The influx of immigrants to America from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries is not just well-known history, it’s a part of our common pop cultural memory. These immigrants’ stories come to us In books like Ragtime and films like The Godfather Part II, in the recounting of sensational trials like Sacco and Vanzetti, in landmarks like the Tenement Museum in New York, and of course in the reminiscences of those who endured the experience.
It’s especially common to hear their stories of squalor and struggle in New York’s Lower East Side, or perhaps in ethnic enclaves in Boston or Philadelphia. Of course, they didn’t all settle on the Eastern Seaboard. The supply of labor went where the demand was, and that was essentially anywhere in the industrialized U.S.: The Pittsburghs and Clevelands and Toledos, yes, but also the Dearborns and the Youngstowns and the Eries. These small and midsized cities on Midwestern rivers and lakes were, a century ago, the booming “tech centers” of their day, humming with industry and opportunity for the skilled and unskilled alike.
Kenosha, Wisconsin, was just such a city. Situated on Lake Michigan on Wisconsin’s southern border with Illinois, Kenosha is one of those random American cities, like Duluth or Fort Wayne, whose name you’ve probably heard but aren’t sure why. Nearly equidistant between Chicago and Milwaukee, it was an emerging industrial port city, home to company factories like American Brass, Cooper Underwear (now Jockey), and Nash Motors, which was later absorbed into AMC and Chrysler (and lives on today with the Jeep lineup).
It was into this setting that Southern Italian immigrants arrived in Kenosha. First, it was a few brave pioneers; later, as news of job opportunities (and perhaps cash) reached their impoverished Mezzogiorno hometowns, family and friends followed. As was and is often the case with immigration, a great many of them from one specific place relocated to another. Kenosha attracted many Italian immigrants from Calabria, mostly from the Cosenza area. This included a great many Maranesi, that is from two Cosentino hillside towns called Marano Principato and Marano Marchesato. It is unlikely the first of these poor hilltoppers who came to the Midwest had ever previously heard of Kenosha, but they most likely had heard of Chicago. As the Marenesi in Kenosha website explains,
Paesani had settled in the Italian colony in Chicago beginning in the 1880s, and the earliest arrivals made their way to Kenosha on foot, courtesy of their jobs on section gangs with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Many of the immigrants moved from railroad labor to indoor manufacturing jobs in the tanneries and foundries which required large amounts of unskilled labor. Other Maranesi followed from Chicago when they heard of the job opportunities in Kenosha.
Eventually the Maranesi began flocking straight to Kenosha, skipping any stopover in Chicago altogether during their fortnight-long trip via steamship and rail. Kenosha became such a magnet for immigrants that in the four censuses taken from 1890 through 1920, its population grew by an average of 78%. (To be certain, many Maranesi settled in Chicago as well. And of course Italians from other regions landed in both places.)
Tomato garden in the backyard of first-generation Maranesi, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Today it’s difficult to comprehend leaving romantic Italy for the flat landscapes, brutal winters, and staid Protestantism of the American Midwest. Even the Italian South, still struggling mightily, seems to us as a never-ending painting of olive groves, vineyards, deep blue waters, and a kind of idealized, simpler life. Those characteristics may have existed then as now, but as one Sicilian man is quoted in John Keahey’s book Seeking Sicily, “Well, you can’t eat quaint.” Italy circa 1900 was a picture of abject poverty. The South, its richest region prior to the 1861 unification, was hit particularly hard with the collapse of the feudal system. By the turn of the last century, the Mezzogiorno was a place where it was still not uncommon to live in a cave, where to be a brigand paid better than to be a farmer, where a child stood a good chance of enslavement, and where seven in ten people were illiterate. By contrast, a life in Kenosha (or anywhere in the northern U.S.), with its proliferation of jobs and the possibility of owning property – perhaps even an automobile - must have sounded like paradise.
(And in fact, Wisconsin was settled by French explorers, and its larger cities were and are among the most Catholic places in the Midwest.)
Whatever the drudgery of daily working life, the Kenosha Maranesi found pleasure and solace in familiar institutions – family, church, community, and the like. The first Italian Catholic Church was built there in 1904, with other churches and social clubs to follow. But by far the center of gravity for Kenosha’s (then) west side Italians was Columbus Park, a seven-acre plot that served as an outdoor community center for the city’s developing Little Italy. In the introduction to the cookbook, A Taste Of Memories From Columbus Park, Catherine Tripalin Murry writes of the eponymous playground,
It was a place for children to play, yet be carefully watched from graceful wood front porches that outlined the old west side park. It was an area of grass and trees for neighborhood gatherings and church events and, throughout the four seasons of the year became a field to test the athletic endeavors of competitive youth…These were the makings of Little Italies throughout America and Kenosha was no exception. Columbus Park became an enclave to return to each evening to be among friends.
Except for a brief lull during World War II, Italian immigration continued into Kenosha well into the 1960s. Although Italians no longer dominate the old west side as they did, today people of Italian descent still make up about 12% of Kenosha’s 100,000 residents. (World-famous Little Italy in New York City counted about 5% of its population as Italian-American in 2010.) It’s a much different place now, another Rust Belt city trying to rebound. Factories like Chrysler’s are long gone. The lakefront has been revitalized, and antique trollies run through the city’s center. An enormous casino is currently being planned. But if you look around, you’ll see signs of its Calabrese past, in places like Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, or the Italian American Club, or Tenuta’s Deli. Or perchance on a stroll through Columbus Park.