Natale & Natalina, a royal couple without sceptre or crown

There are many stories of Italian migrants who came to Australia with nothing more than a suitcase and were able to achieve great success in their business undertakings: stories of hard work, endurance, determination and, in some cases, extraordinary fortitude in the face of dire circumstances.

Such is the story of Natale Ieraci, the founder of Campoli Foods, a fine food and grocery wholesale company located in the Melbourne suburb of Reservoir. He is a couple of months away from his 96th birthday and, incredible as it may seem, he is still involved in the family business and goes to work every morning with his 80-year old wife.

He was born in a small mountain village of Calabria called Agromastelli in the municipality of Caulonia whose origins go back to the Greek colonisation of Southern Italy in the 8th century BC. In 200 BC Caulonia was destroyed by the Romans after it sided with Hannibal during the Punic Wars. It later came to be known as Castelvetere until it resumed its ancient name after Calabria’s annexation to the Kingdom of Italy in 1862. One of Natale’s forbears made a name for himself as a staunch local supporter of Garibaldi during the famous “Expedition of the Thousand” that freed Southern Italy from the Bourbon regime.

At the end of World War Two, the people of Caulonia, most living in dire poverty, rebelled against greedy landowners and proclaimed a republic of their own. It was a short-lived undertaking, soon crushed by a full scale military operation involving both Allied forces and carabinieri units. 350 citizens were captured and put on trial for sedition. Most were ultimately pardoned, but their leader, a primary school teacher named Pasquale Cavallaro, was sentenced to eight years in prison.

When this dramatic episode was taking place, Natale Ieraci was in Australia and had just regained his freedom after spending five years in internment camps for enemy aliens. He had been arrested in Perth shortly after the Italian Fascist government had entered the war siding with Nazi Germany in June 1940. He had arrived in Australia one year before to reunite with his older brother Orlando who had left a few years previously.

Natale’s father Vincenzo had an even more dramatic tale. At the age of 16 he found his way to the United States where he joined members of another Agromastelli family called Fragomeli who had moved to America during the years of the great wave of Italian migration to the new continent. A few years later Vincenzo returned to Italy to find a wife in Agromastelli and return to America. He married Carolina, a young woman of the Fragomeli family clan and in 1913 his first son Orlando was born. He then returned to America preceding his wife and child who were to join him after he would send the money for the sea passage but the outbreak of World War One made the plan impossible. He had to wait til the end of the war before returning once again to Italy and take his wife and child with him back to America. But, as fate would have it, his young wife died during the dreaded Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and Vincenzo became a widowed father with a six-year-old son to look after. His American dream seemed to have vanished forever until Teresa, a sister of his dead wife, accepted to marry him. The plan of going back to America was revamped and Vincenzo embarked on a new journey across the Atlantic Ocean to set things in order before being joined by his new wife and son.

Life seemed to smile again on Vincenzo but he was going to suffer another stroke of bad luck. When he arrived in New York, the US senate had approved new legislation blocking the admission of new immigrants and Vincenzo was forced to sail back to Italy and return home empty-handed. However, he was not a man willing to surrender to a life of hardship and privations. He had heard of another country, called Australia, much farther away than America, where he could try and build a future for himself and his young family. He needed time to save money for the long journey and he did not earn much working as a labourer in Caulonia’s countryside. Hence, some years went by and Vincenzo became father of a few more children.

Natale, his second-born son, was about five years old when the fateful day of his father’s departure for Australia arrived. He still holds a vivid memory of him walking downhill until his image faded away in the morning haze. He was too little to imagine that 15 years later he would follow in his footsteps. However, as he was growing up in Agromastelli, the idea must have come to his mind even though the news from his father were anything but rosy.

Due to the 1929 Great Depression, unemployment in Australia more than doubled, reaching 21% per cent in the early 1930’s. Almost 32% of the adult population were unemployed. Vincenzo had to struggle to find work and send some money to his family back in Agromastelli. He worked in the mines of Tasmania and the sugar cane plantations in Queensland but the little money he was earning was hardly worth his efforts and in 1933 he went back to Italy. Nevertheless, his older son Orlando, who was now over twenty years old, decided to give Australia another go. His younger brother Natale followed him a few years later.

It was May 1939 when the 19-year-old Natale left Italy on a British ocean liner he boarded in Naples. He must have felt the excitement of a young and confident man putting out to sea for an epic voyage. On his way to Naples he had set foot on a train for the first time and now he was boarding a ship headed to the far end of the world. He had no money at all in his pockets and, in one of life’s little ironies, during the journey he found a wallet on the floor of the dining hall containing banknotes to the value of some 70 pounds, in those times a large amount of money. He showed it to one of the waiters who suggested they should share the money. Natale rejected the suggestion and made sure that the wallet with the money was entrusted to a ship officer and returned to its owner. Honesty was one of the fundamental values he had been taught in a poverty-stricken village of Calabria.

