The Casorso Family Homes of Kelowna—An Italian Adventure
The original sod/log cabin built in 1886
"From These Two Came Love"
The 66-year-old woman spruced up her Christmas tree—it was 1921—adorned with her finest jewellery. Her home was the third dwelling that Rosa and Giovanni Casorso had lived in since arriving in the early 1880’s. The home was built in 1907—featuring over 3000 square feet, surrounded by verandas with round columns and curving porch eaves reminiscent of an Italian/Mediterranean influence.
The home features 9-foot ceilings, old world flooring, strong oak or fir doors, windows and mouldings stained a dark, reddish-brown walnut, a hipped roof highlighted with dormers, projected bay windows, a central brick fireplace and room enough for a large family. Built in a four-square Victorian style from trees harvested and milled on the family’s property by Crawford’s mobile sawmill—the carpenter’s name was coincidentally, Bill Miller—whose daughter Molly would marry August Casorso—Giovanni’s youngest son—namesake to the third owner of the house—a veteran whose widow still lives in the house today—her name is Muriel.
In 1882, as recorded by Victor Casorso—a third generation grandson—negotiating the trek from Vancouver, Giovanni possessed little trail knowledge...the famed Father Pandosy, accompanying the party with the pioneering Italian, is reported to have said after a week’s journey on the two-week trek, “Giovanni, you’re a natural for this country! You’ve a keen wilderness sense, have a good way with men and animals, and if you try hard, you’ll make a go of it.”
Eventually, after working for the Okanagan Mission’s priests as cook, ranch hand, carpenter—whatever was needed—from six o’clock in the morning until his twelve-hour shift was over, he pre-empted land. He spent the next two years slowly building up his land, and stock (two pigs to start, then a horse), in life. While working for $15 a month, he built a log cabin, the first homestead, with a sod rooftop that stood until a collapse occurred due to a heavy winter’s snowfall in 1972. The remains of the destroyed building were demolished because of safety concerns for curious children—the Casorsos had many children about the “Pioneer Ranch”.
The Second Home of the Casorso Clan
The long voyage . . .
In mid-1884, Rosa and the children--aged five, four, and three--set off from Genoa, Italy. Their ship would round the southern end of the horn of South America and arrive in San Francisco. Rosa would never recall the ocean journey of six weeks. Family reminiscences allude to the horror of a young mother shutting down her mind until arriving back on land in San Francisco.
Her problematic journey was not over, however, as she now had no idea how to find her Okanagan Mission home from the bustling dockyards of the busy port in San Francisco. She must have looked forlorn, unable to speak English, trying to keep her three small children in tow; as she waved a small piece of paper that read, "Father Pandosy, Okanagan Mission."
Telling her story years later, with eyes blazing, Rosa would say, "I never took my eyes off that bell for the entire trip to Okanagan Mission."
She followed the bell to the Canadian port of New Westminster, where a cowboy of some fame named Joe Greaves asked if he could escort the family to the Okanagan Mission. Her husband had asked the cowboy to keep an eye open for his travelling family.
Rosa would not budge--she clung to the Mission bell. Greaves set the family up as well as he could with blankets and fishing line near a river’s edge. For two days, Rosa washed, fished and tried to keep her children clean—with her eyes ever on the location of the bell.
From Yale, the bell was to travel to Kamloops, a two-week trek. The family rode every bump along the dusty trail with the wagon party of kind teamsters.
Rosa cooked meals until her stocks were exhausted--and then miraculously replenished by generous trail partners. At the rugged, western town of Kamloops, the bell was placed onto the stagecoach, along with the tired family, to complete the journey to the Okanagan Mission. It was October 1884 when the sojourning family arrived at their new home in a very new world.
The wandering was over.
Giovanni was in the hills taking care of his business. Giovanni (his name anglicized to John by the brothers of the Mission) rode in that night and saw the candle burning in his home. He thought it was one of the brothers looking for something. As was his nature, he rubbed down his horse, fed it and then entered the cabin only to be surprised by the four members of his family—laying his eyes upon his youngest, third-born, son for the very first time.
Rosa pulled out a bottle of Casorso Estate wine from Piedmont; Giovanni and his bride drank a toast as the first Italian immigrants to settle in the Okanagan Valley. Eventually Calona wines would be a business owned and operated, along with dozens of other enterprises, by descendants of this pioneering familia.
Rosa, on the road—with her son Felix driving—felt a pinch in her chest...as the bell pealed from the church...the pair returned home and Rosa suffered a massive heart attack—John says, “Giovanni, my great grandfather was reported to never be quite the same after her passing...he died eleven years later in 1932.”
Ten feet wide . . . the Bunkhouse was a long narrow cabin.
Another Casorso Romance Blossoms
As for Muriel and August, son of Louie and nephew of Giovanni’s son, August, they would first meet in England at a weekly dance spot for soldiers in February of 1944. Muriel and a girlfriend, they worked as phone operators during the war, had cycled six miles one way to another location only to find it cancelled—they would ride back to their home village called Badsey to catch the last few songs of the local dance place.
“Someone’s staring at you, Muriel?” Her girlfriend commented after their arrival.
“No, he’s not,” Muriel responded quickly, “and if he’s American send him away—they’re over-sexed, overly loud...and over here.” Apparently, Welsh-born Muriel wasn’t impressed by American GIs. The tall man with a broad smile walked over to Muriel as her girlfriend narrated, “he’s coming over.”
