Grandpa's Watch

By Bob
June 12, 2003

 

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Benedetto
Salvatore was born in Italy in 1887. More specifically, he was born in Marano Marchesato, Provincia di Cosenza, Calabria, Italy, a southern, inland town where the natives and their Italian dialect are both called "Calabrese." Salvatore's father and mother, Benedetto and Rosaria were cultured people who spun strands from silkworm cocoons to make silk. In fact, in the photo of her shown on the right, Rosaria wears a head covering and appears to be holding a small branch with silkworm cocoons on it -- symbols of her vocation and status. Benedetto wanted his sons to have a better life than his, so, several times while they were growing up, he saved enough money to take Salvatore and Alessandro on the long, slow ship to the United States. There, the three of them would work for several months doing landscaping and other types of manual labor, but earning much more money than they could have in the old country. After several months in the US, they would return home to Italy for awhile before making the trip back to the US all over again. Salvatore and Alessandro loved the United States, and eventually both obtained their US Citizenship.
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Rosaria

 

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One day in 1908, Salvatore's wavy, blonde hair, blue eyes, and light skin-- rare features for man in southern Italy -- caught the eye of a 15-year-old Calabrese girl named Maria, who said to her friends, "Who's that white-haired man?" Salvatore's son, Dominic, writes, "Maria's father was a house contractor in Italy and built houses around all the towns in the province, sometimes staying in the town where the house was being built. He had as many as 50 laborers working for him, which I believe was a large company for the times, and many times Maria was called upon to help with the stones or with the cement used with the large stones. Her father became somewhat influential and wealthy enough to own a side of a mountain known as the Chiappetta mountain, where the people of the town would go and pick the olives from the trees and berries. As was the custom, 2/3 went to Maria's father and 1/3 was kept by the picker. Maria accompanied the pickers at a young age and helped. She also learned to do the laundry in the stream using ashes from the fire as bleach and beating the clothing on the rocks. One of her uncles would arrive and pull her up on his horse and it was thrilling to her to get a horse ride with her uncle. Maria's mother died when she was about 3 (probably in childbirth) and she was raised by a stepmother when her father remarried. She had several brothers and sisters (don't know exactly how many), some were her half siblings and some were full siblings. As was the custom, the cooking or bread oven was built outside and was used every day."

 

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Maria and Salvatore

Eventually, Maria's stepmother heard of her interest in Salvatore and, eager to marry off her stepdaughter, convinced Maria's father to begin marriage negotiations with Salvatore's father. On January 11, 1911, Salvatore and Maria, two relative strangers, became husband and wife in an arranged marriage.

 

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Ben
For the next 14 years, Salvatore continued to work in the US without his wife for many months at a time, returning to Italy only for short visits. His goal was to eventually stay in the US along with his wife and children. Toward that goal, he constantly sent money back to Maria, who still lived in Italy with his family. On occasion, he would return to see Maria for a few months, sometimes leaving her pregnant with a child that he would not see until a subsequent visit. Within a few years, Maria had given birth to Benedetto, Rosaria, and Gilda (pronounced "Jilda"). Young Ben and Rose (named after their grandparents) took a long time to warm up to the father they barely knew, each time he returned from the States.
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Rose

 

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Gilda
Sadly, little Gilda died when she was only about a year old, possibly of pneumonia. In her grief, Maria mailed a photograph to Salvatore, showing the recently deceased Gilda, wearing a dress and her mother's jewelry, so that Salvatore could see what his daughter had looked like.

 

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Salvatore's son, Dominic, writes, "Salvatore sent money to Italy, enough for a handsome house of stone to be built by Maria's father. It was the first house around to have a running water toilet with water diverted by a nearby stream. The house endured after Ma came to America and was never sold, but instead kept as a tribute to Salvatore. Many relatives requested it. It was not lived in until the late 1990s, when it was acquired (I think from the government) by a relative, expanded and repaired and is a handsome house again. It had to be repaired because there were several earthquakes over the years which had shaken the house, and it had to be re-strengthened Maria, when she felt the earthquake coming, would wrap Ben under one arm and Rose under the other, put a bowl of salad or spaghetti (depending on who was telling the story) on her head, and run out to the middle of the street. Relatively safer than in the house. And so they survived."

