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.

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