Agrarian Kentfield — Fertile Land in the Suburbs

By Dewey Livingston

Kentfield and the Corte Madera Creek marshes seen from the top of the Kent Estate, which at the time was used for grazing and a small dairy. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

While Ross Landing grew into an important town in Marin with significant commerce and large estates in the 1870s and beyond—it would later become Kentfield — there remained many aspects of the rural life. William Barry had a dairy ranch and milk route in the valley, selling fresh milk for eight cents a quart in 1874. Even the younger James Ross had a large dairy ranch at Greenbrae, where, for a short time he lived the life of a gentleman farmer, until leasing it to a Swiss dairyman.

A fascinating tale comes with the arrival of Giovanni Chiappari, an Italian farmer who bought land from the widow Mrs. Ross. Chiappari was born in northern Italy in 1854 and immigrated to the United States in 1870 at age 16. He eventually made his way to Marin County where around 1874 the young man — barely out of his teens — leased a 14 1/2-acre garden plot from Mrs. Ross. Chiappari became the supplier of fresh vegetables to Ross Landing and environs, becoming known as “the vegetable king of Ross Valley.”

“Vegetable Garden” shows the location of Chiappari’s garden, northwest of the later site of College of Marin, on this detail of an 1886 map. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Chiappari did well enough that he was able to buy the land where his gardens grew from Mrs. Ross in the spring of 1875. He was 21 years old and paid $3,770, about $260 per acre. Chiappari, joined by his brother Luigi, operated the Ross Landing Vegetable Garden for at least ten years.

The Chiapparis also sold their vegetables in San Francisco, Giovanni having moved there in 1879 to operate a booth in the Colombo Market. Luigi Chiappari tended the farm and bought a larger parcel of land in San Anselmo in 1886. The following year Giovanni Chiappari sold the Ross Landing garden to Peter Burtchaell and others. He returned to Marin where he worked as a florist in San Anselmo, and he died there in 1937. Chiappari’s garden property was later subdivided as Granton Park.

The Granton Park neighborhood was developed on the site of Chiappari’s vegetable farm. At top is Sir Francis Drake Blvd., bottom is Corte Madera Creek. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Perhaps remarkably, Kentfield and Greenbrae remained largely rural well into the twentieth century. Greenbrae’s lovely, oak-spotted pastures remained, just as James Ross knew them, for a full half of the new century until post-war progress crossed the Golden Gate. At Kentfield — site of one of the earliest commercial produce farms in Marin County — farmers bent to labor in green fields on either side of the old state highway (now College Avenue), well into the era of fast cars.

While current day residents enjoy the surrounding beauty of their suburban community, it’s hard to imagine how often people pulled their cars over to the side of the road to photograph, paint, or merely admire the classic country scenes of haystacks, rows of lettuce, colorful flower fields, greenhouses, or black-and-white cows, all with the awesome backdrop of Mt. Tamalpais.

From around 1818 on, mission cattle grazed all the available pastures, luxuriating in the native grasses. Farming started in the 1840s on Juan Cooper’s Mexican land grant where Indian tenants tended to the “cultivation of … corn, beans, peas, potatoes, barley, wheat, pumpkins and watermelons” in the vicinity of the Ross town border, very likely Granton Park. Theodor Cordua invested heavily in a commercial farm to “victual” visiting whalers and warships in 1846–47; his farm would become Kent Woodlands a century later.

Not until Ross Landing had been settled did farms develop that catered to the growing local populace. Giovanni and Luigi Chiappari’s 14-acre vegetable garden served the village and points beyond, and while it wasn’t known exactly what they grew and whether the farm continued by another operator after they sold it in 1887, theirs was the first known farm of any size in the later nineteenth century. The lower portion of George Butler’s fine estate, twelve acres bounded by the creek, the county road and the railroad tracks, served as a picturesque hayfield for many years, at least until 1920.

Albert Kent, who retired to Ross Landing in 1873, proved to be one of the more prominent farmers at Ross Landing. He employed a full time manager and farm workers who planted 20 acres of the former Cordua farm with grapes, grains and vegetables. A dairy provided milk to the Kent estate and its neighbors well into the twentieth century, and the locally famous and beloved annual Grape Festival drew hundreds to the estate to raise funds for a nearby orphanage. Although farming at the Kent estate slowed down after the turn of the century, Lena Corvi Fassi remembered the 1920s and 1930s on the estate: “They had their own little farm, their own little garden,” she recalled. “Mr. Capella did all that, not only did he do the flowers, but I think he did the vegetables also.” Farming disappeared altogether with the development of Kent Woodlands starting in the 1930s.

