by Elizabeth Abbe
This is a recollection by Elizabeth Abbe, of her neighbors who lived on Stillman Road in Wethersfield from 1936 to 1975 with historical context provided by Jim Meehan.
In 1900 the population of Wethersfield was 2,637. By 1940 it had increased to 9,644. Wethersfield was beginning its transition from a “semi-rural” community to “one of Hartford’s densely-built suburbs” as outlined in the Town Plan Commission’s 1928 “Plan of a Residence Suburb”. Housing developments began to appear on former farmland and open areas. One of these sites was “Goodrich Manor” owned by James R. Goodrich et. al., which extended north to south from the Hartford town line to the south side of what was then called Mabel St. (now Saxon Road) and east to west from Wolcott Hill Road to Goodrich Drive. It contained 106 lots located on Goodrich Drive, Mabel Street, Judd Street (now Road), Reed Drive and Stillman Road.
Lou was a survivor and a pioneer – and quite a storyteller. She survived death and hardship in Italy and eventually became the first “forelady” in a manufacturing company, owned and run by men. The story Lou told me that I remembered most vividly, and caused me to have recurring nightmares, was about the wolves that came down from the mountains in harsh winters to her village in Northern Italy when she was a small girl. They would roam the village streets in packs and when they heard the howls, the village mothers would gather up their children and bring them indoors. As a little girl, I identified with the children and was fascinated.
Both of Lou’s parents died during the influenza epidemic that ravaged Europe in 1917 and 1918, leaving as orphans – Lucille, her younger brother Cosmo, and her older sister Jenny.
Between 1918 and 1919 the influenza pandemic killed more people than World War I, somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history.
Their older brother Dominic had already emigrated to the US when he was 16. Lou was only 12 years old, but on the day of her parents’ funeral, as all the mourners were walking to the cemetery, Lou noticed a woman of the village, whom her mother had never liked, walking in the opposite direction toward Lou’s home. Lou broke off from the mourners and followed the woman to her own house where she discovered the woman was rummaging through drawers and filling her pockets. Little Lou confronted her, screamed at her, and pushed her out of the house.
The beginning of the twentieth century brought an intensification of Italian immigration nationwide. They settled in Connecticut’s urban centers of Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, and Waterbury. Others inhabited smaller cities including Middletown and Stamford.
An uncle who lived in East Hartford made arrangements for the children to board a ship and make the crossing to the United States. The Latanzio children shared a space in steerage along with immigrants of all nationalities- Jews, Irish, Lithuanian. From what she told me, it didn’t sound like anyone befriended the children or took them under their wing. Rather, they had to fend for themselves. She did talk about the food on board and how foreign and disgusting it was to the little Italians. So, at night, the kids would fry little pieces of sausage, given to them by an Italian crew member, over a sterno fire, and savor every bit of it.
Once the children arrived on Ellis Island, speaking no English of course, they had to pass a number of checkpoints that included a complete physical examination. Lou and her sister passed the physical exam but her brother did not. Afraid of the possibility of Cosmo being sent back to Italy, Lou used her wits. She told me that she snuck under a divider, put her “pass” badge on her brother and went through the health exam a second time, herself.
In Connecticut, Lou, Jenny and Cosmo connected with their brother Dominic who had worked at several jobs to earn enough to bring his two sisters and younger brother to the states. He had also served in the First World War as an American soldier. Cosmo too became an American soldier from Massachusetts, and died in World War II. For a while the children lived with an uncle, and through family friends Lou met Frank Casale.
Front Street, currently the site of the Connecticut Science Center and Convention Center, was the principal enclave in Hartford beginning in 1910. A few wealthy Italians–Nicholas Pallottti and Pasquale D’Esopo the most noteworthy–and Irish families owned multi-family tenements, precluding others from purchasing property there. The 1920’s economic boom enabled Italian land acquisition elsewhere, particularly Franklin Avenue further south.
Frank and Lou married at St. Luke’s church off of Franklin Ave, the parish they attended all their lives. There was a huge wedding portrait of the young couple that they kept in the living room and I swear that Frank looked just like Al Pacino! After they were married, the Casales moved to Stillman Road.
Frank and Lou Casale and Doris and Bob Abbe were not social friends but they were much more than neighbors. They were caring and considerate with each other. It was Frank and Lou who got the news first that my mother’s father, whom she was very close to, had died. Mom, Dad, Bobby and Ronny were “up home” at the Abbe farmhouse in Enfield and didn’t get back to Stillman Road until after dark.
Mom’s mother, Nana Reed, mus
t have gotten Frank and Lou’s phone number from my Uncle Roland. Frank and Lou loved Mom’s parents and Ronny remembers that they both came over crying and he couldn’t figure out what it was about and he thought something had happened to them.
Dad and Frank would consult each other on the hedges, their garden, and their cars and at all times, they very respectful of each other. They each had their own gardening tools, hedge clippers and mechanical tools and they rarely swapped them. My brother Ron remembers that Frank had an electric drill which we all thought was very exotic.
