By Amy O’Hair
The presence of goats in Sunnyside is evident from the earliest photographs, such as this iconic shot that captured the witch’s hat tower of the Sunnyside Powerhouse in the background, with a munching goat in the foreground, taken on Monterey near Circular in 1911.
Then the same photographer turned to face the other direction, and caught a few more grazing goats on the railroad tracks.
One Sunnyside resident had his own goat dairy, located further up the street on Monterey in the 1910s. It probably wasn’t quite legal, given the City’s pound limits regulating what animals could be kept where. But no matter, because there were a lot of small dairy operations here, and in the Excelsior and elsewhere, well into the twentieth century. A cow in the backyard was far from uncommon.
After arriving in 1909, Sicilian immigrant Frank Maita opened a small dairy operation with goats, on the site of the present house at 535 Monterey Boulevard, in 1915. Most of the lot was open, with a little house set down the hill. Frank and Catherine Maita already had five children when they started their business; with four more to come, it was not a sustainable setup.
But it was a start on a new life in a new country.
Goat farming was going to see a vogue soon. People were offering goats for sale nearby, indicating they had a few extra to spare. When Maita started, he may have bought his goats from this woman on Chenery Street—or this dairy on Madrid—or even up the hill in Ingleside on Caine Street, all classified ads from the months before he got started.
From Poverty to Property
Frank Maita and his family came from Cefalà Diana, a small village in the hills south of Palermo, Sicily. The village had slowly grown to about 1300 residents by 1911, but over the following ten years, two hundred people moved away. The south suffered from real economic distress and lack of opportunity, exacerbated by the rise of the mafia in the west of Sicily, where the Maitas’ village was located, during the last half of the 19th century. This map from 1900 flagged their village, as well of most others in the area, as strongholds of the violent organizations.
My research reveals that no small number of the outgoing residents of Cefalà Diana relocated to San Francisco, and in particular Sunnyside and nearby districts. Frank Maita’s family was just one branch of the extended Maita clan in the area; there were no fewer than three Joseph Maitas in Sunnyside/Glen Park area in the 1910s, all distantly or closely related.
Frank Maita’s oldest daughter, Constance, married a distant cousin, also named Frank Maita, in 1920, whose family was from the village of Lercara Friddi, also marked on the above map.
In moving to Sunnyside, Frank Maita was part of a huge influx of Italian families during the 1910s, in part I believe because of changing real estate practices, with a loosening of unspoken restrictions on sales to Italian immigrants, and the increasing importance of Italian-run banks in the city.
In 1900, the US Census shows that Sunnyside had but one single Italian family, the Degliantonis, who came from Verona in the north of Italy. They lived for many decades in a huge house on Monterey at Ridgewood, beautifully captured in the 1940s in the background of this photo (later replaced by a condo building).
But big changes for Sunnyside were to come. By the time of the 1920 census, a full 10% of Sunnyside households were wholly or partly made up of Italian-born members. The city as a whole had only about 5% Italian-born residents. For the blocks on the eastern side of Sunnyside, and south of Monterey, the percentage of Italian households rises to 16%. Proximity to both the planned location for a Catholic church at Hearst and Edna and to the Italian vegetable gardens (now Mission Terrace) were two major reasons for this concentration. (A bit more about that here.)
The Maita family was part of an influx of people from Italy to Sunnyside that happened in the years after the Quake and Fire of 1906, as families shunned the denser areas of the city, perceiving them to be more dangerous. North Beach had by 1914 been flagged as an overcrowded area “with appalling conditions.” But also, in being from the south of Italy, the Maitas were part of another important change in immigration patterns. Although the richer northern areas of Italy had previously been the main source of emigration to the US, beginning in the mid-1910s, southerners made up the bulk of Italian immigrants.
Southern Roots, Northern Distain
Derogatory distinctions between various Europeans in these years are mostly lost to common awareness now. But then it made a difference to some people, and formed the basis for discrimination, contempt, or even hate. Italians were considered by many northern Europeans not even to be “white.”
Charles Versaggi grew up in Sunnyside—his father ran the deli on Monterey and Edna in the 1950s and 1960s; he has written about Italians in the city. His family was part of a later wave of immigration from Sicily, and he knows about this prejudice.
