Australian Heritage Commission, 2001
9 - Luigi's house
18 Bent Street, Cooma, New South Wales
Luigi's house in 1997.
Luigi Salvestro and his family were amongst some 332,000 non-British immigrants who settled in Australia in the first seven years of the post-war immigration program. The Australian government believed that migration on a large scale would play a crucial part in Australia's development. The Snowy Mountains Authority, which commenced construction of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme in 1949, in Australia's highest mountains, relied heavily on non-British labour. By 1951, forty per cent of its workmen and eighty per cent of the tradesmen were newly-arrived migrants.
In 1950 Luigi Salvestro, a builder and carpenter, ventured to Cooma after his first few weeks in Sydney. He soon gained employment with an Italian company owned by Legnami Pasotti, building houses for Snowy Scheme staff in Cooma North. During the early years of the scheme's construction, Cooma's population increased more than five-fold. What had been a small settlement that serviced the pastoral district of the Monaro Plains, became a bustling cosmopolitan township, administrative headquarters for the scheme. After construction of the scheme was completed in 1974, many migrant families stayed on as permanent residents.
The Salvestro family passport photograph, taken in about 1950, some 18 months before the family left Italy. Anna and baby Ines, with Nina, Lilli, Stella and Carlo.
Like thousands of others in post-war Europe, Luigi was drawn by the promise of work and opportunities that could not be found in the 'old country'. His wife, Anna, and their five children (Carlo, Stella, Lilli, Nina and newborn Ines) stayed at home near Venice, Italy. Within eighteen months of arrival, Luigi had bought a block of land and sent plans for his new house back to the family. He built his house in his spare time, in 1951-52, a few hours every day, using hardwood timber from a local sawmill and fibro (asbestos cement) sheeting. Fibro was a popular building material in Cooma, as it was available and relatively cheap. Domestic appliances such as baths and stoves were in short supply, and there was no sewerage connection. Nevertheless, the cottage had electricity, water and heating.
Finally, in 1952, the word came from Luigi that he was ready for Anna and the children to follow him to Australia. They made the long sea journey to Sydney, then travelled by rail to Cooma in the steam train fondly known as 'Old Smokey'. Carlo, the eldest at 13, remembers how the family was delighted with Luigi's handiwork.
We were very impressed with the house. We were not used to timber houses where we came from. We had a wood burning heater - that was all there was in the lounge room. In the kitchen we had a table that my father made, and two benches. We had a burner in the laundry and an old cement tub and a copper to boil the clothes. We had a bath and a shower, with the hot water unit in the ceiling. I don't know how Dad did it. It is unbelievable how hard he must have worked.
I am very proud of what my father achieved in such a short time, building a house in his spare time and paying our fares to join him.
The back yard was converted into a vegetable garden, although local frosts made it difficult for the family to become self-sufficient. Anna raised up to 50 chickens and planted fruit trees. Entrepreneurial Cooma shopkeepers, however, were quick to learn that they had a ready market for Italian food. One Greek shopkeeper, Zervos, even learnt to speak Italian and stocked Italian specialties transported from Sydney.
Within two years, the Salvestro family had grown to nine - two adults and seven children. The modest cottage had three bedrooms but 'this was enough for us'. Everyone gathered in the kitchen for meals. 'We used to let the ones that sat against the wall be first in, the smaller ones, then Mum and Dad at the ends of the table, and the other children sat on the other side.' The girls shared one bedroom, Carlo had another, and the baby slept with Anna and Luigi. There were also two Italian boarders in the early days. 'Mum was a good cook, and it was a luxury for them to have home cooking. It helped in the beginning, bringing in extra money.' The boarders had also contributed to the house by painting the interior before the family moved in. Using a patterned roller, they skilfully produced a wallpaper effect on the walls.
Dad was the first Italian to build a house in Cooma. 'Why in poor, little Cooma?' they asked. Other migrants laughed at him, then everybody did the same.
Luigi and Carlo Salvestro outside the house in about 1963
At 15, Carlo began working with Luigi and other local builders, but was soon lured by the pay and conditions that the Snowy Scheme offered. He secured work at the Guthega Power Station as the Scheme's youngest employee at that time, and, over the next 25 years, he worked as a tunneller and carpenter. Luigi's house changed in small ways over those years. Son-in-law, Gianni Bozzato, added a pebble render to the exterior fibro sheeting and Anna and Carlo painted it dark blue. Anna tended her backyard chickens, vegetables and fruit trees and created a flower garden at the front. New sheds appeared in the back near Luigi's 'funny-shaped' shed that he had constructed prior to building the house to store building materials and tools.
Carlo tells of the many Italian visitors who came on weekends to have a good home- cooked meal, and of the laundry copper being used to cook the traditional Northern Italian polenta. Local children who came after school to play would hang around until tea time, knowing that Carlo's mother would offer them a bowl of spaghetti. They all loved to sample it! In later years, 'my mother's many grandchildren loved to visit their Nonna for a meal, and their favourite dish was gnocchi which Mum used to make with the traditional bolognaise sauce for first course and with cinnamon sugar and melted butter for dessert'.
After Luigi died in 1965, Carlo and his siblings gradually moved away from home. Anna stayed on until her death in 1995. The years Anna spent in Cooma were the happiest of her life. Luigi's house had changed little over the forty years between 1952 and 1992. When Carlo moved back in he decided to renovate the cottage. The kitchen was enlarged to nearly twice the size. He changed the middle bedroom to create a study and access to the adjoining bedroom, and added new built-in robes in the main bedroom. The tin roof, cut and laid in sections to imitate tiles, was replaced with conventional colorbond sheets. Carlo constructed new fascias, eaves and guttering, modernised the bathroom, replaced the timber windows with aluminium ones, and added a new covered verandah and an extra toilet at the rear.
Like many houses built in the 1950s, the hot water system was located in the roof, and the pipes were galvanised iron. Inevitably, the system burst several years ago, causing water damage. Carlo kept two of Anna's original fruit trees, but the large European tree planted in the middle of the back yard had to go. Finally, Carlo added a new double garage and workshop for his building business. The house that Luigi built, now painted white, lives on as a simple Cooma home, testimony to the vision and enterprise of one migrant family in post-war Australia.
Note: Diagonal lines indicate Carlo's modifications
Drawn by Shibou Dutta
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
Carlo Salvestro for sharing his memories, plans and photographs, and Janet Stalvies of Cooma, who suggested the Salvestro family story as a result of her work with the Australian Heritage Commission's 'Migrant Heritage Places in Australia' project. Photographs courtesy of Carlo Salvestro.
Howell, Alison, Cooma: a decade of change - 1950-1960, Cooma-Monaro Historical Society Inc, Cooma, 1968.
Interview with Carlo Salvestro, Cooma, 31 July 1997.
Jordens, Ann-Mari, Redefining Australians: immigration, citizenship and national identity, Hale & Iremonger Pty limited, Sydney, 1995.
Neal, Lauri, Cooma Country, Cooma-Monaro Historical Society Inc, Cooma, 1976.
Lecomte, Jenny, 'Salvestro family celebrates last 40 years in Cooma' in Monaro Express, 25 June 1992.
McHugh, Siobhan, The Snowy: the people behind the power, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1995 (first published by William Heinemann Australia, 1989).
Joy McCann holds a MA degree in Public History from Monash University. She has worked extensively in community history and heritage projects, including at the Australian Heritage Commission. She is currently a PhD candidate in the Cultural Heritage Research Centre at the University of Canberra. Joy was project manager for the Australian Heritage Commission's Migrant Heritage Places in Australia project.
Links to another web site
Opens a pop-up window