Peoples from the world over helped build today's Utah. Few have made contributions as interesting as the Italians.
Columbus Day, officially celebrated last Monday, has fallen on hard times since Italian Vice Consul Fortunato Anselmo helped establish Oct. 12 as a state holiday in 1919. Once Utah's Italian-Americans honored the explorer as the "First Pioneer of America" on July's Pioneer Day. The historical reputation of Columbus may be in a sharp decline, but our state's Italian community is well worth celebrating.
Italian pioneers have been in Utah since 1848 when Joseph Toronto, a native of Sardinia who grew up in Sicily, arrived with Brigham Young as "the President's Herdsman." Toronto had donated $2,500 to help build the Nauvoo Temple and, with Apostle Lorenzo Snow, established the LDS Italian mission in 1850.
For years he and a few Italian converts managed the church's cattle herds on Antelope Island. One of his descendants (who now number more than 300), Joseph B. Toronto, served as a University of Utah vice president.
During the 1850s, the LDS Church made a handful of converts among the Waldensians, who had maintained their own heretical version of Catholicism in the valleys of northern Italy for generations. They established several prominent Utah families, including the Malans, the Cardons, the Bertoches, the Ponses, the Beuses and the Chatelains.
Guglielmo Gustavo Rossetti Sangiovanni, son of an emigre who fled political repression in Italy during the 1830s--and godson of British poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti--rode for the Pony Express and edited The Cactus at St. George in the late 1860s.
Poverty drove the next wave of emigrants from Italy in the 1880s and the insatiable demand of Western mines for manpower drew them to Utah. Most Italian emigrants came from the Mezzogiono, the impoverished provinces of the south, and found work in the mines of Carbon County or smelters in Salt Lake. They did dangerous work for little pay and had to live in squalid company towns.
Slowly, with hard work and fierce opposition from the "bosses" who ran Utah's mines, Italians built their own economic and cultural institutions, such as Joseph Barboglio's Helper State Bank, Mose Paggi's newspaper, Il Minatore, and Professor Giovanni Calistro's Sunnyside Italian band.
A "Little Italy" sprang up along Rio Grande Street in Salt Lake, while social organizations like the Italian Americanization Club formed at Bingham Canyon and the Societa Cristoforo Colombo at Salt Lake.
The Deseret News denounced emigrants, such as Carlo Demolli and Frank Bonacci of the United Mine Workers of America, as "red-handed anarchists," but the men led the battle for economic justice in the mines.
After the vindication of labor in the 1930, Bonacci became the first Italian-American elected to the Utah Legislature.
Men who had come to the U.S. intending only to work and return to Italy decided to stay, sending for their families and building new lives here. They established deep roots and their cultural artifacts--like the outdoor baking ovens and Italian-style sheds and barns found in Carbon County--still add color to Utah's landscape.
The Italian American Civic League started celebrating "All State Italian Day" at Lagoon in 1934 and still holds the event every August. Discriminatory emigration laws stopped emigration from southern Europe in the 1920s, but, ironically, World War II helped boost Utah's Italian population.
As soldiers of the Axis, Italian prisoners of war found themselves incarcerated in POW camps in Ogden, Fort Douglas, Tooele and Deseret.
Many of them liked Utah so much they stayed.
The author is a Utah historian. Fellow historians Philip Notarianni and Michael Homer, editors of In Piazza: Italianita in the Mountain West, and Italian Vice Consul Giovanni Maschero contributed to this column.