The United States witnessed significant population growth at the start of the 20th century as immigrants fled tumultuous Europe and headed towards America in hopes of a new life. The vast majority of these immigrants landed in New York City, and from there, spread throughout the country.
Connecticut’s vast farming lands were especially attractive to the newcomers, and soon the state, and Hebron, were welcoming new families. Numerous Eastern Europeans (and some Northern Europeans) settled in central Hebron and Turnerville (Amston). Interestingly, Southern Europeans (predominately Italians) chose to live in the northern part of Hebron. Nestled between the Foote, Hills and Ellis farms, Italians soon dominated almost all of North Street, from Hebron all the way to Bolton, and the area became affectionately known as “Little Italy.”
Thanks to the memories, pictures and records of Rena Borsotti Zachmann and her husband Joe, we learn much about life in Hebron’s Italian community. Other Italian families who settled in the area were the Saglios, Barrassos, Gambolatis, Negroes, Fracchias, Cordanis, and Peracchios.
In 1920, Emilio and Maria Borsotti, and their two adult sons, Severino and Peter, all of whom had been born in Italy, decided to make Hebron their home. (Their daughters, Esterina and Maria, who had also been born in Italy, decided to stay in New York.) The Borsottis bought the property located at 128 North Street from Theresa Gambolati for $9000. The purchase consisted of a large farmhouse, which, at that time, had a large, distinctive front porch. According to legend, the house had once been owned by Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under President Abraham Lincoln. The purchase also included a 192-acre farm, a barn and silo, and all the livestock and tools. The vast majority of the land was on North Street, although there also a smaller parcel on Gilead Street, just south of Foote Hills Farm.
Italian was spoken in the home, as it was in almost all of the Italian homes, and it became the job of the children to teach their parents English. But the language barrier was overcome, and Emilio was soon hard at work, establishing a successful dairy farm and orchard. Like most of the other Italian families, the Borsottis also grew vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower and strawberries. The Borsottis were frequent customers of Elton Buell, whose mill operation had become famous for the crates it manufactured for shipping cauliflower throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts.
In 1925, Severino married Italian-born Irma Pattarini, who had met her future husband while visiting her sister in Manchester. They moved in with Emilio, Maria and Peter, and all five adults worked hard on the farm. After Peter married Anna Reale, Emilio and Maria decided to move into an apartment across the street, and leave the farming operations to their two sons and their families, who continued living in the house.
It was an exciting time in Hebron. New farming and dairy technologies were beginning to be introduced, and other inventions began to become commonplace in town. The Borsotti brothers, in addition to their farming duties, were also hired to dig all the holes for the first telephone poles along North Street.
Irma gave birth to George in 1927, and to Rena in 1928. The two children walked down North Street to the White School (located at the intersections of today’s Route 94 and 85), where they attended grades 1 through 8. There were no buses for that particular school route. At the White School, they formed friendships with their classmates, such as the Links and Foote children, whose families had lived in Hebron for generations.
During World War II, Peter took a job with Pratt & Whitney, and he and his family moved to the apartment complex across the street where Emilio and Maria still lived. The Borsotti farming operations were left solely in Severino and Irma’s hands. Although Rena and George both attended Windham High School, they helped their parents with the farm when not in school.
About this time that New York-born Joseph Zachmann appeared in Hebron. Joe, a spirited young man, had enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and served on two different ships, the U.S.S. Biscayne and the U.S.S. Warren, both troop transport ships based in the Pacific theatre. He had seen much during World War II, including Japanese kamikaze pilots that hit a nearby ship in which all but 10 sailors were killed.
Returning to New York, Joe enrolled at Newtown High School to finish his last year of schooling. The program required that he complete two summers as a farming apprentice. He successfully applied for an apprenticeship at the Hills’ dairy farm, where he lived in the main house with Homer and Catherine, and their children Wilbur, Allan, Mary and Beverly.
Joe became particularly friendly with George Borsotti, and soon noticed Rena at baseball games. One day he told George, “Tell your sister I want to take her to the movies tonight.” That night, he picked up Rena, and they went to the movies in Manchester, followed by dinner at Shady Glen.
The couple dated for almost two years, and Irma frequently invited Joe for some of her delicious meals. They went to many barn and square dances, especially those at the Gilead Grange; dancing was quite popular in those days. “Everybody dressed up for the dances; the boys always wore suits and ties,” recalls Rena. On September 1, 1951, the couple married at St. James Catholic Church in Manchester. The occasion was especially significant for Joe. Father Vito Mistretta, a Catholic priest who had befriended Joe during his early Navy years, flew to Connecticut to perform the ceremony.
Joe was working as a civil servant in the Bronx, so Rena gave up her job with the Department of Agriculture in Hartford, and moved to New York. Adjusting to the fourth floor 3-room apartment was difficult. Nine months after daughter Mary was born in 1954, Joe decided that he wanted to raise his family in Connecticut. “New York was no place to raise children; they couldn’t play anywhere without by chased and I didn’t want that,” said Joe. Rena was delighted!
With no job, the Zachmanns returned to Hebron, living in a house on Foote Hills Farm for $25 a month. Joe ultimately took a job driving a milk tanker, and became a familiar face at the Hebron dairy farms. Two more daughters were born, Jean in 1956 and JoAnn in 1960. The Zachmanns also helped with the Borsotti farm operations, and moved in with Irma after Severino died in 1957.
The farm proved too much to handle after Severino’s death, and the land was rented out. Irma deeded two acres of land from the Gilead farming parcel to Joe and Rena, where they spent the next two years building their house. On the night they moved in, they brought Irma with them.
Many of the Italian farming operations along North Street began winding down operations about this time. Ultimately, the Borsotti farm was sold to the Neumans, and later sold to the MacDonalds. There was a large fire at the house in 1977, and the Moss family ultimately bought the property. Today, it is owned by the late Betsy Foote Osborn.
After their daughters graduated from RHAM High School, Rena took a job at the Pratt & Whitney Research Library. Irma continued to be active in the Hebron community, and in 1997, the first year the contest was held, was named “Maple Fest Queen.” Joe and Rena still have her “key to the city,” a piece of blue packaging ribbon with a car key attached! Irma lived with the Zachmanns until her death in 1997.
Joe retired in 1992; Rena retired in 1994. Today, when not traveling or gardening, Rena works at the polls and Joe continues to cut wood for his entire family. Their three daughters all reside in Hebron. Italian traditions remain strong with the family.
Why did Italian families choose to settle in the north side of Hebron? Joe believes it is because of the terrain in Gilead. “The land is so much like the land in Italy, especially the rolling hills where they had had their orchards. It was a gentle reminder of the country they left behind when they started their new lives in America.”
All photos courtesy of Joseph and Rena Borsotti Zachmann.