Swiss-Italian Immigrant Jerry Adams — the Most Popular Mayor in Marin County

In 1869, fifteen-year-old Giacinto Adami left his village of Giumaglio in the Vallemaggia, Ticino, Switzerland to join his older brother Giuseppe, who worked on a dairy ranch in the Olema Valley near Bolinas, Marin County, California. As did so many of his contemporaries, Giacinto left home to find a better life, traveling to a place half way around the world, a place in vast contrast to his alpine homeland.

Giumaglio, Vallemaggia, Ticino

Today Giumaglio recalls its past; Credit: Zoe Pieren, Ascona-Locarno Tourism

He was one of about twenty-seven thousand immigrants from Ticino, the Italian-speaking Canton in Switzerland, who came to California between the 1850s and the 1930s. About one thousand of those immigrants became dairy ranchers who grew prosperous through hard work, frugality and determination. At first, Giacinto followed that well-proven path, but as towns in agricultural Marin County grew more populous, he expanded his horizons. Adami’s story offers a glimpse, beyond dairy ranching, of the Swiss-Italian immigrant experience in Northern California.

Swiss-Italian immigrant Jerry Adams' town of Olema

Olema, c. 1910; credit:Jack Mason Museum

For the first ten years or so, Giacinto worked on dairies near the town of Olema. About twenty miles northwest of San Francisco, this coastal region, with its grassy hills and moist fog, is well-suited for raising cows and producing milk, butter and cheese. Giacinto’s brother Giuseppe and his partner Augusto Piezzi, also from Giumaglio, shipped their flavorful butter from Bolinas to San Francisco markets eager for high-quality dairy products.

Despite the many Swiss-Italians in the community, including many from Giumaglio, to fit in with the English-speaking majority, Giacinto and Giuseppe Adami changed their names to Jerry and Joseph Adams, respectively. As did so many other immigrants from Ticino, after learning the ropes on his brother’s dairy ranch, Jerry started his own dairy operation. He began by leasing land from a rancher named Righetti, very likely Aquilino Righetti, also from Giumaglio.

Olema, a tiny commercial hub, burst with activity in the 1870s. Two general stores, two hotels, a barbershop, a post office and six bars served the public. A weekly steamer service to San Francisco and a twice weekly stagecoach service to San Rafael offered transport to visitors and residents alike. Dairy ranching meant long hours of back-breaking work, yet Jerry somehow managed to find time for fun and vigorous exercise.

On weekends, local ranchers came in to Olema to shop and share news. They gathered to cheer on their favorite in a race “between two celebrated lightfeet,” Jerry running against fellow immigrant Stefano Toroni in one hundred-yard foot races that drew a betting crowd to see who would win the $250 prize.

A bustling Olema, however, was not to last. In 1875, the North Pacific Coast Railroad (NPCR) bypassed the town, ending its heyday. A crew of over one thousand Chinese workers graded the land for the NPCR tracks. Soon a train station arose in a pasture a few miles north of Olema, and around it a new commercial center, Olema Station, formed and grew into what became the town of Point Reyes Station.

Despite Olema’s fall in status, Jerry Adams decided to hitch his wagon to the small burg. In 1883, after over a decade of milking cows and churning butter, Jerry left behind the grueling twice-daily milking schedule, sold his interest in the dairy on Righetti’s ranch and paid $3,100 for three parcels of land in Olema, where he opened a general store. Ever optimistic, Jerry started his new venture even though it was not the only commercial establishment in Olema.

Three other general stores, along with three hotels (one of them Toroni’s) and a blacksmith shop also did business in the small town. Competition didn’t phase Jerry. His friendly demeanor brought in customers and attracted voters. In 1884, he was elected Justice of the Peace, authorized to handle minor civil disputes for the small town. As such, Jerry received no salary, but was paid for each duty. His election demonstrated that the community trusted him to be fair and just.

