While seldom appreciated for doing so, real estate ads sometimes preserve history by depicting buildings that are otherwise rarely photographed.
That was the case with this ad I came across in the Nelson Daily News of Jan. 7, 2005. It’s tiny and grainy and gives no address, but I realized it showed the former Associated Growers/Quality Produce warehouse on Government Road, along with a good-size house next to it, which has since been demolished.
I was shocked because I have no memory of the house, though I must have gone by it many times. However, many people will remember it, either from when it was used by Quality Produce as part of their business, or before that as the longtime home of Pellegrino (Pete) and Assunta Defeo.
They were grandparents to well-known Nelsonite (and 2013 Citizen of the Year) Peter Defeo, who lived in the house from 1958 to 1971. (Some family members used the spelling Defoe, although originally it was De Feo.)
Pellegrino was born in Santo Sefano del Sole, Avellino, Italy in 1879 and immigrated to Canada in 1903, where he found work with the CPR, first as a labourer and later as a carman. He purchased a shack from the railway and skidded it onto property he bought on the CPR flats. This one-room house later became the spacious kitchen of a home that was expanded many times.
Pellegrino began corresponding with Assunta Laurino, the sister of one of his Nelson co-workers, and returned to Italy, where they married in 1910. Their first son, Francesco (Frank), was born at home in Nelson the following year. Another son, Michael Emeric (Mike), arrived in 1915 and a third son, Ernest John (Ernie), in 1924.
The Defeo home at 75 Government Rd., ca. 1930s or ‘40s. (Courtesy Peter Defeo)
On the 1911 census, the Defeos are listed as residing on the CPR Flats; in the 1914 directory they’re shown on Granite Road; and on the 1921 census at 7 Silica St. But it was all the same place. In 1928, when Pellegrino received a plumbing permit to add some fixtures, it was also listed as Silica Street. In 1937 or ’38, the address was finally renumbered 75 Government Rd., which it remained for the rest of its days.
Assunta and Pellegrino (Peter) Defeo with their grandson Peter at 75 Government Road, ca. 1950s. (Courtesy Peter Defeo)
The home had a large yard with a lawn and flowers close to the house, plus a few fruit trees and a vegetable garden. At the far end of the property was a garage and a small rental home.
While the two younger sons eventually moved away, the eldest Frank, a barber, stayed with his parents. He didn’t marry until his 40s and sadly died of cancer in 1969 before he was 60. He was Peter’s father.
Left: Peter Defeo in his grandfather’s tomato patch. Right: Peter Defeo picks grapes from his grandfather’s vines, 1964. (Courtesy Peter Defeo)
Here’s the home as seen on the 1948 fire insurance map. It’s the larger building on Lot 67 labelled D (dwelling). The garage and rental home are on the lot at bottom right.
Interestingly, the map also shows three small homes on the south side of the road, which are all long gone. They aren’t listed in the 1953 civic directory.
Peter Defeo remembers his father pointing out the foundations of one of those homes, saying it once belonged to the Bragagnolo family. The 1921 census listed it as 10 Silica St., while civic directories from the 1930s just listed it as on the south side of Granite Road, with no fire number assigned. By 1940 it was designated 70 Government Rd.
Augusto Bragagnolo was a machinist helper with the CPR while his wife Mary worked for a local laundry. They had several children, including Silvio, a longtime Nelson-area teacher and principal.
Assunta Defeo died in 1959, age 77, and Pellegrino in 1968, a few days shy of his 89th birthday.
The Associated Growers warehouse next door to the Defeo home at 95 Government Rd. was built in the 1930s and later acquired by Quality Produce, who had a shop and parking lot for their trucks across the street. The latter faced expropriation in the early 1970s as part of the new highway interchange.
But the Ministry of Highways worked out a deal whereby they purchased the Defeo property and gave it to Quality Produce in exchange for their lot and shop. Frank’s widow, Marion, wanted to sell the home anyway. Quality Produce then used it as their office and attached a mechanic shop at the rear.
Peter Defeo was in the building once after Quality Produce acquired it. “Not much had changed, other than they knocked out a wall to make the office (living room) bigger,” he says. “The large kitchen was used as a lunchroom.”
The neighbourhood, which was once the most ethnically diverse part of Nelson, home to Italians, Doukhobors, and Chinese market gardens and laundries, has changed drastically since the interchange project. Many homes were relocated or deliberately burned or torn down. Today the former Defeo property is a parking lot and you’d never guess a home and gardens once stood there.
— With thanks to Peter and Mary Defeo
The site of the Defeo home today.