MATHESON MUSEUM, INC.
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
Ruth C. Marston
January 28, 2002
Interview with Louis Pennisi 1
January 28, 2002
S: My name is Ann Smith, and this is January 28, 2002. I am sitting in the living
room with Louis Pennisi and his daughter Lenora. We are here to do an interview
for the Matheson Museum. First of all, I have not even asked you if I can call you
P: Sure. That's the only name I've got.
S: Are you sure? My mother would say I should be calling you Mr. Pennisi. You're
always so friendly it just seems natural that I should call you Louis.
P: Call me Louis. That's my name.
S: What year were you born?
P: January 14, 1897.
S: And where were you born?
P: Mascali, Sicily.
S: How many children were in your family?
P: There were six. I was the oldest.
S: The big brother.
S: Now, you told me the story about when you first went to school. Tell me that
P: I was ready to go because my mother made me ready. She made me one of those
satchels to put my books and things in where they were supposed to be! I went
with a neighbor boy, Angelo. I don't know exactly how far, but it was at least
two or three miles we had to walk. We went there and I think it was the third day
not exactly I wasn't there long when somebody in the class threw a piece of
paper or something behind me. The teacher thought it was me. She had a big,
long cane, a pretty strong one, and she leveled that thing on my head.
S: She hit you with it?
P: I said, "I didn't do anything." But they wouldn't believe it. I was punished for
nothing that I did. I felt bad.
S: Did you tell your mother about it?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 2
January 28, 2002
P: I think I did when I went home. I was telling everybody anyway, a group of us.
Then the second offense that I had the last one was during a recess. We had it
upstairs. There was a big old gate that opened everything. It must have been on
the second floor. Anyway, we were playing and kids came by saying, "Hmm, I
smell something. I smell country. I smell dirt or something." They got too close,
saying things like that, and we had our shoes off. I didn't do anything, but my
friend took one of his shoes and bopped somebody on the head. They all started
screaming. I got excited when they started screaming. I said, "Angelo, let's go
home." So we did. He got his shoes in his hand, and we went down the stairs and
we started home.
S: Where did you go?
P: We stopped on the way somewhere. It was several miles to go home and we had
lots of places where we could stop. I don't know if we ate lunch, but we never
went back to school. The next day we just stopped and ate our lunch and had a
big time playing.
S: Playing hooky.
P: We never did go to school any more. Some time later, maybe a week, my father
found out that I hadn't been to school. My father asked me, "Louis, do you want
to go to school, or not?" I said, "No, I don't want to go to school. I want to stay
here with you. I want to help you work on your farm." They had a lot of land.
So, bad as he wanted me to go to school because he didn't have any education and
he had a lot of things that he wanted me to do, he told me, "You do what you
want if you can't go to school any more." He knew that I was being teased and
how we were treated. He didn't punish me, or anything, so I stayed home.
S: Did you help him on the farm?
P: I helped him. I was anxious to go where he went. I followed my father up until I
was 11 or 12 years old. He had a place in the mountains, a big place where he
would grow wheat and all kinds of staple stuff for the wintertime. They ground
wheat for preservation in the wintertime He had a lot of trees with fruit, all kinds.
We used to go there to get it. I used to follow him over there up the hill.
Sometimes it would rain. I went up there for years and years, but I got enough
when I was about eleven or twelve years old and didn't want to go any more.
S: Then what happened?
P: He had to get somebody else to help him, and I didn't carry anything. I just didn't
S: A normal teenager, it sounds like.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 3
January 28, 2002
P: I just stopped going with him. He asked me to go but after a while, he never
asked me. He said, "Anytime you want to go up to help me, we'll go up." He
was a good father, I tell you. My mother was quite a lady. She didn't say much.
S: What do you remember about her?
P: The biggest thing I remember was when she would give me a bath on Saturday.
A lot of things I remember, but that was the biggest thing I remember because
I've got a caretaker today to do the same thing today! My mother used to have
this big old tub that she washed clothes in. Everything was done by hand in those
days. My sister was three years younger than I am, and she used to put me and
my sister and washed us good on a Saturday. I had dirt. My sister probably
wasn't, but I was real black with dirt, especially when it was nice weather. I used
to go running with my dog all over the fields.
S: What was your dog's name?
P: I can't remember. There was a name for him, but I can't remember.
S: Now your father had brothers. Was it your two uncles that decided to come to the
P: They were my mother's brothers. My father had two brothers and two sisters.
One sister and one brother I didn't know. They died before I was born. I didn't
know but one sister. The other brother died, and the other brother was in the
police force. He was something besides police, a higher grade. They called him
marte shalla, or something like that. It means something like chief of police or
marshal. He was in Palermo, Sicily, and he was the head of this group. He and
another one were on a lookout one night. He had friends who invited him to their
place in the country like a big mansion. In those days in Sicily they had
brigandi (robbers) they called it. They robbed people in the country, would take
everything they had, so sometimes they invited all the political people. So one
night he and his partner were standing on a comer with a mule, and they came up
on horses or mules. They had been robbing someplace. My uncle tried to stop
them and said, "Halt," three times. The third time they shot him and his partner.
They shot his partner's ear off, but my uncle lived only a day. That's all I know
about him. The day I was bor they said he wanted to know if I was a boy or a
girl, so they let him know, and they said about two hours before he died, he knew
that I was a boy. He wanted a relative, I guess. That was my Uncle John.
S: I have another question. When you were growing up, was your family Catholic?
P: Oh yes. They were #1 over there.
S: I was going to say that was an assumption. I thought probably everybody was.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 4
January 28, 2002
P: Yes. I had to go to Sunday School. They took me by the hand. We had a church
in the country about a mile from where we lived. It was a small church. The big
one was in Mascali.
S: Going back to your mother's brothers, those were the uncles who brought you to
the United States?
P: My mother was one of five girls. She had two brothers, John and Pete. Pete was
the oldest. He served in the Army in Italy about three years, and when he came
out he decided to go to America. He came here. In those days you had to have a
sponsor, somebody that wanted you to come. If not, you couldn't come. He had
about three years here. I was about eight or nine years old when he first came
here, maybe a little more, but I always heard about America. Not only my uncle
but so many people, and I heard a lot of good things about America. In my head,
I had a lot of money here. They wanted to come here because they would make
money. They would work and make money. In Sicily, it wasn't that easy. So, I
had money in my head, to come to America sometime if I had a chance. So,
Uncle Pete and Uncle John were here in America, and my grandfather was 81
years old or something like that and he had an operation for appendicitis I think it
was, and they asked the doctors if there was any danger. They said, "There's no
danger, but you could tell them if they want to come because anything could
happen during an operation." That doctor was pretty wise to tell them that
because they didn't want to be over here and their father have that operation
without them. So Uncle Pete and Uncle John decided to come. They came and
stayed about eleven months and all that time I was asking them if I could come
back with them.
S: So you had some time to work on them, didn't you.
P: Yes, and I worked on them. I convinced my Uncle Pete because he was the
oldest. Uncle Pete went to school and was the educated man. Uncle John never
went to school never did up to the day he died here in Connecticut. Uncle Pete
kept saying, "Ask your momma if she wants you to come with me." I kept asking
her all the time. I told her I was going to send her some money all the time,
promises! I made all kinds of promises. I'd do this and I would do that!
S: So did you come by boat? Did all three of you travel together you and Uncle
Pete and Uncle John?
P: Yes. We came together.
S: How long did the trip take?
P: Nineteen and a half days.
S: Do you remember anything about the trip?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 5
January 28, 2002
P: Oh yes. I remember Uncle Pete got seasick always did. But I didn't get
seasick. I went all over the boat. There was some drinking of beer and I wanted
to taste it, so I did one day. I wasted five cents, whatever it was. I threw it out. I
didn't like it.
L: Daddy, didn't you have another person with you on that ship Fred Romero?
Wasn't he traveling with you all?
P: Fred? Yes. Uncle Pete brought both of us. He was responsible for us. On a boat
people always become friends and stick together. They did with me. A lot of
people took me by the hand. One day a wave came in over the boat and I stood
over there, and people grabbed me. They didn't even know my name.
L: They didn't want you washed overboard.
P: That water would have washed me overboard.
S: I can just see you all interested and open for new adventure.
P: That was adventure all right. I was coming to America. I would do anything.
S: Did you land in New York City?
S: What did you think? You had all these visions and all these stories about what
America was like.
P: I was real happy, very happy.
S: Did you stay in New York for a while?
P: Uncle Pete and Uncle John had cousins two good-looking girls. I remember
that! They kept us two or three days there. Then he had a place in Connecticut -
that's where they came from.
S: So then you went to Connecticut?
P: Yes. Derby, Connecticut.
S: What did you do when you got to Connecticut?
