Sunday, January 18, 2015

Charles Serasio Found Gold and Early Death in Lead

In September,1919, when Charles Serasio died at only 49 years of age from tuberculosis, the Lead (South Dakota) Daily Call newspaper cited him as a respected and popular resident of the the city.  The obituary did not mention the odyssey that brought Serasio to Lead and a premature death — nor addressed his success as a local saloonkeeper.

Serasio was born in 1870 in San Giorgio, Italy, shown above.  For years the climate and natural beauty on the Mediterranean made the town a strong magnet for tourists and it flourished.  Two eruptions from nearby Mount Vesuvius in 1855, however, severely damaged the economy and triggered a gradual emigration of the populace overseas in search of employment.  Among them were members of the extensive Serasio family (Charles himself was one of ten children) many of whom came to the United States.

After a period in his youth living with relatives in France, Serasio immigrated to these shores in 1886.  His first stop was Michigan, where he may have had relatives.  That is where he traded the bright Mediterranean sunshine for the darkness of the mines.  Near the present city of Calumet a rich copper-bearing section created in the Precambrian Age was discovered in 1864 and mining operations ensued.  Calumet became the leading copper producer in the world, for many years turning out more than half that metal mined in the United States. Until the 20th Century all copper mining was done underground by men like Serasio, who daily were breathing in the dust and gases created.

After working in Calumet for several years,  Serasio, perhaps seeking better prospects, moved west to Great Falls, Montana.  That town was the site of a processing plant for the giant Anaconda Copper Mine.  It had been founded in 1881 and rapidly had become one of the nation’s largest copper producers.  As a seasoned mine worker Serasio probably had no trouble finding employment there during a period that the Anaconda holdings were expanding rapidly.  Once again he was exposed to the heath hazards of the mining trade.
By 1897, he had left Great Falls and headed to South Dakota where the town of Lead had been founded in 1876 after the discovery of gold.  It was the site of the Homestake Mine, shown above, the largest, deepest (8,382 feet) and most productive gold mine in the Western Hemisphere.  Serasio went to work digging for gold in the miles of tunnels that honeycombed the earth below Lead.  Gold mining is among the worst for lung damage.  The gold miners of South Africa, for example, have the highest rates of tuberculosis inflection in the world, a rate seven times higher than the general population of South Africa, itself the country with the second highest TB rates in the world.
In Lead, Charles found a wife.  She was Mary Galetto, a woman five years his junior and like him of Italian heritage.  The couple would have four children, James, born in 1900; Anton (Tony) 1901;  Mary Catherine, 1905, and Josephine, 1904.  Whether it was family responsibilities or a growing recognition of respiratory problems, Serasio finally stepped out of the mines for good.  A 1909 Lead business directory listed him as owning a saloon at No. 4 on the aptly named Gold Street.  He had discovered that rather than digging for gold in the ground, it could be more easily made by selling whiskey to thirsty miners, such as those Homestead hands shown above.

Serasio proved to be highly successful as a publican.  Not only was he pushing liquor over the  the bar, he was selling it in “take home” quantities, using large ceramic jugs that promoted him as the proprietor and a “dealer in domestic and imported liquors, California and home made wines...a specialty.”  Shown here are two views of one of his jugs and the label of a second.  His advertising suggests that Serasio was mixing up his own whiskey in a back room for sale and also fixing up concoctions he called “home made” wine, South Dakota not being noted for its vineyards.  

Serasio constantly had to be looking over his shoulder for the forces of “Temperance.”   Prohibitionary laws in Dakota Territory had been passed as early as 1889 but lacked  enforcement provisions.  When the first South Dakota state legislature met in 1890 they passed an enforcement bill that also had minimal effect.  Thus by 1909, Serasio could still be listed as running a saloon but may have been emphasizing container sales since “package stores” under spurious licensing as drugstores in South Dakota could still sell spirits and call it “medicine.”

Whether it was the forces of prohibition or the need to breathe cleaner air, about 1917 Serasio shut down his Lead operations and with his family headed over the border to Sundance, Wyoming, about 50 miles away by road.  That state had no temperance laws and South Dakota residents regularly made treks there, so many of them that Wyoming border towns became known as “a perpetual oasis for thirsty Dakotans.”
Sundance, shown above about 1900, is nestled in the valley of the Bear Lodge Mountains in Northwestern Wyoming on the western edge of the Black Hills.  Established in 1875 as a trading post it was prospering in the wide open frontier of the times, including being very hospitable to saloons.  In 1889 a Dakotan named W. H. Blair after being forced to close his saloon in Rapid City, South Dakota, relocated to Sundance and operated there until selling out in 1917.  The new owner was Charles Serasio. He operated the drinking establishment for several years before moving back to Lead, possibly because his bad health made it impossible to carry on.

Not long after returning, Serasio died on September 11, 1919.  The undertaker and coroner, J. J. Mead, gave the official cause as “acute  pulmonary tuberculosis.”  Serasio’s life in the mines had caught up with him.  At 49 years old he left behind a widow and four minor children to mourn his passing.  His funeral had to be delayed because of the many Serasio relatives coming from around the country.  On the appointed day a Requiem Mass was said for Charles at the local Catholic church, a ceremony attended by a large crowd.  As the Lead Daily Call reported:  Interment was in municipal cemetery and the body was followed to its last resting place by a very large number. The Cristofor Colombo society, of which he had been a member, turned out in force, and led by the Knights of Pythias band, marched in the funeral procession to the cemetery.  Shown here is the saloonkeeper’s impressive marble gravestone in South Lead Cemetery.

Such was the final resting place of Charles Serasio who had paid the price of many who have worked underground to extract the mineral wealth of America.  Nevertheless, he was one who by dint of intelligence and hard work escaped the mines to operate successful and popular saloons and earn an accolade in his local newspaper as “one of the old time and respected citizens of Lead.”  That tribute to Serasio is one many of us might wish to have applied when we pass from this life.

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