Italians in Marquette County
By: Russell M. Magnaghi
Italy was a geographic description and not a unified nation until the 1870s. With the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy deteriorated into small kingdoms and city states which were dominated by France, Spain, and Austria, not to mention the Normans and Arabs. The central part of the peninsula had come under the control of the papacy and was known as the Papal States ruled by the pope. The unification of Italy began in 1861 and was finally completed in 1870. Conditions in Italy were poor for the average peasant and many sought a new life in the Americas. It was natural that with the opening of the copper and iron mines of the Upper Peninsula, Italian immigrations would be attracted to the area.
The first known Italian to visit Marquette County was Count Paolo Andreani who visited the Lake Superior country in the summer of 1791 before the region had been given to the United States by the British. Andreani was leading a scientific expedition to study the shape of the earth. He took measurements at various locations enroute and is considered the first known European to circumnavigate Lake Superior at one time. Naturally he camped at least one night at Little Presque Isle which was the principal camping site for travelers along the south shore of Lake Superior. From there they would traverse across Marquette Bay and land at Shot Point or vice versa.
The Iron Era
The Marquette Iron Range was the first of the iron ranges to be discovered by William Burt on September 19, 1844 in Negaunee. Lacking a source of laborers, immigrants were encouraged to come to the Range and help extract the iron ore. The first known Italian in Marquette at this time was Eugenio Borgi who was born in Naples in 1836 and in the summer of 1860 was working as a day laborer. Also listed on the Federal census was Mary Black, a 29 year old woman from Piedmont employed as a servant. Unfortunately that is the only time that we hear of these two Italian immigrants.
In the summer of 1863 Philip and Josephine Marchetti arrived at Eagle Mills, east of Negaunee with a group of Irish. These were the pioneer Italians to the iron range Philip was from Corsica, had migrated to the Italian mainland and worked in the marble quarries. Soon after serving in the Italian Legion during the Crimean War he migrated to the United States. By October 1860 the Marchettis were living in western Massachusetts where Philip worked on railroad tunnel construction. Their daughter Mary Ann was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1860. Although they kept their property at Eagle Mills and used it as a farm, they eventually moved into Negaunee where Philip developed real estate holdings. Due to these early Italian settlers, Negaunee became the focal point on the Marquette Iron Range for the settlement of these early Italians immigrants.
Another early arrival was Batista Barasa, who was born in Quasolo, Italy in 1837. He worked in France and Spain with his brother on railroad tunnel construction before he migrated to Massachusetts and eventually to Negaunee in 1871. His brother Peter (b. 1842) came to the United States in 1877 and three years later was living in Negaunee. By 1873 there were other Italians in Negaunee: John Bastedo, a wagon maker and John Mazara, a laborer at the Jackson Mine. By the late 1870s Dominic Dighera was also a county resident. These and other early Italians were attracted to Marquette County through the efforts of Barasa or what is known as "chain migration:' One immigrant would arrive in a location and then sent letters which brought his friends and relatives. The area was developing and there was ample economic opportunity.
With the development of shaft mining the earlier immigrants – Cornish, Irish, and Germans - were no longer needed on the range and most of them began moving to newly opened mining frontiers either in the Upper Peninsula, Minnesota or in the Far West. Although there were 41 Italians in Negaunee in 1880 it was seven years later that the first large scale migration of Italians began into the County. At first the Italians were from northern Italy: Lombardy, Piedmont, Venice and the Tyrol and they settled in Negaunee. Initially 50 Italians arrived; followed in the spring of 1888 by an additional 100. Although they inherited the jobs at the lowest end of the employment scale as trammers or iron ore shovelers, they wrote back to Italy and encouraged others to join them. The wages and living conditions on the Marquette Iron Range were a great improvement over economic and work conditions in Italy. In the 1890s southern Italians primarily from Calabria but also from Naples and Sicily settled in Ishpeming. They experienced a similar migration process. By 1910 Italians comprised 15% - 16% of the labor force on the Range. There were a great many Italians working as miners and in many of the mines a greater proportion of the Italians were working as laborers and trammers. In 1910, of the 907 Italians with occupations, 741 or 81.6% were miners. There were also 51 Italians (6%) working on the railroad, 24 (2.8%) listed as laborers, and 20 working in the iron furnaces in Marquette. Most of the Italian businessmen were located in Negaunee and Gwinn at that time. There were 16 boardinghouse keepers, 11 saloonkeepers, 5 merchants, 5 bakers and 3 shoemakers. This breakdown of occupations was consistent with other Italian communities in the Upper Peninsula.