After his arrival in Fremantle, Natale received help to find some casual jobs that enabled him to survive until he could reach his brother Orlando in Kalgoorlie, 600 kilometres away from Perth. He worked for a while in a potato plantation and then returned to Perth where in June 1940 he was arrested as enemy alien and sent with other Italian immigrants to a shabby internment camp in Rottnest Island, off the coast of Western Australia.

Living conditions were appalling: almost no water and meagre, foul food. Fortunately, three months later, the internees were moved to another camp at Harvey, 140 kilometres south of Perth. It housed around one thousand men, most of them Italian. They were miners, farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, businessmen and professionals. The camp was closed in 1942 after an inquiry by military authorities found its administration inadequate. The internees were transferred, first to Parkeston near Kalgoorlie, and then moved to a new camp at Loveday, South Australia, approximately 200 kilometres east of Adelaide.

Natale had heard that a cousin of his was among the Italian prisoners of war, and during the long transfer by train to South Australia he wrote his cousin’s name on a piece of paper with a message saying that he was trying to track him down. He left the message on the carriage floor in the hope that it would be found by somebody who knew his cousin. It ended up instead in the hands of a military officer and after the arrival at Loveday, Natale was interrogated and punished with solitary confinement for two weeks.

Natale was to remain in Loveday until the end of the war and on top of the misery of living behind barbed wire, he had to endure another harsh punishment when he refused to fell a tree during a day of labour in the bush. Upon returning to the camp he was sentenced to remain standing under the sun for many hours, resulting in permanent damage to his eyes.

His brother Orlando was also at Loveday. He had saved a little bit of money before being interned and, being a music lover, used the money to buy an accordion for a prisoner who could play it and render the time in the camp less miserable.

Among the non-Italian prisoners there was a Hungarian master musician who offered to teach music to Orlando, Natale and some other Italian inmates. He also managed to find a few instruments in the camp. His lessons were so productive that in a short while a little band was formed and started providing music entertainment to the camp population. When the internees were released at the end of 1944, Natale and his brother had become competent players and for a while continued playing at social gatherings and functions.

Six years had gone by after Natale’s arrival in Fremantle but the day he left the Loveday Camp was like starting a new life in Australia. He went back to Perth with his brother and they both found work in a newly opened Italian restaurant, though they received little pay beyond their meals. The economic climate was bleak in the post-war years especially in a relatively small city like Perth. Eventually they decided to move to Melbourne where they hoped they would find more work opportunities. Natale got a job as a waiter at the Menzies Hotel and later at Ciro’s Night Club in Collins Street. Finally, he was earning good money but he couldn’t send any of it to his family in Italy because at that time money transfers overseas were restricted. He could only save what he earned and in a few years he had saved enough money to buy some real estate in North Carlton.

In 1952 Orlando went to Italy to visit his parents and get married. After his return to Melbourne, it was Natale’s turn to do the same and in Agromastelli he found a perfect match: a bright and level-headed 17-year-old girl from a family called Dimasi, which had a long history of migration to Australia. Even her first name, Natalina, matched that of Natale! Her maternal grandparents and uncles, named Cavallaro (possibly related to the leader of the ill-fated Republic of Caulonia), were living in Queensland.

Natale and Natalina married on the 28th of June 1953 and started their new life in Melbourne in mid-December of that year. It was the beginning of an amazing union that would generate seven children (two sons and five daughters), 25 grandchildren and so far, 12 great-grandchildren. On top of this prolific family tree, Natale and Natalina were able to set up and run together a thriving food supply and distribution company which currently employs over 70 people, a dozen of whom are members of their extended family.

It all began from a small warehouse in the back of the home in North Carlton where the young couple took up residence in 1963 and still live today. From this address, Natale left every Monday morning at the wheel of a truck loaded with local and imported food products he sold door-to-door throughout regional Victoria. Natalina was in charge of the warehouse and the business administration, an activity she carried out with absolute dedication, at the same time raising one child after another. Natale would return home on Thursday night after completing his weekly tour. It was a gruelling work schedule but, after going through the ordeal of the internment camps, Natale had developed plenty of stamina to endure it.

He carried on his solitary rounds until his two sons were old enough to join him and allow the activity to expand. Curiously enough he had given his company the name of “Ieraci & Sons” before his two sons were born. In 1975 the warehouse was moved to a larger building in Brunswick Road, East Brunswick and the door-to-door sales went on until 1987 when the focus of the business moved to the independent pizza market. 2004 marked another important development when the company headquarters were moved to a huge industrial building in Reservoir.

This is the extraordinary story of Natale and Natalina Ieraci, a story that continues and still sees both of them actively involved in the business. Every morning, one of their children picks them up at their old house in North Carlton and takes them to their company office in Reservoir. Despite their remarkable achievements, they maintain the unassuming and humble attitude of two migrants from a small Calabrian village and continue to live a simple life. Yet, they truly are a royal couple, a king and a queen without sceptre or crown, but with a wonderful family kingdom.