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Branchville, CT's History
Pasquale DeBenigno's Store, Est. 1907, History.

Special Thank you to Brian and Susan Sullivan for requesting this research and Lucy Scala for her assistance and photographs. The Ridgefield Historical Society and Jack Sanders also assisted me in this research and I am very thankful to them as well.

14 West Branchville Road (Formerly Old Main Highway, Old State Highway)

Building History- Historic Commissions/Registries:

1979 Connecticut Historic Commission documentation has building listed as:

1. Victorian Commercial, Date of Construction c.1875. *Property card at Ridgefield Town Hall notes main building as 1890+.

2. Structure: Wood Frame, Post and Beam, Balloon; Roof: Gable. *Exterior remodeled in 1979/1980: poured footings and drainage. C.O. issued 2/18/1980.

3. Notable Features: 2nd floor gallery not unlike the "raised cottage" of the South, is a form peculiar/unique in this area; Widely adorned posts, brackets and scroll saw balustrade survive; Store area remains in 20th century form, notable to this reason. *Interior floor plan changed/remodeled between 9/20 - 12/03/1985.

4. Field evaluation notes: "In 1930's Benny's Bar & Restaurant (B. Allegrasso)"; "Renovated as Art Gallery in 1980's" It is presumed these were the renovations of 1985 to create what was known as the SOHO Art Gallery.

August 12, 1982 building entered onto National Registry of Historic Places as "The Branchville RR Tenement Building".

Building Ownership:

1. Pre-1907 Abijiha N. Fillow (farm building)

2. Pasquale DeBenigno 1907 - 1942

3. John DeBenigno 1942 - 1951

4. Marian Ellis (DeBenigno's Daughter) 1951 - 1963

5. William and Jean Royal 1963 - 1977

6. Frank and Joan Kocian 1977 - 1979

7. Louis H. and Paula Reens 1979 - 2001

8. Sam H. Sadegi 2001 - 2004

9. Brian Sullivan- Present Owner

Building History- Oral/Written History:

The 1979 and 1985 Louis and Paula Reens (former owners) remodeled the building's exterior and interior to create the SOHO Art Gallery. These projects revealed the Main or 1st floor of the original building was dug into the bottom of the hillside with a 50 foot stone retaining wall and a 20 foot side wall. Gutting work to alter the floor plan also exposed the original floors of stones, boulders and dirt, as well as the next layer of railroad ties which supported the wood flooring…the railroad ties literally went from stone to stone. The ceiling of the 1st floor had a four-inch pitch from front to back, indicating a flat roof. This four-inch pitch was continued on the 2nd and 3rd floors added by Pasquale DeBenigno. The 50 x 20 flat roofed structure with stone/dirt flooring likely served as a storage barn on the land of Abijiha N. Fillow's property initially as maps and land records do not clearly indicate a house or business in this location until Pasquale DeBenigno in 1907.

Pasquale DeBenigno (sometimes spelled DiBenigno) was an early Italian immigrant in Branchville. He was born on February 22, 1871, in Corvara, Italy. He married Caterina Maroniania (sometimes written Mariani), also of Corvara, Italy, their children are John, Marion, Domenic, and Alice. Pasquale died on February 12, 1964 at 92 years of age and Caterina died on April 7, 1949 at 74 years of age.

DeBenigno's Store

For years Pasquale operated the Branchville General Store selling groceries and general merchandise. An old photograph of the store displays an overhead sign that reads" P D Benicuo Groceries & Merchandise - Fruits & Soft Drinks." The last name D Benicuo on the sign is likely a phonetic rendition of DeBenigno. In later photographs, the overhead sign reads: Branchville General Store- Fruit - Groceries - Ice Cream."

