My Family's Immigrant Experience: A Depression Christmas
© Copyright 2019 by John Cortesi
1904 photo of the saloon and pool hall in Radiant, Colorado. Four of the men in the picture are great-uncles and cousins.
My grandfather, Giovanni Cortesi Bacchirei, met my grandmother, Henrietta Menapace, when he boarded there while working at the local coal mine. Enrico Menapace also made his living as a miner when he first emigrated from Rallo, Austria, to Fremont County, Colorado. While working in the mines he suffered an injury that remained with him all of his life. While holding up a large timber to help shore up the ceiling a heavy boulder fell and crashed into the timber, pinning Enrico’s hand and crushing it. A botched operation by the company doctor compounded the broken bones and nerve damage and Enrico could never again fully open his hand. Needing other means to earn a living, he opened the boarding house, and eventually he and Ottilia bought the farm in the nearby mountains at about 9,000 feet in altitude. They grew head lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower and potatoes.
My father, Henry, left his parents’ house in the mining camp of Coal Creek, Colorado, at age twelve to help his grandparents on their farm. As if Enrico’s bad hand wasn’t enough, Otillia lost the sight of one eye when she was kicked by a mule. Enrico had a used Overland model car which was the cause of a bit of an adventure when my father graduated from the one-room schoolhouse in late Spring 1932. There was still five feet of snow on the ground, and on the way to the schoolhouse the car overheated with Enrico, Ottilia and Henry in it, my father wearing a Montgomery Ward mail order suit for the occasion.
He walked down a steep hill towards Middle Creek in his new suit carrying a milking can to get water. At the creek he broke through a thin layer of ice and filled the can. Soaking wet he climbed back up the hill and filled the Overland’s radiator, and they eventually arrived at the schoolhouse. The teacher, Mrs. Ivy, congratulated the school’s two graduates – out of a student body of 15 – Melvin Dunsmuir and Henry in his sopping wet suit.
When Henry’s father became sick with mastoiditis that summer, he had to leave the farm and go back to Coal Creek. Penicillin had been discovered but was not yet available to the population at large. Giovanni suffered severe dizziness and vertigo and was unable to work in the mines. So Henry, at the age of 13, went to work in the Fremont County coal mines in September, 1932, and became the breadwinner of the family, which included brothers aged eleven and three years old, and an older sister.
The Generellis were one of the few families in Coal Creek who owned a radio, and they were very close friends of my grandparents. Giovanni and Henrietta were often invited over to listen to The Jack Benny Show, Burns and Allen, the music of Guy Lombardo, and FDR’s Fireside Chats. My father felt pain for his parents when he watched them walk with a kerosene lamp through cold and snowy winter nights.
With his first paycheck from Cedar Cañon Mine – based on tonnage, and not an hourly wage – Henry walked to the city of Florence and, at Gambel’s Department Store, put a fifty-cent deposit down on a Coronado radio. The store manager, Bob Fritz, told my father that it was the best model available, walnut wood with a vacuum tube, three feet tall, and with a round, orange-colored dial. Henry was determined to pay it off by Christmas, to be a gift to the parents he loved in the midst of the Depression.
With New Deal labor laws not yet enacted to protect them, miners in Colorado were starting to exercise their strength. The local union president, Joe Marone, nicknamed “Joe Nails,” was a strong and vocal leader with a reputation as “plenty tough.” He had to be. Several years before the Ku Klux Klan was burning crosses in the nearby foothills to intimidate Italian immigrant “Papists.” The KKK preached that Italians were loyal to Rome rather than the U.S. and that militant unionism was “foreign inspired.”
When the mines closed down for the summer my father would either go up into the mountains and cut timber or work at the rock quarry at the edge of Royal Gorge in Cañon City. My mother worked at the Camerlo dairy farm milking cows. The Camerlos were from Calabria and she said they were very fair to work for. My father tells this story about working in the quarry in the summer of 1935:
“Me and the Piccone brothers, Coke, HoBoy and Sicky – in the camps all the Italians had nicknames – were busting up rock with 16 pound sledges. Sicky stopped to roll a cigarette and the boss told him, ‘I don’t pay you to roll cigarettes, I pay you to bust rocks! If I catch you doing that again I will fire you!’ Sicky told the boss, ‘When you pay enough that I can buy ready-made cigarettes then I won’t have to stop and roll them…and another thing: you can fire me if you want, but it’s 1800 feet to the bottom of that canyon and when you fall no one will see a thing.’
“The boss looked around and realized he was the only non-Italian on the job. He never bothered us after that!”
My father paid off the radio two days before Christmas. With the help of his best friend, his paisan, Louis “Midgie” Angoni, he brought the Coronado home, hiding it in the shed and covering it with old blankets. The only gifts shared that Depression holiday were chocolate bars and homemade wine, but late in the evening on Christmas Eve my father went out to the shed and, via the back door, brought the radio into the living room.
His parents, younger brothers and older sister were in the kitchen sitting by the wood- and coal-burning stove, talking and drinking hot chocolate. My father turned the radio on and Guy Lombardo’s orchestra playing carols filled the house. The kitchen conversation stopped. His parents went to the living room doorway; the room was illuminated by the radio’s orange dial. Fifty years later my father told me, “the look on Pa and Ma’s faces were worth all of the coal dust I had been inhaling. Pa and Ma were not going to have to walk through any more cold winter nights.”
My father never complained about “having it rough.” He told the story as a proud and happy memory, the joy of family.
My father once told me this story: “When Pa and I were working together in the mines, one time right after the ‘fire in the hole!’ dynamite charge went off, he and I broke open a big hunk of coal with a chisel and sledge hammer. It broke in half, and there was a perfect imprint of a fern. I felt like I was standing there a million years ago.”
I inherited that sense of awe and wonder from him, and spending time in Colorado as a young boy was always a magic show for me. I found arrowheads, animal skeletons, old mining holes, household stuff like straight-edge razors, pitchers and bowls, bottles like Dr. Wong’s Oriental Medicine and Dr. Nieblaus’s Herbicide for the Scalp. Layers upon layers upon layers: geological, social and personal history in and around a coal mine.Memories of Italian sausage with anise cooking for breakfast and spaghetti sauce simmering for dinner. Freshly baked bread in an outdoor oven made from the mud along the banks of the Rio Grande and fueled by piñon wood. I feel lucky that at that young age I was touched by the Old World ethnically and culturally. In that landscape and house it brushed me with its wings. It’s all connected.
photo outside the main tipple of the Black Diamond Mine near
My father was 15 years old; third row up, sixth from left. eighth from right.