Before there were Fourth of July parades and fireworks displays, Vincenzo Raneri, an immigrant shoemaker and repairer and World War I combat veteran, kept patriotism alive in Leesburg.
Residents knew the Fourth was approaching when they saw the American flag planted in its familiar place, on the sidewalk outside Raneri's shop at 17 N. King St. If by July 2 or 3, Raneri didn't see the Stars and Stripes outside other downtown businesses, he would go to the establishment and offer to put up its flag. After World War I, every store in Leesburg put a hole in the sidewalk by the curb or a hole in the building to support a flagstaff.
Raneri's flag flew not just on the Fourth of July but on the other three main patriotic holidays of the post-World War I era: Armistice Day, Nov. 11, celebrating the end of World War I (known as Veterans Day after 1953); George Washington's birthday; and Memorial Day. In the 1920s and '30s, Memorial Day primarily honored soldiers who died in the Civil War.
Speaking only broken English, 29-year-old Raneri volunteered for infantry duty in the U.S. Army in February 1918 at New Brunswick, N.J., where in the five years since he had come to the United States from Sicily, he had a shoe-repair shop. His older brother, Carmelo, a mason who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., "thought he was nuts," Raneri's daughter, Rosa "Rosie" Raneri told me recently. "You have a business, Vincenzo," she recalled Carmelo saying.
A younger brother, Salvatore, who had remained in Sicily, joined the Italian Army and was already fighting the Germans in France. After Vincenzo was deployed to France with the 78th Division, commonly known as the Lightning Division, the brothers would meet once before Salvatore was killed in action.
Vincenzo Raneri's discharge paper does not name a war, noting only that he served "for the period of the emergency." The certificate said he saw combat in St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne and the Limey defensive sector. Rosie Raneri told me that when her father wasn't fighting, he was repairing and shining officers' shoes.
After his discharge as a private first class in June 1918, Vincenzo Raneri went to live near relatives in Brooklyn, but the lure of France took him back to Paris in March 1919, where he attended the first organizational meeting of the American Legion. The Virginia Department of the American Legion was organized at this meeting, and Raneri became a charter member of Leesburg's Post 34. He would remain a member for 55 years until his death in July 1974. In his later years, when Virginia legionnaires heard that Vincenzo had been at the Paris convention, they dubbed him "Mr. Legionnaire," Rosie Raneri told me.
Before the war, Raneri had visited relatives in Washington. He fell in love with the facade and interior of Union Station and with the city itself. So in 1920, he left his family in Brooklyn and got a job in Washington with Hahn Shoes. He boarded with the Howser family, whose roots were in the Lucketts area.
Rosie Raneri spoke of how her father first saw Loudoun County: "By train. He took the Washington & Old Dominion out to Bluemont, where he wanted to open a shoe shop. It was in the mountains, like his home in Sicily. But he couldn't find any hotel to stay in. They had all closed. So the conductor, John Ward, took him back to Leesburg, where they had dinner together at the Leesburg Hotel."
The hotel was on the site of today's Loudoun County Courthouse and clerk's office.
At the hotel, some diners were curious about the man that Ward, a regular, had brought to dinner and asked him what Raneri's trade was. They told Ward that Leesburg needed a shoemaker, so Raneri decided to open a shop in Leesburg, then a town of 2,000 -- the same size as his Sicilian hometown, Roccella Valdemone. Vincenzo gave Hahn's notice and ordered machinery.
The shipper at Landis Machine Co. in Boston, however, was careless in his abbreviations. What should have been "Va." looked like "Fla." The machinery ended up in Leesburg, Fla., and it was six months, Rosie Raneri told me, before it reached Leesburg, Va. Hahn's was merciful and kept Raneri on the staff.
For a brief period, Raneri's shoe shop was in a rented basement room of the Leesburg Hotel, but then he heard from a customer, pharmacist Horace Littlejohn, that his mother, Julia Littlejohn, was losing her tenants at 17 N. King St. So Raneri's Leesburg Electric Shoe Repair moved in for a 52-year stay.
Raneri not only repaired shoes but made and sold them as well, and his specialty was riding boots for members of the Loudoun Hunt. In the 1920s and '30s, he also cleaned and blocked hats, especially Panama hats, which were in style during that era.
With his own shop, and an apartment upstairs -- the typical living arrangement for Leesburg shopkeepers during the early 20th century -- Raneri wrote to his childhood sweetheart in Roccella Valdemone and asked her to come to the United States and marry him. In November 1922, he wed Maria Sebastiana at the St. Raphael Society for Italian immigrants in New York.
