Saturday, November 17, 2018


Karl S. Nash, 
The Country Editor
While most people thought of him as a newspaperman,  Karl Nash was really a teacher. His subject was Ridgefield and his students were its residents. As a country newspaper editor and publisher for more than 60 years, he spent his life telling townspeople about themselves, their neighbors and their institutions.
Nash not only taught Ridgefield, he also served it in many official capacities – including  20 years on the Board of Education. 
 Karl Seymour Nash was born in 1908, descended from several of the founding families of the town including not only the Nashes, but the Seymours, Smiths, Olmsteds, and Keelers. His homestead on Main Street had been in his family since the town’s first settlement.
His father, Howard Patterson Nash, died when Karl was 13, and his mother, Christie Law Jones Nash, was left with little money and five children to support. She worked as a librarian at the Ridgefield Library almost next door to their home  — now an apartment building at 486 Main Street — and hooked rugs to sell. 
As the oldest child, Karl became a head of the household, helping care for the children and doing many of the chores. As he grew older, he also worked at his grandfather’s Walnut Grove Farm in Farmingville, including delivering the dairy’s milk in the village.
He was a top student at Hamilton High School (later called Ridgefield High School) on Bailey Avenue, where he graduated in 1926. He went off to Harvard, planning to become a minister.
However, after getting a Harvard degree in government in 1930, he turned to journalism instead. 
As a teenager he had already developed a nose for news, covering local events for The Ridgefield Press and area dailies, and even starting his own, short-lived “Ridgefield Record.” Back home from college, he became a Danbury Evening News reporter and in 1935, married Dorothy C. Baxter, granddaughter of D. Crosby Baxter who had founded The Ridgefield Press in 1875. (While the Baxter family was no longer associated with the newspaper, they were prominent in the community.) Karl and Dorothy later divorced; however, Dorothy’s brother Frank was married to Karl’s sister, Elizabeth, who became the longtime treasurer of the Acorn Press, parent company of the Ridgefield Press.
In 1937, Karl and his brother, John, bought The Press for just under $2,500. It was a struggle. “I had been married in 1935 and had an eight-month-old daughter, so I didn’t have any money to invest,” Nash recalled years later. “John had $92 and he and I borrowed $250 from my mother. With this and $2,000 we borrowed from the town’s jeweler, now the town’s banker  (Francis D. Martin), we bought the Press.”
The business included a small print shop that produced stationery products for local customers. 
“How John and I thought we could both ever make a living from this run-down $12,000-a-year-gross business, I don’t know,” he said. “But we went to work at it and worked hard. We put ourselves on the payroll at $25 a week and for months on end didn’t collect it.”
A year later, they established The Wilton Bulletin and moved  their operations from the Masonic Hall, just south of town hall, into an old garage on Bailey Avenue. Over the years the parent company, Acorn Press, grew into a multi-million dollar group of eight weekly newspapers, which merged in 1997 with the Hersam family’s weeklies based in New Canaan to become Hersam Acorn Newspapers. In the early 2000s, Hersam Acorn was publishing nearly 20 newspapers in southern Connecticut, Westchester, N.Y., and Vermont. The papers remained in the hands of the Nash and Hersam families until October 2018 when they were purchased by Hearst.
John left the business in 1948 to own and operate other weekly and daily newspapers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He died in 2013 at the age of 101.
In 1951 Karl married Elizabeth Grace Boyd, daughter of novelists Thomas Boyd and Margaret Woodward Smith. She had been hired as an intern on a 75th anniversary issue project, and the two co-edited the newspaper for many years. Under their leadership in the last half of the 20th Century, the Press’s paid circulation reached nearly 90% of the homes in Ridgefield.
Always active in town, Nash was chairman of the school board for 17 years and a member from 1942 until 1962, “devoting my efforts to raising the standard of a somewhat backward school system,” he said years later.
He served on several school building committees, belonged to the Parks and Recreation Commission, and moderated countless Town Meetings. 
A Republican much of his life, he was kicked out of the party in 1963 when he helped people
who were forming the Good Government Party in reaction to what they saw as anti-education efforts by both established parties. The GGP ran candidates for the school board in 1963 and 1965, and though none was elected, one collected nearly 1,300 votes. The GGP itself never had more than 75 members and was disbanded in 1981 after many years of inactivity.
Always curious about the town’s past, Nash wrote many pieces about Ridgefield history and as chairman of the town’s huge 250th anniversary celebration in 1958, arranged to have Silvio Bedini write the town history, “Ridgefield in Review.” 
He also organized, wrote for, and led substantial projects to compile histories of all aspects of Ridgefield life for special 75th and 100th anniversary editions of The Press in 1950 and 1975. The result was hundred of thousands of words of history of the community, illustrated with scores of pictures.
In 1983, the year he turned 75, Nash was named the Rotary Club Citizen of the Year.
He was 84 when he died at his retirement home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. in 1992.
Many who knew him considered Karl Nash the epitome of the country journalist. “He was a gifted and tough editor who taught dozens of young men and women how to write — and appreciate the beauty of — a simple, declarative sentence,” said his son Thomas B. Nash in his father’s obituary. “He was a serious newsman who sought to treat people fairly and in a consistent manner.”
“Karl had a love and sensitivity for his home town that came from being not only a  native son, but also a descendant of the founders and earliest settlers of the community,” said an editor who worked under him for many years. “Generations of Ridgefield were in his blood.”
Karl Nash himself was less effusive about his contributions. “Our papers might be called progressively independent,” he wrote in 1960. “They are said by some to be a force for good in their communities, by others a menace to the inhabitants.”
 “They continue to grow and prosper, however,” he added, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


