Volume VII, No. 1, Fall 1979
A VISIT WITH JOE AND SOPHIE PIAZZA
Edited by Angela Hancock and Nancy Honssinger, Photography by Mary Schmalstig
Joe and Sophia Piazza enjoy a quiet retirement in their comfortable, neat-as-a-pin white house just outside the small community of Rosati, Missouri. Just before he was born, Joe's parents were among the first Italian immigrants to settle in this Missouri region. Sophie's family moved there soon after.
The Piazzas appreciate the opportunities America has offered them and their parents. "Pretty rough in Italy," Joe said. "Lucky they got away." But along with the opportunities have been hardships to face--being alone and penniless in a new country, the threat of disease, building new homes, losing precious crops and adjusting to a totally new life.
Today that is all behind them. "Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape. The young people are moving back and building homes here," Joe said. The only noticeable traces of the Piazzas' Italian ancestry are their slight accents and the small vineyard growing in the back yard.
When we asked them if they still practiced any Italian customs or observed particular holidays, Joe replied a little wistfully, "As the old folks passed away, we practically dropped many of our Italian customs. We hardly talk Italian anymore. The only thing Italian is the cooking and religion. Even now most people have a job on the side besides their grapes."
Just one generation removed from the old country, they shared with us some of their parents' life in Italy and here, and some of their own experiences, as well as some important information about their main source of income--grapes.
I was born here in 1900. My parents came over from Venice in about 1895. I guess there were four children and my grandfather and grandmother who came over.
They was brought in to grow cotton by Sunnyside Corporation, Sunnyside, Arkansas. There must have been eighty families in a cattle ship along with the stock. It was pretty rough. They settled in Arkansas and were there for three years. Our folks, most of them, were from the Alps in Italy where it was high land, and when they came down into the swamps in Arkansas, about one-third died in three years from malaria. They had to get out. Course, before they left Sunnyside, they had sent scouts out and they worked. The Frisco Railroad Company helped them.
When they moved from Sunnyside, the group split up--half went to Tontitown, Arkansas, and the other half came here to Rosati. Those that went to Tontitown had a little advantage. Father Berdoni stayed with them, and they went into the grape business pretty early--earlier than we did.
Of course, all the older folks had come from Italy. I think just two or three of them are left and the rest have passed on. They settled here in 1898 because they had no other place to go, really. It was a better climate than Arkansas. It was more like the place we came from--high altitude--and the air was better. They felt better here and the land was cheap.
Now the reason my parents left Italy is something else. See, over there it was hard living, if you know how Italy was in those days. Everybody got married, stayed in the family for years, and it was crowded. The folks thought the Sunnyside Company was a good opportunity to get out. Before that they had no means--poor people you know--so that way they had a chance to come to this country.
In Italy they didn't have much land for farming. Well, see in the old country somebody had a hundred square feet, they had a farm--so populated a country, so small. They had no fences--everybody just had a little plot here and there. In the places my parents lived, the houses were just on a hill and the land was a few miles out where they'd go to work.
They cut their hay and packed it on their backs. They'd have a cow, maybe a few chickens, and a pig. Anyone who had a cow thought they had something over in Italy at that time. Of course, there's a lot of parts still that way. My parents had a cow on the first floor, they'd live on the second floor, and the hay'd be up on the third floor. That's just the way they did things. They'd be eight--ten people in one house and folks had very little room.
In Italy they just grew food to make a living, hardly any of them had a trade. People just lived. Oh, they had their doctors and other things, but they didn't have automobile factories and that kind of stuff. Some went to South American countries and did a lot of other things, some tailors, some shoemakers and all of that. They did everything by hand. They didn't have shoe factories like we have here. Some of the folks that came over here made shoes and tailor made clothes and everything. Of course, when they got here to this country, there wasn't a limit. It made a world of difference.
The first descent from Sunnyside to here of eight men in a group came in January of 1898. They bought the land through a bishop in St. Louis for two dollars an acre. It was purchased from the railroad. The government gave the railroad the land when they went to build the railroads through here. The railroad still owns a little land out north,, but not much.
The folks had it rather rough when they first came here. It was like in Italy. They had practically nothing--no money. They built five or six log cabins. Then later in the spring the families came up. They cleared a little land to grow something. We had Bishop Glennon who kind of helped.
The men during the summer would go out west and build railroads for the Union Pacific and all those western railroads. There'd be only two or three men left in the whole community. They'd go out there and work during the summer for a dollar a day. They'd bunk in box cars the company gave them to live in. In wintertime they'd come home.
