Life-long San Rafael residents Teresa and Olivia Dalessi Treasured Their Swiss and Italian Roots


by Marilyn L. Geary

Teresa and Olivia Dalessi saw a lot of San Rafael history in their long lifetimes. As teachers, they watched their Marin County students grow up and have children of their own. Both devoted their entire careers to education. Teresa worked for forty years in Novato classrooms, and Olivia taught for forty years in Sausalito and Marin City.

They lived over nine decades in the same house on Marin Street in San Rafael’s Gerstle Park neighborhood. Their ties to Marin history go even further back, to 1874, when their paternal grandfather, Henry (Enrico) Dalessi, came with his brothers to Marin from Cavergno, a small village in the Vallemaggia in Switzerland, to work on their uncle Paolo Dado’s Rocky Canyon Ranch in Tomales. The five Dalessi brothers, in their teens, followed the same path as many other Swiss-Italians who migrated to California. About 27,000 Swiss-Italians made the journey between 1850 to 1930. They worked on the ranches of relatives and fellow immigrants, saving their hard-earned wages until they had enough money to lease, then possibly purchase, their own dairy operations.

Dalessi Family in Cavergno, Vallemaggia © Olivia Dalessi

In about 1883, Henry Dalessi and his brother Faustino rented the Austin Dairy in Sleepy Hollow, a spread owned by Marin County Sheriff P.K. Austin. The ranch had been part of the Mexican land grant, Rancho Cañada de Herrera, given to Domingo Sais. It is now the site of San Domenico School in San Anselmo.

Henry and Faustino became known to Marin residents as the Dalessi Brothers, partly due to their recurring advertisements in the Marin Journal promoting the very best milk, butter and cream and announcing that “their wagons, which are marked Austin Dairy, also bear the name Dalessi Brothers.”

Ten years after immigrating, Henry married Madelena Lafranchi, who came from the village of Coglio in the Vallemaggia. That same year, 1884, a grass fire raged over 700 acres of the ranch and destroyed all the dry feed. Despite that calamity, Dalessi Brothers wagons continued to deliver fresh milk to customers. They spread the word about their dairy products in the Marin Journal, advertising “If the baby is delicate, have Dalessi leave milk, purest and best.”

Henry and Lena continued to run the dairy in Sleepy Hollow after Faustino died in 1888, but when they both came down with tuberculosis, they had to give up the operation and move to one of the first houses on San Rafael’s Clark Street. There Henry continued as a dairyman, grazing his cows on the three hills surrounding the area.

When he became too ill to dairy, he bought a hansom, a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage, to provide taxi services in San Rafael. He also worked as a volunteer fireman and stored San Rafael’s fire wagon, horse and hoses in his barn. In 1899, the Fire Department revived a Fireman’s Literary Debating Club originally formed in 1886. Henry served as treasurer. The Marin Journal noted “the rules of the old club were adopted as a whole, striking out but one word, the word “male” and inserting the word “person.” The Fireman’s Debating Club encouraged both male and female participants, particularly when addressing topics such as women’s suffrage.

Leo Dalessi, father of Teresa and Olivia, worked as a butcher for the Bagleys, Grosjean and Tony Freitas. He married Nazarene Milani, a woman from Lonate Pozzolo, a town near Milan in Italy, home to many of San Rafael’s Italian immigrants. There the girls’ mother had worked in a silk factory, drawing fine filaments from silk cocoons.

With an abiding interest in their family and community history, the sisters connected with researcher Ernesto Milani, who had written about emigration from the town of Lonate Pozzolo. In 1987, they helped form a group of descendants called the Gruppo Lonatese that aimed to promote closer ties with Lonate Pozzolo. The group’s efforts resulted in a sister city relationship between San Rafael and the town in Italy.

After thirty years, the Gruppo Lonatese is still going strong. This summer it will welcome a group of visitors from Lonate Pozzolo to remember and strengthen their cultural and familial ties. Coincidentally, Vallemaggia descendants are also meeting this summer in a reunion at Finley Park in Santa Rosa on July 21st and 22nd. For details, write to or check the facebook page “Valle Maggia Families.”

Sadly, the Dalessi sisters did not live to attend the festivities. Olivia died on July 28, 2014 and Teresa on May 3 of this year. Although with them go memories of a Marin long passed, both sisters knew well the value of preserving local history. Olivia’s oral history is in the archives of the Anne T. Kent California Room, and the volume The Genealogy and History of Gruppo Lonatese, a compilation of oral histories conducted by Teresa, is on its shelves.

Originally published at



Anne T. Kent California Room
Anne T. Kent California Room Newsletter

The official Medium account of the archive of Marin County history & culture at the Marin County Free Library