Huerfano County, Colorado
Oral Interviews
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Al Berte

Scanned by Dick Chenault
Edited by Shelly Leonard
Interviewed by Sandra Cason
Date of interview 10-31-1979 at 912 Hendren Street, Walsenburg, Co.

Al Berte
Parents - Harry Berte and Victoria Toccoli
Ethnic group - Austrian, Italian
Date of family arrival in county - 1909-1911
Location of first family settlement - Toltec
Kinship ties - Mary Batuello
Profession - Electronics inspector, insurance agent, acting, singing, military, miner
Language spoken - English

SANDRA: Hendren St. in Walsenburg, this is October 31, 1979, and… I think what we could talk about is just maybe some of your recollections or stories you were told, or that you know about your family's life here in the area. Ah… your mother came here, when was that when she came here?

AL: Well she came over from the old country from Italy. She was 32 years of age. So she had come over here into this country here then, lets see, so then that had to be about the year of 1911 then, or 1921. 1921 I believe, then.

SANDRA: And your father?

AL: Well, he was a coal miner all his life and he's deceased now. He passed away back in 1963.

SANDRA: Did they come together?

AL: No, oh, my dad was here first and another friend of his, they came over together, and they first established here. Then they sent for my mother. She was his girlfriend and then the other friend of his that would be my dad's niece that came over with my mom. She was much younger. In fact I think she was only 16 then, and so they both came over together and then they both got married here in Walsenburg at the Catholic Church.

SANDRA: So you were born here in Walsenburg?

AL: Well, I was born in the coal mining camp in Toltec.

SANDRA: In Toltec.

AL: I was born and raised here. Went through grade school there and then I went into high school, and graduated from high school there.

SANDRA: So what was the year of your birth?

AL: 1928. That's when I was born out there in Toltec.

SANDRA: So was that a camp then, a mining camp?

AL: Yes, it was a mining camp.

SANDRA: What was it like growing up there then?

AL: OH, it was wonderful. It was very lively. We had a company store there. Reminds me of that song “16 Tons,” you know. We would get our groceries there because it was a company store and they had the Pictou and also the Toltec mine there, going full blast. There was an awful lot of houses out there and they were all full. And they had a big bus out there that used to bring all the high school students to the high school here. That was a good place to raise your children because we had plenty of wide open spaces there. I was brought up, you know, like a rough neck. It was nothing for us to down to the river and stream there and fill up our own. With these gunny sacks we used to fill up with sand and everything, filled up our height that we wanted to and used to dive and swim and everything. And everything that we enjoyed out there was all home made stuff. Of course, we had baseball I should say slow ball, kids used to call it softball… At the time when I graduated from Pictou School out there, they did away with the school buses so we were all forced into the back of the town. It was just a little bit too far to walk.

SANDRA: What part of Italy did your parents come from?

AL: My dad came from Austria. Actually we're Austrian (tyrols) actually. We say Italians for short. A lot of people don't know what you mean when you say Austrian (yrols) but dad's actually from Austria and my mother's from the Northern part of Italy it is called Cripto Italy. It's just right there the south of the border line going into Switzerland. That's where all the light complected Italian people are with their blonde hair and pinks eyes. My mother's eye's was like yours, hazel.

SANDRA: And was you father a miner in Italy?

AL: Well, he was so young when he was over there. He served in the army over there. And way back in their days they was only able to go up to about the third grade and then they had to go out and go to work, and he ad a family to support already at his age there so he went in as a cobbler. He was fixing shoes and he was also a barber and cutting hair. From there he came over to the mines. He was a deputy sheriff here for many years too. That was his side line job. The mines way back in those days they ere working very slowly, in the summer time they wouldn't work at all. It was just in the winter time when the people needed coal to keep warm. That's when the mines would go back to work. In the summer time they'd be off all summer long so then my dad in the summer months he was always deputy sheriff here in town and he worked with some the old timers that, for instance, this one sheriff, his nickname was Shorty Martinez cause he was so tall, he was over 7 feet tall and only the old timers would know him by Shorty Martinez and also Claude Swift. Claude Swift was another old, old timer here from way back, and he was a sheriff all the years until he retired. So this is going back quit a few years.

SANDRA: So what year did your father come?

AL: Well, when my mother came over here, she was age 32 so I imagine my dad was over here about, that was in 1921, so I'd say probably about 1918, 1919, I guess. I imagine he was 3, 4, 5 years before then because they'd have to come over here and establish a job, save money. They had to send money over there for them to come because over there. In those days they were just too poor. They couldn't come over here because of financial matters.

