Silvio Debernardi (1873-1954): From Valmaggia to California

From Natasha DeBernardi, Switzerland

Silvio Giuseppe Debernardi was born in Lodano, Ticino, Switzerland, on January 14, 1873, the third son of Pasquale and Teresa (born Tunzi). In April 1891, 18-year old Silvio leaves his village in Valmaggia to reach his two older brothers, Geremia and Golia, in California. On April 27 he is listed by New York immigration as a passenger of the La Bretagne ship arriving from Le Havre, France. Silvio travels to America with a friendfrom his village, Venanzio Franscioni. In a letter to a friend back home, Silvio writes: “I was very sad to have to say good-bye to Venanzio in San Francisco. I touched his hand and we both started crying. On the journey with us we had a cute young woman from Giubiasco, who was going to St. Louis, and she gave me a kiss. She really liked me. She left nine days after us and we found her by herself in Le Havre.” Silvio recalls that the toughest part of the trip was the final 350 miles aboard the steamer from San Francisco to Crescent City: “I was fine crossing the Atlantic, but I suffered greatly from San Francisco to Crescent City. It’s a mean shore: only those who did the trip know it,” he writes.


Silvio’s letter, written from Crescent City on August 10, 1891-the festival day for Lodano’s patron San Lorenzo -is full of melancholy. “You see,” writes Silvio to a friend, “this is what’s come of the youth of Lodano: a nice group of seven, we get together and have some fun, show the liveliness of young people, and one goes here and the other goes there. Oh, what ever happened to those nice evenings spent singing, playing, and dancing? They are gone forever. Such things make one’s heart break.” Silvio ends his letter with a hint of regret: “California is more or less the same as back home and anyone who wants to make money back home can make money just like in California: a young man is not persuaded until he comes here-and once he’s here, he wants to go back home.” Silvio ends up staying in California for ten years, but always with a bit of homesickness for i nostri contri, “our land”, and always with the thought of returning home.

In California he works especially in Crescent City, up north and close to the Oregon border, with a few stays in Sonoma, Petaluma, and Tomales. Later, he moves alla bassa, further south, in particular to Soledad and King City. He works on ranches milking cows, plowing fields with horses, and cutting the grass. On August 21, 1899 he writes to his parents back home: “Here the work of farmers is almost completed. The other day we finished threshing in the Three Miles Flat, with Giuseppe Tommasini directing the machine. In a few days we will go to Salinas to thresh with the same machine. We have work for another six weeks. With this machine I’m the ‘sac tender’, that’s the guy who fills the bags, and I get paid $2.50 a day, which equals 12.50 francs. It’s rather hard work, but it pays well.” Silvio often sends 25 or 50 francs back home as presents to his parents, siblings, and godmother-even if times aren’t always good. On October 10, 1894, for example, he writes to his parents that he has been let go: “I never saw so much poverty in California as now. Even those from Moghegno, alla bassa, don’t make enough to pay expenses. And here in Tomales ranchers won’t know what to do if the price of butter does not increase soon. The issue is this: if butter is cheap, for example, in a ranch that takes five workers, the owner will try to make do with three workers, and instead of paying them $25 a month, he will pay them $15 or $20. Enough, we’re still young and mustn’t give up hope-and when we can’t pay for expenses anymore, I hope the door of home will still be open.”

In California, Silvio works for other ticinesi and is always surrounded by his brothers and by a community of fellow countrymen. He manages to learn some English, too, as the 1900 census states that he knew how to read, write, and speak English. In addition to frequent get-togethers with his brothers (“Geremia came and cut my hair and beard last Sunday,” he writes on August 10, 1891; and “last Sunday we went to have our picture taken together,” he writes on May 21, 1893), Silvio participates in the joys and sorrows of the community of Ticino emigrants: weddings (“On November 1, Giuseppe Tommasini married a 16-year old girl-and sure enough she turned 16 that very day!” he writes to his parents on December 7, 1899), births and deaths (“A few nights ago, Giuseppe Tommasini and I went to watch over Sereno Franscioni, who is near death. He got pneumonia and typhus. Yesterday he was a bit better, but it’s unlikely that he’ll make it. Mansueto’s wife gave birth to a beautiful boy that very same night,” he writes on November 8, 1897), repatriations (“About a month ago I went into town and met a certain Antonio Deneri from Cevio, who told me he was taking a trip back home, so I gave him $1 (5 francs) to give to mother. If you haven’t seen him yet, ask Geremia, who knows him well. He’s been in America for 30 years and might not even know where Lodano is anymore. He got married here and has the saloon and hotel in Smith River, where his family is,” he writes on March 8, 1896).

Ten years later, in the fall of 1901, Silvio leaves California for Lodano. A few months after his return, on April 6, 1902, he marries 22-year old Florina Tommasini, also from Lodano. He brings back a wealth of experiences gathered in California and an openness towards the world that have him remembered as a progressive man: indeed, he is the first in the village to have indoor running water and a radio. He dies in Lodano on July 13, 1954, at the age of 81.

QUESTION: Does anyone know where the Three Miles Flat is?

For additional postings about Ticinese emigration, visit my blog:

3 thoughts on “Silvio Debernardi (1873-1954): From Valmaggia to California

  1. Re Silvio DeBernardi

    Three Mile Flat is on the old Rancho Arroyo Seco about where the town of Greenfield is now. Just after the turn of the century, the California Home Extension Association bought up land in that area and set up a tent city. Land was sold in one acre plots to settlers joining the colony which was named after its founder….John Clark. Irrigation was dependent upon the Arroyo Seco River. Later the settlement became known as Greenfield. It is just south of Soledad, California.

    Hope this helps.

  2. Dear Natasha,

    I just checked back to this site to see if anyone had made more comments about your ancestor. I am glad that you saw the information that I posted several months ago.

    The Ticinese, like immigrants everywhere, built a strong social support network in California. When I read that your ancestor sat the night with Sereno Franscioni, it touched my heart. Sereno Franscioni was my great-uncle’s father and lived next door to my great-grandparents.

    I took the liberty of looking up Silvio DeBernardi on the 1900 US Federal Census. I found him living in King City, California at this time. He is boarding with I. G. Giacomazzi and his wife, Agnes.

    Yours sincerely,

    Jan Kelley

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