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Arts & Culture

Restoration On Matewan’s Nenni Buildings Honors Connection to Italian Immigrants, Mine Wars History

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Nenni family in front of Nenni's Department Store in 2002.

Three buildings in Matewan are expected to be renovated over the next few years.

Using $1.7 million from the U.S. Economic Development Authority, Coalfield Development Corp. and the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum plan to transform the buildings into a job training center while preserving mine wars and unionization history.

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Jessica Lilly
The Nenni buildings have been in Matewan for more than 100 years.

These buildings have a history that’s also part of an Italian immigrant family.

In fact, when people hear the name Nenni in Matewan, they normally think of Nenni’s Department store and the late Eddie Nenni, the latest in this storied family to run the business.

But the entrepreneurship really started with John Nenni, the first of four generations to own the buildings in the heart of Mingo County. He ran a restaurant in town and spoke poor English. His great grandson, Todd Nenni, remembers hearing stories of John as sort of a marketing genius.

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John Nenni (front/center) was the first of four generations to own a building and/or run a business in Matewan, W.Va. Left to right back row: Harry, Johnny, Rudy, Jean, Josephine Florence, Georgia and Anna Left to right front row: Attilio, John & Rosa Other siblings not pictured included Bill Nenni who had passed and Tony had not been born yet.

“My great grandfather (John Nenni), when he had a restaurant, before it turned into the store, he used to put a sign out every day for what his special in his restaurant was,” Todd Nenni said. “And everybody's going down the street laughing at him making fun of him because he couldn't spell well. My grandfather (Attillio Nenni) was like, ‘let me make the signs for you.’ And then after about a week, he walked by, and here's the sign again, and the food spelled wrong and the special and he's like, ‘Pop, why don't you let me do this.’”

He said, “‘Let me tell you something. He said when you make the sign, they walk by and look at it and they don't come in. When I make the sign they laugh and they come in and eat, so you're not making the signs for me no more.’ So that's an example of the barrier they had and how they used it to their advantage.”

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The Nenni family pictured in front of of the Nenni buildings in 2002.

Overcoming barriers seems to be something all four generations of the Nenni family know something about. Each generation has met head-on the challenges of their time with hard work, sacrifice and resilience.

Atillio Nenni was the oldest of 13 children of John Nenni. Tillio, as he was called, quit school in the third grade to work in his father’s business, which served Matewan with a variety of services. Those included a restaurant, a clothing store, and even a bootlegging operation.

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Attillio Nenni and Nell (Gentile) Nenni and their wedding party.

Atillio married a woman from a neighboring Italian family named Nell Gentile, and they took on the family business, running a shoe repair shop. After decades of hard work in the business, Atillio had what was then called a “nervous breakdown.”

“He had a nervous breakdown because he worked seven days a week, 13 hours a day in the store trying to make it go,” Todd Nenni said. “He'd been working there since he was in third grade. He had to quit school. That's just a little bit too big of a workload for anybody. But he didn't have any other choice.

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Jessica Lilly
Nenni's Dept. Store was in business for more than 100 years in Matewan, W.Va. The building has fallen into disrepair.

“I think when they come over from Italy, I'm pretty sure dad said there was a couple of years where they lived on nothing but just mush.”

When Atillio first got sick, his wife Nell asked for help from their son, Eddie, Todd’s dad, who was in college at the time. Eddie talked about coming home in 1989 in a recording that was part of an oral history project.

“When he got sick, mother said ‘you’re going to have to come home and help me with the store. I can’t take care of him and take care of the store, too. I have to stay at the house with him because he’s been sick, the doctor said he needs quiet,’” said Eddie Nenni, who did just that.

“I came home and started working in the store and I kind of got interested in it,” he said. “I was taking business classes down there anyway at Marshall. I just stepped into what he was doing and was trying to add to it.”

The Matewan Oral History Project is housed at the West Virginia State Archives.

Eventually, Eddie Nenni purchased the buildings from his father, Attilio, and paid off his debts to run the family businesses. Then came the flood of 1977, which devastated Matewan after waters rose to record levels in the business district.

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The flood of 1977 devastated Matewan and sent record flood waters into the business district, including Nenni's Dept. Store.

After the waters receded, Eddie took on a loan from the federal government to remodel the first floor.

He borrowed around $150,000 which in 1977 is a lot of money. It’s also even more money when you pay them back but I know he paid him back at least $300,000 or $400,000. So, he would laugh and say ‘yea, that's the kind of government handouts we get.”

At that time, coal jobs and the population was declining in Mingo County, so business suffered. Todd Nenni remembers growing up in Matewan during those years, watching his father struggle to honor the family business.

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Eric Todd Nenni and his father Eddie Nenni. Todd was about 6 years-old.

“He chose to be there to keep the place open for his mom and his dad,” Todd Nenni said. “He just chose to stay there for them and then after they were gone that was all he had done and all he knowed and he loved the town and he just refused to leave.”

After Eddie Nenni had a stroke in 2013, the business closed. Still, Todd Nenni said his father owed the government for the business loan for most his life. Edward Nenni died in 2016 and Todd inherited the rundown buildings that represented generations of hard work and sacrifice.

He thought about renovating but in 2019, he sold the century-old structures to Coalfield Development. The organization plans to work on historic preservation and future economic development.

“Any kind of investment in Matewan is a good investment but you want it to be the right investment,” Todd Nenni said. “You want it to be some things that are going to help the town in the long run and help draw some people in.”

Coalfield Development works to provide sustainable jobs in central Appalachia while trying to diversify the economy. Kenzie Walker is on the board.

“We've got an ailing coal industry, obviously, everyone knows that we're, we're in this transition period right now,” Walker said. “Coalfield has really provided a lot of leadership to that conversation, and a good model for what a transition would look like.”

The plan is to renovate the buildings to establish a job training center on the first floor. But that’s not all.

Coalfield Development hopes to attract visitors to the buildings by highlighting their connection to another bit of local history. Sid Hatfield, Matewan’s police chief during the labor uprising 100 years ago, once lived in them. That labor history now draws ATV riders to the area.

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Jessica Lilly
ATVs regularly line the street in Matewan by the Nenni buildings.

Walker says the project also has a personal connection for her. Her father was a coal miner, and like some miners today, found himself without a job and in need of a different career.

“It's devastating to see these places shut down and to be able to, create on the job training, and create things for people to do. Not just for tourists, we also need things for our young people to do here for fun. And so it just, it means a lot to be able to work on this project and see it come to life over the next few years.”

Todd Nenni says he trusts Coalfield Development with the restoration project and hopes visitors know that the Nenni’s were more than an immigrant family, but people who could survive on their own.

“I would definitely like the story of an immigrant family,” Todd Nenni said. “I would call it the deck stacked against them, come over with no help from anybody. And in today's world that's something we all need to hear sometimes, because we all don't get a fair shake. They definitely didn't have a fair shake.”

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Jessica Lilly
A window on the railroad tracks side of the building still displays the Nenni name before renovations start.

The renovation project is expected to take several years. The next step is to gather community feedback on how to interpret one of the apartments where the Matewan police chief lived more than 100 years ago. It received grant funding of about $49,000 from the Institute Museum and Library Services via the Mine Wars Museum. When completed, the buildings will also house Coalfield Development’s Mingo County headquarters.

Corrected: November 1, 2021 at 4:17 PM EDT
A previous version said that Eddie Nenni owed money on a federal almost until he died in 2016. Eddie paid off this federal loan around 2013, around the time he had a stroke.

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