A Ludwig bugle also became a symbol of Raneri's love for America in the early 1930s. He bought the bugle and music for it from Val Johnson, organizer of the Leesburg Drum and Bugle Corps. "Prof. Johnson," as he was called, was the local counterpart to Prof. Harold Hill, memorialized in Meredith Wilson's 1957 musical, "The Music Man." But instead of Hill's 76 trombones, Johnson sold a more modest number of brass and percussion instruments and sheet music. When anyone bought an instrument and music, Johnson would teach them the rudiments of reading music. Raneri became adept at playing his bugle. Some months ago, Ethel Littlejohn Adams, Horace Littlejohn's daughter, told me that Raneri would play taps (originally a drum signal) at "nearly all the Leesburg funerals."
Rosie Raneri said her father even played at the funerals of former Virginia governor Westmoreland Davis in 1942 and his wife, Margaret Inman Davis, in 1963. Westmoreland Davis, a steady customer of Raneri's, was publisher of the Loudoun Times Mirror, whose offices were a few doors north of Raneri's shoe repair shop.
Rosie Raneri recalled that every New Year's Eve, her father would take one of Leesburg's makeshift taxis -- he didn't learn to drive until he was 65 -- and stop at several parties to stay briefly and blow taps. Then, she said, "he would time it right to be at the courthouse green at exactly midnight and play taps once more" -- in front of the World War I memorial.
On later Memorial Days, when veterans would gather by the World War II and Korean War memorials on the courthouse green, Raneri would sometimes be the only veteran facing the World War I monument -- at attention and blowing taps or two of his favorites, "Retreat" and "To the Colors."
Tragedy struck the Raneri family in 1933, when Maria Raneri, 39, unexpectedly died from pneumonia July 3. The New York Raneris wanted Maria's two young daughters, Rosie and Nicoletta, to live with two branches of their family because they didn't think Vincenzo Raneri could run a business and properly care for the girls at the same time.
Adams related to me how her father, whose Purcell & Littlejohn drugstore was a few doors south of the shoe shop, urged the family not to separate the girls. The Rev. John Igoe, pastor of St. John the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, which the Raneris faithfully attended, supported Littlejohn.
The New York Raneris relented, and the girls were enrolled at St. Joseph Villa in Richmond, a school for girls who did not have parents or parents who could care for them. Howard Cochran Rogers of Hamilton, Loudoun's delegate to the General Assembly, would often drive Raneri to see his daughters. Other times, Raneri rode the Greyhound bus, which stopped on route from Winchester at the southeast corner of King and Market streets.
The bus came in about 2 a.m. Both Adams and Rosie Raneri recounted how Littlejohn, up late concocting prescriptions or playing cards, would call Raneri to wake him and would hold the bus by inviting the driver over for coffee and a snack at the Purcell & Littlejohn lunch counter.
When Rosie Raneri and her sister came home from Richmond, they would help their father at the shoe shop. Rosie Raneri recalled some of the prices he charged: $5 for men's whole soles and heels, $3.75 for half-soles and heels and 10 cents for a shine (up to 15 cents by 1952 and a quarter a decade later).
"Every Saturday night until 11 o'clock, people would be lined up in and outside of the shop, chatting and waiting to get their shoes shined," Rosie Raneri said.
After the United States entered World War II in 1941, the Leesburg Drum and Bugle Corps disbanded. Its players had all entered the service, and brass was no longer available for civilian pleasure uses.
At age 54 in 1943, Vincenzo became a member of the Virginia Militia reserves. Rosie Raneri still has his uniform -- the dark green shirt with its arm patch that reads Virginia Military Militia. The militia would periodically meet in Leesburg to plan for emergencies.
After World War II ended in 1945, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars -- of which Raneri was a member -- realized that World War I veterans were aging and often needing care, and they began selling red paper poppies to help with their needs. The poppy, memorialized in John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields," had become the symbol of the veterans' service and the service of comrades who had died in the war.
Rosie Raneri recalled how her father would stop friends on the street and go from business to business, distributing the poppies and asking people to pin them on their lapels. "They usually gave Daddy a nickel or a dime."
During the war and immediate post-war years, the American Legion's Leesburg chapter had few members, Rosie Raneri recalled, and on Armistice and Memorial days, her father would often buy the memorial wreath to carry on the tradition of laying it by the foot of the World War I monument.
In ill health, Vincenzo sold his shop, which by the early 1950s carried the name Vincenzo Raneri, to Armenian American Hartoun Varoujanian in April 1972. Since then, the business has been called Arthur's Shoe Repair, carrying on the tradition of complete leather repair.
About a decade after her father had sold the shop, Rosie Raneri found 12 instruments of the old Leesburg Drum and Bugle Corps in its basement and donated them to the Town of Leesburg. A new generation of players keeps the patriotism of Vincenzo Raneri alive.
Eugene Scheel is a Waterford historian and mapmaker.