SANDRA: Do you remember any stories that you were told about, what it was like for them coming here or what it was like the first days when they got here.

AL: Yes, my mom was saying the time when they came over on the ship, those days the ships didn't travel as fast as they do today. I recall her saying I think it took them 21 days to get here by ship. They arrived at New York port and they were sick as a dog because it was a smaller ship too because it used to rock a lot and all that. And then when they first arrived here in Walsenburg they say that they were sort of ashamed the way they over dresses. They figured, gee, we're probably so old fashioned and not dressed like the rest of the people around here. But when they got here and scene the way they were dressed and the way the others were dressed they thought they was overly dressed. And then my dad and his other buddy that was here, that waited for them to come in to ride in Walsenburg to meet their new brides to be. They had an old 1920, I don't know 20, it was an old Chevrolet. But in those days the Chevrolets, they had a four door, and they had the curtains in there and they thought, “uh, the way they're going to be dressed when they were going to get here, we'll just close all those curtains down so nobody will see them. So nobody could make fun of them till we could get them all dressed up.” But like I said, they were surprised. They got kind of dressed up and in style and so they didn't have to use those curtains. That was one of the stories I remember my mom telling me about. Then naturally too way back in those days when they came over here that's all they knew was their own language, you know, Italian. So they had an awful hard time trying to go out to stores, and trying to buy things, trying to express what they wanted. They mostly had to point at different things. In time things have changed, I've let some of the people that just recently arrived here from Italy, and they completed college. We have one that's working for Prudential in Pueblo and he came over here strictly from Italy, there. In fact he came over here and he became an army interpreter right off the bat. That's how educated they are over there. It's just every place else. In fact, we have a lot of people from here that go over there to college. In time, things have changed, I mean, when they came when they arrived here in Walsenburg, they didn't have any pavement here whatsoever. And my dad used to always tell me too, because my dad was a motorcyclist. He had a Harley Davidson and a side care. He was telling me how he used to use that motorcycle to travel from here to Pueblo. It took them maybe 4 or 5 hours to get there because it was strictly just a mud road all the way and a couple of times he said he got stuck with this motorcycle because it rained as much and just plain adobe dirt there, and it got so muddy that the mud just packed up between the wheels there and the fenders and he just couldn't go any further. So there was no paved streets here whatsoever here or anything.

SANDRA: Did your father come directly to Walsenburg?

AL: Not directly, no. When they first arrived here, well, just like I imagined, most all the other immigrants, when he landed there in New York, he go himself a job there because I remember him mentioning that working for Johnson & Johnson off the ship, there. They make all these, till this day they still have bandages and stuff like that. That was his first job and then from there he moved on into Illinois. And then he worked in Illinois and that's when he started to work in the mines, and got his mining experience because I even had a certificate here that I found where he became a mining inspector in the mines in Illinois. And then from there that's when they decided to move here to Walsenburg. I mean they moved directly out there to Toltec until I had to come in to high school. So that was about 1943 when we moved into Walsenburg.

SANDRA: And then he would travel from here to…

AL: Out to the mines uh-huh, right. Ya, he used to… This last mine that he worked at up until retirement was out there in Butte Valley, so that was about 15 miles, I guess, north from here and that's quite a ways.

SANDRA: What's your impression of condition in the mines when he was working was there any change. Was he in the union, was he a union person?

AL: Well, yes, when they become unionized. Way back in his days they weren't. Just like everything else, Union didn't catch hold here in Huerfano County until the later years. I'd say, oh, probably around in the later 30's, but they were all non-union mines way back in these days, and I don't recall what year that they became union. But when they did, my dad, he was always, as always, believed in the union. He figured that's the only way you're going to get any benefits, whatsoever. And I imagine it probably just maybe before the war, I guess when the union took over around here. Now during WWII in the mine that he worked out there at Butte Valley mine was unionized and so then he started getting good wages out there, he was making good hourly wages and if they worked Saturdays that was time and a half and from there on when the miners here in town started making a decent living. I can remember way back before that, even when I was a little kid that they had to work all winter to pay their grocery bill, because come summertime they had to charge all their groceries again, for the whole summer.

SANDRA: Because there was a lay-off in the summer?

