“What a shock!!!” Miss Leonardi Goes to Teach at Point Reyes

By Dewey Livingston

Marie Leonardi on the day of her wedding to John Lorenzen in 1939. Courtesy of the Lorenzen Family.

Marie Leonardi was a typical San Rafael girl raised in the ‘teens and 1920s. Her Italian family joined the many others from that country in Marin and she had a busy social life with family and friends from school. There were plenty of fun things for a teenager to do in Marin: dancing at the Rose Bowl, swimming at the San Rafael Baths, riding the train to the Sausalito ferry for farther adventures in San Francisco.

We are fortunate that, late in life, Marie Leonardi Lorenzen wrote down many of her memories for a granddaughter’s school project. In her neat schoolteacher’s pencilwork she detailed parts of her life, including family history and her first school assignment in the wilds of Point Reyes.

Both of Marie’s parents, Frank and Celestina Leonardi, were born in northern Italy and came to San Francisco before 1900. With three children, they moved to Kentfield and worked at the big vegetable farm now occupied by the College of Marin parking lot. The family moved to San Rafael and completed the family of eight children; Marie was the youngest, born in 1911. She enjoyed singing and acting in local productions. After graduating from San Rafael High School, Marie decided to become a teacher and attended San Francisco State Teachers’ School and got her credential in 1933. It would be the beginning of a lifetime as a teacher.

“Jobs were still very scarce,” she wrote. “San Rafael would not hire teachers unless they had two years’ experience and married teachers were disqualified from applying.” Marie checked in at the county’s Office of Education for job openings. “There was one — a rural school 1–8 grade available. I signed the contract right then and there, without seeing the school or where it was. Oh! Oh!” It was 1934, in the depths of the Depression; she was taking a blind risk and knew it.

A supervisor drove her out Sir Francis Drake Highway, turned off on a dirt road at White House Pool and kept driving…for miles and miles. The rough and narrow road took her through dense woods and into cow pastures, over creeks, past the sheep ranch at aptly-named Muddy Hollow, and into hundreds of acres of vegetable fields above Limantour Estero. The car pulled up to the New Albion Ranch, site of one of the oldest dairies on the Point and at that point a tenant-run artichoke farm. Although this was only 1934, the place was already old and worn, in use for farming and ranching for 77 years. It was foggy, windy, and very isolated. Here she would live with a family of strangers and teach mostly-immigrant children in a shed.

The New Albion Ranch at the time that Marie Leonardi taught at Shafter School there. The schoolhouse is one the small sheds on the ranch. Photo courtesy of Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History.

“What a shock!!! It was what they called an emergency school,” she wrote. “The kids on this huge ‘Murphy’s Ranch’ were too far and isolated to be picked up and transported to Inverness School or Point Reyes School. The five miles from the county road was wide enough for one car let alone a bus trying to get through for 10 plus miles. That’s why this school was started.”

The county established Shafter District School in 1903 when the large Campigli family on the coast needed education and there was no nearby school. In the early days the schoolhouse had been filled with Irish kids and the many Swiss Campiglis. Originally located at the Laguna Ranch — today that schoolroom is part of the Point Reyes Hostel — the school closed when the population changed. With newly planted artichoke and pea farms in the 1920s with its incoming families of Italian and Japanese farmworkers, Shafter School was resurrected in a new location, on the historic New Albion Ranch.

“It was a sheep shed that had been raised and put on wooden blocks [with] stairs built to go up inside — two windows in front and four windows on one side, black board in front, a pot belly stove in front on the right side; desks arranged in rows… some rough boards had been nailed up for book shelves.” It was a bleak prospect, and to make matters worse, Marie didn’t know how to drive and felt stuck. She depended on her brother to driver her over, and she immediately realized that her brother would need to come every Friday to take her from this lonely place to her friends in San Rafael; then he would bring her back in time for the school week.

“On Monday, first day of school, the kids came to school on horseback and tied their horses to the trees in the school yard. Beside the fifteen kids, a 15-year-old Japanese boy, by the name of Shigero, had just arrived from Japan and came to learn to speak English.” Marie was remembering Shigeru Morimoto, one of the Japanese students from the families growing fresh peas. “He was a wonderful artist — I should have kept some of his pictures. He lived with the family next door. They cultivated the Pea Fields.” (See an article about that here)

The New Albion Ranch was rustic, to say the least. “I did all the correcting with a coal oil lamp.” The school bathroom was “in a shack out in back of the school.”

“If I wanted to take a bath, I made sure I took it when all the men were at work,” she recalled. “I can’t recall how the water was heated for the bath — there was no gas — no electricity — br-r-r-cold.”

Angelo Lombardi and his brothers ran the farm, and Angelo’s wife Angelina did the housekeeping and cooking. “Mrs. Lombardi did all the cooking on a big wood stove,” recalled Marie. “She was a very good cook.”

The Lombardi family grew artichokes. “Every weekend when my brother came to pick me up, I always had a sack of small artichokes as the markets in S.F. only wanted the large ones (stupid people — small ones are tastier!!).” (See an article about that here)

The families on the farm got their bread in the mail, and the mailbox was miles away at the county road. “They were big round loaves of Italian bread in big white flour sacks…Angelo would pick up the bread from the mailbox on his way home from the markets in San Francisco.”

Although it must have been a personal adventure, Marie was, in her words, “so-o-o lonely — never having been away from home.” Her older brother Louis came for her at the end of the school week. “Every Friday about four o’clock he would show up, so I could spend the week-end home with my friends — ah!! Civilization!!”

A typical weekend in the mid-1930s went like this: Friday nights to dances in Petaluma, Saturdays to dances in Santa Rosa or Boyes Hot Springs. “I was in a group of 15 kids. Sunday morning we always met at Gerstle Park for tennis.” Then more dancing: “On Sunday afternoon it was either the Fairfax Pavilion or California Park where all the picnics were held with dancing in the afternoon.” Marie must have had sore feet when she returned to school! “On Monday morning early, Lou would drive me back to school. He was really a jewel.”

One time heavy rains had made the dirt roads impassable: “Oh! Gosh! I’ll guess I’ll have to spend it in this lonely place — no electricity, no radio.” Mrs. Lombardi suggested that 15-year-old Shigeru could take her on horseback to the paved road. “So I got all dolled up in a man’s coat and a man’s hat and my galoshes (what a beauty!!). Off we went, me in front on a gray plug horse and Shigeru on a brown horse. Just as we almost got to the county road, here comes good old Lou, slipping & sliding all over the place. I was never so happy to see him.”

To add to her feelings of isolation, Marie’s beloved father Frank died while she was far away at school. It was surely difficult to return to school and face the loneliness as she mourned her father and missed her tight-knit family.

Eventually, Marie’s dream came true: she could leave wild Point Reyes. “I finally got my two years experience and I was able to get into San Rafael.” Marie taught for three years at Laurel Dell Elementary until she resigned to marry John Lorenzen in 1939. The couple moved to a chicken ranch and then bought a house in Petaluma, and she took up teaching again.

When Marie Leonardi Lorenzen retired in 1976, she had logged 35 years at the front of a schoolroom. Her days at Shafter School remained a vivid memory — but not necessarily a pleasurable one. Marie liked people and activities, so she happily spent her retirement years volunteering; she died at the respectable age of 97.

The author thanks the Lorenzen family for sharing their mother’s notes and photograph.

Anne T. Kent California Room Newsletter

Thank you for reading our Anne T. Kent California Room Community Newsletter.