Jerry caught the eye of at least one young lady, for in February 1886, he married Katy Haggerty, daughter of the Irish pioneer couple Martin and Bridget Haggerty. The newspaper wedding announcement pronounced Jerry “the leading merchant of Olema.” Their son Jesse Arnold Adams was born on April 10, 1886. Sadly, Katy died one week later, likely of complications from childbirth. How could Jerry raise this infant? Fortunately, Charles Petar (footnote) and his wife Josephine Balzari Petar took in the baby to raise on their Bolinas ranch with their two boys, Louis and Joseph, who were about ten years older than Jesse.

With his son in good hands on the Petar ranch, Jerry threw himself into work and community service. He had big dreams. At various times, he served as postmaster, election inspector, and interpreter for the county, translating for his fellow Ticinesi who had not yet learned English. While running his general store and attending to various civic duties, he bought more property in Olema.

Despite losing its spot as the main commercial hub for the area, Olema still drew visitors—particularly hunters, fishermen and hikers—many from San Francisco. Resort spots such as Camp Taylor, Bear Valley and Tocaloma attracted city-dwellers who enjoyed “rusticating,” spending time relaxing amidst the region’s rugged natural beauty. Parties and balls took place at these well-known gathering spots to entertain the vacationers along with local dairy families, who, after working hard on their ranches, craved community and entertainment.

Friendly and likable, Jerry served as master of ceremonies on many of these occasions. His popularity grew as people became acquainted with his enthusiasm and energy at Camp Taylor and Bear Valley events. News reporters began dubbing him “the enterprising and popular merchant of Olema.”

Swiss-Italian Immigrant Jerry Adams

May Day Ball Announcement, Sausalito News, Feb 14, 1890

Jerry clearly enjoyed presiding over these festivities, so much so that in 1889, he built another story onto his store in Olema and opened it for use as a public hall dedicated to community gatherings and parties. In May of 1890, the Sausalito News described the May Day Ball held at Jerry’s Hall: “Dancing was indulged in through the evening and until 5 a.m. the next morning . . . The ball throughout was an immense success and much credit is due to Col. Jerry Adams for the able way he managed the affair and the interest and pleasure he took in the party. When the party broke up three cheers were given Col. Jerry.”

As Jerry grew to become a well-known personality in small, agricultural Marin County, his every move was announced in local papers. On joining Company D of the California National Guard, he suddenly gained the title of Colonel.  San Rafael’s Company D had about one hundred members, of which Jerry was one of the very few Swiss-Italians. Although a military organization, the group provided abundant opportunities for members to participate in social activities. On weekends Jerry competed in shooting contests against other military companies, events similar to those of traditional Schuetzen and Swiss Rifle Clubs. Through participation in Company D, Jerry gained friends and acquaintances beyond his immediate circle of Swiss-Italian ranchers and West Marin villagers.

Swiss-Italian Immigrant Jerry Adams

Jerry Adams
Credit: Jack Mason Museum

Jerry also made friends in other organizations. The Olema Grove No. 39 of the United Ancient Order of Druids counted many Ticinesi members, including Jerry, but he was only one of two Swiss-Italians in the San Rafael Cyclers, a group of cyclists who held road races and outings on their wheels. Membership in these organizations provided Jerry with significant social connections. The Marin County Tocsin reported that one slow run of wheelmen from San Rafael to Camp Taylor “included the most promising citizens in the burgh in the rising generation—county and State officers, business and professional men . . .”

In 1891, Jerry travelled back to Giumaglio for a several-month stay. He reacquainted himself with friends and relatives and, above all, with his mother whom he had left twenty years earlier. Perhaps he hoped to find a wife, as did many immigrants looking to marry a woman from their village. Three months later, he was back in California, still single. The next year Jerry’s competitor, William Friedlander, owner of the Pioneer Store in Olema, finally retired. Jerry and partner Stefano Toroni, who owned the Olema Union Hotel, promptly purchased Friedlander’s Pioneer store building. Together they owned a very large block in the very small town of Olema.

