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."

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