William H. Keeler, 
Killed by A ‘Non-hostile’ Mine
Not all the casualties of war are in combat. Some soldiers and sailors, like Billy Keeler, die in the service of their country because of tragic accidents.
In Keeler’s case, death came to a young man who had already survived one near-fatal accident — when he was only three years old.
Born in 1949, William Howard Keeler grew up on Cooper Hill Road in Ridgefield and attended schools here.  By 1959, when his family was living in South Salem and he was 10, his father, Robert, died. His mother, the former Frances L. Coughlin, was left with nine sons and two daughters, most of whom were still young enough to be at home.
She returned to Ridgefield with her family, living on Roberts Lane.
Keeler worked in construction until February 1968 when he joined the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the 31st Engineer Battalion and by that summer, he was in Vietnam.
On March 24, 1969, he was killed in what the Army coldly termed “non-hostile action, accident.” Little was publicly released about the cause of his death but one Vietnam War archive reports that “he was killed in an accident while clearing mine at Camp Gorvad … north of Bien Hoa/Saigon.”
While he appeared to be involved in one of the most dangerous duties of modern warfare — land mine clearance — it is uncertain how this could be considered a “non-hostile” death, unless he was clearing mines planted by Americans. Of the 58,000 servicemen who died in Vietnam, the deaths of nearly 11,000 — almost 20% — were called “non-hostile” by the military. One in five.
Keeler was only 19 years old, one of six people who had lived in Ridgefield to die in the Vietnam War.
After services at St. Mary’s Church with a military honor guard, he was buried in Mapleshade
Cemetery. His name is on Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. 
The hazards of Vietnam proved fatal to William Keeler, but the dangers in his own backyard almost did nearly 17 years earlier.
In early September 1952, three-year-old Billy Keeler was playing at an old-fashioned open well at his parents’ Cooper Hill Road home. Suddenly, he slipped and plunged 15 feet down the shaft into a 10-foot-deep pool of icy water.
No adults were around, but one of his siblings saw what happened and ran to the nearby home of Mrs. Joseph F. Beck on Branchville Road, crying “My brother has fallen in the well!”
She called state police who also alerted the fire department. Among the first to arrive on the scene was Fire Chief Horace A. Walker who grabbed a ladder from the fire truck, lowered it into the well, climbed down, and brought the boy to the surface.
“In all likelihood the Keeler youngster can attribute his life to his own presence of mind and to the fact that a vertical pipe runs through the center of the well,” The Ridgefield Press reported the next day. “Although stunned by his 15-foot fall, he kept  his head above water by clinging to the pipe until help arrived. A cut on the back of the head and several body bruises were his only injuries.” 

