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A Tale of Two Petes

Image: PV Bella

Allessio was born in Sicily. He came to America as a young man settling in a postage stamp town in Southern Illinois. He worked in the coal mines. There was a large Scotsman miner, Pete Ross, who befriended him. They became known as Big Pete and Little Pete. Alessio was called Pete for the rest of his life.

Pete married an immigrant Sicilian, whose family owned the local hotel. They eventually had nine children. Pete was an entrepreneurial sort. He had a large personality. Pete could have given lessons to Dale Carnegie about making friends and influencing people.

Pete owned a home and subsistence farm. During prohibition, he made beer, wine, and cooked alcohol, selling it to the locals and shipping some to St. Louis and Chicago. He also ran a white tablecloth restaurant out of the home to provide alcohol with dinner.

There is a story about the Ku Klux Klan. It is a tale best not told. It is shrouded in the smoke and fog of truth, myth, and legend.  The Klan hated Catholics and immigrants, especially if they appeared to be prospering. Suffice it to say the Klan sued for peace with Pete.

After Prohibition, Pete moved his family to St. Louis. He opened a tavern that served food. He was known for his congeniality and compassion. He would feed those who were down on their luck.

Years later, when the neighborhood started turning Black, he only saw one color. The color of money. He served any and all who came in. When crime increased and robberies were prolific, word went out in the neighborhood. “Leave Mr. Pete alone.”

Pietro emigrated from Sicily in 1901. He came through Ellis Island. He settled in Brooklyn. He eventually made Chicago his home. He lived on the 800 block of Cambridge Street. The neighborhood was called, “Little Hell.” It was a horrid slum known for high infant mortality and murder rates. In later years the area would once again become known for violence. The name was changed to Cabrini-Green.

Pietro became a butcher. He started to prosper and opened his own butcher shop at 1823 W. North Avenue. He owned the building. His family lived upstairs. He too helped those in need. He extended credit to those who were short of money but needed to feed their families.

Like Pete, Pietro cooked alcohol, made wine and beer during Prohibition.

During the late 1930’s Pietro developed cancer. Doctors said treatment and surgery would only give him a 50-50 chance of survival. Pietro decided to return to Sicily to see his family one last time.

In 1939, war broke out in Europe. Pietro was refused entry back to the United States, as an undesirable alien. After his family spent months corresponding with the authorities, they received confirmation that Pietro would be notified he could return. Unfortunately, he died two weeks prior to that. He is buried in Sicily.

This tale of two Pete’s could relate to anyone during the early part of the 20th Century. It could be a tale of two Stosh’s, Moishe’s, Clancy’s, or Spiro’s. It could be the tale of Mexicans, Chinese, South Asians, or Southern Blacks, who came to Chicago during the Great Migration.

It is a tale of people who started with nothing, built a life, and owned a small share of the American Dream. They were not rich or even what we consider middle class. More important, they were not poor.

They lived through turbulent times. They were discriminated against. They were hated. They were the other. They came through the Great Depression. In spite of all that, they prospered.

The two Pete’s sons went off to fight for something called freedom during World War II. Their daughters married. The sons and daughters worked hard, raised their families, and had their slice of the American dream.

The American Dream meant one thing to the native-born, the immigrant, and the Blacks from the Great Migration. It was providing for yourself and your family. It meant having a small slice of prosperity. A roof over your head, food on the table, and clothing on your back. It was a steady job or small business.

These people did not ask for much. They were content with the basics of life. Life was simple to them. Work defined what and who you were. People were as proud to be a butcher, laborer, or saloon keeper as a doctor or lawyer.

The American Dream is not a collective ideal. It is individual. It means something different to each and every one of us. There is no one dream, one set of American values, one size fits all.

For some, the dream is nothing more than a job or a paycheck. For others, it is pie in the sky topped with ice cream and a gilded cherry on top.

The two Pete’s were free men. Freedom was a simple concept. Being able to be what they wanted and having the ability to provide for their families. Others like them were no different.

The two Pete’s were my grandfathers. Men I never knew. Because of them, and their lessons passed down from my parents, I am living my version of the American Dream.

The greatest lesson I learned from my parents, they learned from theirs, the two Pete’s. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated. Yeah, life and living together in society is just that simple.

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