P: Nothing. Nobody would hire me.
S: Could you speak any English?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 6
January 28, 2002
P: No ma'am.
S: You had to kind of depend on somebody who could speak Italian.
P: We boarded with Italian people. They had a younger girl about my size and a
mother and a daddy. The daddy was working with a contractor making sidewalk
cement and all of that. I think it was after about a week or two, he said, "Louis,
do you want to come and work with me? He will probably pay you a little." I
said, "Yes, sure." So I went over there and worked with him. He put me to a
wheelbarrow to haul dirt or something like that. I shoveled some. I was making
750 a day!
S: Was that wonderful money?
P: Yes. Itwas abigpay. Myfirstjob.
S: Your first job working in the concrete industry.
P: Yes. Sidewalks. Of course, he made paved streets and all that. Anyway, I was
nothing but the water boy.
S: Did you begin to learn some English just being around other people? You still
were around people who could speak Italian.
P: I depended on someone else. Winter came and everything was frozen, so my job
was over and I had to stay home. I received letters from my mother and some
friends, some of the boys and girls I knew when I tried to go to school. They
were still friends some of them. They wrote me that I was in America and all of
that new thing. I had to depend on my uncle and a friend of my uncle that he had
brought to this country with him. He was in the Navy. He was a pretty good
friend to us. I got one of them to read and answer those letters. All that winter I
S: Had you seen snow before?
P: Uncle Pete and Uncle John were working with the railroad. But there wasn't any
job for me. Flying gang they were called. They tell me it was this little old track
and if there was a wreck and they needed men to come, they would get in that
thing and zoom they got there in a hurry. They had no cars then. So they called
it flying gang. That's all I remember. They paid pretty good. Anyway, when I
was bothering them about answering my letters, after a while they got tired, I
guess. I asked Uncle Pete to help me. He said, "Not tonight. I've got to go out
tonight." So I asked Fred. After a while, Uncle Pete and Fred got together, I
guess, and everybody had dates and had to go out every time I asked them. Of
course they worked in the daytime. After a week or two, Uncle Pete said, "Louis,
Interview with Louis Pennisi 7
January 28, 2002
instead of sitting around here, why don't you try to learn how to write your
name." I said, "How can I do that?" He said, "I'll learn you." So he got a piece
of paper and he wrote 1 to 100, no names, just numbers.
S: And you copied them?
P: I completed them that night, so he gave me A, B, C. .. I finished that pretty
quick, and then I had to wait several nights. I was coming pretty good, and I got
interested to learn in my head. Somehow I was more interested in that to read
and to write. I wrote Catania, after they gave me little hints. Catania was a city in
Sicily, and Palermo. I wrote all of those names. They got a surprise. They
encouraged me to keep on with it, and I was real anxious to learn. I don't know
where it came from, but it did. In about three months I was able to answer all of
those letters. Part Sicilian, part Italian.
S: You still weren't speaking English though?
P: I didn't have time for that. I wasn't thinking about that. I stayed home day and
night. Outside was snow three feet deep.
S: Did you have snow when you were in Sicily?
P: Snow? No, didn't see it but once.
S: So Connecticut was a hard winter for you.
P: Oh yes. But I liked it. I liked everything I saw there. No matter what. Hard
work and all of it. I used to like everything. I was a hard country boy.
S: Sure. Just so long as you don't have to go up that hill, you're glad for snow or
anything, aren't you?
P: I had a lot of energy.
S: How long did you stay in Connecticut?
P: About a year. The next big town it was a little town, but was a big town in
those days was Ansonia, about two miles from Derby. The government built a
post office there, with the big columns and all of that, so Fred got a job in there.
They got together. Uncle Pete quit the railroad with Uncle John, and they worked
for this company. This company had a contract to build post offices. That's all
they did. We worked there until they finished our part of the job. That was the
company that brought us to Florida.
S: It was mostly the brick work?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 8
January 28, 2002
P: Brick work, the columns, all kinds. They had somebody else contracted to do
that. Myjob was water boy. That's all it was. 750 a day!
S: That's right!
P: One day Uncle Pete got a call from Pennsylvania Huntingdon, Pennsylvania -
and that's where we had to go for the next job.
S: That was the next post office.
P: So we went over there and spent about a year building that post office. That's
more than we spent in any other places. Anyway, from there we went to
Kingston, North Carolina, and then to Greenfield, Massachusetts. From
Massachusetts, we went to Florida to do the brick work and foundation of the
S: Was this in Palatka?
P: In Palatka. They needed two brick carriers, hot carriers. They wanted two men
except for Louis, so nobody came but Uncle Pete. I said, "I'll go to Florida
because it's like Sicily." I had wanted to go to Florida, so I said, "Let's go." He
was going to take me anyhow. Of course, he was my guardian. Nobody wanted
to come. Dixon was our boss over here. He said, "After all, we can't get nobody
but Pete and Louis." After a while they said, "Send Louis along." So I came. I
wasn't sure I knew what they'd need, but I said, "I'm going to try." I tried to
carry bricks just like everybody else.
S: Now you were how old when you came to Palatka if it took about a year for each
one of these jobs? Were you maybe now about 17 or 18?
P: When I came to Palatka, I must have been no more than 16.
L: Didn't you tell me that you joined the Army at 17 or 18?
P: 18, almost 19.
S: What did you think of the Florida weather? That was probably more like Sicily,
P: Yes. Oranges growing all over. Florida was paradise to me. I liked Florida
S: Sure, and none of those snow storms!
Interview with Louis Pennisi 9
January 28, 2002
P: That's right. I like Florida. Palatka was my last job for that company. I went to
Orlando and worked there for three months at the post office there. Then they had
one in Bartow, but I didn't go.
S: Why didn't you go to Bartow?
P: I wanted to quit.
S: Why did you want to quit?
P: An Italian guy in Palatka was in the ice cream business, and he used to come with
his push chart to the job, and we used to buy ice cream from him. He invited
Uncle Pete and me one Sunday to go to his home to eat spaghetti.
S: Oh, that sounds like a good deal!
P: So Uncle Pete and I said, "Here we come." We went and we got to be friends
with this guy. His name was Frank Brown. He changed it to Brown, but he was
Italian. Anyway, he kept telling me that I was too young to carry those bricks up
stairs. He said, "I saw sweat dropping on your coveralls. It's not for you. You're
too young to do that. You should quit. I'll sell you my ice cream business." He
wanted to sell me his business because he wanted to go somewhere else. He had
better places to go.
S: I was going to ask you why you wanted to.
P: Anyway, we kept going to his house. Finally I decided and said, "If I buy you
out, how will I make ice cream?" He said, "I'll make it. I'll let you come to my
house and we'll make ice cream every morning." He had this big old tub with a
10-gallon tank and paddle. He had all the stuff in there and the ice and salt.
Everybody had to do that to make ice cream. He would turn it on, and sure
enough, it would turn into ice cream.
P: After a while, maybe the second or third morning I went over there before I went
to the job, I said, "Frank, any other way to make ice cream instead of by hand like
you do?" He said, "Oh yes, but it costs money." I said, "How much?" "Oh, you
can get a little machine 5 gallons for about $125.00." I said, "How much for
one like you've got?" He said, "About $135.00 or something like that." I said,
"Well, if I could buy you out, you have to get me that machine."
S: Did you! Even as a young man, you had business sense.
L: You didn't tell her about the sweat falling into the ice cream when Frank was
Interview with Louis Pennisi 10
January 28, 2002
P: Well, I was disgusted when that happened. I didn't want that job. Making it and
the sweat and all that.
S: Was it electric?
P: It wasn't electric; it was gas. That was cheaper.
S: Is that what you got when you bought the business a gas one?
S: At least it wasn't manual. You didn't have to do it by hand.
P: No. I had to put a switch on to start it. I had to buy the gas but started it with a
switch. That was in Palatka. I had him install it in the room before I wanted to
give him the money. Frank had the patience to do that because he wanted to go to
Orlando. That's where he wanted to go. He put the thing on and he learned how
to operate the thing and made ice cream, loaded it up, and went on the street. He
had to go with me because I couldn't put the ice cream in a cone.
S: Oh really? You knew how to make it but you didn't know to serve it.
P: So Frank had to go with me for several days, maybe a week or more, but after a
while he let me do it and he saw that I had learned.
S: How much did you sell the first ice cream cones for?
P: Five cents. Two scoops. One vanilla and one strawberry.
S: So you had flavors even back then.
S: Could you keep it from melting when you took it out?
P: Oh yes.
S: You put ice around it?
P: The wagon I had was a tub full of ice and salt. It would stay for days as long as
you put in the ice and the salt. Everybody had to do that, even in Palatka. People
used to buy ice cream from me to take it home for parties and all that. I didn't
want to, but I got to making it here in Gainesville. After about a year and a half,
the war (World War I) started and all of the young people had gone to France. A
big time in France. All the propaganda was "big time." We kids swallowed it up.
