The Italian Gardener
John J. Caprarulo
My father came to this country in 1901. He got a job on the Erie Railroad as a track laborer. When he had saved enough money he sent for his childhood sweetheart and they were married in Addison, New York. Eventually he ended up in the Erie Shops in Hornell and became a boilermaker. He bought a house on Swan Street in what was then known as Little Italy.
Like Martin Luther King, my dad had a dream. In Italy, he had lived in a small village in the southern part of the country. He and his widowed mother lived in a stone house which tradition said was built in the time of Christ. Each villager owned about one acre of land just outside the village. Their survival depended upon how well they tended their gardens. Their only income was from the sale of olives and figs. This usually went for taxes and the necessities that they couldn't grow.
Each year at harvest time the young men of the village would walk forty miles to the Puglia (Italy's wheat lands) to harvest the wheat. They were paid one lire (about 18 cents), one fried egg and bread for each day that they worked. After the harvest they trekked back home with the only money they would earn until next harvest. Now, in this new land, my father dreamed of having his own little truck farm.
In 1919, Martin Tuttle, a partner in the Tuttle & Rockwell department store, sold my dad a two acre plot off of Henry Street, just outside the city limits of Hornell. On it was a large barn and four sheds which had been used for fattening animals for market. My father tore down the farm buildings and used the lumber to have a house built on the property. He sold the house on Swan Street and our family moved into our new home.
Now, with virgin soil and lots of manure available, he could begin to plant his garden. He didn't own a plow, but every spring a farmer from Tobes Hill would come down to plow and drag all the gardens in Little Italy. In later years, Hornell's then Chief of Police, Carl Roosa, would plow all the gardens each spring with his small tractor. After the initial plowing, all of the other work was done with hand tools, I still use my mother's favorite hoe. It must be 60 years old and I have never seen a more practical tool.
My dad planted every foot of that land. In any spot that appeared not plantable he put a fruit tree. He also planted a long row of Concord grapes. Along the adjoining creekbed he planted peach trees from pits. They grew surprisingly well, and although the peaches were small, they were delicious.
Our family (there were nine children—3 boys and 6 girls) practically lived off of that garden. Dad grew all the usual vegetables. He purchased a Jersey cow for milk and a few chickens for eggs. He raised two pigs every year and in late fall one of our neighbors, George Bobonick, would come over and butcher them for us. Dad would sell one and have one left for our own use. For a while at least, we lived high on the hog.
Tomatoes were his main crop. He raised his own tomato and pepper plants from seed carefully saved by my mother from previous seasons. The pepper seeds were originally brought over from Italy. They were essentially a frying pepper and bore tremendous crops. Besides regular tomatoes, he planted large amounts of Italian tomatoes. The seeds had been brought over from Rome by my brother-in-law, Dominic Datini, who lived in Detroit. They were a Roma type tomato, but much larger, with solid meat and few seeds. All of our Italian neighbors grew them and they became known around here as "Don's tomatoes." My sister Helen still has the seeds and a dear friend of hers, Mrs. Ruth Laurence, still grows them in her garden. Dad also planted a lot of garlic which he sold to the Sunset Inn and the Big Elms restaurants.
During the summer months, my mother and sisters canned all kinds of vegetables. When August came around they canned enough tomatoes to last all year. Mother made jar after jar of tomato paste. She made regular paste and the hard paste which was baked in the oven until almost brown, packed in jars, and lightly covered with olive oil. This was the most epicurean tomato paste of all and was in much demand. My mother also dried strings of hot and sweet peppers which were used for seasoning during the winter months. She dried basil, parsley and a weed which grew freely in our garden. The Italians called it Malva. When we had a cold mother made a tea from the dried leaves and when we had a stomach ache, she boiled the dried roots and we had to drink it.
My father never used any pesticide. His theory was that insects only attacked weak plants, and that if you kept the soil rich by using lots of manure, you would have strong plants that could resist disease and insects. (shades of Organic Gardening!) He never used commercial fertilizers either. He did make what he called chicken manure tea, letting manure soak in a barrel of water. He used this as a booster shot during the summer. He didn't care much for wheel cultivators. He claimed he could get closer to the plants with a hoe. My parents spent many happy hours hoeing and weeding. To them it didn't seem like work, just a reliving of their youth in Italy. I used to marvel how my 60-year-old grandmother could carry huge amounts of vegetables on top of her head in perfect balance.
Perhaps my father's greatest achievement as a gardener was that he had cultivated and nurtured a love of the soil in his children. Without realizing, he had passed on to us a precious heritage which would bring much happiness in our lives.
Thanks to my son-in-law, at 81 I still have a garden. He insisted it was not only good exercise but also good therapy, and you know—I think he's right.
© 1987, John J. Caprarulo