LEE — The obituary for a man who died in 1982 at the age of at 92 is yellowed and cut slightly unevenly out of a newspaper. It tells of the life of an early Italian immigrant, Ralph J. Rotondo Sr., who came to the U.S in 1908, when he was about 19. He worked on railroad construction in Geneva, N.Y., for a few years, sending money back to his family in Italy, choosing to live leanly.
On a visit to his mother in Italy he was drafted into the Italian army and served in North Africa for a couple years before returning to settle in Lee.
His son, Ralph Rotondo Jr., said his father never returned to Italy again. He had a disagreement with his only sister when she visited Lee, and he cut ties with his family overseas.
Rotondo Sr. worked at Lee Marble, making steam to run the cranes. He then worked at Eagle Mill as a fireman, firing the steam room to power the mill. He studied for his engineer’s license to become a steam engineer and worked at a tannery, where he was promoted to fireman and stayed until the place went out of business.
Rotondo Jr. speaks fondly of his father, who instilled his work ethic by making sure he got a job the minute school let out each summer. Rotondo Jr. said he loved horses and was delighted to find work as a farm hand, where he learned to ride and drive carts.
He worked at the paper mill in Lee as a day-time job for 37 years, but his love of horses led him to purchase horses for his five daughters.
He was unhappy with the local farrier, the man who forged horse shoes and shod horses in the neighborhood, and he learned how to shoe horses himself. When others noticed he was doing this, they asked him to do their horses.A professional farrier, Clarence Martin of Sheffield, who learned to shoe horses during the war, saw his handiwork and asked him to be his apprentice. Rotondo Jr. smiled as he told how, at the end of his one-year apprenticeship, the farrier split the payment for a job with him, telling him he was good enough to go out on his own.
What had started as his attempt to do a better job grew into a business, and Rotondo Jr. traveled throughout New England to shoe race horses and even the Budweiser Clydsdales. He said the harnesses for Budweiser horses were made in the gray building next to the present-day Briarcliff Motel.
Rotondo Jr. kept shoeing until he was about 79. Then he trimmed shoes until he retired at 81. He and his wife still keep a pony on their farm in Lee.
His wife, Jeanette, whose mother immigrated from Quebec, also grew up loving horses. The couple met at Jeanette’s uncle’s house, according to their daughter, Donna. Ralph had come for a meeting — he rode with Jeanette’s uncle in the Powder River Riding Club in 1953.
Jeanette taught people how to ride and care for horses and then build trust in them. She enjoyed working with young people, she said, especially those with special needs. She still teaches her great grandchildren, though the Rotondos no longer give lessons or carriage rides.
Their eyes lit up as they took turns talking about their carriage business. Besides shoeing, showing and grooming horses, they discovered the tradition of carriage parades. Jeanette believed the tradition began in the early 1900s, when rich wives paraded up and down Main Street, all dressed up and riding in horse-drawn carriages.
The Rotondos got involved in showing horses and carriages in various town fairs and festivals, like the Colonial Carriage and Driving, Tub Parade and Norman Rockwell Christmas. The spoke with excitement about their favorite and most expensive carriage, white with a maroon velvet interior, which they bought for $4,000.
“It was always amazing to see [my dad] and his horses pulling diffeent apparatuses in parades and events,” Donna said. “He took my son to the prom in his white carriage, and he was the last one to get a ride in that.”
They provided horses and carriages for the weddings of four of their five children and a grandchild. They turned the carriages into a side business and did local weddings. Rotondo Jr. boasts Town & Country magazine once did a photo spread of their carriages.
“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” Jeanette said, quoting Winston Churchill.
They’ve used that motto as a guiding principle in all their years of working with horses, she said.
Donna Rotondo is the executive assistant at Multicultural Bridge.
On the bridge: This column is a collaboration between this magazine and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds. berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge