Held in August
Red Gate Park:
* Bocce Ball Tournament
* Food Stand
* Social & Banquet
Beginning in 1901, Oelwein became one of three major settlements of Italians in Iowa, the others being in Des Moines and Council Bluffs. Recruited to work in the rail yards and shops of the Chicago Great Western Railroad, Italian immigrants were welcomed as a source of cheap and reliable labor.
By 1915 there were 500 Italians in Oelwein out of a total population of 7,000. Italian and Sicilian immigrants mostly came as "steerage" passengers through Ellis Island.
They formed neighborhood clusters or Little Italies in Oelwein, divided by their language, religion and cultural practices. The earliest Italians in Oelwein were mostly male, but as families became established, they soon became assimilated into the local society.
Italian immigrants and their descendants had dramatic achievements in education, business and the professions, having a higher rate of college degrees than the general population and a number of business enterprises.
Many of these immigrants have passed on a legacy through several generations and some of the families are still prominent in Oelwein today. According the Oelwein Centennial Corporation's publication, "Oelwein, 1873-1973", Charles Spezia, one of the first Italian settlers in the area, owned Oelwein Granite and Marble Works, a successful monument business. They tell how Frank Mazzioti attracted many new immigrants and helped them through the difficult period of adjustment. And James Mazzioti, John and Joseph Stasi, and Frank Aiello were other early leaders. Bill Minudo chose Oelwein in 1920-21 because Oelwein's ball clubs were then among the top semi-professional teams in the nation.
A local Italian restaurant, Leo's Italian Restaurant, carries on family traditions of the Leo family, serving quality Italian food to Oelwein residents for several decades. The entire community is proud of the contributions Italian settlers and their descendants have made to Oelwein's culture and economic success and contributions to the community.
Each August, Oelwein celebrates Italian Heritage Day, so the descendants of early settlers can celebrate their heritage together. Festivities at Red Gate Park included bocce ball contests, bingo, children's activities, other games and food stands. A Mass was held in 2008 at Woodlawn Cemetery beside the grave of Rev. John Bacci, an early Italian-born priest who served Sacred Heart parish in the early 1930s. Those attending the festivities were from California, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Illinois, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Kansas, as well as from Oelwein, Des Moines, Ankeny, Muscatine, Maxwell, Nevada, Ogden, Belmond, Cedar Falls, Waterloo, Dunkerton, Dundee, Independence, Maynard and Hazleton in Iowa.
Special guest in 2007 was Celeste Calvito, a newspaper editor from Rapids City, SD., and author of the new book, 'Searching for Italy in America's Rural Heartland', from Vantage Press. In it, Ms. Calvito interviews Italian-Americans from many areas of the Midwest, including several Oelwein residents. Check her website at www.searchingforitaly.com.
For more information about Italian Heritage Day, contact the Oelwein Historical Society at 283-1493.