A lot of the people moved from one place to another to make a living. Some went to Illinois and north Missouri to the mines to work. They had no means to make a living outside of what they did. They practically had to go outside to get any pay.
During my time--I was about one of the first ones born here-there was nothing here but the land. Times were rather hard when I was growing up. Everything was done by hand. We had to heat the water and chop the wood. We had about twenty milk cows, corn to cut by hand, and every hand worked. It ain't like it is now. It was a struggle till we got going. We produced milk and during the war we shipped it to Quality Dairy in St. Louis. There was a train at six o'clock in the morning that picked up the milk. At eleven-thirty the cans from the day before were returned. My mother made cheese and set it in the basement--twelve to thirteen pounds, and she'd sell all she made. She shipped a lot of it to the miners in Illinois. That's how we made our living, with cheese. Then we started growing grapes. In 1913 we stopped growing tomatoes because we couldn't get enough help. We found out you can't grow grapes and tomatoes both because they both come to harvest about the same time. We tried a lot of things to make a go of it, but we'd go so far and something'd come up.
My father built a store here and built a church and another store above that. Of course two stores was plenty, because there wasn't much money coming in. I know sometimes my father had the store and had hardly anything in it until we got credit established.
We had a grade school that was taught in English. The school wasn't Catholic, although most of the people were. There was a rock house, a convent, and we did have sisters teach this school and Friendship School--over there about one and a half mile. We had the Job high school there. That meant two years of high school that we had here, and then they'd go to St. James to finish the other two.
Right at this corner there was a saloon, but during Prohibition it closed down. The first church was built in 1904, the first post office in 1902. We still have our own church. It's up the road.
We did have a post office in this house. The first one was up at that old store that's about ready to fall down. It was moved up to our house and it's been in the family since 1912. My father was the postmaster, and when he retired in 1940, I was appointed. When I retired in '65 they closed it like they do all other little post offices. Now we get our mail from St. James.
They used to call the town Knobview, named after those three knobbed hills back there, but really, across the county on the other side of the winery, that's Knobview township. Actually we never had a name, but in 1932 there was quite a few men got together and we had the name changed to Rosati. It was named after Bishop Rosati who's buried down there.
When they first built Rosati there were more families here, more Italian families. Of course, the natives grew up, had children and bought farms. Italians abandoned and went other places. For a while they were leaving and going to the city. Now the young people are returning back here. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. They're all working at least.
I moved here from Greenfield, Mississippi, when I was sixteen years old. We got here on February 2nd, 1912. We used to have a Frisco depot, so we got off the train, we came here to this house, we had our first dinner here, and that's how I met Joe. He's five years younger than me. I was sixteen and he was eleven.
My parents came from Italy, but we didn't settle in Sunnyside. I didn't come with that group there. We came later. My father came with their group though but the rest of the family were left in Italy. I came to this country when I was a little over six years old. We landed in Mississippi and later I moved up here and here we are, soon to be fifty-six years married.
Yes we got married. In them days you didn't go on a honeymoon much. You didn't send out invitations like you do now. You'd ask all your neighbors and friends to come. We had the wedding in the house in a great big room in the back--took everything out to dance and eat. We got married at nine o'clock in the morning, and it kept going until eleven-thirty or twelve at night. Nowadays you rent a hall or do something like that. You know, the Italians still believe in having a big dinner, even when they haven't had the hall. They either have lots of spaghetti or mostacolli, besides all the sweet stuff and potato chips and all that stuff, and then they have the wedding cake. They have lots of cakes and always a little wine to drink.
As a young girl I used to do quite a bit of traveling by train, only we had the depot there. I used to take care of the depot quite a bit. I worked for Mr. Cardetti in the store up there. They don't have any more stores around here now. My job would be to take care of the depot. We'd have two passengers that would stop here daily, and there was about five fast passengers that would go through besides the freight trains. I'd meet the train, make reports and take care of the tickets. There used to be a lot of stuff go by express--that's before Highway 66 was built, see--and there would be calves and coops of chickens and milk. You'd be surprised how much milk went by express. We used to have quite a bit of freight.
I was always lucky enough those train people was nice to me. They'd help me and that was hard work. Only had one fellow too bad--he'd laugh at me. But I enjoyed the work. And every once or twice a year I'd tell my boss, I'd say, "I'm going off for a couple of weeks," and then maybe I'd stay a month while I was gone. I still travel. I travel in Pennsylvania, and Illinois and, of course, I go back to Mississippi once a year, because I still have relatives down there.