Although Italians were centered in Ishpeming, Negaunee and Gwinn, a small group of them headed by the DePetro family resided in Marquette. The DePetro family came to the Upper Peninsula to work on the railroad in the Sault Ste. Marie area. When they heard that the Cliffs-Dow plant in Marquette needed laborers to work in the charcoal-chemical factory, they moved west. The extended family continues to live in Marquette.
Although it was usually atypical in other areas of the United States, the Italian immigrants in Marquette County successfully became involved in local politics. Batista Barasa, who became a citizen in 1879, was elected to the Negaunee City Council when the community received its charter in 1890. Felix Chiabotto, a Negaunee merchant was elected to represent the 2nd Ward in 1897. In Ishpeming, Michael Tassin was a policeman and well-known for his efforts to get his fellow Italians to become citizens and then to vote on Election Day. These activities of the immigrants were unique considering that elsewhere in Michigan, Italian-Americans did not become involved in politics until the 1920s. In the late 1980s this interest in politics continued. Frank Valenti who was born in Italy served on the county commission. Representative Dominic Jacobetti who was born in Marquette County was serving in the Michigan House of Representatives. He had served since 1954 and held the record for the longest serving legislator serving the state in public office.
Entertainment and Recreation
The Italian love for music is well known. As early as 1884 the Marquette Mining Journal noted that an Italian band provided excellent dance music in Marquette County but nothing more was heard of this group. A number of Italian music teachers appeared in the various communities such as Nettie R. Calamata who in 1906 was offering mandolin, guitar, and banjo lessons.
The Italian Band of Negaunee was organized by January 9, 1907 when it provided music for Mike Marrietti's saloon called Hogan's Place. In the summer it provided music for picnic dances. In July 1910 it was formally organized and continued to entertain the public. In 1916 the Negaunee Star Band was led by Peter Zabotti and played social dances. In July 'Professor Joseph Bangiovanni's String Orchestra was presenting "jitney dances" in Negaunee's Cleveland Park. Nine years later Joseph Violetta was the leader of the Negaunee City Band.
The most famous band in Ishpeming's history was Vampa's Band. Professor Vampa arrived in the community in 1915 and began organizing the new band. He was able to get even the most musically illiterate to read music and by January 1916 his band with thirty-four members played for the first time and was an immediate success. Vampa's Band played at the Marquette County Fair, Memorial Day and Columbus Day celebrations and at other dances and festivals given by local clubs and lodges.
Then at the peak of the band's rise to success Vampa left town for Flint and eventually Italy. In March 1919 the band was reorganized with Felix Catania of Chicago as the new director. However due to a contractual dispute Catania left Ishpeming by July. In August 1920 Vamp returned from Italy and in August 1921 a new band made its first appearance at the annual St. Rocco-St. Anthony Day festa. The band also played in local theaters, at dances and one year at the L'Anse firemen's tournament. A little later Vamp joined forces with Frank Trombley to create a short-lived symphonic orchestra with between 65 and 75 members.
The local Italians directed their entertainment and recreation toward their families. Home parties were popular with an accordion and violin or guitar providing the music on a Saturday night. During the warm summer months families organized picnics while the Italian lodges also held annual picnics. The men played bocce in backyards or saloon-side courts and got into the Italian card game of morra especially for drinks in saloons. Some of the Italians fished and hunted both as recreation and also as a means of augmenting their families' food supply.
The first Italians who arrived on the Marquette Range were usually single men who once they got settled sent for their wives or got married. Many lived in company housing, at first, but tended to purchase their own homes when this was possible. Families took in boarders from the same village or those who were family members as a means of providing housing and also adding to the family income.
Each family maintained a garden which provided the household with much of the vegetables that the household needed during the year. Besides what was planted the women and children gathered fruits and berries and made jams and preserves from them.
If possible families kept a pig and cow. In November the pig was usually butchered, prime pieces preserved in crock jar covered with liquefied lard and the small pieces were processed into sausage. Blood sausage was also made at this time. It was sometimes said that every part of the pig was used except the squeal. The cow provided milk, butter and cheese for the family and if there was a surplus it was sold to customers in the vicinity. The Italian family became self-sufficient so that they usually only had to purchase items such as coffee, sugar, or olive oil. Pasta and Italian bread could be made at home but it was usually purchased.
In the late summer orders were taken for grapes and beginning in September train loads of grapes arrived at railroad sidings in Negaunee and Ishpeming. Most families made as many as 150-200 gallons of wine which would last them through the year. Some people would take the remaining grape skins and distill them into a potent alcoholic drink called grappa. Today a number of people make sausage from family recipes but the wine making tradition has declined because of the cost incurred making your own wine.