Jerry’s popularity continued to grow along with his real estate holdings. He dabbled in politics, making an unsuccessful campaign for Democratic Assemblyman, which would have made him a representative to the California State Legislature.  He lost to his Republican rival by only one hundred votes. That loss didn’t deter him from running for Marin County Sheriff. A local newspaper, the Sausalito News, held several contests to identify the “most popular man in Marin County.”  Newspapers at the time awarded prizes such as gold canes or watches to the winner, using such gimmicks to increase circulation by allotting votes based on the number of newspapers or subscriptions sold. In June 1894, a subscriber sent the following letter to the Sausalito News:  “—Enclosed I send 550 votes for Col. Jerry Adams, the most popular man in Marin county, and the next Democratic Sheriff of our county, if he will accept the nomination. He is the dark-horse for the gold watch contest. At the end of the month I will send you enough votes for him to be a sure winner. Yours, etc., OLEMA SUBSCRIBER.”

Jerry lost the popularity contest, ending up the fifth place, but by no means near the bottom of the list. And although he was well-regarded, Jerry also was defeated in the vastly more significant election for Marin County Sheriff. Despite his losses, Jerry continued to buy real estate and engage in politics, serving once again as a delegate to the California Democratic Convention.

In 1894, Jerry made another major change. After holding “an iron grip on the mercantile interests of Olema” while retaining substantial property there, he sold his store to Atillio Martinelli (fn) and transferred to San Rafael, the largest town in the county, where he leased the Parisian Hotel. The Marin County Tocsin announced Jerry’s move. “The gentleman is one of the best known citizens of Marin County and one of the best liked and all his friends wish him success heartily. Mr. Adams proposes to transform things about the Parisian House so that its oldest acquaintances will not know it. . . . Mr. Adams promises, among other things, that he will have the best cook in his kitchen that money will hire and waiters who will rival Thomas Jefferson in courtly manners.”

Courtly manners in no way describe the bloody fight that took place between Jerry and his friend James McCue at the Parisian Hotel in the early hours of a July morning in 1897. The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read: “A Game of Seven Up Ends in Bloodshed. . . McCue Shoots Jerry Adams.”  Jerry and McCue had disagreed over who won the stakes in their card game. McCue claimed that, “At the commencement we played for 50 cents a game, but gradually raised the stakes until we made it $5 each a game. During the last game, which I won, Jerry reached over and took the two $5 gold pieces and placed them in his pocket. I demanded that he return my money.” An altercation ensued, ending with McCue shooting Jerry twice in the right cheek.  “Both men had drank enough to be mellow” and each accused the other of starting the brawl.

When summoned, District Attorney E.B. Martinelli (fn) set McCue’s bail, and Jerry retired upstairs to have his wound dressed. According to the attending physician, Jerry had been very fortunate. Had the bullet gone a quarter of an inch to the right or left, an artery would have been severed and Jerry’s chances of surviving slim. The facts of the conflict could not be determined. The newspaper report continued, “Jerry Adams is a pioneer of this county and has always been regarded as very peaceable and quiet, and has never been in any difficulty whatever. He owns practically all of the town of Olema.”


James McCue

James McCue; Sausalito News 1888

McCue, on the other hand, had a reputation for belligerence and colorful behavior. He had been a stage coach driver, horse doctor, circus owner and gold prospector, a newspaper publisher and producer of a Chinese liniment said to cure man and beast. Known as “Mad-hat Doc” McCue, he bragged on settling disputes “with guns blazing” whenever the situation required it. Days later in court, a conciliatory Jerry agreed to drop the charges of attempted murder, and District Attorney Martinelli dismissed the criminal case.

Shortly after his unfortunate skirmish with McCue, Jerry again made a move. He sold his business at the Parisian Hotel and transferred a few miles south to a town called Larkspur where he opened a restaurant called Miner Place. Jerry liked to do things on a large and extravagant scale.He inaugurated his new business in 1898 with a bull’s head dinner. An early version of the barbecue, this traditional feast originated with the California’s Spanish settlers, the Californios, and featured tender, savory meat slowly roasted over coals in an enormous pit.