The Italians didn't have much education-all they knew was work. As Joe was telling you, it was go to school only on a rainy day. When it was nice weather, you'd have to go to work. And me, myself, it wasn't the work part, but the school was an inconvenience, not like they are these days. I went to school in Mississippi, but it was play school, not much of a school. When I came here, I was sixteen and in the fourth grade, so I didn't go to school no more. My father insisted on me going to school here and I went one day 'cause I had a younger brother and he wouldn't go unless I'd go. So I went one day and there was only one teacher, and there must have been sixty-five or seventy kids in there. Some grown up boys, eighteen or nineteen years old and some older girls and then some tiny tots, so I went home. Oh, I made quite a few friends, anyway, I told dad, I said, "I don't think I want to go to school anymore. It costs you quite a bit to buy all my books and everything," and I said, "I think I'd rather go to work than go to school." I've always worked between the store, the depot, and the post office, and you know you catch on even if you haven't gone to school.
I worked in the post office part of the time after I was married. While his sister were here, she'd take care of it, but after she left, I took care of the post office. Joe'd do the hard work in the morning, and I'd take care of it the rest of the day. It was a small office bet you'd be surprised at the people that came in. He had about 520 families out on the route. We had a route here too that goes out every day and the ones living closer would come in and get their mail here. I'd get in the kitchen, hear the door ring, run back in there, come and go all day long. I thought I would miss it a lot but I don't. I was ready to retire.
I don't regret my age. I've enjoyed every day of my life, even with him after almost sixty years. I wouldn't trade them.
JOE'S STORY OF GRAPES
In 1921 we started growing grapes commercially. Folks got the plants from the French colony that was in Dillon, Missouri, just about three miles out of St. James. Practically everyone in the community began growing grapes. During Prohibition they didn't make the wine, but they shipped the grapes to be used as table grapes. In time of war, grapes were used in grape juice, jams, and jellies.
People grew too much and didn't get anything for them, so that's when the Federal Land Bank formed an organization and backed us up. We built a winery and put our whole crop into it. But the man in charge didn't succeed in making good wine, so we finally just went under.
Then, Welch Grape Company was in Arkansas buying grapes and they extended up here. During the war they had Germans up here to process the grapes and ship the juice in cans to the Welch plant. The whole field across from the winery had a high fence around it and was full of German prisoners. Now the crop is contracted-Welch can take all the grapes we've got and want more. It's one of the best farmer co-ops there still is because they process it, and sell it, and the growers get the benefit of the retail prices if there's any gain. Of course, they always get the short end of it, but it's better than anything else.
After Welch's came here, the company wanted all of the grapes they could get. They let people sell themselves on the highway only one percent of what they've grown. That's not much. Even this year growers can't sell a lot of grapes on the highway, because all they can do is sell them in little baskets. They can't sell them in bushels because of the contract.
Every year we have a grape festival and queen. We used to vote for one daughter of the grape growers and she'd get to be queen. Of course, now we don't have this because there ain't no Italian that has girls big enough. They would have a three day festival--the grape festival.
It's a lot of work to grow grapes--planting, posting and watering. You've got to cultivate like for a corn crop, and you've got to spray. I've got one plant left that my dad planted when he first came out here. It's over seventy years old, and its got one stalk that's still bearing grapes.
Over there in Italy it was different. The folks would have no big fields like that--they would just grow on hillsides. You've probably heard about that. They'd put a layer of rocks, put a little dirt down, put another layer of rocks and put some more down. It looked like steps. Some of those vines didn't have posts; they would climb up a tree or something like that. California's got them. They get a big side stalk and they just support its own self.
Now here we use what we call the Niffin system of growing grapes. You train the vines to grow around a post and up to the prongs where they branch out and continue to grow vertically. If you've noticed that young vineyard on this side of St. James about two miles that looks so green. They've got drip irrigation and grow what they call Geneva Curtain. They've got two prongs on top of the post, and then they cut the branches to get two vines that run along the top of the branches. See, the grapes require a lot of sun and the more sun you give them, you get a lot more crop. So you get better yields if you can get them high as you can. We used to have them lower than they are now, but once we started picking with machines, we had to raise them, because the machines wouldn't pick the ones too close to the ground.
I think there's about 1,200 acres of grapes now in the surrounding areas and there's only two or three big growers. It used to be over 2,100 acres. We shipped as much as 3,300 tons of grapes out of here one year. Most of the grapes are shipped out, because the local wineries can't handle what the people need to sell. Sixty or one hundred tons, that takes care of the wineries, and they practically have their own vineyards now.
