Joseph Brocato died in 1946, but his legacy is part of a history and genealogy society campaign to record significant moments in local history.
Brocato’s moment came in 1914, at the height of the golden age of railroading, when he introduced local farm families to something new and, at that time, wondrous. He was already 38 and the father of four.
From 1857 to 1914, Pacific was a rural railroad boom town of stock pens, timber yards, gravel bars and a lively main street of shops filled with goods of every kind thanks to a steady stream of traveling salesmen who arrived on the 50 or more trains a day.
Pacific residents had the benefit of cheap travel and some took advantage of it. But it was still a rural farm community where most people raised the animals that provided meat for their tables and grew in their kitchen gardens the produce that they ate.
Shortly after he arrived in Pacific, Brocato, who had emigrated from Italy, took the train to Produce Row in Downtown St. Louis and brought back something the farm families had never seen — baskets of oranges and stalks of bananas.
In a vacant spot among the grocery, shoe and jewelry stores on St. Louis Street, Brocato set up a makeshift store where he displayed his delicacies. The exotic bananas were sold for 10 cents each. It was an unforgettable event.
“I can still remember that first banana,” the late Ed Brundick recalled. “Nobody had ever seen a banana. I remember that people kept coming up and buying two or three bananas. He had a whole stalk.”
Brundick made the comments 80 years after that memorable day as part of an oral history recorded for the 1994 Pacific Pride Day.
“When the first oranges came to Pacific, there was an Italian man, his name was Joe Brocato,” Brundick said. “He came to Pacific and opened a little store on a couple of little pasteboard boxes and he would catch this train and go down to, I don’t know what it was called then, now it’s Produce Row, and he’d come home and have a couple of baskets of oranges and stuff.
“He was the first man that brought oranges. At Christmastime he brought baskets of oranges on each arm. His oldest boy was named Sam. When he got old enough Sam had to go with him and he carried a couple of baskets at Christmastime. He did real well. He was a fine man.”
Brocato hailed from a long line of fruit and produce growers and merchants in his hometown of Cefalu, Sicily, Italy, a 2,500-year-old city founded by the Greeks and conquered by the Byzantines, Arabs and Romans before it was moved to a safe location at the base of a huge rock on the northern coast of Sicily. It didn’t officially become part of Italy until 1861, 15 years before Joe Brocato was born.
Now, with its 1,200-year-old cathedral and quaint shopping area where a Brocato flower and toy shop occupies a prime spot, it’s a huge tourist destination, located just off the toe of the boot of the main Italian peninsula.
Joe Brocato first came to America in 1896 at age 20, but he went back to Cefalu in 1903 to marry Maria D’Agostino. Two years later, the couple returned to America aboard the S.S. Prinzess Irene with their infant son Sam.
Brocato was a dapper man with finely combed hair, a trimmed mustache and he wore a gold watch fob on his vest.
When he and Maria first returned to America, they lived in St. Louis for a time where three other children, Frank, Roger and Sara, were born.
In 1914, Brocato moved his family west to set up shop in the town of Pacific, where he became legend for pioneering the fruit and vegetable industry here. It was during that first glorious summer that the town saw its first oranges and bananas.
Brocato soon opened a real store on South Columbus Street, with living quarters on the upper floor. By October of that year he advertised in the local newspaper, the Pacific Transcript, that he had opened his new store and would have on hand at all times a full line of fresh fruits, vegetables and groceries. He also would buy country produce.
A month later, The Transcript reported that the new grocer was one of 301 residents who donated $1,821 to the war effort.
The family became part of the woof and warp of the town. In the summer of 2016, Sam and Frank were on the Pacific baseball team.
In 1921, at age 17, Sam became a reporter for The Transcript. In January 1919, Sam and Frank were among 439 youngsters who each donated $1 to the Red Cross.
Brocato and his sons would operate the store for 32 years until his death at age 70 in 1946.
In Cefalu, the name Brocato is set in stone in the cream-colored stucco facade where windows display toys, decorations, models and housewares. The printed shopping bags show a teddy bear, toy car and teapot emblazoned on a hot air balloon.
Photo and information provided by Don Brocato, grandson of Joseph and Maria Brocato.