Houses with Names
The Italian Immigrants
of Highwood, Illinois

An oral history with essays

(University of Illinois Press 1990)

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“the gift of history alive” 
- Studs Terkel

 

“Before I could speak, I heard the stories of people whom I had never met.  My grandmother spun out strings of names that meant nothing to me—the names of aunts and uncles, of great aunts and great uncles, and people long dead from across the valley.” 
from Preface to Houses with Names

 

“Gracefully written, Houses with Names adds a new chapter to Illinois history, immigration studies, and urban folklore. The stories are touching, eliciting tears and laughter, a rare accomplishment.”
Gary R. Mormino, author of Immigrants on the Hill, Italian-Americans in St. Louis, 1882-1982

 

The community of Highwood is located about 30 miles north of Chicago in the midst of the affluent North Shore.  Most of the early Italian immigrants to that community came from the province of Modena in north central Italy.  Surrounded by some of the wealthiest suburbs in the nation, Highwood’s Italians made their way as gardeners, entrepreneurs, laundresses, craftsmen, maids, and seamstresses.
           

“Houses with Names hums and chatters like a tape-recorded family reunion. Adria Bernardi has an ear for these voices and a respect for the people that brings out the best in them.” 
John Egerton, author of Generations and Speak Now Against the Day

 

from Houses with Names
 
            “Yeah, it was the Italians who worked with stone. And them days, it ain’t like now.  Now it’s easy, anybody, even I can do it.  They bring the stone already nice and cut.  All you have to do is take the stone and lay it.  Them days, the stones, you had to come down from the top and chisel it yourself, square it yourself.  Now they have everything cut up.  It’s easy to make a wall.  Any damned fool can do it.  In Italy, from Pieve they had quite a few stone masons and from Sant’Anna and Fiumalbo.  They used to call them scarplini.  You take a chunk of stone, chisel it.  All with points and a hammer, ting, k-ting, k-ting, k-ting.  They could make a frame, a chimney. Instead of making the door frame out of wood, they made them out of stone.  And above the fireplace, they can make angels on there. They got to know what they’re doing because a little nick that you miss, you break it.  Not everyone can do it.  It’s just like if you make pictures.  You have to be born for that purpose.”
Julio Brugioni

 

          “I went back to the mines one winter and then in April the mine closed again and I came to Highwood and I’m still here. 
            “I was here in Highwood in 1910, and then I went back to the mine and then to Rockford.  When I came back the last time here to Highood in 1911, I knew a family in Highland Park, the Lencioni. And Lencioni said he’d get in touch with a fella named Pietro that was working for McCormick, see.  By golly, I gotta place working in Lake Forest for McCormick doing landscaping work.
            “So I put up two years up there, that was 1912 to ’14.  I worked for McCormick.  One is Cyrus, one is Harold McCormick--and I worked for both of them.”
Louie Bernardi

 

            “Well, we had to do something when the mine closed in Ladd.  And we thought we gonna go to Highwood. There was lots of garden work for the rich people
            In Highwood, we was going to see if we find something better than we had before.  We go there and see if we find the job, you know, it was these clubs where the rich people go play. And the women used to work and I went to look for a jbo there.  They said, ‘Come back next month.  Now, it’s too early, and there’s nobody here yet.’
            And I told you before how I was working for Pia Gibertini.  When we come to gt our room and Pia give us a room in the morning, she have a nice breakfast with us.  And afterwards when it was through, she asked me if I was looking for a job. She knew! And I say, ‘Yeah.’
            She said, ‘I need a cook.’
            I said, ‘Well, you got the wrong one.’ I says, I used to cook Italian things, you know, I used to cook pretty good, but for a small famiy, but if you need a cook for a restaurant, you know I can’t do it.
            She said, ‘I’ll teach you.  “We’ll try each other for a month. You try if you like the job. And I try you if I like you. And then at the end of the month, well, we’ll talk business.’’
            I was there five years.”
Maria Manfredini

 
 
 

 

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