Thursday, November 08, 2018



 The Selling Of Eight Lakes
“Nowhere else in these United States is there such an abundance of fabulous, natural scenery,” boasts a remarkable brochure, published around 1955 to promote the Eight Lakes Estates and clearly aimed at dwellers of New York City. “That long dreamed of estate you have only wished you could afford is here NOW at a price you can afford.”
The fabulous abundance consisted of 1,750 acres — “over three times the size of Central Park” — spread across two states and including “eight magnificent, crystal clear, fresh water lakes, miles of lakefront studded with stately trees, hundreds of picturesque lakeview sites, divine locations high in the hill-tops [and] thickly wooded hideouts near streams.”
It was a masterpiece of real estate hype, aimed at “Mr. Family Man” who wants to make his “dreams come true.”
At times during the mid- to late 1950's, as many as 20 salesmen for Eight Lakes were
working in Ridgefield over weekends, selling houses and lots in the development. 
As we know two-thirds of a century later, not all of this real estate dream came true — though a lot of it did.
Only the Connecticut portion of Eight Lakes Estates was ever developed — today’s Mamanasco Road, First through 12th Lanes, Walnut Hill Road, Birch Court, Rock Road, Scott Ridge Road, Blue Ridge Road, Caudatowa Drive, Sleepy Hollow Road, Round Lake Road, and the west ends of both Barrack Hill and Old Sib Roads.
Those roads served more than 400  lots carved out of around 500 of 1,750 advertised acres. Virtually all of the New York side of the old Port of Missing Men resort — some 1,250 acres — was acquired by Westchester County and turned into the Mountain Lakes Park in North Salem.
Which means that only three of the “eight lakes” are in the Eight Lakes Estates: Lake Mamanasco, Hidden Lake, and Round Pond (which the real estate folk deemed too lowly a name and changed to Round Lake; fortunately, the town has stuck with the original 1700s name of Round Pond).
The other “lakes” in New York — mostly big ponds — are Mirror, Laurel, Pine, Deer, and
Rippowam, as the brochure points out. Lake Rippowam is in fact large enough to be a lake, but not a lot of the old Eight Lakes Estates property bordered it.
The language of the brochure is seducing, especially to anyone tired of the noise, grit and crowding of 1950s New York. 
“Astonishingly low prices prevail on lakefront estates bedecked with beautiful trees and estates nestling midst Pines and Cedars overlooking the lakes,” it promises. “Superb low-cost locations are limitless even to hideouts for cabins, near lakes and streams. Those wishing to live real high-up will find Sky-toppers in the famous ‘Blue Hills’ or along a road which winds up to great heights.” (There is no record of a place in Ridgefield known as the Blue Hills, much less a place famous as it, but the developers named Blue Ridge Road apparently to celebrate those unknown hills.)
The map in the brochure will bring back memories of the days, before the Interstates, when
the way to get from New York to Ridgefield was via the Saw Mill River Parkway — complete with the infamous Hawthorne Traffic Circle — or the Hutch to the Merritt. Note that the “model house” for Eight Lakes was on the west side of Mamanasco Road.
The brochure includes quite a bit of history of the property, which is fairly accurate. However, one might not term it a “Believe It Or Not” fact that millionaires once owned the land; much of Ridgefield in the early 20th Century was estates owned by millionaires.
All that said, Eight Lakes proved to be a great place for many families looking for an affordable home in the suburbs that wasn’t on a cookie-cutter lot. Countless kids grew up in the Eight Lakes neighborhoods with plenty of woods, streams and ponds to explore, and much fresh air to breathe.
It may not have been “another Tuxedo Park,” but it’s been a wonderful place for a simple country home.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018


Voting, The Old Way

Today is Election Day, and Ridgefielders are going to the polls to select a variety of public officials. They will do so using a method that combines systems both quite ancient and quite modern. 
Ridgefield essentially uses paper ballots, a method that’s been around since ancient Rome. But instead of writing out the names of the people we want for each office on a piece of paper, as Romans and early Americans did, we blacken boxes next to their already printed names.
The pre-printed paper ballot began to be used in the middle 1800s, but the new twist is that instead of human eyes tallying the results of our choices, computers do the job. We feed our ballots into a high-tech machine that scans and counts all our votes.
From the mid-1800s until 1914, Ridgefielders turned in ballots that had the names of candidates printed on them, to be viewed and counted by election officials. Ballots could be pre-printed or entirely hand-written. One pre-printed ballot was provided by the Republican Party for Republicans and one by the Democratic Party for Democrats. 
The technique of pre-printing ballots allowed each party to encourage their members to “vote the party line.”  Just check off everyone on our list of names and you’re done!
However, a Republican voter using a Republican ballot could legally cross out a Republican name and instead insert the name of a Democrat — or any local citizen — for a given office. And, of course, Democrats could do the same switch on their ballots.
To make that possibility more difficult, parties started printing their ballots with the names of the candidates close together to make it hard to squeeze in a new name. Such may be the case with the late-1890s ballots that accompany this article.
The alternative to using a party ballot was to write out in longhand all your selections for elected officers on a blank ballot. That’s what unaffiliated voters did or what party members who liked to split their votes between the two parties’ candidates might do.
The arrival of voting machines in 1914 made it much easier and quicker for people to vote for the person instead of the party. The voter could simply push down a lever over the name of the candidate desired.
However, to appease party leaders — who didn’t want to lose the opportunity for people to vote “the party line,” voting machines included a special lever that allowed voters to, with one flick, select every Republican or every Democrat. Not only party bosses but lazy voters liked that.  
Those machines were mechanical, consisting of a complex system of rods, switches, gears, and drums. However, each included a roll of paper, and, through a slot on the face of the machine, one could write in the names of people not on the ballot — just as one could write in candidates 200 years ago.
In 2007, Ridgefield introduced the current voting system, using paper ballots  read by computers. The system was almost instantly cheered by both voters and by the election officials who disliked dealing with the clunky old mechanical machines. 
Unlike many localities’ super-high-tech, all-electronic, paperless voting, Ridgefield’s system has a “paper trail.” You fill out your paper ballot and feed it into a tallying computer. If the computer fails or the election is challenged, all of the paper ballots still exist and can be recounted — by human eyes, if need be.
And it’s a system virtually impossible for Russians — or anyone else — to hack!