In World War I, that's the way it was. I went in the Army, but when I got there, I
Interview with Louis Pennisi 11
January 28, 2002
got a surprise. The boys who had been to the front came back wounded and
telling me all about it and what happened. I said, "This is sure enough war." I
found out from somebody else. But the Armistice was signed. I didn't have to go
to the front or anything.
S: So the Armistice was signed, but you were already in France.
P: Yes. I was seven months in France doing nothing, just telling of the war and
doing odd jobs, this and that, all kinds of details. They kept us there.
S: And then you came back.
P: When I came back, I went to Palatka. The guy that had a drug store on Main
Street, on the main drag right on the comer, said, "Louis, you were in the Army. I
want to give you a chance to get a store over here. I want to get out of business."
He was about 75 years old. "I want you to buy my business." I didn't know
anything about a store or nothing like that, but I said, "I'll try." I bought the
business. I had the $500 to pay down. Then it was so much a month. Three or
four months I worked in there. That man had all kinds of things. He had a glass
shelf in the back. He had pictures, all kinds of frames and all kinds of pictures.
He had two men working back there and a couple of girls up front selling ice
cream. He sold books. A real interesting store. All kinds of music. In the back
he had frames in a case he didn't even know he had, and he had kept ordering
more and more. He sold me all of that. I discovered that. One of the two who
worked for me would say, "You've got this and you don't need that. You've got
this kind of thing and that kind of thing." I kept cleaning out from the bottom up.
I worked day and night for several days, maybe a whole month. There were a lot
of doctors on that main street and they used to come over to buy cigars. Most of
them bought cigars. One of them said, "Louis, you'd better get out of here. If
you don't, you're going to die in here." I lost from 135 to 120 pounds.
S: Just working with the heat.
P: Yes. I didn't eat much. We ate ice cream.
S: So you weren't taking care of yourself and you were working hard.
P: Those doctors kept after me.
S: So the doctors who came there for a cigar gave you some advice.
P: Yes. I kind of felt weak after they told me that. I wasn't feeling strong like I
should, so I told Mr. Dodge what the doctor told me. He knew I had lost a lot of
weight, and he said, "Louis, any time you want to get out I'll give you your
money back. Keep what you made."
Interview with Louis Pennisi 12
January 28, 2002
S: So he was willing to do that?
P: Yes. That's what I did. He gave me my money back and I was out of the store.
S: After you got out of that business, what did you do?
P: I went to Orlando.
S: Is that where Pete was?
P: Yes. I stayed in Orlando about a year and a half or something like that. Of
course, I went in the Army from Palatka. I didn't tell you about that. I was on the
street when all those boys came in and said, "Louis, let's go in. Let's join the
Army." I said, "No, I'm making money." They kept after me. "Let's go to
France." The propaganda was so good, like it was going to a ball game or
something! Big time! We swallowed everything they said. I guess I did, too. I
told Frank, "I'm going to try to go in the Army. You can have your business
back." I said, "Uncle Pete is going to sell it to you." I depended on Uncle Pete to
do my business. He said, "Okay. You go ahead." So I went to the courthouse.
S: Now, you weren't a U.S. citizen, were you?
P. No, but I was a volunteer.
S: They were looking for volunteers, so they weren't real fussy.
P: No. They took me in.
S: They felt if you were willing to fight for them, that was good enough for them.
P: That's right. After I joined, I was in the Army to go in on a certain day I don't
know how long it was but I had Uncle Pete to take care of my business. After I
got in, they sent me to France. I told Uncle Pete, "You sell the business," so he
did that. I had the sugar and ice cream cones. He sold the whole business for
about $100. It was worth about $300, but everything was getting old, so he was
glad to get $100, I guess.
S: How long were you in Orlando after the Army?
P: Until I got work.
S: What kind of work?
P: I was picking oranges and pruning orange trees.
S: Was that hard work?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 13
January 28, 2002
P: Uncle Pete and Uncle John were there, too. They came over to stay with me.
They got a job picking oranges. They were under contract to prune orange
groves. I helped them and earned a little money. Then they got into the
construction business. There was a lot of construction going on in Orlando.
Right across the street from the post office was a sign: Orlando's 15,000 a day in
so many years in 1925 or something like that 2500 people. It was triple that I
stayed in Orlando with Uncle Pete and Uncle John in house construction. I
worked with them a little bit.
S: What brought you to Gainesville? How did you get here?
P: Before they started that, I worked in Gainesville. From Gainesville I went over
there because it was wintertime and I couldn't give away ice cream, especially on
the street, so I went to Orlando. When I came to Gainesville again, it was in the
summertime. Before that, Uncle Peter and another guy came by Gainesville and
found that there was nobody on the street selling ice cream cones, peddling them.
There were two separate businesses and two separate licenses: in a store and
peddling. He came and asked the guy named Alex in the courthouse. He said,
"Only costs $3.00." Uncle Pete told me, "It only costs $3.00 for the license. I
had that in mind and started transporting things in. I bought things from Frank
and got them in here and was all ready to start the ice cream business. I got
everything I needed. I had an electric motor and everything at that time. Then the
man said $75.00. I said, "$75.00?" He said, "Yes, and if I was able, I would sell
it to you for half." I said, "I have to wait until April until I get the money." So I
worked until April in Orlando until I got the money. $75.25. He said, "Well,
your uncle asked me about selling ice cream. That's what it costs in a drug store
or any other store. That's what it is." That's what I had to pay to peddle ice
S: $75.00 for a license to peddle ice cream.
P: I was surprised, but I had a pretty good living.
S: And it paid off? It was worth it?
P: Oh yes. After a while, I guess they liked my ice cream. I don't know, but they
couldn't get it anywhere else. They got quite used to it and ordered gallons. They
asked me if I couldn't do that. I said, "No, I ain't got nothing to put it in."
Somebody showed me maybe I had a magazine or something but I ordered a
bunch of those cans gallon cans, 2-gallon cans, and 5-gallon cans. Everybody
wanted ice cream to take home. After a while, I said, "I'm going to put the name
Louis' Ice Cream."
S: Did you?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 14
January 28, 2002
P: Yes. Louis' Pure Ice Cream Company. The first wholesale ice cream company in
Gainesville. All of them had to ship in. Macon, Georgia, I remember, used to
ship it. Then Jacksonville. Then the plant came to Gainesville. "Tootie" Perry
started the first ice cream plant in Gainesville.
S: Was that still with the cart?
P: Well, I had a horse and a wagon to catch on the edge of town. There were a lot of
people on the edge of town, but the streets were all sand. I couldn't push the cart.
People told me what they wanted, so I just went along. In fact, they wanted me
to do well.
L: Did you tell her that you did make the ice cream behind the hotel?
P: Oh yes. That's where my factory started off.
S: Where now? Tell me again for the tape.
P: Commercial Hotel. The city owned it.
S: But then it was the Commercial Hotel?
P: Yes. Syrian people used to own that. I used to rent a room and they would feed
me for $10.00 a week or $5.00 very cheap!
S: So you lived there and made the ice cream there and then took it out in the cart.
P: That's where I started the plant.
L: In the building behind the hotel itself.
S: Oh, I see, a separate building.
P: Oh yes. It had to be separate. Even though there wasn't any inspector or
anything. I had a lot of ice. I made it all sanitary. The Gainesville Sun had a
picture one time.
S: Do you have that picture?
P: No. In those days that wasn't on my mind.
S: What year do you think that was?
P: I guess it would have been in 1922-24-25 or something like that. I came to
Gainesville in 1922 though. It must have been 1925.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 15
January 28, 2002
S: I was thinking maybe we could try to look it up in the Gainesville Sun archives.
P: The Gainesville Sun was right across from the Commercial Hotel. I was showing
L: I know. Right there near where Pete's Pool Hall is.
P: Ten cents a week. The Gainesville Sun.
S: Ten cents a week. What a deal! Now, could you read the newspaper by this
P: Oh yes. Most of it. I was a master then. I could read and write by then.
S: How did you learn your English? Was it in the Army?
S: Before that?
P: Books. Pronunciation and all that.
S: You were still interested in learning. You did it by yourself?
P: Yes. I did everything by myself. Nobody ever asked me anything. I always
bought books. I would buy books from New York, and all kinds of stuff. I read
S: When we were talking about you being Catholic in Sicily when you were a little
boy, when you came to this country did you go to the Catholic church?
P: No. I forgot I had a religion.
S: You were busy carrying bricks.
L: And making money.
P: In those days, religion was down on the list.
