When the first Italian Immigrants Day banquet is held in Spokane on Saturday, the American Italian Club will be honoring the original members of Spokane’s Italian community.
Which made us wonder: Who were they? And how did they fit into Spokane culture in the first half of the century?
Here are a few answers:
Most were laborers who came over between 1900 and 1920, usually to work on the railroads or in lumber mills.
Spokane’s biggest Italian-American neighborhoods were in Minnehaha and Hillyard, within walking distance of the Hillyard rail yards. Many came from the same Italian village.
It was a close-knit community, with its own gathering places, clubs and baseball teams. Yet the American-born sons and daughters of the immigrants moved quickly into Spokane’s mainstream culture and professional classes.
Immigrants who had had enough of the rail yards moved into professions such as barbering and shoe-repairing (many worked for Saad’s Shoe Repair). Also, a number of Italian fruit and vegetable stands were located in the Washington Market, at Washington and Main.
Other Italian-American neighborhoods in the ‘20s and ‘30s include the Altamont area; the central Spokane area around Shannon Avenue, just off Washington Street, and around Gonzaga University. Farther afield, Priest River and Sandpoint, Idaho, had large Italian communities, lured by the lumber camps and lumber yards.
Spokane’s Italian-American neighborhoods faded away after World War II, victims of the general American dispersal to the suburbs and the edges of the city. But the community still survives today in organizations like the American Italian Club and the Sons of Italy. According to 1990 census statistics, 5,816 people in Spokane County say they are of Italian ancestry (about 1.6 percent of the population), with another 16,000 or so saying that they are part Italian.
Perhaps the best way to tell this story is to tell some of the individual stories of immigrants.
For instance, there was Charles Mauro, who came Mauro’s Grocery soon became one of the neighborhood gathering spots. Italian immigrants would gather around the stove to chat on cold winter days.
“Mauro’s Grocery, that was one of the community centers,” said Angelo Pizzillo, 68, a retired trucker and transit employee who was born and raised in Minnehaha. “That and St. Mary’s Catholic Church.”
Pizzillo said that Minnehaha was “90 percent Italian” in those days, and it was not uncommon to hear Italian spoken on the street.
Mauro’s sold all of the American staples as well as items from the old country, such as olive oil and Italian olives. Mauro’s also sold its own homemade Italian sausage.
“We were really known for our Italian sausage,” said Silvio Mauro, 74, Charles’ son, who helped run the store from the time he was 6. “I think we sold that to everybody in town.”
Silvio retired last year and sold the store after it was in the Mauro family for 75 years. Yet it is still called Mauro’s Grocery, and it still stands on the corner of Thor and Euclid. And it still sells Mauro’s Italian sausage.
Then there’s the story of Joe Felice, who immigrated from Cosenza in 1906 at the age of 15 and found himself working on the railroad in Pasco. It was dangerous work and before long disaster struck. His foot got caught in a switch and his leg was cut off.
That ended his railroad career, so he came up to Spokane with his new wooden leg and learned the barbering trade. He soon owned his own barbershop, Felice Barbershop, at 314 W. Main.
“We lived on the South Hill area near Sacred Heart School,” said Victor Felice, 76, one of Joe’s sons. “It was a mixed neighborhood of blacks, Italians and Japanese. Many of us were more or less new immigrants to the area.”
Spokane’s Italian-American immigrants already knew plenty about self-sufficiency, so they knew what to do when the Great Depression struck.
“Every family had a garden, and they went out to the Valley and picked fallen tomatoes in the farms for sauce,” said Felice. “In our basement, 1,000 jars of (home-canned) produce was nothing.”
Many Italian-American immigrants dreamed of giving their children a good education. But tuition wasn’t easy to come up with, especially during the Depression. Still, many of them did scrape up the money, sometimes with help from high places.
“The principal of Gonzaga High (the Catholic high school) told us jokingly that he had ‘a special rate for little Italian boys,”’ said Felice.
Joey August, a successful Italian-American businessman, told Felice and his brothers that he would give them free tuition to Gonzaga University if they would be on the boxing team. August also happened to be the boxing coach at Gonzaga.
“He had a big heart,” said Felice.
The brothers eagerly snapped up the offer, although Victor didn’t consider himself much of a boxer. By the time he was a senior, though, he was captain of the boxing team.
In a pattern not unusual among second-generation immigrants, Felice made the most of his education. After serving in the Army during World War II (in France and Germany), Felice came back to attend Gonzaga Law School on the GI Bill. He served as the U.S. magistrate in Spokane for 22 years. His brother Anthony also became a prominent Spokane attorney.
“We wouldn’t have what we have today if not for the courage and sacrifices of our parents,” said Victor Felice. “We are no longer the immigrant laborers. We are the professionals of our community, and all because of our parents.”
That’s why Felice helped organize Spokane’s first Italian Immigrants Day banquet, in conjunction with the annual Columbus Day banquet.
“The same courage that Columbus showed was shown by our parents,” said Felice.
Spokane barely has an Italian neighborhood any more. Mauro, who lives only a block from his old grocery store, estimates that the neighborhood is less than half Italian now. But the grocery store remains a symbol of what once was.
“Everybody used to always come over and visit, even to the last year I was there (1994),” said Mauro. “Even the people that lived there when they were little and moved away, that was always the first place they came to when they came back, to see who was around.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS DAY CELEBRATION The American Italian Club of Spokane is celebrating Italian Immigrants Day (along with the more traditional Columbus Day) with a banquet on Saturday at the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute Commons Building, 4000 W. Randolph Road. The social hour begins at 6:30 p.m., and dinner begins at 7:30 p.m. Speakers will pay homage to the courage of the immigrants, and there will be old photos on display. Tickets for this dinner-dance are $30 per person. For tickets, call Victor Felice at 534-1822, Henry Garofano at 327-8337 or David Bafaro at 467-8582.