Likewise, Giubbini's father missed Intragna so much he made visits home every few years, returning one time having bought an old post office in Ticino. During his visits to Intragna, "he always said, 'I want to come back here. These are my roots. I want to come back.' And he did," Giubbini said, "but for only six months, and [then he] died of a heart attack."

New prosperity in Ticino

Upon returning to Switzerland as a young woman, she found Intragna "awful quiet, but I didn't care because I was coming here, and it was a whole new world."

Nearby, the city of Locarno has grown to 15,000 residents, but right after World War II, it looked "like a small, sleepy, Spanish town with little activity," Giubbini recalled.

"I don't know how the change came about, but everyone seemed to be happy," she said. "Everyone started working again. You started building. Banks went into business. Shops opened ... This happens after every war."

As has happened in her childhood home of Inverness, many old houses in Intragna and other Ticinese villages have been converted to vacation lodging.

Giubbini herself rents out a couple of houses to short-term and long-term vacationers. A two-bedroom house rents for the equivalent of $900 a month.

Giubbini waited 10 years after resettling in Intragna before visiting West Marin. She said she was too busy experiencing Europe: "I had too much to do...

"I love going back [to West Marin, but] I think I have gained more by staying in Europe. It has broadened me more than if I had remained in Inverness or Point Reyes."

However, Guibbini said, "I still feel very American."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 6 of 10)

A reporter's Swiss notebook

By David Rolland

Swiss officials charged photographer Janine Collins and me a whopping 70,000 Italian lira ($42) to drive our rented Ford Fiesta across the border from Italy, and once again we worried that our newsgathering adventure was far too expensive for The Light.

Our mission was to interview residents of Canton Ticino about their links to families in West Marin. The focus of our research was immigration that began 150 years ago and ended by the time most people alive today can remember.

One of the first Ticinese we looked up was Rita Alberti, owner of Hotel International in Bellinzona (comfy plus great Italian food), and her husband Toce. Toce Alberti's aunt and uncle lived in Greg and Doris Ferrandos' house in Point Reyes Station before the Ferrandos.

Longing for California

Intrigued by our research, the Albertis introduced us to Renaldo Richina, who with his wife Angelina had ranched in Monterey County for 14 years and could compare Ticino with California.

Richina showed us nearly every house in his town of Robasacco and described their inhabitants. At first, we were overwhelmed by this hospitality, but when we reached Richina's own home, we saw how much he still misses his cowboy days in California. Hanging in the entryway to his home is a Great Western Savings poster of John Wayne.

Angelina Richina poured us a glass of red wine, as did everybody else we met in Ticino, while her husband told us over and over how California is most wonderful place on earth but that President Clinton is "too soft."

With great humor, Richina served up rapidfire opinions on communism, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Kirk Douglas, Turkey, and former French President Francois Mitterand, revealing as he joked a keen understanding of what California has meant to him and other Ticinese.

After showing us photos of himself in cowboy garb, his prizewinning bulls (highest-grade butterfat 1958, 1959), and his children, Richina proudly declared: "I am an American. My children are American."

But what about Switzerland, his birthplace and home? "Too many son-of-a-guns," he shot back.

Our mission revealed

The Richinas and our hosts, the Albertis, took us to dinner at one of Robasacco's small restaurants where a boisterous crowd was drinking and singing at a nearby table. Curious what the revelers were singing in Italian, photographer Collins asked Toce Alberti to translate.

They're singing about the Ticinese migration to America, Alberti answered. Collins and I were dumbfounded: what could be more perfect for our research?

The group's songleader was introduced to us as a journalist, Pier Baroni, who writes for Lugano's Couriere del Ticino. Once Baroni learned why we were there, he shouted the news across the room to his cohorts, and they again burst into song.

It was a song for me, and it was followed with one for Collins -- her name worked cleverly into the lyrics.

Baroni was amazed that anyone in the States would know about the Ticinese emigration to California -- one of the most important events in his canton's history -- let alone would travel all the way to Robasacco to learn more about it.

It wasn't the only time Collins and I received such an emotional response to our reporting.

Rodonis in Ticino & West Marin

Exactly a week later, we arrived in the town of Biasca to have dinner with the Cavaglieri family. Before she married her husband Claude, Amina Cavaglieri's last name was Rodoni.

