Carbon County mining group celebrates Italian heritage
During a week when mining magnate Bob Murray laid off 102 West Ridge coal miners in Carbon County while blaming President Barack Obama's re-election, 75 members of Utah's oldest fraternal organization held their annual dinner at a Price restaurant.
Stella D'America, founded in Castle Gate in 1898 by 57 northern Italian miners, was formed in part to help give single miners a social outlet and, in many ways, was part of the unionization of the Carbon County mines and some of the first strikes in the early 1900s.
International Mine Workers of America vice president Mike Dalpaiz, whose uncle Brent was a long-time president of Stella D'America, said there was plenty of discussion of Murray's actions at the annual meeting he attended Sunday.
"The [Murray mine] is a nonunion operation," said Dalpaiz, who said Murray typically lays off miners every year before Christmas. "But we feel for those people. They have family to take care of."
He said the Italian organization has always been involved in organizing Utah and Carbon County miners.
"Our lodge was very active in that," said Dalpaiz, of Price. "We wanted to make sure that the Italians and everyone else got a fair shot. Any legislation pushes, organizing drives or making sure people got to vote, the Italian lodge was always there to do that."
Walter Borla, of Helper, who replaced his father as secretary of Stella D'America in 1950 after the elder Borla died in a mining accident, said that among other services, the lodge provided miners with some limited death and disability benefits.
"The miners' strikes of 1902 and 1903 resulted in the eviction of the strikers from Castle Gate, which naturally included the immigrant Italians," said Borla. "This brought about the transfer of the lodge three miles down the canyon to Helper where it continues to function to this day."
The men's and women's Italian lodges of the organization merged in the 1990s.
Stella D'America, which means Star of America, remains primarily a social group, though it does offer a scholarship program, maintains a plot at the Helper cemetery, holds picnics and the annual dinner and offers members death and disability benefits.
Current president Charlie Hamilton, of Helper, said the organization has 135 lodge members, many of them seniors, including 95-year-old Richard Ariotti, who has 75 years of continuous membership.
"The majority of our staff and members are elderly people," Hamilton said. "It is harder and harder to get the younger generations involved. I belong to the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion, as well, and it just seems like the younger people don't have time for stuff like this. ... We are trying to recruit new members. That's why our dinners are so successful. We often get three or four new members at a dinner such as this."
In order to be a member of the Stella D' America, a person has to be Italian or have an ancestor who was Italian.
Stephanie Fitzsimons, director of the Western Mining and Railroad Museum in Helper, said records at the museum show that the Stella D'America Society began as a means of mutual aid among single miners and laborers but eventually helped in bettering relationships both within the Italian community and between Italians and non-Italians.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, her research showed that the tensions between the southern and northern Italians often ran high, which was one of the reasons the southern Italians formed their own group, Principe Di Napoli, in 1902. Consider this account that appeared in the Salt Lake Herald in the early days of mining in Carbon County:
"There is no better citizen than the Italians of the North, nor can there be any more undesirable citizen that the southern Italian of the ignorant class. Unfortunately the men who have created the trouble in the coal camps of Utah are mostly of this latter class."
Fraternal organizations such as Stella D'America helped bridge some of the gaps, and many of the Italian social groups eventually merged.
Dalpaiz said Carbon County had many different ethnic groups. While proud of his Italian heritage and its role in unionizing miners, he called the mixture of nationalities that settled Utah's mining country his "band of brothers."
"It doesn't make any difference," said the union organizer about ethnicity, adding that "the racism we have in this country sickens me."