A Visit to
Robertsdale, Pennsylvania

        In April, 2004, Aunt Angie and I (Uncle Angelo Coniglio) visited Robertsdale, in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania.   We toured the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Museum and the Italian Cemetery, and spoke with Research Librarian Carolyn Carroll and staff members Margaret Duvall and Dennis Fields; with John Ciampa, a director of the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Historical Society; and with Bill Rourke and Jim Territo, long-time residents of Robertsdale.  
        The material below was derived from our conversations with them, from news articles posted at the museum, and from books written by
Ron Morgan, a Robertsdale native and conservationist.  All of them were very helpful, and their fierce pride in Robertsdale's history is evident.   I also spoke on my return with Russell Asarese, born in Robertsdale in 1914, and a Buffalonian since 1926. 


       
[Briefly, as stated on the Robertsdale page, Giuseppe Coniglio came in 1912 and was joined in 1913 by his wife Angela Alessi Coniglio, accompanied by his brother Gaetano Vincenzo Coniglio. Gaetano's wife (and Angela's sister) Rosa Alessi Coniglio and their son Gaetano Vincenzo (Guy Vincent) joined him there in December 1914.  For a time, Gaetano also lived and worked in Pittston, in eastern Pennsylvania.]

       Unlike many inexperienced immigrants,
Giuseppe, Gaetano, and their countrymen (paesane) from Serradifalco were seasoned miners.  They were hired by the Rockhill Iron and Coal Company to mine bituminous or "soft" coal from deep mines near Robertsdale.  The miners were virtually "owned" by the company, and about the only place they could spend their wages was at the company store.  They were required to provide their own tools (sometimes home-made to save money), and even to buy their own blasting powder (from the company store).  They were paid not by the ton, but by the "yard", that is, the depth of the coal they excavated from the mine wall each day. 
       The homes were built and owned by the company, and much of the miner's pay went towards renting them.  In the January 1920 Census,
Gaetano (listed as "Guy") and Rosa (listed as "Rosy"), their last name mis-spelled as "Comellia", were shown as renters of 100 Spring Street, Robertsdale.  Listed as their children were Guy, age 6; Leonardo, age 4 years and 2 weeks; and Raimondo, age 3.   Felice was born in December, after the census was taken.  The Coniglios' neighbors, at 96 Spring Street, were Calogero and Grace Asarese Butera, also from Serradifalco.  Grace was the granddaughter of another Grace Asarese, who has one of the few marked graves in the Italian Cemetery (photo below).  The grave was frequently visited by her grandson Russell Asarese (Grace Asarese Butera's brother) of Buffalo.  The other photo below shows an existing house on Spring Street, believed to be the last home remaining from the 1920s.

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       There was no electricity, and the streets were dirt, covered in cinders.  There was no running water: the women and children carried water for cooking and laundry, from a natural spring at the end of Spring Street.  The town had a public school which Guy Jr. may have attended, but the Catholic church was not built until 1922, next to the Italian Cemetery.  Before the church was built, a visiting priest would hold masses, christenings, and marriages in available buildings.  In 1918, the town's movie house, the Liberty Theatre, was built on Main street.  The theatre burned down in 1936.  In 1948 it was rebuilt and re-opened as the Reality Theatre, and the building (photo below) is now the home of the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Museum.