Saturday, November 03, 2018


‘A Delightful Day’s Run’
A century ago, Ridgefield was a popular tourist destination, with a half dozen “hotels” in the village where visitors could stay. It was also a fine place to visit on Sunday drive.
An example of Ridgefield’s fame in the tourism world  is this 32-page booklet, called “Short Trips by Automobile from the Pershing Square Hotels.” The guide was published in 1922 by the hotel group in Manhattan, owned by Bowman Hotel Companies, which included such well-known establishments as the Biltmore and Commodore.
The guide’s aim was to help hotel visitors explore the countryside outside of the city via a choice of 18 automobile tours — which it called “runs” — across Connecticut, New York, Long Island, and New Jersey. 
Remember that this is an era when automobiles were far from the comfortable, reliable vehicles they are today. And for much of the routes, they were traversing dirt roads.
Tour #11 took motorists northeasterly from Manhattan out to the Boston Post Road along the Long Island Sound shore towns from New Rochelle, Mamaroneck, Port Chester, Greenwich, Stamford to Norwalk, where the route then headed north through the Norwalk River Valley over what would now mostly be Route 7 up to Branchville. 
From there the drive headed up Branchville Road (now Route 102) to Main Street. At this point, the normally dry description of the tour turns almost ecstatic as it announces that Ridgefield “is called the prettiest town in New England, with a village street 200 feet wide with large towering elms and maples, and in full foliage forms a perfect canopy over the road.”
The directions then sent motorists out West Lane and South Salem Road (Route 35 today) into New York state and back toward Manhattan.
Branchville Road, Main Street and West Lane/South Salem Road were all dirt surfaced back then.
The entire tour, which the guide calls “a delightful day’s run,” covered 118 miles.
If you didn’t happen to have your own automobile, the Commodore and Biltmore offered a rental service at their combined garage. “Experienced chauffeurs familiar with New York and vicinity are available at all times,” the booklet said. In addition, “a wrecking car will answer S.O.S. calls anywhere in the Metropolitan district, by night or day.”
The accompanying picture shows the cover of the guide, and pages 18 and 19 with tour featuring Ridgefield.


Friday, November 02, 2018


The Mugavero Family: 
A Tonsorial Dynasty
Theirs is a dynasty of haircutting expertise. For nearly a century, members of the Mugavero family have been cutting the hair of Ridgefielders. But their tonsorial tradition goes back long before they came to Ridgefield.
In 1891, a young man named Pietro Mugavero came to this country from Italy and soon established his own barber shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., and soon a second shop in Manhattan.
There is a belief in the family that Pietro’s father back in Italy may have been a barber and perhaps even earlier generations practiced the profession.
In 1900 Pietro or “Peter” married Agatha Vitali, also from Italy, and two years later, Vincent was born. In 1904, Jerome “Jerry” Mugavero arrived. 
Vincent graduated from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1924 and decided to enter the profession of his father. He eventually moved to Norwalk where he had relatives, and then, in 1931, he bought the Ridgefield Tonsorial Parlor on the east side of Main Street north of Bailey Avenue. He was soon joined by his younger brother, Jerry.
In 1938, Vincent decided on a change of careers. He left barbering and, with his wife Bernice,  eventually opened the B-V Ranch restaurant on Route 7, just north of Topstone Road. (After he retired around 1962, the restaurant became The Alibi, which burned down in the 1970s. The site is now an empty, reforested lot.)
Vincent was active in the community, serving on the Board of Assessors, the Republican Town Committee, and as a volunteer fireman for more than a half century. He lived in Ridgefield for 37 years and then moved to Redding where he was also involved in community service. 
Vincent died in 1987 at the age of 84. Bernice had died in 1961; his second wife, Mary Kovacs, survived him.
Meanwhile, after Vincent left the business, Jerry Mugavero continued the Ridgefield Tonsorial Parlor with Francis Sansevieri, but in 1950, the two split up and Jerry opened his own business, Jerry’s Barber Shop in the Masonic Building. He eventually took on a partner, Mike Pontello — Mike was married to Jerry’s daughter, Agatha, better known as “Tina” (the flagpole in front of town hall is a memorial to Tina Mugavero Pontello, a gift to the town from her husband.)  Mike Pontello took over the Main Street shop when Jerry retired in 1970 after 50 years as a barber. 
Although he worked in the center of town, Jerry lived in Branchville (his house at 25 Ethan Allen Highway is still standing, used today as offices for American Irrigation Systems). Active in the Branchville community, Jerry was a founding member of the Branchville Civic Association, which built the ballfield on Playground Road; served as an auxiliary state policeman; was a member of the Board of Assessors and the Branchville School Building Committee; and was a president of the Italian-American Mutual Aid Society. He died in 1988 at the age of 83.
Jerry’s son, Peter, began barbering with his dad in the late 1950s, but in 1961, he established his own Peter’s Barber Shop in the Ancona shopping plaza. He then moved to nearby 33 Ethan Allen Highway — just north of his parents’ house. There, he renamed the business, “Peter’s Mane Concern.” Peter retired in 2005 and with his wife, Leslie, moved to Florida where they live today.
But that’s hardly the end of the Mugavero tonsorial dynasty. In the 1990s, Peter’s daughter, Linda Mugavero Morganti, began working alongside her dad at Peter’s Mane Concern. When her father retired, Linda took over the business and today operates the  shop, appropriately named “The Barber’s Daughter,” at 723 Branchville Road.
She is the fourth generation in America and the third generation in Ridgefield to practice the profession.


