Bravo Italiana

Some of the earliest Eastern Shore settlers, Italian immigrant
farmers, overcame obstacles to create a prosperous community for themselves.

by Adrian Hoff. Mobile Bay magazine, June 2015.



Original Unedited Text


Daphne, Alabama: its name is rooted in Greek mythology, its identity steeped in Italian culture. Immigrants with names like Luigi, Domenico, Guiseppe, Vittorio, and Salvatore were lured away from mining communities in Illinois and Michigan by the temperate climate and affordable land. They came to farm, to build wealth for their families. And they built a thriving community in the process — mostly because of one man's vision.

When Alessandro Mastro-Valerio founded the Italian Agricultural Colony of Daphne, Baldwin County, Alabama, in 1888, a well-established Anglo community stretched along the bay-front. But its heavy dependence on water transport (there was no easy land route from Mobile to the Daphne) stifled western expansion.

Francesco Manci left Michigan to join the colony in 1897, after seeing a Mastro-Valerio circular extolling its agricultural promise. "The Italian immigrants wanted farmland. He preferred the land around what is now Main Street," explains Francesco's granddaughter, Dr. Elizabeth Manci. "That was the back side of the original plantations: it was the area the previous immigrants didn't want."

Some of the newcomers settled that far west. Others bought land in and around what is now Belforest. Many of them purchased their 25-to-50-acre plots from Mastro-Valerio. But his role throughout his 14-year tenure went far beyond land-promotion. As publisher of La Tribuna Italiana, he had long used the Chicago newspaper to tout the virtues of an agrarian lifestyle — as opposed to the crowded tenements and menial mining jobs that awaited so many of his less-educated countrymen. And he meant to see that work for those he enticed from places like Coal City, IL and Iron Mountain, MI.

A 1901 Congressional Report by the Industrial Commission on Immigration includes an excerpt from Professor Guido Rossati's book, Relazione d'un viagio d'istruzione negli Stati Uniti fatto per incarico del Ministero di Agricoltura, Industria e Commercio del Regno d'ltalia. It reads in part: 

When I visited the colony as a guest of Mr. Valerio, in 1897, I was able to notice personally how he exercised with much love his agricultural apostolate among these good and laborious peasants, whom he daily educated in the sound principles of rational agriculture. There, in that shady and invigorating pine forest which our countrymen were reclaiming for agriculture, he was guiding and advising them about the planting and the care of the vineyards, while he was experimenting for the United States Department of Agriculture and the State Experiment Station of Alabama. Meanwhile the culture of sweet and Irish potatoes, wheat, corn, rice tobacco, cotton, and vegetables was going on. At the same time, he was studying the improvement of the soil by fertilizing and gave courage to the colony, which owes him its present welfare.

That Francesco Manci was only 14 years old when he got off the boat at Ellis Island didn't surprise Susan McWhirter. "The three Bertagnolli siblings were 16, 14, and 12: Constanti was 12, Angelina 14, and my great-great-grandmother, Teresa, 16," explains McWhirter. "Traveling alone, they walked from the Italian Alps, up through Austria and then through France. They worked in a match factory for a while in Austria, and when they got into France they picked fruit. After landing at Ellis Island they went to Coal City, IL, where they had relatives."

McWhirter's great-great-grandmother was the grandmother of first cousins Al Guarisco and Louis Lazzari. Al picks up the story in Coal City, where Teresa and her sister were waitresses in the family's boarding house.

"Giovanni Predazzer was a sidekick of my grandfather, Vittorio Lazzari.  One day he says that he thinks that he is going to marry Teresa. And my grandfather said, ‘No, no, Teresa's mine. You can have Angelina," Guarisco says, laughing. And that's the way it worked out.

Outsiders can lose track. Marriages amongst members of the various Italian families makes it seem that everyone in the area with an Italian surname is related in some way. Just ask Fairhope artist Ricky Trione, whose great-great-grandfather Domenico Trione was colony's first settler. 

"On my first day of school at Daphne Elementary, my 1st-grade teacher, Teresa Guarisco Lynch, kissed me in front of all of the kids. I was totally embarrassed. Then she said, ‘we're kissing cousins.' When I got home I said, ‘my teacher kissed me — what's a kissing cousin?'" His parents laughed and explained that it means they are related through marriage. "I have a lot of kissing cousins around this area," Trione continues, "Guariscos, Lazzeries, Mancis, Bertagnollis, Allegri..."

