From Italy to Herrin: Here to work the mines
Dig very far into the story of immigration into Southern Illinois more than a century ago and a couple of common veins come to the surface: coal mining and the arrival of Italian nationals in Herrin.
"Herrin is relatively one of the younger towns in Southern Illinois, incorporated in 1900," local historian Gordon Pruett told the gathering a historical society visiting the community recently. "And it largely owes its early settlement to the discovery of coal in the immediate area in the later part of the 19th century."
It word of these rich coal deposits and the need for men to mine them that brought immigrants from Northern Italy to the area.
"Life was tough in the Lombard area of Italy around Milan," he said. "Many of the Italians were tenant farmers and they had a very tough existence. Somehow, somewhere there was a connection that the mines in Southern Illinois were hiring so many came to Herrin via St. Louis. That immigration continued for the first decade of the 20th century."
Pruett says that according to 1910 census data, of Herrin's 6,861 residents, 16 percent were Italian.
"Herrin was something of a melting pot. There were settlers here from not only Italy, but also England, Scotland, Germany, Wales, Belgium and many other nations," he said.
Herrin librarian Linda Banks said that during the heyday of mining in the area, a person could stand in the city and hear the whistles from 27 mines every morning.
"I remember my father telling me that man of the workers didn't have any transportation, so they walked and there would be paths from town to all of the mines," she said.
With the immigrants came cultural influences and establishments like the Lombard Society Store which opened in Herrin in 1903.
"The store was essentially a social club that became an outlet for the needs of the Italians," Pruett explained. "It persevered through World War II, selling things like Italian pastas, cheeses and dry goods. It was not uncommon to hear Italian being spoken there."
"They brought with them a lot of good things for Herrin like bakeries and businesses," Banks added.
The immigrants also brought a sense of community, Pruett said.
"In 1906 a Herrin newspaper wrote of a benefit being held for a sick man. There was a dance at the local club, the Christoforo Colombo Circolo Club, and they raised more than $5,000 in today's money; it was all from ‘fellow brother coal diggers'," he said.
It was an example of the level of charity and a spirit of generosity that Banks says continues in the community today.
"Even though mining is much smaller here now, many of the descendents of those immigrants and the culture they brought remains," Banks said. "Mining and the Italian immigrants are a very definite part of the history of Herrin and it's still going on. They both are very much here and they are certainly intertwined."
For more information on the Italian History of Herrin, IL, please visit TheSouthern.com.