Growing up in North Hudson in the 1970s, I always thought the village epicenter was Sam’s Restaurant and Bowling Alley, at the corner of Monroe and Sixth.
The bowling alley-supper club was a community gathering place for Wednesday night Italian smorgasbord, Friday night fish fry, a few lines of ten-pin or a couple of cocktails in the lounge. Right out of the classic cult film, The Big Lebowski, the facility had starlight chandeliers and red was the dominant color.
Founded in 1948 by villager Sam Ricci on the site of Delmonico’s Garage, the restaurant featured American and Italian food and was instrumental in starting the village's annual Pepper Festival.
Sam’s Restaurant was torn down after a fire in 1978, and the facility was rebuilt and reopened as Sam’s Brass Track in 1981. Currently Season’s Tavern, it’s had a number of names and owners since then.
Village businesses like Sam’s and families such as the Ricci/Ritchies, Zezzas, Zappas, Dabruzzis and others were the topic of a March 22 presentation at the Hudson Area Library by North Hudson native and historian Lorraine (Cronk) Jacobs.
“I remember Sam’s bowling alley well,” Jacobs said. “It opened in the fall, and I was on a team—a pretty good one—for what is now the Willow River Saloon in Burkhardt. We even won a championship.”
The Friends of the Hudson Area Library sponsored the illustrated presentation based on Jacob’s research and sprinkled with colorful anecdotes from her memories. She is currently at work on a book about North Hudson history.
An Italian Enclave
North Hudson, Cumberland and Spooner were the state’s primary Italian enclaves when Italians immigrated to the U.S. in the 1880s; many worked for the railroad, Jacobs said.
The North Hudson railroad car repair shops, first erected in 1872 and rebuilt in 1890-91 after a fire, operated for 85 years and were closed about 1957. Over those decades, many Italians worked for the shops and it was one of Hudson’s greatest industries, Jacobs said. On the National Register of Historic Places, the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railroad Car Shop Historic District is now home to small businesses.
Like other ethnic groups new to an area, the Italians in Wisconsin suffered discrimination and were called epithets such as "dagos" and "wops," Jacobs said. There were also religious differences that caused tension.
The village, known as Little Italy to its Italian population, was incorporated in 1912 with a population of 586. About 800 people were employed by the car shops before World War I.
“There were great shop yard picnics where the train would take workers and their families on a trip to Hudson, Cumberland, Spooner, River Falls and Ellsworth,” Jacobs said.
“The railroad also offered workers the lumber from boxcars,” she said. “People called the shop yards the 'North Hudson Hardware.’ Many residents used shop wood to construct buildings.” Eventually the local lumberyard complained when some workers were reselling the lumber, and the practice ended.
In 1926 there was a national railroad strike, said Jacobs, and that affected the local shops.
“The first influx of strikebreakers were Italians from Cumberland, and a few local shop men were scabs,” she said. “There was violence and guns.”
Today a team from Cumberland remains a friendly rival during the pepper-eating contest at Pepperfest.
North Hudson had several famous Italian natives. One was Moochy the Magnificient, a noted boxer and later, a wrestler, Jacobs said. Moochy was Jack Mucciacciaro, who had been a prisoner of war during World War II and had gotten into numerous skirmishes while a prisoner, however, his life was spared because he was such a strong worker. Moochy’s life was featured in a TV program, We The People.
Many people in attendance remembered one of North Hudson’s most well-known residents, “Papa” Joe Dabruzzi, who lived all of his life along one block in North Hudson, Jacobs said. His sister, Anne, ran a café in North Hudson, and his wife Ann (Schullo) cooked at Sam’s Restaurant. Ann was responsible for the restaurant’s Wednesday night Italian smorgasbord. Those recipes as well as Italian recipes from North Hudsonites and Italian descendants Hattie Wagner and Margaret Butke are still used at Pepperfest today.
Village life was colorful, and many residents fostered grand gardens and grew peppers, she said. To help fund a new school, a summer festival was held after World War II. At one of the first festivals, a singer on the Arthur Godfrey show sent a record for auction, and pianist Liberace sent a curio piano that fetched $400. The event turned into Pepperfest, which started in 1954.
Over the years, Jacobs has interviewed Italian residents and researched collections at the UW-River Falls Archives, the St. Croix County Historical Society and other places. She has assembled numerous clippings books on various area historical subjects, which have been donated to the history room at the Hudson Area Library.
“There was such interest in this presentation and we had a great turnout despite the limitations of the size of the room,” said Pat Zais, a volunteer with the Friends of the Hudson Area Library. “We hope Lorraine will want to give a presentation on her research again.”