Making good friends and a living by selling grapes
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Between 1880 and 1920 more than 4 million Italians entered the United States. Some of them made their way to Roaring Fork Valley and found jobs as miners, hotel workers, farmers and railroad workers. They played a key role in the development of the valley. Through their hard work and cooperation they were able to build a strong immigrant community that helped its members succeed. Here Henry Bosco talks about his parents and their early life in the valley.
Bosco: My dad came to this country from a little village in northern Italy in 1904. He was 12 years old, and he had an uncle who came to this country in the 1860s. His uncle encouraged dad to come here in hopes of a better future and a better life than he could look forward to in Italy. He helped my dad come here by paying his fare. He was 12 years old. My dad’s uncle worked in the mines until he got enough money to buy a little cigar store and pool hall on Seventh Street. He added a second story and rented rooms and called it the Star Hotel. My dad grew up living with my aunt and uncle and eventually bought the Star Hotel from my uncle.
My mother came to this country after my dad did. She came with the help of an aunt in 1913. Mom and Dad met here, they didn’t know each other in Italy. I was their only child. They both spoke Italian, but when they were working in the Star Hotel never a word of Italian. When they were back in their apartment they would speak Italian but never in public. The minute you walked out the door of the apartment it was English.
My dad came from the province of Asti just east of Torino. His parents had a little vineyard there and managed to eke out a living. Mom came from the French Italian Alps right on the border between France and Italy. She used to say that the border ran down the center of the little town she came from. If you lived on the north side of the street you were French and if you lived on the south side you were Italian. Mom spoke a dialect that was a combination of French and Italian.
Gallacher: Your dad was quite an entrepreneur.
Bosco: Yes, he was. A really good example of that was my dad’s grape business. When Prohibition came along and banned the sale of alcohol, the government made an exception for wine. People were allowed to make wine for their own use as long as they didn’t sell it. In those days you could buy a permit at the post office that would allow you to make up to 50 gallons of wine for your own personal use.
Well, wine is an important part of the Italian culture. Italians have to have a glass of wine with their meals, it is as important as a slice of bread. My dad saw an opportunity to help the local Italians get the grapes they needed to make wine. It’s too cold here in the valley to grow a decent grape for making wine.
So my dad started calling around and he found some vineyards in California in a little town called Lodi. There were a lot of Italians living in this valley in the 1920s, all the way from Aspen to Rifle. My dad began to travel up and down the valley visiting with the Italians and taking orders for wine grapes.
In the late summer when the grapes were close to ready my dad would jump in his old Chevy and head for California. He would go out into the vineyards and select the grapes he wanted picked. He would choose them by rows and the vineyard would custom pick the grapes for my dad. He always had pretty good grapes.
This grape business developed into quite an enterprise for him, and it helped us get through the Depression years. The little Star Hotel that we owned kept a roof over our heads but little else. Our grocery money came from the sale of the grapes.
My dad shipped as many as six railroad carloads of grapes. He had the orders organized by towns so the first carload contained the orders for Rifle and the boxcar was unloaded there. Dad called everyone who had an order in that car and let them know when the boxcar was to arrive. He had the railroad cars coming at intervals so Rifle’s would arrive on Tuesday and New Castle’s car came in on Friday. There was a car for each town in the valley all the way to Aspen.
Gallacher: That must have been quite a sight as people gathered with their wagons, cars and trucks to pick up their grapes.
Bosco: It was. The grapes came in wooden crates with no tops, stacked one on the other. The refrigerator cars that the grapes came in were not refrigerated the way they are today. At the end of each boxcar was a big bin that they would fill with ice and on top of the car there were vents that would open and the air would come in over that ice and keep the car almost ice cold. The grapes would come here almost like they had just been picked.
I liked to go with my dad in the summertime when he would travel up and down the valley and take orders for grapes. He would always take a couple of washtubs full of beer and ice. And he and I would go out in the fields where all these French Italians were working and bring them a cold beer and take their orders for grapes.
He made a lot of friends and, overtime, he became an advisor to other Italians who were new to the country and had legal things that needed to be done. He would help them arrange to bring other relatives to this country and work with them to get their passports and transportation. He developed a lot of close friendships through the grape business.
Art and Mary Kendrick were an older couple that my mom and dad became really good friends with. Art and Mary owned the Denver Hotel. They didn’t have any children, and Art came to Dad one day and said, “Mike, I want to sell the hotel and retire, and I want to sell it to you.” My dad said, “There is no way that I can handle something like that, Art.” And Art said, “I happen to know that you have a lot of good, close friends up the valley that are fairly well to do, and I’ll bet you can find someone to loan you the money.”
My dad talked it over with my mom and they eventually followed Art’s advice and found an Italian friend who would loan them the money for the down payment on the Denver Hotel. He told my dad, “Mike, I don’t know anything about real estate, but I know you. If you think it is a good deal I’ll stake you.” It was just a handshake but it worked out pretty well.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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