Cavaglieri showed as a picture of her grandfather, Ferdinando Rodoni, a cousin of immigrant Julius Rodoni. Julius was the father of Point Reyes Station residents Sis Arndt, Fred Rodoni Sr., Julius Rodoni, and Pat Rodoni, who died in March. Then she set the photo down next to a picture of a young Pat Rodoni, and the resemblance was unmistakable.

It was less than a decade ago that she learned she still had family alive in California. With her son Michel acting as translator, she told us how she the two halves of her family made contact:

Pat Rodoni, his wife Nola, and daughter Yvonne visited Biasca in 1984 in search of relatives. One of the town's longtime residents took them door to door to some of the many Rodoni households in Biasca, but the search was fruitless -- that is, until one Rodoni suggested that it might be the Cavaglieri family that they were looking for. Unfortunately, luck was not with Pat, Nola, and Yvonne; the Cavaglieris were out of town.

Pat and his family left their West Marin address and phone number with people in Biasca, and Amina ultimately got it. She called Pat and Nola in Point Reyes Station, and the relatives began exchanging old pictures of family members and the relationship developed.

A Swiss Rodoni visits Pt. Reyes

The two families didn't actually meet in person until another of Cavaglieri's sons, Carlo, visited Point Reyes Station and in broken English asked the first man he saw how he could find Pat Rodoni. The cheerful man replied, "I'm Pat Rodoni."

How did Carlo react? we asked him. "I don't have words," he replied. "It's impossible to explain -- excitement, emotion."

Some months later, Pat's daughter Yvonne and her husband Antonio Paez returned to Biasca for a visit, and Amina used the opportunity to bring out more photos of people she couldn't identify; they had been tucked away in an old family album.

As Yvonne eyed the photos, she saw the images of her father and her uncles that had been sent to Switzerland from California more than 50 years ago. "If we didn't have this documentation," Cavaglieri said, "we could not have found the family of Rodonis in America."

As Cavaglieri told her story and listened to Carlo tell his, she at times appeared on the verge of tears. She had been overcome with joy ever since we walked through her door. Our visit was worthy, in their opinion, of a huge bottle of champagne that Michel had won in the town's Carnivale. They said they had been saving it for a very special event.

The celebration didn't end with champagne. Two friends, the Maggini Sisters, suddenly burst into the house and serenaded us with America America, Happy Birthday to You, and a risqué ditty titled Don't Touch My Breasts -- all played on saxophone kazoos.

Two weeks of encounters like these made the $42 border crossing well worth the price.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 5 of 10)

Canton of Ticino neighbors help each other in Tomales

By David Rolland

Sometimes not much changes when families move thousands of miles from home.

For more than a century, the Cerinis and the Sartoris have been neighbors in the Swiss town of Giumaglio. Today, a Cerini is the town mayor, and a Sartori Quarry sits just north of town.

As it happens, the Cerinis and Sartoris are also neighbors in Tomales.

They are an example of how the first immigrants from a certain town established themselves and then helped townspeople who arrived later not understanding a word of English.

One such helpful immigrant was Tomales rancher Maurice Sartori, who in 1910 gave 16-year-old newcomer Giocondo Cerini his first job as a ranchhand.

Two weeks before he died on Feb. 14 at age 100, Cerini told The Light that upon arriving, he saw so many familiar faces that Tomales "was just like home."

Stone cutter back home

Sartori had been a stone cutter in Giumaglio before emigrating to Tomales in the 1890s. He became a landowner in 1903 when he purchased the Burbank Ranch from his brother Victor, who had immigrated before him.

Sartori's ranch is still in the family. Romeo Sartori -- Maurice's grandson -- his wife Kathleen, and their adult son Russ own the 645-acre dairy on the Tomales-Petaluma Road now.

And Sartori's generosity paid off for the Cerinis. Giocondo saved enough money to later buy the John Keys ranch in Tomales along with two of his brothers, Arcangelo and Romeo.

That ranch, which is located across Highway 1 from the Tomales gas station, has since passed on to Romeo's son Butch.

Butch's cousins Roy, son of Isadore Cerini, and Leroy, son of Giocondo Cerini, also own land in Tomales.

