I.H.A would like to know, what does your Italian Heritage mean to you? For some it is the delicious food we cook, our religious traditions, and our famiglia. Have you traveled to Italy? Do you speak l’italiano? What traditions have been carried down through your family over the years?
Such an important heritage can be kept alive only through the active participation of young people who love Italy, and through their involvement in society.
We would like the younger generations to listen to the tales of their older relatives; write them down and ask questions! We need to keep alive the memories of the sacrifices our ancestors made, leaving their homeland and knowing they would not likely be returning. Their sacrifices allowed the new generations to live today in “the land of the free,” and helped build our cities, states, economy, and nation.
Walla Walla’s 1st Italians
In 1857, the first Italian to come to the Walla Walla area was Mr. Francesco Orselli, who was stationed at Fort Walla Walla as a member of the U.S. Cavalry, Company T, 4th Infantry. He immigrated from Lucca, Italy.
In 1876 with Pasquale Saturno’s arrival, a large influx of Italians began coming to Walla Walla. He was followed by Frank Villa, an orchardist, in 1878, and Joe Tachi in 1880. Joe’s two nephews, Anthony “Tony” Locati in 1886 and John Arbini in 1890 came from Lonate Pozzolo, Italy (near Milan). Tony Locati was responsible for recruiting most of the large, local Locati families to Walla Walla. John Arbini helped organize and became the first president of the Walla Walla Gardener’s Association produce house, which is still in existence today.
Other Italians arrived with increasing frequency: Luigi Rizzuti from the Calabria region and Carlo Bono, Joe Tachi’s brother-in-law, came in 1886; Joe Colombo in 1888, Natali Magnoni (Manuel) in 1890, Frank Allessio in 1893; and Carlo Ponti, Pasquale “Charley” Criscuola, Michele Curcio and Leonardo Rizzuti in 1895.
Other significant arrivals included: Angelo Locati, Pietro Sacco, Joe Spagnuolo (Spanish), and Joe Pratto from 1910 to 1911; Angelo Columbo and Nick Manaro from 1902 to 1911; L.B. Pica, A. Torretta, Angelo Locati, Ceasar Ponti, Vitorio Toppano, Pasquale Criscuola, Gennaro Criscuolo, and Manuel Deccio in 1915, to name a few. From 1895 through 1915, the largest numbers of Italians arrived in Walla Walla.
By the end of 1915, over 120 Italian gardeners were living here. Today many of their grandchildren still farm the lands they began cultivating in the early 1900s.
In 1915, the Italians built their own church, St. Francis of Assisi, which is still attended today by a majority of parishioners of Italian descent. In 1916, they built their own produce house, Walla Walla Gardener’s Association, which is the oldest produce house west of the Mississippi still functioning under its original charter.
Because the majority of early Italians wanted their children to achieve a better life through education and integration of the American culture, most families no longer spoke the Italian language nor taught their children the old-world Italian traditions. However, today’s Italian community has resurrected some of their ancient traditions to share their rich heritage with their children and others. Thus, we’ve come to enjoy the annual Italian Festa’s that are major events in the Walla Walla community.
We are also pleased to announce the completion of the restoration of the second oldest original Italian home in the valley, The Saturno Farmstead. Situated at Fort Walla Walla Museum Complex, housed several generations of families. It has been furnished with many original pieces and stands as a tribute to the early Italian community.
We are proud of the legacy that our early Italian community has given to Walla Walla. Including the origination of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion, which was reported to have been brought as a seed from the island of Corsica by Peter Pieri, a French soldier. When Mr. Pieri’s Italian neighbors observed the onion’s winter hardiness, they helped harvest the crop with a new enthusiasm and a desire to improve and cultivate the seed locally.
Over several generations, the Walla Walla Sweet Onion developed into the delicious, mouth-watering onion that we enjoy today. Due to the popularity of this famous crop, the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce and the Sweet Onion Commission, sponsors the Sweet Onion Harvest Fest at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds in mid July.
The recent influx of Vineyards and Wineries (Sixty-One to date) in the valley has changed the agriculture structure tremendously. What had been Italian truck garden farms in the many parts of the Valley, has become vineyards or housing developments. The first Italian, Francesco Oreselli, after discharge form the US Cavalry, remained in the Valley and was first to have a vineyard and winery in the late 1850′s. He well realized the fertile soil of the valley would produce many crops. It was known that he sold his wines to his former cavalry associates. He was very industrious and had orchards, garden crops, and also a bakery. It was quite an achievement for a young immigrant from Italy.
In October 1986, organizers planned the first Italian Heritage Days Festa. Since this event was so well received in the community, its success has assured its continuance annually on the second weekend of October.
On October 12, 1911, when Columbus Day was declared a legal holiday in Washington state (Columbus Day, the second Monday in October), Ninety-Seven men of the Italian community of Walla Walla ordered and paid for a statue of Columbus “In honor of their countryman, who gave to the world a continent.” Their names are inscribed on the back of the statue. The statue was dedicated on this date with much fanfare and enthusiastic participation from townsfolk. A festive parade to honor this day was held and continued for many years. The statue, which is situated on the grounds of the Walla Walla County Courthouse, exemplifies the pride these early immigrants had for their native land, as well as their pride in becoming American citizens. Their common legacy of hard work, deep concern for each another, and a strong desire to be self-sufficient have formed the foundation of their families for over three generations.