My great-grandparents, Giulio and Adelina (Scimia) DiBagno, came to America from Italy in 1920 with 4 children under 9 years old (including an infant)…and close to nothing else. The area of Italy they left, L’Aquila in the region of Abruzzo, was impoverished beyond anything those of us with blogs and iPhones can probably ever imagine. People barely had enough to eat and they had to find creative ways to survive. The way to do this, in Giulio and his older brother Pietro’s cases, was to leave. This was not an unusual thing for Italians, particularly single male Italians, to do during this time period. Between 1880-1924 about a few million Italians immigrated from their homeland to the United States.
Pietro immigrated to America in 1904, right in the middle of the biggest wave of Italians coming in between 1900 and 1910. The 20 year old soon found his place in the depths of the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Pietro was one of the single, young Italian men who arrived and stayed. His younger brother, Giulio, initially was not. Birds of Passage is the moniker used to describe the people (men, for the most part) who came over temporarily to work and make money for their families, then returned home. 17 year old Giulio appears to have done just that. Evidence of his passage from Naples to New York was noted on an April 10, 1911 ship manifest. His destination was Apollo, Pennsylvania which, around the time of his arrival, had a population of around 3,000, it’s main source of work being in the iron, steel, and coal industries. It’s unclear if Giulio’s brother, Pietro, was living there at the time. There’s a mysterious gap in Pietro’s whereabouts between his arrival in 1904 and 1914 when he was noted as living in the coal mining town of Wehrum, Pennsylvania. However, Giulio is known to have been back in Italy at least by October 25, 1914 as it was then that the 21 year old married 24 year old widow Atelina Scimia Passacantando. Atela, as she was called, brought to the marriage a very young daughter (born Antonina, but called Concetta by her siblings and Mary by everyone else) who she had been pregnant with at the time of her first husband Ludovico Passacantando’s death. Giulio and Atela would have 3 children together (Giuseppe “Joe”, Francesco “Frank”, and Ardissina “Agnes”) before making the decision to make America their permanent home.
About 5 and a half years after his and his family’s empty-pocket arrival on American soil, Giulio DiBagno bought the land for his first home. A bricklayer by trade, all he needed to ensure a successful future for his family was a spot of earth, materials, and his own two hands. He built his first home there at 301 Chestnut Street in Jeannette, Pennsylvania. The borough of Jeannette (it would become a city in the 1930s) was only about 5 years older than Giulio himself. It was known for its many glass factories and The Pennsylvania Rubber Works company which would eventually employ several DiBagno family members.
Giulio and Atela had arrived at the start of the “Roaring ’20s,” the decade where the American economy was at a high point. People were flush and optimistic, stock prices had been driven sky high by speculators, companies merged and became monopolies, mass production encouraged consumerism, the wealthy were very wealthy. But, like everything that goes up, eventually it would all come down…and hard. In late 1929, the stock market crashed, sinking the country into the Great Depression that would stretch on for years. Unemployment rose by several million, hundreds of banks closed, people lost their life savings and couldn’t find work to make it up.
I sometimes wonder what Giulio and Atela must have been feeling; 9 years after their arrival to the land of promise, they were facing the same serious problems that they thought they had left behind. But maybe this is what made them so resilient and allowed them to survive and prosper. Giulio and his family not only maintained ownership of their home, they were able to buy another in early 1937, while the country was gradually disentangling itself from the grip of poverty and hardship, but was still well in its grasp.
Giulio saw an opportunity in the plot of land four houses down from their current home. He bought the land that would become 313 Chestnut St. and built a second, smaller house there. By 1946, he owned not only the two houses on Chestnut St., but one on Cowan Ave (that he did not build), and 4 empty lots on Andrews Ave. One of the lots he used to build the new family home. The 7 DiBagno children (Giulio and Atela would have their final 3 children- Geno, Anthony “Tony,” and Aida “Edith-” in America) had, for the most part, grown up and moved out at this point. Giulio and Atela kept the original family home at 301 Chestnut St., but, like many of the properties they owned, rented it out and relocated to the Andrews Ave. home. The lot beside this property would always remain empty as long as it was owned by a DiBagno. It was often used as a convenient location for impromptu football, croquet, or bocce games during family reunions and get-togethers.
