M.J. Donna, historian who created a landmark

Sandy Vasko

    One of the criteria for a structure to become a landmark is its age - it must be at least 50 years old. If we apply the same criteria to books then “The Braidwood Story” by Modesto J. Donna qualifies as a landmark.
    Originally published in July of 1957, it has stood the test of time well. For Braidwood historians, genealogists and citizens, it is must reading. I know it has been for me. Today we look at the man who wrote it.
    Although Donna modestly does not talk much about himself in the history, we know that without him Braidwood's own history would be much poorer. In a booklet published in 1965 for the Braidwood Centennial we read, “The late M. J. Donna brought great fame to his home community. He was identified with almost every Braidwood activity since coming to this country with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Donna and sister, Kate, on Nov. 1, 1883 from his birthplace in Canischio, near Torino, Italy.”
    Included in the many jobs Donna held - Braidwood school teacher, school principal, Right-of-way agent for an electric railroad, mayor of Braidwood, Braidwood city attorney (although he had no legal training), payroll clerk of the State of Illinois and Secretary of the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association, a post that he held for over 34 years.
    He was the originator of the Braidwood Recreation Club and was responsible for its acquisition and design. At the time of his death on Christmas Day of 1959 he was a charter member of the American Trade Association, Executive Secretary of the Grand Court of Illinois and Supreme Past Chief Ranger of the Foresters of America and a member of the Holy Name Society of Immaculate Conception Church.
    We know that he was a bit of a sporting man who loved a good show. We read on March 19, 1915 in the Wilmington Advocate, “Braidwood people were treated to a regular marathon Monday morning that grew out of an argument as to who was the best walker. It was a question as to whether one could walk or run from Wilmington to Braidwood a distance of little over five miles, in 40 minutes.
    “M. J. Donna offered the winner one of the best up-to-date ties in his store and Supervisor Joseph Rogers offered a sum of money if the deed was accomplished. “Sambo” Harris undertook the task. Donna bought him his ticket to Wilmington from whence Harris was to start the test from Wilmington and “Sambo” was sent off at the crack of a “gun.”
    “He left at 10:55 a.m. and stepped on the Alton depot platform at Braidwood at 11:30, the exact time according to E. E. Gentz, C. & A. agent, the timer, was 35 minutes and 20 seconds.” We hope to see some Wilmington lad take the honor of fast time from Braidwood. Who will make the go?”
    Another of his businesses revealed his entrepreneurial side. We read in his book about the Prima Donna Rabbit Company.
    “Occurring in the late 20's, it was a costly venture undertaken by a group of enthused citizens to raise rabbits for human consumption, with M. J. Donna as president. It issued a capital stock totaling $25,000. The rabbits did their part, multiplying as fast as expected, but the manager's sales effort were weak so when the infamous stock market crash occurred in November, 1929 the concern was unable to continue.”
    But even after taking all these things into consideration, the one thing that has outlived him is his historical work.
    “The Braidwood Story” is just that, a history covering every aspect of life in Braidwood. Of course, Donna covers the history of coal mining in the area, but his history is so much more than that.
     He covers leading families, schools and all their activities, social organizations, industries, sports teams and so many other things. And with the loss of the Riviera there is still hope, his recipe for Baigna Calda, a local treat, is even included. What a bonus.
    His family reissued the book and it may be purchased at the Braidwood Area Historical Society headquarters in the old Braidwood Depot located at 111 N. Center St.
    For more information you can call them at 815-458-9010 or see them on Facebook. And remember, it makes a great Christmas gift for the historical in the family.