My parents’ bedroom window was only about 20 feet from Frank and Lou’s driveway- which made it easy for Mom and Lou to greet each other when they opened their curtains and Frank and Lou headed off to work. In fact, our houses were so close that from their upstairs bedroom Bobby and Ronny could see Lou sitting at her sewing machine in the evenings. Lou never got her driver’s license and never drove a car. Frank, on the other hand, loved his cars and his favorite was a 1949 Pontiac he named “Annabel.” Much as he loved that car I don’t remember it ever in the garage, but always parked between our two houses.
Lou knew no English when she came to Hartford, but she knew she had to work. She told me about going to a factory for her first job. The foreman said to her “can you sweep?” Having no idea what he was asking of her, she answered, “Yes, I sweep!” She showed the same confidence when she went to work for the Silex Company, a small appliance manufacturing company where she worked for most of her life.
In the early 1900’s the city of Hartford was home to a number of internationally known manufacturing companies – among them the Royal and Underwood Typewriter Companies, Colt Firearms, Fuller-Brush and Silex.
Frank Wolcott, in 1919 bought the Silex Co. of Malden, Mass., which had introduced into the U.S., the German vacuum coffee maker. The Connecticut Silex Co.began to make Silex and other appliances as a subsidiary of the Wolcott Co. [in Hartford]. Besides Silex, the company made an iron and several domestic helps.
In 1936 to supplement their war period income, they marketed a brand of coffee for use with their percolator. The Silex Co. shipped an average of $4 million a year during the war period, doubling their net worth through average profits of $350,000. The Silex plant in Hartford was closed in 1952.
Most of the assembly work at the factory was performed by immigrant women. Lou was the first woman to advance to “forelady” and supervise a major department. Not only did she face discrimination and condescension from her male co-workers but she was also maligned by the women who worked under her and vied for her position. Lou had to hire and also fire women who, like her, needed jobs, went to her parish of St. Luke’s, and thought they deserved preferential treatment because they were her friends. But Lou was tough, strict and kept to high standards. She told me about the back-stabbing, gossip and ill- will she faced everyday but it never stopped her from getting the job done. Her department was consistently one of the highest performing areas of the Silex company up to the day she retired.
Lou was street smart but not as intellectual as Frank. She didn’t smoke and never learned to read and write English. Whenever she needed to write a memo for work, Frank composed it for her. Her lack of literacy however was far outweighed by her “gumption.” Lou never conceded to the inability to do anything!
Both Frank and Lou delighted in their backyard and especially their gardens. Every spring they planted a vegetable garden with plum tomatoes, peppers, peas, eggplant and corn. Lou surrounded the garden with gooseberry plants. I learned how to plant and tend perennials from Lou. Every spring, we’d go through her early flower beds and divide lupin, phlox, hostas, iris and other perennials for my yard. Throughout the summer her backyard was in bloom.
Not to be outdone by Lou’s gardening expertise, Frank built a huge stone barbeque in the backyard. What was amazing is that he built it in a day! Whenever the Casales did any work on the house, replacing a roof, repairing the sidewalk or building the barbeque, cars started to show up early in the day. All their friends and relatives appeared. The men, Al, Babe, Blue Eyes, John from New Britain, and Dom came ready to work and the women gathered in Lou’s kitchen to cook all day to feed them. It was pretty festive. By day’s end, Frank was cooking on his barbeque and it proved to be so substantial that in subsequent years it weathered hurricanes, harsh winters and freezing temperatures. The barbeque still stands as a testament to the craftsmanship that went into its construction!
Italian immigrants maintained their own vegetable garden, prepared and stocked the cantina (wine cellar) and later the freezer with all kinds of food, kept chickens, rabbits, pigeons, cured their own meat, made cheeses, produced wine, etc. in a semi-defensive, ‘cottage industry’ sort of self-sufficiency”
Every fall, Lou would harvest and can the results of her summer labors. Her cellar was always fragrant and the shelves were stocked with interesting vegetables in glass jars. During the 50’s Fallout shelters were the trend and I used to think there was no better place than the Casale’s basement for a refuge if the Russians launched a missile! In addition to the stocks of canned goods, Lou kept her pasta machine on a table at the bottom of the cellar stairs. She always made her own pasta and gnocchi. She started with a mound of flour then cracked some eggs in the center of it and slowly kneaded the dough until it was just the right consistency which she determined from the way it felt in her hand. Next, she would run the dough through her pasta machine that cut it into long spaghetti strands or she added potato and kneaded it just right for gnocchi. Lou always made her own tomato sauce and kept a huge vat of it simmering on her stove. There was nothing like the aromas that wafted through the air when you entered their house- and everyone always e
ntered through the kitchen door, never through the front!
