“Salve, porgiamo agli abitatori della Contea d’Indiana, ai cittadini italiani a quelli di razza inglese e a quelli di ogni altra nazionalita….”
And with that, the only bilingual newspaper between New York and Chicago was launched on August 8, 1914. In its lead item (Il Nostro Saluto – “Our Greeting”, excerpted above), Indiana County’s Il Patriota announced that its pages would contain articles in both English and Italian, each a duplicate of the other. It also pledged something novel for a newspaper of its time: to be politically nonpartisan and unbiased in its reporting, and to identify each editorial as an editorial. “By such methods we hope to receive the commendation of our readers and of other papers as well.”
The odds against such an enterprise were long. The Patriot’s coalfield predecessor La Sentinella del West Virginia had closed its doors the year before, and even in major population centers, new Italian-language newspapers like Philadelphia’s La Rassegna could fold in a matter of months. So why was Indiana’s giornale able to thrive for more than forty years? Read on.
The Patriot stepped in at just the right moment to serve an Italian-speaking community of surprising size. Our population had grown by more than half in the previous decade, and immigrants drawn here by employment in the mines and mills accounted for 20% of us. Relatively few Italians lived in the county seat, but Indiana was centrally located in a ring of mining towns, so it was the right place and time for such a voice. But more than that, Indiana County in 1914 had the right man for the job.
Founder and editor Francesco Biamonte was born in Zagarise, Italy on the first day of 1891. Sponsored by his brother Giuseppe of Creekside, the youngest of Maria and Gaetano’s seven children was sent to study in America at age nine. Here he went to school at Sykesville for a year before returning to Italy. He came back to Pennsylvania at age thirteen, this time to stay. After brief employment at his brother’s dry goods store, Francesco worked in a Johnstown steel company’s office while attending Cambria Business College. His education was interrupted by conscription into the Italian army (he was not yet a US citizen) but was resumed at Indiana State Normal School when he returned. By 1913, he was Indiana County’s official court interpreter.
With $100 of borrowed capital and a staff of four, the Patriot’s beginnings were as humble as those of most whom it served. The paper owned no press in that first year. At its workrooms in the Thomas White building, editor-in-chief Biamonte, Italian editor Giuseppe Palermo and English editor Francis Smith (on loan from the Weekly Messenger) would compose articles and ads, set the type-sheets and haul them to the Messenger’s pressroom . . . then print the paper, break down the type and haul everything back to their office, all before the Messenger’s own hours of operation.
So what did readers find that Saturday when they opened the Patriot? Though the particulars would change over time, Volume I, Number 1 was typical of those to come. Published as a weekly, pages 1-4 were in English and 5-8 were in Italian. World War I had started just days before; war news and the death of President Wilson’s wife were front page. Events in Italy were grouped as Telegrammi D’All Italia, while the rest of the Italian pages covered local concerns like mining safety, mutual aid societies and music. Ads were in Italian or English and took up almost half of total space. Among them was an ad for Biamonte’s own services as travel agent, banking liason and interpreter. What did not appear in that first issue were Biamonte’s editorials (a prominent feature later on) but a selection of op-eds reprinted from other journals. On page two was the feature “Questions That A Good Citizen Should Know” (coaching for the naturalization test), followed by voter-registration tips and deadlines.
In some respects, the Patriot’s greatest contribution was made not in its workrooms but in the business office at 15 Carpenter Avenue. There, Biamonte’s fellow immigrants came to seek his help and advice on everything imaginable – especially American laws and customs. Interpreting America to immigrants was a major focus of the Patriot, and its editor sometimes had to interpret immigrants to American natives. When Gazette articles claimed the formation of a “Black Shirt” Italian fascist unit was pending here, they were rebutted by Biamonte on page 1 of the Gazette itself: “The good Italian citizen now resident in Indiana County . . . still cherishes due regard for his motherland, but his loyalty is to the American Constitution and to the American government and flag.” The Patriot lived those principles to the end.
In February 1917, the name Francesco Biamonte appeared proudly in the Patriot’s list of nineteen Italians who had become cittadini di Uncle Sam that month. And when America went to war, Biamonte was “called to the colors” and reported to Camp Forrest, Georgia in June 1918. Minus its guiding light, the Patriot ceased publication. Two weeks later, the Indiana Progress noted that Biamonte had “failed to pass the physical due to a defective foot and was discharged.” He moved to Pittsburgh and worked in the Foreign Department of the First National Bank there, then returned to Indiana (can you blame him?) to work for Farmers’ Bank. But printer’s ink was in his blood, and in April 1919 the Patriot announced its rebirth.