Last living immigrant

Before he died, centenarian Giocondo Cerini was believed to be the last living immigrant who had made the journey from Switzerland to West Marin.

Ironically, his sister Maria Genazzi, who had stayed in Giumaglio with two of their brothers, died in Switzerland only a month earlier at the age of 104.

Her daughter Laura Bono -- talking to The Light between loads of laundry at her home in Maggia, Switzerland -- noted that Maria Genazzi was too attached to Ticino to emigrate to West Marin with the six of her brothers and sisters who did.

So while her brothers began the long road to greater freedom and prosperity by finding work at Tomales dairy ranches, Maria Cerini moved from Giumaglio to Maggia. There she married Giacinto Genazzi and struggled to raise five children.

"Life was very hard, especially for the Genazzi family," Bono said. "With five children, it was a difficult life because my father passed away very young. "It was difficult to get some money in the early times here. The brothers and sisters in California...they saved some money. But she -- here in Maggia -- she was very, very poor."

Murdered over livestock

Nor could she turn to her own parents for help. Her father Giovanni also died as a young man, having been murdered in a dispute over a goat.

Although her brothers in West Marin did far better, two sisters who had also immigrated weren't so fortunate. Adela and America Cerini died of consumption (tuberculosis) shortly after they arrived.

For his part, Giocondo Cerini had a tough time making it from Ticino to West Marin. After boarding the SS Britannia in France, he and a friend, Alex Piezzi, traveled in different classes of the ship en route to America. The two got separated when the ship docked at the federal immigration station on Ellis Island, New York, and they searched for each other for days.

As it turned out, American officials had wrongly registered young Cerini as an Italian, and Piezzi eventually found his friend at the Italian consulate.

Cerini told The Light that all he could afford to eat on the week-long train ride from New York to California was salami and cheese washed down with jug wine.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 4 of 10)

Two very different families from the same Alpine village

By David Rolland

Chileno Valley rancher Hank Corda is proud of his family's long involvement in Marin civic affairs.

Marshall's Alvin Gambonini simply wants government officials to leave his family's ranch alone.

Both men descended from families who immigrated to West Marin from the same town, Vogorno, in Switzerland's Canton Ticino.

The Cordas have gone on to become prosperous ranchers, today owning more than 5,400 acres of ranch land in Chileno and Hicks valleys.

Cousins Hank and Jerry "Goog" Corda have both served recent terms as president of the Marin County Farm Bureau. And Hank, who is also a farm-insurance broker, serves as a director of the Resource Conservation District based in Point Reyes Station.

Hank Corda last week told The Light it was his great-uncle Fred who initially steered the family into politics and commerce.

Marin Dell Milk Co.

Fred Corda, the son of Swiss immigrant Joseph Corda, was a founding director of the Central Valley Bank, the Marin Property Owners Association, and -- in the early 1930s -- the old Marin Dell Milk Company.

Fred Corda by necessity was a man of vision. Marin Dell began distributing four years before the Golden Gate Bridge was finished in 1937, and the company had to use a barge to transport West Marin milk from Sausalito to San Francisco.

"Each of the ranchers would take their milk in cans to the central loading depot" on Novato Boulevard, Hank Corda said. The milk would then be trucked to Sausalito. Marin Dell eventually merged with Golden State, which was later bought out by Foremost.

"We've always been selectively active in farming organizations," Hank Corda said. He recalls with bemusement that some members of the public thought an Italian clique ran local affairs -- a perception based on the number of Italian-sounding Swiss names on Marin boards and commissions.

"People got the impression, 'Oh, they run things their own way,' and maybe to some degree that was true," Corda acknowledged.

Swiss Establishment

Until California's Brown Act was adopted in 1953, "Oftentimes [civic business] was done at a duck club or a deer hunt," Corda said. Oftentimes a county supervisor was invited to a "abalone feed or a salmon bake."

The Brown Act -- which requires that public business be conducted in public -- put an end to that, he maintained, adding that open-meeting laws have done more good than harm.

But in his grandfather's day, Corda said, "things got done in a little more timely fashion, and often there was some savings involved. [However,] it oftentimes meant some under-the-table shuffling."

