From Swiss Cows to Italian Olives

by Dewey Livingston

Morelli Ranch, early 1950s, by M. Woodbridge Williams (I.J. photographer). © Jack Mason Museum

The McEvoy Ranch is an active olive oil producer in northern Marin near the Sonoma County line, on the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. The late Nan McEvoy, part of the family that founded and owned the San Francisco Chronicle, bought the historic Morelli Ranch in 1990 and hired an expert in Tuscan olive oil to help her plan the transition of the ranch from cattle to olive trees. McEvoy Ranch has been very successful. The products they make -from olive oil, to wine to olive oil infused beauty products- are sold worldwide.

The ranch is located on the obscure and small 2,584-acre Buacocha Rancho near San Antonio Creek, which was claimed by the family of Teodora Peralta Duarte-mother of Maria Pacheco of Rancho San Jose (today’s Ignacio area) — without adequate papers to prove ownership. According to Jack Mason in Early Marin, the grant and diseño “had been lost ‘by the neglect of some member of the family not aware of the value of such documents.’” After much back-and-forth in the courts, the land grant was nullified by the U. S. Government in 1863 and given to homesteading. Thus, the land within this small area was broken up on a grid, in contrast to the surrounding ranchos bounded by ridgelines, creek and rock outcroppings. Today, McEvoy Ranch is considered to be within Rancho Olompali.

Morelli Ranch, early 1950s, by M. Woodbridge Williams (I.J. photographer). © Jack Mason Museum

As of 1873, two adjacent parcels in the grant were owned by William Jones and Natale Giacomini. Giacomini developed a dairy ranch and had a butcher shop in San Rafael before moving to Del Norte County in the 1880s. The 1880 census shows Jones and his wife Rebecca Farley with eleven children. By that time Swiss immigrants Michele and Matilda Respini owned and occupied the 450-acre Giacomini ranch. Matilda was a niece of Caterina Martinoia, wife of Swiss immigrant Carlo Martinoia (Charles Martin), a prosperous landowner, rancher, merchant and banker. (Natale Giacomini and Martin were partners as commission merchants in San Rafael-the ties between early Swiss families in Marin are endless.)

Matilda Traversi was born in February 1861 in Cevio, Switzerland and came to the United States in 1870 at the age of nine. In 1878, at age 17, Matilda married 29-year-old Michele (Michael) Respini, a laborer on the Charles Martin ranch in Chileno Valley. They bought the Giacomini ranch and had three children: Camillo, Robert and Irene. They also bought the Jones ranch to the north, probably renting it to tenant farmers.

Respini Ranch as depicted on George Dodge’s 1892 map of Marin. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Michele Respini died on April 28, 1891. Widowed with three children, Matilda married Achille Ricioli who took in her three children. Later, Robert Respini also married a member of the Martin family, Lydia Dolcini, and partnered with his stepfather Achille Ricioli in the old Pedrazzini ranch at Soulajule, which remains in the Dolcini family today.

In 1906 Irene Respini visited Switzerland with some cousins, and all three met and married men there. Irene met Giuseppe Morelli. Irene’s engagement was noted in the Petaluma Argus:

“An engagement of unusual importance is that of Miss Irene Respini, who is touring in Europe, to Prof. Morelli of Cevio [Switzerland]. Miss Respini and the Martin sisters, Camelia and Linda, left Petaluma several months ago on a tour through Europe. Miss Respini … is a highly accomplished young lady, both in music and art. The news of the approaching nuptials will come as an agreeable surprise to the bride-elect’s many friends in Sonoma county. The groom-to-be is known here. His brother resides on a ranch on Sonoma Mountain. The couple will reside in Switzerland.” They instead returned to Marin where they operated the family’s ranch.

Matilda and Achille Ricioli apparently stayed on the ranch and Achille was also in business in other ventures. Matilda owned the land that she inherited from her first husband Respini, and passed it to her daughter Irene Respini Morelli. The location of the ranch, long called Red Hill, was known as Respini Hill in the old days. And there are names which have been passed down in the family: Camillo and Robert Respini to younger generations Camillo and Robert Morelli.

The Morelli family ran a modern dairy ranch on the property for many generations. The younger Camillo operated the ranch, which he called Ollimac Guernsey Farm (Ollimac is Camillo spelled backwards), starting in 1927 and was joined by his son Robert in the late 1950s. Lack of adequate water kept the dairy operation relatively small. At one time there was an airstrip on the ranch, a feature more commonly found in more level regions of the county!

Matilda Traversi Respini Ricioli lived to be 100 years old; her marriage to Achille Ricioli lasted 53 three years until his death. Matilda died in 1960, having seven great grandchildren and three great great grandchildren. Her obituary noted that President Eisenhower had acknowledged her birthday and that she had “seen in her lifetime most of the wonders of a new age.”

A veal producer owned the ranch in the 1980s and sold it in 1990 to Nan McEvoy, who methodically transformed the little valley into an olive farm reminiscent of Tuscany. The tangle of names and relationships in the ranch’s history-Martinoia, Traversi, Respini, Ricioli, Dolcini, Morelli-only illustrates the tight bonds among the immigrant families that first came to Marin County in the nineteenth century — all of whom continue to thrive and contribute today.

The author thanks Marilyn Geary for supporting information.

Originally published at https://annetkent.kontribune.com.

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