According to his daughter, Marian Ellis (she married Joe Ellis), Pasquale DeBenigno established the general store in 1907 at 14 West Branchville Road. "As the family increased in size, father added two additions to the building, our family resided upstairs. I believe the house is one of the oldest in the area." This information from Marian Ellis ties in nicely to the discoveries on the second floor during renovations in 1985. "Thick oak beams were uncovered in the center section but not the left or right sections." This could indicate the center section of the 2nd floor was built to house the DeBenigno family before the left or right sections were added later on to house the immigrant boarders arriving from Italy. However, it could also be a result of at least 2 fires on the upper floors of DeBenigno's Store. One occurred in 1927, the other at a later date, likely the 1930's or 1940's. Marian's note that the house is one of the oldest in the area, is a "stretch"…The structure, as noted above, was more or less a storage or livestock barn located on Abijiha N. Fillow's property in the mid-to-late 19th century.

*Only one map shows what appears to be a house (S. Jelliff) at the current location, the Clark 1856 Map of Fairfield County. The problem with the map is that coloring was used to separate each township and seeing Branchville falls on the boundary of Redding and Ridgefield it is very difficult to make a clear identification. In addition, a later map shows a structure across the street which may indicate a mislabeling of the location of the S. Jelliff name on the Clark 1856 map.(See Maps)

Charles Emmons used to go to DeBenigno's to make purchases for his parents, "They sold general merchandise, groceries like flour and canned goods. After prohibition, the store opened as a saloon."

Newspaper Report from 1927: "Two bandits, one wielding a revolver, the other a cheese knife, robbed $50 from Pasquale DeBenigno's Store in Branchville in April. A shot fired at Mr. DeBenigno missed, went through four shoes on the shelf and lodged in the toe of the fifth. A few months later, part of Mr. DeBenigno's house burnt down."

Immigrant Tenement Housing

Long-time resident Lucy Scala relates, "On arriving in Branchville, the Italian immigrants would go first to Pasquale DeBenigno. When my mother, Giovanna Del Biondo, arrived by taxi from Norwalk Connecticut, at the grocery store, she received hugs and kisses of welcome from her cousin Pasquale.

Willis DeForest recalls, "Most of the Italian immigrants who first came from the Abruzzi area of Italy, arrived in Branchville and stayed at the DeBenigno house. After they found employment either on the railroad, at the quarry, or the G&B wire mill, they would find their own homes to live in."

The recollections of Charles Emmons, Lucy Scala and Willis DeForest appear in Aldo P. Biagiotti's book "IMPACT: The Historical Account of the Italian Immigrants of Ridgefield, CT." Mr. Biagiotti's documentation of the Italian immigrants of Ridgefield and Branchville is an amazing resource that includes family histories, employment and housing patterns. Biagiotti writes: "Over the years, Branchville has been an important Italian immigrant enclave of the town." Tenement houses, like DeBenigno's, offered a fresh start to Italian immigrants as they arrived at Branchville Station from 1910-30. It is for this very reason that 14 West Branchville Road was entered onto The National Registry of Historic Places on August 12, 1982.

The number of immigrants arriving in Branchville in need of housing very likely led to the addition of the 3rd floor. Branchville was a very good place to start a new life. There was plenty of employment opportunities for immigrants in this corner of Connecticut at the turn of the century:

  • Bridgeport Wood Finishing Company, operated mills and mining operations in Branchville from 1891 to 1917.
  • Monarch Mining Company (formerly Traylor Manufacturing and Mining) operated in Branchville from 1907 to 1914
  • Daland & Gilbert, Co. was a manufacturer of Castile and Fine Toilet Soaps in Branchville.
  • Grumen's Ice Tool Works, operated within 100 feet of the DeBenigno Store/Tenement house on Route 7 (then Sugar Hollow Highway)
  • Gilbert & Bennett Manufacturing, Co. manufactured a large variety of wire products a 1/2 mile from Branchville Station in Georgetown, CT.
  • The Railroad was in constant need of laborers to assist with railroad upgrades, and general maintenance.
  • Many of the Town of Ridgefield's water and sewage lines were laid in this time period.
  • Not to mention the large estates of Redding and Ridgefield in need of gardeners, masons, and ground crews.

