Farming 101: A Farm History

Leona Palmer

Leona Palmer › Leona Palmer was a native of rural Wisconsin before becoming a time-tested New Yorker. After having ...

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I am no longer sustaining on a rotation of wintered-over spinach, kale, and leeks. Our seeding, mulching, transplanting and cultivating has suddenly yielded a bounty of produce. The fields are standing in neat rows of various crops: chard, radishes, tomatoes, peas, peppers, carrots, lettuce. The asparagus is done, but the strawberries are peeking out red under their green canopy. A multiplicity of herbs have exploded in bushels.

The brand-new Farm Stand is finished (thank you to Mark W. Quigley Contracting) and fully operational, our CSA is getting into full swing and volunteers are coming around regularly. The wash station is ready for dunking and spraying. Our educational programs are beginning. The Learning Garden has been prepped, manicured and just recently planted by wee tykes sporting sprouts and dirty knees. Things here in Newton are beginning to become routine: harvest in the morning (for the farm stand, CSA and Farmer’s Market) and cultivation in the afternoon (weeding, watering or planting).

Our CSA orientation took place on a recent Saturday grey with rain, though the mood was eager and curious —partly in thanks to the lovely Lucy Caldwell, a top-notch local historian who has  extensively researched the story of our little farm and the family who lived here before it became the city-owned non-profit it is today. You can read her thorough history and view historical photographs at her web page. From Lucy’s incredible scholarship, her orientation talk and stories I’ve heard in the community, I’ve come to understand a bit of this place where I’m working and living and proud to continue the tradition of farming.

On this corner of Nahanton and Winchester Streets in Newton, Massachusetts has stood a farmstead since the year 1679. Though we don’t know details of families from the earliest times, we do know that from the 1850s the Hall family owned and cultivated this lot. In 1905 Crescenzo Angino, aged 30 years, travelled from Montaguto in southern Italy through Ellis Island with $17 and the ability to read and write. His wife Lucia Ciasullo Angino and two sons, Francis and Antonio, stayed presumably with her family in Greci, a nearby village.

Upon arrival, he set out to meet his brother-in-law Leonardo Anzivino outside of Boston in the Oak Hill section of Newton. Married to his sister Maria Michela Angino, the couple had come to New York in 1902. The men likely worked at Appleton Farm at the corner of Brookline and Dedham streets.

When Lucia arrived not long after Crescenzo, the family lived in Newton’s former schoolhouse of the 1850s, directly across the street from the new schoolhouse which the children attended. Rose and three of her older brothers Michael, Jerry and Ernest were born and lived here until moving to the farmstead on Nahanton.

Crescenzo continued to work for the wealthy Shaw Family, who’d made a fortune in copper mining in Michigan, when they bought the Appleton Estate in 1908-09. By this time the estate included 254 acres, combining 14 original properties. Utilizing his former experience in the Italian Calvary (he’d said that he’d left Italy to keep his sons from serving in the military) he cared for the polo horses on the estate. In 1917 he was able to buy the farmstead across the street, from the heirs of David Hall, perhaps with help from Robert Shaw. At this point his children numbered seven—the five boys, Rose and a new baby girl, Julia Virginia, her name chosen by Mrs. Shaw. Eager for assimilation, the children spoke no Italian.

The family supported itself by growing most of their food while selling extra produce out of the barn and at Quincy market in Boston, which was a great treat for the grandchildren to attend. Crescezo continued to work for the Shaws, as did as his oldest son Francis (who worked at the Charles River Country Club where Robert Shaw was a member) and Lucia (who was a wet nurse for Mrs. Shaw), and they were allowed use of nearby Shaw fields for additional crops and cows. Their frugality, though it allowed them the purchase of wheat and other staples, also inspired the reuse of burlap bags as sheets and pillowcases, which made a scratchy impression on their granddaughter, Joan Melville.

Crescenzo grew tomatoes from seed brought from Italy, and many other crops. The family harvested from heritage apple trees near the house and gathered berries, mushrooms and greens from nearby fields. Grapevines, which still thrive on the original arbors, yielded wine from a huge press that still sits in the basement of the house. Today the grapes yield jelly. There was homemade pasta, butter, jam, canned tomatoes and beans, and chickens for eggs and meat. Every Sunday extended family dinners were cooked over a huge woodstove in the kitchen, remembered as the heart of the house. It still feels that way today, even without the stove.

Crescenzo renovated the house and barn, buried savings in the field (for which we keep an eye out), and made loans to other Italian immigrants. The boys delivered unpasteurized milk door to door, ran paper routes and caddied at the Country Club. Francis went on to found Mass Electric, made his own fortune, and eventually joined the Country Club he’d worked at as a youth.

As the couple aged into their 70s, their children and grandchildren kept the farm, and Sunday dinner, going. In 1952 they celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary and were interviewed in the paper as to their success. Eventually Rose, who’d moved home with her son Jay after her husband went to WWII and returned again later, ran the farmhouse while Jerry cultivated the fields.

Jerry began his career as an industrial arts teacher at Day Junior High. He eventually became Superintendent of School Attendance, his role as truant officer evolved, with his enthusiasm and care, into Newton’s first guidance counselor—by his own description and by the recollection of many who knew him. He looked after “his boys”, especially the fatherless and the Italian youth, mentoring, teaching skills and putting them to work on the farm during summer. Some of these now older men have stopped by the farm and introduced themselves, eager to speak of his kindness and often crediting him with getting them through school, a tough transition or turning their lives toward something better than where they believed they were headed. “They don’t make them like that anymore.” “He was an amazing man.” These are common phrases used to memorialize him. He worked for 32 years in the Newton schools, all the while farming.

Jerry and Rose actively farmed until 1985. Many remember seeing them working the field and the high quality of produce they continued to sell.  “I’d often see Jerry out working the land,” says Barbara LaValle, who worked at the West Suburban YMCA—where a room was named for the family in 2001. She remembers the great care they took with the property, their profound love of the land and of family. Jerry Angino passed away in 1998. Rose, who continued to live in the farmhouse, passed away in 2002.

The farm was bought by the City of Newton from the Angino family heirs in 2005 using Community Preservation Funds. Newton residents, with the Newton Conservators, persuaded the city to save “the last working farm in Newton” as a community resource instead of developing the site. It is now a non-profit farm as well as a land and historic conservation site.

Newton Community Farm is blessed with incredible soil, dark and rich, which my hands can attest to—the legacy of 300 years of careful and skilled consecutive farming of mostly organic and hand cultivation. Both the house and barn have a wonderful integrity and homey feeling built into them. It’s a special little corner that by the perseverance and commitment of its community has not only survived but flourished as it builds upon the reputation established by the Anginos and continues to nourish and support the surrounding population.

Photo Credit: Leona Palmer