Switzerland to West Marin, Part One: A series of special features

One emigration shaped two regions

By David Rolland

Point Reyes Light 

P.O. Box 210 

Point Reyes Station, California 94956 

415-663-8404 or 415-488-4025 


The newspaper, which takes its name from the famous lighthouse on Point Reyes, was founded in 1948 as The Baywood Press; it changed its name to The Point Reyes Light in 1966. Located in Point Reyes Station, a town of 675 people 40 miles north of San Francisco, The Light serves 13 small towns in a dairy-ranching region known as West Marin. Its publisher is David V. Mitchell, who was also publishing the newspaper at the time of its Pulitzer Prize. The Light has six fulltime staff members (including three reporters) and three parttime staffers. In addition, several community members also contribute columns and photos. To submit a Letter to the Editor: editor@ptreyeslight.com  (300-word limit)

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 èmigrès 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."


Part 2