By Betty Jo Gigot, Publisher
I’ve moved around too much through the years to keep a lot of souvenirs but one I have treasured was sent to me by one of my favorite interviewees, Sonny Mapelli. He sent me his “Bravo” Award after we published a story on him in December, 1989.
One of the lesser-known beef industry pioneers, Sonny had a great story to tell about his family and their meat store in downtown Denver.
The Mapelli family story reflects the opportunities that abounded in America at the turn of the 20th century. The family’s six brothers – Herman, George, Joseph, Mario, Guido and Rudy – arrived from Italy at different times. Joseph came first. He had a college education and went to work for a bank. As soon as he was settled, he sent word back to his mother to send two of his brothers.
Mama Mapelli put her nine- and ten-year-old sons, one of whom later became Sonny’s father, on the boat and sent them to America. She sewed signs on their coats that said “Denver, Colorado,” put some money in their pockets and off they went. When they got to New York and were asked what they wanted, they pointed to the sign that said “Denver.” When asked if they had tickets, they handed over some money.
That process worked in New York and Chicago, but when they got to Denver, they had no way to get in touch with Joe. They ended up staying in the train station for 10 days until he went looking for them. (Joe also had no way of knowing when they’d arrived.)
America was indeed the land of opportunity; by that afternoon they were working for Western Union, and the very next day they were enrolled in school.
Mama ultimately sent seven of her children to America. The sole daughter stayed in Chicago but, eventually, the six brothers started their business in the middle of downtown Denver. They married local girls and raised their children to be Americans.
When World War II started, all of the second-generation Mapelli sons enlisted. Sonny went to Europe on the Queen Mary and remembered well the six days he and 22,000 others fishtailed back and forth to avoid German subs. His bunk was six floors down.
A thriving business
For 40 years, the Denver University Law School was housed above the Mapelli Brothers Co. The alluring smells of sausage and onions filtered up through the floors of higher learning. Generations of law students studied while sitting on the step in front of the store, eating Mapelli Brothers Co., food.
Herman Mapelli hired the fledgling lawyers to collect his receivables. His personal attorney for over 40 years got the job after the young man was belted while out on a collection; he brought the money home anyway.
By the time Sonny and his cousins returned from the war (his dad put him to work the very next day), a land developer had come to Denver and purchased all of the property around the family store.
“The family made a great deal more money selling that land than they ever did selling meat,” Sonny said. Eventually, they sold the property for better than a half-million dollars.
After the sale, Sonny and his brother Gene established a wholesale meat business that streamlined portion cuts. They worked closely with the airline trade, as well as hotels and other customers needing portion meat. Eventually, the business was purchased by Monfort of Colorado as part of their food distribution business. Sonny and Kenny Monfort formed a coalition and a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.
Sonny went on to serve five years on the Denver City Council, was a state representative, and served one term in the Colorado Senate. He also ran for Denver mayor and “almost won,” he said. At one time, he had plans to run for President, “but that one never got off the ground.”
Truly one of a kind, Sonny passed away in 1995. The trophy he sent me so many years ago sits on my kitchen table in memory of “Gentleman Sonny.”