The construction of the Dundee Dam on the Passaic River near Garfield, NJ in the 1860’s, provided water power to the growing number of textile factories that lined the river. The Passaic/Garfield area became a major center for worsted and wool fabric production in the United States. Companies such as Samuel Hird, New Jersey Worsted, Gera Mills and Forstmann Mills started in the first decade of the 20th century. These mills offered an abundance of work for common laborers with job titles such as mill hand, spinner, weaver, dyer, and twister. The main industry was textiles, but there were also a few rubber mills and chemical factories.
The plentiful job opportunities in these industrial plants drew unskilled immigrant laborers from European countries such as Hungary, Russia, Poland, Slovakia and Italy...especially Italy. The Third Ward in Garfield, a wedge between Passaic St. and Midland Avenue, up to about Leonard St., was populated almost entirely by Italian immigrants in the early 1900’s. Right in the middle of this wedge was Our Lady of Mount Virgin Roman Catholic Church a parish formed in 1903 to serve the growing number of Italian immigrants. “Mount Virgin” or “de Monte Vergine” was the religious and cultural center of the Italian community in Garfield. Nine of Rocco Vincenzo Ambruso’s ten children were married. Five of them were married at Mt. Virgin.
In 1902, Pasquale Bonelli, a young shoemaker from Salandra, came to America. Eventually, he went to live with his uncle Domenico in Garfield, NJ where there were lots of jobs in the booming textile factories. He got a job as a spinner in one of the worsted mills. He must have done well because he went back to Salandra, married Maria Giuseppa Ambruso, the oldest daughter of Rocco Ambruso, in 1907 and then came back to America in March 1909 and returned to a job in the worsted mills. Later that year, in September 1909, Maria and their 11 month old daughter, Teresa, came to America. Maria was the first of Rocco’s children to come to America.
The 1910 U.S. Census shows Pasquale, Maria and little Teresa lived with his uncle Domenico on Westminster Place. The same census shows that in 1910, Garfield was not a very big community. There were only 10,213 residents. Most of the houses were surrounded by empty lots, but new houses were being built rapidly. Pasquale and Maria purchased a new house at 139 Harrison Ave., in the heart of the growing Italian neighborhood. Patsy and Mary’s home on Harrison Ave. was to become an important part of Ambruso family history. It became the United States destination and the original hub of activity for all the members of my grandfather’s branch of the Ambruso family in America. We will talk more about activities at the Bonelli house on Harrison Avenue in future posts, so send me any stories or photos you might have.