 

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Some time around 1915, Salvatore became the station master of the train station in Highwood, Illinois, a small town along the shore of Lake Michigan, about 30 miles north of downtown Chicago. Among his duties was moving the rails that switched trains from one track to another, and lowering/raising the wooden gates on either side of the tracks that stopped traffic across the tracks whenever a train approached. As a station master, Salvatore was required to purchase, maintain, and use a relatively expensive, government-certified "railroad pocket watch," that would provide accurate timekeeping under extremely harsh conditions. In the original of the photo of Maria and Salvatore shown above, you can clearly see Salvatore's watch chain and fob. Here's why he had to have such a precision timepiece:

 

In 1891, the country had just eased into the period that historians would later term the "Gay Nineties." It was in April of that year that events occurred near Cleveland, Ohio, that clearly pointed out that the nation's chief form of transportation was running on timepieces that were not reliable. The time had come for strict standards and guide lines for accurate pocket watches to be used by the railroad men and the railroad industry with precision in time keeping.

That April morning the fast mail train was going East. On the same track an accommodation train was going West. It was near Elyria, about 25 miles from Cleveland, Ohio, that the engineer and conductor of the accommodation train were given written orders to let the fast mail train pass them at Kipton, a small station west of Oberlin. As the accommodation train was leaving the station at Elyria, the telegraph operator ran to the platform and verbally cautioned the engineer and conductor, "Be careful, No. 14 is on time." The conductor replied, "Go to thunder. I know my business." The train left Elyria on time according to the engineer's watch. What was not known was that the engineer's watch had stopped for four minutes and then started up again. Had the conductor looked at his own watch, the impending disaster could have been avoided. The two trains met their destiny at Kipton; the accommodation train was under full brakes, but the fast mail was full speed ahead. Both engineers were killed as well as six postal clerks. The railroad companies (Lake Shore Railroad and Michigan Southern Railway) sustained great losses in property as did the US Post Office...

...Prior to 1893, the definition of a railroad watch was optional with individual railroads. About 1893 the General Railroad Timepiece Standards Commission presented these new guidelines...

Be open faced, size 18 or 16, have a minimum of 17 jewels, adjusted to at least five positions, keep time accurately to within a gain or loss of only 30 seconds a week, adjusted to temperatures of 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, have a double roller, steel escape wheel, lever set, micrometric regulator, winding stem at 12 o'clock, grade on back plate, use plain Arabic numbers printed bold and black on a white dial, and have bold black hands...

...The American watch industry was compelled to produce just such an instrument which it did. The railroad watch was a phenomenal timekeeper and durable in long life and service. It had the most minute adjustments, no small feat because watchmaking was rendered far more difficult than clock making, due to the fact that a clock is always in one position and powered by a constant force - it's (sic) weights, while watches must be accurate in several positions with a variable power source...

...According to the regulations, if a watch fell behind or gained 30 seconds in 7 to 14 days, it must be sent in for adjustment or repair. Small cards were given to the engineers and conductors, the railroad timekeepers, and a complete record of the watch's performance was written in ink. All repairs and adjustments were conducted by experienced and approved watchmakers; inspections were conducted by authorized inspectors.

Because this system was adopted, the American watch manufacturers produced a superior railroad watch, the raveling public was assured of increased safety, and indeed the number of railroad accidents occurring as a result of faulty timepieces was minimized.

-- from Complete Price Guide To Watches (2003) by Shugart, Engle & Gilbert, published by Cooksey Shugart Publications

 

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Alessandro and Salvatore
One day, Salvatore left his station master job; possibly because he and his brother joined the US Army to fight in World War I. Salvatore earned the rank of Private First Class, which according to records found on the Internet by his son Dominic decades later, appears to have been uncommon for an Italian immigrant to achieve at that time.