Swiss-Italian Immigrants in Olema

1910 Swiss-Italian Celebration in Olema, California – Credit: Jack Mason Museum

It seems that Adams never passed a chance to party, large or small. He prominently served on committees organizing the many Swiss-Italian holiday celebrations held each year. In 1898, fifteen hundred attendees gathered at Schuetzen Park near San Rafael to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Ticinese independence and the admission of Ticino into the Swiss Republic. The Sausalito News printed the entire text of District Attorney E. B. Martinelli’s speech, which began by acknowledging the pioneers who came during the Gold Rush, men who “spent a large part of this first hundred years of  Ticinese Independence away from the scenes of their birth,” men who “bade farewell to country, friends and fireside and set out to seek their destinies in the promised land.”

Martinelli went on to describe the next wave of immigrants, “brave, industrious and energetic, they have embarked into every enterprise, have made themselves independent and added lustre on this foreign shore to the fair name of their Mother Country….They were people of simple habits living lives of industry in their several vocations and overcoming difficulties by their energy and perseverance in this land removed 6,000 miles from their mother home.”

By this time, Jerry, one of the second wave of immigrants, had lived in California for nearly thirty years. His habits and social activities belied a simple lifestyle, and his energy and perseverance propelled him to once again make his mark, this time in a place named Corte Madera, once a part of the Mexican land grant Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio.

In 1898, Jerry bought land there and constructed the town’s first business block, leasing out one building for a grocery store while keeping operation of a three-story hotel and tavern he named the Hotel Madera, located just south of the train station.  Expanding his offerings, he began advertising JERRY ADAMS’ RESORT, a campground with or without board, to attract vacationers who enjoyed roughing it in tents in the countryside.


Jerry Adams Corte Madera

Jerry’s Hotel Madera with train station in foreground; credit: A History of Corte Madera

Prior to the 1906 San Francisco Fire and Earthquake, Corte Madera had few permanent residents, primarily commuters who took the train and ferry to work in San Francisco. Wealthy San Franciscans spent summers at their grand estates laid out on hundreds of acres in the hills around Corte Madera. These well-off city-dwellers and their friends frequented Jerry’s hotel, restaurant and tavern, including the billiard room on the first floor. After the earthquake, Corte Madera’s population  grew, as former San Franciscans left San Francisco ruins for a new start in Marin County.

In 1902, Jerry successfully advocated for a post office in Corte Madera so residents would not have to travel to nearby Larkspur for their mail. Per Jerry’s request, the U.S. Postal Department established a new post office named Adams, appointing Jerry as Postmaster. The name did not last long. Residents protested loudly to retain the historic name of Corte Madera, named by the Spaniards for the place where wood was cut. Nostalgia won out over the prosaic ‘Adams’ although the Corte Madera post office remained in Jerry’s hotel.

In 1904, Jerry continued to develop real estate, once again thinking of community gatherings by building a meeting hall next to his hotel. Although friendly and cooperative, Jerry could not avoid conflict with the wealthy, litigious W.B. Bradbury,  a millionaire who owned over forty lots in Corte Madera and had his own plans for the town. The two prominent rivals resorted to the courts when Bradbury blocked access to Jerry’s property. When he happened on Bradbury bidding for a property at auction on the county courthouse steps, Jerry took revenge.

Swiss-Italian Immigrant Adami rival Bradbury

Jerry Adams’ rival William Bradbury; credit: A History of Corte Madera

Always eager to expand his holdings and unafraid of a competitive challenge, Jerry engaged with Bradbury in an intense bidding war, winning the lot for $1,400. Interested only in outdoing Bradbury, he hadn’t known details of the property up for auction.  Surprised to learn it was a small Corte Madera residence, Jerry had no qualms about paying so much for so little. He had outdone Bradbury, his rival in their struggle for political supremacy in Corte Madera.

Soon the newspapers were calling Jerry “the Mayor of Corte Madera.” He was now acknowledged as the unofficial mayor of two unincorporated Marin towns. In 1903, despite his successes, Jerry put his Olema and Corte Madera properties, including a grocery, bar, meat market, hotel and post office, up for sale. Perhaps he was anticipating a long stay in Ticino, for in 1904,  he once again made a trip back to Giumaglio, this time with travel companion Luigi Gioli.

On the way, they visited the St. Louis World’s Fair. Jerry remained in Giumaglio for nearly two years. Back in his birthplace, he couldn’t stay away from politics and public service. There in the Vallemaggia, he was elected as a member of the democratic Conservative party to the Ticinese Legislature as a Deputato al gran consiglio per il III Circondario, a Member of the Grand Council for the Third District.

