In her book, “Houses with Names, Adria Bernardi’s writes that the first known Italian who lived in the Highwood/Highland Park area was a Venetian named Agosto de Bon. He was already living in Highland Park in 1900. Highwood at the time was inhabited primarily by Swedish immigrants. What we know about ourselves as Italians is that we tend to stick together, to take care of our own. So it makes sense that our Italian ancestors congregated on the North Shore, bringing their family with them in search of a better life.
Like many men in the late 1800s and early 1900s, my great-grandfather Vincenzo Bernardi came to America to work in the coalmines. It was torturous and dangerous work. He contracted a pneumonia-like disease and returned to Italy to spend his last days with his young wife and my grandfather, just a boy at the time. Italians who had come to work in coalmines were thrilled that jobs were plentiful on the North Shore. In fact, some of the natural skills from their hometowns were highly valued here. Construction and gardening were clean and safe and the salaries they earned could support a family.
Vincenzo’s uncle Iuffa came to work in Highwood several times. As a youngster visiting him in Italy, I remember him talking about a tall tower helped to build in Highland Park, which of course would be the water tower (Above). It is a beautiful red brick structure that complements the stone, brick and slate-roof downtown Highland Park architecture. Zio Iuffa also spoke about the stone bridges along a long and winding road that leads from Highland Park to Chicago, which of course is Sheridan Road. Whenever my mother and I traveled that road, we wondered which of these low bridges, crossing over ravines, carried the handiwork of our Zio Iuffa.
Giuse Bernardi Merucci once told me a story about being a little girl back in Italy, when her grandfather had spoken about a very busy man they called “Griffa” from Lake Forest, who had plenty of work and not enough trained men. Her grandfather went back to Italy to recruit stone masons, bricklayers and laborers. Many of Lake Forest’s beautiful commercial buildings, including Market Square (above) and many grand mansions were built by the real estate firm of John Griffith & Co in the early 1900s. Striking stone and brick work is a trademark of the Lake Forest building style. And while his company gets the credit for their construction, we know that it was our ancestors who broke their backs doing the heavy lifting, leaving their talent and artistry as a seal. As I listened to Giuse, I wondered how the conversations might have sounded as her grandfather tried to convince his paesani to get on a ship and come to America for work. I suppose today’s recession reminds us how people picked up and left for new worlds, leaving their homes and their families for jobs and new lives that lied ahead.
In the 1950s when the quotas were re-opened for immigrants, Italians who were already here were able to make requests on behalf of their relatives. Attorney Nello Ori was instrumental in assisting his paesani. His brother Bruno once told me that Nello had a friend in Washington who informed him in advance that the quotas would soon be re-opening. Nello put the word out to his fellow Italians and they began the required paperwork before the law had even been passed by congress! The Pasquesi Travel Agency in Highwood was experienced in arranging travel for these immigrants. And so the story repeated itself, freshly immigrated Italians looking for work, trained as tradesmen were back working for “rich people” as carpenters, stone masons, brick layers, gardeners and many more. Today we still have plenty of descendents of Italian immigrants working in the construction and landscaping fields that they learned from their fathers and grandfathers. The Italian pride in construction and landscaping lives on.
If you have a story to share about our North Shore Italians, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to share it with others.