History of the Italian Workmen’s Club
A group of hardworking men whose speech bore the soft intonations of the Italian language, men who came to Madison to escape starvation and unemployment in their native land, banded together in 1912 to form a mutual benefit organization. On January 18, 1912, the club Lavoratori Sicilani Muto Socorso e Benificenza was organized by leaders of the small Italian community which was located in the swampy section of Greenbush, south of the Capitol Square. The Club today is known as the Italian Workmen’s Club and carries on the tradition of mutual aid for the members who are ill or injured in accidents and also provides a death benefit.
The men who founded the original cooperative venture came to Madison from Sicily. At the time Madison was inhabited primarily by English, German, Irish and Norwegian settlers.
When they arrived in Madison, with barely enough money to live on, the Italian immigrants found few places ready to give them work. Many of them became laborers willing to work hard to make a living in a new land and earn enough money to bring their families from Sicily to America. These men bearing names like Giuseppi, Mariano, Giacomo, Giogio, Angelo, Gaetano and Mateo worked hard taking jobs such as cement workers, bricklayers, cobblers and common laborers. Some established stores stocked with foods dear to the hearts of the “paesani.”
John G. Icke, the city engineer and later a private contractor, recognized the willingness and ability of the settlers to work hard. He was a virtual patron saint to these men and their families. In the early days of the colony, Icke employed 90 of the men in city jobs as well as private jobs. In the slack season of winter, they found work in the local tobacco warehouses.
With the low earnings (a sign of the times in the early 1900s) few of the Italians could afford the expense of illness or injury or the occasional funeral costs.
One of their number, Theodore Paratore, learned from a friend, Andrea Filpi of Chicago, of a mutual benefit society in the Illinois city.
In January 1912, twelve men got together with Paratore to form the local society. They began meeting in a wooden building at the rear of a store operated by Angelo Maisano at 821 Regent Street. Maisano kept the membership money at his home. He served as an unofficial “depository” for many years before the money was placed in a checking account at a local bank. The club began with 42 members and today has over 125 members. A women’s auxiliary was organized on February 22, 1934.
The present clubhouse at 914 Regent Street was built in 1922. Mr. Icke, as ever the benefactor, loaned shovels, tools and other equipment to the club members who worked weekends on the construction of the building. With the exception of the steel framework erection, the entire clubhouse was built by the volunteer labor of the membership.
Until 1948 the meetings of the society were conducted in Italian; thereafter, the English language was officially used since many of the younger members chose English in preference to their native tongue.
In the earlier years on Columbus Day it was a happy custom of the membership to stage a parade, with the club band leading, from Park and Regent Street to the Capitol Park and back. The band was made up of men who, typical of Italian people, loved music. Heading the band was Tony Piazza, who had played in a circus band. Tony Piazza, Sam Piazza and Joe Stassi were the only men who could read the music; the rest of the band played by ear.
During World War II, the club was one of the foremost purchasers of U. S. War Bonds, demonstrating the member’s loyalty to America and the progress they had made in attaining a place in society as “solid citizens.” Over 40 of the club’s members served in the Armed Forces during World War II.
Many members of Madison’s Italian Community are now successful businessmen and civic leaders in the city. But the Italian Workmen’s Club remains a symbol of mutual help - inspired by necessity in a strange land in an earlier day. Many less fortunate Italians were helped over financial hurdles through this cooperative venture.
The Italian Workmen’s Club of Madison is believed to be the oldest continuously active Italian club in the United States.