 

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Some time after the war, he began working as a landscaper for a rich lady near Ravinia, a cultural center in the suburbs north of Chicago. True to his roots (pun intended) he liked working as a landscaper. One thing he really liked about that job was that he worked close enough to Ravinia to be able to hear the great tenor, Enrico Caruso, and other famous opera stars when they performed there, which sparked his lifelong love of opera music. Though he was no longer a railroader, he still had his railroad watch, and probably continued to wear it to work every day. It had been designed to keep accurate time in the constantly vibrating, steamy, gritty, coal dust-filled confines of a locomotive engine, so he knew that a little dirt wouldn't hurt it.

 

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In 1925, 14 years after their wedding, Maria and the children finally joined Salvatore in the United States. Benedetto's dream for his son to have a better life than his had come true, but at a huge price -- Salvatore would never again return to Italy to see his family.

 

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Always a hard worker, Salvatore somehow saved enough money to buy a used army barracks building from nearby Fort Sheridan. Then he had it completely bricked over on a residential lot in Highwood, to turn it into a 2-story home with 8 rooms downstairs and two apartments (5-rooms and 3-rooms) upstairs. To help with the costs of raising their children, Salvatore and Maria rented out one of the downstairs bedrooms and both of the upstairs apartments.

 

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Maria and Salvatore
Nancy, Frank, Dominic

A few years after Maria and the children joined Salvatore in the US, their son Frank was born. A few years later, Dominic was born. Their youngest child, Nancy, was born in 1931, just six years before her older sister, Rose, gave birth to her first child. As was the Italian custom back then, whenever Salvatore would take Maria and the children on the train to Chicago to visit his brother Alex and other relatives, Maria walked several paces behind him with Frank, Dominic, and Nancy in tow.

(Dominic provided the photo shown to the right.)

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Dominic and Frank

 

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Salvatore's son, Dominic, writes, "When Salvatore was going to get the house in Highwood, Illinois, after Maria joined him in the USA, she insisted on one thing, which was that it had to be near the Church and it was -- there was only 1 house between Maria's house and the Church. She went to church at 7:00 each morning for the rest of her life. She said 5 rosaries every day, one for each of her living children, and in 1949, when Frank bought her a TV, she said some of them while watching the doctor programs that she learned to love. And she became sad when they were sad. She also said her rosary in bed at night as she waited for her sons to come home, and I suspect as many as 5 more. She never went to school, as was the custom in Italy that only the males went to school, but she learned all the recipes by heart and all her stories were embellished and interesting. She was also very clever, and was one of the smartest women I ever knew. She had great common sense and knew psychology without learning it. She could not speak English fluently, but just learning the ways of the USA. And learned the difference between a 1, 5, 10, and 20-dollar bill. She learned to shop by herself. She had a little cloth pouch built into the center of her bra, and many times gave the children pennies to go and get candy or gum. She would bring children and then subsequently grandchildren to church and sit with them in the back pew and teach them to pray, and when they were finished she would "find" candy bars for them and would exclaim, 'Look what baby Jesus left for you.' "

 

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Maria and Nancy

Since Salvatore's two oldest children hadn't really known him while they were growing up, Ben and Rose had mostly feared their often-absent father. Frank and Dom grew up with a great deal of respect for him. But he was "a pussycat" to his youngest daughter, Nancy -- at least most of the time. When Nancy was 10 or 11 years old, someone gave her father an out-of-tune old studio piano, which he brought home for Nancy. She was very excited to begin taking piano lessons from a nun at nearby St. James Catholic School. Unfortunately, Nancy's piano teacher didn't know much about teaching small children how to play the piano, because most of her lessons consisted of having Nancy repeat boring finger exercises like C-D-C-B, C-D-C-B. As a result, Nancy's enthusiasm for the piano waned, causing her father to ask her at every opportunity, "Did you practice?" Nancy would lie and tell him that she had. He would say, "If you don't play this thing, I'm going to break it up for kindling wood." This little duet went on for several months, until one morning, Nancy woke up to the banging, clanging sounds of Salvatore breaking up the old piano to use as kindling wood.