There were also the other two lots across the street. Giulio used both to build Atela a new house there, a single story rambler (with basement) to make it easier for her to get around. This house would eventually go to oldest son Joe who eventually sold it to youngest son Tony (my grandpap), in whose hands it would remain. Tony, also a bricklayer, would improve upon what his father had built. He added a deck and the beautiful “Italian Gardens” in the backyard (a white patio on the side of a hill, encircled by a white railing that was topped with Romanesque statues), among many other improvements. It would be the last DiBagno home to remain in the family (still is!) and was for years the locale of our annual DiBagno family 4th of July reunion.
Upon Giulio’s death in 1961, he owned 5 homes and an empty lot. His son Geno, an intelligent and well respected doctor of radiology, WW2 veteran, and school board official, was designated the executor of his will and was deeded all of the properties which he then distributed between his siblings.
All of the former properties of Giulio DiBagno would be sold outside of the family by 2006, with the exception of my grandfather Tony’s Andrews Ave. house. A year ago, the house across the street, that they had moved to from Chestnut St., went on sale and myself and other family members were able to walk through it. The rooms of the two story home (with basement) were small, but it was solidly built. Childhood memories of sitting in the little entrance alcove flooded back to my mom. We watched our heads as we headed to the cool, low ceiling basement, used as a wine cellar by my great-grandfather. Several family members considered buying the home, but ultimately it would fall outside of DiBagno hands once again.
Mary DiBagno, the oldest DiBagno sibling, owned the empty lot. She may have once had ideas for building upon it, but that never came to be. Her brother Tony kept an eye on the lot from his home across the street (making sure delinquents didn’t get into whatever you can get into on an empty grass lot). 93 year old Mary finally sold the lot in 2006. A large (and dare I say, garish?) house now stands where we used to toss bocce balls. As for the Chestnut St. homes, both eventually ended up belonging to my grandfather, Tony. In 1974, he sold 301 to the couple renting it, then sold 313 to the same couple 10 years later. A generous guy was my grandfather; he sold the couple both homes for well under market value.
When I think of this former impoverished immigrant who died with multiple homes and a brood of successful children to follow in his footsteps, it makes me very happy. But I don’t admire Giulio just for this. He didn’t just live in America as his newly adopted country, he was an active participant in its success, as well.
I came across a letter to the editor that 52 year old Giulio wrote in 1946. The Mayor at the time had a proposal for street improvement which involved paving a third of the city’s streets instead of all of them at once. Giulio’s letter argued that the Mayor’s plan was designed to benefit shopkeepers instead of residents and that this would actually make it more expensive for people to build their houses in these areas, instead of increase the population by 22,000 in 5 years, as the Mayor proposed it would. Giulio suggested that all citizens pay taxes so that all of the streets could be paved (instead of a third). No one could be angry if all pay and all benefit, he argued. I admire the boldness of this statement, considering that this was right in the middle of McCarthyism “red scare” hysteria, where even a hint of a socialist comment could get you into hot water. He also suggested that the city “revert back to a borough-type government,” with 2 representatives per ward instead of the 4 councilmen they had at that time. Boldly, he argued that this way money that would have been used as salaries, forever disappearing into the pockets of officials, could now be better used towards the improvement of the city’s streets. Slyly, he stated that everyone would agree that “community office holding is for the betterment of the community and not for monetary compensation,” hinting that no official with any form of social conscience should have a problem with this proposal. Mic drop, Giulio DiBagno.
I guess not surprisingly, considering the political climate and that he was one mere bricklayer taking on an establishment, his suggestions were ignored. Records from the following years, 1947 and 1948, show no changes to the type of government or amount of councilmen. But Giulio would have the last laugh, as it were. Not only did the population not increase to 22,000 by 1951 as the Mayor suggested it would, it decreased by about 400.
Maybe they should have listened to the bricklayer.