S: Before you had the horse and the wagon, did you have a peddle cart for around on
P: Yes, ma'am. I had to quit. When I had a wagon, I made a lot of ice cream,
shipped the ice cream to Cedar Key and Ocala. Big demand for ice cream.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 16
January 28, 2002
S: Because you were as close as they could get. You were the only ice cream in this
P: I was. Nobody else.
S: What kinds did you have? You said before you had vanilla and strawberry.
P: I had all kinds. Sales people came from different places you know, syrup
people. They sold me tutti-frutti, honeymoon.
S: What's honeymoon?
P: Some kind of cherry and nuts. Tutti-frutti was nothing but nuts and stuff. I had
strawberry. I had vanilla all the time, but maybe one day I would have tutti-frutti
and I just kept changing. It was two-sided. One of the 10-gallon cans had a
partition. Vanilla here and cherry or whatever on the other side. Out of the same
can I had two flavors. I sold it for a nickel. In those days it was expensive. A
nickel was big money. When I had the store on Virginia Avenue, I used to have
all kinds of penny candies. Penny kisses. Six for a penny. Bigger than they got
S: Six chocolate kisses for a penny.
P: All kinds of candy was very cheap.
S: Did you like sweets? Did you like candy yourself?
P: Oh yes, indeed, but I tried to avoid it.
S: What about ice cream?
P: I like ice cream, but I don't eat it now because I want to reduce.
S: You want to keep your slim figure.
P: Yes. I don't eat much ice cream now.
S: Now, sometime around that period didn't you meet somebody by the name of
S: Tell me about that.
P: We had a tailor shop over here owned by Nick Dimato. He was my first Italian
friend in Gainesville. He was pretty well off. He made suits for a lot of people.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 17
January 28, 2002
They used to come here from different counties, and he made tailored suits. After
a few years, he needed somebody beside himself because he had a lot of work.
He had a brother in Jacksonville who had a shop there and he told him he needed
help, so Tom knew somebody from Pennsylvania, to send a tailor. He got a
fellow named Tony Stella. Tony came here and worked for him, making coats,
and he had somebody else making pants. Somebody else made the vests. I was
surprised. I asked Tony, and he said, "I make everything, but my specialty is
making coats." So he got ajob for that. But he could make everything.
After years, Nick needed somebody else and they hired Mabel Schwall. They
came from Georgia. A bunch of kids, boys and I think two girls. She was sure a
pretty girl. She worked in there with Tony and old Tony got sweet on her and in
about a year or two they got married. The Schwalls were very poor people. They
didn't have hardly anything. Mabel helped Catherine with a lot of dresses and
things she wore. She just got tired of them and gave them to Catherine. Things to
help out as much as she could her sister. Tony was a good cook. He used to
make spaghetti and pork chops. I had never seen anybody else make pork chops
like he did. Pork chops now taste good, but they're not like Tony's. Nothing like
Tony's spaghetti and meatballs either.
That's where it started. He invited me to go over there on a Sunday and that's
where I got acquainted with her. But that didn't amount to nothing to me. When
I got to know her, my mind was on ice cream, my business, not on girls.
S: Just like a man.
L: You didn't tell her that when you were peddling that cart, you would go to the
school and Momma would buy ice cream from that cart.
P: We met on Sundays eating spaghetti at Tony's. When the school was built on
University Avenue, the only schoolhouse we had when I got here, she used to go
to high school there. When I had my cart over there, I stopped in the front on
University Avenue and all the people would come in there to buy ice cream.
Catherine would come in there. One day people saw that I would give her an ice
cream and not take her money. There was nothing to it with me, just that she was
my friend's sister. I gave her ice cream. After that Tony still was going with her
S: So you knew her as a friend because you saw her on Sundays.
P: Mabel wanted me to get close to Catherine, and she used to dress her up and tell
me to take her to a concert or something.
S: You needed more than a little push!
P: She pushed me a lot.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 18
January 28, 2002
S: Did you finally get the idea?
P: Oh yes. I used to take her to concerts and sometimes shows.
S: Where were the concerts?
P: Sometimes in high school, sometimes at the University. You know how many
people were at the University of Florida? About 900 when I came to Gainesville.
I used to know the professor, a big shot. He didn't have a car and walked around
town. He was German. He was a smart man.
S: He came down to get ice cream?
P: He used to come down to get ice cream.
S: Do you remember his name?
P: Buchholz, something like that. He had a son, a professor at the University for
years after he left here. I think he left; he didn't die here.
L: It wasn't Professor Buchholz, who had the Buchholz school, was it? His son,
Professor Buchholz Buchholz High School?
P: Yes. That was his son. His son was a professor at the University of Florida one
of the first.
S: So it was Professor Buchholz.
P: He was sure a smart man.
S: Well, he was smart to like ice cream.
P: And to be a professor at a university. He walked from the University all over
S: A good little way.
L: And I guess the streets weren't paved then? I guess University Avenue was
P: University Avenue was paved from 6th Street to 9th Street. All the rest was sand.
The University of Florida on 13th to 9h Street was so much dirt. People used to
get stuck in their wagons.
S: The wagon wheels because it was over a foot.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 19
January 28, 2002
P: Then the automobiles came, and they came pretty fast the Fords. There was
dust in there. Boy, it would shoot dust in your face on every street.
S: I can just imagine.
P: 9" Street you couldn't go over 9" way back. It had all kinds of railroad crossings,
a ditch full of water, and you couldn't go over that street. In those days you
would walk or ride a horse and you could go through all of those things.
L: In those days, was the courthouse where it is located now?
P: Oh yes. The prettiest things I ever saw. One of the prettiest things. With lawn
and places to water horses in four or five places. Benches, and when the
candidates were running for office, had the bandstand in there. On a Sunday the
band from the University of Florida would have a concert. Sometime I think they
had a band here because the people used to pitch in and have it. Anyway, they
had a big time, I think. I had!
S: You told me about that before about the political candidates who would come
through town and speak in the square and how everybody would come out for
P: Oh yes. Everybody had a speech and we lay down and listened a lot of people.
Of course, there weren't many people in those days. A hundred people was a big
crowd. A hundred or two hundred people, whatever it was, but we had a lot of
good times on that lawn over there.
S: I remember asking you before about what kinds of things you did for
entertainment and one of the things you told me was that when there was an
election or when the Worlds Series was playing, that the Gainesville Sun would
announce that on their loudspeakers so everyone would bring a chair and listen.
P: Or they would sit in the middle of the street.
S: They would buy a Coca Cola and listen to that.
P: You know when I was telling you about the Gainesville Sun. They would get up
on top of some of those buildings and they used to have microphones and
announce all of the ballgame, or whatever it was politics and things like that -
and people would sit on the street. That was a big time for us.
S: The entertainment of the day. Now, when there were news events like the war or
things like that, would they announce things like that?
P: Oh yes. Everything was announced by a microphone. Big events.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 20
January 28, 2002
S: Now the fire station was someplace down there, wasn't it?
P: It was right there by the old post office.
S: Where the Hippodrome is now?
P: Yes. Across the street from Mike's Store.
S: There were a couple of big fires in Gainesville, weren't there?
P: Oh yes. A big fire right on the main street. Thomas Hardware. I don't know if
Thomas burned down some big store that was there in those days. Everyone
was excited. Big excitement!
S: Now let's go back to Catherine. What year did you marry? Were you married in
P: No. We were married by a judge in 1927.
S: Where did you live? Was that the Commercial Hotel?
P: No. I had a business.
S: So you already had your business when you were married.
P: Yes. A Bunns was right behind the Commercial Hotel. I had my ice cream
business there. He lived next to me and he had a store on the corer millinery
store. A Bunns had a pile of things in the store. 500 was all it was. It was pretty
popular. He used to have a place and every time he would go to the store, he
would say, "Louis, I've got a place on Virginia Avenue, and I'll rent it to you." I
just laughed because I had a business just the way I wanted it so one day these
people who owned the Commercial Hotel, sold it. A big business occupied the
hotel, so they had to have more rooms, but he went up on the price, of course, and
the cars coming in. He had several boys to go to the University. They said,
"Louis, let's go to school." "No," I said, "I'm making money." A lot of people
had business in Gainesville they're all dead now anyway, I didn't go there. A.
Bunns kept telling me about his place on Virginia Avenue. Finally, the cars
occupied the yard back there where I had my pushcart and my horse and wagon,
and I couldn't get out. I used to tell Pete he'd better get more money out of it, and
he'd say, "Louis, you have to do what you have to do." Little by little, I saw it
from dark to electric lights.
S: One of the things my uncle told me, he said, "I don't understand why everyone I
knew had a telephone before they had electric lights, but telephones were
Interview with Louis Pennisi 21
January 28, 2002
invented before the electric light." Do you remember that? Did you have a
P: I had a telephone pretty handy when I had my ice cream business here in
Gainesville. Before that I don't remember a telephone.
