Times Past

Immigrants moved from whaling to dairies in 19th century San Luis Obispo

Special to The TribuneMarch 29, 2014 

“It's an ill wind that blows nobody (any) good."

San Luis Obispo quickly became the leading dairy county in California during the 1870s and 1880s.

The Great Drought destroyed the vast herds of mission era cattle between 1863 and 1865. But when the rains resumed, they were replaced by high quality dairy cattle. But who would milk and attend to the needs of these cows in a region where the population had shrunk to fewer than 600?

Fortunately, Portuguese from the Azores and the Swiss Italians were searching for a new homeland. The Azores were suffering from overpopulation complicated by the damage wrought by dozens of massive earthquakes during the 1840s to 1860.

The system of land tenure prevented economic advancement. The government drafted 14 year olds into its colonial armies in Africa and the Far East. Young men fled on the ships of the Nantucket-based whaling fleet.

Many young Azoreans remained in Massachusetts. The Gold Rush drew others to California where some became “shore whalers” at places like Port San Luis and San Simeon. With the “dairy boom” after the end of the Great Drought, most of these young men entered agriculture. The long, arduous days of working on a dairy farm were preferable to going out into stormy seas aboard the tiny shore whaling boats.

The Italian Swiss suffered from the economic dislocations of the Risorgimento. Situated along the southern border of modern Switzerland, the agricultural valleys like Canton Ticino had once prospered.

The bulk of their cheese production had been with the Austrian provinces of Lombardy and Venetia which were immediately to the south. When the Italian nation absorbed these regions, tariff walls were erected, cutting off those markets.

Thousands of Portuguese and Italian Swiss came to the coastal counties of California, which closely resembled areas like the Azores and Canton Ticino. Both groups possessed the requisite skills for dairy farming and cheese making. Both came from rugged, isolated regions with great extremes in weather.

Names like Tomasini, Biaggini, Bassi, Fiscalini, Filipponi, Muscio, Maggoria, Storni and Tognazzini began to appear along the North Coast.

This was a second or third stop in the pattern of immigration for many of the Italian Swiss. Many young men had come to work for older brothers who were in dairying in Marin and Sonoma counties. They were extremely independent, hardworking and thrifty. They came to the Central Coast to start out on their own.

A man could get a fresh start in the new land without a lot of working capital. Joseph Fiscalini arrived from Switzerland in 1876. His knowledge of the English language was limited to a few necessary words. George Tognazzini had been here a bit longer. He knew enough English to help his fellow countryman get a job with Morgan Brians’ large dairy operation in Green Valley.

Within two years, Joseph Fiscalini had saved enough to go into partnership with John Filipponi. The two leased properties from George Hearst in Green Valley. They purchased 60 head of cows. At the end of the year they had made a thousand dollar profit.

The drought and economic changes of the 1860s were like the proverbial “ill wind” that did, in fact, blow some good for the new immigrants. Because of their historical experience in the Azores and northern Italy, the Portuguese and Swiss-Italians understood the perils of farming in a rugged, isolated region where there could be great extremes in the weather.

This combined with the Spanish missionaries’ earlier introduction of reservoirs and aqueducts allowed agriculture to prosper, even in a “land of little rain” until it rains.


We hope that readers will join in the Annual Mission Days Celebration at Mission San Antonio de Padua, held this year on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Beginning at 1 p.m., John Warren’s New World Baroque Orchestra will perform music composed by Father Juan Bautista Sancho at the mission between 1894 and 1830.

This is an opportunity to see, feel and hear the experience of the California missions in the most authentic of all settings. Go to http://missionsanantonio.net/mission-days.

Dan Krieger's column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association

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