Italian Americans of Raritan Lifted Themselves up Through Work, Family, and Each Other
By Bruce Doorly
Today when one sees Italian Americans as productive members of the middle class it may be easy to forget the struggle that they had when they first immigrated to America.

The history in the town of Raritan offers a good example of this. As over a century ago Italians moved to Raritan in large numbers directly from Italy .
In the mid 1800s Italy underwent a unification of the North and South regions that led to massive poverty. This was especially true in the southern region. What little money that could be earned was subject to massive tax rates.

Many of these poor Italians were desperately searching for a better life. Stories of opportunities available in the United States caught their attention. Starting 1870 millions of Italians said goodbye to their home country and came to America.
Often it was the father and perhaps the oldest son who would first come here leaving the others behind.

Many had planned to live in the United States for just a few years to earn some money and then return to Italy.

About half of the Italians who did come here did eventually go back to Italy.

But the other half would stay, bringing the rest of their family over if they were not already here.
Terigio, Marie, and Jules Minetti
of Raritan in 1914
The lore of America was the real and perceived possibility of work. Factory jobs that any unskilled laborer could do were available. In Raritan, many of these jobs could be found at The Raritan Woolen Mills which had two large factory buildings.

Later Johns Manville, which was just a few miles away, offered employment to hundreds. While Italians could find work, a life of leisure living the American Dream it was not - at least initially. They worked long hours, often in poor conditions.
Times were tough. But by settling in communities with many other Italian Immigrants, as they did in Raritan, they had each other.

The Italian Americans had strong ties to their community, the Catholic Church, and most certainly family.
Over the years four Italian Mutual Aid Societies would be formed in Raritan to help the Italians. They would function as both an aid place and as a social club. The various clubs were designated by the region of Italy to which the people came from.

The Star of Italy was for Italians from the Naples and Benevento area . The St. Rocco Mutual Aid Society was for Italians from the Leonia area. The La Fratellanza (The Brotherhood) Society was for Italians from Northern Italy. Lastly the Marchigianni (People from Marche) was for those from the area southeast of Rome. The aid societies helped Italians to learn the English language, understanding the customs, and even at times provide financial aid to those that really needed it.
Raritan Italians at a picnic early 1900s
The Italians brought over from Italy many traditions. Their most significant was the annual celebration of St. Rocco. By 1896 the Italian population in Raritan, which had been increasing in numbers yearly, decided it was time to start having their celebration right here in their new country.

This event helped to integrate the Italians with the rest of the surrounding community. For the format of the St. Rocco Celebration was that after a mass and a procession through the streets of the statue of St. Rocco, there were then several days of a carnival like atmosphere with music, food, and fireworks. Everyone, Italians and non-Italians, were invited. And most everyone gladly attended.
The Italians of Raritan, mostly Catholics, had initially been members of St. Bernard Church on Somerset Street in Raritan.

In 1903, they decided that they wanted to form their own church. St. Bernard gladly helped them along and the Church of St. Anns of Raritan was formed. Many masses could now be said in Italian. After having church services in a vacant storefront building for three years, in 1906, the Italians of the Church of St. Anns built their own church building on Anderson Street.
As the years went by the Italians slowly began to improve their financial and social status.

Many started businesses in town such as bakeries, grocery stores, and taverns.
Minetti Store in Raritan 1912
They also started to take a role in local government.

The first step was for them to become members of the fire department which was as much a social club as a fire fighting unit.

Then starting the 1930s the Italians would obtain elected positions in local government. Like any town the established politicians fought hard to keep power away from the new group, but the Italians were now the majority and elected their own. They would do good in their government positions.
The Italians of Raritan encouraged good behavior within their community. The adults especially kept a keen watch on the kids.

Anthony Lettieri of Raritan recalled that as a youngster in the late 1930s he was once caught skipping school. In the following days so many adults lectured him warning him that such behavior would result in him becoming a delinquent. Thus he never dared cut school again.

Even decades later this monitoring was still prevalent. Don Esposito remembers that while kids played on their own in the late 1950s it was hard to get away with doing anything bad in Raritan. He remembers that one time he crossed over the railroad tracks at a location that he and others kids were forbidden to cross at. When arriving home just minutes later, he found that he was in trouble as an observant neighbor had already phoned his parents.
Raritan kids knew that
neighbors were watching
In World War II the Italian Americans proved their allegiance to this country. Their home country Italy, while a reluctant ally of Germany, was on the other side in this war. Yet hundreds in Raritan served gladly and gallantly in the military.

Many would lose their lives. The World War II record for Raritan, both for the Italians and non-Italians, was impressive and has been deservingly well documented.
World War II would give a couple of Italian Raritan guys a chance to meet family members in Italy that they had never met. Toward the end of the war, Italy had been neutralized.

Both Dominick Menci and Frank Esola were able to get leave from the army and travel to remote villages in Italy to meet long lost relatives. Both were welcomed like heroes.
Dominick Menci meets Grandma
click for story
Throughout the century Italian Americans in Raritan and elsewhere have prospered. Their dedication to work, country, family, and church has paid off and by 1970 the average income of Italian Americans was the same as other Americans.

Wikipedia states that a study of fifteen ethnic groups showed that Italian Americans were among those groups having the lowest percentages of divorce, unemployment, people on welfare and those incarcerated. They had the highest percentages of two-parent families and families who eat together on a regular basis.