Richard Diener’s flower farm, on the site of Adaline E. Kent School, the original building which can be seen at far left. The two-story Diener home facing College Avenue still stands. Richard Torney collection.

In collaboration with William Kent’s son, Thomas, and Kentfield resident Jonathan Webb, German-born horticulturalist Richard Diener established a commercial and experimental nursery on Kent property between Adaline E. Kent School and Corte Madera Creek, some time in the early ‘teens. Called the Kentfield Nurseries of the Richard Diener Company, Inc., Plant and Seed Growers, Diener at first specialized in gladiolas, pansies, carnations, geraniums and cannas. He became well known and successful for his development of a number of varieties of fine petunias starting around 1918 (including one called Ruffled Monster, available in twelve colors), filling large lath greenhouses with plants exclusively for seed production. There were also flowers named for members of the Kent family.

Diener’s gladiola work produced varieties “three times the size of old ones,” according to one of his advertisements. His gladioli caused a sensation at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.

Diener’s Kentfield greenhouses were busy with activity. Kentfield-Greenbrae Historical Society collection.

Having immigrated to the United States in 1903 when he was 25 years old, Diener lived alone on the growing grounds. He did practically all of the work himself, with limited help from women in the community. It appears that the Kent family invested in the business, but to what extent is not known.

Diener also worked on the south end of the Kent estate that had been part of William Murray’s land until the 1870s; hence the name Murray Field (now lower Rancheria Road). Diener grew three acres of corn there, and experimented with breeding “Bearded Wheat” on the field as of 1917–1918, producing fine results not only in quality but also in yield. A chemist at Sperry Flour Company tested Diener’s wheat crop and praised it as “an unusually good quality of California wheat.” The chemist deemed the “color and texture of bread, very good.” Diener wrote to Thomas Kent that his Diener #18 Bearded Wheat “will attract the baker’s favorable attention instantly as it means more loaves per barrel of flour.” He enclosed a couple of wheat berries in a letter, “to give you an idea of how fat and chunky they look.”

Richard Diener posed with his experimental wheat crop on the Kent Estate, circa 1920. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Diener also experimented with several varieties of beardless wheat. He planted and cut the crops, and threshed the wheat himself, with plans to plant 40 to 70 acres the following year. His work garnered praise from major U. S. nursery owner John Lewis Childs of New York, who hoped to get in on the business (Thomas Kent’s father, Congressman William Kent, advised against making any deals too quickly). Diener’s wheat experiments apparently did not prove to be a success in the long run.

He didn’t give up on food plants, however. In 1921, Diener advertised the Diener Tomato, a huge three-pounder “as smooth as an apple,” promising “30–40 tons of ripe fruit to the acre.” The tomato was ideal for catsup, dehydrating and canning.

Richard Diener Company letterhead, circa 1918. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection

Diener was well known in the plant and seed world and was a pathfinder in developing hybrids with both decorative and food plants. He wrote a paper called “The Laws of Hybridizing” in 1920 and dedicated the publication to Hon. William Kent “who backed and aided the work in the public interest.” The publication is still available for sale.

Advertising as the “largest growers of petunia seed on the Pacific Coast,” Diener’s color catalog was distributed far and wide. The business thrived in the early 1920s but was taken over in 1924 by, in his words, “a group of northern capitalists” who installed a manager that Diener deemed unsuitable for the job. The result was that within two years the company “went to pieces,” he wrote. “I lost every dollar I had invested in the business.” Richard Diener left Kentfield in 1926 and restarted his company in Oxnard, California. Diener Seeds continued in business for many decades, working on hybridizing and genetic modification, until it was acquired by Monsanto’s subsidiary ASI in 2006.

Italian immigrant Eugenio Corvi leased and then bought, in 1920, George Butler’s lower fields and transformed them into an Eden of edible delights. The farm was located where the College of Marin science center and parking lots are today and is remembered by Kentfield old-timers.