Muriel turned around to see a tall Canadian soldier smiling at her...she couldn’t deny him the dance...he wasn’t overly American. As Muriel tells the love story, August’s patient attempts, tho’ often late, “he was always late...always,” Muriel says with kindness in her voice, “My parents loved him...if we arrived home late, I was to blame never, August. They weren’t sure about his last name, as my father questioned pronunciation upon their first meeting, ‘Cat’s arso?’ But as he was constantly doing chores and small duties around the house when we began to see each other over a period of months—he became the cat’s meow...we married on November 23, 1944...and I became a war bride—arriving in Kelowna, at this very house, on June 21, 1945.”
When the house was originally constructed, though modern, no indoor plumbing or bathrooms existed. Giovanni felt, “Indoor toilets make you soft, lazy, spoiled.”
A few things changed as time continued—Muriel was at the heart of many of the small renovations.
The second home of the Casorso pioneers is now called “The Bunkhouse.” Rosa and Giovanni lived in the initial sod and log cabin for three years, then the dove-tailed log cabin Bunkhouse, with several expansions as children arrived, for twenty years...not wanting to move after this third and final rendition of the Casorso home—too many memories and too many children had been born in their second home—six of their nine children. This structure still stands and Rob Casorso uses the building for storage purposes—he lives on this property with his family across the street from the family home.
The Casorso Home—Once Called "Pioneer Ranch"
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On New Year’s eve of 1908, family and friends took the day to move furniture into the new home and force the reticent couple into their new home by “christening” it on the start of a new year—105 years ago.
As we can see from historic photos...only a few changes have been made to the heritage home. Modern baths were installed...updated in the 1970’s according to tile and hardware colours. The second story open patio became Muriel’s kitchen upstairs when she arrived in Canada.
“I told Grandpa Louis and August,” Muriel starts, “I wouldn’t cook on a sawdust oven...I was use to electric back in England and if I had to be the family cook—so be it, but it wouldn’t be on an ancient stove and heating unit.”
Louis, the second owner—after buying out his brother, August, who lived in Vancouver in 1932—was use to the sawdust heater. “He would sit in this kitchen,” explains John, “and rub liniment on his ‘sore bones’ while the heater blazed and he puffed away on his White Owl cigars...only White Owl.”
We all burst into laughter smelling the story as much as hearing it.
“Imagine the kind of sauna he created in here,” continued John, “we were told to say goodnight to grandpa—and we’d have to walk into this fog of sawdust and cigar smoke—I have no idea what the temperature was...but it was hot, smoky and humid...it was the 60s—it was a different generation.”
Louis died in 1969—and August and Muriel along with their children, a family of seven—five girls and two boys, inherited the home and moved into the first floor of the expansive home—they’d lived on the second floor for 24 years of their marriage. Like all families the Casorsos were, and are human, two of the brothers didn’t speak to one another for twenty years—this was Louis and Peter—upon brother Joe’s passing in 1960...the pair made amends of a sort...even though they lived across the street from one another.
In 1945, Muriel became the cook—the hired chef suffered a stroke—and Muriel was put to work immediately.
“It’s a good thing I knew how to cook,” says the feisty octogenarian who turns ninety this year, “’cuz if I hadn’t known—I don’t know what they’d have done. It finally broke my back...serving all those meals...I must have cooked for thousands. Dozens at a time come Christmases and Thanksgivings.”
John and Rob informed that she did suffer fractures of her spine about five years ago...she was 85...and carrying a turkey to the dining room. “I still cook for myself,” she smiles and serves tea and dainty cookies that taste the same as my own mother’s pastries and grandmother’s treats from days gone by.
Muriel lost her beloved, August, in 2000...his namesake uncle died only six years earlier in his 99th year.
There are hundreds of Casorsos across Canada and the globe who can trace their roots back to a loving couple named Rosa and Giovanni. Muriel was never given the opportunity of meeting these early ancestors, but she has a carving from Joyce (Casorso) McDonald, along with a bronze statuette of Rosa holding two small children in her arms, adorning a wall and an end table respectively in her dining room as a memorial. The artwork is accompanied by the original piano traded for two town site lots with a couple of horses involved, according to historian Victor Casorso, and the immaculate dining room set—hardly tainted after 105 years to remember the first residents of the historic home.
It is about family for the Casorsos...and though the home is somewhat tired, needing some restoration—the interior is immaculate and well-preserved. The future is bright for the Italian familia, unlike the modern media’s examples we’ve seen with television shows like The Sopranos or Jersey Shore. The Casorso clan has a historic claim to their Canadian home—at one time owning nearly half a million acres in the Okanagan Valley. How many of us are teaching the sixth generation of Canadians in our clan how to ranch, or sculpt or lead productive lives in very traditional settings?
“We have her surrounded,” says John, eldest fifth generation brother of his loving mother, “Rob and I are farmers growing pears, apples and grapes...the family also has an award-winning Sovereign Opal wine in its cache of fine wines at Calona Wines—the home is a very busy place for her—and the entire family.”
Canada has been good to the Casorso familia...as good as the Casorsos have been to Canada...as a sixth generation learns what we call green methods, but in reality are very traditional values of face-to-face communication and caretaking of our land.
From These Two Came Love
A Bronze Memorial to Rosa
Rob and John CasorsoClick thumbnail to view full-size
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© 2012 Rand Zacharias