Even though Francesco Campobasso was working in Troy's Public Market as a common laborer in 1921, he and his wife Maria were saving every cent they could, because their dream was to buy a building and own their own business. It was a tradition in the hill towns of South Central Italy – where iron ore was plentiful and a skilled blacksmith crafted his knives and scissors on the first floor of his home, with living quarters above.
The Campobasso family name had already been stamped into fine cutlery for generations. But with the unification of Italy, the northern rulers levied an oppressive tax burden on the workers and craftsmen of the south, and Francesco and many of his family joined the exodus to America.
With America's first Bessemer steel mill turning out tons of product in Troy, there was no call for Francesco's traditional craft, and so he and Maria decided that their South Troy neighbors needed a local confectionery store where they could enjoy home-made Italian gelato, candies and soft drinks made by the Campobasso clan. Francesco and Maria were too proud to be poor.
A few blocks away, on Liberty Street, things were different for the Case family. Anna, a widow with eight children and very little income, was too poor to be proud.
Education, what little Anna could afford, was reserved for the four boys, and the girls were hired out to laundries and shirt factories before they were 10. The boys would get whatever work they could after graduation from St. Anthony's School. Anna's only possession was a small, ramshackle double-duplex frame house that was saved from destruction when Antonio Caserta, using his natural ability and strength, dismantled the house on Williams Street and reassembled it on Liberty Street, where it seemed to lean against the stone wall that kept Havermans Avenue above it. Neighbors said the effort killed Antonio, who had spent all his energy and all his savings from his years as a member of the Carabinieri to buy and move the house, and died before he could move in. Now his widow Anna augmented her meager income by renting out rooms to more recent immigrants from the towns around Naples.
The oldest Case son, Giuseppe, was called Joe just as the Italian hero he was named for, Garibaldi, was when he labored in America. This Joe hated the factory work that faced him after grammar school, and instead of making the fancy shirts and collars for others, he longed to wear them. Like the rest of his brothers, he had an outgoing personality, and soon found work as a salesmen at Rockne's, an “uptown” men's clothing store.
Both the Campobasso and the Case families were among the first supporters of St. Anthony's, Troy's “Italian Church,” and in 1918, when 17-year-old Joe Case, dressed in his Sunday best, saw shy, 16-year-old Rose Campobasso in the confirmation dress she always wore to Mass, sparks flew. But those sparks of love ignited a firestorm of protest in the Campobasso household.
The Italian custom known as “venti e venti,” (twenty and twenty) required equal dowries from both families, originally meaning that each family provided twenty different outfits. It immediately became clear that the Case family finances prohibited them from meeting their traditional obligation. Despite vehement objections from Francesco Campobasso, and with the aid of his sympathetic and more romantic wife, as well as Joe's ability to negotiate a sale, the wedding took place early in 1919, and judging from the photographs still in the family albums, it was a grand affair, with the women in yards and yards of fine lace, the men in the finest rented formal wear, and flower girls and ring bearers matching the attire of the adults. Rose, uncomfortable in the spotlight, was glad that her little sister, Modesta, carrying flowers, was a beautiful distraction. Joe's little brother, Eddie, carried the ring.
In a neighborhood where “marrying your own kind” was still the rule, it was natural that many second generation Italo-American brothers married many sisters. In Troy, three brothers of one family married three sisters of another, only to be topped by another family, where it was to happen four times!
If anyone at the wedding of Joe and Rose saw another joining of the two families looming in the future, they didn't say anything. But it was coming.
©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco
Next: In part 4, sad news from Italy contrasts with progress in America.