Certainly, the Swiss-Italian clique isn't monolithic; Marshall rancher Alvin Gambonini, a distant relative by marriage of the Cordas, often takes a course that puts him at odds with government agencies or his ranching peers.

Alvin Gambonini

Gambonini seems ever to be warding off officials from Marin Municipal Water District (who own the neighboring Soulajoule Reservoir), plus the Regional Water Quality Control Board and Hank Corda's Resource Conservation District, (the latter two over cleanup of an old mercury mine on Gambonini's property).

As Gambonini sees it, he simply wants to raise cattle in the tradition of his grandfather, and he fashions himself a stubborn defender of his late father's ranch on the Marshall-Petaluma Road.

His grandfather, Battista Gambonini, like many immigrants endured a hard voyage when he set sail from Europe in 1868. The trip took a month and half, with the first leg ending at the Isthmus of Panama. There he traveled by flatcar across Panama, then hopped a second ship bound for San Francisco up the Pacific Coast. Once in California, Battista worked several months for various vegetable growers. Then he headed north to Humboldt County, another place Swiss immigrants were beginning to settle.

"In Humboldt County, unable to speak English, he packed his blankets on his back and walked from ranch to ranch, often hungry, looking for work," wrote Alvin's cousin Paul of Lake County in a history of the Gambonini family.

Worked for Martinelli

Several months and odd jobs later, Gambonini returned south and worked the next six years on Lawrence Martinelli's ranches in Hicks and Chileno valleys.

Battista Gambonini went on to rent various ranches, including the one in Tomales that the Sartoris later owned. He finally settled on a ranch in Sonoma County and raised six children, including Arnold, Alvin's father, who eventually bought the ranch that Alvin, 72, now owns.

Although the Gambonini ranch totals 1,460 acres, growing up on it was hardly luxurious. "About all we did was milk cows," Alvin Gambonini said. "We never went no place. Marshall was about the farthest we went."

In the 1920s and 1930s, the closest school was Salmon Creek School four miles away. Like most of his peers, Alvin got there on horseback. (He recalls one set of four brothers Ñ the Bonomis Ñ who arrived by horse and buggy.)

Poor Mrs. Silva

The impish Gambonini said he derived much pleasure from terrorizing Mrs. Silva, the school's teacher. He was the only first grader in a student body that never topped 12 at one time, Gambonini said, and so he was allowed him to go home before the other students. That's when boredom from a lack of companionship got him into trouble.

One time, he climbed on top of a shed outside the schoolhouse and tore all the shingles off the roof just to watch them blow around the yard.

On another occasion, he and a partner in crime, Paul Bordessa, who today lives on the Barboni ranch in Hicks Valley, violently rocked the school's outhouse back and forth, thinking a female classmate was inside.

To their surprise, a shaken Mrs. Silva stumbled out. "She grabbed us by our shirts and kept us inside [the school] all day," Gambonini recalled with a laugh.

Nearly killed her

Worse yet was the time Gambonini loosened the lugnuts on Mrs. Silva's 1929 Model A Ford, causing her to lose a wheel.

Oh, and one time he tossed some .22 shells into the school's wood-burning stove, and bullets exploded when they got hot.

Gambonini is no longer pestering Mrs. Silva, but he still can be exasperating when it comes to fixing erosion problems on his ranch. He frequently pits his will against the Resource Conservation District, whose directors include fellow descendants of Swiss immigrants Corda, Bill Barboni, and Don McIsaac (son of Nellie Codoni).

Gambonini always "was a real troublemaker," quipped his 12-year-old grandson Daniel last week, "and he still is."

Friday, September 7, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 3 of 10)

How the Grossis and Spalettas prospered as immigrants

By David Rolland

Were he alive today, Domenico Grossi would probably say his best Christmas Day ever was his 17th, the day he arrived in Marin from Monte Carasso, Switzerland.

From a meager existence in the foothills of the Alps, Grossi would one day emerge as one of the most prosperous ranchers in West Marin history, acquiring a total of six ranches.

The only member of his immediate family to emigrate, Grossi became the patriarch of what could might be called the Grossi-Spaletta clan, which today operates 11 beef and dairy ranches in West Marin.

