Drowned in wine

If you read my last blog post from beginning to end, you may have seen the picture of the Olema cemetery where many emigranti are buried. I didn’t mention how similar I found the monuments and mausoleums to the ones in the so-called “American” cemetery in the Ticino village of Someo.

Olema cemetery

Olema cemetery

Some more images from the Someo cemetery are included in this gallery. But the monuments in either of these cemeteries do not tell the story of the lives led by these ranchers and dairymen, and their wives. To get a better impression – at least of how their lives ended – I stopped by the Marin History Museum collection in Novato where the librarian dusted off a book containing the records from the county’s various cemeteries, including the one in Olema. The book contained the usual personal data, but it was “cause of death” that intrigued me most. Besides a variety of diseases (pneumonia, influenza) that one could easily succumb to in the 1800s/early 1900s, there was death by “runaway” (horse, I assume), acute alcoholism, suicide, accidental strangulation and – the most bizarre case – “drowned in wine vat”. And not one person, but two. The couple in question were a man and wife, who, according to a local newspaper (San Rafael’s Independent) account, had been entertaining guests.

The 46-year-old husband went into the garage where the vat was located and didn’t return. When his wife came to his rescue, she was “overcome by the fumes of the wine and, losing her balance, plunged to death with the one she loved”. The article didn’t explain if they were still entertaining guests at the time, but if they had been, the visitors may have had so much to drink that they didn’t think anything was amiss because the bodies of the couple were not found until the next day!

A less entertaining, but perhaps more valuable source of information of lives once led in Marin are the histories written by Dewey Livingston. They are part of the museum’s collection, as is a 19th century scrapbook containing a newspaper clipping telling of “The Swiss Celebration” in Tomales in 1888. It was attended by over 1,000 people, including many dignitaries who travelled there by train from as far away as San Francisco. The oration in Italian was delivered by “G. F. Cavilla” (I suspect this is a misspelling of the name of San Francisco’s bookseller/editor Giorgio Cavalli – see my first blog post). The oration was “evidently much appreciated”.

While the museum preserves old documents, government decrees and land use initiatives by ranchers have kept much of the farmland as it was in the early 20thcentury. There are many historic – and working – ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore park, as well as in many other areas of the county. I intend to write a lengthier report on the efforts by ranchers like Sally Gale to revive sustainable farming traditions and pay tribute to their Swiss-Italian heritage. That story will be published as part of our special in a few weeks, so stay tuned!

Sally Gale

Sally Gale

One thought on “Drowned in wine

  1. As you may have learned, there were a number of Swiss people from Ticino who settled in Sonoma. When I was a child there was a Swiss Italain group that my grandmother belonged to, but that probably no longer exists. My great Grandmother, Emilia Roberti bought and ran the Swiss Hotel between 1910 and 1920. The hotel, which is really a restaurant and bar is on the plaza in Sonoma. It is still owned by some of her descendants.
    I am enjoying the web site and blogs and msut find some photos to share.
    Thank you for all your work on this issue.

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