by Susan M., Arlington, VA and Kathy K., Santa Clara, CA
Visitors passing through the beautiful Valle Maggia to the town of Cevio are drawn to the fountain in the middle of the piazza, which is surrounded by centuries-old houses, modern stone sculptures, and a tiny church. As cyclists and hikers take water from the small flowing spigots, they may look upward to see the bust of a distinguished-looking man with a big mustache silhouetted against the high mountains that frame both sides of the town.
As they read the worn inscription — “Luigi Filippini – Nato a Cevio 1846 – Morto a San Francisco 1892” — they may wonder why this lovely stone fountain in Switzerland memorializes a man who died in California more than a hundred years ago.
That man was Luigi Filippini, our great-great uncle. He was the brother of Carlo Filippini, our great-grandfather, and the uncle of our grandmother, Stella Filippini. As cousins growing up in Northern California, we often listened to our grandmother tell us about how her family came from Cevio to California. Our grandmother was very proud that her mother and father were Swiss. Her father Carlo Filippini was born in Cevio in 1847. He emigrated to California in 1866 and became a rancher and dairyman.
Her mother was Emilia Del Ponte, who was born in Bignasco in 1857. Emilia married Carlo Filippini and left Switzerland for California in 1878. Carlo became Charles Filippini when he became a United States citizen, and Luigi became Louis.
In 1882, Charles and Emilia bought the Huichica Ranch of 2,800 acres near the Napa – Sonoma county line, from a descendant of General Vallejo. They had twelve children, and our grandmother was the youngest one. Later, Charles joined other Swiss ranchers in forming the Petaluma Swiss-American Bank. Along with Louis, Charles’s brother Leonardo and sister Lodomilla Moretti also emigrated to California, but Lodomilla later returned to Cevio. Leonardo married Veglia Cheda in San Francisco in 1910. Another sister, Angelica, lived in Cevio.
Charles and Emilia Filippini and their twelve children, dated 1904, taken on their ranch in Sonoma, California
Charles and Emilia were fortunate to be able to make several trips back to Cevio. In fact, their eleventh child, Bob, was born there on one of these visits. As an adult he traveled to Switzerland on several occasions, as did several other family members. Our grandmother, unfortunately, never took a trip to Switzerland, but she certainly kept our Swiss heritage alive for us.
Our grandmother’s cousins were Philip and Richard Respini, who settled in Marshall, California on a ranch next to our grandparents’ sheep ranch. They traveled back to Cevio from time to time to visit family. In my grandmother’s scrapbook we found postcards and a photo from 1928 of people in front of the fountain in Cevio.
The twelve Filippini brothers and sisters were very close and enjoyed getting together very much. Beginning in about 1930, the Filippini family held an annual family picnic in the Sonoma-Napa area and celebrated their Swiss heritage at these gatherings. Some of the twelve children (or their children) married people from other Swiss immigrant families, including the Moretti, De Carli, Calanchini, Respini and Zanni families.
So the story of the “Filippini Family Fountain” in Cevio is one we had heard all our lives. According to family history, the fountain was built in honor of Louis Filippini because he donated money to Cevio for the building of the town’s water system and to install running water in homes in the town. He also left money in a trust fund for the town’s poor. Louis had worked as a jeweler in England and then joined his brothers in ranching and banking in California. He never married. He died in 1892 at the age of 46 in a San Francisco hospital from a bacterial infection that suddenly worsened. He is buried in Petaluma.
An obituary in the Marin County newspaper records that “Mr. Filippini was one of the early Swiss settlers of Marin County. He was a man of thrift, industry and force and soon accumulated much valuable property. In business he was universally respected and in all the relations of life leaves behind him an untarnished name.”
In the summer of 2007, we visited Cevio for the first time and, with thoughts of our grandmother in mind, we finally saw the Filippini Fountain.
Picture: Kathy (left) and Susan (right)
It was so exciting. Cevio and the Valle Maggia are more beautiful than we had ever imagined. There are waterfalls, colorfully painted shrines on the roadsides, vineyards with stone pillars holding up rows of grapes, and hydrangeas and other flowers everywhere. The mountains rise sharply out of the narrow valley, creating a beckoning vista as one approaches Cevio along the Maggia river.
It must have been very difficult for our great-grandparents to leave their homes and families in this spectacular little part of the world for a long and hard journey to California. But they were pioneers and adventurers. They found great opportunity and were richly rewarded for their hard work, not only in ranching and in establishing the Swiss community in California – another beautiful land of mountains, dairy ranches and vineyards — but also in raising a close-knit and happy family of twelve proud children.
Equally thrilling for us on our visit to Cevio was meeting Corrado and Nadia Filippini, of Bignasco, and Corrado’s parents, of Cevio. They gave us and our families an exceptionally warm welcome and showed us the churches filled with gorgeous old frescoes and other sights in the area. Nadia cooked a delicious risotto for us and introduced us to her parents, too. We enjoyed meeting everyone very much. They gave us honey and wine produced by the family and saffron to make our own risotto. Our grandmother used to cook risotto and also lots of polenta for her family when our fathers were boys.
We were impressed by the care that has been devoted to preserving the beauty and history of this region. The Museo di Valmaggia in Cevio (http://museovalmaggia.ch) has an excellent exhibit on the Swiss migrations to California and Australia.
We could not have left Cevio without visiting the cemetery where our great-great grandparents are memorialized at la Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista. In the rear where the oldest grave markers stand, there is a memorial to Battista and Giovanna Maria Filippini. Battista lived from 1818 to 1894, and Giovanna from 1826 to 1901. They were the parents of our great-grandfather Carlo (who died in 1914), and of Luigi Filippini, who, as marked on the fountain, died in 1892, two years before his father.
This photo of a family in Cevio is undated, but is perhaps around 1928. We think the old woman in the middle is Lodomilla Filippini Moretti, who lived to an old age in Cevio after living for some years in California. Probably her children with her. A couple of her daughters lived to a very old age in Cevio, one til 103 (died in recent years).
Battista Filippini was a stonecutter and road builder. His memorial records (in Italian) that he was a “zealous and honest member of the town council for 30 years” and a “loving father”. Although we do not know when the Filippini Fountain was built, we would like to think that Battista and Giovanna had some role in erecting this monument to their son who died so far away in California.
We are very proud of our heritage and the Cevio and California connection. The Filippini Fountain, honoring Luigi’s generosity to those he left behind in Cevio, has also been a gift to us. It has been part of our family’s memories of Switzerland for more than a hundred years. And it has created brand new memories for our children, who happily recreated the poses by the fountain for a photograph just like the picture from 1928 in our grandmother’s album!
Picture of Susan’s son and daughter, and Kathy’s son and daughter, posing by fountain, July 2007.