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Prohibition & Entrepreneurialism

Ersilia Conjoli CecconiThis is Ersilia Conjoli Cecconi. In this picture (circa 1900) she was 22. I believe it to be her wedding photo. Ersilia is my great grandmother, and my hero. In fact, I made Ersilia my confirmation name (for all you Catholics you can appreciate the grief I took for not picking a Saints name—the Nuns were not happy). I did it anyway–because I wanted to honor the strength of this woman.  I didn’t realize how prophetic that would be and how much I’d need to find that kind of strength myself in the not too distant future.

Up until two days ago I’d never seen a picture of my great-grandmother. I’d been to Italy, and stood in the church where she married Onorato Cecconi, in a small town just north of Florence, but, I assumed that any pictures were lost to time and the poverty of immigrants who rarely could afford such luxuries. After watching a documentary about Prohibition, I shared with my husband Ersilia’s story beginning with the loss of her husband in a mining accident in 1926, in a rough little town outside Pittsburgh called Whiskey Run. With six children, no income and unable to speak English, her situation was dire. But like many women in my family, she figured it out, she got it done and she kept her family together.

She was our family’s first entrepreneur—and, the first person to earn money doing something other than mining coal. Ersilia made wine and whiskey and ran it to New York in the heart of prohibition. As the story goes, she carried a gun under her skirt and would annually get hauled in to the magistrate. After paying a fee (read bribe) she was able to get back to business. Whiskey Run had 27 unsolved murders between 1910 and 1930, this was the Wild West for immigrants in America and no place for a former nursing student from a small town in Tuscany.

For some reason, I felt compelled to get on Ancestry.com and search around. I didn’t expect to find much but, and low and behold, an image surfaced that made my heart stop. Here were my great grandparents, the women I had admired—a face to match the name from more than 90 years ago.  What a gift and a great way to start the New Year!  I was humbled and reminded of the sacrifice made by women who “did it all”— not by choice but by necessity. There was no discussion about work/life balance, there was only survive. Can you imagine even talking about something like that with a woman like Ersilia? Today, we have the luxury to have children and careers and even plan our destiny if we so choose—-all possible based on the sacrifice and success of our relatives who gave us the natural determination and perseverance to chart our course.   I’d like to think she’d be proud of me.

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So, a toast to the New Year (a fine glass of Prosecco please), and to a women who:

  • Created a product
  • Found a regional market
  • Developed a successful distribution plan
  • Managed through some “challenging” federal regulations
  • And, generated enough revenue to keep a roof over the heads of her family

Felice Anno Nuovo Ersilia, ben fatto…



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