 

 

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Salvatore

After his rich landscaping employer died, Salvatore went to work shoveling coal into the boilers at the Great Lakes Hospital, a short train ride north of Highwood. It was hard, hot, dirty work, but someone had to do it, and Salvatore was willing to be that someone. And he probably continued to wear his railroad watch to work each day. His son, Dominic, provided the photo shown to the left, and wrote, "He worked very hard all his life. 12 hours a day, 6 days a week at one job alone, and it was hard work. I often thought of him when I went to work in a suit all my life, and sat at a desk, drank my coffee, smoked my cigarette, took a break, and when I worked it was with a pencil instead of a shovel. I know he was looking down on all that."

 

 

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One day in December, 1944, Salvatore woke up with appendicitis, but he didn't know it. He felt some pain, but as a man who did hard physical labor for a living, he was used to waking up with aches and pains. Salvatore's son, Dominic, writes, "Salvatore had a pain in the middle of his back and he couldn't understand what it could be, so he went from doctor to doctor for a number of months and finally allowed one doctor to repair both of his hernias when he was guaranteed that that was the source of the pain, but after a month or more recuperating at home, the pain continued to persist and kept getting worse." Even a simple X-ray or exploratory surgery would probably have revealed that the cause of his pain was the fact that his infected appendix was curved toward his back, but no one thought of doing those things at the time.

So, he got up, got dressed, had something to eat, walked to the train station, and took the train to work. As he stepped off the train at the Great Lakes station, he slipped on a patch of ice and fell to the ground, causing his inflamed appendix to burst and flood his insides with peritonitis infection. Unable to get back to his feet, he called out for help and was taken to nearby Downey Veteran's Hospital. Doctors gave him the relatively new, hard-to-get, and expensive antibiotic, penicillin, but they weren't able to give him enough of it, so the peritonitis continued to grow within him.

 

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Six weeks later, in the evening of January 18, Salvatore insisted that his wife go home from the hospital. After arguing with him, she finally agreed to go, but before she left, she made their son, Benedetto, promise to stay with his father. A few hours later, Salvatore ordered his son to go home, too. Ben, torn between his mother's wishes and his father's demands, finally left the hospital and took the train home. When she saw him walk into the house, his mother cried, "What have you done?"

A few hours later, at 3:00 in the morning on January 19, 1945, Maria received a call from the hospital, telling her that Salvatore had died.

 

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The next morning, Maria insisted that her 13 year-old daughter, Nancy, go to school as usual. Nancy had been told that her father had "passed away," but she hadn't yet fully understood the meaning of that phrase. When her teacher, a nun, asked her "How is your father doing?" she nonchalantly replied, "Oh, he passed away." The nun was shocked and told Nancy that she should be at home instead of in school. It was then that Nancy realized that her father had actually died.

 

Salvatore was buried with full military honors in the Catholic Ascension Cemetery near Libertyville, Illinois. His large dark-red, marble tombstone has a carving of Jesus praying just before he was crucified. His son, Dominic writes, "I believe that was appropriate for the life that he led."

 

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That Summer, 14-year-old Nancy had her appendix removed, even though there was nothing wrong with it. She insisted on having the medically unnecessary surgery to prevent her appendix from killing her like her father's appendix had killed him.

 

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Maria

Maria continued to raise her family without Salvatore, renting out the upstairs apartments, a downstairs bedroom, and for a time, even renting out her living room and sun room to people who needed a place to sleep. A devout Catholic, she prayed every day that when she died, it would be a peaceful death. Maria passed away peacefully, of a sudden stroke, at home in her bed, with her daughter, Nancy, her son, Frank, and her son-in-law, Richard, by her side, on the night of February 17, 1962. In the middle of a conversation, she quietly sighed, and was gone. Her son, Dominic writes, "What a great way to go."

She was buried next to Salvatore, and a large cross on its side was added to the top of his tombstone.