S: Do you remember having electricity when you had a telephone?
P: I remember electricity came when I was in Italy.
S: So that was way ahead.
P: Oh yes. In Italy my father and my mother took me to Giarri, a city bigger than
Mascali, big for them days, and they had a street that was real wide and stores all
the way and the electricity was on the north end. We were on the south end
looking at the crowds all over the streets then. They were coming from
everywhere, the biggest crowd that had ever been there watching the first electric
light coming in town.
S: Really. So they announced it and it was a big crowd and a big event.
P: Oh yes. Big event.
S: The first electric light.
P: We didn't have no electric lights, nothing like that. Just a kerosene lamp if we
L: Did you have a telephone? Did anybody have telephones?
P: No. Telephones came years after that. I remember everybody looking and the
first thing you knew, the light brightened up the street. I couldn't see the light
bulb itself. That's all I remember. That's the first time I saw the light. We didn't
have none out in the country, or in town either. Nobody in town had it. That was
the first light they ever shone. After that, they started having it, I guess, in Italy.
But I didn't wait to see anything else. When I came to this country, all I had was
one little cord with one light bulb in the middle of the room. If you didn't have
that, you were out of luck.
S: Did you have indoor plumbing when you came to Gainesville?
P: No. That came later.
S: See how many changes you've seen how many different advances you've seen.
You have first-hand information.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 22
January 28, 2002
P: Yes. Hundreds and hundreds. I don't pay attention, because they were coming
one after another. You forget what you saw first.
S: Do you remember what you thought of the first automobile that came to
P: Oh, I saw automobiles before in Italy.
S: What did you think?
P: I remember it was the rich people had a buggy and wagon you know, two
horses. Some had only one horse. They would come in with a horse and buggy.
I saw them there in Italy. I saw the car that those people had.
S: Only rich people. You said you saw a Ford come into Gainesville.
P: In Gainesville, when the Fords came out, I think I was in the ice cream business.
I bought one. They called it a Tin Lizzy.
S: I've heard of the Tin Lizzy.
P: It had a trunk in the back and bumpers. I think it cost less than $200 or $300.
That was big money back then.
S: Do you remember what year that might have been?
P: That must have been 1927 or 1928.
L: Were you and Momma married at the time?
S: So this was before you married.
P: We had that Tin Lizzy when we were married. We used to go around in that.
L: I think you married Momma sometime around 1927. You started the hamburger
business in 1928.
S: Tell me about that when you added hamburgers. Why did you decide to add
hamburgers to your ice cream business?
P: On, that was another event. In the wintertime, ice cream wasn't doing much, so I
decided to have a pushcart business and sell hot dogs. But I sold hot dogs to
myself. Nobody else bought them.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 23
January 28, 2002
S: You can't get rich that way, Louis.
P: That was for a while, and one wintertime I did that for two to three months.
Then I probably went to Orlando and worked for my uncles. I don't know for
sure, but anyway I wanted to make some money. I couldn't find anything. My
mother used to make meatballs. I got a couple pounds of meat and a loaf of
bread, two loaves maybe, and I made meatballs. It was too much bread. After
that I got less bread and I made a good hamburger.
S: Where did you get the recipe? Who did you get it from?
P: Nobody. I just remembered my momma's. I used to see her make it. She used
stale bread. The bread had to be kind of crispy. I learned all of that a little at a
S: And you offered it then and people were interested?
P: That's when I started it.
L: What gave you the idea to flatten it out and make it into a hamburger? Had you
seen hamburgers up north?
P: Oh yes. On Saturday was the ladies making hamburgers and selling them for 50
to raise money. They made some kind of hamburgers, I don't know.
S: That's right. Did you serve these in a restaurant or from the cart still?
P: I had sold them in the store there in the same locality. I lived in the back.
S: Virginia Avenue.
P: And it had a store in the front. That's where I started. I was telling you about the
A. Bunns' property on Virginia Avenue where we rented the place over there.
Finally when they kicked me out of the Commercial Hotel, I figured they didn't
want me there. They wanted automobiles. They didn't want an ice cream wagon.
That's when I started.
S: So they wanted that to sell automobiles and they wanted you out.
P: Oh yes. The street was filled up with an automobile here and there all over.
Fords mostly. I started selling hamburgers. When I used to make a hamburger,
someone called me in the front. I had a table where I made the hamburgers. My
son, Freddie, was about two or three years old, and he ate almost all of that
hamburger raw. It was good to eat it raw.
S: There goes the profits!
Interview with Louis Pennisi 24
January 28, 2002
P: I went over to that table and over half of it was gone. Anyway, we were selling
the hamburgers. Across the street was the Coca Cola plant. It smelled good, but
nobody bought any hamburgers. I used to ask people across the street about 18
people were working in the Coca Cola plant and they said they were bringing
their lunch from home. They didn't want to buy a hamburger. But one by one
they tried our hamburger and liked it. And some of the other people started
buying our hamburgers.
S: So it started really slowly?
P: Very slowly. I didn't like it, but I didn't go out of business. I stuck to it. I didn't
do like with the hot dogs. That wasn't my profession. I kept it going pretty good.
S: And how much were the hamburgers when you started?
P: Ten cents. After a while, we had a special: 2 for 150. What made me do that
was a guy named Heisman. He went uptown with two water buckets full of white
eggs and couldn't sell them over there. So he headed back home and stopped in.
I had a bench in front of the store, and he sat over there with the eggs, and I said,
"Hi, Frank." He said, "Louis, I'm going to leave these eggs here." I said, "No, I
don't want any egg business." He said, "When are you going to try?" He said,
"I'm going to put a sign over here: 3 eggs 150." He was a sign painter, and he
put a big sign up. People bought eggs and a hamburger. After a while, see Louis
if you want to buy a hamburger and an egg for 150. So that's how hamburgers
started. After a while, people wanted two hamburgers and didn't want any egg
S: Two hamburgers for 15g. These were people who worked or came by your place
P: Oh yes. They came from somewhere. Everybody cooked at home. No women
ever stopped there until the war broke out. That's when women started driving
cars and we had curb service. The hamburger service was real good in wartime.
By that time we sold 35 pounds a day. That's all I could get. It got rationed.
S: That's right. It would be rationed.
P: Sometimes I had to close up at 5 o'clock sold out everything. Curb service
started when a houseful of kids would come over there to buy a hamburger and
eggs, during the war especially. It was big then.
S: It was going really strong.
P: We had a lot of help, and the help we had was young girls. When the boys came
home on furlough, they quit. I had two boys Freddie and Johnny and they
Interview with Louis Pennisi 25
January 28, 2002
worked with me. Johnny said, "Dad, don't hire anybody else no girls
especially. Let's us run the business." We three ran the business for a couple
S: When was that? Was that probably toward the end of the war?
P: During the war.
S: So the three of you were business partners?
P: No partners. They worked for me. I made the most profit then. 35 pounds a day!
I didn't buy black market not a pound, nothing. People on black market used to
come over and wanted to sell me this and that, butter and all kinds of stuff -
sausage and all kinds of things. I wouldn't buy a thing. I said, "I'm going to stick
to the rules." I made a lot of money then.
S: You were making a good living with their help and were probably as big as you
P: With all that hamburger I got 35 pounds.
S: And you would have made more money if you could have gotten more
P: Oh yes. I could have done double then.
L: By this time you were in the new building. The old building had burned down,
and you built the new building.
S: What year did it bur down, Louis?
L: 1933. I was six months old.
P: This building was built in 1936.
S: This building that you are in presently was built in 1936 and the war didn't break
out until 1941. Tell me how that fire started.
P: Well, I was in the ice cream business. The ice cream cabinet was in the front part
of the building in a nice big room. I knew electric cabinets were coming, but it
wasn't in Gainesville, and I told Mr. Secoria, "The first ice cream cabinet that
comes I want you to tell me about it." He told me, "There are six holes, but
twelve holes was the biggest one." They had all sizes. I said I wanted the twelve
holes. I wanted to store ice cream in it.
S: It was electric?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 26
January 28, 2002
P: I think it was gas. Anyhow, that thing was sparking one night about three o'clock
in the morning and started the floor burning. I had a lot of linoleum and it caught
fire, and it went in the back. All catch fire, little by little.
S: Did you still live in that building?
P: Yes. We lived in the back. When A. Bunns heard I was going to get married, he
built us a place to live in the back of the store and he started charging me more.
So we lived in the back. I smelled smoke and I opened the door and it knocked
me down. The place was on fire. The first thing we did was to get the family out
of there. I think Lenora was a little baby. I got her a carton from the garage in the
back and put her in there and called the fire people. Boy, that smoke was pouring
out of there. People saw it way back in the Prairie over there. It gutted the whole
place. I had to give all that ice cream away because of the smoke. I couldn't sell
any of it.
