From 1870 to 1914 more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States. Of these, about 40 percent remained in America, and a number of them eventually moved on to states west of the Mississippi. In Indian Territory the majority of early-arriving Italians settled in the coal-mining counties of present eastern Oklahoma in the mid-1870s. In that decade, coal mines began operating in Pittsburg County, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory. In need of cheap labor, the coal companies hired immigrants, primarily men, from southern and eastern Europe. They were primarily farmers and uniformly Catholic. The first northern Italians arrived in 1874, and the first southern Italians arrived in the late 1870s.
Unlike Italians in other areas of the United States, 73 percent of those who came to Indian Territory were from northern Italy, primarily the Piemonte area. Of those from southern Italy, most came from the Castigleone, Carovilli, and the Rocca Pia areas in the Abruzzi and Molise regions; some also came from the town of San Gregorio Magno near Salerno, and Caliscibetto in Sicily. These men brought brides over from villages in Italy, established Italian colonies throughout the area, and strongly held on to their Italian customs and traditions.
The Italian enclaves were located primarily in Pittsburg, Latimer, and Coal counties. As working conditions stabilized in the 1890s and early 1900s, Italians, even those who were miners, bought land at greater rates than other immigrants. A common practice involved buying a parcel of land by paying the overdue taxes on it. By 1910, the Italian-born population of these three counties numbered 2,162 of the 2,564 who lived in the state.
As time passed, a small yet stable service industry developed to accommodate the mining communities. The miners needed food, clothing, and other necessities. As towns such as Hartshorne, Haileyville, Krebs, and Coalgate emerged, Italians asserted themselves in other business endeavors. In the town of Krebs, Nick Barone and Barney Tarochione bought a meat market, and S. Domenico Giacomo and Vito Barzellone founded the Giacomo Wholesale Business. Paul Saffa was a promoter of general merchandise and delivered groceries and feed to the mining towns. Other notable Italians who engaged in the grocery business were Frank Duca, Dee Rich, Joe Michael, and Steve Testa. The DeFrange brothers had a machine shop, and the Loveras opened a bottling plant selling soda pop.
In other towns Italians also did well outside of mining. Early in the twentieth century Coalgate's International State Bank directors included Louis Bonino, Joe Flor, and John Gentilini. In 1897 Luigi Pistocco opened a grocery store in McAlester. The Fassino brothers opened a macaroni factory that same year. In Wilburton there was A. Maggi Grocery, Constantino Carignano opened Carignano Grocery, Joe Fioretti owned Fioretti Grocery, and Dominic Giacomo owned the Big $ Gas House. In Haileyville Joe Carletti owned Carletti's Grocery, the Ferandos owned and operated a bakery in Bache, and the Antonellis opened markets and bakeries throughout the region.
The deaths of husbands in mining accidents often left wives to fend for themselves. While various mutual self-help organizations such as Dante Alighieri or Stella D'Oro would aid widows, this assistance was usually insufficient. Often, widows took in boarders. With land to grow food and with money from boarders, a woman could make a life for herself and her children. Women also worked in sewing rooms and as secretaries. In the early twentieth century there was plenty of work and plenty of land, and many Italians could lead lives similar to those they had experienced in Italy.
When oil began to replace coal as fuel, the mining industry declined, and mass out-migrations occurred in the coal regions. Nearly a decade before the rest of the country would suffer the effects of the Great Depression, people in Oklahoma's coal counties dealt with their own regional depression. This and other factors caused an entire generation to leave. In 1926 two hundred Italian families departed from Krebs, moving to Akron, Chicago, Detroit, and other industrial cities. Some moved to the larger urban areas within Oklahoma.
Those who stayed in eastern Oklahoma did so because they owned property. The older generations had saved, bought land and homes, and made a decent life. They knew how to hustle to save a penny, and many worked in small, privately owned mines with little overhead cost. Among those who opened their own small mines were Giovanni Scarpitti, John DiGiacomo, and two of the Maffeo brothers. In Richfield, Frank Testa opened the Testa mine, which continued to operate into the 1950s. Older, experienced miners could still make enough money doing the job they had learned to do as children.
In addition to the economic depression of the 1930s, Oklahomans had to deal with the "Dust Bowl." Those in the coal counties had to deal with endless drought and excessive heat for three years in a row. Nick Finamore claimed that it was so hot that "even weeds wouldn't grow." As many homes lacked running water, children carried water to their homes from as far away as five miles.
World War II created an initial boom in the economy and in the coal business. A U.S. Navy ammunition plant opened near McAlester, providing local jobs, and many young men joined the military to fight for their country. The coal industry's prices rose and stabilized. As the war came to a close, the now-adult second generation of Italian Americans needed to make a living. There was still some mining, logging in the eastern forests, and a growing service industry. An overall increase in real wages throughout the United States helped a small yet reliable economy in southeastern Oklahoma. While many Italians continued to leave, those who stayed became entrepreneurs. Car dealerships, paint stores, restaurants, markets, hardware stores, and hotels developed. Drawing on their experience in agriculture, the Cionis and the Pistoccos bought flower shops and greenhouses. Still others went to college, becoming pharmacists, businessmen, and engineers.
The economy at the turn of the twenty-first century was still weak. Those who remained continued to be creative and to market to those who remained. Ghost towns dotted the area. Nearly half of the households in the tri-county (Latimer, Pittsburg, and Coal) area of eastern Oklahoma had incomes of less than $17,500 per year. Because of these poor economic conditions, there has been a consistent exodus out of the coal counties. In the year 2000 populations in the area were 33 percent lower than they had been in 1920.
Many have expanded business beyond the scope of their towns. Krebs has begun to market itself as "Oklahoma's Li'l Italy." When entering Krebs, a traveler notices that the business buildings are colorfully painted, most in the red, white, and green of the Italian flag. The Italian Festival attracts over twenty thousand people every Memorial Day weekend. Three of the four major Italian restaurants in the county are in Krebs, also home to Lovera's Market, the only Italian market in the state. The Loveras brought in specialty items from Italy and built a processing factory to produce Italian sausage and cheese. In these ways, many of the Italians who came to America built a life for themselves and for their descendants in Oklahoma.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Kenny L. Brown, The Italians in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). Kenny L. Brown, "Peaceful Progress: An Account of the Italians of Krebs, Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 53 (Fall 1975). J. D. Knottnerus and David G. LoConto, "Strategic Ritualization and Ethnicity: A Typology and Analysis of Ritual Enactments in an Italian American Community," Sociological Spectrum 23 (October-December 2003). David G. LoConto, "The Maintenance of Ethnicity: Italian-Americans in Southeastern Oklahoma" (Ph.D. diss., Oklahoma State University, 1999). David G. LoConto and C. S. LoConto, "Italian Sentiments, Reputations, and Discrimination in Southeastern Oklahoma," Research Note, Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science 78 (1998). Jerre Gerlando Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience (New York: Harper Collins, 1992). Pittsburg County, Oklahoma: People and Places (Wolfe City, Tex.: Henington Industries, Inc., 1997). Frederick Ryan, The Rehabilitation of Oklahoma Coal Mining Communities (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935). James D. White, Diary of a Frontier Bishop: The Journals of Theophile Meerschaert (Tulsa, Okla.: Sarto Press, 1994).
David G. Loconto
© Oklahoma Historical Society