In contrast to West Marin's Grossis and Spalettas, who need computers to manage their hundreds of cattle, their cousin Diego Grossi, 52, in Switzerland milks 40 cows.

Interviewed at his home in Monte Carasso, Grossi told of working at an unpleasant railroad job for years before he was able to return to the vocation he loved -- tending dairy cows.

Working on the railroad

Ironically, another railroad job was responsible for Grossi's being in Switzerland today instead of West Marin.

Decades ago, Grossi's grandfather -- a poor farmer with a dim future -- was unexpectedly offered a job on a railroad, which in those days was a much sought-after job.

"He was out working in the vineyard and someone came and said, ÔLook, there's a chance of a job in the railways, are you interested?'" Diego's mother Edda recalled.

"My father said, 'Yes! Immediately!'"

Buoyed by his sudden good fortune, the grandfather stayed behind when his brother and sister departed for West Marin. The railroad provided steady work, but his family never enjoyed the prosperity of their relatives in the New World.

When he was just a boy of eight, grandson Diego began driving the family cattle each spring high into the Alps where they grazed throughout the summer.

Even today, Diego Grossi still takes his cows into the mountains, although now now they travel by cable car.

Grossi said he would like to milk more cows, but Ticino has too little pasture for its farms to graze much more than 50 head. "Switzerland is small, but it fits in your heart," he said with a smile.

'A life of poverty'

To be sure, Grossi is doing far better than his ancestors did. Recalling the old days, his mother Edda said, "It was a life of poverty...just a small house, a cow, some vineyards... a really poor life."

It was that austere existence that prompted her uncle Domenico Grossi to emigrate to Marin County, arriving in Sausalito on Christmas Day, 1891. There he said goodbye to his cousin, who had travelled with him but was continuing on to San Francisco.

"The day [Domenico] landed in Sausalito, he wanted to come out to ranching country," recalled his son Jim Grossi, 83, who still operates his father's original home ranch in Hicks Valley.

Domenico Grossi quickly learned that West Marin was where the jobs were. "He wanted to make money," said his son, "so they told him to go to Point Reyes and meet a guy named Grandi."

Grandi Mercantile Co.

In those days, Salvatore Grandi, another Italian-Swiss, owned the general store in Point Reyes Station.

Grandi gave Grossi a job delivering groceries to the ranches out on Point Reyes.

Through this, young Grossi became acquainted with the McClure ranching family, who in turn employed him as a ranchhand for seven years.

On the ranch, Domenico earned $25 a month. "He had to buy his own clothes. They did feed him," his son said, but not much. "It was a rough deal." He was eventually promoted to butter maker, which earned him an extra $5 a month.

By 1899, Grossi had accumulated the wherewithal to rent his own ranch in Olema where the Sacred Heart Church is today. Now a rancher in his own right, Grossi married and sired the first three of his 11 children.

Ironically, Grossi and his wife Teresa Buzzini had lived only a few miles apart as teenagers in Switzerland, but the two didn't meet until they both worked in Olema -- he at his ranch and she at Nelson's Hotel, now the Olema Inn.

Acquiring ranches

Two ranches and nearly two decades later, Grossi moved his family to their home ranch in Hicks Valley, where the work "damn near killed me," his son, Jim Grossi, remembered with a laugh.

"We would work like a bunch of beavers. The family took care of all the labor, milking 150 cows by hand twice a day including Sundays."

In the next 22 years, the elder Grossi would buy five more ranches and place one of his children on each.

George got the old Burdell Ranch near Stafford Lake; Henry received the old Tomasini Ranch in Marshall; Domingo got the M Ranch on Point Reyes; and Virginia (who married Tom Gallagher) and Alfred shared the Point's H Ranch.

The family later divided M ranch and daughter Mary and her husband David Rogers took the newly created half.

The Gallaghers in 1946 bought C Ranch from Joseph Nunes and Joseph Avila, and Alfred later purchased more land in Nicasio Valley.

The Spalettas

West Marin's Grossi and Spaletta families became intertwined when Domenico Grossi's eldest daughter Edith married Charles Spaletta. In 1936, her father gave them a ranch at the base of Red Hill on the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. Today that ranch is run by their son Bud.