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        Leonard, Ray, and Felice were baptized by a visiting travelling pastor, with Felice's christening most likely taking place in the in the Liberty Theatre.  Robertsdale also had an "Italian Band" which was renowned in the area, and the focus of attention at Italian gatherings, especially every Columbus day, which the miners wanted as a holiday from work. [See photo below]
       The men were strong union men and good workers who on a normal day did not see the light of day: they entered the mines before dawn and returned after dark.  This led to several strikes for better working conditions, including one in 1916 and another in 1922.  While the men were in the mines, the wives fetched water, took care of the homes and children, and sometimes did laundry or house-cleaning or took in boarders for extra income.  And they prayed that their men would come home safely.  The immigrants came from a small, remote mountain town in Sicily to a small, remote mountain town in Pennsylvania.  In an already isolated town, they were further isolated by their ethnicity: even other "Italians" in the town (immigrants from mainland Italy; Rome, Naples, etc.) were slow to accept the "Sicilian peasants".  
       The company intentionally grouped the miners' living quarters by nationality.  Poles and Slavic miners were on the West side of town; Welsh, Irish and German in the middle; some Sicilians were in Woodvale, about a mile away; and Italians and Sicilians were housed on the East side of Robertsdale on Spring Street and Wood Street.  The Italian/Sicilian sections were often referred to as "Africa" by others.
       The bias against the Sicilians had repercussions.  Two young Sicilian boys, the Latone (Latona) brothers, were continually taunted by a local bully, Perry Everhardt.  The younger Latona brother had the chore of carrying water to his home each day.   One morning Everhardt tripped him, spilling the water.  The boy went into his house, got his father's shotgun, and shot and killed Everhardt.  There are conflicting reports as to whether he was ever punished.  Some say that shortly after the shooting, five families of Sicilians were evicted from Woodvale and moved to the East side of Robertsdale.
       The 1922 strike may have been the final reason
Gaetano and his family left Robertsdale, but their leaving was likely spurred by a number of factors: reported "lawlessness" among the Sicilians; fights and shootings over card games or wine sales; the influenza epidemic of 1918, which claimed a number of Sicilian victims (possibly including Angela Alessi Coniglio); the "petering out" and eventual closing of some mines in the mid-twenties; and the "black lung" disease, which many workers were beginning to contract, after ten years in the mines.
       Today, there are few Italian families in Robertsdale.  The local Pennsylvania dialect has modified even their names to suit the community.  Ciampa becomes "Sy-ampa", Marcocci is reduced to "Marcoss", and Rossi to "Ross".   The only remnant that we found of the Serradifalco Sicilians was
Vincenzo (Jim) Territo (known locally as 'Jimmy Treat'), one of a local family of barbers whose father Calogero immigrated from Serradifalco in 1903.  Calogero was an illiterate miner, but as Jim described it, "Somehow, my father found the Land Office in Pittsburgh and managed to buy four acres of ground that wasn't owned by the mine company." 
        Calogero
Territo became a land owner and businessman, even opening a store to compete with the "company store".  In doing so, he managed to do something the other Sicilians were unable to do: establish roots in the community.   My research of Serradifalco roots some time after we met 'Jimmy Treat' found that my GGGG-grandmother Crocifissa Papia re-married after my gggg-grandfather Pietro Lattuca died, and she and her second husband Leonardo Marino had a daughter who married a Territo, and were ancestors of Jimmy Treat.  So Jimmy is my 'half-third cousin, twice removed'!

       I don't know if the following conversation actually took place, but I can just hear
Rosa saying to Gaetano"Li Americani ni dispiacienu pirchi simmu 'Taliani.  Li 'Taliani ni dispacienu pirchi dicianu ca nun simmu Italiani.  A Pittistoni, unn ti piaceru pirchi a lavuratu cu lu carbuni "leggia" anzi di carbuni "duru".  La mia suru si ni ji a Sicilia.  Lu maritu di la mia amica havi lu pulmuni niru".  Ora, c'e 'nu scioperu, e li pazzi ca bruscianu li casi nustri.  'Ammunini di 'stu pustu!"  ['The Americans dislike us because we're Italian.  The Italians dislike us because they say we're not Italian.  In Pittston, they even disliked you because you were a "soft" coal miner, not a "hard" coal miner. My sister has gone back to Sicily.  My friend's husband has the "black  lung".  Now, there's a strike, and the crazy ones who burn our houses.  Let's go from this place!']  After the turbulence of the early 1920s, the Coniglio family and most, if not all of the other Serradifalchese, walked to the train depot and boarded a narrow-gage East Broad Top Railroad train to Mount Union, whence they took a standard-gage train to points north and Buffalo.  Why they chose Buffalo, and whether they left en masse or in dribs and drabs, we don't know (yet).   Gaetano's naturalization papers include affidavits by two friends from Robertsdale, Salvatore Latona and Salvatore Giordano, who stated that the Coniglio family left Robertsdale "in early 1921"Felice (Phil) was born in Robertsdale in December, 1920, and Carmela (Millie) was born in  Buffalo  in May, 1923.

