The vanishing Italian enclave isn't really a place anymore. It's more of a memory. But even as new development threatens what's left, some of the neighborhood's longtime denizens are holding on to their unique traditions and way of life.
Invoking “The Godfather” in a story about Italians is perilous, but Joe Castorano has a beef with the cinematic trilogy. Like the patriarch of the Corleone crime family, Castorano’s grandfather was a young Italian immigrant who came to the U.S. through Ellis Island, and Castorano traveled to the historic site in New York Harbor to research his family’s history. “That scene, the one at Ellis Island? That’s not how it worked,” Castorano says, referring to poor Vito Andolini’s failure to say his name and hence receiving the name of his hometown, Corleone. Immigration officials, says Castorano, “used the names that came directly from the boat registry. Ellis Island didn’t change the names. They changed their own names after they got here.”
Indeed, Tomaso Castorano became Thomas, who arrived in New York in 1902. He wasn’t part of a huddled mass of wretched refuse exactly, but he was certainly poor. He probably did yearn to breathe free, but that was less of a priority than making a living. Blasting huge limestone cliffs into rocks with primitive tools for a few cents an hour, thousands of miles from home? The American Dream.
Italians had of course already made their way into Ohio, but immigrants didn’t arrive in Columbus in numbers until the late 19th century. So how does an illiterate teenager who can’t speak English find his way from, say, the village of Pettorano sul Gizio to the banks of the Scioto River? Meet Ezio Cherubini, a businessman and steamship agent who, around the turn of the 20th century, would meet the Cunard ship from Naples in New York, vouching to the authorities that these sturdy young men would have gainful employment. Then Cherubini ensured their passage to Columbus, where countryman Sylvio Casparis would put them to work at his quarry on the Scioto west of Downtown.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
By 1902, according to the book “Columbus Italians,” there were about 1,200 Italians here, many under Cherubini’s patronage. Of that group, hundreds worked at the Marble Cliff Quarry (as it was called—there was no marble) and of that group came a dozen or so families who put down roots in property along nearby Trabue Road. They created a vibrant little neighborhood that was an echo of the old country.
These days, San Margherita is on the map, but it’s not really there. A road sign at the end of the I-70 Hague Avenue exit points to San Margherita. Following that arrow will lead you to an intersection where you can buy used tires at a grungy old gas station or porn from an adult bookstore—or you might drop in the Private Dancer showbar. It wasn’t like this 30 or 40 years ago, and it definitely won’t look like this in the future.
If you think this makes Joe Castorano sad, you’re wrong. He’s the last man standing, the last descendant of one of the original families of San Margherita still living in the family home. And he can’t wait to get out. Development money is flowing and will continue to flow into the area, and Castorano is sitting on a nice piece of property on Trabue just down the street from a huge new apartment complex. The last few decades have seen San Margherita start to shrivel and die. His dad, who worked the quarry for 45 years and was known as the Mayor of San Margherita, passed away, and there’s just not much to keep his son in the neighborhood. Castorano says he’s happy for a developer to “bail me out of here.”
You have to look hard to find what’s left of San Margherita. Even in its vibrant years—let’s say between the ’20s and the ’70s—it was no more than a core of 25 or 30 houses clustered along Trabue Road between Hague and McKinley avenues, along with a few markets and restaurants and a church, but it was like a slice of Italy transposed to Ohio. The lots held vast vegetable gardens, including grapevines for wine and jelly, room for livestock, property kept in pristine condition. “They used to have contests to see who had the best yards,” Castorano says. Most of those houses are rental property now, and the days of competing for Most Beautiful Yard appear to be over. The corner of Hague and Trabue is one of those municipal nowhere lands—the border between Franklin and Norwich townships runs down the middle of Trabue—a pocket of underdeveloped Columbus, in case you thought there was no such thing. The kind of place where you see adult bookstores and grungy old gas stations.
So where do you find San Margherita? There’s the church, St. Margaret of Cortona, a half-mile down Hague Avenue, whose annual festival with its procession of saints brings the only crowds who ever gather there. And Johnnie’s Tavern, selling beer and burgers for more than 70 years, a business still owned by one of the original founding families. Then there’s the roadside vegetable stand run by Dick Capuano, known as the Tomato Man of San Margherita. Finally, there’s the “old guard,” as Castorano calls them, a dwindling cadre of folks who still remember their fathers or grandfathers going off to the quarry. In their 60s and 70s now, their memories are most of what’s left of San Margherita.