In 1955, Bud's brother Jim Spaletta, then 23, leased C Ranch from his uncle Tom Gallagher and later purchased another 1,450 acres north of Dillon Beach.

When Spaletta eventually moved to his Ranch to the north, he turned C Ranch over to his son Ernie. A second son, Jim Spaletta Jr., now runs yet another ranch in Tomales.

Together the Grossis and Spalettas now operate more than 9,000 acres in West Marin, including four ranches on Point Reyes that were purchased by the Park Service and leased back to the families.

Contact with Old Country

In the century since Charles Spaletta's father William immigrated from the village of Cimalmotto, Ticino, the Spalettas and Grossis have managed to stay in contact with their relatives in Switzerland.

Jim Spaletta Sr. and his wife Rosemary plan to make a third trip to Ticino next year to visit Grossi relatives in Monte Carasso. No Spalettas remain in Cimalmotto.

During an earlier visit to Ticino, the Spalettas wanted to see Brione, the town where grandmother Teresa Grossi nŽe Buzzini was born.

"Grandma always said it was the lousiest place in the world," Jim Spaletta Sr. noted. "My grandmother always said they didn't have enough to eat. If they had a varmint to eat, they'd eat that."

Despite his grandmother's bitter memories, the visitors found Brione and its surrounding Val Verzasca "just beautiful," Spaletta said, adding that it was hard to believe such a picturesque place could have seemed so bleak a hundred years ago.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 2 of 10)

One emigration shaped two regions

By David Rolland

One day in late 1891, in Monte Carasso, Switzerland, 17-year-old Domenico Grossi planted a grape seedling and told his mother he was going to America.

He promised to return to Monte Carasso with some extra money for the family before the seedling bore fruit.

Today that seedling is part of a 2,000-square-meter vineyard, but Grossi's mother -- despite Domenico's promise -- never saw her son again.

Grossi was too busy becoming one of the most successful ranchers in West Marin history, in time acquiring six ranches from Point Reyes to Hicks Valley to Marshall, eventually doling them out to his children.

And although he never went home to Switzerland, Grossi made good on part of his promise. He sent a share of his West Marin earnings home, which improved life for his impoverished family.

"It might have been a small amount for those in America, [but for his family] here it was always a large amount," noted Grossi's cousin Edda Grossi, 81, who still lives in Monte Carasso.

"His parents didn't want him to go," she said. "But he had set his mind on [it], so he went. The others all stayed here."

20,000 immigrants to state

Grossi was typical of 20,000 Italian-speaking Swiss who between 1850 and 1930 fled oppressive poverty in the Canton of Ticino for California -- West Marin in particular, noted Giorgio Cheda of Locarno, a professor at the Locarno Teachers College who is an expert on Swiss emigration.

In fact, the only places in California to attract more Swiss immigrants than West Marin were the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Ticino, Switzerland's only canton (or state) south of the Alps, borders Northern Italy and mirrors its southern neighbor in language and culture. Not surprisingly, most of the Italian-sounding names found among today's West Marin residents -- Spaletta, Martinelli, Cheda, Campigli, Corda, Genazzi, Cerini, Dolcini, Respini, Gambonini, Lafranchi, etc. -- are actually Swiss.

Although the Ticinese arrived broke in West Marin, many of the immigrants worked hard and saved enough money to begin buying ranch land. Today these families own a combined 41,500 acres -- a staggering 30 percent of all the agricultural land in Marin County.

Swiss merchants

And the Swiss immigrants did not just prosper at ranching. EB Martinelli of Nicasio, whose father was one of the first to arrive in West Marin, was elected to the state Senate in 1908 and served two terms.

Another Martinelli, Attilio, after whom the centerpiece building in Inverness is named, served as county supervisor in the 1920s and 30s.

Ralph Grossi, grandson of Domenico Grossi, now represents West Marin agriculture in Washington DC, where he is president of the American Farmland Trust.

The late Nicasio rancher Henry Tomasini, another Swiss descendent, started the First National Bank in Tiburon and later Northbay Savings and Loan in Petaluma.

Four immigrant merchants -- Louis and Salvatore Grandi, Quinto Codoni, and Peter Scilacci -- started building Point Reyes Station's business district around 1880 and dominated it for four decades.