L: And all the books that he had studied to learn English were stolen.
P: Oh yes. I didn't close the back. There was a door in the back to the street, and
people came in there and stole all the stuff I had. I had my watch. I didn't carry a
watch very much, but I had an old watch. I had a lot of things, and they were all
gone. All my grammar books that I had studied.
S: What a shame. So what the fire didn't take, people did.
P: Romance. I used to read romance from Italy. Princes, way back. I had a stack of
them. They were all gone. I had a place on Main Street that I rented, and I went
over there to tell the guy to move out. He said, "I didn't know you were going to
move in here." We moved in there and had to take care of the fire and all the ice
cream and everything.
S: How did you feel about all that?
P: I don't know, but I had a lot of guts, a lot of nerve. Mr. Bunns, the one who
owned the place, had insurance, I guess. He said, "Louis, I'm going to build you
a place." In about 30 days, he had built a place.
S: He rebuilt the inside.
P: He remodeled the inside, especially the front, and it was pretty nice. I had a store
in there with all kinds of things chocolates, and I even sold cigarettes. I built an
ice cream room back there and made ice cream for a while. After a while, Tootie
Perry started about a block away from me. So I bought ice cream from him and
quit making it. Yes, I bought from Tootie Perry, so I went out of the ice cream
business. I never had any more ice cream.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 27
January 28, 2002
S: In what year did you build the new building, the building where you are now?
P: Oh, that was I was looking through the window one day and saw this lot that
was for sale. Next to it was a house that is still there on the comer. I was telling
Lenora I should have left all of the porch out where the swing is.
L: That house used to have a porch all the way around it.
P: I bought it. The lady died, and her son wanted to sell it and I bought it. I don't
know how long after that but I tore the porch off, but I'm sorry that I did because
I think it would have been worth a lot right now.
S: You were looking at it for a business.
P: I didn't look for tomorrow. I looked for today.
L: Didn't you buy that house before you built the store?
P: I built the store first. I was in that store when I looked through the window and
saw the lot. I said, "I wish I had enough money to buy that lot next door." Miss
Dexter had all kinds of vegetables. She had watermelons growing in there,
cantaloupe, and corn all kinds of stuff. Across the street was another place
where it was a big lot and a colored man used to plant all kinds of stuff there.
Some was bought; some was given away. I don't know if Miss Dexter sold or
not. The fellow across the street was a colored man and he used to sell and he
gave it away. Anyway, I believe it was in 1936, the Veterans of World War I
were going to get a bonus. I got $700, so I bought the lot. Major Thomas owned
the lot. Major Thomas owned almost everything. I bought this lot where we live
now from him. In those days, Major Thomas was a real friend. Some had the
hardware store, funeral home, etc., and Major Thomas, and I knew them all.
Then I had to get somebody to build years later. Mr. Schwall, the father of my
wife, was a carpenter. He was around then. When I bought the lot, I had to have
a loan. I bought that lot for $1500, but that was not enough. He was named
Edwards. He had a sawmill in Gainesville, and his boy was Hugh Edwards. He
built a lot of houses over there in that subdivision. He's the one who built this
house. Anyway, I get lost sometimes and Ijust can't remember.
S: That was going to be your business, and you knew you wanted to sell
S: You had given up the ice cream idea.
P: Oh yes. I had given that up. I was into hamburgers altogether then.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 28
January 28, 2002
L: So when you got enough money, you hired Grandpa to build that new building.
P: I borrowed the money and I asked my father-in-law. I drew on a piece of paper
what I wanted for the store with a toilet. I said, "I want to build a store here like
this." My father-in-law looked at it and said, "Yes, but I don't work for less than
350 an hour." In those days you could get a carpenter for 200 an hour. I said,
"No, you're not. You're going to work for 500 an hour. But you're going to be
responsible for getting this building like I want it." He said he'd be glad to work
for 500 an hour! He said he would be done in less than 30 days. That's what he
said. He contracted everything and it was built in less than 30 days.
S: How did you know to do that?
P: I don't know. That's what I wanted.
S: You're so smart. And you needed to kind of get busy and start making money.
P: I did. I had to pay the $1500 I borrowed. In less than a couple or three years, I
paid the $1500 back. This guy Edwards furnished a lot of the woodwork on
credit. We had plate glass for the front window. He had that from McIntosh.
They had a bank that went broke, and he bought all of the things, so he had all
that. He said, "Louis, I'm going to put it all in here." Each door had a lion and
iron steps that is still there. He had all of it the entrance, steel lions.
S: He wanted it to work.
P: Yes, he was helping me. A lot of people helped me. My father-in-law, Mr.
Schwall, helped me a lot. We never did really ask for much, but we were family.
L: Did you build the building for $1500? Is that all that building cost?
P: That's what I borrowed. Yes.
L: And that's what you paid Grandpa to build it?
P: Yes. I think it was $1500. That was the price that he built it for. He had to pay
everybody. The checks came from me, but I think the building itself was $500,
but the rest was wages.
S: Why did they want to run you out of town?
P: They didn't want to run me out of town, but at times I felt that way.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 29
January 28, 2002
P: Because I was serving colored people.
S: And that was just ice cream. That was way before the hamburgers?
P: Yes. We had cartons that were half pints and pints and quarts and gallons. They
were cardboard cartons. It was so new in those days to sell it that way. When I
had this Frigidaire that burned, I had a special on pints and sold them on the curb.
I sold corn or anything on the curb.
S: So that was after the fire?
P: No, it was just a sale a special. We used to serve the colored people who had a
car. Not very many had a car. Charlie Chestnut had a car. Some of these
families who used to be #1 help in the post office, worked for the government a
lot of brothers a lot of Chestnuts. A lot of them liked me.
S: And they were good customers?
P: Yes, they were. I wasn't doing it for them. I was doing it for me, you know, this
special sale and after a while somebody came to me and said, "If you serve
black people in your place, anywhere on the place, you can't serve them inside."
I couldn't sell to them.
S: What did you think about that when they told you that?
P: It made me mad in a way, that I couldn't serve a human being. I always counted
black people as friends. I had a special friend when I came to Palatka from North
Carolina in the post office. His name was Hines. He was a real good friend.
When I came here, he visited me in Gainesville, and I've never seen him after
that. In Palatka, he told me that if I walked with him, like sitting on a bench in
front of the courthouse on the main street, they would send me out of town.
S: So you got the message and the black people knew that you would get in trouble
if you sat on the bench with them.
P: Yes, but that was in Palatka. When I came here and was selling ice cream, they
came in the store when there wasn't any special curb service, but now I couldn't
serve black people in the store. That was all over town.
S: About what year was that? Were you still down on Virginia Avenue?
P: Oh yes.
S: Who told you that?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 30
January 28, 2002
L: Some of his friends came and told him that he couldn't sell to the black people,
and Daddy said he knew that they were in the KKK.
P: Neighbors came to me.
S: Do you think they were KKK or just their sons?
P: All of them. Maybe the city told me.
S: But you got a clear message about having blacks come into your store ...
P: So I suggested to myself to have a room for them -- a room with a counter where
I could serve them through a window.
S: Was that all right?
P: It was full all the time. Especially the Chestnuts came in. I told him about it and
he said, "Louis, you want to listen to them. Whatever they tell you, listen and do
the best you think." So I did the best I could. I had a lot of business from them
for a little ice cream and hamburgers.
S: Do you know other people who were in business who had problems with serving
P: Oh yes. A lot of people couldn't do that.
S: What about the Primrose Caf6? Could they have black people come in?
P: No. Nobody could have blacks in their restaurants. They had two restaurants that
were Greek here around the square. No blacks.
S: What about the hospital?
P: There wasn't any.
S: Alachua General wasn't built yet?
P: No. That was built in about 1935 or 1940, something like that. We didn't have a
S: So if you got sick...
P: You were out of luck!
S: But there were doctors.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 31
January 28, 2002
P: Oh yes. There were four or five doctors that I knew when I came here.
S: Did you have a doctor?
S: What was his name?
P: Dr. Tillman. There was Dr. King. Dr. Thomas delivered all our kids.
S: That was Dr. W.C. Thomas?
P: He was the head doctor at Alachua General. Altogether, we were all at a meeting
one time when they were going to build Alachua General. I didn't put any money
S: But you voted, "Yes."
P: Yes. I might have put some money into it, but I've forgotten. They had a lot of
L: Daddy, tell her about the hanging.
P: They were hanging black people just like that.
P: Here in Gainesville. We had ajailhouse right in the middle of town, I believe it
was. It had a big courtyard, and that's where they had the hanging one time.
S: Did you ever see one?
