Chisholm’s Little Italy: Pillsbury Location

The Fontana family lived in the former Pillsbury Location, immigrating from Italy. From left to right: Madelene Rose Fontana, Joseph Fontana, Lester Fontana, Catherine Fontana, Giovanna Fontana, Victor Fontana.

Giuseppe (Joe) Fontana arrived at Pillsbury Location in 1911.

He settled in and got a job working in the Glen underground (mine). He put his dwelling in order, saved money and in 1916 sent for his sweetheart, Giovanna Bonifaci, from his hometown in Pietro Valdastico, near the mountain cheese center of Asiago.”

This paragraph, in Lawrence “Chober” Belluzzo’s book, “Dago Red,” is but a simple snapshot of Pillsbury Location, otherwise known as Chisholm’s Little Italy.

But that paragraph sums up a moment in time that is of great significance to me as it describes the circumstances of my very existence.

It also serves to remind me that while neighborhoods might physically disappear over time, they live on through the ancestors of those who forged a community out of a rough and unpredictable land so many years ago.

Their stories form the backbone of the world we know today as the Iron Range and their stories should never be forgotten.

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Pillsbury

The Pillsbury mine opened in 1898 near Chisholm (not far from where Ironworld and the Redhead Mountain Bike Park are today) and was eventually joined by several other mines in the area including the Glen, the Leonard, the Clark, the Pearce, the Alexandria and the Godfrey.

According to research by Belluzzo and others for his book, the location was at first a logging camp and probably home to some of the first miners to inhabit the area.

There is also some evidence to show it was related to E.J. Longyear’s Camp Four, once considered the “Finest Camp on the Mesabi.”

Camp Four was built in the 1890s by Longyear, John Munro Longyear and Russell M. Bennett during their early mining explorations in the area.

As the story goes, Munro Longyear and Bennett had earlier signed an agreement with the Pillsbury family out of Minneapolis to explore 10,000 acres in northern Minnesota, in the area of Section 29 of Township 58 in Range 20, that would give them a deed for half interest in the land “whenever they could reveal ten thousand tons of merchantable ore.”

Well, they found ore. Lots of it.

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Little Italy

As more and more mines began operation in the early part of the 20th Century, thousands of immigrants traveled to America to work them.

Italians in particular poured into the country and many made their way to northern Minnesota.

According to Louis Adamic’s book, “A Nation of Nations,” 4,700,000 Italians came to America between 1880 and 1945.”

Two of those were my great-grandparents.

They traveled from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, also home to Verona, setting of “Romeo and Juliet.”

The trip here must have been harrowing. Today, it’s hard to imagine what would motivate someone to leave behind their loved ones and all that they know and venture out into a world mostly unknown to them blindly chasing a dream.

There was no Internet or Google Earth. No way of knowing what was on the other side of the world yet thousands made the journey.

What makes it even more daunting, is that most of the eventual residents of Pillsbury had never seen an ocean before climbing into a boat and sailing off for parts unknown.

Belluzzo highlights several such journeys in his book; one is as follows:

“Shades of Vito Corleone in the opening scenes of “The Godfather.” Andrew (Sandrin) Corradi was only nine years old and an orphan when he joined a group from the far north Italian Tyrol and emigrated to New York.

“He lived with an older brother there, but after several years, took off for Brazil. He then returned to New York and after a short time in Pennsylvania, headed for the Mesabi.”

Another story recalled by Paul Belluzzo describes his trip with brother Joe (Beppo) in 1910 to join their older brother Angelo in Pillsbury.

“We were brought up in the mountains of north Italy. We lived at least a couple of hundred miles from the ocean. They put us in the bottom of the ship. Managia! What a mess!

“People started getting sick and we don’t even leave the harbor. Not me. I feel pretty good. Then we get to the ocean. Ship start to heave. Porca miseria! I start to heave with it… you laugh eh? That’s all right. I laugh now, too. But it was terrible, believe you me.”

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Where they came from

The foothills and mountains of the northern Alps were the origins of most of the Pillsbury residents. There were also some from the Appenine slopes of the Marche.

Pillsbury consisted of 18 dwellings housing 41 adults and 57 children, according to Belluzzo. Nick-named “Little Italy,” the location lasted from 1906 to 1923.

The residents had names like Balduzzi, Belluzzo, Bertelli, Filozi, Carloni, Ciatti, Corradi, Enrico, Fontana, Franceschetti, Scaia, Vicari and Vitali and came from regions in Italy like Tyrol, Veneto, Marche, Piemonte and Marche.

And they all had plenty of children.

My great-grandparents had four: Lester, my grandmother Madelene, Victor and Catherine.

According to Belluzzo, Pillsbury was different from other early mining locations for a number of reasons.

First, many locations were plated into plots, each with similar wood-frame family houses, streets and alleys. There were strategically placed schools, playing fields and community centers and many had running water and sewer.