Giacominis & Chedas

Another Swiss immigrant, Celeste Domenighini, bore two sons who would also play prominent roles in town commerce: Toby Giacomini, the trucking company and feed barn owner, and his brother Waldo, a rancher who once owned the Palace Market. (Their father was Italian.)

Switzerland's Cheda family -- pronounced KAY-da in Ticino, CHEE-da here -- gave Point Reyes Station the late garage owner Dolph. His son Adolph (better known as Sonny), now owns Cheda's Chevrolet. Cousin Vernon Cheda formerly owned what is now Becker's deli.

Background to emigration

What prompted the migration? During the first half of the 19th century, tiny Ticino (twice the land area of Marin County) was devastated by political and economic upheavals both within Switzerland and in neighboring Italy.

Prior to Italian unification, Northern Italian nationalists often operated out of Switzerland in their war for independence from Austrian rule.

Austria responded by blockading the Italian-Swiss border, which cut off commerce between the two nations and left more than 6,000 Ticinese employed in Italy unable to support their families.

And there were usually many mouths to feed; birth control was rare and the additional children were viewed as potential workers who would help support the family. But the land was mostly rocky and unproductive, and by the mid-1800s was overburdened by a growing population, noted Professor Cheda.

Poverty in Ticino

To raise the animals necessary to sustain a single family with milk and food, villagers each spring perilously trekked with a couple of cows and goats to meadows in the high Alps, where the animals would graze all summer.

For many villagers, their work was wretched and their prospects bleak. Food was scarce. Infant mortality was high. Villagers lived at a level "just a bit above misery," said Edda Grossi of Monte Carasso.

"We never had any meat," said Locarno's Piero Lafranchi, 81, an uncle of Nicasio rancher Willie Lafranchi.

"Mostly what we ate was polenta," he explained through an interpreter. "Our staple diet was polenta: polenta and milk, milk and polenta, polenta and cheese, cheese and polenta."

Added his nephew Luciano, 65: "They had nothing to do here. They had no possibility for earning a bit of money. The only solution was to go to the States, so they went."

Finding work here

With little to lose, young Ticinese men set out for the United States where they hoped to cash in on the Californian Gold Rush. Soon, however, they turned to what they knew best -- cows.

What else, asked Luciano Lafranchi, "were they able to do? Nothing. Cows, cows, cows...Look after the cows. They had no profession."

Point Reyes Station rancher Harold Genazzi, the son of an immigrant, made the same point: "They had to scatter. There was nothin' doin' over there. They followed the dairy cow to the Northern Coast."

Referring to Ticino, Genazzi added, "My dad used to call it the land of misery."

A failed emigration

The Swiss emigration that began in 1849 was not Ticino's first. Boatloads of Ticinese had previously set off for an Australian gold rush but enjoyed no luck. A few found menial labor in Australia. Others found nothing at all. Most returned poorer than when they left.

For most who emigrated to California, however, the story had a happier ending. By 1851, noted Professor Cheda, word was getting around Ticino that California was truly a land of opportunity. Swiss newspapers reported on emigrant success stories.

Beginning that year, Swiss men from the Valle Maggia -- Ticino's Maggia River Valley -- first went to work at on the dairy ranches of West Marin. The names in this early group: Moretti, Garzoli, Pedrazzini, Righetti, DeMartini, and Tomasini.

The Martins and Dolcinis

Among the early immigrants was Carlo Martinoia from the village of Cevio. He changed his name to Charles Martin upon arriving in California and worked briefly in the gold fields. According to great-grandson Peter Dolcini of Hicks Valley, Martin lost his gold fever after a brother was stabbed to death, and he headed west to milk cows.

Martin followed the Swiss tradition of thrift and hard work. In 1856, just four years after reaching West Marin, Martin bought a large ranch in Chileno Valley. In 1870, before moving to San Diego to raise cattle, Martin had become the 26th richest landowner in Marin County, having amassed $36,000 worth of land. In comparison, Tomales founder John Keys' broad land holdings were worth $48,000, the 1870 census reported.

Martin's legacy -- the Dolcini estate -- survives today. Martin's daughter Anita married Pietro Dolcini, who with his brother Michael had emigrated from Cevio to Nicasio in 1880. The Dolcinis' father, Joseph, had previously taken part in the ill-fated emigration to Australia.