Most of the Italian immigrants who settled on the Marquette Range were literate. As a result many of them kept in touch with the news through Italian-language newspapers. Some subscribed to papers published in New York City like the ever-popular II Progresso while others read the long-lived II Minatore Italiano (The Italian Miner) which was published in Laurium between 1896 and the 1930s or the transient papers such as La Democrazione Italiana of Hancock (1917) or La Sentinella (The Sentinel) published in Calumet around 1906.
In Negaunee a group of Italians organized a dramatic group. During the 1920s and 1930s the group entertained the Italian colony with popular plays produced in the Negaunee High School auditorium.
Columbus Day (October 12) was a day on which the Italians affirmed their ties with their adopted nation. From the early part of the 20th century the day has been celebrated in a variety of ways. In the early days there were elaborate parades, dinners, dances and political speeches. Since Columbus Day came close to Election Day, politicians saw it as a good time to campaign and thus attended the festivities. The last major dinners were sponsored by the Lòggia della Neve, Order of the Sons of Italy in the 1980s. Today these elaborate celebrations have dramatically declined. Only the Paisano Club of Marquette County holds a dinner for its members. Usually a talk is given promoting Italian heritage.
The Italian communities on the Marquette Iron Range never had their own Catholic Church. They made up a significant portion of the congregations of St. Anthony's Church in Gwinn, St. Paul's in Negaunee, and St. John's in Ishpeming. The most prominent Italian-American Catholic clergyman and community was the late Monsignor Louis Cappo (d. 2007) who was pastor of St. Peter Cathedral parish in Marquette. A few Italians joined some of the local Protestant churches and some of their off-spring have become clergyman.
Lodges and Clubs
The mutual beneficial societies were a characteristic feature of all Italian communities wherever immigrants settled. At a time when there were no Social Security benefits nor unemployment or disability insurance or death benefits, the Italians along with other immigrants established these societies. They traditionally paid an initiation fee and then 50 cents per month. If they were sick or injured they received $1.00 per day, their families received a benefit at death and the membership attended the funeral under pain of a severe fine.
The oldest of the Italian fraternal organization in Marquette County was Società Fratellanza e Mútuo Soccórso/Fraternal and Mutual Aid Society which was established in Negaunee in 1890 and incorporated on February 6, 1892. Within a few years it boasted over 500 members who paid $1.00 per month for illness and accident benefits and an additional $2.00 for death benefit which was collected when needed.
The biggest activity for the lodge was the annual picnic held in July or August. In early July 1910 their annual picnic was held in Cleveland Park where there was boating, swimming and athletic events, eating contests and the card game, morra. A seven piece band was included in the 1915 picnic which became a common feature. During the Italo-Turkish War in 1911-1912 the lodge sent $25 to the Italian Red Cross for the widows and children of Italian soldiers killed in the fighting. Over the years the organization was active but as the immigrants died out there was no longer any interest in such an organization. On October 15, 1962 the lodge was closed and the remaining members were paid with the assets.
Over the years a number of fraternal organizations were formed in Negaunee. Società Italiana di Mútuo Soccórso Giuseppe Mazzini/Italian Mutual Aid Society, Giuseppe Mazzini was founded on June 24, 1908 with over 130 charter members. North Italians from Lombardy and Venice on September 10, 1911 established the Società Italiana di Mútuo Soccórso Lombarda-Veneta di Negaunee/Italian Mutual Aid Society, Lombardy-Venetia of Negaunee. They were incorporated on March 15, 1912. They first met in Scandinavian Hall where they wrote their constitution. They held their annual picnic in Cleveland Park and participated in both July 4th and Columbus Day parades and celebrations. In 1912 the Società Unità Diposero was established and on September 28, 1913 Grove No. 3 of the United Order of the Druids was formed and in 1925 a women's branch was created. Both organizations were still active in Negaunee in the 1980s. A little known organization: Alpine Italian Club flourished around 1915. There is little information concerning this lodge except that is existed and was incorporated in Marquette County.
Four of the lodges: Mazzini, Diposero, Fratellanza, and Lombardi joined in securing plots in the Negaunee cemetery. These plots were for single members without families in the community. A large monument which is still standing was surrounded by the graves of members. When these plots were no longer in demand they were sold to private individuals.
