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Framingham remembers immigrants of long ago

New exhibit shows town?s Italian roots

Rosanne Thomas remembers when Waverly Street in Framingham was lined with fresh meat and produce stores, when almost every home had a garden bursting with tomatoes and other vegetables, and families made wine in the cellars. Back then, three neighborhood bakeries, including her family's Framingham Baking Co., sold freshly baked bread each morning.

While Italian-owned shops still dot the Tripoli section of south Framingham, there are fewer than there were decades ago, when names like Bertolino, Galvani, Mencoboni, and Merloni were prevalent in the neighborhood. Thomas's family bakery, now run by her daughters, is the only of the original three still open.

''There's only a small portion of the old neighborhood remaining," Thomas said. ''It's a little sad that what we used to have isn't there anymore. Life moves on, children grow up, and they look for other things to do."

Pieces of Thomas's family history in Framingham and many like it are featured in an exhibit at the Framingham Historical Society and Museum that details the life and history of the town's earlier immigrants -- the Italians.

For Thomas and other families who contributed to the exhibit, this was one way of sharing their family's struggles and triumphs as immigrants in a new country.

Thomas's parents, Vincenzo and Giuseppina Bertolino, moved to Framingham in 1923 to help run the bakery after a family member became ill. The couple planned to stay for only one year, but stayed a lifetime, Thomas said. Thomas, her two sisters, and older brother were born and raised in the house above the bakery.

Through passports, naturalization papers, photographs, and heirlooms from families still living in Framingham, the exhibit tells how Italian-Americans -- once the town's largest immigrant group -- settled in Framingham, lived, worked, worshiped, ate, and raised their families.

The exhibit, ''Abbondanza! The Richness of Italian-American Life in Framingham," will run through the end of August at the Edgell Memorial Library at Oak Street and Edgell Road in Framingham. The exhibit features more than 100 photographs from the personal albums of Framingham's Italian-American families, and other belongings such as an old pasta maker and an original sewing machine from a Framingham apron factory where many immigrants worked.

In 1915, when Framingham's population was 15,860, there were 4,279 foreign-born residents recorded, and at 1,104, Italians comprised the largest group, according to a timeline compiled by the museum's curator, Dana Dauterman Ricciardi.

But the town's census stopped breaking down foreign-born residents by national origin, so today it is difficult to know exactly how many Americans of Italian heritage still live in Framingham, according to the timeline.

The Historical Society had been interested in assembling an exhibit on immigration and its impact on Framingham for several years, according to Tom Harris, the director of the society, but with the constant flux of new immigrant groups and the varying ethnicities, they had trouble narrowing the focus. The historical society ultimately chose Italians, because of their long history in Framingham, which made it possible not only to tell the story of how the group first came here, but also track the stories of their children and grandchildren.

''We had tremendous support from the community," Harris said. ''Everyone was very eager to talk about their parents or their grandparents and how they came here, what their life was like."

Contributors said the story of Italian immigrants is being relived by the town's newer immigrant groups.

Sandy Merloni, who lent her family's heirlooms to the exhibit, said she can see the similarities between newer immigrant groups, like Brazilians, and the first generation of Italian immigrants.

''The same thing they said about Italians when they first came here, it's being said about other groups," Merloni said. ''These people work hard and contribute to the town of Framingham. They are not here trying to live off the fat of the land. They're just trying to take care of their family. That's what the Italians wanted 90 years ago."

Merloni said she hopes the exhibit can convey to visitors the importance of family. Merloni and her husband, Louis, are now the third generation of Merlonis to live in their Framingham home, and together they have tried to raise their children to give back to the community in small ways. Their daughter, Lisa, is an elementary school teacher in Framingham. Another daughter, Jill, a former consultant, is raising a family in Hopkinton, and the youngest child, Lou, who played for the Red Sox, now plays for the Cleveland Indians.

''I hope it will show people who weren't fortunate enough to come from an Italian background how important it is to stick together and help each other," Sandy Merloni said. ''Growing up in my own family, I watched how generous people were. They gave so much to improve their lives and their family's lives."

Eun Lee Koh can be reached at or 508-820-4238.

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