Friday, August 24, 2012

Famous Italian-Texans

Large scale Italian immigration to the United States usually focused on the big cities of the eastern seaboard in New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and so on. However, Italian-Americans have left a mark on other areas as well, including the state of Texas. In 1880 it was an Italian-American businessman who came up with the idea of linking New York and Texas by railroad. This was Count Giuseppe Telfener who got together with his father-in-law D.E. Hungerford and John MacKay (a Nevada silver baron) to form the “New York, Texas & Mexico Railway Co.” Telfener was a veteran railroad man who had already built a 350-mile railroad in Argentina. This was, of course, a much more grand and ambitious enterprise and also an opportunity to establish Italian colonies in Texas. Some 1,200 Italian laborers were brought in to law the first section of tracks between Victoria and Rosenberg. Telfener hoped that these Italian workers would eventually send for their families and settle down along the railroad in Texas. The sight of this Italian army of railroad workers caused the locals to nickname the track “the Macaroni Line”.

However, there were problems with the new railroad. Just importing the workers and building the first section of track had cost the New York, Texas & Mexico Railway Company some two million dollars. Only 92 miles of track had been laid and half of the workforce had already quit because of sickness and poor conditions. What was a crisis became a total disaster in July of 1882 when Texas ordered a halt to all railroad construction in the state. The problem was a rather major bookkeeping error by which Texas had issued land grants for about 8 million more acres than were available. Oops! Math can sure be a pain. However, Count Telfener did not let that get him down. He still ran trains on the 92 miles of track he had already put down in Texas until 1884. The next year his track was bought by the Southern Pacific company so that the old “Macaroni Line” is still around today, running through towns which bear the name of the family of Count Giuseppe Telfener. There is Telferner (yeah, they spelled his name wrong), Inez (named after his daughter), Edna (named after his other daughter), Louise (his sister-in-law) and the towns of MacKay and Hungerford named after his business partners.

Another Italian to leave his mark on Texas was the artist and sculptor Pompeo Coppini, originally from Tuscany. He came to Texas for a visit in 1902 and decided to stay, opening up an art studio in San Antonio and making his home right there in the “Alamo City”. He was promptly hired to sculpt a monument, a larger-than-life statue of Dr. Rufus C. Burleson, the late President of the prestigious Baylor University. Coppini was happy to take the job but had a very hard time finding a suitable model to work off of. No one seemed to fit the part. Finally, however, he found his man -a drunken bum he discovered on the street. This was the model who Coppini used to sculpt the statue of a very strict and religious Baptist professor. However, everything worked out and Coppini did a masterful job with the widow of the late professor saying that the statue was the spitting image of her husband. One cannot help but wonder if she had any idea who the model was?

Culture came to north Texas thanks to Italian innovation. It started with Antonio Ghio who owned and operated a dry goods store in Jefferson, Texas from 1867 to 1873. When the locals refused to allow Jay Gould to build a railroad through Jefferson, Ghio decided business prospects would be better elsewhere and he moved to Texarkana. In that famous city, Antonio Ghio helped organize a Catholic Church and supported the establishment of a Catholic education system. With business flourishing he also brought the first railroad to Texarkana, built an artificial gas plant and an opera house to give the area some refinement and Italian culture. In 1884 he opened a second theatre and three years later the attraction of Spring Lake Park. Anthony Ghio was elected Mayor of Texarkana, serving three terms, was married and had eight children. One of his granddaughters, Corrine Griffith-Marshall was one of the first big American movie stars in the early days of the silent pictures.

There are many others who could be named. Italians have been in Texas since the earliest colonial days, especially those from Naples and Sicily as both were, at the time, under the Spanish Crown. Prospero Bernardi was an Italian-Texas who fought in the battle of San Jacinto where Texas won her independence. Francesco (Frank) Qualia came from northern Italy to Del Rio and established the oldest winery in Texas in 1883. Sam Lucchese, an Italian-Texan, became the maker of the finest and most famous cowboy boots in the state. Antonio Mateo Bruni, from Emilia-Romagna, became one of the most successful ranchers and businessmen in south Texas and Bruni Park in the border city of Laredo is named in his honor. Communities have come and gone or assimilated to the point that few recognize them but Italian festivals are still part of the annual calendar in Texas cities like Houston, Bryan, Dallas and Fort Worth. The Order of the Sons of Italy also has a branch in Texas, based in San Antonio, appropriately known as the Pompeo Coppini Lodge. There website can be visited here.

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