Last week, here on the Years of Yore page, we visited Brooklyn, Minnesota, sometimes also referred to as “East Hibbing.” Part One of Brooklyn Memories appeared on this page on March 8, 2020, and Part Two appeared on March 15, 2020.
Victor Befera, who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, wrote a series of letters to his siblings at the time of a Brooklyn reunion in the 1970s. These letters, memories of their childhood years, were compiled by Bert Ackerson, Hibbing Daily Tribune Associate Editor, and published over a number of months in the newspaper. Last week’s Years of Yore page contained some of his memories.
Since last week, I have heard from a number of readers with additional stories and questions about Brooklyn. A very vivid memory for everyone is the tragic fire which destroyed the Brooklyn School in March 1973. Marc Sterle, a member of the 1973 Boys State High School Hockey Championship team during his junior year of high school, remembers that at the end of the wonderful welcome home for the team that Sunday, the announcement was made, “The Brooklyn School is on fire!” Marc adds, “Of course, we drove right over to watch.”
Marc also had memories of the Brooklyn skating rink, saying, “I grew up in adjacent Courthouse Addition, but did spend most of my youth at the Brooklyn rink.” And he went on to win a hockey championship with others who skated on that outdoor rink!
From my classmate, Susie Passeri Novak comes another nice northern Minnesota small-town image. I asked her if she could tell me about the Brooklyn skating rink, since she grew up in the neighborhood. She replied, “It had a great warming shack with a wood-burning stove where we dried our mittens. Many great memories of that rink while growing up.”
And an interesting tidbit came from Aaron Brown. For the last couple of years, as regular readers of his column know, Aaron has been delving into the life of influential Hibbing mayor Victor Power. It turns out that Delmo Befera, Vic Befera’s father, was good friends with Mayor Power. The Beferas held Mayor Power in such high esteem that when the next baby boy was born to the Beferas, the child was named “Victor,” in honor of Victor Power.
Today, here are more of Vic Befera’s memories:
No, I cannot say I remember Brooklyn for the grandness of its mortar and bricks. No tourist sought it out for its charm. Brooklyn was beautiful for its people. They were people from other lands, immigrants like my parents. With surnames like Lastovich, Martila, Boria, Kovich, Tomassoni, Miskulin. These were the names of my youth.
We were the offspring of the poor people of Europe who came here to find a better life, to find work and opportunity. They found work – back-breaking work in mines where they coaxed the rich ores from the deep tunnels and pits. Huddled together in those few blocks, we shared one thing in common – we were transplants from a foreign place, clawing out a living in a strange and alien land.
The King’s English was a rarity in the homes or on the streets. The polyglot people spoke a patois of Serbian, Finnish, Swedish, Italian, Slovenian, Croatian. I think each of we children spoke our parents’ mother tongue before we learned English. I still recall snatches of the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary in Italian, which is what my mother spoke over my cradle every night.
This land our parents came to, with bone-chilling cold and freezing winters, was so different from their native climes unless they were Finns or Swedes or Norwegians. But I am glad they came to the wilds of northern Minnesota. We all might have ended up in the people-choked streets of New York City, with its sweltering, dirty alleys, its swarming ghettos, its garbage-strewn flats, its noisy, smelly subways. They saved us from Brooklyn, New York.
Our Brooklyn, though poor, was rich with fresh air and open spaces and trees. Now I live in a town, Palo Alto, California, that is vastly different from the borough where I climbed trees and smoked Indian tobacco as a boy. This is a prosperous university town where it is almost always sunny and warm. We live among lovely trees and flowers. Elegant homes, plush stores, handsome public buildings are a part of it. Executives live nearby and their children are well-dressed and impeccably educated. There are no factories or poor people as there was in the town of my youth. But in Brooklyn, we knew almost every family, every home, every family’s problems. Here, we don’t even meet the people next door, not to mention the next block. We live in comfortable isolation. In Brooklyn, there were no strangers.