“There has always been a rift between northern Italians and southern Italians, especially those from Sicily….Italian northerners often look down at Sicilians as being the lower-class ‘hillbillies’ of Italy. Although that sentiment has changed a bit over the past few years, as Sicily became a popular tourist destination, the north-south prejudice is still extant….We all grew up experiencing intra-racial (provincialism) as well as inter-racial prejudice. Being called derogatory names like ‘whop’ and ‘dago’ was not uncommon—especially from those of Irish heritage.”
(Of course, decades earlier, in the 19th century, the newly arrived Irish themselves suffered from pervasive prejudice in this city and elsewhere.)
The irony here is that Frank Maita, in starting his little goat dairy, looks like a bit of a hillbilly. But he was doing what he knew, and raising a big family, and he did well out of it; he ended up by owning four adjacent lots on Monterey. By the 1950s most of his numerous kids owned their own houses too, though their working-class job titles may have been modest.
So who’s a hillbilly now?
A Trend in Goats
For about six years, Frank and Catherine Maita ran the little dairy, and their family grew, adding three more children to the five they already had—all well-nourished on goat milk, I assume! In raising goats in the suburbs—a lifelong passion it would turn out—Frank Maita was ahead of the curve in 1915. Although there were grazing goats in evidence around the Sunnyside Crossing in photographs taken in 1911 by a United Railroads photographer, shown at the beginning of this post, Maita is the first person I’ve identified to be farming goats in the area.
The idea that goats were an excellent choice for raising on suburban lots in the city picked up currency toward the end of the 1910s, when the Chronicle’s “Dairy” column featured frequent articles on the advantages of goats. The newspapers touted the benefits of the goat—easy to keep on a small lot, their milk was easily digestible and tasty—and, importantly, it lacked the notorious pathogens endemic in cow’s milk during those years before regulation and pasteurization were well established in the state.
“Goat’s milk is almost exactly like mother’s milk—which is by no means the case with cow’s milk….By keeping two milk-does, a family can be sure of a plentiful supply of milk throughout the year,” claimed an Examiner feature in 1918.
By the end of the decade, the new availability of imported specialist breeds, and the presence of stud farms and expert suppliers, meant the business of goat farming had come a long way.
A Family Feud
By the beginning of the 1920s, Frank Maita gave up his Sunnyside goat farm business, relocating his family for a while to an address in Glen Park, where at that time there were many branches of the Maita family. His wife’s brother, Frank Di Miceli, had recently gotten married, and through some family conflict (or maybe just bullying) he had wrested control of the little goat operation from Maita in the early 1920s.
Frank Di Miceli and his brother Giuseppe ran it for a few years, and unlike Frank Maita, they advertised, calling it “Sunnyside Dairy.”
The Di Micelis were also from the village of Cefalà Diana, and other family members came to San Francisco and then to the areas around Sunnyside. A sister, Maria, married a Giovanni Calderoni from the village and when they got to the city via Montana, they started a grocery on San Jose Ave at the corner of Theresa (building demolished for the freeway in the 1960s).
By 1924, Frank Di Miceli also saw his future in being a grocer, and bought the shop front across the street at 570 Monterey, with his family housed in the flat upstairs. Here are some photos of the front and interior from about 1929.
Don Cohn, who grew up in a house on the 400 block of Monterey told me:
“We called it Dimis’. My mom would send me there with a note to buy her Fatima cigarettes.”.
In 1927, Frank Di Miceli placed an ad in a program for the grand opening of the St Finn Barr Church auditorium. In 1942, Di Miceli’s grocery was captured in a Market St Railway photo, now with a big Challenge Butter-sponsored store sign.
Here are two more recent photos, in 1975, and 2022. The shop front, now divided into two spaces, is still in use by a family today, as Ty’s Barber Shop and Happy Lashes.
Their dairy business over with by 1924, Frank Di Miceli’s brother Giuseppe also bought a shop front building at the corner of Mission Street and Admiral (north Excelsior), with his growing family living in the second-floor flat. His family ran a grocery there for many years.
In owning their own businesses, the three Di Miceli siblings followed the pattern of a great many Italian immigrants, having “the Italian’s frame of mind concerning his work: what he wanted was to be his own padrone,” according to a historian of Italians in San Francisco. 
