Sicilians in Highbank, Texas
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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.