Thursday, November 01, 2018


Joseph Jay Deiss: 
Knight of Italian Solidarity
When Jay Deiss lived in Ridgefield in the 1940s, he was itching to write his first book.  After years of working in Washington and New York, at first for the government, and later for Big Pharma, he sat down and turned out a novel that sold well enough to let him buy an “oysterman’s cottage” on Cape Cod, to which he eventually moved.
Its success also helped enable him to quit writing PR and instead delve into subjects he cared about, especially Italian history.
Joseph Jay Deiss was born in 1912 on a ranch in Idaho, but grew up in Texas. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Texas, but it was the Depression and he spent his early life, as he described it, “as a pots-and-pans salesman, truck farmer, seaman and gravel-shoveler on a road gang.”
He started out his writing career as a reporter in Texas, wound up in Washington working for a New Deal farm agency, and then became a public relations writer for pharmaceutical companies, especially Pfizer, in New York City. One afternoon in the 1940s, according to his own third person account, “he walked out, headed for the country, and settled down to write the novel which came to be ‘A Washington Story.’”
The “country” was New Street in Ridgefield, where he lived with his wife and two children. 
Set during the period of the anti-communist “witch hunts” of the late 1940s, “A Washington Story” centers around Faith Vance, who had worked for the government for eight  years in a job she liked, but she was unhappily married to Thatcher Vance. Suddenly and without any cause she is
subpoenaed by the House Investigating Committee, which has been told she may be a subversive and which, because she cannot find her birth certificate, questions her citizenship. Her husband walks out, taking their young child, she is hauled off to Ellis Island for deportation, and she is left with no friends or support — except for a young attorney named Dave Chandler, who tries to come to her rescue. “There’s a high pulse beat here, and more than a little fictional glamour, but there’s also a definite basis in fact,” said Kirkus Reviews.
The novel’s dust jacket described it as “a story so strange that its counterpart can be found only in the newspaper headlines of today.”
Years later, The New York Times reported that “A Washington Story” was on the Moscow City Library’s list of 19 books described as “the most important literary products of the U.S.A. published after the Second World War.” The list included novels by Ray Bradbury, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, William Saroyan, and John Steinbeck. 
Deiss continued to write fiction. In 1957, “The Blue Chips” was published by Simon and Schuster. It delved into the ethical drug business and, said Kirkus, was “the first to treat the world behind the wonder drug prescription ... it traces the discovery, exploitation and down-grading of multicilin, a broad-range antibiotic.”
The same year, Deiss moved to Positano, Italy, became vice director of the American Academy in Rome, and began studying and visiting the nearby ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. This led to an interest in many aspects of Italian history.
In 1963, he produced “The Great Infidel,” a biographical novel about Frederic the Second
(1194-1250), a Holy Roman emperor and king of Sicily. While it is a work of fiction, largely because Deiss imagined the dialogue for the characters, Orville Prescott wrote in The New York Times that the book’s “fidelity to history is sufficiently great so that it can be read as an able account of Frederic and the spectacular drama of his life.”
He turned to non-fiction, with books like “Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure” (1966), “Captains of Fortune, Profiles of Six Italian Condottieri” (medieval soldiers of fortune) (1966), “The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller” (1969), and “The Town of Hercules, A Buried Treasure Trove” (1995).
His writings and lectures on Italian history so impressed the Italian government that in 1971 it knighted him in the Ordine della Stella Solidarita Italiana (Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity), which honors expatriates or foreigners who made an outstanding contribution to the reconstruction of Italy after World War II.
Deiss spent his later years living in Wellfleet on Cape Cod and in Florida where he taught in the Classics Department at the University of Florida and where he died in 1999 at the age of 84.
Today, his love of Italy is reflected in the Joseph Jay Deiss Memorial Scholarship  for Summer Study in Italy, awarded annually by the University of Florida.