P: No. I was invited to come over and sell ice cream to the big crowd. I believe it
was two people being hanged. Some of the people over there said, "Louis, why
don't you come over there. There's a big crowd over there." I said, "No, I don't
want to go over there. I don't want to see people hanging."
L: It was kind of a picnic out there.
P: Yes. They had a big time some people. When I was first here, there were three
people hanging on a tree about two blocks from Newberry. It was all woods, big
old oak trees. Every time I used to go around that town, we used to look over
there to see it.
S: Do you remember what they were accused of?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 32
January 28, 2002
P: No. I know one time a young boy stole a loaf of bread. A fellow I used to know
on the police force (Bob Matthew) got a little of everything. He was Chief at one
time. This boy ran. He tried to stop him, but he kept running. He shot him.
S: For a loaf of bread.
P: Yes. One night there was a Cadillac stopped across the street and two men in it
pulled a gun on me and got the money in the cash register big money, about
$37. They got that. They looked in my pocket and couldn't find anything. I
called the police force and I told Bob it was a Cadillac. Cadillacs were just like
blackbirds, easy to spot. He spotted them and he caught them way out in the
woods somewhere. He got the money. He turned it in to the courthouse and
turned in some of the boys. The fellow that owned the Cadillac was kind of well
off and from New York. There were two people, and he was working for them.
He was forced to work for them. They got him to take whatever they wanted to
take. Anyway, he got away because his parents came in here and took him away.
S: That was the driver of the Cadillac.
P: I know he came to see me and told me what happened to him and said he was free
just like I was. I didn't know until he told me that he was the driver of the
S: Did you get your money back?
P: 35. I got pennies. I went over there one day and asked the Chief who was the
head of the courthouse, and he opened the drawer and he had a little paper over
there with so many pennies. What was left was 35g.
S: What happened to the rest of it?
P: They told me he had some kind of expense. Just a few dollars I think it was less
than $30. If you got $30, you had a rich day.
S: That's right. That was a big day.
P: It sure was, but I didn't get much back.
(End of first interview)
S: The date is February 18, 2002, and my name is Ann Smith. This is Part II of the
interview with Louis Pennisi being done for the Matheson Museum. The first
question I wanted to ask you is if you remembered World War I.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 33
January 28, 2002
P: Well, I remember my part. I joined the Army. The propaganda was that we
would have a good time. We wanted to go to France because there were people
over there who would greet us and like us and all of that. We didn't think about
the shooting. No one said anything about that. I was taking a chance because I
didn't know if they would send me, but they selected me.
S: How old were you?
P: 21 years old, because I made a mistake before.
S: Louis, let's start with the story about when you served some of the black people in
the back room.
P: It started with ice cream. One Sunday I had a sale, so all the people that had
automobiles black and all came along the curb. I had a couple of boys that
were serving people on the curb. They wanted pints and quarts and all of that. It
went slick as a whistle. One day somebody noticed the Ku Klux Klan. They
were the boss about the blacks and controlled them. Somebody told me, "Louis,
if you serve blacks any more we are going to put you out of town, put you out of
S: Was it somebody you knew?
P: I don't know whether it was Ku Klux.
S: But you thought it probably was.
P: From then on, that's when I knew. There were a lot of neighbors who were Ku
S: Did that surprise you?
P: I was surprised after that, but I knew who it was because somebody told me that it
was. Some of your friends came over there all the time and you talked to them.
They belong to the Ku Klux. It was a strong organization for that time. At that
time, you couldn't deny anything.
S: So what were you going to do about selling ice cream?
P: Give them no curb service.
S: So on the curb it was all right?
P: No, they just had to come in, but when they came in, I couldn't sell them
anything, had to tell them to get out. When I started Louis' Lunch later on, they
Interview with Louis Pennisi 34
January 28, 2002
couldn't come in the store to eat. I had a separate place. I believe I was the first
in Gainesville to have a separate place. I'm not sure.
S: Who did you tell me was a regular customer?
P: Charles Chestnut. He was the funeral home.
L: Tell her what Charlie told you, Daddy.
P: Great nephew runs it now.
S: What did he tell you?
P: He said, "Louis, they told you that?" I said, "Yes." "Do what they said," he said.
"You ain't going to lose any customers." That's what he said, and he did come in
and would bring his friends. When I built this place, I built a place in back with
signs saying, "Colored Entrance." That was the first one in Gainesville, I believe.
Nobody had a colored entrance.
S: So the back room was the colored room?
P: That back room where Tommy has the counter that was the colored place.
L: They had an outside door.
P: It's still there but it has been closed.
L: There was only the one little window that's there now. They cut that door later
and shut the door to the outside.
S: Did you have a lot of black customers?
P: Lots of them. Jammed, sometimes.
S: Not enough room.
P: That's right. Lots of customers.
L: Did you tell her about the man who was your friend who was working in the post
P: That's when I was in Kingston, North Carolina, before I ever came to Florida. I
was building the post office there. We had a big old flagpole. Every post office
used to have one, and we made the foundation. The hole was so big that it took
two men, especially boys. We were pretty young. I would do anything the job
Interview with Louis Pennisi 35
January 28, 2002
There was this black boy about 18 years old named Hines, and he and I started to
sweat. I said, "Hey, Hines, you stink." Everybody started laughing. It was the
worst thing about working there. From then on, we didn't work in the same hole.
I don't know whether he had a bath or what, but he didn't smell any more. We
didn't sweat together either. We were friends. I was pushed out of there and sent
to Palatka, Florida, and he came to see me a lot of times. He came to see me
when I had the store over there. We would sit around the courthouse square in
Palatka. I don't know if it's still there I haven't been there in so long.
My wife was jealous of Palatka because I had a girl over there at one time.
Anyhow, I used to be crazy about Palatka. The people there during the war
treated me like a hero. One guy had a store there on the main street and sold it to
me for 1/3 of the price. Like I told you before, he sold it to me because he wanted
to retire. Nice old man. He sold it for $500 down and $500 next day, month or
year, whenever I had it.
I stayed there for three months, cleaned up the whole mess they had. He never
cleaned up anything. All the people said he had never cleaned up. So I had to
clean up shelves and all a long time, day and night. Some of those doctors came
over after about a month. I was losing weight but I didn't notice it. Those
doctors said, "Louis, you better get out of here because if you stay here another
few days, we are going to find you dead here." I said, "What for?" They said,
"You are losing a lot of weight. You used to be a husky looking guy. Now you
are pale. You are an outside bird, not an inside bird." So I told Mr. Dodge and he
said, "It is the truth. You are a different Louis. You are not like the soldier I sold
the store to."
L: To get back to finish telling about Hines and sitting in the courthouse square in
Palatka, tell her that story.
P: We were sitting together in the square. People were still partial I don't know if
they were KKK or not but they said, "If you sit with a nigger or walk with a
nigger like you do, we're going to kick you out of town."
S: Really. What did you say to Hines? Did he hear them say that?
P: No. I told him what they said, and I asked him if black and white were not
supposed to sit around together. He said, "No, we are supposed to be different,
something like that. They had their own congregation."
L: The first time Daddy told me that story he told it to me with tears in his eyes.
P: Every time I tell it I start crying.
L: They broke up their friendship.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 36
January 28, 2002
S: Yes, so you couldn't be friends just because of prejudice.
P: Yes. He was black. That's before I came to Gainesville.
S: Did you ever get in touch with him or hear from him again?
P: He came to Gainesville several times. I don't know what became of him after
years, if he died. He probably did, because he never showed up again.
S: He still lived in Palatka?
P: He never did stay in Palatka. He just used to come and see me there. He came to
see me in Gainesville, too. I don't remember whether he ever stayed here.
S: That's a sad story.
L: Tell her about the hand bell. Bennilene (daughter-in-law) has that.
P: That was in Palatka when I was in the ice cream business. Frank, the one that
sold me the business was the one who learned me the trade of how to dish out ice
cream cones. After several weeks, he told me about that and said, "Sometimes
they get rough around here." I had a bell pretty nice looking bell pretty heavy.
I could put it right in the head of somebody. He said, "This bell will probably
save you sometime when they get rough."
P: Yes, he told me, "If he gets rough, you can use it." He's the one who sold me the
S: Did you ever have to use it?
S: I can't imagine. It doesn't make any sense.
P: But I had it in case somebody got rough on me. No, I never had to use that.
S: Were you at Louis' Lunch when World War II started? How did the habit of all
of the soldiers writing back to you and sending pictures and everything how did
P: The ones that went in the Army that I knew wrote to me. Some of the cigarette
salesmen said anybody who wanted to send cigarettes overseas could get cartons
of cigarettes for 50 some cents a whole carton.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 37
January 28, 2002
S: So you could buy them and send them to your friends overseas?
