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."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 1 of 10)

This series of articles is directly from the 'Switzerland to West Marin' articles published in the 'Point Reyes Light' weekley newspaper, for the city of Point Reyes (West Marin County, CA) and vicinity. We don't want this story to be lost, so we are republishing it here. It's highly significant to us, because it represents part of a history of Lombardian people in North America.

Ticino is the southernmost Canton in Switzerland, and the only one south of the Alps. It's root stock population is ethnically and culturally Lombardian. One of the most important events in Ticinese history is the migration to California, estimated at about 20,000 between 1850 and 1930.

California's traditional "Swiss" population had long been almost exclusively Ticinese. Their was once many "Swiss Clubs" in California, as they identified themselves as distinct from Italian-Americans. As "Lombardian-Americans," we consider them to be fully our kindred.

From the Point Reyes Light newpaper:

"Lavertezzo in the Valley Verzasca is typical of villages in Ticino. An Italian-speaking canton (or state) of Switzerland, Ticino lies on the southern side of the Alps. The Light sent reporter David Rolland and photographer Janine Collins to Switzerland and Croatia in April and May to research two of the five historic waves of ethnic immigration to West Marin. Others were from Ireland, Portugal's Azore Islands, and the Mexican state of Jalisco. Next week, The Light's three-part series will discuss the Genazzi, Campigli, Martinelli, Cheda, Dolcini, Lafranchi, and Barboni families. The final week will deal with Marshall's Viliciches and Konatiches and their relatives in war-torn Croatia."