The garage near the corner of Trabue and McKinley is where Dick Capuano keeps the stuff he needs to operate his little business. Hellish traffic—construction and commuter—sweeps by, but there’s always been heavy equipment around these parts, and who doesn’t like tomatoes? Capuano also has eggplants, peppers and other
produce, but he’s the Tomato Man. His grandfather, Diego, came here in 1904, then later sent for his wife. “He came first, but he didn’t have a penny in his pocket. He didn’t speak English. He was illiterate.”
The arrangement where the man immigrated and sent back home for a bride was common. In a 1991 history of St. Margaret church, Columbus Dispatch scribe (and later associate publisher and state representative) Mike Curtin offered the story of Pasquale “Patsy” Ferrelli: “Patsy was a waterboy at the quarry, carrying water to the older workers, until he moved up and eventually became a millwright. At the age of 24, Patsy sent travel money back to Italy so that Anna Tecca, the girl of his memories from Pettorano, could come to the United States to be his bride. ‘He had sent $500 to have her sent over, but when she arrived she didn’t want to marry him,’ said Christina (Ferrelli) Little, daughter of the eventual marriage. ‘He wanted his money back since she didn’t want to get married. But her dad said, ‘We don’t have $500. You’ll marry him.’ So she did, and the marriage lasted 65 years until Patsy’s death in 1984 at the age of 89.”
The Capuanos were one of the “original owners,” as they’re called by their descendants. The original families, the ones who pooled their money and efforts to build a church in 1921—as listed in another history of the church, from 1968—were named DiVittorio, Ciconi, Castorano, Capuano, Delewese, Lancia, Oddi, Scarpitti, Moro, Bellisari, Valerio, Stachiotti, Lombardi and Stischok. Many were from Pettorano in the Abruzzo region of Italy, known for mining and farming. The very first funeral in the church was for the baby daughter of Guy and Liberata Capuano.
Huge families were the norm even as all the homes quarry workers could afford were modest “quarry houses” along the river under the Trabue Road bridge or cramped boardinghouses. Little wonder those workers looked at the cheap land between the railroad tracks on Trabue and set their ambition accordingly. “I don’t know how they did it,” Castorano says when asked how guys earning such meager pay for such hard work managed to buy property and build homes to raise their expanding broods. And the work was hard. The limestone cliffs along the Scioto would provide the stone that built the Statehouse, Ohio Stadium and hundreds of other structures in Central Ohio. Before trucks and automation, the work was done by hand. That meant sledgehammers, pickaxes and dynamite to cleave the towering walls and break the rocks, loading mule carts to haul them away. Dangerous work, too.
“The wall of the boiler room adjoining the No. 8 crusher was papered and upon a nail there hung a reflecting lamp,” said a news report about a 1902 fire at the Casparis Stone Co. “This lamp exploded and the burning oil quickly ignited the loosely hung paper upon the wall. Before the watchmen arrived upon the scene the flames had reached the roof of the boiler room and rapidly spread among the timbers of the No. 8 crusher. Fifteen cars of crushed stone, which was stored in bins in the top of the building, were released and the stone was scattered among the wreckage of the plant.”
That fire occurred before Panfilo Lancia came to work the quarry, with his wife and four children in tow. They lived in one room on the second floor of a boardinghouse at first, says his grandson, Bill Shaffer, who still owns the family homestead on Trabue, though he does not live there. Panfilo and his wife, Contetina, would have seven more kids at a time when he made “7 or 8 cents an hour,” Shaffer says. “’Course, that was pretty good money back then.” So Panfilo took a number of years before he could afford a lot on Trabue. The lot, of course, had no house.
“He bought a railroad car, what we called the boxcar,” Shaffer says. “You know, they fixed it up, it had siding on it. My mother was born there. They lived there until they could get the house built.” What they lacked in housing they made up for in land: The lots on Trabue were narrow but deep, a couple acres or so, plenty of room to grow their own crops and keep chickens, ducks and hogs. (From Curtin’s history: “We used to plant the entire backyard. Mom used to can over 500 quarts of tomatoes, peppers and cabbage.” “On Sunday mornings you could hear the squeals from the hogs being slaughtered.” “Angelo’s dad would stick a knife in the pig’s throat and we’d collect the blood with a great big pan and they’d make blood pudding out of it.”)
And just like the old country, grapes were an essential crop. “The grapes came first. The first thing my grandfather sent back home for was grapevines,” Capuano says. Shaffer says his grandfather did the same thing, and he has the proof. “That one, right there,” he says, pointing to a thick, dark, twisted root in his vineyard behind the family home—almost 2 acres, providing 4,000 pounds of grapes in a good year. “Concord grapes,” he specifies, for making wine and jelly.
Living off the land just like in the old country, mere miles from Ohio’s capital city. You wonder, how did they manage to save for a home and raise 11 kids on quarry wages? “They were self-sufficient. They had to be,” Castorano says. Anything not a necessity was a luxury. “The men walked to work, they didn’t need a car. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to private [Catholic] school.”
