Sicilians in Highbank, Texas
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Brazos Valley Italians Since 1880
Italians began arriving in the lower Brazos valley as early as the mid- 1870's when a few families settled near Bryan. Businessmen in that area had long advertised in European newspapers for immigrants to come and help revitalize the local economy. The Italians did not begin responding in numbers until about 1880. Those who did come were mainly from impoverished Sicily. They either harvested Louisiana sugar fields or labored on shares in the Bryan area until they accumulated enough money to buy their own farms. They bought flood-prone land in the Brazos bottoms between Hearne and Bryan. Earlier settlers, including Germans and Czechs, had avoided it, but the Italians were willing to gamble with disaster in exchange for fertile soil that would normally produce abundant crops.
They lost badly in 1899 and again in 1900, when devastating floods struck the region, but most of the immigrants stuck it out. By the 1890's Brazos County had one of the largest concentrations of Italian farmers in the United States. ln 1905 the Italian ambassador visited Texas and was told that Bryan had 3,000 of his countrymen and that the citizens wished there were ten times that number. Very early J.M. Saladiner and other leaders organized the Agricultural Benevolent Society to aid newly arrived immigrants, but the group also sponsored instruction in the latest farming and soil conservation methods.
By 1910 adjacent Burleson and Robertson counties also had significant numbers of Italian residents. For the most part, the farmland of these early Italian arrivals has been retained in family hands. Rural mailboxes reflect such names as Cotropia, De Stefano, Ferrara, Perrone, Restino, Varisco, Scardino and Salvato. Business and civic leaders in Bryan and Hearne also include individuals with Italian surnames. But cultural identity goes little further; the younger generation is not familiar with the Italian language and does not observe Old World customs. Little is left but loyalty to the Roman Catholic religion and the traditional spaghetti dinner on Sunday.
Steele's Store, Texas
HOME ON THE RIVER BOTTOM…
Steele's Store, is located at the intersection of farm roads 50 and 1687, on the Southern Pacific Railroad eleven miles west of Bryan in far western Brazos County. The area was settled in the 1860s and became known as Mudville for the mud common to this floodplain of the Brazos and Little Brazos rivers. In 1878 a post office, called Steele's Store, was opened in the store owned by Henry B. Steele, and the names Steele's Store and Mudville seem to have been used interchangeably by local residents, with Mudville sometimes referring to the wider rural area served by the community. According to some sources the population was three-fourths black at this time. Steele's Store is now known as Mudville, Texas.
Many Italians were farming in the area. In 1884 Steele's Store had an estimated population of 150 and two churches, three cotton gins, a steam gristmill, and two general stores. The community became a station on the Hearne and Brazos Valley Railway in 1891, and by 1896 claimed a population of 350. In 1904 a school for whites at Steele's Store had sixty-eight pupils and one teacher. In 1930 the community comprised an estimated 300 inhabitants and fourteen businesses. In 1940 it had a church, a school, four businesses, and a number of scattered dwellings. The post office closed in 1950, and the school had consolidated with Bryan by the 1960s. In 1988 the community had a number of scattered dwellings and was designated Mudville on maps. In 1992, the Texas Historical Commission placed a historical marker at the site.
Rosemary DePasquale Boykin, The Italians of Steele's Store, Texas (Nacogdoches: Ericson, 1993).
Glenna Fourman Brundidge, Brazos County History: Rich Past-Bright Future (Bryan, Texas: Family History Foundation, 1986).
Elmer Grady Marshall, History of Brazos County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1937).
Mark Odintz, "MUDVILLE, TX," Handbook of Texas Online. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.