James Joseph Grossi, West Marin patriarch and pillar of the ranching community, passed away last week at age 98. Born in Novato, Jim worked, married and raised four children there; his children raised children of their own, who in turn had children—and they all loved Jim. “It was very important to him that the family work together, because that’s how they achieved everything they got,” said Jim’s son Ralph.
Jim was born February 2, 1912 to Teresa and Domenico, Swiss immigrants who came to California in the 1890s. Domenico was a forceful, parochial figure who worked hard and expected the same dedication from his family. “Their social life was their own family and maybe one or two neighbors, but that was it,” Ralph said.
Jim was born with health problems, and no one expected him to live long. “One of the ironies of all this is that he lived the longest of all his siblings so far,” said his son James Jr. As a child, Jim needed frequent trips to see heart specialists in San Francisco, which his father paid for from his meager savings without complaint.
He attended a small, single-room school in Novato through the eighth grade, and spent a couple more years as a teacher’s aid in order to get a high school diploma. One of Jim’s favorite childhood stories was the time the bank robber came to stay. The robber had taken $2,500 in gold coins from the nearby Wells Fargo, and had broken into the farmhouse for supplies. Domenico found the thief breaking into the icebox, made him a sandwich and glass of milk, and sent him on his way.
The next day sheriff’s deputies surrounded the house. Believing the robber to be hiding underneath, they opened fire on the basement. “You can still see the holes,” said Jim’s grandson James III. The thief, who watched the spectacle from a nearby hill, was eventually apprehended. The gold coins, however, have never been found.
The Grossi dairy ranch prospered during the Dust Bowl, and the family was able to buy additional ranches in Point Reyes, Marshall and Hicks Valley. “He never borrowed money. He paid cash for them,” Ralph said. “That was a lesson that came down through the generations—to not buy things until you could afford them.”
But the tragedies of the Great Depression made an impression on Jim. “It had lifelong implications in the way he spent money, the way he saved money, the way he treated family members,” Ralph said. It instilled a gentleness and generosity in Jim that lasted the rest of his life.
Novato ranchers, deprived of social centers or conventional entertainment, hosted Saturday night barn dances. One night shortly after the end of the Second World War, Jim asked Rose Marie Halter to dance with him. After a long courtship, they married on Rose’s birthday, November 3, 1945. Exactly one year later, on the couple’s first anniversary, Rose gave birth to James Jr.
“My mom was a big factor in his success. She had a good business mind, and really juggled a lot of balls at once—raising the family, doing the books and cooking for all the hired men,” Ralph said. “It was definitely a team effort during those years.”
Jim took immense in pleasure raising his children, and loved taking his sons on fruitless hunting trips around Marin. “We spent five or six nights a week every deer season up at this cold and windy spot, and I don’t remember him even shooting at a buck,” said Jim’s son Edward. “We’d get up there and we’d freeze our butts off, and he would sit there hoping a buck would come out. For years he’d drag us up there. It was his escape from the ranch.”
Although less domineering than his father, Jim expected his children to be self-sufficient. “When I was about nine years old, my mother was sick,” James Jr. said. “She couldn’t take me to school—the same one-room schoolhouse that Dad went to. So he let me drive the jeep to school. He grew up working when he was little and expected the same of all of us, so driving to school at nine years old wasn’t a big deal to him.”
Jim did not enjoy being a public figure, but he became active in local agricultural politics in order to protect his farm and his children’s legacy. He served as president and director of Western Dairyman’s Co-op of San Francisco, state director of the California Milk Advisory Board, and director of Sonoma-Marin Dairyman’s Association, Marin County Farm Bureau and Sonoma County Farm Supply.
“He became the spokesperson for the family, and yet he was never comfortable with leadership roles,” Ralph said. “He got involved because it affected the ranching business and the dairy business.”
Jim was a founding board member of Novato Community Hospital, the Marin County Draft Board and the Marin County Civil Grand Jury, as well as director and vice president of Franciscan Savings and Loan Association, director and president of the Burdell School District board of directors and member of the incorporation committee for the City of Novato.
He never stopped working. He still climbed into his tractor and drove a car until he was 96. “Well, he drove after that but his license ran out when he was 96,” Ralph admitted. Jim drove to Dr. Insomnia’s Café every morning for breakfast, where he reminisced about the café’s former life as Mr. Parcell’s blacksmith shop. He frequented Star Restaurant, where he would chat with the pretty blond waitresses. “He loved women. He was a big flirt,” said Jim’s daughter-in-law Susan. “He said their wages are going to go down after he died.”
He loved his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “I remember when he taught me how to build fences,” said James III. “He’d start by cutting down the redwood tree and making his own posts,” he joked.
Jim spent his last week with his family, playing with his great-grandchildren. His legacy is widely recognized by farmers and policymakers alike. “Without the foresight and dedication of people like James Grossi, we might not have any agriculture left in Marin County today,” said Planning Commissioner Wade Holland. “During the twentieth century, he was one of those people who defined what Marin County has become in the twenty-first century.”
He is survived by his brother George, children James Jr., Ralph, Edward and Beverly, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Donations in lieu of flowers may be made to Hospice by the Bay or Petaluma Future Farmers of America.