Thursday, February 24, 2011

Part II: Leonilda Verzone – A Life in Canton

Leonilda Verzone at age 16

My grandmother, my Nana, turns 100 today. As you read this story, it is my joy to reflect upon what her place in my life and in Canton means. Leonilda (Verzone) Salemme was born in New York, but was raised by her paternal grandmother in the small village of Brusnengo in northern Italy; her childhood was marked by being born an American but raised an Italian, and growing up in a family that she only discovered at age 11.

In Canton she attended public schools but never graduated from Canton High School, owing to her slow progress with the English language. Instead, she began to help her mother, Cesira, in all things domestic. Domestic life was part of the family tradition. Cesira Achino, a servant, was born in 1889 and immigrated to New York aboard the La Savoie in 1905. At 16 she traveled 19 days at sea in wretched third class and arrived at Ellis Island among hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Cesira would live with cousins in New York City and would eventually meet Emilio Verzone. Emilio, my “Nonno,” arrived in New York in January 1905 aboard the same ship as his future wife. The ship passenger manifest lists $45 in his pocket, and the 20-year-old laborer joined two of his brothers, Ricardo and Giuseppe, who had arrived together in 1901.
The hardworking brothers were almost immediately successful. Photographs of the period show them impeccably dressed and perfectly groomed. By 1914, Emilio had declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States, which was successfully granted in 1917. All of the brothers became citizens quickly within a few years of their arrival.
It would seem that their occupation was that of wait staff serving the wealthy in Palm Beach, Florida, and New York City. Ricardo (Richard) Verzone amassed a small fortune as the maĆ®tre d’hotel of the famous Plaza Hotel in New York. This was the golden age of the grand hotel, and the work was prestigious as well as lucrative. In 1912, the Plaza organization sent the now anglicized Richard and his brothers to Boston to open the Copley Plaza. Richard went on to open the Black and White Club in Marlboro and became an early investor in the Boston Garden organization. The family tragedy that was never discussed in our house growing up was his suicide in Quebec in 1933. Nana would only discuss this with me when I was old enough to research the Boston Globe clippings, and even 50 years after his death she would weep for his lost soul.
A year after Richard’s suicide, his mother, Ernesta, (Nana’s grandmother) traveled for the last time from Brusnengo, Italy, to the United States and settled in Canton in the family home. Ernesta brought steamer trunks full of correspondence and photographs chronicling the entire family history. Literally, hundreds of documents in an archaic Italian dialect are in our family archives as a result of her last trip. It is indeed amazing to have saved both sides of the family stories by matching the letters sent and received. A young friend, Sabrina Ugazio, in Brusnengo has helped me translate some of the letters and documents. Rosa DiFabianis Verzone is buried alongside her daughter Maria at the Canton Corner Cemetery.
And so, in this family that served the wealthy and famous, Nana decided to open a beauty salon. She attended the Wilfred Academy of Hair and Beauty Culture in Boston, and by the mid 1930s she opened a shop in downtown Canton at 620 Washington Street. Specializing in “all areas of beauty,” she had an active and dedicated clientele. As children growing up in her house on Walpole Street, she was never pleased when we would play with hundreds of plastic curlers, strewing them throughout.
Leonilda Verzone as a bride to
George Salemme, taken in 1936

Nana would meet George Salemme from Dedham, the only boy from a family of seven girls and the youngest child. Talk about pressure — what girl would be good enough for little Georgie? The sisters: Irene, Florence, Frances, Celia, Rose, Veda, and Elizabeth all watched as George and Leonilda married on Columbus Day, October 12, 1936, at St. John’s Church with a reception at Oddfellow’s Hall in Brooks Block on Bolivar Street.
George & Leonilda Salemme
on Walpole Street
The photograph of Nana in her wedding gown is splendid — a white satin dress with tiny flower pearls, long trail, veil, and a pearl crown. The photo shows a beautiful 25-year-old woman. Immediately following the wedding the newlyweds moved to Wall Street and eventually back to a house on Walpole Street, which had been purchased by an uncle and adjoined the house that Nana had grown up in.
My grandfather, George Thomas Salemme, is my namesake, and for those wondering if there is any relationship to the infamous Salemme family — just ask me in person the next time we talk. George worked at United Drug in Dedham and eventually at the Neponset Mills on Walpole Street. It would be this factory where so many Canton immigrants would work using dyes and chemicals that they would eventually die of cancers at a time when cancer was common and with unknown origins. Nana tells of the great pain in the final days of her husband’s life when she would sleep on the floor for fear of even the slightest movement on the mattress, which could bring excruciating pain to her dying husband.
Over the course of their marriage, George and Leonilda had three daughters: Nadine, Janice, and my mother, Andrea. The girls grew up on Walpole Street, attended Canton schools, and lived full lives. Nana opened up a penny candy store in a small addition on the house that helped make ends meet. Over time the family grew up. Nana grieved the loss of her oldest daughter, Nadine, and would tell of how heavy the burden of a mother to outlive a child. Another burden was the fact that by the early 1960s Nana had begun to lose her sight. She became totally blind by 1968, and despite this handicap she never missed a beat.
Nana at the Hellenic Nursing
Home in Canton, MA