Yet after two years in the Vallemaggia, Jerry again grew restless and headed back home, arriving shortly after the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of April 1906 had ravaged the city and surroundings. The Sausalito News of May 12, 1906 described Jerry’s journey:  “Many of his friends were adverse to seeing him leave for America and tried to dissuade him from going. As he was boarding the train, his friends told him that San Francisco was destroyed and twenty thousand lives lost. He placed no credence in their remarks and left…Marconigrams, briefly stating the principal news, were received daily aboard the steamer.(fn) No word from Marin County caused him much uneasiness.”

Jerry returned to find his Olema properties demolished. Situated directly on the San Andreas Fault, Olema suffered devastating losses. A year after the disaster, in a Marin Journal report, Jerry stated that he still had faith in the town and that he would start to “obliterate the damage” as soon as he could secure building materials. Ever energetic and optimistic, Jerry restored his properties––a two-story building containing a store, saloon and dance hall, four cottages, an orchard, and a gas plant. He settled down once again in Olema and became active in the Olema Catholic Church, participating in amateur talent contests and renting out lodging to the church’s Flemish priest.

Jerry never fully divested of his real estate. When he died at 63 years of age in 1919, he left an estate that included the Corte Madera Tavern, several buildings in Olema and a dwelling in Mill Valley.  Adams had been a Marin County resident for nearly fifty years. His obituary noted that he “was recognized as the Mayor of Olema and was quite a power in Marin County politics, one of the oldest and best known residents of Marin county . .  . For many years he had lived at Marshall, Olema, Point Reyes, Corte Madera and other Marin county towns and was a well known hotel man,  also engaged in farming. It added that he never missed attending the big Swiss celebrations held in this city or the district fairs.

Outgoing and affable, Jerry Adams’ life story belies the stereotype of the taciturn, hard-working Swiss-Italian dairyman. He filled most of his fifty years in California with properties, politics, and parties. He is buried in the Olema cemetery in the town he made his own.


Fn: Charles Petar
Another Swiss-Italian named Charles Petar lived in Oakland, California and partnered with Domingo Ghirardelli, a Genoese who made a fortune selling chocolates.

Fn: Attilio Martinelli
An immigrant from Maggia, Attilio Martinelli went to Business College, then became a shopkeeper. He purchased Adams’ store in Olema with his cousin Olimpio, then later opened his own store in Inverness. He ended up owning Main Street in Inverness, and served as a Marin County Supervisor for four terms from 1920 to 1936.

Fn: E.B. Martinelli
Ennio Batista Martinelli was born in Nicasio, California on February 15, 1868 to Lorenzo and Carolina (Bonetti) Martinelli. He served as San Rafael City Attorney from 1893 to 1895 and as the elected Marin County District Attorney from 1895 through 1899. In 1908, he was elected California State Senator.  E.B. Martinelli’s sister, Genevieve, became the first woman prosecutor in the history of the Marin County District Attorney’s Office.

Many members of the Martinelli family immigrated to California from Maggia. In addition to Marin County’s ranchers, storekeepers and attorneys, Luigi and Stefano Martinelli settled in the Pajaro Valley near Watsonville, growing apples and a business that grew into Martinelli’s Gold Medal ciders and juices.

Fn: Marconigram
Also called a radiogram after a wireless message system invented by Guglielmo Marconi.

Fn: Jesse Adams
Jerry’s son Jesse lived and worked his entire life in Point Reyes Station. He married Lavinia Mabel Nott, daughter of a pioneer ranching family and the town’s librarian. He partnered with Peter Scilacci in a grocery store, then worked for Salvatore Grandi’s Mercantile Company.

2 thoughts on “Swiss-Italian Immigrant Jerry Adams — the Most Popular Mayor in Marin County

  1. Enjoyed the story re my great grand father Jerry Adams. One correction: his son Jesse, my grandfather, married Lavinia Mabel Nott. Lavinia, not Lucretia. Thank you.

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