The challenge of living in 1800s Leadville |

The challenge of living in 1800s Leadville

Immigrant Stories
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Paul Gregory Durrett

Durrett: My father’s family came from England and France. My grandmother was an English Catholic at a time when it wasn’t very popular, and my grandfather was a Huegonot who left France for the same reason. They landed in Virginia and Maryland.

On my mother’s side, my grandfather came with his mother and three other siblings. His father had died and they came from northeastern Italy near the Austrian border. They came, via Genoa, to Liverpool and then to Hoboken and then worked on the railroads, cooking in work camps, until they got to Aspen.

My grandmother’s people came from the Appenine Mountains above Genoa. My great grandfather, Salvadore Persano, came in the 1880s and got started in the silver mines in Leadville and then sent for his family.

Gallacher: What was life like for them in Leadville?

Durrett: It was brutal, small cabins and hard work. That and the long winters convinced them to move to Glenwood where they bought some land and built a house. It’s the house my brother still lives in.

My grandmother had to quit school in the eighth grade to stay home and take care of her mother who had uterine cancer. When she was sixteen, her father picked her out a husband who was thirty-two. She told me she went from playing with dolls one day to a married woman the next.

He did the same thing to her older sister, picked out an older man who he felt had some substance and would raise a family and take care of his daughter.

My grandmother was widow for a good part of her life and we kids used to tell her, “Grandma you’re too good a woman to waste. We’re gonna find you a fella.” And she would always reply, “I had a good fella once, but I wouldn’t have another even if he was studded with diamonds.”

Somebody once told me, “Your grandfather was a helluva nice guy, Gregory. But your grandmother did all the work.” They ran the Merchant Cafe in New Castle and eventually came to Glenwood where they managed the Glenwood Hotel for the banker who owned it until it burned down in 1945 in the dead of winter.

My grandfather died a few weeks after that fire. I can remember coming back from the funeral and watching the smoke and steam rising. It smoldered for weeks. All the able bodied men in town fought that fire. It was so hot that it cracked all the windows on the bank across the street.

Gallacher: What are your favorite memories of your grandmother?

Durrett: She was such a sweet, kind woman. She always had the scent of wintergreen because she put snuff in her nose. She told us it helped her breathe. And her mother, Rosa Persano, always carried a little silver snuff box in her apron.

Grandma would always whistle to herself when she made the beds and did her chores. You always knew where she was because of that little, shrill whistle. We lived with her on Blake and sometimes when the family wasn’t doing so well there were lots of us in there. At one time, there was me and my two brothers and mom and dad, Uncle Bud, Grandma, Uncle Leonard and his daughter Jeanette. And Grandma rented a little room off the back of the house to Mrs. Bingham. We all used one bathroom. The house and the water was heated by a coal stove.

Gallacher: What was bath time like at that house?

Durrett: Well, we didn’t bathe everyday like they do now. But it taught us some discipline and some concern for other people. When it was your turn to take a bath and you had used all the hot water generated by the cook stove, you caught the devil for being selfish. So we learned to take a minimum amount of water and clean up after ourselves.

That lesson of respect and cooperation was an important one. We lived together and shared what we had. These days, everybody needs “their own space.” People need all these things to make them happy and separate themselves from everybody else. It’s an unworkable thing, when the few have everything and majority have barely enough. In time, it will fail. People can’t live like that.

Gallacher: The early Italians knew what it was like to have barely enough. They experienced quite a bit of prejudice in early days. Did you experience it?

Durrett: No, the prejudice was pretty well gone by the time I came along. But my mother and her brothers were never taught Italian, because my grandmother didn’t want anybody knowing they were Italian. She said she didn’t want anybody to bother them or be mean to them. Grandma spoke it with her old lady friends but there was no effort to show us how to speak. But now that I’m an older man, I see it as quite a loss because it’s much harder to learn the language when you get to be my age.

It was tough for the first couple of generations in this country. I remember the stories of my family starting out in Leadville. The established classes from acceptable countries didn’t like the Italians any better than they liked the Irish Catholics. The Irish and the Italians bulldogged each other too, but they were primarily bulldogged by the white elite.

My aunt, Josphine Persano, used to tell a story about her brother Dominic. She said he wasn’t a big man, but he was really strong from working in the mines. One day, they were walking home in Leadville and a gang of young guys began to follow them and taunt them about being Italian. Dominic and the biggest of the bunch got into a scrap. Dominic picked him up and threw him over on the ground.

Well, in those days they had dry wells in back of houses where all the sewage ran. The holes were covered with boards with soil on top, but this kid had the misfortune of landing on one that had rotten boards and down he went into the goop. That made Aunt Josie pretty gleeful that he had gotten what he deserved.

Aunt Josie was a stickler for justice. She told a story of being down on Seventh Street in Glenwood one day when a work crew of Greek immigrants was putting in rail on the railroad there by the depot. It was hot, so most of them had their shirts off.

The wives of the local gentry were down there with their parasols watching these Greeks and tittering and laughing at them. Aunt Josie went by and said, “You girls are laughing at those men, but you’re not fooling me. You’d like to have one of those warm bodies in your bed tonight, instead of that pasty white thing you sleep with.

Gallacher: I’m sure that endeared her to the crowd.

Durrett: Oh yeah, but she was a good cook and, as the saying goes, “good cooks have friends.” Her brother John was a mail route carrier and he finished his route in the early afternoon and Josie would have his lunch ready for him around two. Well, she always made plenty and all of the old widows on the north side of town would come visit her about that time and bring her flowers. She was a generous woman so she would fill them up.

Josie didn’t drive so it was up to John to do the shopping. He’d bring the groceries and Josie would always give the widows cheese, canned goods, something to take home. One day, out of frustration, he said to her, “Josie, why don’t you just tell me where to deliver this stuff so I don’t have to handle it twice.”

That generosity and spirit of cooperation was second nature to my Aunt Josie, and it was an essential part of the larger Italian community. When my brothers and I were young men, just trying to get a start at things, we needed to borrow some money. Sometimes we could borrow money from the bank but often we couldn’t. That’s when we’d go visit one of the old Italian ranch families up around Basalt.

Usually if you had twenty percent to put down and they thought you were worth the risk, they’d work with you. You didn’t have to go through all that stuff with the bankers diggin’ through your assets telling you, “this isn’t good enough and that isn’t good enough.” It was just a function of trust. They knew how we were raised and knew our families. They knew that if we didn’t keep our end of the bargain, they could contact our relatives and our family would pressure us to perform right.

Often, I would go to the old Italians before I’d go to the bank. The banks required property surveys and appraisals and all this and that. A lot of those bankers were imported, but these old Italians had lived here all their lives. They already had that information. They had a feeling for all that.

To read other Immigrant Stories, go to http://www.immigrantco

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