Talk to the descendants of any of the original families, and you'll hear stories of deprivation, hard labor, and eventual success.

Louis Lazzari says most families were just surviving out there in the early years. They first had to clear the heavily forested land. Stumps had to be burned and dug out by hand before food crops could be planted. They build their houses out of lumber from the trees they cut. Everyone worked.

As a child of six or seven, explains Lewis, his father Alexander helped sell excess "eggs, butter and maybe some veggies. Whatever they had. He took that horse and wagon and went to Daphne — because most everybody lived on the bay. I didn't think to ask him how much money he brought home. Would it even be a dollar?"

Even land cleared and cultivated carried no guarantees. "Francesco Manci came down here expecting conditions similar to his home in the region of Genoa, Umbria. They planted a lot of vineyards. They got a very bad freeze, the way we do about every ten years, and it just wiped them out," explains granddaughter, Elizabeth. "And so they changed their crops over to potatoes and corn and made a go of it that way."

In later years, Alexander Lazzari owned and farmed more than 500 acres. His younger brother Joe had around 700 acres. And their holdings were dwarfed by the acreage amassed by some of the other immigrant families, particularly the Cortes and Bertollas.

While nearly all of the Italians farmed, many also started businesses. "That was the Italian was of doing it. You have a big family, and you take a child as soon as he becomes 12 or so and set him up in a business. That child takes care of that business, and when the next child gets to that age you set him up in another business," explains Elizabeth Manci. "You end up with many small businesses."

A Brief History of Baldwin County by L.J Newcomb Comings and Martha M. Albers (first published in 1928) named Frank Manci as the Italian Community's greatest businessman. "To him it owes much of its early progress. In 1900, he put up a cotton gin. A year later he put up the first sawmill. The first store bore the sign, ‘Frank Manci, General Merchandise.'"

Manci also was credited with shipping the first potatoes out of the Baldwin County.

"That started off as a Manci endeavor, and it was a big deal at the time," explains Elizabeth. "But the Cortes took it up to a much higher level — on a much larger scale."

The Cortes, Bertollas and Allegris built processing facilities on the rail line at Loxley. They shipped local produce to major markets in the north and northeast.

The Immigration Commission Immigrants in Industries reports to the U.S. Senate for 1909-10 included a table entitled “Economic History and present financial condition of certain typical South Italian families, Daphne, Alabama.” It listed coal miner as previous occupation for four of the farmers. The other had been a stonemason. It noted that “None of the farms show any indebtedness, and the net value of the property now owned is in some cases several hundred percent more than the price of the [rough, uncultivated] property first bought. In total, the five farms covered 580 acres, with a total net value exceeded $13,500. A scholarly article by Professor Russell M. Magnaghi, ”Italian Farmers in Baldwin County, Alabama, 1890-1990” identifies the farm families as Trione, Berga, Marco, Lazzari, and Boni.




The Baldwin County Historical Society met in Belforest in February. Guests arrived at the (3rd) old Belforest School (now a community center) with old photos and freshly baked desserts: the gathering felt more like a family reunion.

FIRST BELFOREST SCHOOL "Our community worked together to build the one room, one door, two windows, wooden shingles on the roof, wooden schoolhouse in 1896,” explain the opening speaker, Carolyn Sirmon Courduff. “Children from the Marco, Bertagnolli, Lazzari, Burrows, Trione, Stapleton, White, and Fender families were students at this time."

2nd_BELFOREST SCHOOL Belforest’s one-room school was destroyed by the 1906 hurricane; the State replaced it with a two-story wood building called Number 54. That building served the community until 1937.  

"The pupils in the school were busy with school work: just an ordinary day. It was a cold day. Miss Jessie Mae Long, the teacher, asked the older boys to build a fire in the large circular furnace. The boys were eager to please, so they built a big fire” explained Courduff. The flue was not working properly and with the big fire it got too hot. The building was on fire. Victor and Arthur Lazzari were called guards. They had to take care of the younger children and get them to safety." The gathering erupts in laughter when she adds, "Angelo Lazzari ran back into the burning building and got all of the lunches."

