We called him Papa Tuna because he eventually moved to a little town in Northern California call Fortuna. None of us grandkids could pronounce Fortuna, so it was unceremoniously shortened. He was always a towering figure in our family even though physically I suspect he didn't crack the five foot six mark. He was our patriarch, our papa, our pater familias...the man who had left all he had known to come to the US like so many of his fellow Europeans at the time.
|Lago Maggiore--40 Miles South of Veglio|
Giuseppe was born in 1896 in the home that we now set out to restore. One of seven children, all boys except for sister Maria that were born to Francesco and Eugenia Senestraro. Life on the mountain was hard, but the family had more than their share of pasture and cows. Legend has it that great grandfather had nearly one hundred animals through the valley that would produce the milk needed for cheese and other products.
During the short, hot summers at the base of Alps, vegetables and grapes were in generous supply. Grapes made their way to wine that would be both sold as well as drank. The region was a prime wine producing area on rocky, terraced hillsides that would transform the fruit into vintages that would make its way primarily to the markets in nearby Switzerland. This cycle of production and life was largely unchanged for several hundred years leading up to the early 1900s.
Two major events, however, disrupted this idyllic life in Veglio. The first was technology, machinery that would drive the agricultural production down to flatland regions to the South. The areas around Milan and then further towards Tuscany where large scale crops could be produced much more efficiently. This quickly made the labor intensive vineyards very expensive compared to their neighbors to the south. While today, the Piedmonte region is well known for fine cheese and Barolos that are exported, they became uncompetitive in basic food production in the 1910's.
|Italian Troops in the Alps, 1918|
Papa returned to Veglio to find rampant inflation, poor markets for the local products and often times little food around the Senestraro table on the cold winter nights. I am sure there were many long conversations with his mother and father talking about the possibility of leaving home. America was half a world away with just a few stories from letters and newspapers of the hope and opportunity that might await. But leaving might very well mean never seeing your family again.
|Ferndale Valley in Northern California|
The rest is as they say, part of history. Giuseppe Senestraro made his way to Le Havre in France in late 1920 to board the Corsican which was bound for Canada. He arrive in St John, New Brunswick and according to border crossing records entered the US for the first time at St. Albans, Vermont on January 23, 1920. From there, likely a long series of train rides ensued before he found himself toasting his new adventure with his old friend Daoro.
Family legend is a little sketchy over those first few years in America, but they worked as ranch hands to save the money to purchase their own few cows that could be grazed on the leased fields that would form their partnership. It also seems as though they may have had a little boost in their savings account courtesy of a then increasingly sober U.S. Government.
The Volstead Act of 1920, aka Prohibition, made all liquor illegal. Papa had learned well how to make wine and from that wine, grappa. It only made sense to him that he should supply a little of this know how to a increasingly thirsty market in his new found home. While we will never know exactly how and what, we are convinced that he and a few of his Italian buddies spent nights and weekends creating their own vintages. It was only after meeting with my family in Italy, did I learn about this as he was not entirely forthcoming about his "illegal" activities.
But man cannot live on wine and cheese alone! Papa wanted a family and longed for a wife who would join him in America. With little English skills and likely much competition from the other new immigrants from Italy, Denmark and Portugal, he decided to take another route to achieve his objective. Letters home to his father were sent in the hope of finding some girl from the village and surrounding area who would be interested in building a new life. And from there, the call went out on the 1926 equivalent of match.com in Montecrestese.
|Register at Ellis Island|
Corinna Arizzi was twenty four and had perhaps met Giuseppe once or twice. She was seven years younger than him and from a village close by. Mama "Tuna" as she later became was up for the adventure and soon the letter back to America was sent. No courtship but rather another very long series of trainrides and boats back to Italy for the then new US Citizen Giuseppe Senestraro. And in October 1926 as close as we can tell, in the little church where he had worshipped as a child, Giuseppe fulfilled his next step of the American dream.
|Almost There..Giuseppe and New Bride|
Giuseppe Senestraro passed away in 1968 at the age of 72. A life of hard work, a little too much wine but a great adventure. Mama lived for nearly two decadees more before joining him once more. I am thankful each day for the sacrifices and their courage. I hope that we can make them proud and continue to learn from them as we continue on with our project in Veglio.