My brothers and I grew up in that house on Walpole Street. I was born a few years after my grandfather died, and so the house would seem fuller as Comeau children would come along in due course. For me, the amazing part of Nana’s life was the aphorisms she would share at each critical turn in my own life. “Deeds not words” seemed to be her most oft-quoted motto. Early lessons in art, literature, and especially history were critical to my personal growth. It was as if she had taken the role of her own grandmother in supporting the ongoing raising of the children in her household.
As the fog of age began to cross Nana’s mind, she began to slip back into her childhood. We had a 90th birthday at Pequitside Farm to celebrate her life. She implored us not to have a party, then promptly created a guest list. At 95 she celebrated at the Hellenic Nursing Home, where she lives today in a secure and loving environment. Today, at 100, she murmurs of her childhood and giggles, cries, and smiles as each day moves forward. Last week, my mom and my wife read her the first part of this story; she laughed and nodded as if the fog was parted ever so slightly. In her mind she is again climbing the hills above Brusnengo and skipping down the path of her youth.
Happy 100th birthday Nana!!!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Leonilda Marie Antoinetta Verzone – A Life Begins

Leonilda Marie Antoinetta Verzone in her
christening gown.
The story of my grandmother, my “Nana,” is actually a story about countless immigrants who have made Canton their home and created a community of diversity and American values shaped by their experiences in far-flung countries around the world. How she came to Canton is a fascinating journey.
Leonilda Marie Antoinetta Verzone was born on February 24, 1911. That makes her 100 years old next week. A great accomplishment, but the path through a life is complicated and full of joys and sorrows, surrounded by family and friends.
Nana’s life began in New York City. Born to immigrant parents, she was an American citizen at birth. When she was 40 days old it was decided that New York City was no place for her to be raised, and her mother and grandmother took her back to Italy while her father stayed behind working as a waiter at the venerable Plaza Hotel.  The trip to Italy was marked by the fact that Nana’s grandmother fell and broke her leg, and upon arrival in Italy she recuperated slowly. Nana’s mother soon returned to America, and the small child was left behind, moved from aunts to cousins and eventually to her paternal grandmother.
Ernesta Verzone and Leonilda Verzone
circa 1916, Biella, Italy
At an early age Nana could never understand being left alone in Italy in the care of her grandmother. The only explanation seemed to be that World War I precluded sending her home. Letters would be exchanged and money would be sent for her support. The only connection to her family would be the occasional photographs that would be mailed to daughter and her grandmother. The small town in northern Italy was called Brusnengo, and it was here that Nana would go to school and play along the steep slopes of the fields surrounded by vineyards and small family “palazzinas” — villas. Her stories of her youth were full of trips to Torino and Biella. Brusnengo is still a small and beautiful town and very much like Canton in many respects. There is a strong community of “townies” who have lived their whole life in that place, and festivals gather neighbors throughout the year. Nana’s stories always stoked my imagination of her childhood home, and while she loved being with her grandmother, America was always pulling her dreams across the Atlantic.
Brusnengo in 1925
Nana’s grandmother had a wonderful mouthful of a name: Rose Luigia Maria Teresa Ernesta Verzone. For short, her name was Ernesta, and she was born to the DeFabanis family in 1859 and was raised in Fiano, Italy. It is easy to see the affection for all things Italian in a family, which, like many Canton families, can trace a significant lineage back to “the old country.” Ernesta was a schoolteacher, a widow, and also the maternal head of the “familia.” This strong woman ran the family concerns in Italy – her ledgers are detailed and track the rise and fall of the family fortunes in Brusnengo. She was the correct person, at 52 years old, to raise young Leonilda.
Leonilda's U.S. Passport
Photo taken in Italy
Finally, in 1922, the letter from her father arrived — simply — “send my daughter to New York and I will meet her upon arrival.” Arrangements were made, her passport was issued in Rome on March 17, and five days later she arrived at the port city of Genoa. At age 11, and by herself, she boarded the passenger ship Giuseppe Verdi as one of the 1825 third-class travelers and began the 17-day passage back to her homeland. She slept on the upper bunk so her feet would remain dry. The bunks were arranged in wards, and the ocean water was frequently awash on the floors. At a top speed of 16 knots, the days seemed like eternity to this wide-eyed girl who could only speak Italian.