"He also got all of the coats!" injects Angelo’s brother, Louis, from the audience, sparking more laughter. "And he grabbed books from every class," Courduff continues. "No one was injured."

Walter Penry noted that the school board began providing bus service in 1939, with high school students serving as school bus drivers.

"I don't guess you could do it now; you might get put in jail. But our bus driver was really good to us kids, and we stopped at the Sims Store,” Penry quipped. “Miss Liza Trione had an ice cream parlor there. And we could go in — Right Lewis?"


Miss Carrie Gregory – Belforest School’s first teacher

BERTAGNOLLI-MANCI-ALLEGRI + CHARLEY BROWN Three of the Italian community’s original immigrant couples: the Bertagnollis, Mancis, and Allegris — with Carlo Bruno. Bruno (known as Charley Brown) was a former Union soldier who had settled in the Daphne area after being wounded in the Civil War.

USDA photo – Lazzari Family dinner (supplement to info on back of picture): A USDA publication entitled This Month in Rural Alabama ran an article about the making of the photograph. It credited Mrs. Lazzari’s prolific canning as a primary reason the family was able to sit down to meals like this most every day: “For last year, Mrs. Lassari canned every known fruit and vegetable and food mixture grown on the farm. She kept canning past the 1,000-quart mark and today no member of the family can tell just how much food was canned on the Lassari farm last year.” It also mentioned that she baked 15 loaves of homemade bread every other day, in a large oven behind the house.

“I never ate a piece of store-bought bread until I was grown,” Says Louis Lazzari, before pointing at Al Guarisco and adding, “His father built it. Every Italian family I knew had one out back — and he probably built all of them.”

Manci Buildings: When the Daphne State bank was founded in 1919, Italian surnames dominated the list of founding stockholders: Corte, Trione, Manci, Allegri, Bertagnolli, Berga, Gentile, and Pose. It was housed in a Manci building (next to Manci’s Meat Market and his General Store). The next building in the photo housed Manci’s Service Station, which sold both kerosene and gasoline — and in later years became Manci’s Antique Auto Club.

Allegri Cotton Gin and Saw Mill : Francesco Manci was first to open a sawmill and a cotton gin in the Daphne area.  Manci’s operations were eclipsed by the in Allegri facilities in Belforest. Always quick to adapt, Manci sold his sawmill to Agostino Guarisco, a carpenter and maker of fine furniture. [You already have a photo of the Guarisco Sawmill].



FOUNDING FATHERS OF THE ITALIAN COLONY (list compiled by Mary Guarisco)

1888 Alessandro Mastro-Valerio — Founder
1889 Domenico Trione
1889 Cesare Castagnolli
1889 Domenico Castagnolli
1891 Cipriano Allegri
1891 Paolo Napolillo
1893 Michele Berga
1893 Modesto Joe Berga
1894 Antonio D. DeFlippi
1894 Giacomo DeFlippi
1894 Giorgio Marco
1894? Guiseppe Latini
1894? Salvatore Latini
1894 Camillo Rossi
1894 Romeo Taglibue
1896  Vittorio Lazzari
1896 Celeste Pintarelli
1897 Giacomo Rolando
1897 Luigi Boni
1897 Francesco Manci
1897 Epifanio Pilato
1898 Amgelo Corte
1898 Costante Bertagnolli
1898 Giovanni Predazzer
1902 Alessandro Bertolla
1904? Antonio Polizzi
1905  Agostino Guarisco
1909 Giuseppe Drago
1911 Giuseppe Cometti
1928 Calogero Guarisco


The coal was playing out in the Illinois mine where Celeste Pintarelli worked, and the miners were worried about layoffs. Believing that more coal lay deeper under ground, he continued digging when others refused, eventually uncovering the largest vain to have been discovered at the time. He received a substantial financial reward for his efforts. After arriving in Belforest, Pintarelli loaned his reward money to members of the Italian community on a handshake: he became known as the Banker of Belforest. He helped many people through very hard times.

Angelina, Celeste Pinterelli's wife and Theresa Lazzari were midwives for the community.


Adrian Hoff
Freelance Photographer and Writer
Mobile, AL