Carlo Martinoia / Charles Martin: “the wealthiest man in Sonoma and Marin counties”

From Marilyn Longinotti Geary, United States

Carlo Martinoia arrived in San Francisco via the Isthmus of Panama on June 15, 1852. Born in 1829 to a poor family in Cevio in the Valle Maggia, Martinoia began working at the age of 15 as a mason’s helper, first in France, then in Africa.

Martinoia was 22 years old when he arrived in San Francisco. He had little money and spoke no English. Not much is known of his early days in California. According to a brief biography published by the Knights of Pythias in 1897, when Martinoia was searching for work, he noticed laborers having problems constructing a stone wall. Despite his inability to speak English, Martinoia demonstrated his skills by building a small wall in the masterful way he had learned as young boy in the Valle Maggia. From that point on, Martinoia had no trouble making a living. He was a valued worker not only for his masonry skills, but also for his ability to supervise others.


Dairy Ranching
Martinoia spent a couple of years in the gold country, then in the Santa Cruz region before settling down in Marin, San Antonio Township, in about 1856. Martinoia’s endeavors were sufficiently profitable to allow him to purchase a ranch and begin dairy farming. The 1860 census lists the value of his real estate at $3600 and his personal estate at $3000. He was well on his way to making his fortune.

In August 1862 he purchased property that had been part of the original Rancho Nicasio Mexican land grant from from Henry W. Halleck, who had been a partner in the law firm of Halleck, Peachy and Billings. This firm handled over half of the land grant claims before the U.S. Land Commission, the entity responsible for deciding land ownership in the transition from Mexican to U.S. governance. During the Civil War, Halleck quit the firm to join the Union Army as a Major General. He was later made the Chief of Staff of the Army.

The deed is recorded from Halleck to a Charles Martin, since by 1862, Carlo Martinoia had anglicized his name. Over the next few years, Martin expanded his holdings by purchasing land in Chileno Valley from Lewis Walker, after whom Walker Creek is named.

Raising a Family
Martin likely purchased the property in anticipation of settling down and raising a family, since in September 1862, a month after his purchase from Halleck, he married Caterina Traversi, a woman hailing from his hometown of Cevio in the Valle Maggia.

Martin built a home in Chileno Valley, where he and Caterina began raising a family. They eventually had seven children, three boys and four girls. In 1883 Martin expanded his dwelling into an elaborate Italianate Victorian to comfortably accommodate his large family.

Commercial Activities
Although he owned and operated ranches that spanned thousands of acres, dairy ranching was to Charles Martin just one of his many business activities. In 1869 he began a commission merchant firm in San Francisco with a partner, Henry Cohn. Now instead of paying a fee to sell his goods, Martin avoided the middleman and sold his own dairy products and those of his fellow dairymen.

Over the years, Martin had number of other partners in his commission merchant firm, including Natale Giacomini, Virgilio Rotanzi, Camillo Steffani, and finally Louis Feusier, with whom he did business as Martin & Feusier at 309-313 Clay Street in San Francisco.

According to Earl Dolcini in his oral history, Martin owned a butter factory in San Francisco and a couple of tug boats that worked on the bay. Martin’s property holdings also included a large ranch of ten thousand acres in Santa Ysabel near San Diego.

As one of the most prominent and wealthy emigrants from the Valle Maggia, Martin helped friends, relatives and other fellow Ticinesi migrate to California. He gave many their beginnings in ranching by lending them start-up money, which is likely one of the reasons he became a banker.

Martin became President of the Petaluma National Bank and the Marin County Bank in San Rafael and a director of the Hill Bank of Petaluma, the Bank of Sebastopol, and the Banca Svizzera Americana. This Swiss-American Bank, with branches in Locarno, San Francisco, Petaluma and San Luis Obispo, was often used by Ticinese to deposit savings and send funds to their families in Switzerland.

This bank financed projects in Ticino that included an an electric company and a railway from Locarno to Maggia. Martin was also a member of the company Brunner, Martin, and Tognazzini. They served as agents for the Swiss-American Bank, and their firm owned 33,000 acres of ranch land in San Luis Obispo County.

In an article dated December 9, 1899 on the opening of the Marin County Bank in San Rafael, the San Francisco Call named Martin “the capitalist of Tomales.” In 1899 Martin incorporated his holdings in the Charles Martin Company and gave each of his children a ten per cent share.

Martin retained close ties with his homeland and donated generously to his village of Cevio. He also retained his Catholic faith and was a major contributor to the construction of the Church of the Assumption in Tomales, dedicated in 1901. The church was made entirely of rubble stone, 500 tons of rough-hewn stone that was hauled to Tomales by ten-horse teams from the Hotaling Quarry in San Rafael. Martin contributed a large altar made of Italian marble valued at $1500.

With the expert knowledge of a former stoneworker, Martin is said to have remarked during the construction of the Tomales church that the stonework was not being done well. Martin’s comment was recalled when the church crumbled during the 1906 earthquake.

The Banks Closed
Charles Martin died on April 11, 1905, so he was spared the sight of his church in shambles. According to the local paper, Martin’s funeral was the largest in the history of Petaluma, California. A line of 160 vehicles followed the hearse to Calvary cemetery. The local banks closed in Martin’s honor. Several wagons carried flowers to the cemetery, and they covered the entire Martin burial plot.

Martin left a vast amount of land and a large fortune, which, according to John Paul Van Grueningen in The Swiss in the United States, amounted to one million dollars. The newspapers commented, “In his demise, the community loses one of its oldest and best known citizens and probably the wealthiest man in Sonoma and Marin counties.” and “May the pioneer rest in perfect peace.”

Ongoing Legacy
The Martin name has nearly died out in West Marin, but in 1894 one of Charles Martin’s daughters, Anita, married Pietro Dolcini, a laborer on her father’s ranch who also hailed from Cevio. Today Dolcini descendents live and work on some of the same land Charles Martin owned, and his great-great-granddaughter, Sally Gale, lives on nearly 600 acres in Chileno Valley in the Italianate Victorian mansion that Martin built for his family in 1883.

2 thoughts on “Carlo Martinoia / Charles Martin: “the wealthiest man in Sonoma and Marin counties”

  1. Congratulations on a great piece of work! It is wonderful to read of the life of Carlo Martinoia and to know that in spite of hardship, he made a good life for himself and his family.

    I am pleased to know that he was a man of Cevio and would have been close to the Mattei family there.

    My gg grandaunt, Maria Assumpta Mattei (b 1824, Cevio) was married to a Giovanni Batista Martinoja. He must have died at a young age, because she later remarried. It was her sister Maria Domenica Mattei who was married to Giuseppe Dolcini whose descendants ended up in USA and from whom Sally Gale is descended.

    It’s all so interesting.


  2. I found this article very interesting since I’m from Petaluma, Sonoma County, CA. And my great grand parents are both from Valle Maggia (Someo and Avengo) near Cevio. Also my great grand father, Robert Bonetti, was one of the founders of the Swiss-American Bank in Petaluma (which later merged with Bank of America, I still have BofA stock from the merger handed down from my grand mother).

    Tim Souza
    Santa Rosa, CA

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