Every photo tells a story, and the passport photograph that was taken for the trip to the United States shows a confident 11 year old in a new blue dress made from wool and decorated with simple embroidery. The dress had been handmade especially for the trip, and while her grandmother wanted a simple front, the dressmaker insisted that as she was traveling to America the style called for something more sophisticated. In the photo, she is adorned with tiny pearl earrings in each ear and a matching necklace. On her right shoulder her virgin hair is extremely long, and in fact when she came to Boston it would be cut for the first time — the hair saved, to this day, in a small package in a dresser drawer as a relic from her childhood.
Upon arrival in New York City, Nana would not have to go through immigration as she was already an American Citizen, and yet on April 8 she was in fact becoming an American for the first time. She had never met her father, yet she often told the story of arriving at the top of a majestic flight of stairs at Ellis Island and at the bottom stood the “most handsome man in the world.” After a night in New Jersey, the train trip to Boston brought her to the venerable Copley Plaza, where her father, Emilio Verzone, was the headwaiter, his brother being the maitre d’hotel after successfully managing the “Plaza” in New York.
Hotels and hospitality were a family business, and in the 11 years that Nana was in Italy the family had begun to moderately prosper. The Verzone family lived on Columbus Avenue, and since Nana’s departure a sister was born and the family consisted and older brother and a five year old sister, and soon anther brother would be born. Quite simply, the family outgrew the rental brownstones of Back Bay. Fellow waiters at the Copley Plaza hotel told Emilio of Canton, where dozens of northern Italian families from Gattinara had settled. Family names so familiar to us today: Bertiletti, Crevola, Zanazzo, Carrara, Piana, and Dardano all trace their lineage to the Commune of Gattinara, which was close to Brusnengo, Emilio’s hometown.
The Verzone children
Hugo, Leonilda, Gino and Florence
In Canton, the family settled on Walpole Street in a large farmhouse with a barn and several acres of fields along the Neponset River. The house that Nana would now call home was filled with laughter, her new brothers and a sister, and plenty of characters. The smells of rabbit, polenta and risotto would fill the warm kitchen. To make ends meet, Emilio would rent out rooms to Italian boxing contenders who would travel to Boston for prizefights. Glorious stories would be shared with this new little girl who would be amazed by the newness of it all. The dining room was a mix of English and Italian languages flowing over the house, sternly attended by a father and mother who slept in separate beds for most of their life. So much to learn about this new place, it was as if life exploded around her and Canton would be her new home for a lifetime.
Nana attended Canton Public Schools, and her brother Hugo would teach her English and she would take care of her sister Florence and baby brother, Gino. Her childhood transition from Brusnengo was complete. She writes in an early letter on Copley Plaza Stationary, “tutti un bacio con me” — a kiss to all from me.
Next week, we continue Nana’s story as she grows up, gets married, and finds a life in Canton.
This article originally ran in the Canton Citizen on February 17, 2011.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Cave to Remember

Fairbanks Ledge on Standish Way
 (photo by George T. Comeau)

I was intrigued the day I opened the email from my good friend and fellow historian Dave Lambert. Lambert is one of the town of Stoughton’s preeminent local historians, and since Canton was once part of Stoughton, he shares my passion for all things related to the history of our two sibling communities.

The email arrived in early January 2009. The body of the email was simple and read: “Here are the images of Fairbanks Cave in 1908, and the location in 2009. Want to go on an adventure; let me know!”
An adventure? “Yes” always was my answer. After all, I assume, dear reader, that you saw my last installment on the subject of trespassing. The very idea of a “cave” in Canton was more than I could hope for. The email contained the map illustrated with this story.

Old maps are not new to Canton. The “Histy” has dozens upon dozens. Nestled in banker’s boxes, on the shelf above the vault door, hanging on walls, in flat files, and just about everywhere throughout the building. In fact, several similar maps to the one that Lambert sent me are in a small metal drawer just inside the Historical Society vault. Some of the maps are so old and creased that great care must be taken with simply unrolling the vellum.
It turns out that actually finding this cave would be harder than it seemed. Canton has changed so much in a hundred years. The landscape has been bulldozed, filled, excavated, and man has dominated the natural form such that little unprotected and untouched open space remains. A cave might surely be lost to growth and expansion of subdivisions and modern construction.