“My father and mother came to Kentfield to look for a better life,” recalled Corvi’s daughter, Lena. Eugenio Corvi and Angelina Stella Raffi immigrated separately from Parma, Italy, early in the century. They met while Angelina worked as a cleaning woman at the Hotel Bon Air, and married in 1917; Eugenio was 31 and Angelina 19. Their daughter Lena was “the first Italian girl” born at Ross General Hospital, July 1, 1918. Two more children would follow, Louise and Gino. This was early in the period of an influx of Italians who were leaving Italy at the end of World War I to find work and prosperity in America and many, having grown up in an agrarian culture, found opportunities in farming. Italian-owned truck farms proliferated in Marin County and California in the 1920s, and Kentfield offered small scale but fertile locations for crop raising.

Eugenio Corvi’s vegetable farm on College Avenue in 1922. Today, Kent Woodlands is in the distant left, and the field is a College of Marin parking lot. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Corvi purchased about thirteen acres of land from Butler and set to work transforming a former hayfield and flood plain into a thriving vegetable farm. The rich soil and ample water, coupled with the talents of Corvi and his partner, brother-in-law Louis Raffi, produced a garden and business that allowed Corvi to meet his dreams of success.

Daughter Lena, interviewed in 2012 by local historian Richard Torney, had vivid memories of her father’s farm: “He grew every kind of vegetable and fruit … he had an old Ford truck that he would deliver his vegetables to San Rafael, on Fourth Street — Charlie’s Market — and then sell wholesale to Sonoma and Bolinas.”

“We had four workers on the farm, all gentlemen,” she continued, “and we had horses that plowed the fields. We didn’t have any modern equipment at all, just horses.” Her father grew Swiss chard, spinach, kale, broccoli, sprouts, torpedo onions, tomatoes, garlic, head lettuce, butter lettuce, zucchini, summer squash, radishes, turnips, cauliflower, cabbage, string beans, Italian beans, fava beans; fruit included apples, plums, grapes and peaches. “We had our own eggs” from a flock of chickens, “and we had pigs and made our own ham and bacon.”

Corvi and his hired help did the slaughtering on the farm: “My uncle, who was the manager of the farm, had special knives [for killing],” Lena said. “They had a dark room underneath the house, and they did all that stuff; I ran away and hid until they were finished, I couldn’t stand the squealing of the pigs.”

Corvi’s farmhands lived in a big house next to the railroad tracks, the Corvi family in another on College Avenue with a tall water tank looming over the yard. Lena recalled:

I used to play as a child around that water tank and make mud pies. I’d make believe I had a store and get orange crates from my father and make these crates of pumpkin pies, and they were all mud pies and that’s how I spent my fun. I didn’t need toys, that’s what I did, I made pies — apple pies, pumpkin pies — out of mud.

Angelina Corvi cooked for the workers. “Breakfast was minor, it was lots of coffee and toast. Mother didn’t have a toaster, she had a wooden stove, and she made her own bread, so she cut the bread and put it on the stove and turned it over when it was toasted; in those days they didn’t put butter on it, they put olive oil; and that was breakfast. Sometimes there was bacon and eggs, but very rare.”

For lunch, every lunch started off with a plain soup, everybody had to eat the soup or you didn’t get the next course, I remember that because I hated soup, but I had to eat my soup. After the soup came a great big salad made from the farm, tomatoes and green peppers, red peppers, and also she’d open a can of sardines to go with that, or a can of tuna, and homemade bread; that was it for lunch.

And for dinner, it was soup to start off with again, and then we had either baked chicken, roast beef, beef stew or pot roast, baked potatoes, baked vegetables such as carrots, turnips, zucchini; also your glass of red wine to go with your dinner. No dessert.

Corvi made a small amount of wine with his own press. “It was kind of a rosé, and when I was ten years old I got to sip it, and to this day I hate red wine.” Lena noted that the workers didn’t have wine for lunch, “otherwise they couldn’t work out on the farm afterwards.” After wine with dinner “they had a good night’s sleep.”

Lena remembered growing up on the farm, at five years old picking blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, as trains whizzed by on the adjacent tracks. “Growing up on a farm, I thought it was fun, picking the blackberries, picking the raspberries, my hands were all black and blue but I didn’t care, I was five years old and I got five cents for picking twenty five baskets! In those days it was a lot of money. I saved it until I got 25 cents, and then I’d go buy pencils. I wasn’t much of a candy person.”

Periodic flooding wreaked havoc on the Corvi’s farm. The farmers saved what they could from the rising waters and waited for a return to normalcy to start anew; Lena recalled that they had to bring in new soil because the old “was full of debris and everything else.”

