The Watermelon King

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.

"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.)

Culturally, the family began to fit in. While the older generation of Italians was often discriminated against, John says he never encountered any overt anti-Italian feeling. The elder Losassos spoke Italian to each other, but the children mainly used English. And although the use of their parents' native language may have waned over the years, one thing that didn't diminish was a tough work ethic. John's mother, Elizabeth, set the standard as she worked tirelessly, caring for the kids and helping out his father.

"I thought her day would never end," recalls John. "She cooked all day and helped dad in the garden. She'd pick stuff and help him wash it. "

Toward the end of her 86 years, Elizabeth Losasso developed diabetes and had to have one of her legs amputated. John remembers that even when she was confined to a wheelchair, she'd clean and dust the house and still keep a pot of tomato sauce bubbling on the stove. "She'd have dinner ready for whoever was coming over," he recalls.

While his father made wine and all the kids "drank it like water," his mother never touched the stuff. "My father used to kid her about it. He'd say, 'You had five brothers, and they drank so much, I thought the Platte River wouldn't be enough for them,'" says John.

Other families thrived along with the Losassos, and Northwest Denver's Highland neighborhood turned into the city's Little Italy. Some traditions carried over from the old country; for example, John recollects his mother dressing in black to mark a period of mourning after someone passed away.

"When somebody died, she wore a black dress. My mother was always dressed in black," says John. "I used to kid her and say, 'Mama, aren't you ever going to get out of that and wear a colored blouse?'"

Many of these traditions -- funerals, weddings and community celebrations -- were centered on Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, at West 36th Avenue and Navajo Street. There, hundreds of Italians gathered for Mass and regular festivals, including the annual Feast of Saint Rocco (which is still held every August). During that celebration, a statue of the saint is paraded through the neighborhood, and families bid for the right to carry the image of their patron. Sausage-and-pepper sandwiches, cakes and ice cream are served at the church, and raffles are held for the chance to win a ham or another prize.

Many newly arrived Italian immigrants took comfort in a setting that reminded them of home, with loaves of Italian bread cooking in backyard ovens and small groceries selling dozens of kinds of pasta.

"Everybody knew everybody," says Joann Zamboni, who was born in the neighborhood in 1934. "The kids all went to Mount Carmel [parochial school] or the public school. It was pre-TV, and people would go walking through the neighborhood. They'd sit on their front porches, and everybody would stop to talk. The whole world was much friendlier and much smaller."

Supermarkets were unheard of, so residents shopped at neighborhood stores. Italian groceries served the area, offering spices, cheeses and sausages. Zamboni's father came to Denver when he was just sixteen. Unable to find a job, he slept under bridges along the South Platte River. He eventually found steady work laying terrazzo in new buildings.

"It wasn't easy for the immigrants who came," says Zamboni. "They did the jobs the illegal immigrants do today."

Many families were struggling just to get by, and they knew to head for the Denargo Market at closing time.

"People in the neighborhood would go down to the market when times were bad and pick up the stuff that was thrown away," she says.

The price of survival was hard work, and children often pitched in to help their parents earn a living. John attended Bryant Elementary School but dropped out after the sixth grade to go to work. The thirteen-year-old went straight into the produce trade, just as all of the men in his family did.

"I'd go to my brother's fruit store on South Gaylord and make deliveries for him," recalls John. "I started driving a Model T. I wrecked a few trucks for my brother, but he kept me on because he didn't have to pay me."

Soon John was working for other produce sellers, hauling fruits and vegetables and doing the hard physical work that kept Denver grocery stores filled. After a few years, he got tired of working for others and decided to start his own firm.

"I thought to myself, 'I can do this,'" he says about his decision to launch his own business in 1939.

That was the same year that Union Pacific railroad created the Denargo Market. The railroad brought in much of the produce that fed Denver and realized that having the city's main marketplace for fruits and vegetables on its rail line along the South Platte River would boost its freight business. The name Denargo was apparently derived from an old streetcar line that ran between downtown and the Argo smelter in north Denver.

John went to work at the Denargo Market the day it opened and didn't leave until he retired in 1978.

When he reminisces about his years there, Losasso thinks of the constant struggle to get by.

"It was a tough racket," he says. "All those produce sellers were hungry for business. The buyers would go from one seller to another, and each one would lower the price the previous seller asked for. Everybody was cutting each other's throat."