Tuesday, October 30, 2018



Ephemera
 Among the 14,000 or 15,000 tons of trash Ridgefielders send to the transfer station each year may be a few pounds of valuables.
Mostly they are just pieces of paper, but they are also the stuff of the adage, “one man's junk is another man’s treasure.”
They wouldn’t fetch big prices, these treasures; they are valued for something more than money.
They are the ephemera of a community, found among the left-behinds of people who have died, the no-longer-wanteds of people who are moving away, or the spring cleanings of people “tired of all that junk in the attic.”
Ephemera is a funny word whose etymology explains why these pieces of history are so often doomed. It’s from the Greek, meaning “short-lived.”
“Broadly speaking,” says one authority on ephemera, “the word ... is used to denote the transient, everyday items of paper (mostly printed) that are manufactured specifically to use and throw away.”
The Ridgefield Press, for instance, would be ephemera. You read it, you toss it. However, it is a history of the town so steps have been taken to preserve its pages. However, so much else ephemeral but interesting about a community like Ridgefield is truly short-lived.
One of my favorite examples of unusual ephemera is a stained, mouse-chewed scrap of paper found in the attic of our 18th Century house soon after we moved in 45 years ago. It is a page of a pupil’s writing notebook from about 1850. 
On the page was a handwriting lesson of a boy named David Olmstead, who had lived in the house. Over and over, sentences were repeated to practice script so neat it would put to shame 90% of today’s adults.
At the bottom of one page was what remained of his signature, “David Olmsted Book, age 12.” 
A remarkable feature of this practice session was that at one point David was writing his name, over and over, following an example that his teacher had apparently written down. Midway through the exercise, David changes the spelling from Olmsted to Olmstead — from the old way the name was spelled to the more modern version — and then he returns to Olmsted. Had the teacher mistakenly written his name the old way and he had obediently copied the teacher’s version, slipping once because his own family used the new version?
Even without this oddity of aberration, the scrap was interesting in itself. Here was a piece of a child’s life in the middle 1800s. It became all the more interesting when research revealed that David  died only five years later, at the age of 17. He was probably the victim of one of those ailments that today are cured with a few pills but a century and a half ago, killed you.
We framed the scraps of David Olmstead’s writing paper. It’s hanging on a wall of the house he was growing up in when the likes of James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore were President.
No doubt, David didn’t think much of this piece of paper when he was alive. It was just a homework assignment. Perhaps after he died his parents stashed it in the attic as a little thing to remember him by.
To us, however, it is a touch with the past, a visible sign that there was life — even death — occurring in our home long before even our own great grandparents were around.
I would love to have a photograph of what people who lived in our house looked like long ago. No doubt, pictures once existed. And no doubt, they were thrown away by people who thought they were worthless.
I would love to see a century-old picture of the road on which we live. Undoubtedly, many were taken. They, too, are probably gone.
I would love to read letters, written about the neighborhood by people who lived next door or down the street 100 or 200 years ago. But who saves letters that long?
These would all be glimpses of history — close-to-home history. They’d help us understand our predecessors in a more personal, more close-to-the-heart way.
Fortunately, a group of Ridgefielders has recognized that much that is valuable historically was being tossed when it should be saved —  for historians, for genealogists, for anyone who values the past.
The Ridgefield Historical Society is not only collecting but cataloguing ephemera and other historical materials dealing with Ridgefield.
So don’t toss old or “oldish” photos of town, letters your Ridgefield grandmother wrote, diaries, or even pamphlets or local advertising brochures from “the old days.” Offer them to the society.  Your junk may well be truly junk; but some could be treasures for the future. Let the society archivists decide.
And speaking of letters, many Ridgefielders will soon receive one from the Ridgefield Historical Society, seeking a donation to help support the society’s work. Please read its message and, if you can, chip in toward this wonderful organization’s efforts to not only preserve the past, but teach the present about our fine old town and its rich history.