When his brother-in-law gave up the purloined dairy and opened a grocery, Frank Maita still owned the Monterey Boulevard property, and he had a nice new house built there. But it seemed city life was not where his heart lay. Feeling the draw of the farming life, he ended up with his big family by the 1930s in an undeveloped part of Hayward called Russell City, where he lived out his days on a farm with goats and geese.
In all Frank and Catherine Maita had eight daughters and one son. A few lived in Sunnyside or nearby when they were grown, but the son, Brasilino Maita, stayed the longest, raising his family during the 1940-1960s in a house on one of the several lots on Monterey that his father had bought in the 1920s. Brazie Maita was a taxi driver, and his son shared this photo of his cab parked on the north side of Monterey in about 1950 (along with a contemporary photo — note the billboard, a frequent feature on midcentury Monterey).
Frank Di Miceli ran his grocery on Monterey for almost thirty years, until 1953, longer than his brother Giuseppe had his Mission Street shop, or his sister had her family grocery on San Jose Ave and Theresa.
The goat-dairy conflict between the Di Micelis and the Maitas of the early 1920s left hard feelings on the Maita side, with the grandchildren still living in Sunnyside being instructed by their parents to avoid Frank Di Miceli’s grocery for decades afterwards.
Frank Maita had a lifelong passion for raising goats. Here is a photo when he is in his eighties, on the farm in Hayward.
My thanks to Noah Haydon for the initial tip-off, and to two of Frank Maita’s grandchildren, Jack Maita, for the priceless photographs, and Frank Tingley, for secondhand stories.
On contemporary goat-dairy farming:
“Goats: a Sensible New Fashion,” SF Examiner, 21 Jul 1918.
“Livestock,” [column] SF Chronicle, 8 Jun 1918.
“The Different Breed of Milk Goats,” SF Chronicle, 28 Mar 1920.
“Promising Outlook for the Milk Goat Industry,” SF Chronicle, 19 Mar 1919.
“Dairy,” [column] SF Chronicle, 13 Jul 1919; 6 Jan 1918; and 24 Aug 1919.
“Why We Should Drink Goats’ Milk,” SF Examiner, 24 May 1914. “Goats’ milk is also far richer, more nutritious, and also more easily digested than cows’ milk….There is hardly a part of the United States where goats would not thrive.”
Bache, Rene, “How Goats Could Save Health and Money,” SF Examiner, 21 Apr 1918, p60.
On Italian immigrants in San Francisco and California:
Fichera Sebastian. 1981. “The Meaning of Community : A History of the Italians of San Francisco.” Dissertation. University of California Los Angeles. .
Palmer Hans Christian. 1965. “Italian Immigration and the Development of California Agriculture.” Dissertation. University of California Berkeley. .
If you are interested in more details about the families, and are a member of Ancestry.com, you can view the enormous family tree I created for the Maitas and the Di Micelis here (free trial also available): https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/187527655/family?cfpid=192448342686
- Sebastian Fichera’s work (see bibliography) in particular explores the importance of Italian-run banking in San Francisco, and the fact that many banking customers were not Italian, giving greater economic power to the Italian community in this city than in many Eastern cities where banking for Italian immigrants was largely outside of established, above-board institutions. ↑
- This is my own hand count, using US Census data from 1900 and 1920, going by households on streets considered part of Sunnyside by the original boundaries. https://sunnysidehistory.org/maps-of-sunnyside/ ↑
- Palmer, pp380-388. ↑
- Report by the California Immigration and Housing Commission, 1914, quoted in Fichera, p142. ↑
- Palmer, p366. ↑
- “Dairy,” [column] SF Chronicle, 13 Jul 1919; 6 Jan 1918; and 24 Aug 1919. ↑
- Rene Bache, “How Goats Could Save Health and Money,” SF Examiner, 21 Apr 1918, p60. ↑
- The story concerning the family conflict came to me second hand from one of Frank Maita’s grandsons, Jack Maita, and I could not get further details or confirmation before I published this post. ↑
- Don Cohn, email conversation, December 2022. ↑
- Fichera, p237. ↑
3 thoughts on “Of Goats and Groceries: Some Italians in Early Sunnyside”
These are terrific community history posts!
Wonderful, well written piece. Thanks Amy!
My son Noah Haydon forwarded this article to me. Frank Maita is my Grandmother’s brother, when I was a little girl we would go visit the farm in Hayward. That picture is exactly how I remember my Great Uncle Frank!