In those years, most Denverites bought their produce at neighborhood groceries. The locally owned shops would send trucks to the Denargo Market every morning to buy fresh produce. The buyers would look over the selection to see what looked good and what was cheapest.

Different sellers tended to specialize in certain kinds of produce. John soon became known as the market's "watermelon king," selling a fruit others avoided because of the hassle involved in moving larger numbers of melons.

"The watermelons would always come in bulk; that's the only way they would ship them," says John. "There were days I'd unload 80,000 pounds in one day. We used to pitch the watermelons to one another and wheel them inside. That's why the other wholesalers wouldn't bother with them."

Often, John would wear his waterproof fishing boots to wade into a boxcar full of watermelons. So many of the melons would break during shipment from the West Coast, the car would be filled with the blood-red remains of dozens of smashed watermelons. He and his employees -- he usually had three or four men working with him -- would spend hours sorting through the daily shipments. He soon was so familiar with watermelon that he could spot a ripe one immediately.

"I'd look at every watermelon and know which one had to be sold today and which one could be sold in a week," he says. "I could tell by the sound they made when we caught them. A good firm watermelon when you hit it sounds like a drum; a not-so-good one sounds like a deflated basketball." Each year, John made sure to deliver the season's first load of watermelons to Children's Hospital.

When watermelon season was over and cold weather came to Colorado, John would drive 1,300 miles to south Texas in his 1934 Chevy truck to buy grapefruit and oranges. He would first fill the truck with potatoes, pinto beans and onions to sell in San Antonio -- "that's what they wanted in Texas that time of year" -- then drive farther south to places near the Mexican border and fill the truck with citrus. He would haul back 7,000 pounds of fruit, the maximum allowed at the time on U.S. highways.

John has fond memories of autumn days in the Rio Grande Valley. "It was so warm there, you could just lay down on the ground and go to sleep," he says.

Every year, John made several trips to Texas, venturing over Raton Pass on a skinny two-lane road, then cutting through the Texas panhandle and heading south. The round trip took three or four days.

Despite the intense competition at the market, many friendships flourished. One of John's best friends was Nate Farber, who worked for decades for Joe Naiman, a Jewish produce seller who was one of the few non-Italians with a wholesale business. Farber's son, Steve, would go on to become one of Denver's best-known attorneys, founding the politically powerful firm of Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber.

"I remember when Steve was born," says John. "They didn't expect him to live; he was a very sick boy. I remember his father telling me, 'We're spending a fortune on doctors to keep young Steve alive.' He was always talking about his little Steve. That's all he talked about was his kids."

Steve Farber remembers the market as being a world unto itself, dominated by the hardworking children of immigrants. His father's parents emigrated from Russia, and Nate Farber had a downtown produce stand before he went to work at the Denargo Market. Steve Farber worked there as a boy, hauling sacks of potatoes and onions.

"I used to work there during the summer," he says. "You had to get up at three in the morning -- that was when the farmers would come in with their produce. The market was like a small city. I still run into people from time to time who were farmers and sold there."

Even though Naiman and John were competitors, over the years a bond developed that changed the way they did business. Naiman's business grew into a larger-scale operation, but he still watched out for John.

"If other people offered him watermelons for less, he'd say, 'I only take them from [Losasso],'" remembers John. "He told me once: 'When I get big, I don't want you to feel bad when I bring in big loads of watermelons. But when I do, I'll give you a week's notice so you won't get caught with a load of melons.'"

The gathering storm of war in Europe soon touched the faraway produce market in Denver. When the United States entered World War II, the government took over many of the wholesale produce businesses, including American Fruit & Produce, to serve the military bases around Denver. In 1942, John was drafted into the Army and was stationed at Fort Warren in Cheyenne for the next four years.

At the base, John was put in charge of meat and produce. There were a large number of German prisoners of war held there, and John supervised twenty of them on a work crew. Most of the Germans had been captured in North Africa, where they'd been serving under the legendary Nazi general Erwin Rommel.

"We had them in the bakery, we had them in the motor pool, we had them doing everything," recalls John. The POWs even worked the fields of nearby farms during the sugar-beet harvest.

The prisoners were surprisingly assertive, something John attributes to their status as elite German soldiers serving under Rommel. When military authorities at Fort Warren decided to slash their rations, the POWs even went on strike.

"It crippled the camp; we did not move," recalls John. "They were running the camp."

John made sure his own men always got plenty to eat, even when rations were cut. He regularly had a turkey roasted for them and locked them in a warehouse while they ate it.