The richness of my Brooklyn was its people. Its Irish, Scandinavians, Italians, Finns, Slovenians and all the rest. It was the dignity and honesty and willingness to work that they took with them to carve out the precious ore. It was they who bent their backs to the dirty tasks. The bankers and attorneys and company presidents were the field generals, but it was the poor men who descended into the earth to bring in the riches that built Hibbing and the Iron Range. (And let’s remember that it was the poor mothers with a houseful of children who figured out a way to clothe and feed them on a backyard garden and a miner’s paycheck.) The “professional families” mostly lived in other parts of town, but the camaraderie and spirit of loyalty of a workingman’s town like Brooklyn cannot be matched anywhere else.
At night, our parents attended Citizenship Classes. In halting English they learned about the government of their new home, its Constitution and laws. They laboriously memorized the names of presidents and the facts of our history, that they might proudly receive their “first papers” and “second papers.”
My mother and other housewives could do their simple grocery shopping in Brooklyn, where several businesses were established parts of the community. There was Fraboni’s, aromatic of fresh pork sausages, and cheeses and salami, a bustling market. My mother picked up the phone and gave the operator the store’s number. Then she haggled with Mr. or Mrs. Fraboni over the cost of beef or chicken or porketta. (“What! 29 cents a pound for sirloin?!”) That afternoon, Leo, my school chum, dutifully arrived with bags of crusty Italian bread, prosciutto, cantaloupes and other good things. There were the DiGiambattistas, and Hill-Wesa, Sabin’s, Pecci’s, and Stilinovich’s and other stores for which my memory can’t quite pull up the names.
For many of the miners, Saturday night meant a visit to Bar 13 or the Trocadero for beer, card games, and the bonhomie of good friends. Walk by one of those doors on a summer night and through the open door came smoke, laughter and “The Beer Barrel Polka” or “Kukavitsa” by Johnny Yankovic on the juke box. You might find it hard to get past the bar where Red Fiori was pouring drinks for thirsty people.
Aromas floated from the kitchens of homes along the streets. For me, I particularly remember the kitchen of Adele Ferruccio. As per the custom of those days, we entered only by the rear door. Small footsteps on the narrow sidewalk beside the house. Then a knock. Then a cry from this fierce, lovable, vocal woman. That kitchen surely still has the molecules of “Sugo” scents imbedded in the boards and beams and rafters. Even when there was nothing cooking, the room was redolent with a kind of mixture of sharp Romano Pecorino, tomato sauce, chicken broth, and balls of unrolled pasta. The fragrance, if I were asked to tie it down, was that of ravioli balls before they are cooked: spinach, cheese, veal, chicken, miraculously blended.
She carried with her a marvelous clean scent of cologne and talcum. When she kissed your check, a wisp of talcum fragrance lingered. And always in the kitchen, after she made us wash our hands, was wax paper. A bit of food to go home to our mother, wrapped in “waxa” paper, put in a pan, and carried carefully up Iron Street.
To these people who came before us and pioneered and toiled that we might have something better, we owe our deep thanks and gratitude. The people who built our hometown have passed on. A stouter, better people were never born. Though dispossessed they were, they worked in bitter cold and deprivation. They endured special hardships. As my brother Orfeo writes, “Brooklyn was a good example of the American melting pot phenomenon of the first part of the 20th Century. We learned to be tolerant of people with other religious beliefs, ethnic origins, and food. It was a great time and place to have lived!”
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The following items are taken from the Hibbing Daily Tribune or the Mesabi Ore, which are on microfilm at the Hibbing Public Library and/or Iron Range Resource Center at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.
January 14, 1920
Ardell Sheehy fell from a toboggan last evening and suffered a broken nose. The accident occurred at the municipal toboggan slide.
August 2, 1967
“Hands Across the Border” will be expanded to “Voices Across the Border” this week when the Hibbing High School Concert Choir travels to Winnipeg, Manitoba, for the Pan American Games. The Hibbing choir was invited by the mayor’s office in Winnipeg to take part in the festivities. The choir, under the direction of Mr. Clyde Hill, will travel in two buses.
October 10, 1970
The Minnesota Highway Department probably will recommend to the 1971 legislature that studded tires be banned in the state. The 1969 legislature approved the use of studded tires for two more years, but directed a study of their effect on road surfaces. Since the safety benefits that studded tires provide are questionable, and the damage to pavement surfaces is substantial, it is unlikely that the Highway Department will endorse their continued use.