By Lisa Green
There’s often something charming and a little quirky about apocryphal stories that makes us want to believe them. The village of Millbrook, New York has such a story. It’s said that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, someone from Millbrook went to “the docks” and asked around for people from one certain town in Italy. If a person admitted to being from Fondi, the story goes, this man brought that person back to Millbrook to be a stone mason for the estates being built in the area.
Whether that’s true or not, this much is a fact: The first Italian immigrants, most of them from Fondi, started settling in this small village in Dutchess County in 1893. What life was like for them, how they assimilated into small-town America and how they left their imprint on the town is the subject of a documentary, "Il Villaggio di Millbrook" ("The Village of Millbrook") that will premiere on Saturday, Nov. 18 at the Millbrook High School, and then repeated at the The Moviehouse
in Millerton on Sunday, Nov. 19. Both events are free and open to the public.
The 35-minute documentary is the brainchild of Barbara Pierce, a longtime Millbrook resident who was chair of the town’s The Museum in the Streets
project, a permanent, bi-lingual, historical walking tour of the village. Pierce shepherded its opening in 2014, and as an admitted Italophile herself (though of Irish descent), wanted to further explore the town’s Italian roots.
Producer Barbara Pierce. Photo: Charles Pierce.
“I realized we were losing the Italian immigrants,” Pierce says. “I thought, ‘we’ve got to get these people’ before they go.”
Timing — and family — is everything, and it just so happens that Pierce’s nephew, Robert Hanson, is a professional filmmaker living out west. In another act of fortuity, while Pierce was mulling the possibility of a documentary, Hanson was going to be visiting his wife during a summer she was working as a costumer at Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater. Pierce asked him to bring his production equipment along.
“We spent a week with a full production schedule, interviewing people. The next summer we did more filming. When that finished, I didn’t know what to do with it,” Pierce says. “But Robert felt it was a film about memory and nostalgia, about Italy and the Millbrook that was. So we put together a film that had a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s about the memories of the descendants who still live here and their grandparents’ ties to Fondi.”
Through a combination of skillful camera work and editing, the film includes historical photos culled from the Millbrook Historical Society, the Library of Congress and other resources, interwoven with 15 moving (and sometimes amusing) interviews. The viewer gets a sense of the fabric of the community that united these Italian immigrants in their new country. The Millbrook historian, the local Catholic clergy and others offer background and further context of the times.
Ciferri contractors at the Flagler Garden, ca. 1923. Photo courtesy of Skip Ciferri.
“I’m passionate about this story,” Pierce says. The Museum in the Street project had initiated a liaison between Millbrook and Fondi, and she, her husband and other Millbrook residents were able to visit the town in Italy and meet the mayor. This whetted her desire to continue the story.
“It's fascinating how the immigrants blended into the Millbrook community,” Pierce says. “One of the big forces was the golf club. The Italian boys became caddies, and got to know the movers and shakers, who came to like them. Eventually those boys became golf members, and the golf champions.”
Filmmaker Hanson, president of Beartooth Film Productions
, is an assistant professor of theater and cinema at Western Missouri State University. He plans to enter "Il Villaggio di Millbrook" in several documentary film festivals. (In addition to his teaching, Hanson is also working on a feature-length film about Bhutan.)
As part of the FilmWorks Forum series at The Moviehouse, the showing will include a Q&A with Pierce and Hanson, moderated by Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
"Il Villaggio di Millbrook"
Saturday, Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. at Millbrook High School
Sunday, Nov. 19 at 11 a.m. at The Moviehouse, Millerton, NY