Lou introduced the Abbe Yankees to Italian cooking (until then all my parents knew of Italian food was Chef Boyardee spaghetti in the can!) My father always told about the day that Lou came over with a bowl of home made noodles with home made tomato sauce, covered with Parmesan cheese. Dad scraped the cheese off, assuming by the odor that it had gone bad. (the only cheese he’d ever had before was bland American) Over time, thanks to Lou’s persistence and Dad’s willingness to try anything, he learned to put parmesan cheese and hot pepper on just about anything he cooked.
Many say the trend toward Italian food started in the late nineteenth century as Italian immigrants began to make their homes in America. The waves of immigrants from Italy continued passing through Ellis Island, traveling further west, yet holding on to their cultural identity through their cooking.
Soldiers returning from Italy after World War II brought with them their desire for the foods of a grateful but war-torn nation. Enterprising immigrants opened restaurants providing the soldiers with the foods they had developed a craving for and introduced the soldiers’ families to spaghetti and meatballs, sausage and peppers, ravioli, lasagna, manicotti, baked ziti and pizza.
I still can picture Frank and Lou’s living room in my mind’s eye. The TV was the focal point and it was always on, even if Frank was reading. There was a doily on top of the TV and on top of that a white plaster of Paris planter with a bust of the Virgin Mary. In her arms where you’d expect the baby Jesus to be, was space for a cascading philodendron. On the back of every chair and couch, Lou also placed one of the colorful afghans she crocheted. And on the mantel she always displayed the many cards sent to mark holidays, birthdays, or someone’s Holy Communion. Next to Frank’s chair was a magazine rack with space for about 5 cartons of cigarettes and a floor-standing, waist -high ashtray that was always full of cigarette butts. Upstairs there were two bedrooms, just like our Cape Cod but unlike us, Frank and Lou had two bathrooms- a real luxury, especially with one conveniently located upstairs! Above each bed was a crucifix with a dried palm branch threaded between the cross and every surface was covered with framed photos of relatives- wedding photos, school pictures, and my favorite was a photo of their twin nieces – Diane and Delores. For some reason that photo taken of two girls in pigtails in the late 40’s fascinated me and I scrutinized it whenever I went upstairs.
In their later years, Frank and Lou bought a cottage on Ashford Lake, about an hour’s drive from Stillman Road. We’d make a point of going out to the Lake for dinner at least once a month in the summertime. I don’t believe Frank and Lou owned bathing suits or ever went in the water, but they liked to socialize with neighbors, including Fanny and Johnny Pachico, and other friends from their Hartford Italian community who also bought cottages on the Lake. Frank and Lou’s was a simple A-frame with a large living room/kitchen/dining room on the first floor and bedroom lofts upstairs. We enjoyed their big screened- in porch that looked out over the lake. Even at the cottage, Lou always had homemade tomato sauce, handmade pasta, and fresh cookies ready for any time company stopped by.
Frank was probably a 2 pack a day smoker and he died after a second heart attack. Lou was absolutely devastated. She continued to live alone in the house on Stillman Road and cried often and always when I visited her. Eventually, within a few years of Frank’s death, Alzheimer’s Disease robbed her of her sharp mind and loving nature. She began to realize something was wrong when she couldn’t remember a word, and it would bother her. Then she became forgetful, leaving the stove on and unattended. Apparently the turning point was when she was frying up some potatoes and left the stove on, went outside and the smell of burned potatoes and smoke filled the house. Her niece Norma, had to make the difficult decision to move Lou to a nursing home in Windsor where she died a year or so later.
Frank and Lou Casale live on in the memories of all of us whose lives they touched, in so many little ways. I plant my perennials as Lou taught me, knead bread as she did, and try to analyze conflicting information as Frank used to do. They were both wonderful people and truly unforgettable.
Italian sliced cookies:
1 stick of butter
1 tbs Crisco
1 cup sugar
? cup milk
2 tsp anisette flavor
? tsp salt
4 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
Beat the above, then knead until a little softer than bread dough.
Arrange in 8 little loaves on a cookie sheet
Bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes
While hot, put on a cutting board and slice ? ” thick then toast again.
When cool frost with confectionary sugar and milk
? cup shortening
1 cup sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp clove
1 can of 1 lb Hershey’s syrup
1 cup of milk
Take all ingredients and cook over low until shortening melts. Cool a little and put
in 1 cup raisins
5 -6 cups of flour
1 ? tsp baking powder
Work into wet mixture and cool until it rolls easily
Make balls the size of walnuts
Grease pan and cook at 350 F 10-15 minutes
Frost with confectionary sugar, milk and lemon extract
? cup margarine
1 cup sugar
4 ? tsp real lemon
3 cups of flour
? cup sour cream
1 tsp baking powder
1 ? tsp baking soda
Beat the shortening and add eggs, sugar and lemon
Then add the rest
Bake 400 for 10-15 minutes until golden
Also in Articles from the Community: “The Story of Connecticut’s Italians” and “A History of Franklin Avenue”
About the Author: Elizabeth Abbe (pictured below with her family)
Wethersfield Town Clerk
The Italian American experience: an encyclopedia
Return to the Wethersfield Historical Society home page.