Italian emigration to one Rhode Island town

Westerly image
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Growing up in Westerly, Rhode Island, a town in which more than 30% of residents identify as having Italian ancestry, I was always surrounded by Italian culture.[1] To this day, many people from other towns are surprised to hear that my high school offered Italian language courses, a fairly uncommon option. Even fewer had heard of Soupy, the nickname for soppressata, the cured meat which originated in Calabria that hangs in the basements and attics of Westerly residents during certain times of the year. (The meat curing process requires outdoor temperatures of 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.)[2]

My heritage has always been a point of pride in my family. My great-grandmother was a proud member of local clubs including the Italo-American Auxiliary Club and the Daughters of Italy. While I always knew of my Italian roots, only recently have I discovered more about the community where my family originated.

Westerly has long been a town which prides itself on its heritage, with many of its prominent citizens descending from immigrant ancestors who settled in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the major reasons that Westerly became a destination for immigrant workers was its rich deposits of granite, which were quarried by various companies, an enterprise requiring thousands of workers.

Granite extracted from Westerly’s quarries was used for monuments across the country, including 69 monuments at Gettysburg and 14 monuments at Antietam.[3] One company, the Smith Granite Company, is responsible for 3,754 monuments in 32 states across America.[4] While other immigrant groups contributed to Westerly’s granite industry, including the Irish in the 1850s, the Scottish in the 1870s, and the Finns in the 1890s, no group has had a more significant impact on the community than the Italian immigrants.[5]

The town of Acri, Calabria, was the point of origin…

The town of Acri, Calabria, was the point of origin for many Westerly immigrants who arrived during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[6] While many immigrants came from other locations throughout Italy, Acri is the most prevalent town of origin. A town of just over 21,000 residents in the heart of Calabria,[7] Acri is surrounded by three hills (which appear on the town’s coat of arms), and it is renowned for its picturesque landscape and beautiful churches.

The connections between Acri and Westerly run deep, as the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the parish attended by many Italian immigrants and their descendants in Westerly, maintains an exact replica of the likeness of Beato Angelo d’Acri, a famed saint from the Italian town.[8] The church also holds annual trips to Acri, allowing many residents to return to see family and friends from their former homeland.

While conducting research regarding my own ancestors who came from Acri, I found that many of my ancestors shared surnames with Westerly residents with whom I grew up and have come to know throughout my life. I learned rather quickly that heritage in Acri was shared among many of my friends. Amazingly, a town nearly 4,500 miles from where I was born was not only the home of my ancestors, but also of the ancestors of so many other friends and family members, showing me how widespread the migration from one town in Italy to another across the Atlantic Ocean truly was. While I have not yet been able to visit Acri, I hope to be able to do so in the very near future, as I have a strong desire to venture to the home of my ancestors and to see the world as they saw it.

Notes

1 United States Census Bureau, 2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Westerly, Washington, Rhode Island.

2 Doug Norris, “In Westerly’s Villages, Family Tradition Keeps the Art of Soupy Alive,” The Independent, 29 December 2011.

3 Westerly Granite at Antietam, Babcock Smith House pamphlet (2011); Westerly Granite at Gettysburg, Babcock Smith House pamphlet (2011).

4 The Granite Connection, Babcock Smith House pamphlet (2011).

5 Ibid.

6 Rob Liguori, “Soupy’s On,” Rhode Island Monthly, December 2007.

7 Population.City, Acri, Calabria, Italy, 2014.

8 Biography of Beato Angelo, Church of the Immaculate Conception, Westerly, Rhode Island, http://immcon.org/beato-angelo.

About Zachary Garceau

Zack Garceau is a Researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Masters Degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a BA in history from the University of Rhode Island. He specializes in French-Canadian Genealogy and Sports History.

6 thoughts on “Italian emigration to one Rhode Island town

  1. I lived in Rhode Island my entire life and never knew about the high Italian concentration in Westerly. I always thought of Westerly as a Yankee town, as compared to Pawtucket, where my French Canadian ancestors settled and Providence where my husband’s Italian ancestors lived. Very interesting. Janine Guimont Cotugno

  2. Zack,

    Yes! Be sure to visit Acri! I visited the towns of my Great Grandparents, Torre Canavese in Torino and Sporminore in Trentino-Alto Adige, in 2014. It was thrilling and we met cousins who still live there. So, definitely go there!

    Wendy Negley

  3. Yes Zachary! Go! I researched my paternal Italian ancestors and found the number of the house where my grandfather (born 1881) and his siblings and cousins were born. We are from the region of Emilia -Romagna, Province of Piacenza.
    I was able to figure out where the house was from my research of Italian vital records, and in 2004 our family went there and we found the house! Turned out in the late 1700s, the mother of Giuseppe Verdi, the composer, had grown up there and the town had placed a marble plaque on the house. The present owner recognized our family name as his father had bought it from my grandfather’s uncle. It is a very large house and in the 1800s was an inn and tavern and wine-making concern. The wine was even imported to Massachusetts. There is still the overhang and metal posts where guests tied their horses at night. My great-grandfather and family lived on one side of the house and his brother and family on the other.
    I had also found where my grandfather’s father was born, in another town. My great-grandfather’s father was an innkeeper and a carpenter and the building where they lived is still there and is a restaurant and pizzeria. It was once also an inn. These houses were built in the 1700s of stone covered with stucco and are in very good condition.
    Piacenza is near Parma where Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and prosciutto are made and many other delicious foods we sampled while staying at a rental villa there.
    I had the strangest feeling that I belonged there and actually began to think of moving there. I spoke to an Italian lawyer who said many who visit their ancestral homes feel this way.

  4. I grew up in Westerly so it was great to read your article. We have had the good fortune to visit Sicily a few times and, both being islandomaniacs, fell in love with that siren island. We have explored very little of Calabria as we were on on way to Sicily. With the grace of God, we hope to rectify that soon. I just returned from a family reunion in town and Stephanie Cardin Chiaradio (along with my friend Tom Marchisa who hails from Willimantic CT) was kind enough to shed some light on my mother’s side of my family tree. Westerly’s demographics are somewhat deceiving. Although there is the Washington Trust, the country’s oldest trust, and the English families, the Crandall’s, Perry’s and Babcock’s et al, the ancestral makeup is 34% Italian, 18% Irish and 14% English. It was the Italians and Irish who literally built Westerly. The English were the landowners and thus the street names, the monuments and buildings bear their names. So you can see, Janine, how people would perceive Westerly as being predominately Yankee.

  5. I received the Dante prize along with my brother for the highest average in Italian at WHS graduation in 1952. I used to write letters in Italian to my Godmother’s relatives in Acri.

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