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        After the feudal system had essentially ended on mainland Europe, it continued in Sicily until the early 1800's.  This was a system in which the "nobles"; King and Princes, and the Counts, Barons, Dukes and numerous lesser nobles on whom they conferred titles (in return for loyalty and armed support), were "vassals".  The nobles were the owners or landlords of "fiefs" on which peons, serfs, and sometimes slaves toiled for the "lord of the manor".  Between the nobles and the serfs were classes of those who were professionals; doctors, lawyers, clerics, etc., and those artisans or guild members who had special arts or skills such as music or stonemasonry.  
        When feudalism ended, many class distinctions remained.  The former nobles still kept track of their lineage and were "nobili", with titles like "signore" (lords);  the lesser nobles, professionals and landowners were "galantuomini"  (gentlemen) titled "Don"; the artisans became known as "civile" (citizens), often called "Maestro" (master).  And the peons, serfs, and slaves became the common people; the "contadini" (peasant farmers), "villaci" (common villagers) and the "volgare" (commoners).  
         For their own advancement, and to give themselves a sense of place, these "working classes" often formed "SocietÓ", or mutual aid societies, some specifically for workers, miners, and so on.  These societies, which incidentally, were frequently strongly anti-Mafia, were viewed  by the new government as attempts at socialism, and often they were banned.
         In America, immersed in unfamiliar customs and still fearful of repression by the "ruling classes" (in this case  the coalmine owners), many Sicilian immigrants formed "societies" associated with their town of birth.   One of these was the
"SocietÓ Mutuo Accorso Serradifalco" or "Serradifalco Mutual Aid Society".   Gaetano, Rosa and Guy Jr. belonged to this society in Robertsdale.  When the majority of Sicilians left Robertdale, they left the society's flags and records with the (apparently) only remaining Sicilian family in Robertsdale, the Territos (their descendants are called the 'Treats').  In Buffalo, the society was re-formed, and I remember Gaetano and Rosa attending monthly meetings.

For more, see La SocietÓ,

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        Ron Morgan is a local author and historian, and President of the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Historical Society.  He has written several articles and books about coal mining and the Robertsdale area, including the very informative book ECHOES FROM THE MINES, Volumes I and II.   Volume I includes this photo, which was taken on the town's Main Street on Columbus Day, 1917.   Click on the photo for a larger view.

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        The staff of the  Broad Top Area Coal Miners Museum has helped preserve the heritage of all descendants of Robertsdale miners.  If you'd like to join the Museum ($15 per year), or contribute in any amount to help preserve the Italian Cemetery, a piece of Serradifalco emigrants' history, please send your dues or contributions to the Museum's Research Librarian, Carolyn Carroll, with checks made out to the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Museum at the address below.  The museum also has mementos, memorabilia and books for sale, including Ron Morgan's work.

Main Street
Robertsdale, Pennsylvania 16674

NOTE: The four photos that form the background for this page are not from Robertsdale.  The Coniglio family did not own a camera until well after they moved to Buffalo in the early 1920's, and photos of their life in Robertsdale were non-existent. 
               The background photos here are from the excellent website of Professor Susan Ferrandiz, about the company mining town of McIntyre, PA.  These little towns dotted the mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia during the heyday of American coal mining.  
               The stories of these towns were similar: they sprang up in the coal fields and were populated by men (and their families) who worked the mines from dawn to dusk, and rented their lodging; bought their supplies and obtained their services from "the Company" whose rules were their law.  The names of the towns and the people may have been different, but they all shared the legacy of back-breaking, lung-poisoning work that helped feed the steel mills of the nation.


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