The Italians in St. Louis, MO & "The Hill"
Since the Italian family I am researching settled in St. Louis, and I live nearby, I can offer quite a bit of information about this area and researching Italian families in St. Louis.
St. Louis' Hill neighborhood has been home to Italian immigrants for well over 100 years. Many of the Hill's earliest Italian settlers came to the United States from the Lombardia region of Italy, and the comune of Cuggiono in particular.
"The Hill" is aptly named as it is the highest point within the city limits of St. Louis. Clay deposits were discovered in this area in the late 1830s. When the railroad came through the area in the 1850s, clay became widely used industrially and brought the settlements of Irish and Germans to this area. In the 1890s, plant expansions provided employment for the numerous Italian immigrants who were settling there.
The need for the Italians to live within walking distance of their jobs brought about a rapid increase in the number of houses built in the area. Public utilities in this area pretty much nonexistant at the time. Housing conditions were very poor, most were merely frame shanties. Construction of four room homes began just after the turn of the century. It is reported that many homes in the Hill area were constructed with lumber that came from the dismantling of buildings from the 1904 World's Fair. These homes are often referred to as "shotgun houses" as you could fire a gun in the front door and the bullet would exit the back door. (Do not try this at home!)
With construction of homes and the stability that comes with home ownership, local businesses, grocery stores, saloons, barbers, shoemakers, etc. were soon established in the area. Many of these businesses still exist today.
The Hill is home to many excellent Italian restaurants, bakeries, and shops. It is a great neighborhood, and is best seen by walking through it. As you do so, notice the gardens in many yards, and some yards will have walls or fences constructed of stones and mortar, in the style found in Italy. Sadly, the younger generations have disposed of these walls, fences and statuary as they did not understand the history they represented.
The following picture and information is from Evelyn Colombo Nettemeyer:
I received these yard statues of the little Italian boy and girl from Dominic (Mim) Gianino. His mother, who died at 100 yrs. old, had given them to him, and he gave them to me a year before his death and asked me to take good care of them.
The little boy is carrying sticks to build a fire to keep the silk worms alive. The little girl is gathering mulberry leaves in her apron to feed the silk worms.
When I mentioned these statues to those presently living in Cuggiono they said they had never seen them. I assume the immigrants decided to make these molds to honor the sacrifices of their ancestors. They made a lot of molds and statues of saints when they were out of work during the big depression. The stone background was made by hand, and the holes were made by using cigar boxes and coffee cans and building around them. Most of the statuary and alcoves seen in the gardens around The Hill were made by their ancestors shortly after they came to this country.
My grandmother, Luigia Cucchi Colombo, and many of her generation in the 1800's, were employed by the rich owners (patrones) of the silk factory to dip the silkworm cocoons into boiling water and unwind the silk threads to be sold. She told me how the boiling water hurt her hands. They worked extremely hard for a pittance or a little food. This was in Cuggiono, but must have been so in other villages and cities. Silk was a highly prized commodity for clothing, stockings and tapestry.
St. Ambrose Church
The parish was founded in 1903, first meeting in the basement of nearby St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, which was primarily a German Church. A wooden church, shown in the picture to the right, was constructed in about 1907, but was destroyed by a fire in 1921. Even back then, there was a large crowd gathered for what appears to be a Corpus Christi procession, a tradition that continues now, more than 100 years later!