Italian display set to open at museum

Tony D'Souza
An ‘Italian’ Dispute in Siskiyou County – This antique Modelo player piano was first owned by the Vietti family, shopkeepers in Mount Shasta. The Dal Gallos bought it in the early 1960s for only $100. Now Vietti family relatives want the piano back, but according to a laughing Frank Dal Gallo, pictured here with his wife Vera, they haven’t yet “…come up with the money.”

Fabiano. Gaspari. Solari. Melo. Bianchi. Why are so many Italian names a part of the fabric of our mountain heritage? Last Wednesday morning, a gathering came together at the Sisson museum to plan a two year long special display that will answer that question, as well as pay tribute to over a century of Italian immigration, settlement, labor, and family life in south Siskiyou County.

Led by Nancy Harmon and Carol Ross, both docents at the museum, the group discussed ways to let visitors understand the history that brought Italian immigrants to the area, as well as how the ensuing generations have adapted to and influenced it.

Still in its formative stages, the Italian heritage display will hopefully, “…touch people. People really like to see the portraits of people and the names of the families who lived here,” said Ross, who is also Secretary of the Board of Directors of the museum.

By sifting through old high school yearbooks while conducting research for the display, Ross found listings for dozens of Italian owned businesses in Mount Shasta in the 1940s.

“Back then you could drive from one end of the town to the other and all the businesses were Italian run,” one of the attendees commented, and another added, “I grew up in Dunsmuir and most of my friends mothers only spoke Italian.”

Some of the initial ideas for the display discussed at the meeting included creating a map of Italy to show where the Italian families now in Siskiyou County originally came from, and putting together an example of an Italian family’s kitchen with ravioli pots, a wine press, a sausage maker, and polenta pots. They group also plans to turn a corner room of the Sisson Museum into a wine cellar.

“We’d like to include as many pictures and artifacts of the things people did in town,” Harmon explained. “The food, the gardens, the kitchens, the wine. [Creating the display] is going to take a lot of personal contact, sitting down with people with a tape recorder.”

As the meeting progressed, the attendees began to reminisce over stories they remembered from their childhoods about how things used to be in the Italian community in Mount Shasta. One told the story of a bride brought to the Siskiyou County from Italy, how on the voyage to America someone gave her a banana and she tried to eat it with the skin on because she had never seen a banana before. Another talked of an African American porter on a train, how he had given food to a young Italian mother for her child. “If it wasn’t for that porter, the baby would have starved to death.”

“What we have are stories,” Harmon explained. As the storytelling grew fast and furious, Ross added with a smile, “This is how we are. Italians all talk at the same time.”

Frank Dal Gallo regaled the group with story after story he had heard from his parents and others, of the difficulties new Italian immigrants had in Siskiyou County communicating their needs because they didn’t speak English. He told one story of a woman pretending to lay an egg to explain to shop keepers that she wanted one, and how another woman lifted her skirt in a Yreka clothing store to explain that she wanted to purchase underwear. As Dal Gallo explained, “When you leave out the good stories, you leave out half of it.”

The display is scheduled to open in April, and the group needs to do some fundraising and is in search of a grant writer. They hope to cover the arrival of the first Italian immigrants to the area in the late 1800s, through the ‘big push’ at the turn of the century, all the way up to today, with a focus on individuals and families.

The next meeting will be September 10th at 1:30 p.m. at the Sisson Museum, and anyone interested is encouraged to attend. Contact the Museum at 926-5508 for more information.