AL: Lay-off, uh-huh. And that's where they all tried to find little odds and ends of jobs so they can maybe use that extra money there to pay the light bill and gas bill. Those were the hard times after until the WWII broke out.

SANDRA: Did the company own the houses at the camp? Did people own their own houses?

AL: Well certain camps, the companies owned the houses. Out in Toltec there, it seems like for some reason, there, each family owned their own house out there. Because the house we've always lived in there, belonged to my folks.

SANDRA: Did they have other relatives who were here?

AL: Yes, surprisingly the bride to be that came over with my mother, was my dad's niece, lives right next door. Her name is Mary Batuello. She's well known here in town. She still comes over her 3, 4, 5 times a week, you know always comes and checks my mama to see how she's doing. And in fact, close relatives, because her husband also passed away, I imagine several years before my dad passed away, so I know she always mentions to my mom, “gee auntie,” she says, “if you ever pass away she says, who will I have left here,” 'cause she has her own family here, but as far as people from the old country there just about all gone. She's up in age now, she's 70, oh, I guess she's about 76, 77 but she still gets around real good and she's very bright for her age too.

SANDRA: Do you think they got homesick?

AL: Well, they went through a lot over there. I imagine they did a certain times. I think it was just human. But they've also been through wars over there right in their own town. That's the reason why when WWII started, which I was in and was also in the Korean War for 10 years in it. I'm a veteran of two wars. You can't find too many veterans of two wars.


AL: The one or another. There's my pictures in the Navy and the Marine Corp.

SANDRA: Yeah, I was noticing that. And which was that?

AL: In the navy it was WWII and the Marine Corp. that was the Korean War. And I was sergeant, staff sergeant in the Marine Corp. But like I say, my mom has told me a lot of times, stories about the war right in her home town there, and what they've been through. And when this war broke out they just dreaded up, and they hated to think about anything and they had a fear already because they'd been through it. Luckily, the people here in America, they were lucky because the war was fought over there and not here. So us GI's, we've seen it because we were over there. I'd just as soon go over there and fight it to keep from coming over here. That's the reason I was willing to go over there. Because I'd already known, my mom told me and my dad, about the war over there. And I said well, I'd soon go over there than to see it come over here.

SANDRA: That's a lot of time to act in the service.

AL: Yeah.

SANDRA: A lot of years.

AL: Yeah, I figured I'd put in ten years, I was going to stay in for twenty, so went up there to the post there to reenlist, went to Pueblo to reenlist. They says that you got to reenlist from the Pueblo part there that I transferred back to Gary, Indiana. I didn't want to go back there. It's more like Pueblo steel mill town and cold in the winter time and hot in the summer. “Na,” I said, “I want to get back out to the coast where I was before the Korean War started.” I reenlisted, that was in February of 1949. They said, “Well, Serge, all we could recommend is for you to go out there and reenlist, so I did. Combat on rain covers was on extended leave and he said give us your phone number and as soon as he gets back, we will go ahead and process you right on through. So that's the summation of my twenty year retirement because I waited and waited and I never did hear from them and I said in the meantime, I said, I'm going to look around, I land a good job, who knows maybe I might stick out and that's what happened, I landed a real good job out there and I bought myself a Cadillac, a nice big trailer house and man I never had it so good. I got spoiled. Finally he wrote me a letter of apology and said for me to go down and see him and he'd go and process me right on through. And I said, well, they waited for me, and now I waited for them, now they waited for me and I never did go back and that's… I've been retired since I've been age 37. I went in at 17. The night I graduated from high school, 1946. But I also looked back since then, I figure maybe I've God on my side, because I could have been a dead person now, because this Korean War lasted, not the Korean War, the Vietnam, and I would have been caught in that without any doubt at all. Maybe I wouldn't of lived through to see retirement too. I look back now and maybe the way it worked out was the best for me. I survived 2 wars item up and I don't know if you can survive 3. And I don't want to stretch my luck too far.

SANDRA: So, your parents spoke Italian at home, when you were there?