"I told the bunch I had, 'Don't you worry -- you'll eat just as good as ever,'" he says. "I never had an ounce of trouble from them."

He's proud that one of the prisoners wrote him regularly for several years after the war.

Once John was discharged, the government returned his business to him.

"When I got out of the Army, I really knuckled down in the produce business," says John. "I had to keep up with the big boys."

John had gotten married before the war, and his daughters were born in 1946 and 1947. Just as his own responsibilities grew, the produce business started to become more complicated. In the 1950s, the neighborhood groceries were starting to be eclipsed by locally owned chain supermarkets.

"I can remember when King Soopers had one store, at 41st and Tennyson," says John. "The chain stores started to get big after the Denargo Market was built. When they were small, they bought a lot of stuff from the dealers at the market."

Local chains like King Soopers and Miller's grew quickly with the post-war boom in Denver. Many of the servicemen who had been stationed in Colorado during the war liked the state so much they settled here. The suburbs around Denver started to swell with new homes, and the chains staked out those areas as ideal places to open stores.

In those years, shippers also grew more savvy in the ways they moved produce. Refrigerated railcars and trucks allowed for produce to be moved farther without spoiling, and shipping companies found other ways to cut costs. Instead of dumping a load of watermelons into a railcar, they started shipping them in boxes.

"Somebody in California decided to pack watermelons in boxes," says John. "They'd bring in truckloads of watermelons, all in marked boxes. It became just another item. That was the end of the watermelon deal for me."

John had to give up his title as watermelon king. He started selling other items, including peppers and grapefruit.

That was the beginning of a series of changes that would eventually lead to the downfall of the Denargo Market. In the 1960s, the locally owned chains that patronized the market began to be absorbed by big national companies. Many of these huge corporations struck deals with fruit and vegetable growers in California, using trucks and the flashy new interstate freeways to bring produce directly to their stores -- completely cutting out middlemen like John.

"The big stores got so big they didn't need us anymore; they just trucked stuff in," he says.

The market went into a slow decline, although many businesses born there still found a way to prosper.

Several of the food-service companies that supply Denver grocery stores and restaurants got their start at the Denargo. Naimen's company, Federal Fruit and Produce, is now the largest produce wholesaler in Colorado, with major operations in both Denver and Colorado Springs. Giambrocco Food Service, a major supplier to metro-Denver restaurants, also began at the Denargo Market.

The company's founder, Joe Giambrocco, got his stake in the business going door-to-door selling vegetables. In 1940 he opened a wholesale business at the market. Today Giambrocco Food Service has a 101,500-square-foot warehouse at 36th and Wazee streets. Joe Giambrocco started his route in a lone 1930 Fargo truck; the company now has a fleet of 25.

The business had to change with the produce industry in order to survive. Now produce is ordered by the truckload -- mostly from California -- and is sold virtually from the moment it's harvested.

"Now we do everything by computer," says Gary Giambrocco, who runs the company started by his late father. "We used to handwrite the orders; now we just punch them in."

John is one of the few people left who remember the days when farmers knew the people buying their crops. Even though he misses his friends from the old days, there are benefits to retirement: He says when he worked at the market, he got tired of seeing fruit all day and wouldn't eat it.

"I wouldn't look at produce. Now I love grapes and apples and oranges."

John lives modestly in northwest Denver with his wife of three decades, Margaret. (His first wife, Mildred, died of breast cancer in 1965.) One of his daughters makes her home in the Denver area, and the other lives in Las Vegas. Family is still important: He's looking forward to the marriage of one of his grandchildren in November.

He says he thinks often of his father, Paschal, and remembers the way his parents struggled to make ends meet. In a life that bridges two centuries, he's seen plenty of changes, but probably none with as much impact as the automobile. John's father ultimately gave up his horse and wagon for an REO Speedwagon. But John vividly remembers the day in the 1920s when his father first tried to drive. A cousin had bought a truck and told Paschal he should start driving one.

"He told him, 'Get rid of that horse and wagon and get a truck. I'll teach you how to use it,'" says John. "He convinced him he could do it."

The cousin brought his truck over to the Losasso house, and John still remembers his father yelling as he tried to stop the truck from moving.

"He was pushing the pedal and hollering, 'Whoa! Whoa!' like it was a horse. Afterwards, Daddy got the wagon out and put the horse back in the garage and said, 'That's it. Get that thing out of here.'"


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