Immigrant Stories: Robert Zarlingo’s Italian grandparents worked in the coal mines
Robert Zarlingo died on Sept. 14, 2016. He was a farmer, rancher, businessman, devoted husband, loving father, oral historian and consummate storyteller. He is sorely missed.
Zarlingo: My grandfather, Antonio Cozza, my mom’s dad, came to work in the coal mines in New Castle in 1881. He was a well-educated man who was outspoken, and that didn’t go over so well in Italy at that time. The government was very unstable, and, after a while, Grandpa knew that if he stayed he would be drafted and end up as cannon fodder in a war or just murdered on the street for talkin’ too much.
He left shortly after he married my grandmother. Grandpa worked and saved and was finally able to send for her and Uncle Pete eight years later.
Grandma was seasick the whole way across, and then she rode the train, which was probably one step above cattle cars. All of that put her in a bad mood, so when she found Grandpa living in a mining camp with a bunch of other guys she was not happy. She had it pretty good in Italy, so she wasn’t about to live in a mining shack. It didn’t take her long to convince Grandpa to find a place downtown.
They all worked hard, and soon they bought this homestead parcel on Silt Mesa from a guy named George Lord Day for $250. Grandpa and my Uncle Pete were mining as a team, so they hired an old miner, who was retired, to help them build a little dugout to live in and clear the property.
In two years, they had made enough improvements to get their patent for the land. Grandpa Cozza continued mining until 1894 when he went to work for the railroad as a section foreman down at the tunnels in De Beque Canyon. He didn’t know much about railroads. He got hired because he could speak quite a few languages and he could follow instructions. My mom and my Uncle Louis were born during this time, so they all moved down to De Beque for a while.
By 1900 they had purchased enough ditch rights to build a reservoir above the homestead. The first one to really live on the place and do any farmin’ was my Uncle Pete.
Gallacher: What about your father’s parents?
Zarlingo: My Grandpa Zarlingo came about that same time with his two brothers. The brothers stayed in Denver and married and raised families, but Grandpa came on over here.
He wanted land, and most of the land in and around Denver was already taken. He knew that gettin’ a piece of land was the only way he was gonna get ahead. He figured, if he had a homestead, banks would deal with him because he had something to borrow against. Without land he was just another immigrant.
Gallacher: So having land made him legitimate.
Zarlingo: Sure, because even to make basic improvements on a homestead you had to have some money to spend. The country around New Castle and Silt in the 1880s was basically wilderness. It took some hard work and decent tools to get the land farmable.
Gallacher: So both of your granddads started in the coal mines as a way to get ahead?
Zarlingo: Yes, in fact Grandpa Zarlingo worked a lot of different mines before he was able to get land. I was kinda lucky because both my granddads were out of the Vulcan mine by the time of the big explosions.
The biggest one was in 1896, it killed 49 men, and then the second one was on my dad’s birthday, Dec. 16, 1913, and it killed 37. It’s a story that sticks in my mind because my dad used to always tell it.
Dad and one or two of his sisters and his brother Sam and Grandma and Grandpa were at the ranch. And Grandpa was the only one, at that time, that happened to be outside. He came rushin’ to the house and told the kids, “Hitch up the spring wagon,” and “fix me a bedroll and a grubsack.” He was excited.
“Where are you goin’?” they asked. And he replied, “Didn’t ya hear? The mine blew up.” And, of course, they rushed outside and by that time you could see the smoke and the dust. And he said, “I gotta go and see what I can do.”
You see, his oldest daughter, Jenny, and Mike Manuppella had gotten married on Dec. 10, 1910, and they were livin’ in New Castle. Mike was a shotfirer. He had been minin’ quite some time, and he had two brothers and two cousins in that mine.
He was supposed to be in the mine. He got up early that morning to go to work, but he was really sick. In those days you could get the flu and just die. His wife, Jenny, just finally told him, “You gotta go to bed.”
No sooner did she get him in bed when, BOOM. And he lost four family members just like that.
After that explosion somebody said, “Half the women in New Castle are widows.” Of course that was an exaggeration. But when you figure that the Vulcan explosion in 1896 took 49 and this one took 37, you’d have to say that there was more fact than fiction in it. Those two tragedies widowed a lot of women and orphaned a bunch of kids.
Gallacher: When did your folks get together?
Zarlingo: They got married in the summer of 1922. Ma was teaching school at the time in a place they called Elk Parks just above the reservoir. Grandpa Cozza was pretty excited to have my dad in the family because he had earned a reputation as a hard worker and quite a cowboy. Grandpa knew that my dad had started cowboyin’ when he was 14.
Dad and his friends, Jim and Dominic Dodo (Dodero), were all great horsemen. If a horse could do it, they did it for those guys. They used to go after wild horses up around Clark, Colorado, when they had time, and bring them back here to the “meadows” up around Meadow Lake. They built a buckin’ corral up there, and that’s where they would make cow horses out of them. If one guy couldn’t stay on, the next guy would try until they wore the horse down.
And then there was Henry Hasley. He came to Silt in 1899. He was a butcher by trade, and he built a packing house just across the tracks. He had come from Kansas where he had made quite a bit of money and was pretty well versed in cattle buyin’ and shippin’ by rail, so he knew cattle traders across the country. He was bringin’ cattle into Silt and New Castle from all over.
They brought those cattle up to the “meadows.” In those days, they let the cows calve year-round, the bulls were always in the herd. They kept all the cows and only sold the steers as 2-year-olds because they were tryin’ to build up their stock.
Gallacher: So they left the herd up on the “meadows” during the summer and brought them down in the fall?
Zarlingo: Not ’til December.
Gallacher: How could you drive cattle off the Flat Tops in December?
Zarlingo: Well, one time, they nearly didn’t get them at all. Dad told me they got caught in a blizzard down on Deep Creek Point. They were gatherin’ the cattle and pushin’ them north toward Meadow Lake.
They managed to get them into the timber, and that’s where they made camp and tried to build a fire. They had a helluva time gettin’ the fire goin’ ‘cause the wind was blowin’ somethin’ fierce. The blizzard stopped during the night, and they drove them home the next day, but they had to push through some serious drifts.
I was born in 1929 just as the Depression hit. The impact was felt mostly on the eastern side of the state at first, in fact it gave my folks a chance to buy some land. There was a guy named C.C. Parks, a Denver businessman with investments, who had 140 acres outside of Silt, called the Flying Cloud Ranch.
The Depression hit him really hard, and he ended up selling to my mom and dad. He sold them his 84 shares of water for $100 a share and threw the land and the buildings in. They had made some money from growing sugar beets, and they gave him $1,000 down and moved onto the place in March of 1932. Dad was gettin’ into the sheep business by then and figured he could make enough from sellin’ wool to make the payments.
Two years later, Dad had Mom write Parks a letter and let him know he couldn’t make his payment. They were gettin’ ready to move off the place when they got the letter from Parks tellin’ them to stay. Parks told them to keep the water assessment and the taxes paid and keep doin’ what they were doin’. Parks died in 1937 and his lawyers wanted to settle his estate. That’s when Dad borrowed the money from Mike Dodo to pay the place off when no bank would even talk to him.
Gallacher: But the “Italian bank” would.
Zarlingo: Yes, ya see Mike came from the old country about the same time as my Grandpa Zarlingo, but he stopped in Pennsylvania for six years to mine coal.
When he came to New Castle, Grandpa helped him find a place. Mike and this other guy, Tony Perry, hired my grandma to cook for them. That extra money allowed them all to eat pretty well. Yeah, we looked out for one another.
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Jonathan Godes will serve another term as the mayor of Glenwood Springs.