From Giuseppe Casaretto settling in Merced Falls in 1857 to Pasquale Marano renting a piece of land from Miller and Lux in 1874, Italians were among the first settlers in Merced County.
As trailblazers, these brave immigrants crossed the continent, settled in a strange land and built a better life for their children and grandchildren who, in turn, often became contributing members of the community.
John Baptist Olcese was one of them, serving as a city trustee, mayor, merchant, banker, fair board member, school board trustee and Merced booster. For those who have been following my column, it is John Olcese whose family was associated with the O and G Building and Olcese and Garibaldi Store in Merced.
Born to Italian immigrants Andrew and Margaret (Margherita) Olcese of Hornitos in 1859, John B. Olcese was the oldest of their 10 children. Andrew Olcese came to America in 1850 and was in Tennessee for three years before going west. Unlike many of the immigrants of his time, Andrew was fluent in English since he was educated in England for about nine years before coming to America. Therefore, he was able to make a fortune in the mining camps with a general merchandising business.
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Eventually Andrew traded his Indian Gulch store with Giuseppe Casaretto, who had built a stone store in Hornitos. Relocating to Hornitos, Andrew and his wife raised nine children (a son named Giuseppe died when he was just 2). They maintained their residence in Hornitos until their 1886 move to Oakland.
In 1872 when the new town of Merced was established, Andrew entered into a partnership with a fellow Italian by the name of Giacomo Garibaldi and opened a general store on Canal and 16th streets. John B. Olcese worked as a bookkeeper for Olcese and Garibaldi in the early 1880s and helped run the business after his father’s semi-retirement in the late 1880s.
Olcese was an ambitious man who was active in both business and politics. Because of his expertise in banking and investment, Olcese played a prominent role in the financial establishments in Merced. He was a founding director of Merced Mutual Building and Loan Association in 1891, which helped the middle class save their earnings and secure reasonable loans for home building. The institution was considered the best in a city of Merced’s classification and maintained a steady growth over the years. By 1913, Olcese served as treasurer of the Association.
Not long after the Olcese and Garibaldi partnership dissolved in the early 1900s, Olcese joined the staff of Merced’s oldest and largest bank at the time, Merced Security Savings Bank, which was incorporated in 1875. In 1904, Olcese was listed as assistant cashier and served in this capacity until 1912 when he became vice president of the bank.
His next endeavor came in 1916 when he had the opportunity to join an institution that would better the Italian community. The Merced branch of Bank of Italy opened for business after banking giant A.P. Giannini purchased two Merced banks in 1916. Olcese became the assistant cashier of the bank, which was housed on the northwest corner of 17th and Canal streets. In 1920, Olcese left Merced for Bakersfield to work for his brother, Louis V. Olcese, who was the president of Ardizzi-Olcese Bank. Bank of Italy bought out Ardizzi-Olcese Bank and established the East Bakersfield branch in 1922. Olcese became the branch manager and served in that position until his death in 1927.
Aside from his banking profession, Olcese was a dynamic public servant. He was active in Republican politics. The Merced Fair Grounds Association was incorporated in 1892 and Olcese was one of the original directors. He served as the vice president of the Merced County Chamber of Commerce in 1913. Of note, the Chamber won first prize for an agricultural and horticultural exhibit three years in a row at the State Fair from 1910 to 1912 during his board membership.
As a Merced booster, Olcese tirelessly lobbied for better roads and for a state highway from Merced to Mariposa. He was also very mindful about the water issue in the San Joaquin Valley and the state. Olcese was appointed by Gov. Hiram Johnson to participate in the State Irrigation Conference in 1915 to recommend a cohesive state policy, from water management to flood control.
Understanding the needs of Merced’s youths, Olcese, while serving as the president of the Merced Union High School District, offered free land for the construction of a new high school in 1917 during a school site selection controversy. Olcese was elected to the Merced City Board of Trustees in 1916 and mayor in 1918, becoming the first Italian American mayor in Merced history. He represented Merced well by serving as vice president of the San Joaquin Valley Association of Municipalities in 1919.
Olcese married twice and lived in a beautiful home on the southeast corner of M and 21st streets. He died in Bakersfield in 1927 and is buried in the Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Merced.
Italian Americans, like John B. Olcese, have contributed much to the development and growth of Merced County.
To document and celebrate their legacy, the Courthouse Museum, in collaboration with the Italian American Exhibit Committee, is working on a new exhibit and a book that will be unveiled on March 16, 2017.
We want your stories! If you are interested in participating in this project, please contact the museum at 209-0723-2401 by Aug. 31.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.