Valle Maggia, Switzerland: Home of West Marin Pioneer Families

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by Marilyn L. Geary

Typical Stone Houses of Valle Maggia © Marilyn L. Geary

Often when traveling abroad to find family roots and history, one finds only faint traces and tenuous ties. Not so in the Valle Maggia, Switzerland. Here signs of New and Old World connections are everywhere. This valley, with its steep alpine cliffs and roaring water falls, was home to about 27,000 emigrants who journeyed to California from 1850 to 1930 to find a better life.

Flat land is scarce in this steep valley, and during the mid-1800s, sustenance farming could no longer support growing families. Many Ticinese had been working as seasonal laborers in Italy, but when political concerns closed the border and forced them out of Italy, they had nowhere to go but abroad. Enticed by the promise of easy fortunes by travel agencies that profited from their departures, the early emigrants went to the Australian gold fields. Others sailed to California, where they found greater success, not in the mines but on dairy ranches where they produced another kind of gold: creamy butter and cheese.

Caring for cows and goats had helped sustain villagers in the Valle Maggia. The Ticinese made good use of these skills in the rolling grasslands of California’s coast. First working as laborers for other ranchers, they saved to buy their own ranches at a time when land was cheap. Today many ranching families in West Marin are descendants of these emigrants.

Parish Church of Valle Maggia with plaque indicating ‘Restored by benefactors from California, 1875 © Marilyn L. Geary

Signs of emigration survive in the physical structures in Valle Maggia’s tiny villages. Buildings known as the ‘emigrant houses,’ large and elegant, stand in stark contrast with the smaller rustic stone houses of those villagers who stayed in Valle Maggia. When emigrants returned home, they used the wealth they had gained abroad to build these spacious homes for their families. They proudly enscribed their initials and date of construction above the portals.

Maggia, one of the Valle Maggia’s largest towns, is now inhabited by about 800 people, Its ornately decorated parish church contains a plaque declaring it was ‘Restored by benefactors in California, 1875.’ Tombstones in the cemeteries throughout the Valle Maggia display familiar West Marin family names: Giacomini, Lafranchi, Moretti, Sartori, Cerini, and others. A plaque in the cemetery in the high alpine village of Fusio is in memory of Baldassare and Anna Soldati from their daughter in California. Another recalls Giovanni DeMartini, who died in California, January 25, 1879.

Grotto display at Valle Maggia Museum in Cevio. Cheese & Wine products were kept in grottos like this. © Marilyn L. Geary

Letters and documents in the Museum of Valle Maggia in Cevio reflect the connections between families in this area and those that left for California. A display cabinet contains a letter postmarked from Chileno Valley. The date is illegible. Visitors to the museum can hear oral histories from members of the Dalessi family, one of whose members started a dairy ranch in Marin in the 1860s.

Letter in Valle Maggia Museum in Cevio with Chileno Valley postmark. © Marilyn L. Geary

Many families still maintain close ties. Gabriele Maccarinelli, for example, has traveled to Nicasio seven times to stay with his Lafranchi cousins. In turn, the Lafranchis often have visited Maggia and the home of Fredelino Lafranchi, their ancestor who left the terraced alpine meadows of Valle Maggia for a sprawling ranch in Nicasio.

Each village along the valley is uniquely configured with quaint stone cottages, charming roadside chapels, and pristine meadows shadowed by snow-capped alpine peaks, A visit to the Valle Maggia brings a wonder at how desperate the emigrants must have been to leave the beauty of this valley and the loving support of their families for the risks of an unknown world across the sea.

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

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