180830ind history 2

Drusalina Romano helped keep her family’s farm running until the impending arrival of World War II led to the property being condemned by the government.

There’s no doubt about it, The Shops at Quonset Point is a busy place. There’s hustle and bustle as folks head in and out of the attractive shopping plaza anchored by both Dave’s Marketplace and Kohl’s.

But then, this has always been a busy spot. Prior to the construction of the current plaza, this location was home to one of the largest all-wooden office buildings in the world. With hundreds of thousands of square feet of floor space, it was the nerve center of the busy military complex that surrounded it.

This high level of industrious activity did not begin there, though. You see, 100 years ago, this place was a beehive of activity as the extended Romano clan – brothers Ernest, John, Carmine and Vincent, their wives and children, and their in-laws, the deRienzis – were going all-out to establish the Romano Vineyard, the largest ever in Rhode Island.

The Romanos came here from both Italy and upstate New York in 1908, and purchased farmland totaling 370 acres. Elder brother Ernest and Annabelle DeRienzi, the father-in-law to John’s son, Michael, were accomplished wine masters with years of experience in winemaking and vineyard management – both back in the old country, where deRienzi had graduated from the University of Florence, and in New York State, where they worked for the Italian Vineyard Company.

All this experience aside, though, it was actually Drusalina Romano, John’s wife, who was the driving force behind the family enterprise. Drusalina, by all accounts, was a brilliant woman with a natural business sense and a keen appreciation of the value of “La Familia.” She knew that the real strength of the Romano Vineyard was not the 100 acres of Concord, Clinton, Delaware and Catawba grapes that yielded annually in excess of 100,000 gallons of table wine, burgundy and champagnes. It was the hardworking extended family that fueled their success.

Wisely, as it takes a minimum of four years before a vineyard can even begin to produce, the Romanos’ farming ventures extended well beyond grapes. They also ran a “produce farm” and orchard, and grew corn, tomatoes and various melons, along with apples, peaches, cherries and pears. They sold these at a local farmstand and at the big produce markets in Providence.

Their wares were organic, long before it was popular, as their primary fertilizers were manure, seaweed and starfish. The Romano boys also supplemented the family’s income by selling the fish they “harvested” from their farm’s shoreline property. The farm additionally sold wine grapes to folks who wanted to create their own choice vintages at home. Many of their grape customers were local Jewish families interested in creating kosher wine for their own use.

The strength of Drusalina’s extended family was tested during the era of Prohibition when her husband, John, after fatally shooting an intruder who was attempting to rob the family, returned to Italy rather than chance a lengthy jail sentence. He never returned to the United States and died in Italy in 1929. A few years after his death, Drusalina married her husband’s younger brother, Carmine, who was a widower. Throughout this turbulent five-year period, the family pulled together and weathered the crisis intact.

Less than a decade later, a worldwide crisis came along that no amount of familial strength could persevere over. With war on the horizon, the U.S. government was moving at a breakneck clip to establish a large military complex at South Quidnessett and Quonset Point. The Romano farm, along with numerous other farms of their neighbors, were among the first local casualties of Axis aggression in Europe. The Romano Vineyard, the producer of a variety of renowned “Devil’s Foot” wines, was condemned by the government. Drusalina was given $58,000 and sent packing with all of her clan. It nearly broke her heart.

Drusalina moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, to live near her two youngest sons, Frank and Randolph, both doctors. Community-minded to the end, she helped them found both Framingham Community and Rosindale General hospitals. She died in December of 1952. Beloved here and in Framingham, she was mourned by countless individuals in both communities.

So, the next time you are walking through the produce department at that striking new Dave’s Marketplace, or perusing wine glasses in Kohl’s, stop a moment to give Drusalina Romano and all her boys their due.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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