P: Yes. They did the shipping. I remember one bill was $55.00. There were so
many people who wanted cigarettes. I sent one or two cartons to each soldier that
I knew. Out of about one hundred or more pictures. I had only fourteen who
never came back. One or two of those who were working for me went into the
Army. They never came back some of them who worked for me. One or two
were neighbors who never came back. That was a hard thing for me.
S: I'll bet. So if we went down and went over those pictures, you would remember
most of them?
P: Well, a lot of those pictures on the wall of the store, when I decided to paint the
store, they took the frame out and they ruined the pictures. They crumbled. Out
of about 300 or 400, I think I saved about 100 or 150.
S: So these are all people who were in the Army and were from Gainesville or
P: Yes. Some of them sent me pictures and some of their folks who had a son gave
me the pictures. Sometimes I would go out to see people I knew who had boys in
the Army and they gave me a picture. I spent hours.
S: I think that was important to people. Any connection really meant something.
P: It was special to me if I had a picture that was the old days real good days for
me. You know, friends I used to know that were in the Army.
S: That turned into a little museum all by itself.
P: Yes. Some got ruined, but Tommy has got some of the pictures.
S: I'll bet a lot of people came to see that.
P: Oh yes. Today they still walk in and look at the pictures. It is fun for people to
go in there and see their sons, grandsons, friends.
L: Now, the original place for the pictures was not there, not in that room.
S: Okay. It was someplace else?
P: Yes. They hung in the front of the store over the candy counter. Freddie was the
one who started putting them in the back room, and Tommy added old pictures of
S: How long did you work in the store before you semi-retired?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 38
January 28, 2002
P: A lot of years I don't know.
S: Who helped you first? Was it one of your sons who kind of stepped in and helped
you, or did everybody work in the store?
P: There were a lot of people a lot of kids. Some stole me blind! I had curb
service. Servers, trays. The first service like that in Gainesville.
S: So they would come out and put a tray on the side of your window?
P: Yeah, hooks on them. They would eat right there, the whole family.
S: Was that maybe in the 50's?
L: It might have been the 40's. Yes, it had to be the 40's.
P: I started before the war. When the war was going on, some girls were working in
there and when the boys came home, they got off. Johnny said one day, "Dad,
let's not hire anybody, girl or boy. Let's us work in the store."
S: And what did you say?
P: I said, "We'll go along if we don't need anybody." We never did hire anybody
else, I don't think. We used to work all the time. You couldn't hire many people
in those days.
L: To answer your question, he never partially retired. He retired completely.
S: When he was 97.
L: When he was 55 years old, he sold the store to Freddie for $1.00. After that,
Daddy worked for Freddie.
P: There was rationing during the war. Somebody would come around and ask how
many pounds of hamburger I used every day. After that I couldn't buy more than
that. Anything over that was black market, but I didn't buy a penny's worth.
They would say, "I can sell you all the hamburger you want."
S: But you were limited.
P: I didn't buy a pound. Butter, a lot of things, you could buy on the black market.
S: Did you ever drink wine or did you ever drink beer?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 39
January 28, 2002
P: Not very much.
S: I remember that during Prohibition my great-grandmother made her own wine,
but she could only make the amount for her family's use. You couldn't make any
more because that would be considered bootlegging if you sold it to somebody
P: I remember that.
S: She could make enough just for the family to consume.
P: There were people who made a bid could sell after that. I thought making it was
against the law. I made wine.
S: Did you?
P: Across the street was the Coca Cola plant. Syrup would come in a 50-gallon
barrel, I think. A big old barrel. So one day I drilled a hole in the bottom and put
a faucet in there and filled it with grapes. There were black boys and some white
boys around there, a lot of them. They would do anything for a hamburger -
scrub the floors, wash around. They would squeeze the grapes for me. They were
helping me make wine. You had to smash those grapes. In the old country our
father had a barrel as big as this house to make wine in. He had several different
sizes. That's where I got my idea for making wine.
S: Did that work?
P: It worked pretty good. We used to have a band with mostly Italian people in
some kind of show. They came over here looking for Italian people, and they
directed them to me. They said, "Louis, have you got any wine? Do you know
where I can get some wine?" You know the Italian people are supposed to be
S: That's right. Everybody knows that.
P: So I got the blame. One day I had this wine fermenting in there. I said, "Yeah,
I've got some fermenting." They said, "Let's see it." He looked at it and said,
"It's fermented." They wanted to drink it.
L: They were going to drink it, fermented or not?
P: Yes, they said it could ferment in their stomachs. I didn't make the wine to sell. I
just made it. Those people just drank that wine before it was ready days before
it was ready. I don't know how they did it.
L: When did you start selling beer and when did you quit selling beer?
Interview with Louis Pennisi 40
January 28, 2002
P: Everybody who came into the store and wanted beer would tell me to put in beer,
so I did. I wanted to keep it out. I didn't want to sell beer, but there was so much
demand that I put in beer. For five years I sold beer, and in those five years the
hamburger business went down because people would come in there and get
drunk buying beer. I don't know if it was beer or whiskey, but I don't think it was
good for the store. Some people stopped coming. I couldn't keep doing that, so
one day I decided I was going to quit selling beer, so I did. I put it in the paper -
a big old sign. Not like now when you pay $100 in those days for $100 you
could buy the whole paper.
S: And that's when you weren't selling it?
P: That's when the telephone started ringing. All the preachers in town and the
people that had stayed away congratulated me about it and said they were going to
come in and buy hamburgers. In about 30 days hamburger sales went up 30%.
P: I used to keep the books then. I used to keep the books for everybody. I had the
kids. Then they had to pay Social Security and all that stuff. It was fine for me, a
lot of work, but I had to do it. I had to collect three cents on the dollar or
something like that. That was work for me and I didn't like it, but I'm glad I did.
I'm getting the big money now. I'm still getting it and am over the limit. I'm
getting Social Security out of it. That's a blessing for the American people. I
think they should increase that and make sure that people, when they get disabled
or old, they've got money there.
S: That's right. I agree with you.
P: I don't know whether they're going to do that or not. They probably will.
S: They've had some ups and downs, haven't they. You've had a good life, haven't
L: Have you talked to her at all about the roads? I know you used to talk to me
P: In Gainesville?
L: You know, how there were no roads between here and Palatka.
P: There were no roads to anywhere no roads in Florida except sand roads.
S: And you told me it took all day to get to Ocala.
Interview with Louis Pennisi 41
January 28, 2002
P: Oh yes.
S: We touched on that.
P: Had to go by the lake. Newnan's Lake. You'd go around and around. It took
almost all day to go to Ocala.
L: And how two cars couldn't get by and one car sometimes would go into the ditch.
P: The first roads they built were brick roads. If you had to meet a car, you had to
give them a half. If not, they could push you off. But the other side was sand and
sometimes pretty deep.
S: You could get stuck.
P: Yes, you could stuck or you could turn over like I did in Palatka one time.
Somebody took me over the first road from Palatka to St. Augustine. It was a
Cadillac. The same people that I had the girl there. Anyway, one Sunday Mr.
Sauce his name was, who was big and had a big Cadillac, invited me and Uncle
Pete to go for a ride on the St. Augustine road. We got in there and we met a car.
He gave up half of the road and the sand on the other side was so thick that we
turned over all four of us, me and Uncle Pete, and Mr. Sauce and his wife.
Nobody got hurt except a little scratch or two. People traveling that day on a
Sunday afternoon came rushing all around us and wanted to help us. They pulled
the car back up. They grabbed a window without a scratch.
S: That's amazing.
P: That was my first experience on paved roads. The first road was from here to
L: Which road was paved first?
P: From here to Ocala.
L: What about Jacksonville?
P: I think that was later on 1941? I forgot.
S: When you were driving your car and you would go out with the family, would
you ever go down to Paynes Prairie?
P: Oh yes. We used to go just to look at it. One night I went a little too far and I
was scared to get it back. I never did learn to back up my car. I've always been
scared even to learn to back up my car, even out of the garage. I I was okay on a
Interview with Louis Pennisi 42
January 28, 2002
short distance, but for a long way, I was scared. I've never done that because I
couldn't do it. I never did learn how to back up a long way.
S: Maybe you don't have to learn to back up. You just find a place to turn around.
When you get to where you're going, then you turn around.
P: That's when I had the biggest time of my life with my friends. I couldn't turn
S: Are there other stories that I haven't asked about?
L: An interesting fact was that Daddy worked for his son, Freddie, longer than
Freddie worked for him. Daddy started the business in 1928 and Freddie started
working for him when he was 12 years old, in 1940. Daddy sold the business
when he was 55 years old in 1952, to Freddie for $1.00. Freddie was killed in
1993, so Freddie worked for Daddy for 12 years and Daddy worked for Freddie
for 41 years.