Today, the Dolcini estate owns more land in Marin County than any other private owner -- a total of 8,100 acres spread over nine ranches in Nicasio, Hicks, and Chileno valleys.

70 years of emigration

Martin and his contemporaries, however, were only the first wave of dairymen to leave the Valle Maggia for West Marin. In 1856, Austria dropped its blockade of Switzerland, and emigration slowed until 1868. That year, a series of floods around Lake Maggiore ruined crops and killed cattle, forcing another mass exodus.

By 1870, some 350 Ticinese were living on this coast. Settling particularly in Chileno and Hicks valleys and around Point Reyes Station and Olema were West Marin's first Chedas, Fioris (changed to Blooms), Martinellis, Scilaccis, Codonis, Campiglis, Giacominis, Genazzis, Grandis, Cerinis, Maggettis, and Respinis.

Those families were soon after joined by other Swiss with names like: Corda, Gambonini, Dado, Salmina, Barboni, Codiroli, and Pedranti. Still later, the immigration brought: Spalettas, Grossis, Giubbinis, Rodonis, Ambrosinis, Bianchis, Buzzinis, and Lafranchis.

For the most part poor, young (15 to 25 years old), and unable to speak English, the immigrants generally started as hands on existing dairies. In 1880, wages typically ran $10 to $15 per month plus food and lodging.

But while other Californians gradually abandoned the farm for urban industries, West Marin's Italian Swiss tended to keep plugging at what they knew best. "The migrants failed to conform to the California economic pattern of the time, but followed what seemed to be their own best chance for advancement," noted historian HF Raup's book Italian Swiss in California.

Whether to return to Ticino?

Until 1915, it was common for immigrants who amassed savings in West Marin to return to Ticino, although some found it difficult to readapt to Old World ways.

Moreover, those who stayed away unintentionally improved the lives of those who stayed behind. "The Golden State was the best opportunity for the people in Ticino," noted Professor Cheda. Not only did they send money home, they alleviated overpopulation in Ticino.

Even those who eventually returned helped the canton. Because so many young men were gone for years at a time, marriages were postponed, wives had fewer children, and the birthrate dipped.

Cheda said he believes this "natural birth control" was the most important demographic phenomenon of the Ticino-California migration: "The women, instead of having the first baby at 18 years, have it at 25 years -- almost 10 years later. And this way you cut almost 50 percent of the births. That's impressive, no?"

New standard of living

This falling birthrate and an influx of money from emigrants in America improved the general standard of living throughout Ticino, said Professor Cheda.

Families were better off financially. Parents were more mature when they had children and produced fewer of them, and so it was easier to feed and educate children.

Cheda has demographically studied areas in Ticino where there was significant emigration and places where fewer people left. "The most important thing, in my opinion, is the capacity of writing," he said. "It means in the places where the people migrated [out], the young [who remained] received instruction. They write and read."

However, the emigration also had a grim side. With so many men gone, the women had to take over the brutal work in Ticino.

In the late 1800s, the professor noted, Swiss doctors began finding that numerous girls were suffering serious bone deformities in the pelvic area caused by carrying heavy loads on their backs during their early teens.

As a result of the deformity, if such a woman became pregnant, in many cases "the women and child died [during birth]," Cheda said.

Creation of social classes

Migration also stratified the Valle Maggia into a system of social classes. Emigrants who returned from West Marin and elsewhere with money were afforded higher status.

Cheda's father Americo, for instance, was able to double the size of his house upon returning from California.

Indeed, in the Ticinese village of Someo, for example, the social distinctions carried to the grave. "In the early times, we had a poor cemetery for the people who stayed all their lives in Someo, and they stayed poor people," the professor explained.

"But the rich people...they come back from California, and they built these big, wonderful houses. [And] they built a new cemetery for only these people coming from California -- a private cemetery with big stone monuments."

No doubt the emigrants had earned all this. A writer for the 1927 History of Banking in California, which spotlighted some of the more prominent Swiss immigrants, was particularly impressed: "Among the people of foreign nations who have settled in this country, none have been more worthy of success than those from Switzerland...

"They possess to a marked degree the innate qualities that go to make a people great in the truest sense."