The grape vine is easy grown, The French colony over at Dillon had this Concord grape, and we got what we call cuttings. We take this growth and make a bundle--take a stick about the size of a pencil with three buds on it, and you cut that off, and tie in bundles of a hundred and bury them in the ground with the root end up. Around late February, March or April put about three inches of dirt on top and about the tenth of May, that cutting will callus along the root and start sending out new roots. When it starts and it's got a wide callus around it, then we take it and put it in the nursery. A lot of times we plant it right in the field. You gain by doing it, but it's a lot more work cultivating. We put them in nurseries and next year we have a one year old plant ready to go in the vineyards. My dad and I raised cuttings, I guess, oh around half a million vines around here, and my dad shipped them all over.
There are over 500 varieties of grapes today. We grow quite a few French Hybrids now. We can't grow the California grapes because the winters are too severe here. Our Niagra is one of our best white grapes, and I lost quite a few plants because of the freeze. In the last few years, we got that high temperature in April, and it brought the sap up. Then it got pretty cold and froze the sap that was in the vines. That just cracked them and killed a lot of plants.
Grapes are usually very hardy. The life of a grape vine depends a lot on the variety and the care you give it. Only problem about the grape is if you scratch it with a grape hull--a machine we use to take the dirt away to clean them--or if you run into the vine with something. Once you skin the bark, it doesn't heal like a tree. It has an injury there. Of course, as long as there's some bark around it, it keeps on bearing. But every time you scrape it, it hurts the plant, so you have to be careful.
How soon the grapes begin to produce depends on the care you give them. If you fertilize them, and take care of them, about the third year you get a few grapes, about the fourth year you get a little more, and about the sixth they're in their prime. You even get six to eight tons of grapes to the acre if you take good care of them, They're going into irrigation around here and it's doing wonders.
Grapes are subject to disease as are most other crops. Black Rot is our main subject in wet, cool, spring seasons, but if you take care of it, it's no problem. We use several types of sprays, and you can control it if you get it in good at the right time. Before the university came in here and helped us clean the vineyard out one year, we lost the whole crop. This time of year [June] when they are almost pea-sized, I've seen grapes burn black from Black Rot in two or three days. All the old folks used was copper sulphate or blue vitral or lime. That's all they used in the old country, but they had different diseases over there than we did. Copper sulphate is just more for mildew. Depending on the season, sometimes four sprays are enough, sometimes seven, if you get wet weather. Then you've got to spray a lot more than you do when it's dry because of fungus diseases.
Insects bother grapes, too. There is a little blue beetle that eats the buds early in the spring before they open, or just start swelling. We have to watch for them. This year there's no problems. They come and go. If you've got good clean vineyards, it's hardly a problem. And we have the mealy bug. He comes every once and awhile, and before you know it, he's there. It looks like a louse, almost the size of a ladybug. It's gray and it'll sap the juice out of a grape and leave wax on it. It just covers your grapes with wax and you can't get it off, just messes it up. We spray all the way from eight down to five times a year, depending on the weather condition.
Birds bother some of the early grapes, especially the small early grapes. French Hybrids are small, and if you've got a small patch, you're hurt. But if you've got a big patch, naturally there aren't that many birds. A couple of years ago it was a problem. They followed those caterpillars that come in and ate all the oak leaves off. Those birds followed them in, blue jays and roadrunners and that. And when the caterpillars came, the birds also got on the grapes. I had three or four apple trees I had to get me a net to cover them to save the apples. Even the deer like the grapes. They are a problem to the growers outside, so I keep an electric fence around mine to keep them out.
Grape picking begins in late August around Labor Day. Welch's waits until the grape sugar content is up over fifteen percent. Their price is based on sugar content of the grape. They won't buy unless it's fifteen percent sugar solid. If the sugar content is more, the price is more. We take tests every day.
It's all picked by machines now. A lot of people think they pick the grapes off by hand, but they don't. It's a big machine that just beats them off. They have rubber paddles that work in and out, leaving the stem hanging on the vine, but takes all the berries off. Under it is an apron that pulls in around those plants and posts and never loses a grain the way it's made. There's a belt that picks up this grape and brings it up and conveys it into where your tank is on the next row on the other side, so there is very little loss. They claim there's less waste that way than to pick by hand.
Oh, we did good picking by hand. I had five acres we used to pick a lot of times in one day, but we had sixty pickers in there. Well, when they picked grapes, they worked day and night. They just kept a-going. They had to get it out. They paid the pickers so much a box. The more they picked, the more they'd get.
Grapes are pretty hardy. They hang as long as four, five or six weeks, and most of the time harvest lasts six weeks. Once in a while, however, we'd get a real hot rain at night and the grapes would swell so fast they would crack. And, if it was humid, they would sour. If it was cool weather, they would form a film on the crack which would preserve it. It wouldn't even sour. Nature has its way of taking care of things.
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