Sunday, October 28, 2018


Rev. William Rainsford: 
An Amazing Divine
The Rev. Dr. William S. Rainsford was an amazing man of many contrasts. 
One of his closest friends was among richest men in America, yet he spent much of his life fighting for and ministering to the poor. 
Despite fragile health and at least two nervous breakdowns, he virtually single-handedly turned a shrinking, debt-ridden Manhattan church into one of the largest and most successful parishes in New York City. 
A man who spent most of his life in cities, he sought rejuvenation hunting big game in Africa, California and western Canada, and counted fellow hunters Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill among his friends. 
Many people — including editors of The New York Times — considered him a Ridgefielder, but while he often worshipped here, he never quite lived here — though he came about as close as one could get.
William Stephen Rainsford was born in 1850 in Dublin, Ireland, where his father, an Episcopal minister, was chaplain at a hospital for the blind. As a boy, he wasn’t much of a student, admitting later that “I was dull and stupid at Latin and Greek, and very shy.”
Nonetheless, he graduated from Cambridge University. While still a student there,  he became ill and took a leave from his studies, during which he became interested in the London slums and spent time working among the poor. After graduating from university, Rainsford organized a group of 800 people from the London tenements and led them on a journey to western Canada to find new and more promising lives for themselves.
While in Canada, he was introduced to hunting, especially for big game. He shot buffalo, caribou and other large animals, and the sport became a lifelong interest. In his later years he wound up advising world leaders on the best hunting locations, writing a book on African hunting, and heading a museum expedition to find rare specimens.
Rainsford returned to England where he became an Episcopal minister and continued to address the needs of the poor, especially in the East Anglian city of Norwich. He suffered throughout his life with depression and at one point during his four years in Norwich, he considered resigning as a minister.
However, in the 1870s, an opportunity arose to fill a temporary post in New York City and he wound up preaching and leading missions in several places in the United States and Canada, gaining a reputation as an outspoken, caring preacher. 
In 1882, word of his talents reached the vestry of St. George’s Church at Stuyvesant Square on the lower east side of Manhattan. Once one of the wealthier parishes in New York City, St. George’s was seriously in debt, having lost many members as area neighborhoods became more populated with poor immigrants — mostly Germans — living in tenements. “Parishioners were moving uptown and transferring their allegiance to more fashionable and conveniently located churches,” The New York Times reported.
Rainsford was invited to be interviewed for the position of rector. After a meeting with the vestry, he was offered the job. He agreed, but only if the vestry accepted three provisions.
“You must make the church free,” he said. No more charging rents for pews.
In addition, the vestry must “discharge all committees except the vestry, so as to leave me with entirely free hands.”
Finally, he said,  “Give me $10,000 a year for three years to use in parish work as I see fit, without asking anybody’s consent.” $10,000 in 1882 was the equivalent of about $275,000 today.
Jaws dropped. The vestrymen looked at one another. Suddenly, one of them spoke. 
“Done!” said J. Pierpont Morgan.
Rainsford and J.P. Morgan, the wealthy financier whom one historian called “the greatest American banker,” wound up being lifelong friends and it was Morgan who would bring the minister to the edge of Ridgefield.
When Rainsford took over, St. George’s was $35,000 in debt. In the first month of his leadership, seven of the 14 families still left in the parish departed — probably in reaction to his liberal views. 
When he retired 25 years later, St. George’s had a membership of more than 4,000 people, and a sizable endowment.
“Under his vigorous direction, the church rapidly widened its work,” The Times said in 1933. “Clubs, schools, athletic rooms, camps on the shore and in the mountains, sanitariums, classes for mothers, missions and other activities came into being.” He set up soup kitchens, established schools to teach trades, addressed problems of teenage boys and girls, and ran weekly musical and literary programs with an admission charge of five cents. He was trying to deal with the needs of everyone —young and old, rich and poor, male and female — in his neighborhood.
Even services changed.  “The choir was enlarged and removed from its high gallery, and congregational singing introduced,” said a  profile of Rainsford in a Cleveland newspaper.  
And he continued to speak out about issues few Episcopal clergy were addressing. “In the pulpit he dared to talk of things which were not considered sermon material,” The Times said. “He mentioned such subjects as birth control, and talked in no uncertain terms of the city’s vice problem.”
In an 1886 article in The Churchman, an Anglican journal still published today, Rainsford said “the tendency of modern Protestantism, inside as well as outside the Protestant Episcopal Church, is to build up our church life too distinctly on social lines: The mission chapel for the poor, the beautiful avenue church for the rich and well-to do...We don’t want a church for rich men as such, nor yet poor as poor, but churches that by practice as well as precept, tell the community around them that the house of God is the house of man.”
Perhaps it was his desire for a less lavish “avenue church” that led the parish in 1889 to have the tall, showy spires removed from the church’s two towers.