 

 

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In the early 1960's, Nancy began to ask her oldest brother Ben for "Pa's watch." She had felt an attachment to Salvatore's railroad pocket watch, and really wanted to have it. Nancy remembered seeing her father check the time on his pocket watch and put it back into the vest pocket of his Sunday suit or in the pants pocket of his work pants. She also remembered that it had an engraving of a castle on its back, but she couldn't remember much else about it. Each time she asked him about it, Ben would tell her he knew he had put the watch somewhere, but that he couldn't remember where. One day, Ben surprised his youngest sibling by giving her "Pa's watch." It hadn't run since their father had died, and it was missing its second hand, but it was still "Pa's watch." Nancy put her father's watch on display on a bookshelf, hanging from a tiny hook in the top of a little plastic dome on a wooden base.

 

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In the early 1990's, Nancy gave her father's watch to her oldest son, my older brother, who put it on display in his home along with several old photographs.

 

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In the mid-1990s, I became interested in antique pocket watches. I read up on their history and bought and sold a few of them for fun.

 

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In 1997, aware of my interest, my older brother wrote and offered me our grandfather's watch, telling me that he thought it was neat, but that he didn't feel any particular sentimental attachment to it. I declined his generous offer, telling him that although it'd be great to have it, I'd feel horrible if it were to get lost or damaged further in shipping.

 

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About five years later, in early 2002, I realized that the whole reason I had been researching, buying, selling, and collecting antique pocket watches was because, like my mother, I felt some kind of attachment to my grandfather's old railroad pocket watch. I called my brother and said, "Now that you've had Grandpa's watch for several years, how do you feel about it?" He confirmed that he still didn't feel any particular attachment to it, and said that I could have it if I wanted it. I told him that, if he really didn't mind giving it to me, I was seriously considering having it restored to its original beauty and functionality, so that I could use it as my everyday watch. He generously packed it up very carefully and shipped it to me almost immediately. When it arrived and I held it for the first time, I felt somehow connected to the grandfather that I had never known, and to my past. I did a lot of research, contacting professional antique watch collectors to find the very best antique watch repair person I could find. A few weeks later, I packed up Grandpa's watch very carefully and sent it to Ed Ueberall in upper New York state.

 

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As a well-respected and extremely popular repair and restoration person, Ed had more than 3 months worth of other people's antique pocket watches waiting to be fixed before he could get to Grandpa's watch. It turned out that the reason Grandpa's watch hadn't run since 1945 was because its balance staff and balance staff jewel were both broken -- possibly by the shock they had endured when Grandpa had slipped on the ice and fallen. All together, the restoration took several months and cost nearly $500 -- while the watch's 2003 book value in Extra Fine condition is only $225 -- but it was worth every penny to me, because Ed completely disassembled and cleaned every part of the nearly 88-year-old watch, replaced the balance staff and balance staff jewel, carefully oiled all the correct parts, restored the whole watch to like-new condition, and then precisely adjusted its nearly microscopic settings to make it keep time accurately.

 

 

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On January 19, 2003, Grandpa's watch arrived safely back home by insured mail, looking new and running perfectly -- exactly 58 years after the day he had died.

 

A few months later, my mother, Nancy, then 72-years old, saw and heard "Pa's watch" running for the first time since she had been a little girl. With tears welling in her eyes, she lifted it to her lips and gently kissed it.

 

Nella memoria di Grandpa.

 

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Grandpa's watch is a 1915 16-size Hampden New Railway with 21 jewels, a wavy damaskeened (patterned) movement, gold jewel settings, adjusted to 5 positions, in its original Dueber 20-year gold-filled case. I connect it to a 14" gold-plated, double-link chain that attaches to one of my belt loops, and it fits perfectly into a small, hard leather case that I made that attaches to my belt. It currently keeps time to within about 10 seconds per week.

Many thanks to Salvatore's daughter, Nancy, who contributed memories and photographs, and to Salvatore's son, Dominic, who contributed memories, photographs, and the results of his genealogical research.

 

Story and photos © Copyright 2003 by Bob. All Rights Reserved.

 

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