Léga Cittadina Italiana di Mútuo Soccórso/Italian Citizen League of Mutual Aid was formed in May 1918 with 50 members and incorporated on February 23, 1919. Its goal was "of having every adult Italian parentage in Marquette County duly qualified as a citizen of the United States as well as member of the League." The lodge promoted attendance at citizenship classes held in the high school by the Negaunee Board of Education and there were sick and death benefits. In 1920 two-thirds of its members were from Negaunee while the rest were from Ishpeming and North Lake and there was hope of establishing a branch in Princeton.
On September 23, 1907 the Italian colony in Princeton formed the Società Guglielmo Marconi di Mútuo Soccórso. They constructed their own hall where they held their meetings, dinners, and dances. The structure stood until the early 1980s although the society had been disbanded earlier.
The Italian community is Ishpeming established a number of lodges whose histories have been intertwined over the years. On August 6, 1899 Società di Beneficènza Italiana was established, followed on February 23, 1902 by Società Operàia di Mútuo Soccórso, Umberto I. The Società di Mútuo Soccórso, San Rocco was created on September 17, 1922 by uniting the Confraternity of San Rocco formed in 1918 and the Società di Beneficènza Italiana, due to the fact that the members belonged to both lodges. The name of the Società Operàia di Mútuo Soccórso was changed to Società Operàia di Mútuo Soccórso, San Antonio di Padova on April 26, 1936. The last amalgamation of these societies took place on September 20, 1942 when the two remaining were united and renamed: Società Americana Italiana di Mútuo Soccórso, San Rocco e San Antonio di Padova. Into the 21st century the San Rocco Society as it is popularly known continues to celebrate the feast day of St. Rocco in mid-August.
In the past the celebration was elaborate as witnessed in August 1943 when Frank Vallela was the chairman:
9:30 a.m. music
10:00 a.m. parade through Ishpeming to St. John's Church 11:15 a.m. High Mass, St. John's
12:30 p.m. parade through Ishpeming
2:00 p.m. public picnic with band music and events: women's nail driving contest, "coins in the pan," and the greased pole contest in which the lucky individual who reached the top won $5.00 which was placed there
7:00 p.m. Negaunee City Band
8:00 p.m. Negaunee Turners, an aerobatic and musical set 9:45 p.m. Negaunee Turners
In the late 1980s and the 1990s the St. Rocco festival was re-emerging and held a small celebration in the St. John church yard. However by the early 21st century a rather elaborate celebration had developed and attracts both Italian-Americans and the general public as a major event in Marquette County. Hundred usually attend the celebration attracted by the food, music and dance.
Italians from the Neapolitan community of Montefalcone in Benevento in Ishpeming formed a society of their own on June 5, 1910 which was appropriately named: Società Napoletana di Mútuo Soccórso ...Composto di Falconese. The first president was Leonardo Avella. The organization continued in existence until the early 1970s when it too was disbanded.
The Italian-American Federation of the Upper Peninsula was organized in October 1909 in Calumet. Its purpose was to unite the numerous Italian societies throughout the region and over the years a number of Marquette County societies were members. Over the years a number of its conventions were held in Negaunee and Ishpeming where there were parades and grand celebrations. However over the years interest in the organization declined and in September 1982 it was formally disbanded in Iron Mountain.
With the decline and termination of most of the old lodges a new idea was brought forth by Monsignor David Spelgatti of Ishpeming. A new organization should be organized to help preserve the Italian ethnicity which still existed in the county. In 1964 the Paisano Club of Upper Michigan was formed with the goals of commemorating, preserving and highlighting the traditions of the Italian immigrants and their American-born children. Since that time the club has flourished with branches forming in Dickinson and Gogebic Counties. In 1982 President Leonard Altobello and Msgr. Spelgatti were successful in their efforts to secure Professor Russell M. Magnaghi of Northern Michigan University to carry out the necessary research to preserve the history of the immigrant experience in Upper Michigan. As a result of this encouragement and generous financial assistance, artifacts, photographs, published and unpublished material along with 150+ oral interviews on tape have been preserved. To date the Paisano Club is the only organization in the state of Michigan to conduct such an extensive research project on immigrant history.
The last of the ethnic organizations to be formed in the county was the Lòggia della Neve/Lodge of the Snow of the Order of the Sons of Italy. It was established in May 1981 and continued into the late 1980s. It provided money for charitable organizations, scholarships and had an annual recognition dinner held in October to also commemorate Columbus Day. Thus we see that the Italian heritage in Marquette County continues to be maintained. However the future of these ethnic organizations is precarious due to the many interests facing young people many of whom come from mixed ethnic backgrounds and do not which to call their focused nationality.