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Blue collars among the blue bloods: a history of Highwood, the North Shore's island of Italian immigrants

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Highwood was the little town just across the train tracks, but for Margot McMahon and the other kids growing up in Lake Forest, it might as well have been on the other side of the world.

Working-class Italians lived there, that much McMahon knew, like the grandparents of Adria Bernardi, her grammar school classmate. And for years Highwood was the only town on the North Shore where one could buy a drink.

And that's about all McMahon--or most North Shore folk--knew or seemed to want to know about Highwood. Until now. For McMahon and Bernardi have teamed up to create a unique multimedia exhibit of sculpture, photographs, and oral history based on this tiny blue-collar community, hidden amid the land of the blue-blooded gentry.

"These Hands Have Done a Lot" is the title, and after a popular three-week stint at the Highwood Recreation Center, it has moved to the Suburban Fine Arts Center, 777 Central Avenue in Highland Park, until October 4. The work by Bernardi, a writer, and McMahon, a sculptor, highlights the lives of eight immigrants who settled in Highwood in the early 1920s.

"I realized that a generation--the last big generation of Italian immigrants--was dying," says Bernardi. "This was my last chance to capture their words, their voices, their emotions, and their memories.

"I've read a lot of Italian history, and I always come away thinking: this is very interesting, but I have no sense of the people. And that's what we wanted to establish: a sense of the people, a sense of their journey through life."

This particular journey began around the end of World War I, when Italy's economy, devastated by war and depression, had all but collapsed. There were few jobs to be found, particularly in the country's northern mountainous regions. So many Italian men left, seeking work all over the world, including Africa, England, and Spain.

"The big push was to the United States," says Bernardi. "This was the land of opportunity. There had been a migration of Italians in the 1890s, so in many cases, the immigrants of the postwar years had older brothers, uncles, or parents in America."

By and large, the early settlers were young unmarried men. They found work where they could get it, usually in coal mines.

"The early settlement patterns may seem strange," says Bernardi. "You'll discover Italian communities in places like Texas, Alabama, Iowa, Indiana, where you might not expect to find them. They went where the coal mines were, it's as simple as that."

They discovered a life of grueling, backbreaking labor.

"The company made those little houses, like soldiers have, out of wood with no cement underneath," Adele Dinelli, 95, told Bernardi. "They just put a big post here and a big post there and then they build the house on top. And underneath, you made a hole in the ground and put a pan of broth or a little pan with stew because it was a little cooler than in the house. We didn't have any money to buy ice. Was misery around the coal mine. That's all."

"The mine in Illinois was different from Iowa," John Bagatti, 85, recalled for Bernardi. "In Illinois, you work in a room as big as this living room. In Iowa, I had to work on the knees. In Texas, the coal was even lower, like this table. I worked on my back. I was young.

"There was the Ku Klux Klan there in southern Illinois. . . . One time we had wine in our house. We made wine. And these Ku Klan, they was looking for the wine. If you made wine you put it under the house, you take a piece of floor out, put the barrel down to hide it. These Ku Klan, they went down with a sledgehammer and broke all the barrels. It was the only time I made wine that year, and my wine was running down the street."

Then as now, Highwood was the smallest town in the area, no bigger than one square mile, and squeezed between Lake Forest to the north and Highland Park on the south. It grew up around Fort Sheridan, which Chicago's barons of commerce and industry had urged the federal government to build after the Haymarket Square riot of 1887.

"The members of the Commercial Club wanted a military presence in case they had to repress another workers' rebellion," says Bernardi. The gentry wanted to keep cavorting soldiers out of their well-to-do communities, so Highwood was the one town in the area allowed to sell liquor.

It wasn't the taverns, but the promise of jobs that lured the Italian settlers. Many Italian immigrants were hired to work on the railway the Northwestern Railroad Company was building from Chicago to Wisconsin. As these lakefront communities became accessible to the city, they began sprouting mansions and estates. The word got out: The North Shore needed maids, cooks, laundresses, gardeners, laborers, and chauffeurs. It was hard work, but a lot easier than the coal mines.