My father used to go to different farms, in Fairfax where they had horses and cows, and he’d get the nice manure and fresh soil from them, and start his garden over again, and that took many loads of manure and good earth. That’s how he started the farm over again. And he did that many times, because we got flooded.

Corvi sold the farm in 1928 to Marin Junior College for use as a football field, tennis courts and gymnasium. He bought the 8-acre Diener property across the street, and moved the family into a home next to Kent School where it stands today as an office building. With great labor that involved replacing all the soil, Corvi converted the nursery property to a farm along the same lines as his previous one. “There was everything in there,” recalled Jim McConnell, “carrots to beets to cabbages to potatoes to strawberries and raspberries and blackberries and boysenberries, just name a vegetable.” He continued:

It was huge, and they did it all and they irrigated it. The three guys were all from Italy, they were all bachelors and they spent their whole life in a little barracks they built there; one of them did the cooking, and he also was in charge of irrigation, the other two were the field workers who tended the crops and did all the harvesting.

An aerial view taken in 1928 shows Corvi’s farm on the left and Diener’s (soon to be Corvi’s second farm) on the right. College Avenue is the diagonal road in the center, with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad tracks at lower left. The large building north of Corvi’s is the new Marin Junior College. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

The family sold produce out of a little store on the east side of College Avenue. “All the people from around Kentfield would go there and buy their fresh vegetables,” said McConnell. “We had a little store, and I ran the store,” said Lena. “It was a vegetable store and we also had a few groceries, right where the Union Bank is now, move over just a little bit, that’s where the store was.”

We were famous for our large potatoes and corn on the cob. Oh, people came from all over to get our corn. And carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, I can remember the whole aisle, cabbages of all kinds, Italian cabbage, regular cabbage …then I had a table where I wrapped everything in newspaper and string, behind there was a little bit of a grocery store with canned things. Over on that end were the potatoes, onions, large squash, Hubbard squash, yellow squash…we had a great big scale, [sold] by the pound, by the piece, whatever you wanted.

Corvi charged five cents a pound for potatoes at that time.

College Avenue was busy with traffic because of the schools. College students, many of whom lodged at the school, bought seconds, which were given an entire aisle in the store. “I’d give them whole bags of those seconds and they’d go to their dorm and cook,” recalled Lena. “I’d give them scraps of stuff so that they could make a nice big pot of stew. They said, ‘I only have 25 cents worth of meat so I need a lot of vegetables’ so I say ‘I’ll give you all the vegetables you want for five cents, OK? Go.’”

During this period the Corvi family lived on Terrace Avenue, overlooking the new farm. Eugenio Corvi bought residential property at Sir Francis Drake and McAllister Avenue and lived there after closing the farm during the war, around 1943. Corvi sold the land to the Kentfield School District for expansion of Adaline E. Kent School and divided off a strip facing College Avenue that is now a commercial area.

Lena Corvi Fassi was very proud of her father and his accomplishments:

He came from Europe with nothing in his pocket but a couple of dollars and he bought this land and developed it into a nice big farm. The college bought it from him and that’s the first development. Then he crossed the street and he bought the other piece of property, and that he sold eventually to the school. I think that he did a lot to expand Kentfield, because Kentfield was nothing but bare land until he got a hold of it and made farms out of those two parcels and out of those two parcels came two beautiful schools. I think that was a lot of development in Kentfield, from bare land to college to grammar school. I’m very proud of him.

I had a very beautiful childhood that most people don’t have, because growing up on a farm is the most beautiful thing, a farm in the category of what my father had: he had chickens and I played with the chickens; when they laid an egg, I grabbed that egg and cracked it open and drank the egg. I was four years old when I remember that, now not too many children four years old will do a thing like that….

I really enjoyed growing up on the farm. I had fourteen beautiful years of growing up on the farm, I loved every minute of it, I think to this day, that’s why I eat so many fruits and vegetables, I can’t go one day without vegetables, I just have to have my vegetables….

“It’s a beautiful town to grow up in,” Lena said. “Kentfield is not grandiose, but it’s still a wonderful place to live in.”

This article is adapted from two chapters in the book, In The Heart of Marin — The History of Kentfield and Greenbrae, California. The book is available at local libraries and can be purchased at KGHS.org.

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