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.

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