Eichhorn keeps alive memories of Little Italy

In 2006, Tiffin University purchased numerous properties along Miami Street to expand the campus. The houses on the lots were being burned and demolished to make way for new buildings and parking areas.

Although it was progress for TU, it was sad for many Tiffin families. The fires marked the end of Tiffin’s “Little Italy.”

“They’re burning my heritage,” was the reaction of Mary Stefanelli Eichhorn.

A former resident of the neighborhood, Eichhorn gave a program about Little Italy last Thursday at Allen Eiry Center. Many former neighbors were in the audience for the nostalgic look back to an earlier time. Eichhorn, a retired nurse, began by saying she had not intended to take up writing and public speaking, but she wanted to preserve some of the stories from former residents, as well as her own memories.

At the time of the fires in 2006, Eichhorn wrote a letter to the editor, describing how many Italians left their homeland, friends and family to find a better life in the United States. She received many phone calls from people she knew with positive comments about her letter; however, one caller took a different view. Eichhorn said the person told her she should be glad TU was “cleaning up the blight.”

About that time, Eichhorn also wrote to the state historical society to see about obtaining an historical marker in remembrance of “Little Italy.”

Between 1880 and 1930, more than 4 million Italians entered the country in search of better education and employment. Eichhorn said it was a time of impending war and political unrest. In 2002, Lisa Swickard collected oral histories from descendants of Little Italy and compiled them in a book. Surnames often had spelling variations because they were inaccurately recorded at Ellis Island.

“Most who settled here were laborers,” Eichhorn said. “Most of them were from southern Italy.”

“Swallows” were workers, mostly men, who worked abroad, saved their earnings and returned to Italy to give the funds to their families. Many jobs were available in factories, quarries and mines. Eichhorn said immigrants needed to have a sponsor in the United States or they were not permitted to come here. Other men came solo, boarded with other families, found work and established a residence. Then, they brought their relatives over to join them.

“Coming to America by boat was the lowest of the low,” Eichhorn said. “Some of the people never talked about the hardships they had.”

Typically, they bought the least-expensive tickets for passage, which landed them in the lower levels of the ship in crowded quarters. The newcomers often were illiterate or had little knowledge of English, but that did not deter them. Those in the Miami, Jackson and Grace street area sent their children to St. Mary School, where they learned the language and then taught the rest of the family to read and write it. The families spoke Italian at home but preferred to focus on adapting to their new communities and becoming U.S. citizens as soon as possible, Eichhorn said.

Another obstacle was prejudice and name-calling by non-Italian adults. Also, the immigrants could not always find the foods they preferred. After a time, a delivery truck from Cleveland would visit the neighborhood once a week with products to make bread, pasta and other dishes. Gardens were planted with tomatoes for sauce and grapes for wine making.

“You either made it or you grew it,” Eichhorn said.

She spoke about the outdoor ovens mothers used to make bread for their children. Eichhorn remembers a big board with a mound of flour. Her mother would crack eggs into the mound. Holding a bread board against her shoulder, Mrs. Stefanelli would saw off thick slices for her offspring. At St. Mary, children attended Mass every morning before classes. In those days, taking communion required a person to fast from midnight, so students old enough to receive communion carried a slab of bread to eat afterward.

Homemade wine was consumed with most meals. Eichhorn said they also brewed beer and whiskey. One of her uncles had a still in the attic. She often carried a pitcher to a barrel in the basement and brought up wine to be poured into special glasses for dinner.

“I helped stomp grapes for my father. It was fun, but then our mother had to clean our feet,” Eichhorn recalled.

Her mother bought big rounds of Romano cheese and sliced it or shredded it for pasta. Sunday dinner always was salad, bread and pasta.

“When we served pasta, we had big platters and kids could pick the kind they wanted,” Eichhorn said.

Faith was another element that bound families together. Eichhorn remembered going to the shrine in Carey for the Aug. 15 Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. When there was a baptism, wedding, funeral or other religious service, the Italian families would have celebrations for two or three days. Someone would bring an accordion or guitar to play for the occasion.

“If we were there all night, we found a place on the floor,” Eichhorn said.

In times of war, Italian males were willing to serve their host country. All the houses on Miami Street had one or more flags in the windows. When family members were absent, those remaining at home helped one another. Women would make big batches of food to share with neighbors. Some women served as midwives or wet nurses to help care for new babies, which often were born at home.

“Dr. (Anthony) Lupica delivered two of my babies,” Eichhorn said, gesturing toward the Lupicas, who were in attendance.

Last year, Tiffin University built a gazebo as a monument to the Italian families who had resided on what now is the campus. Eichhorn said she worked with TU officials to collect the names of first-generation families to be listed at the monument to Little Italy.

“These initial immigrating Italians have died. Their children are grown and in the their senior years … and many have left the area,” Eichhorn said. “Their hopes and dreams have been achieved and remembered.”