Sunday, November 4, 2012

Who were those Tacoma Spadonis?

After making contact with Spadoni relatives in California and Chicago, it seemed appropriate to me that I should explore the Spadoni families who lived just across the Narrows Bridge from us starting in the early 1900s to . . . well, I didn’t know. Maybe there are still some of their descendants around, I wondered. It turns out that indeed there are, and very pleasant and gracious distant cousins they have turned out to be!

I was vaguely aware that there had been some Spadonis unfamiliar to our family in the Tacoma phone book in the early half of the 1900s, but when I asked older family members about this, I was always told, “They weren’t related to us.” Sometimes it also was added that our family didn’t associate with the Tacoma families because they had a bad reputation.

Guido Spadoni on Market Street in Tacoma in the 1920s.
Tacoma and Gig Harbor are separated by less than 10 miles, although until the middle of this century, the only way to commute was by ferry or private boat across the Narrows. However, my nonno Michele Spadoni lived in South Tacoma and then Ruston for a time before moving the Gig Harbor around 1915, so all these Spadonis actually would have been in the same city. Even after moving to Gig Harbor, Nonno commuted by boat to Tacoma, where he worked at the smelter in Ruston until his retirement.

The Tacoma City Directory also shows that Nonno’s nephews Adolfo and Alfredo lived and worked in and near Tacoma during part of the 1920s, so I have to think that at some time, members of the two Spadoni branches must have encountered each other in person. There is perhaps no way to confirm this, but with help from Greg Spadoni, Alfredo’s grandson, I decided to explore what I could about these Tacoma Spadoni families.

Records from Ellis Island show that Guido Spadoni was the first to arrive, coming across Nov. 24, 1906. The ship log says he was going to Chicago to stay with a cousin, Gioberto Giuntoli, but he didn’t stay there long. By January of 1907, he is already listed in documents as living in Tacoma, where he found a job as a laborer with Lister Construction Company.

These early documents provide other clues about Guido: He is married, but his wife, Armida, has remained behind in Ponte Buggianese. This location ties him closely to our own branch of the Spadoni family. My great grandfather was born there, and when he married, he moved about five miles away to Pescia.

I have been assured by a family historian in Italy that all the Spadonis from Ponte Buggianese are descendants of Francesco Spadoni, who moved to Stignano in the mid-1400s. During the 1600s, most of the Spadonis moved from Stignano to Ponte Buggianese to take advantage of lush farming land that had previously been flooded. So despite denials by older Gig Harbor family members, we are related to the Tacoma family. They must have suspected at least a distant relationship, given that both families came from the same region. I hope that the next time I go to Italy, I can trace Guido’s family line back to the point where it intersects with Michele’s.

From 1912-14, Guido is listed as working at a saloon. A most interesting entry occurs in 1915. His brother, Sabatino, who arrived in the states in 1910, is listed as Guido’s partner in Spadoni Brothers Fuel on Market Street. This pre-dates the Gig Harbor Spadoni Brothers, a partnership of Michele’s four sons, by 31 years. The Gig Harbor brothers also sold coal and oil as fuel, although their main focus was on land clearing and road construction.

Guido and Sabatino’s partnership was brief, as by 1917, the company is listed as Market Fuel, solely under Guido’s proprietorship, and it continued that way until the 1930s. Sabatino went into the restaurant and saloon business, but I’ll get back to him in a later blog entry.

1919 was an important year for Guido: He divorced his Italian wife and remarried an American. Thanks to Greg’s research, I have found the Pierce County legal record in which Guido filed for divorce from Armida. In it, I find the surprising news that Guido and Armida married in 1902 had four children in Italy before he left for America four years later. Now Guido is claiming that Armida abandoned him and the children in 1906 and that his parents are taking care of the kids.

It’s not easy to determine the truth of who left whom, though. In the lawsuit, Guido says nothing about the fact that his parents, wife and children are actually in Italy, only that “since the year 1906, the plaintiff has never heard from her and does not know her whereabouts or whether she is living or dead.” Armida, obviously, would have had no opportunity to contest his account of the facts.

Guido had good reason to file for the divorce, because he wanted to marry Iva Bisbee, a 29-year-old woman originally from Oregon. They married in November of 1919, although the marriage lasted only until 1921, when Iva filed for divorce, claiming she had been mistreated.

Matilda Pezzolo, Guido's third wife.
Guido married again in 1923, this time to Italian immigrant Matilde Pezzolo, who Americanized her name to Matilda. This marriage resulted in the birth of daughters Ida in 1925 and six years later to Giovanna, who went by the name of Joan. Guido himself informally changed his name to Frank in the 1930s, and he continues to show up in city records as living near Fife until his death at the age of 78 in 1960.

