This week, we’re awash in the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic.
Less noticed — not at all, in fact — is that 2012 marks the centennial of the purchase of 24 acres of land at the intersection of Lyons Plains and Coleytown Roads.
The buyer was Domenico Castiglia. Part of the wave of Italian immigration in the first 15 years of the 20th century, he came to Westport because all along Lyons Plains lived people from his village in Calabria. By 1912 he had enough money to buy a parcel from the Coley family. He paid $2,000.
Domenico designed a house, and 2 years later it was built. Jeff Wilkins –Domenico’s grandson — remembers a fortress-like structure made of stone from the nearby river.
Six generations of Castiglias lived in “The Big House.” They ranged from Domenico’s mother-in-law to his great-great-granddaughter.
Gradually, the property was subdivided. Three of Domenico’s 4 children built on it; half remained open fields. There was room in the homes for renters. Teachers were favored tenants, as the Castiglia family valued education. (Most of Domenico’s descendants went to Staples.)
“My grandfather’s vision was an escape from the city,” Jeff remembers. “He entertained busloads of people who slept on the floor.”
Frank Costello — who changed his last name from Castiglia, and was Domenico’s first cousin — was a frequent visitor (until Domenico told him to stay away). He’s the same Frank Costello was headed one of New York’s “5 Families.” He made his money bootlegging with Joe Kennedy during Prohibition, and it was his voice Marlon Brando imitated in “The Godfather.”
“It was almost like a 19th-century farm,” Jeff says of the property. “They had cows, so they must have sold milk. And they had 100 chickens, for eggs.”
“At that time, people ‘did for themselves,’” Jeff notes. Jeff’s mother helped build her own house. Family members contributed carpentry, electrical work, plumbing and heating.
All around there was haying, log cutting, deer and partridge hunting, apple picking, grape harvesting and wine making.
The Castiglias fed themselves plentifully, and well. Fresh mozzarella, homemade sausage, sopressata, bread, butter, ice cream, milk, veal, chicken, eggs, applejack, wine, grape juice, root beer, turtle soup, and all the vegetables they could preserve — all were part of life at what was called Sundial Farm.
“They lived in a sort of communal arrangement that, through the lens of memory, seems idyllic,” says Jeff. “They were not wealthy, so they made their own entertainment.” Evenings were spent playing cards, or singing around the piano.
Not all the Castiglias stayed on the farm. Jeff’s Uncle Louie owned a tailor shop on Main Street.
Over the years, Jeff says, it became harder and harder to hold on to the land. Sentiment was not reason enough to keep it — particularly as real estate values rose. There were more subdivisions over the years.
Eventually, the Big House piece was divided. Finally, it too was sold. In the early 2000s it was dismantled. A new house took its place.
Today only a handful of Westporters recall the stone house, farm and open fields that lined Lyons Plains, near Coleytown, starting 100 years ago.
Jeff Wilkins is not yet 60 years old. But he remembers well.
Say what you will about “modern” Westport. We’re not very far removed from our past.