There was also usually a mix of ethnicities living in those locations.

That wasn’t the case in Pillsbury.

The houses there were “randomly strewn over the SW-NE, Section 29, Township 58, Range 20 Parcel.”

Pillsbury also got very little attention from the mining companies as utilities were non-existent and the kids went to schools in neighboring locations.

There were also no playing fields or playgrounds.

And Pillsbury was, from the beginning until the end, made up of 100 percent Italians.

As Belluzzo describes it:

“It wasn’t Camelot. It sure as heck wasn’t Lake Wobegon. It was more like the people and locale of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Substitute the beautiful Italian melodies for the just as beautiful Jewish airs.”

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Life in Little Italy

Unfortunately, I never took the time to ask my grandmother about life in the location So I have to rely on Belluzzo’s work to describe life in Pillsbury.

Some excerpts from his book:

• Typical to many small towns and locations, the residents of Pillsbury played games (like Mora) and held summer picnics. They had gardens and livestock and lived very simple lives.

• Pig-killings in the fall were important events that merited a community party. They were scheduled in such a way as they happened every Saturday night until the snow came.

• There were only two motorized vehicles in Pillsbury owned by Joe Vitali and Domenic.

Vitali had a Model-T and Gatto owned a motorbike.

Gatto, however, didn’t have the bike for long. According to a story told in the book the young boy eventually ran into a cow.

• Most Pillsbury households had their own wells.

• Several people owned cows or horses.

• The Pillsbury clans were responsible for Chisholm’s fist observance of Columbus Day in 1910.

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The end of an era

The residents of Pillsbury brought many traditions with them from the old country and one of the most popular ones was making wine.

Ironically, wine would, in part, lead to the end of Pillsbury.

The days in the early mines were not easy. The pay was poor, the hours long, the work was dangerous and there were no sick days and or vacations.

Perhaps as a result of the conditions, some in the area had side jobs — selling wine.

According to Belluzzo:

“But some miners were not adverse to selling a quart of wine or moonshine here and there — no big thing — to occasional clients from town or from the drier locations of Glen and Alexandria, including salaried mining company personnel.

“It was a minor cottage industry. It supplemented the miners’ pay, and no great harm or notice occurred from it.”

Life changed, however, after prohibition was enacted in 1920. Soon the small-time businessmen were outlaws and Pillsbury was the hideout.

On the positive side, with prohibition came more money as word quickly spread that wine was still available in Pillsbury. This attracted a lot of attention from neighboring towns and locations and from mine owner John Oliver.

According to Belluzzo, in 1922 Oliver told the residents (or squatters, as he referred to them) of Pillsbury that they had to relocate. His reasoning was the coming of new mining to the area.

But that mining never came for 20 more years. In fact, other than a shipment of 49 tons in 1941 from the Bradford Iron Co., there was no mining in the area between 1908 and 1946.

The old-timers in the area believed the eviction notice was related to something else.

From Dago Red:

“A couple of the older, first-generation inhabitants believe their explanation is closer to the truth. A Monroe Location woman was campaigning for some cause or another and she included Pillsbury in her door-to-door soliciting.

“Her reception there, for whatever reasons, was flatly negative. Miffed, she prevailed on her brother, a minor authority in the company hierarchy, to see that ‘they’ were taught a lesson.”

At the same time, there were strong pro-prohibition forces busy pushing their agendas throughout the area and the superintendent of Eveleth schools, of all people, convinced Oliver to evict all illegal alcohol vendors.

Soon the “Indian Agents” struck and several Pillsbury men were busted for making and selling wine including my great-grandfather Joe Fontana.

By 1923 all of Pillsbury’s residents had left the location and moved into town, most notably Chisholm.

My great-grandfather even took his house with him, as it was described as one of the “better lumber-mining structures.” It was moved to Linden Street, which is now Ninth Street Southwest and still stands today.

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The end of of an era

According to Belluzzo, until 1946 the Pillsbury 40 remained much as it had been since 1923. No mining had occurred and former residents could still visit the area and recall where homes were.

The Oliver Mine re-opened in 1946 and the machines went back to work, eventually adding two layers to the old Pillsbury stripping dump.

Pillsbury Peak, just west and on the other side of Highway 169 from Ironworld, rose to dominate the landscape and in the process bury the remains of Pillsbury location forever.

And although the area may be gone, it is not forgotten and it lives on through myself and the other relatives of the founders of “Little Italy.”

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Portions of this story are reprinted from a version written by White and published in the Mesabi Daily News in March 2008. A very special thanks to Lawrence Belluzzo, Tarquino Bertelli, Gust Ciatti, Peter Taramelli, Ida (Enrico) Uncini and Alex Vitali for their work on Dago Red, from which much of this story was developed.

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