Santo Rocca and Rosanne Anselmo share their history. Phil Mclachlan/The Free Press

Sparwood’s Italian history honoured

Celebration of Italian heritage raises funds for Sparwood Historical Society

Stories and tales from the past united nearly 100 individuals who reminisced on what life was like for the Italian community in Michel and Natal.

Italian flags decorated each table, and the smell of perfectly cooked lasagne filled the room. One by one individuals got up to speak, and shared their experiences growing up in a town that no longer exists.

Many are only the second generation of their family line to live in Canada. Many of the now-60 year olds still remember settling in Michel-Natal back in the late-1950s. Italians were one of many ethnicities to settle in the area, including Hungarians, English, Polish, German, Ukranian, Portuguese, and more.

The evening of celebration served as a fundraiser for the Sparwood Historical Society, and also as a way for history to be preserved. The town of Michel-Natal existed from 1903 to the mid-1980s, at which time the final house was taken down. Located just east of where Sparwood is now, Michel-Natal was once a thriving mining community. When the demand for coal dropped, so did Michel-Natal’s population.

During this time as people were starting to leave their homes they would mark them with either an “X” or and “O”. An “X” meant they had left and it could be torn down. An “O” meant there were still people living there.

“History is really important,” said Rosa Rocca. “People should take more interest in it, because they will appreciate what they have now, more.

“People don’t realize – they think everyone speaks their language.”

Rosa’s mother settled in the area as a young, motivated Italian woman. Life wasn’t especially easy for the Italian communities settling in the area. Many had to overcome obstacles including the language barrier.

Rosa remembers her mother trying to purchase matches at the corner store. They were priced as two boxes for five cents. The shop owner said ‘okay you want two for nickel’ and Rosa’s mother insisted, no, she wanted two for five cents.

“She thought she was being taken advantage of,” recalled Rosa. “She didn’t know the language, yet she became a businesswoman. She owned her own restaurant. For a women who didn’t know that five cents and a nickel were the same thing, to a businesswoman, look at all the obstacles she had to [overcome].”

Rosanne Anselmo explained that back then, Italians were considered refugees. She also spoke about life growing up, about theatrical plays in Natal, and funny childhood memories she had made with many who were still in the room.

Rosa’s husband Santo shared his story.

He remembered when the town whistle would blow; this meant the men would go to work. Work was inconsistent, and depended on the order of coal that came in. He also remembered the dust being so bad, and recalled a scene. A woman was walking to the church to be married, wearing her white wedding dress. Before she reached the church she was black with coal dust.

Santo remembered the Balmer North explosion of 1967, and how the deaths of those 15 miners changed everything. Anselmo remembered as well.

“I was 12-years-old when that mine exploded,” she said. “I was playing outside in the yard for some reason. I remember saying ‘oh my God, it’s raining wood.’ I could feel the warmth,” said Anselmo.

Looking at her husband, Rosa shared, “I think of his mom and dad coming, and his dad having to go into the mines, and making him swear he would never go into the mines.”

Heeding the warning, Santo worked with Columbia Natural Gas and was the first to turn on the natural gas line which brought power to Elkford.

Santo and Rosa explained that now, the ease of communication with others in the community is so different than what it used to be. They also believe we live in a throwaway society; not building things to last, which results in an increase in waste.

In 1913, on her 10th birthday, Monica Beranek’s grandmother came with her family to Michel to work. Generations later, Beranek remains in the valley, and serves as Director/Curator of the Sparwood Museum.

In May 2017 the Museum moved to a new location beside the Chamber of Commerce. This has become a safe haven for Michel-Natal history. Despite this, the museum is full, and has no more room to store artifacts.

In addition they continue to struggle with funding, which is one of the reasons they hosted the Italian Dinner, in partnership with new-found historical society president and manager of the Causeway Bay Hotel, Joanne Wilton. The group also received a grant from Columbia Basin Trust to help fund the evening.

“It’s not a big enough building, we’ve got lots in storage,” Beranek said.

Despite moving several times, the group has focused on keeping artifacts that tell stories.

The Italian Night was hosted as one of several upcoming events by the Museum. More events are coming in the near future. The Museum will be open mid-May, through to the end of October.

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Rosana Anselmo. Phil Mclachlan/The Free Press

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