"I had heard of people from Iowa that came over to work in the summer, then went back to the mine in the winter," Domenick Linari told Bernardi. "So I said, 'Well, maybe I'll go up and see what Highwood is like.'

"When I got to the corner of Highwood Avenue and Green Bay Road, there was a lot of people standing all over and I knew over half of 'em. And I said, 'This must be Highwood.' . . . 'I said, "I'll go back to the mines for this winter and come back next spring.' And when I went back in the coal mine, maybe I didn't like it because I had a taste of the outside."

More and more men like Linari moved to Highwood. Eventually, they brought their wives over from Italy. In time they virtually remade the town.

"Highwood had been Swedish and German," says Bernardi. "But by 1920, one study shows at least 60 percent of grammar school children were of Italian descent. And the number was growing. Its growth was tied to the rest of the North Shore. Rich people aren't going to clean their own floors. And the maids and servants have to live somewhere."

Relations between Highwood residents and their North Shore employers were by no means hostile. Many of the people Bernardi interviewed express pride and satisfaction about having worked for some of the area's wealthiest and most socially prominent families.

"When I got married in 1921, McCormick sent a limousine here to take me to the church," says Tony Casorio, a 93-year-old gardener. "Limousine and chauffeur, big machine, you know. Then, before I got married, they had a big party on the place, you know, and invited all the people, maids and people who worked in the house, so many rich people, you know. About 200 people. There was two cars loaded with gifts when they took me out.

"It was a beautiful place. It's all subdivided now. He was a great big man. Her, too. You know that's the Harvester Company. Oh, they was nice people, the two of 'em. Wonderful people. They used to buy a big book and give opera tickets to all the employees to go to Ravinia. At that time, there was all grand opera. Wonderful. And when I hear there was gonna be some Italian opera, like Aida, 'O Sole Mio,' singing real Italian opera, I used to go and take I don't know how many tickets."

In time, Highwood's population grew to just short of 6,000. Its children attended Highland Park High School. And it earned a reputation as a working-class community of small but well-tended lawns and single-family cottages and wood-frame homes.

That's what McMahon knew of it when she was a girl. Bernardi had closer ties. Her grandparents lived there, although her father, a successful businessman, had moved his family first to Lake Bluff, then to Lake Forest.

"I was not aware of much anti-Italian sentiment when I was growing up," says Bernardi. "I went to parochial school. And then it was more like us against the public school. There wasn't much talk of prejudice.

"Of course, I knew that the North Shore has a reputation for snobbery. Everybody did. I interviewed the mayor of Highwood and he said, 'Sure, I know your father. So you grew up with the big shots, huh?' I mean, you know that there were certain clubs that wouldn't take Jews or Italians. Later, when my family moved from Lake Bluff to Lake Forest, I became more aware of the attitudes. You have to understand the difference. The two towns are next to each other, but they're different. Lake Forest is like The Great Gatsby and Lake Bluff is more The Music Man.

"Anyway, I visited my grandparents a lot. But I didn't know much about their history or their community. I don't think when I was younger that I really cared."

By the time she was in college, her attitude had changed. She majored in history, traveled through Europe, and studied Italian, learning to speak the language fluently.

After college, she worked for the City News Bureau and UPI. But in the back of her mind she dreamed of writing an oral history of Highwood (Bernardi's book, by the way, is almost complete, and she is looking for a publisher).

"In a sad sort of way, my grandfather's death was the big motivator," says Bernardi. "I realized after that a generation was passing. And for me, time was running out."

In 1982, she started her interviews. At the time, she lived in Memphis, where her husband was finishing medical school and she worked in the public relations office of the University of Tennessee.

"I'd fly home for long weekends, which I had booked in advance," says Bernardi. "I did an interview in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. Then back to Memphis."

