The Watermelon King

John Losasso's Italian roots go deep into Denver's history.

John Losasso still recalls the dark mornings when his father would rouse him from bed at 3 a.m.

The sleepy schoolboy was just ten, but his dad needed help making deliveries, so he was pressed into service.

The elder Losasso was a produce peddler who drove a horse-drawn wagon through the streets of Denver, making deliveries near the Denver Country Club. John would ride behind his father on the horse, hopping off to scoop carrots, celery, cabbage and other vegetables out of the farm cart.

John Losasso relaxes at home after decades of working in the Denargo Market.
Anthony Camera
John Losasso relaxes at home after decades of working in the Denargo Market.

"I'd start to fall asleep on the horse, and Daddy would always holler at me to wake up," John recalls. "I'd carry the stuff into the house after the housewife bought it. They'd ask Daddy, 'Mr. Losasso, why don't you leave your little boy at home?' He'd tell them, 'I can't leave him at home -- he begs to come with me.'"

Like many Italian men in Denver in the 1920s, John's father supported his family -- five boys, four girls, a wife and grandmother -- by hawking produce. Almost every neighborhood in the city would be visited by Italian men steering wagons through the streets and calling out, "Vegetable man! Vegetable man!" The Italians made northwest Denver their home, and there were dozens of small farms scattered along streets like 38th Avenue. John's father grew many of the vegetables on a one-acre plot next to their home at 35th and Pecos.

Over time, John Losasso followed his father into the produce trade. He eventually had his own company, American Fruit & Produce, in the Denargo Market, a onetime hub in the shadow of downtown Denver, just off Brighton Boulevard along the South Platte River. Today, a half-dozen one-story buildings with wide loading docks are the only hint that this was once a teeming place where hundreds of workers sorted and sold all of the fruits and vegetables that wound up on Denverites' plates.

The area now hosts a motley collection of businesses, from Colorado Flower Shippers to the gay-oriented Safari Bar & Grill. But at one time the district fed Denver, and the Italians ruled. Dozens of small Italian-owned businesses supplied wholesale produce to groceries all over town. John is now 89 years old and speaks softly while seated in his living-room easy chair, but he remembers a lively and hectic place, where people put in long hours but also found time to get to know one another.

"We were competitors, but we were all friends," says John. "Now I think I'm the only one left."

John's father, Paschal Losasso, was an American at birth -- but just barely. His mother went into labor as the boat taking them from Italy entered U.S. waters. "He was born in 1875 on the dock in New York," John says.

The family wound up in Leadville, trying to strike it rich in the mines. Like most fortune seekers, they found the dream of instant wealth illusory. "They said, 'No, this is not for us,' and that's when they came to Denver," says John.

Looking for a way to earn a living in the fast-growing frontier metropolis, they turned to an occupation they knew from Italy: raising produce. Soon John's grandparents had a plot of land along the South Platte River behind Union Station.

This area, known as the Bottoms, was in the floodplain and wasn't regarded as fit for construction (ironically, this same land is now the site of several expensive new residential high-rises). The poor Italians who were then flocking to Denver realized that the soggy land was ideal for cultivation, and they put up shacks next to their fields. The harvest was plentiful. Potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and other crops could be hawked on downtown streets by vendors pushing wagons with canvas roofs and scales hanging off the sides.

"The Italians were mostly farmers when they came here and were very poor," says Tom Noel, professor of Colorado history at the University of Colorado at Denver. "They could squat on the Bottoms where there was good land and water. 15th Street was like a farmer's market. It's very hard work getting up so early in the morning, so not many people wanted the work."

Eventually, Paschal Losasso was able to buy an acre of land in northwest Denver and build a house for his growing family. According to family lore, he even gave his name to a local delicacy: Paschal (or pascal) celery.

"After they'd pull the celery out of the fields, they'd pack it in a trench and cover it over with straw and water," says John. "That made the celery turn white. It was so sweet it tasted like candy." (Most culinary reference books agree that "pascal" celery refers to the common, pale-green variety, while blanched celery is known as "golden." But in Denver, the blanched variety was apparently called "pascal.")

The celery became a popular item on Denver dining tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The story is that when farmers were trying to sell their standard celery, they'd be told the buyers were anticipating something special. "People would say, 'We're waiting for Paschal's celery to come in," says John. (Other Italian families also claim credit for bringing pascal celery to Denver. There was plenty, because the stalks could be grown almost year-round in Denver; at one time more than 500 acres around the area were planted with celery.)

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