AL: They sure did. Ah, I remember when we started school, I had 2 older sisters and when they started school, especially they just knew how to talk Italian only. Of course, I learned because I was younger and they was teaching me how to talk English and my neighbors I used to play with, so I don't think I had that problem as they did. And the funny thing is, growing up, we never did learn how to talk Italian, I've learned to talk it pretty good after I'd been in the service and after I got act of the service. But before that my folks always used to talk to my sisters and I in Italian, I guess that's when they had to change and learn to talk English, when they were in high school. Maybe that's why I picked it up because I used to talk back to them. We'd understand Italian but we'd answer them and talk back to them in English. See, so that's how it's always been all our life. And then I started to becoming concerned and interested in learning different languages which I picked up quite a bit of Spanish too, along the way, and I try to learn more and more of it. It was easy for me to start talking Italian, only I was talking it broken at first. It took a little time to be able to talk with a conversation. Once in a while I would get stuck on a word or so.

SANDRA: So when you were a boy growing up there, were there community activities in the Italian community? Was the community there in Toltec, did the people of various ethnic groups mostly stay with the people of that group in their social activities.

AL: No, there was so…

SANDRA: A lot of interchange?

AL: Uh huh, it sure was. Out there, there was no such thing as discrimination of race, color, and creed. We had one Negro family out there and I used to even play with them. I've never been at their house when I was a little kid growing up, I was never ashamed or even afraid to tell my mom about it, this was ok. They went out to school and there's no such thing as bussing or discrimination. In fact, the first time, now this has always been this way in Walsenburg, and I recall the old timers around here would agree. There was no such thing as discrimination, don't you go see them because their color, their Mexicans, or Spanish, you know, whatever. My first experience I've had when it came to discrimination, I'll never forget it in my life, when I was in the navy at 17 and I came back from overseas and I landed in Norfolk Virginia, and I got on the bus there and this other GI was colored. He came and sat next to me, and this bus knew nothing of it. The bus driver says, “Hey, you back there,” he was telling that black fella, “you don't belong in that seat there, you're supposed to sit in the back, and you better get up and sit back there. Well, he says, “I'm an American and I'm in the service just like everybody else” and they wanted me to get up and not sit there and I refused to, I says, “I sat here and he's a GI just like we are.” And that bus driver says, “I'm not going to move this bust until you make a change,” and well, he finally decided to get up and make the change. But I stood firm there because this is the way I was brought up. Wasn't gonna buckle down for them. Also, when I was in Amarillo Texas, one time I got on a bus there to go down town. The bus was filled up but there's this nice long seat in the back there so, I go all the way to back and sit down. Pretty soon the bus driver stops the bus he says, “Hey, you back there, you don't belong back there.” I says, “why not, it's empty,” and I said “there's no other place to sit.” “All the other seats are taken.” He said, “that's only for the colored folks,” he says. “If you can't find a place to sit down, just stand up.” So I had to stand up. So this is the experiences I've had outside of Huerfano County. Here we never did have that. And it's always been that way here even when I came back from the service and even to this day. We had just a few Negro families here in town. Well respected. We had no complaints whatsoever.

SANDRA: What kind of a social activities did you do at the camps?

AL: Well, not any. Really, way back in those days people just had radios that can afford them. But what people did mostly there what you don't have and you don't do anymore is visit one another. This was really wonderful. It was nothing for my mom to buy a ham and in the evenings, especially the summer time, and they would go down and visit this family that night and then maybe two or three nights later go visit somebody else and they'd come to your home. And this is the way we used to pass away the evenings. More visiting than anything else, because there wasn't anything to do out there. We had two, you could call them bars, and that was just mostly for the miners that wanted to go in and have a drink. They had some pool tables there, but the entertainment there was once a year at New Years. We had 2 bars, and they were back right across the street from one another in Toltec and everybody from Walsenburg used to go out there to celebrate. They had a big dance wall, good music and boy, they'd really raise cane out there. This was well known, and this went on and on for years and years.

SANDRA: A lot of people have commented on how much more visiting they used to do.

AL: Yeah there was a lot of that, because there was just nothing else to do, pass away your time. It's a funny thing, because they had to do everything the hard way, to make clothes before they could afford to buy clothes and so they all did their own sewing, they had to wash by hand and clean house and they had to do their own baking. They had to bake their own bread and everything, and yet they had time to visit. Today everything's push buttons, everybody eats out and people don't have time to visit or do anything no more. I think in a lot of cases they used that for an alibi or an excuse too. I feel that way.

SANDRA: I think you're right. This is very interesting. So do you have brothers and sisters, more sisters?

AL: Yeah, I have two sisters. One lives in Los Angeles. I actually it's Van Nuys, California. I have 2 identical twin nieces. Can't tell them apart even to this day you till can't. They're 26 years old now. And I have another sister that lives in Pueblo.


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