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Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: The Ghislettas and their dairy

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Although forgotten by many, not too long ago open pastures with grazing cattle were a common sight throughout Napa County. The local bovine livestock was raised primarily for either meat or milk production.

Napa County was home to dozens of family-owned and operated dairies. One such place was the Ghisletta farm located between the Napa River, Foster Road and Stewart’s Hill. This property, in addition to being a part of the bucolic and historically significant southern gateway into Napa and beyond, is the place where multiple generations of the Ghisletta family are deeply rooted.

Their local story began in 1914 when Joseph Ghisletta, Sr. purchased the property, although his path to his Napa dairy began in his hometown of Camorino, Switzerland.

At the age of 18 years old, he left Switzerland in 1887 on a quest to own a farm. Upon his arrival at San Francisco, Ghisletta quickly traveled to and settled in the North Bay area.

For about four years he worked at Mendocino and Sonoma coastline dairies to amass enough money to purchase his own dairy. For a dozen years, 1891 - 1903, Ghisletta ran that business with success. But in 1903 he sold that dairy  to move to Napa County to eventually lease a Silverado Trail ranch once located near Yountville.

Before settling down at his new home, Ghisletta returned to Switzerland. During his three-month stay, Ghisletta courted and married Mary Luchini. Shortly thereafter, the newlyweds established their home at the Silverado Trail ranch. There, the Ghisletta family grew by three new members: a daughter, Mary, and two sons, Joseph, Jr. and Stephen.

Although pleased with his personal life, Ghisletta, had greater ambitions for his chosen vocation of dairyman. He wanted to own his own Napa Valley ranch and dairy. To that end, he purchased the south Napa property.

About a year later, 1915, the entire Ghisletta family moved into their new home, the existing farmhouse located on the property. Over the next few years, Ghisletta, added a number of buildings to his farm as well as enlarged the existing residence. Also on this site, Ghisletta, with the support of his family, established a reputable dairy. 

As the Ghisletta children grew, they assumed more responsibilities on the family farm. A typical day on their family farm began at 1 a.m. to milk their 175 cows. By about 5:30 a.m., the Ghislettas and their ranch hands had finished the morning milking and were more than ready for the breakfast prepared by the two Mary Ghislettas. 

Around 7 a.m., the milk truck would arrive for the Ghisletta Dairy’s raw milk. This family farm was well known for its Grade A milk. The main reason for this reputation was its high-quality milk produced under a strictly followed policy. Ghisletta, Sr., mandated for at least three hours prior to milking, the cows could not be fed any grass. This prevented the milk from being infused with an undesirable grassy flavor. 

As the Ghisletta Dairy morning milk was heading off to a creamery, the family and their employees had various chores to accomplish, such as cleaning out the barn. These tasks were typically completed by the time the noon dinner was being served by the Ghisletta mother-daughter culinary team. As they cleared up after that meal, the rest of the Ghislettas and the farmhands conducted the afternoon milking and clean up. By 5 p.m., these chores, and the day, were finished.

These activities were the daily routine at the Ghisletta Dairy for years. However, life began to shift as the Ghisletta children grew up. Upon their high school graduation, the Ghisletta sons became business partners with their father, Joseph, Jr., in 1926 and Stephen in 1928.

As time passed, Ghisletta Sr., assumed an advisory role until he passed away in 1950 at the age of 81 years old. But before that year, other changes occurred a the Ghisletta ranch. Prior to 1950, the senior Ghislettas witnessed and celebrated the marriages of all three of the children. 

Mary, their daughter, married Michael Majjorie, a member of the highly regarded San Francisco creamery owned by his family. Residing in San Francisco, other than the typical family visits, Mary and her family had no active role in the business side of the Ghisletta Dairy. In 1984, Mary passed away, followed soon after by her husband and then their only child, a son. 

As for the Ghisletta sons, Joseph, Jr., married Billie Powell of Napa. They moved to their own Napa home where they would welcome and raise their two children, Joseph III and Carol. Although living off-site, Joseph, Jr., remained an active Ghisletta Dairy partner. 

Stephen would marry Mabel Bassi of Petaluma on Jan. 15, 1940, in Reno, Nevada. Returning to Napa, they established their home at the Ghisletta Dairy. Their two children, Stanley and Judy, grew up on the family farm.

As the family expanded, the daily routine on the ranch continued much the same, with a few exceptions. For example, in 1941, the Ghislettas’ old barn went up in flames. It was such an intense inferno it was visible in Vallejo. The hay and other feed, such as figs and prunes, burned for six days. For years Stephen would remark on how the remains of the dried fruit looked like pools of gold. As for the fire-destroyed structure, it was quickly replaced with a new barn and silo.

Also, over time, the Ghisletta land holdings grew. On a regular basis, the family purchased adjoining parcels of land in order to meet their farming needs. One of the most significant of these real estate transactions was in 1929-1930. At that time, they bought the old Winship place located along Foster Road with its picturesque Victorian residence, carriage house and gardens. It is said, Mary, “Sr.,” was in great awe of that landscape as she found the gardens and rose-lined driveway to be breathtakingly beautiful.

While the Winship residence was essentially abandoned and neglected to eventually fall into ruin, the Ghislettas used the carriage house as a feed barn for their young cattle and storage for farming equipment.

In 1996, the carriage house was donated to the Napa Valley Exposition. A group of volunteers for the Napa Valley Horsemen’s Association -- primarily Mike Connor, Butch Chilton, Mike Eoff and Bob Musante -- reconstructed the circa-1880 building to serve as the new entrance to the fairground’s grandstand.

Under the brothers' efforts, guidance and hard work, the Ghisletta Dairy continued to thrive for some time. But that passage of time coupled with an array of other challenges forced the Ghislettas to make some difficult decisions. In 1971, they disposed of the dairy business. For another eight years, they raise cattle for meat production until both brothers retired in 1979. For a time they leased their pastures for grazing. Around this time, the Ghislettas also planted a vineyard on the east side of Highway 29.

Although both the brothers have passed away, their ranch remains in their family’s ownership. It also continues to provide an idyllic Napa Valley agricultural welcome to both residents and visitors alike as well as honors and preserves a significant part of Napa County’s cultural heritage - the once prominent dairy and livestock agri-businesses.

The new owners of a historic Napa home, the William Andrews House, would like to turn the former home into a luxury bed and breakfast, possibly called The Hotel California. Here's a look at what the home looks like, pre-renovation.

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