Olivia Dalessi, born at San Rafael’s Cottage Hospital on July 30, 1924, passed away on July 28, 2014. Olivia lived her entire life in San Rafael, and all but her first year in the same family home on Marin Street in the neighborhood once called San Rafael’s Little Italy.
Olivia’s grandfather, Enrico Dalessi, came to Marin in 1874 from the town of Cavergno in the Valle Maggia, Switzerland. He first worked on his uncle Paul Dado’s dairy ranch in West Marin, earning enough to lease his own ranch in Sleepy Hollow, then moved into San Rafael on Clark Street where he operated a dairy with about sixty cows. He later ran a taxi service with a horse and hansom cab. Captain of San Rafael’s volunteer firemen, Enrico stored a fire wagon, hoses and other equipment on his Clark Street property.
In 1919 Olivia’s mother Martina Milano emigrated from Lonate Pozzolo, home town to many Italian immigrants who settled in San Rafael. She married Enrico’s son Leo Dalessi, and together they raised Olivia and her sister Teresa in San Rafael’s close-knit neighborhood of Italian families near Gerstle Park.
Olivia describes in these oral history excerpts what Marin Avenue was like when she was a child.
“Okay, the street was not paved. It had big rocks and dirt. The kids would play on the street. We had a water man during the summer who would come down the street, sprinkle the street because of the dust, and the kids would put on their swimming suit and chase the water man and get a shower. And when the water man wasn’t there – well everybody had a lawn, and the parents would put the sprinkler on and the kids would play in the water there.”
We had the dairy man come and bring our fresh milk with the cream on top and leave it at the door. Buckley was the dairy out there at the end of Center Street. He had a dairy out there, and they would deliver our milk with the bottle and the little paper lids…you’d just lift it up, and then if you wanted the cream you could take the cream off, which was great. It would whip actually. And then on Fridays the fish monger would come with his truck, and he would be there slicing the fish and all the mothers would come out to get their fish for Friday. And the bees were all over him, but he never got stung. The kids were all there watching because they were fascinated.”
“Then we had Charlie, who was Chinese. He was the vegetable man. He came in his big truck once a week. So the mothers would go out and the children would go there. Of course I remember it. We’d all want to see what was going on. They’d pick the vegetables they wanted.”
“We had local butchers. Canziani Market was down the street, and we had a store on D Street, which was called Blake’s Grocery Store. And I remember going to the store almost daily for my mother because, you know, they wanted everything fresh.”
Olivia worked almost her entire career as a teacher in the Sausalito schools, beginning at Central School in Marin City just after the end of World War II. She developed an avid interest in family history, founding with her sister Teresa the Gruppo Lonatese to celebrate and document the stories of Italian immigrants from Lonate Pozzolo. In the 1990s, the group raised funds and contributed materials and labor to renovate the blighted Albert Park, resulting in the Lonatese Gardens and fountain tiled in memory of Lonatese immigrants to San Rafael.
Olivia’s passion for her neighborhood’s history led her to preserve stories of San Rafael’s past – stories of the people who shaped bricks in McNear’s Brickyard, made gloves in Carson’s Glove Factory, and tended the gardens of Marin’s grand estates. With members of the Gruppo, Olivia produced a self-guided walking tour: Italian Family Homes of the Gerstle Park Area, and a History and Genealogy of Gruppo Lonatese Families. Both of these documents, along with an oral history of Olivia Dalessi, are available in the Anne T. Kent California Room.