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Tony Zappa reflects on growing up in North Hudson

This temporary walkway appears to be constructed on the Lake Mallalieu site where Tony Zappa remembered it as a child, just west of Proehl's Point. The walkway was constructed after a 1934 flood washed out the bridge connecting Hudson and North Hudson.1 / 2
Tony Zappa2 / 2

Tony Zappa knows a lot about North Hudson. Zappa, who will be 86 next month, has lived in North Hudson his entire life. In fact, he was born in his parents' home in the village in 1926. As the village celebrates its centennial Sunday, who better than Zappa to recall some of the early days in the village?

Tony is the son of the late Maria and Antonio Zappa.

"My dad took three trips from Italy to America before he could afford to get the whole family here," Tony said. Antonio first spent some time in Pittsburgh, and then settled in Cumberland, Wis., for a time before bringing the family to North Hudson where he found a job in the Omaha car shops. The Zappa family was one of many of Italian descent who came from the Cumberland area to work in the car shops

"My oldest sister Josephine came over on the boat from Italy when she was 9," Tony said. In all, he had three sisters and three brothers.

By the time Tony was born, however, the family was living at 722 Monroe St. in North Hudson. That house was later sold.

"That was the edge of town when I was growing up."

In fact, his dad ran a small 10-acre farm on the home site.

"He kept trying to work those 10 acres of North Hudson sand," Tony said. "As a child I remember we always had plenty to eat, and plenty of work. We always had to do the chores before we could go fishing. The same was true for all my friends also."

Fishing meant walking down to the "pond" -- better known today as Lake Mallalieu.

"We'd catch sunfish and often would build a fire along the shore and eat the fish right there," Tony said. "I remember one day when Tom Schullo caught the biggest sunfish any of us had ever seen. We got a fire going and my brother Butch (Henry) said he'd get the fish ready. He got it ready alright -- he didn't clean out the guts. Tom wondered why the fish tasted funny while we all snickered in the background."

Tony said he recalls the time after the dam broke at what is now Willow River State Park. He didn't remember the exact day, but those who have recalled it in the past talked about the roar of water that could be heard all along the Willow River and Lake Mallalieu. The water washed out the North Hudson bridge and the dam that enters into the St. Croix River.

"I remember walking along the dry river bottom and poking at snapping turtles with sticks -- they'd take a big bite out of the stick. Luckily they didn't get our legs or arms. There were also pools of water that were surrounded by dry land and the pools were full of huge carp."

Zappa said a temporary bridge was built from North Hudson to just west of what he called Sanitarium Point in Hudson (Proehl's Point).

"In my memory it seemed like the temporary bridge was not much more than some narrow boards," he said.

One day his brother got something that was the envy of the neighborhood -- a new bicycle.

"A bike was a precious commodity," Zappa said. "Of course, my brother had a paper route to raise money to pay for the bike. But, I would try to ride it whenever I could -- usually when my brother was not around!"

Living on the end of Monroe Street at the time had its own challenges.

"North Hudson did not have a snowplow and one time we were snowbound for a week," Zappa said. "The only plow was a homemade one operated by Wes Hart; he had one of those old Packards with a 'straight 12' engine. He shortened the back axle and attached some homemade planks to the front. That was our snowplow."

Tony never attended the North Hudson Elementary School, but instead walked to St. Patrick School in Hudson and later Hudson High School, graduating with the class of 1944. During high school he got a part-time job at the Omaha shops, working on Saturdays doing janitorial duties.

With his dad working for the railroad, the family was able to ride the train for free.

"We didn't have a car," Zappa said. "We had a horse and wagon and would take that into Hudson sometimes, but travel of any distance had to be by train. I had a sister who lived in Elroy so we would take the train there sometimes."

Tony's parents never learned English, so Tony and his siblings had to learn both English and Italian.

"Our childhood was a little different because my folks didn't speak English, but I always thought I was brought up well," Zappa said. "My folks could be strict, but were always loving."

After high school, Tony and brothers James and Eugene started Zappa Brothers Excavating in 1946.

"We started with three shovels," Tony said. "We dug dirt, gravel and even some partial basements."

The first power equipment came in 1948 and the company continues to thrive today under the leadership of Tony's son Gary Zappa.

"When we started we were the only private business to do that sort of work," Tony said. "Most people hired the county to come in and dig."

Today the company has garages full of heavy equipment and 15-17 employees.

Tony was also one of the big organizers behind the first North Hudson Pepper Fest in the early 1950s and remains involved in the Italian celebration yet today.

The first Pepper Festival was at the site of the old North Hudson School on the corner of Fifth Street North and St. Croix Street North. That was an old two-story wood structure and is most remembered for the fire escape tube that was attached to the second floor of the structure.

"We migrated to the site of the current school after the new structure was built," Zappa said. The original Pepper Fest began as a way to raise funds to support the North Hudson School. In the early 1950s, the North Hudson School was not part of the Hudson School District -- that union came in the late 1950s.

Tony was selected as "Godfather" of the 1976 Pepper Fest -- the title has since been changed to "King."

In 1954 Tony married Jane Gilbertson. The couple had three children, Gary, Marc and Maria. Tony and his wife continue to live in North Hudson and Tony has gained notoriety for his vegetable gardens.

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