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Your 1940s Stories

Can you believe it’s almost here! No longer are we talking about the release of the 1940 census in terms of weeks or months—it’s only days away! As we sit here watching the clock and counting down, we thought it would be fun to get us in the mood with some of the stories you’ve sent us for our 1940s time capsule. (If you’d like to share your story, see the details at the end of this post.)

We received the following story from Angelo F. Coniglio:

When my parents Gaetano Coniglio and Rosa Alessi moved to Buffalo in 1921, they had four sons in tow: Gaetano (Guy Jr.), born in their home town of Serradifalco, Sicily; and Leonardo (Leonard), Felice (Phil), and Raimondo (Ray), born in Robertsdale, Pennsylvania.

The family lived briefly in ‘the Hooks’ in Buffalo, in a tenement at 18 Peacock Street, where their first girl, Carmela (Millie) was born. They didn’t stay long in the Canal District, but in 1924 moved to a rented flat at 309 Myrtle Avenue on the East Side, across from the La Stella bleach factory. My sisters, the twins Concetta (Connie) and Maria (Mary) were born there, as was my brother Antonio (Tony). I came along in 1936, the only one to be born in a hospital, while our nation was in the midst of the Great Depression.

My father found work as a caretaker at Welcome Hall, the community center at Myrtle and Cedar, and as a bartender at the Magistrale family’s saloon, Marconi’s, but the pay was slim, and to augment the family’s income, in summers of the late 1930s and early 1940s the whole family would be loaded on a truck with other poor immigrant families, and be taken to Musacchio’s farm, on Route 62, just outside the town of North Collins, New York.

There, we lived in a one-room “shack” with cooking and sleeping areas separated by sheets hung over wires spanning the room. We got our water in buckets from the community pump, and used a smelly outhouse (baccausu, pidgen-English for “back house”) when we could “hold it” no longer.

We picked string beans, strawberries, and red and purple raspberries, depending on which crop was ripe. Before I was born, my eight siblings, mother and father worked the fields, and were paid one to three cents for each quart of berries picked. The kids picked about a hundred quarts a day, and my mother about a hundred-fifty, and my father, who came by Greyhound bus on weekends, also picked about a hundred-fifty a day. So on a good day, the family might earn about ten to thirty dollars!

The number of Coniglio kids at the farm camp varied, as some would stay back for school or other reasons. For example, my brother Leonard ran away with the circus in 1930, depleting the ‘crew’ until he returned the following year; and in 1936, the family was a pair of hands short, as my brother Guy had married the year before and remained in Buffalo to work at a glass factory.

Another mouth to feed came along in 1936, when I was born. As the youngest, I think I ate more berries than I picked, but some of my earliest memories are of “the farm” and the other families that I got to know there: the Sciortinos from Efner Street and the Pepes from Myrtle Avenue.

 

Phil’s friend Alphonse ‘Foonzi’ Pepe remembers that my father Gaetano loved to watch the camp’s sandlot baseball games, in which Phil usually starred. We also met and were befriended by families from North Collins; the Fricanos, Elardos, Manuels, De Carlos, and especially the Volos, who also originated in Serradifalco. My sister Millie met and fell in love with Al Volo during our summers there, and they eventually married and settled in North Collins. 

My father is shown in this photo standing by the community water-well pump of Musacchio’s farm camp. I recently learned from Sam and Ross Markello (Marchello) of North Collins that he was assigned the responsibility of removing the pump handle each day at sunset and replacing it the next day before sunrise, to prevent unauthorized use of water by the resident laborers. Because of this assignment, he was called “Marshu Tanu” (Master Gaetano).

After years of scrimping and saving from our three-cents-a-quart labors, Gaetano was able to buy the first home the family ever owned in 1944. It was at 973 West Avenue, a few blocks from Bluebird’s Bakery, and right next door to the family of Calogero Butera and Grazia Asarese, fellow immigrants from Serradifalco.

Sadly, our joy at being in our own home was cut short on July 4, 1944, when my father was struck and killed by a hit and run driver on the corner of West Ferry and Niagara. But by buying that house on West Avenue, Gaetano had provided for his family, and through his work ethic, frugality and passion to save, he had given us all a valuable example that we have tried to emulate throughout our lives.

You can view my famly tree here.

If you’d like to share your your photos, memories and stories about 1940 (give or take 10 years), send them to 1940stories@ancestry.com. We’ll add them to our time capsule — and invite everyone to share in this amazing era from the past.

Include your name, email address, plus a photo and story details (names of people, location, year, etc.). Note that by submitting a photo or story, you grant Ancestry.com Operations Inc. permission to use, distribute, edit or republish your User Provided Content on our website as part of the time capsule. If we select yours for publication, you’ll be credited as the submitter, so be certain that any living persons mentioned or pictured provide their consent for publication, too.