By this time, McMahon had settled in Chicago, having studied art and sculpture at the Art Institute and Yale.

"Adria and I had always kept in touch," says McMahon. "I knew about her oral project--the interviews--and it sounded so exciting."

McMahon's specialty was representational art (realistic sculpture). McMahon suggested she might sculpt Bernardi's interview subjects.

At first Bernardi was skeptical, worried that the divergence would only delay her book. But as they talked, the idea took shape. They would focus on four men and four women, from a variety of occupations. McMahon would sculpt their heads and hands. She also would sculpt a centerpiece, and the exhibit would be joined by text from Bernardi's interviews as well as photographs of the subjects.

In 1986, when Bernardi and her husband moved back to Chicago, they agreed to do the project. A local Highwood businessman arranged for a room in the basement of the American Legion hall to be set aside for McMahon's studio. And together, McMahon and Bernardi raised about $4,000 in grants to cover some of their expenses.

"We found our people through word of mouth," says Bernardi. "I had an advantage because I was Tony and Massimia's granddaughter. People trusted me. And after each interview, I'd ask them: 'So, who else do you think we should talk to?'"

Bernardi taped and transcribed the interviews, translating those that were conducted in Italian. Topics like family, work, and religion were readily discussed. Others were not.

"Frankly, I wasn't successful getting them to talk about politics," says Bernardi. "If someone was a socialist in the 1920s, and they voted for Nixon or Reagan in the 1970s and '80s, they don't want to talk about it. I'd say, 'So there were a lot of socialists in the coal mines?' And they would say, 'Yeah, there were some. But I don't know much about that.'

"They were honest, though. If I had to describe them, I would use words like hardworking and irreverent. They had a subtle sense of humor. I asked this man what they ate in the old country. He says, 'We ate like kings--we ate polenta,' which is cornmeal. They had all sorts of opinions about religion. Some were loyal to the church. Others were anticleric. I asked one man if he believed in religion, and he replied: 'I think religion is all right for the young people. But I don't go to church and I don't like priests.'

"Overall, they could laugh about their struggles. They didn't complain. And to a person they said, 'Thank God I came to this country.'"

McMahon proceeded slowly with her sculptures, as her subjects were not used to posing.

"When they came to the studio, they did not know what to do, particularly with their hands," says McMahon. "They would fold their arms, put them at their sides. They were restless. Until they held their tools, that is. That was incredible. As soon as they held their tools, they were at home.

"And you could see incredible insights into their lives by watching how they held their tools. I remember Domenick Linari. He was a stonemason. The gnarls in his hand are where he put the stress. The way the knuckles curved around is different on his left hand than his right hand. That's because of the way he held the chisel. He built the Morton Wing of the Chicago Art Institute with those hands; he cut and laid the stone."

The show opened June 19. By then, the two women and their project were the talk of Highwood. A local liquor merchant donated wine for the opening; a restaurateur provided food; about 250 people attended.

"The opening was so moving," says Bernardi. "People were reading every word of the text. I was afraid, you know how writers are, that no one would like it. But one woman said, 'Adria, I have to tell you, I've lived my whole life in Highwood, and this really sounds like the people.'"

Like McMahon, Bernardi has one regret about the show. Because of scheduling problems when Rosa Fiocchi broke an elbow, they did not get to highlight her life. Fiocchi is the 93-year-old woman whose quote provided their show with a title.

"I really wanted to sculpt Rosa," says McMahon. "She's a remarkable woman with an incredible memory. She was a schoolteacher in a mining town in 1915. And she can still look at a picture of her class and tell you the names of every student. Anyway, at the start of the interview, Adria asks Rosa to tell us about herself. Well, she looks at her hands, and she says: 'These hands are sort of arthritic now. But these hands have done a lot.'

"When we got into the car after the interview, I said, 'Adria, did you hear what she said!' We were so excited. Because in a few words, Rosa Fiocchi had captured the whole story."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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