Many Italians in Wilton but no Columbus festivities

Columbus Day comes Friday, Oct. 12 and is officially observed Monday, Oct. 8, and Wilton has no planned festivities. But that doesn’t mean there is no local Italian community.

On the contrary, Italians are one of the largest nationality groups in Wilton, according to the U.S. Census American Communities Survey of 2016.

In the survey, residents who reported Italian heritage numbered 2,807, making Italians the second-largest ethnicity group in Wilton, next to the Irish, at 3,004 people.

The next two largest groups were Germans, at 2,051, and English, at 1,998.

Other ethnic groups like Polish and French came in much smaller numbers, nowhere near the top four.

In Fairfield County as a whole, there were 100,772 people of Irish descent, 90,379 of Italian heritage, 68,882 Germans and 55,378 English, according to the data.

Apparently, Wilton’s population of Italian descent arrived within recent decades. Italians do not have a historic presence in town, according to historians.

Italians are known to have established communities in neighboring Westport and Ridgefield, but that was not the case in Wilton in years gone by.

“I’ve looked through our census records, and pretty much anyone in Wilton prior to roughly 1850 is of English, Scottish, or Irish origin. The ensuing decades brings Germans and Scandinavians, but very few Italians,” said Nick Foster, office manager of the Wilton Historical Society.

The earliest anyone listed as born in Italy is a vaguely named “Mr. Frasier” in 1870, he said. There is no other until 1900, when the lone Italian resident was 36-year-old Silvator Gappo, with no occupation listed.

By the 1910 census, there were more Italian immigrants, but they mainly existed in scattered clusters. There’s one boarding house listed under the ownership of Italian-born Josef Dungrea. He had 13 other Italian men living with him at the house, all between the ages of 17 and 45. The house was near what is today the intersection of Old Boston Road and Route 106, Foster said. There’s no record of any women living with them, although there is a small chance there may have been some. The rest of the listed Italians were scattered throughout the rest of the town, largely living in groups of two to four men in a household, all between the ages of roughly 20 to 40. They don’t all have occupations listed, but most were laborers of some kind, including masons, and one man, Benjamin Baldine, is listed as a “highway shoveler.”

One Italian immigrant was Joseph Aquino, a 20-year-old living with the Coley family in South Wilton near the Westport line. There, Chester Coley was listed as a butcher, and Aquino was likely a live-in apprentice or servant. None of these men are listed in the 1920 census.

“My guess is they’ve moved on looking for work, or maybe even went back to Italy, but there’s no way to tell with the resources we have,” Foster said.

By the 1930 census, which is the last on file at the historical society, there are only a few Italian families, which are again, scattered all over town.

In the present day, one of Wilton’s best-known residents is of Italian descent — state Sen. Toni Boucher.

She was “born in Italy, and immigrated as a child. She grew up in a small town on the Naugatuck River,” said Bob Russell, the town’s longtime historian.

Boucher confirmed that, saying she was born outside of Naples, Italy, in a town called Benevento. She came to America when she was 5. Her family settled in Naugatuck.

“We are one of millions of stories, this is the American dream, to choose the American dream. We owe so much to this country. It became a beacon of hope to so many,” said Boucher, whose maiden name is Iannuzzi.

Columbus Day has tremendous significance for those of Italian descent, she said.

“We’re very grateful to be able to come here and be part of the American economy and landscape and raise our families here,” she said.

She gave a shout-out to Wilton, her longtime home, for being so inclusive.

“That kind of welcoming environment in this town has made us become lifelong residents as well,” she said.