That said, the accompanying map that came with Lambert’s email had a few tantalizing clues. It was amazingly detailed and accurate in measure and scale. The map was sketched en route to accompany an outing of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). The trip of 44 persons came to Canton on April 11, 1908, and “hiked” from Canton Junction to the Wetherbee Pasture and onto the Fairbanks Cave. The total hike was 4.5 miles and took a few hours to complete.  Today, actually finding this cave would take me several days of research and driving around town.

The Wetherbee Pasture in 1918 Now the
Blue Hill Country Club
(courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
The map was drawn by E.G. Chamberlain. Chamberlain had written the guide on the Blue Hills for Appalachia, the Journal of the AMC, in 1883 and likely led the club’s excursion to Canton and Milton in 1883. Chamberlain’s map of the Blue Hill Range is highly detailed and superbly drawn. By 1904, Chamberlain’s Blue Hill Panorama had been carelessly copied by so many people that he had an original copy lithographed, and it became standard issue for all day hikers from the AMC.

It was the practice of the AMC to bring along a mapmaker on outings to draw details of the trip and publish these as small “blue prints” to be distributed to members. The map that Lambert had emailed me was a small blueprint that captured small details in the paths and landscape perfectly. It should prove easy to find the cave’s location simply looking at old maps and overlaying Google Maps with the 1908 drawing.

The puzzle on the Fairbanks Cave Map is that I could find no local reference to Fairbanks. It was Chamberlain’s practice to name objects discovered by the club during their outings. For instance, Chamberlain writes of a trip to Amesbury, Massachusetts: “After visiting Powder House Hill we crossed a deep valley and ascended a higher hill, which diligent search shows has never appeared on any map. Even the recent state topographic map omits it. So I called it ‘Lost Hill’ on my outing map.” This was a clue that perhaps Chamberlain had simply named the cave on whim.

It turns out that in the Canton Historical Society a small map drawn to accompany the 1887 Fast Day Walk to the same spot described the topography, 21 years earlier, as Fairbanks Ledge. The historian Daniel Huntoon walked with the society members that day and told the story: “A huge mass of cold gray granite rises abruptly in the midst of the woods and underbrush. On the westerly side is an opening where six or eight men might easily find shelter. Here tradition asserts that one Fairbanks, ages ago, was obliged to secrete himself for a long time in order to avoid the officers of justice. It would appear that an Indian made some offensive gesture, accompanied with an insulting remark to Fairbanks; whereupon the latter, upon the impulse of the moment, fired a charge of buckshot into the Indian, from the effects of which he died.”

The AMC Outing to Fairbanks Cave
(courtesy of David Lambert)
Click to enlarge details
The map is very technically drawn and is very similar to several other hand-drawn maps of the same period. Canton had plenty of connections in the AMC. Frederic Endicott, a prominent Canton resident and superb surveyor and cartographer, served as a councilor to the AMC. Many of Endicott’s maps survive in the Canton Historical Society and are superbly drawn and highly accurate. Endicott drew the 1887 Fast Day Walk map that identifies this site as Fairbanks Ledge.

The overlays of historic maps, the AMC Map, and our new age Google Maps – complete with satellite imagery – do not solve the question. After unsuccessfully locating the cave using our modern technology, it was time to talk to people in the area.

I called Mrs. Meadow, who lives on the west side of Elm Street and whose property I guessed the cave would be located on. Meadow came to Canton in 1956 and had purchased the Draper property on Elm Street. The original tract of land totaled almost 75 acres, and when Route 95 cut through the property it was reduced to the present 40 acres. This large property is largely intact and could be a breakthrough in this research. Mrs. Meadow, however, did not think the cave was on her property, but a return call from her son, Richard, confirmed both the existence and the location.

Richard Meadow, a prominent archeologist at Harvard University, had indeed recalled what he described as the “Indian Cave.” In reality, it was a large rocky outcropping with a deep hole that he would explore with other friends while hiking his own property and the neighboring Fish property. A small opening in the fence gave access to the area where the “cave” was situated.

And so the mystery is solved; you too can visit the Indian Cave. It turns out that the “cave” was never really lost and never really a cave in the truest sense. Fairbanks Ledge is readily accessible if you drive to the very end of Standish Way. The rock is, as Huntoon described it, “immense,” and well worth the drive by. Finding an old map and discovering our rich local history is as impressive as the journey itself.

This story originally appeared in the Canton Citizen on February 3, 2011.