The journey of a woodcarver
And Memories of a Father
Timing, as they say, is everything, but they are wrong. If timing were everything, Nicola Turilli and his family would have been totally discouraged and would have moved back to Italy in the early 1930s, when it looked like the market crash of 1929 was hardening into the Great Depression.
“I was about 6 months old when my father left for America,” recalls longtime Warwick resident Dewey Turilli. “He sent for the rest of us in 1929 and I was around 6. He had a job in Schenectady, New York, and he thought he could afford to bring us over. He was working as a wood carver and repairing furniture for a local store. But then the Depression came and he lost his job and things got pretty hard for us.”
The family had to move, as the money ran out and the young immigrant family had a hard time keeping food on the table.
“He still had a little shop and was doing furniture repair when he could get the work, but there just wasn’t much work available. We were on ‘relief,’ which is what they called it [welfare] in those days. Every week the city would give us a box of food and stuff,” recalled Dewey, which is a nickname derived from Duilio.
“Me and my friends were not shy about taking a piece of fruit when the opportunity arose,” said Dewey, with a smile. “There was this kid we knew whose family had a bunch of cherry trees. We used to sneak in his yard and steal the cherries. They were delicious. One day that kid came along and we gave him some of his own cherries. He said, ‘These are good cherries, but they’re not as good as the ones we have.’ We didn’t bother to tell him where we got the cherries.”
Fortunately for Dewey, being American came naturally, but he was also aided by the many Italian-Americans who settled in Schenectady. By 1929, it was mostly assimilated. When you think of destinations for Italians looking to make a better life in America, Providence, Boston and New York come to mind, but there were a number of smaller cities that were magnets for Italians that came from certain regions of the old country and Schenectady was one of them. “Electric City Immigrants,” a dissertation for a doctorate in Social and Behavioral Science by Robert R. Pascucci (1984), outlines its history.
“Italian immigration to Schenectady, by contrast, was a 20th century phenomenon … By 1920, Italians had become the most numerous immigrant contingent in the city … Between 1920 and 1930 … attained its greatest number of foreign born (5,910) … Particularly visible among the immigrants in Schenectady, Italians comprised 29.3 percent of all those born abroad … in 1930, the federal census numbered, including native-born children, 14,233 Italians.”
Pascucci also outlined the bigotry that immigrant families had to overcome in the early part of the century, especially when looking for a permanent home in new developments.
For example, in 1905, “the purchaser was restricted from selling to Italians or Poles, but only until Oct. 10, 1913, which would still give Felthousen ample time to sell his remaining lots.”
A real estate ad offered a free trolley ride to inspect a new tract of building lots: “‘For Americans’ only … If any doubts were still to remain, the realtor advised, in conclusion, that ‘no lots will be sold to colored people or undesirable foreigners.’”
Newspapers have since been barred from running such ads, but Pascucci does hint at the “anything goes” editorial attitude of those days with an ad for the “Grand Rapids Furniture Store on Albany Street that announced shortly after the tragedy at sea:
‘The Lusitania has gone down and so have our prices.’”
It makes you wonder if that was the same furniture company Nick Turilli worked for.
But Dewey Turilli, like kids everywhere, took advantage of any resources open to him. He smiles when he talks about carefree summers in a city still small enough for comfort.
“We used to love to go to the Union College campus,” he said. “It was a beautiful place.”
But the economic landscape wasn’t improving and when Dewey’s family moved to Providence when his father got a job, Dewey found himself working as an apprentice printer. His father continued to find work repairing furniture and carving, eventually getting a reputation for quality that led to work restoring homes in Newport.
World War II came along and swept up the young Duilio and the beaches and jungles of Iwo Jima turned Dewey into a hardened veteran with dreadful memories of one of the costliest battles in the Pacific.
He came home to enter into business with his family and he and his father made a name for themselves by converting old upright pianos into modern spinets.
“I wish I could find one of our before and after ads from the Providence Journal,” said Dewey. “We would use the original wood and rework it into something more modern. Our name was well known. My father made a desk for LBJ and did carving for a Greek church in Providence.”
By 1958, Nicholas Turilli could afford to carve a cross to donate to his church in San Giovanni Lipioni. Nicholas’ reputation was such that the Providence Journal did a feature story about his donation. Like many immigrants, Nicola never forgot his hometown and meant to go back there some time. Unfortunately, he passed away before he had a chance to do that. Dewey and his family knew that the cross carving was much appreciated by the people of San Giovanni, but he and his wife Tina were very surprised to be greeted by a parade of people when they visited in 1975. The piazza was packed with people.
“They surrounded our car,” recalled Tina. “It was almost scary. One woman poked her head into the car and asked me if I was Italian and I wondered, ‘What if I told her no? Would she refuse to let me out of the car?’”
Of course, Tina was Italian and her family came from the same region of Italy as Dewey’s. They were treated like royalty and learned the crucifix that Nicola sent the village in 1958 had found a position of pride in the local church, a place that would have pleased Nicholas.
“People really loved him,” said Tina.
“He was very religious.”