To its prewar mission of educating and encouraging the immigrant community, the paper now added overt political advocacy which had as its aim the promotion of that community’s interests – even if that meant abandoning the party-neutral stance so proudly announced in its maiden issue. Biamonte’s own perspective was decidedly conservative, and Indiana County was a Republican stronghold at the time, but that party’s local leadership was not immigrant-friendly; besides, most Italian-Americans opposed Prohibition while Republican candidates tended to be “dry.” So in 1922, the Patriot came out for Democrat John McSparran for Governor.
He lost. And so, it seemed, did most candidates whom the paper endorsed over the next two decades, including Biamonte himself when he ran for County Prothonotary. Frustrated and (to quote historian Stefano Luconi) “longing for that political recognition which a perennial minority party was unable to grant,” Biamonte and the Patriot switched parties in 1930 and endorsed Republican Gifford Pinchot for Governor. Such flips were not unique for Italian-language journals in our state; Pittsburgh’s Unione and Philadelphia’s L’Opinione would do so in 1932, though in the opposite direction.
Few low-income readers could afford a paper’s nickel price during the Great Depression, so the Patriot changed from weekly to biweekly. It remained so even with prosperity’s postwar return, surviving long after every other non-daily in our county had succumbed. In the meantime, the Patriot had lived up to its social aims by editorial support for things like women’s suffrage, veterans’ pensions and investment in America through bond sales. That willingness to rally support for a just cause would be tested in 1941.
During the two years before our entry into WWII, Biamonte’s editorials grew increasingly bitter and critical, especially of the Roosevelt administration’s friendly relations with Britain and the Soviet Union. But like so much else in America, the Patriot’s editorial tenor was changed overnight by Pearl Harbor. The biweekly issue, already composed and printed the day before, was scrapped and replaced with a special edition dated Monday the 8th. Under its masthead: “We must unite no matter what our differences of opinion. We must stand together to keep America free.” True to its word, the Patriot curbed its wartime criticism; Biamonte praised Roosevelt for removing non-naturalized Italians from the list of enemy aliens, and even his contention that demanding Italy’s unconditional surrender was a mistake appeared discreetly as a letter to the editor in another paper.
Volume XXXII, Number 1 – the first postwar issue – was printed in a world very different from the one into which the Patriot had been born. The third generation of Italian-Americans now outnumbered the first and second, and attitudes about ethnicity and assimilation were softening. Within six years, the coal that had drawn sons of Italy across the ocean and into the mines would be replaced in half of American buildings by oil and gas; unionization, minimum-wage laws and national prosperity ended the near-slavery of those who remained in company towns, eliminating the need for an advocate in print. And in the end, much of the Patriot’s audience came to prefer TV’s immediacy to newspapers’ depth.
By the 1950s, just one of the Patriot’s pages were in Italian. Many readers had moved away, so although there were coast-to-coast and international subscribers, circulation had fallen well below its former peak. But its editor, by now made a Commander in Italy’s Concordia Knights for his journalistic services, soldiered on.
Since his 1939 marriage to art professor Grace Houston, Biamonte had suspended the Patriot’s publication during July and August while the couple vacationed in Grace’s Ohio home town. In the summer of 1955, he came home early due to an unspecified ailment and died the day after publication was to have resumed. When it did resume on October 29th, the Patriot carried notice of its founder’s passing, yet except for listing his wife as publisher and Margaret Morrell as editor, Volume XLI, Number 1 seemed business as usual. But the next issue, devoted entirely to the life of its founder, was its last.
If the Patriot’s final edition was a memorial to Biamonte’s life, the last one under his own hand (June 25) was an embodiment of his character. As if by design, it focused on topics that had been crucial to the immigrant generation whose welfare had been his passion yet were even then passing into history: coal mining’s strategic importance, labor unions’ place in politics, and one’s philanthropic duty to the old country. There was coverage of Pittsburgh’s Italian Day and the opening of the Sons of Italy Building in Philadelphia. Reviews of opera and art and the life of violinist Niccolo Paganini were there, too, all lifelong loves. Yet the anger that had burdened his life’s final third was there as well, in vitriolic editorials denouncing Allied involvement in WWII as Russia’s “stooges” and Fascist abuse of Italian Jews as an exaggerated “tale.”
But in the final analysis, that issue’s most revealing piece was surely the half-page spread of a rippling American flag with the caption: “July 4th, 1955 – That the principles set forth by our forefathers in the Constitution of the United States 179 years ago may be eternal.” The patriot had lived those principles to the end.