Friday, February 24, 2012

From the Tyrol to Southwest Wyoming: Learning to Fit In

Today the cultural emphasis in America is on diversity.  My daughter the curator has been uploading pictures to the museum’s Black History Month posts on Facebook.  I sent her an obituary for a modern-day vaquero from southwest Wyoming who still braided his own rawhide cowboy gear while working for the railroad: I hope that his family might donate some pictures of him for inclusion in the posts for Hispanic Heritage Month.

In the Union Pacific coal camps in the 1920s and 1930s, the emphasis was on fitting in and becoming American.  When my mom started school, she didn’t speak English.  Her parents had immigrated to this country from the Tyrol region of what was Austrian territory before World War I and Italian afterward.  The Union Pacific had recruited from middle and northern Europe, so these elementary school classes included students whose parents – especially the stay-at-home mothers – in most cases spoke only their native language.  The kids picked up English where they could, from older siblings, at school (pity the teachers who somehow managed the polyglot!), and from in-home tutors.

In this excerpt from my novel Willow Vale, the story of an Austrian immigrant to Wyoming after World War I, my heroine Francesca Sittoni is teaching herself to read from a newspaper about a strike at the coal mine which threatens her family:

Their situation resembled too much the one they had left. Where was the promise of America here, eh? If their wives or children took sick, they had their pay docked to reimburse the company doctor. The U.P.’s tentacles probed every aspect of their lives: they were all in debt up to their grimy ears to the company store, for everything from the clothes on their backs to the food they put in their mouths. They were free now to shop elsewhere, but the privately owned stores didn’t extend credit toward the next paycheck, and all of them were constantly short of cash.

Most of them felt a strong obligation to the relatives they’d left destitute in Europe, but few of them had anything left over these days to send home. The newspapers were full of the Colorado min­ers’ discontent spreading as far as Hanna, Cumberland, and Reliance in Wyoming, and as Francesca practiced her reading with the local paper she grew terrified of what loomed over them.

Later in the novel, Francesca leaves the coal camp after her husband is killed in a cave-in and goes to live with my hero, Kent Reed, who in this excerpt is teaching Francesca’s daughter Elena to read:

Yet she caught him looking at her sometimes, smoldering smoky eyes glinting in the lamplight, one broad shoulder thrust forward to support his arm on the table, his chin propped in his hand. He’d be­gun to teach Elena to read, and as the relationship between the man and the little girl grew into love and trust, the mother couldn’t help but feel a part of that family intimacy. Her attention in the evenings divided between a week-old newspaper and Elena’s lessons, Franc­esca’s English also subtly improved.

But if the immigrants had to adapt, they also brought with them much-needed skills.  In the wet years of the early 1920s, homesteaders in much of normally arid Wyoming were able to dry-farm, a method of raising crops utilizing only natural rainfall.  In the much drier 1930s, those farmers without access to irrigation were mostly witness to their farms being foreclosed. 

In the coal camps, fresh produce from the garden was a rare treat.  There were a few women from the Tyrol who brought with them their green thumbs, and their skill in the garden was welcome.  This is a picture of my grandmother in front of a flourishing garden in Superior, Wyoming, probably in the 1940s or 1950s.  I think gardens in the rocky, alkali soil of southwest Wyoming were rare in those days.

Certainly I don’t remember lawns in Superior by the 1960s when the town was closing down and even the houses were getting moved out.  After all these years, it’s debated whether my Nona or her sister-in-law actually kept the pictured garden.  But even if it was a joint effort, they accomplished a notable feat, winning a prize for best yard in town.

Yesterday’s immigrants were not hyphenated, not Austrian-Americans or Italian-Americans.  In most cases it took everything they had to come to this country, and they worked hard to be American.  But just as proud as they were of blending in to the American melting pot, yet they remembered fondly their homelands and the dear ones they left behind.


Eunice Boeve said...

Interesting story of your family. Your book sounds good too. I'm familiar with Wyoming as my mother's family homesteaded near the Chugwater/Wheatland area. My dad also came to that area to work on a ranch where his brother was foreman. After my parents married, they moved to Libby, Montana.
Amazed at your Grandmother's garden considering Wyoming's soil. My relatives' gardens bordered on pitiful. My brother moved to Wyoming as a young man. Currently he lives at Torrington.

Alethea Williams said...

Hi Eunice,
Thanks for commenting! If you order Willow Vale, I hope you like it. I am getting positive comments on the coal camp portion from people who lived that life, so I would be interested to know if people from a ranching background think I did proper research on that portion as well. I have only been to Torrington for a writer's conference and passing through once from the Black Hills. I seem to remember it is more like Nebraska there, a lot of sugar beets grown, so the soil there must be better than the southwest portion.