What became of Ida and Joan, I wondered? I found a file showing Ida married Frank Holt in 1945, and through a little more research, I found an Ida Holt listed in Brown’s Point, Tacoma. Could it be the same person? If true, she would be 87 years old. Perhaps it was an out-of-date listing.

I gave the number a try, and a recorded message told me the number had been changed, but it gave me a new number. When I called again, Ida herself answered the phone. Yes, her father had been Frank Spadoni, and yes, he used to have a fuel business in Tacoma. I tried a few more questions, and she suggested that I come to see her and ask my questions in person. She said her daughter was in town for a visit and had gone out for a couple of hours, but if I called back later, I could talk to Ida’s daughter and make arrangements for a visit.

Ida in her home, September 2012
Ida seemed to have some problems with her short-term memory, as she asked me numerous times who I was, but in my experience interviewing older relatives, I find they often can remember childhood events with great accuracy and detail. When I called back later, I spoke with Ida’s daughter Odessa, and we arranged a meeting in Ida’s Federal Way assisted living facility with Odessa, Ida, myself, Greg and my wife Lucy.

Before we hang up, Odessa tells me that Ida at one time lived in Gig Harbor. In fact, she lived on Raft Island, which is about a half mile from my home. I tell Odessa that I am looking out my window at Raft Island as we speak.

Despite Guido’s somewhat turbulent early background, his daughter and granddaughter--who are delightful, warm, gracious and welcoming distant cousins and hostesses--had many good things to say about Guido.

“He was a fantastic grandfather,” Odessa said. “He was just a warm individual, a gentle soul.” She remembers him as a great cook who always had broth or pasta warming on the stove. He loved his leather chair, and she remembers him asking her to get up and stir his broth, especially the time she took off the lid and found the pot full of fish heads.

“He was a very easy-going person,” said Ida, who as expected had a good memory of events of long ago. “I always felt really loved.”

That’s not to say that she thought her dad was a perfect angel, though. She remembers one time when he was gambling in a card room located in the back of a downtown Tacoma barbershop. “Police raided the card room and he was in the group,” she said. “It made the front page of the newspaper. Dad read the newspaper story to me and boasted that he was famous.” As she recalls the event, nothing happened to Guido; the police just told him to go home.

When Ida was 6, though, her life took a difficult turn of events. After the birth of Joan, Matilda went into a deep depression and had to be committed to Western State Hospital. Ida doesn’t recall her mom ever returning, although there is some inconclusive evidence that she came back briefly in 1936.

Ida recalls Guido declaring in frustration, “I try to be a mother, I try to be a father, but I can’t do it all.” At first, he hired housekeepers, but he didn’t like the way they cooked, and they spent too much money on food, Ida said. She ended up going to live with another Italian family, Amadeo and Lina Lucchesi, while Joan lived with Matilda’s sister and her husband, Maria and Benedetto Bini.

Just as in the Gig Harbor Spadoni family, Ida and Joan grew up speaking Italian at home. “I stayed in first grade for two years because I had to learn to speak English,” Ida explained. She and Joan returned to live with their dad when Ida was around 11.

She became aware over the years that her dad may have had other children he was supporting in Italy. When he died and the family was cleaning up his belongings, Odessa remembers finding photos of a boy and girl. On the back of the photos were inscriptions in Italian that indicated that they were Guido’s children.

In Ida’s bedroom are photos of Guido and Matilda, and we snapped a few photos of our own, both of Ida and Odessa and also of the photos on the walls. Our visit was refreshing for all. For us, Ida is living history, a chance for us to hear from someone who lived nearby during the era of our grandparents. For Ida, most of her old friends are dead, and she welcomed the chance to talk about things with which she is familiar.

Odessa, Paul, Ida, Greg
A couple of weeks after our visit, Odessa sent me an e-mail upon her return to California, saying, “Probably one of the best parts of this stay was to meet all three of you. My sister Laura and brother Fred hope to meet you all in the future also.”

She added an intriguing promise as well: “I think I came across a picture of my grandfather’s first wife and four children. There are a few words on the back of the picture. I will go to my husband’s barber tomorrow to see if he can figure it out. When I get the time I will e-mail you.”

I hope she will send me a copy of this photo, as I would like to see how old the children are. What happened between Guido and Armida is still a mystery. If the children are no older than 4, it will validate Guido’s claim that he has not seen his wife since 1906, but if they are older, then it would offer evidence that Armida did not abandon her husband and children before Guido came to America.

Finding out what happened to Ida’s half brothers and sisters is also something I may explore this winter and spring in Italy, though my family tree to-do list is growing long and the likelihood that I can accomplish all my goals is slim. But half the fun is in the pursuit, so I am looking forward to continuing the chase.

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Footnote: One year later, I discovered the connection between the Tacoma and Gig Harbor Spadoni families. And two years later, I found information about Guidos wife and children in Italy.

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