Two pillars of Italian life: the family and the church. Quarry workers and their families initially made the trek to St. John’s, the parish of the bigger, better-established Italian community north of Downtown. As early as 1909, 118 people, calling themselves residents of Marble Cliff, signed a petition asking the diocese to approve building a chapel closer to their home—they even raised $2,000. In 1921, with donated land on Trabue Road and the original 13 families chipping in $50 each, the diocese approved. The new congregation wanted to name their church after St. Margaret, the patron saint of their hometown, Pettarano.
St. Margaret of Cortona Pastor Jeff Rimelspach picks up the story: “So they write to Bishop [James] Hartley, and he says, ‘I grant your request. I will call it St. Margaret.’” Whether the bishop somehow didn’t know about the various St. Margarets out there or just made a mistake, he picked the wrong one: Pettarona’s patron was St. Margaret of Antioch, not the one from Cortona. “So they said, ‘No, no—we want St. Margaret of Antioch.’” Hartley wasn’t about to admit a mistake. “He said, ‘What I have written, I have written.’”
So despite honoring the wrong saint (not really—the church has a stained glass portrait of St. Margaret of Antioch, and the statue carried at its annual festival is her, too), the folks on Trabue embraced the church, deriving their very identity from it. When the city of Columbus widened Trabue and brought in streetlights and waterlines, telling residents they were now on the map and needed a name, they said, “Call us St. Margaret.” That was too Catholic apparently, so they just translated it back to Italian: San Margherita. (It was never actually incorporated.)
“Oh, if somebody missed mass, you would notice it,” says Lilda Lombardi, who, at 94, is the oldest of the old guard. The late July Feast of St. Margaret (started in 1921), with its procession of plaster saints, was the highlight of the year. The boys of the parish had their own marching band, the Marble Cliff Quarry Band, which would take to the streets. “The band would walk up the street, playing in front of each house,” says AnnaJean Scott, a Castorano cousin. “That’s how you knew it was time for the festival.”
As other neighborhoods filled within the parish boundaries, the congregation outgrew the little church on Trabue. A wealthier group by then, in 1968 St. Margaret’s parishioners built a grand, modern church down on Hague Avenue, constructed of limestone from the same quarry where its founders worked. Daily mass was still offered at the old church, an arrangement that lasted until the land was sold and the building demolished in the early ’70s. That decision caused “a lot of friction,” Castorano says. “A whole crowd gathered to watch when they tore it down.” Lombardi recalls that “people went in there and got some of the old artifacts, relics from the reliquary, a piece of the cross.”
The times caught up with San Margherita. Dick Capuano’s home was bought by the city and demolished for a road-widening project, though he continues to operate his stand, selling vegetables grown on a nearby lot. The road project also claimed the building that had been a fixture at the corner of Trabue and McKinley—a former community center and later a bar and restaurant.
“A lot of the decline was that that older generation died or moved away,” says Joe Lombardi, whose grandfather Dominic opened Johnnie’s Tavern in 1948 and ran it until he died 13 years ago at 94. The generation raised by the old quarrymen went to college, got better jobs, moved to better neighborhoods. The kids who inherited the homes sold them or rented them, and the pride that had characterized a San Margherita homestead was in short supply. “It’s sad. It’s not a great place to bring up young children,” Shaffer says.
The development that might erase San Margherita from the map could also restore it in some ways. Two massive projects underway in its environs will bring thousands of new residents, and those people will want amenities nearby. They’re already calling it the Dublin-Trabue Corridor (as in Dublin Road). Wagenbrenner Development will turn the 600-acre Marble Cliff Quarry into an entirely new community called Quarry Trails, complete with a new 180-acre Metro Park, more than 800 housing units and 50,000 square feet of retail. Preferred Living will dominate the corner of Trabue and McKinley with a 28-acre plan for hundreds of luxury housing units and retail. Other developers are pondering the potential, citing the proximity to Downtown and all that property waiting to be cleared and reimagined.
“We’re excited about that corridor,” says Jared Smith, Preferred Living’s chief development officer. The old Dallas trailer park—named for one of San Margherita’s venerable families—near the corner will become Hanover Park. But Smith says, “We do not want San Margherita to go away. It will continue.” Sure enough, his company has erected a large arch at the corner with the name San Margherita at the top.
Joe Lombardi, who took over for his grandfather running Johnnie’s Tavern, has no plans to sell out: “There’s a lot of new business that’s coming in here. It’s an opportunity.” And Bill Shaffer, who hosts a family reunion that attracts 200 people every summer during the St. Margaret’s festival, says he may stick around, too. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll open a winery.”
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.