The Founding Father of Di Camillo Bakery
Tomaso Di Camillo Circa 1903
I never actually met my grandfather. He died nine years before I was born, but he has loomed large throughout my seventy years. My own father certainly had the highest regard for him, and told endless stories of Tomaso's insistence on elaborate dinner preparations, his enterprise, moral character, trusting nature, and his deep devotion to his family, and his religious faith.
As a child these reminisces of my father's were usually delivered at the dinner table. Sadly, I was only really attentive for more sensational tales. However, my grandfather's importance was not missed-- even by me. I was always aware that he was the driving force that started the family bakery—an enterprise which quite literally put bread on our table, as well as thousands of others in Niagara Falls. Besides founding the bakery he was a father to seven daughters and five sons, all of whom regarded him in a very benevolent light and the creator our family bakery.
[Di Camillo Family at home 1934]
The bakery, or "the shop" is how it was always referred to by my father. "I'm going to the shop,": it has connected us all in a profound way, even family members not involved in the bakery . It was and has remained almost a family member without a body.
[20th Street Bakery circa 1947]
Family lore has always maintained that Tomaso arrived in Niagara Falls, New York on Thanksgiving Day in 1898. A deeply spiritual man, dates, feast days, and portents had profound meanings to him. So the concept of a meal of Thanksgiving appealed to him and its significance was confirmed by his arrival on this quintessential America holiday. From then on, it was always celebrated by his family as if it was a personal reminder of his arrival.
Niagara Falls, New York was the end of his journey from the Italian Abruzzo hill-town of Villamagna, and was to be his home for the rest of his life. He arrived in North America a single young man of nineteen at the port of Montreal, Canada in 1897. Why he landed there, instead of Ellis island, as did my grandmother several years later, I have never heard an explanation of—at least one that could be proven. One legend has it that Tomaso had an eye-infection and he feared being quarantined (or turned back) at Ellis Island and may have thought Montreal was an easier port of entry.
And how exactly he came to the United States, is yet another mystery. It is quite possible he simply walked across the bridge and border from Canada over the Niagara River! It certainly was a very different time, but it does shed some historical reference to the controversy now raging on entry into the US and all the different ways we all have gotten to this country.
My grandfather did have cousins here, so he may in fact have been sponsored by one of them. In any event he became a citizen of this country, as did his wife, a fact that they were both very proud of.
Edward Dean Adams Power Plant Circa 1895, Designed by the Architectural firm McKim, Mead and White]
Niagara Falls was a bustling community in the early 1900s as the forces of invention and industry had converged in the persons of George Westinghouse, Nicola Tesla and J.P. Morgan and Edward Dean Adams each made a huge contribution to the creation of hydroelectric production in Niagara Falls-- and the ability to transport electricity with alternating current for great distances. Big Industry had flocked to Niagara Falls for the inexpensive power. And also for the cheap labor, as the city was teaming with new arrivals from every part of Europe.
[Tomaso & Addolorata wedding photo 1902]
However, another mystery arises in his tale with the arrival of my grandmother, Addolorata, in 1903. How well they knew each other before they were married at St. Mary's of the Cataract Church in Niagara Falls is still in some question. Addolorata was from the same town in Italy, and she was eight years his junior, merely seventeen when she arrived, which would have made her a very young girl when he left Italy in 1897. Nevertheless, my aunts and uncles always maintained that they had been childhood sweethearts. Whatever their introduction had been this was a gloriously happy family and biblically (and literally) fruitful.
[Di Camillo family circa 1916]
My grandparents began a family quickly and kept going until there were seven girls and five boys in their ranks. This Shredded Wheat period of my grandfather's life says so much about this man. Their eldest daughter, Mary, a life-long Salesian nun, reflected in her journal that this time, before the bakery, in the one family bungalow house, were her happiest memoirs.
Tomaso, Addolorata and their Daughter Sister Mary Di Camillo, F.M.A.]
But these are the memories of 85-year-old nun who left home at sixteen for the convent and was only allowed by her superiors to visit her family home sixteen years after joining the order at a time when Tomaso was gravely ill. I always imagined they were afraid she would not come back as this was a home full of life and joy. In fact, she only visited her home town three more times in her long life, though we often visited her in the convent in her later years. What was going on in my grandfather's head is not known, of course. I think he was also enjoying this life he had made for himself, by whatever means they met, it was a brilliant marriage. It was told to me by mother (not a born Di Camillo) who had become a confidant of Tomaso in his last illness years. He was reported to have said to my grandmother, in my mother's hearing, "God bless you Addolorta! You are stronger than I am!" Of course, he was right, for many reasons, not least of which was that she lived twenty six years longer than he did!
[Addolorata in front of 14th Street store]
An significant turn of events, however, interrupted this idyllic time and changed the course of their life and that of their descendants. It happened when Tomaso was approached by a group of criminals who “asked” him to not report inventory shortages. This moral challenge was not to be endured, it seems. His quandary: if he crossed the criminals he was marked, but if he cooperated he was a thief. So he did an extraordinary thing-- and quit his job! This was no easy
decision, as he already had a large family to support and absolutely no one to support him! Of course I don't know this for certain, but I believe he was also chaffing under the yoke! This is a man who had said goodbye to his world at nineteen, crossed an ocean, sleeping well-below deck, and not knowing how he was going to be understood or what was going to happen to him on the other side of the world. This man was obviously a chance-taker.
[Original Di Camillo store on 14th street, now Tronolone Place, in Niagara Falls, NY]
I think that by this time he had gotten his footing in this new world and he wanted more control of his destiny. He had felt the lash of the proverbial whip, and said “No! Not for me or mine!” His ultimate reason for buying the three storey commercial-residential building on 14th street in Niagara Falls with its cellar ovens, retail store, and two floors of apartments has been repeated by several of his descendants to have been: "I want to make sure my family always has bread." Well, he did accomplish that and for several generations and it has, in 2020, endured for one hundred years!
Happy Father's Day, Tomaso! And…grazie mille!
- Michael DiCamillo