Benny's Restaurant/Bar & The Home Brews of Branchville

Mr. Emmons' comment on the store becoming a saloon after prohibition has been researched and it appears Benny Allegressa (sometimes written Allegrazia) operated "Benny's Bar & Restaurant" at 14 West Branchville Road before moving up Route 7 to the Blue Feather and then over to Main Street Georgetown, CT. Allegressa is not listed as an owner of the property so he likely leased the building from DeBenigno. An exact date of this "enterprise" has not been located but it is known Allegressa was on Main St. Georgetown by 1951 so it is presumed it was in the 40's.

Alcohol was not new to Branchville nor the DeBenigno's store, as two rather large barrels of wire and/or hard cider are proudly displayed in the oldest known photograph of the building.

In the 'Roaring Twenties' Branchville was said to have a "Roar All on Its Own". While New York City had its whiskey fueled speakeasies and bootleggers, Branchville had 10 to 15 wine and hard cider drinking rooms in the homes and barns of the local "home-brewers". In the 1972 Wilton Bulletin article "Branchville in the Roaring Twenties" that discusses these drinking rooms, a longtime Italian-American resident noted he grew up not too far from "The House that Booze Built" which raises the question: was that house owned by Pasquale DeBenigno? I guess we'll never know for sure but it was one of the larger homes in the area.

These drinking rooms were all run by hard-working, God-fearing Italian-Americans. Most had recently come from Italy bringing with them many generations worth of winemaking knowledge. One may ask: "where'd they get the grapes?" Yankee peddlers in those days brought around a wide variety of goods, from clothes to pots and pans to jewelry…one in particular filled orders for California grapes once a year. A gentle "first pressing" of these grapes produced company wine served when friends visited, a harder "second press" produced everyday table wine, and a third pressing resulted in a poor quality wine that tasted mostly of water and stems but it passed as wine in a pinch. The Italians stored the wine in 55-gallon barrels, usually out in a barn, and they used milk bottles to draw off supplies for the house. Milk bottles had the great advantage of being free, which explains their usage.

Early on the Italians of Branchville were producing wine and cider for their own consumption but over time many of their neighbors learned of their talents and wanted to buy some…and so was a chance to make a little extra cash. "As soon as a family made enough to get a little ahead, they built a house and all of these houses had drinking rooms." Notes an unnamed Branchville historian in the 1972 Wilton Bulletin article.

The drinking rooms were filled with tables and chairs and were almost like little pubs. A quart of cider cost 50 cents, and usually each person who came in would buy a quart to share with his friends who would later return the favor. There were a lot of bachelor hired hands around and some of them with a fair amount of time on their hands would come and drink all day.

Old Main Highway/State Road

Older maps and written histories will refer to West Branchville Road as the Old Main Highway or State Highway. This is confusing to many current residents but it is a legitimate label as the Sugar Hollow Turnpike passed over this very roadway until 1928. It was between 1926 and 1928 that alterations were made to create what we know today as Route 7. Prior to these alterations/improvements, "the straightening of Route 7" as some called it, the "Main/State Highway" passed through Branchville on the East-side of the RR tracks not the West-side.

The Sugar Hollow Highway was built around 1818 to ease pedestrian and freight traffic on the "Old Turnpike". The Old Turnpike, which was also a Post Road was on the Georgetown and Redding side. The Sugar Hollow Highway was on the Branchville and Ridgefield side. Both of these roads came from Norwalk and headed toward Danbury so they are commonly confused with one another. The "Old Turnpike" was the route of choice for close to a century and it did not come through Branchville. The "Sugar Hollow Highway" did not gain popularity until the Norwalk to Danbury Railroad was completed in 1852. The Automobile also played a part in the roadway's popularity.

The road name "West Branchville Road" is puzzling to say the least. Anyone can see it is on the eastern end of Ridgefield. There is no definitive answer for those that question this namesake, however, there is a comical story told by Jack Sanders of Branchvillers trying to pull a "switch-a-roo" on the town of Ridgefield. Signs were created and posted on the Danbury to Norwalk Mainline naming Branchville as "Ridgefield" and the actual town of Ridgefield as "West Ridgefield" This did not go over big with the residents of Ridgefield and it lasted a very short time. It is for this prank that I believe what should have been "East" Branchville Road was labeled "West" Branchville Road by the town.

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