Vermonters celebrate Italian heritage

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(Host) Vermont history buffs will gather this weekend at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds for two days of demonstrations, exhibits and presentations.

This year, the annual History Expo will include stories about immigrants who crossed oceans to come to Vermont.

VPR’s Steve Zind has one such story.

(Zind) Stan Conti knows dozens of songs from the old country. He sits in the living room of his tidy house in Barre and chooses one to play on diatonic accordian.

(Conti) “This one’s called Tikki Tee, Tikki Ta.”

(accordian music)”

(Zind) Conti’s parents were part of a great wave of Italian immigrants who landed on these shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Conti and his eight siblings grew up in America, but they spoke Italian and followed Italian customs.

Ken Ciongolli is several generations removed from his Italian ancestors but he shares Conti’s passion for his family’s native country.

(Ciongolli) “Food is not fuel for us. It’s a celebration. I go home for lunch every day and I eat like an Italian!”

(Zind) Ciongolli is co-author of Passage to Liberty , a history of Italians in America.

He says census figures show that in 1850, there were seven Italians living in Vermont. By 1910, there were well over four-thousand.

(Ciongolli) “The story is that Redfield Proctor who owned the Proctor marble quarries invited five Italian stonecutters here to teach the Scots and others who were here already to do it their way. And that began the influx.”

(Zind) Ciongolli says until the early 1960’s, Burlington had a vibrant Little Italy neighborhood in an area near where the Wyndam Hotel now stands. Italians took advantage of the lake’s more moderate weather and grew fig trees in their yards.

But the city of Barre attracted the largest group of Vermont-bound Italian immigrants.

(Ciongolli) “Barre from 1910 to 1940 maybe was this cauldron of largely and mostly Italian influence. There was Italian being spoken in the streets, Italian food being grown.”

(Zind) Stan Conti’s father was among the Italians immigrants who came to Barre, where Conti was born.

(Conti) “My father would raise a pig and we’d have our own prosciutto and our own sausages. In our bedrooms upstairs we’d have strings going from corner to corner all loaded with sausages to cure.” (laughs)

(Zind) Conti’s father worked in the quarries – a hard life that Ciongolli says spawned the city’s powerful labor movement. It was part of the political ideology that Italians brought from their homeland.

(Ciongolli) “They chafed under the yoke of oppressive governments and so they brought that with them. Obviously, in those sheds what they faced could never be experienced today so they unionized against it to try to make their conditions better.”

(Zind) Italian is no longer spoken on the streets of Barre. The many Italian markets are gone. But there are reminders, like the recently refurbished Labor Hall. Stan Conti says the legacy of the city’s Italian immigrants can also be seen in the elaborate monuments of Hope Cemetery.

(Conti) “They brought a lot of beauty into this town, you know?”

(Zind) Hanging on the wall of Conti’s house is a photograph of his family’s hometown of Lettomanopello, in central Italy. Asked if he’s ever visited the country whose music, language and traditions he’s lived with for 76 years, Conti answers hesitantly.

(Conti) “In my heart, yes, many, many times. I don’t know what it is, but I’m a little soft hearted, a little sensitive. My folks are gone and I don’t know just how I would handle it.”

(Zind) Conti continues to keep alive the music of the country he’s never visited. He plays it at the weddings and birthday parties of other descendants of the Italian immigrants who settled in Barre at the turn of the last century.

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

Note: Kenneth Ciongolli will be speaking about Italian-American history and Stan Conti will be performing this weekend as part of the Vermont History Expo at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds.

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