In 1894, a time when other white Episcopal churches in the city flatly banned black people, Rainsford proposed hiring Henry Thacker Burleigh, a black singer, as soloist. When it came to a decision by the vestry, J.P. Morgan cast the tie-breaking vote in Burleigh’s favor. The singer went on to serve as the church’s soloist for 52 years during which time he became nationally recognized as a composer of many songs and pieces of classical music. (While a scholarship student at the prestigious National Conservatory of Music in New York, Burleigh had earned money there as a janitor and was overheard by Antonin Dvorak singing Negro spirituals as he worked. Dvorak befriended him and used themes from songs Burleigh sang for him in composing his Ninth Symphony, “From the New World.”)
Despite being an Episcopal minister in banker Morgan’s parish, “he attracted wide attention by his outspoken criticism of the lavish entertainment furnished at a society ball when there was much suffering among the city’s poor.” He called for the ball’s cancellation.
In 1900 he shocked many Christians by declaring: “There is no terrible judgment ahead, no physically burning in hell. That judgment is a process here and now. The Kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom existing in men’s hearts.”
And if that wasn’t bad enough, he stirred controversy with his colorful language. In a 1901 address to a Philadelphia trade organization, he criticized charges that Christian missionaries in China were responsible for the insurrection and other problems happening there and declared, “It’s all damned rot!” The D-word then was nearly tantamount to the F-word today. And many religious leaders, said the Philadelphia Inquirer, “do not approve of New York divine’s vigorous language.” (In a talk in Ridgefield later in his life,  he is reported to have uttered a “God damn.”)  
During his quarter century at St. George’s, Rainsford gained a national reputation as both a speaker and writer. And when in 1904, he suddenly took a leave of absence and set sail for Europe for an “indefinite rest,” newspapers around the country carried the story. “Dr. Rainsford made no announcement of his going, and it was greatly against his will that he decided to obey the orders of his physicians,” said The Idaho Statesman, which then quoted the minister’s physician as saying, “Dr. Rainsford is troubled with gout and rheumatism due to overwork.” Others reported he’d had a nervous breakdown, the second in his career.
Rainsford never returned to his position as rector of St. George’s Parish. In 1906, in a letter from Cairo, Egypt, he resigned. Six years later he also asked to be relieved of his ministerial position in the Episcopal Church.
Dr. Rainsford went through a lengthy recuperation that involved rest, travel, and his favorite pastime, big game hunting. In 1912 he headed an American Museum of Natural History expedition in search of black rhinoceros specimens in remote regions of East Africa. He advised — and is said to have hunted with — President Theodore Roosevelt; Rainsford’s book on hunting in Africa, “Land of the Lion,” was in Roosevelt’s personal library at Sagamore Hill. 
He continued to be in demand as a speaker, and his opinions remained controversial. In one of his last public appearances,  a 1925 lecture at Town Hall in New York, he maintained that young people could not accept the ‘old religion.’ “Banish the supernatural,” he declared. “I believe in the Lord Jesus as a man, a real man. I believe he was born of the love of a good man and a good woman, as God intended all of us to be born. I believe he lived as men lived, that he died as men die, only in unparalleled torture.”
After Rainsford retired in 1906, J.P. Morgan asked him what he planned to do. Rainsford indicated he’d like to find a place in “the country,” but feared he could not afford the cost. No problem, said Morgan, who as a gift to his friend built him a retirement home on Route 35 in South Salem, N.Y., right on the Ridgefield town line. 
It was no ordinary house. The 22-room stone-and-timber mansion on a hill overlooking the Hudson Valley was designed by the highly respected architect, Grosvenor Atterbury, and Morgan is said to have brought over more than 100 Japanese craftsmen to build the place.
The estate included a large “game house” where Rainsford could display souvenirs of his safaris, including mounted specimens. (This became a “field trip” destination for local pupils early in the 20th Century. “Ridgefield school children were thrilled to visit this great big exhibition hall when their time came, about fourth grade,” recalled Ridgefield Press publisher Karl S. Nash.)
The house was located on 32 acres that Rainsford called Savin Hill. Among his visitors there over the years were President Roosevelt and, of course, J.P. Morgan. He also eventually had a place in Camden, S.C., where he would spend winters.
Today, after a long period as a restaurant called Le Château, the Rainsford house has become a wedding and banquet center, also called Le Château.
While Savin Hill was in South Salem, it was forever being misplaced. When The Architectural Digest featured the house in 1919, the periodical said it was in Ridgefield, Conn. Even when Rainsford died in 1933 in a New York City hospital, The New York Times said he had entered the hospital a month earlier after breaking his wrist “in a fall at his home in Ridgefield, Conn.”
He was 83 years old at his death.
Rainsford had a more than passing interest in St. Stephen’s Church in Ridgefield. He often worshipped there, sometimes preached there, and contributed money to its coffers. He also occasionally offered his opinions on its management. In 1924, he wrote the vestry, recommending that it seek a more varied membership instead of just  rich old men. “In my judgment — and I have had perhaps somewhat unusual opportunity for gaining experience — vestries in our church are too frequently drawn from one class,” he said. “Why not try to get some stirring, God-fearing young man on the Saint Stephen’s Vestry.” 
“The vestry took no action on his suggestion,” said St. Stephen’s historian Robert S. Haight, “and it was not until almost thirty years later that the self-perpetuation of Saint Stephen’s vestries was successfully challenged.”
Rainsford had another interest in St. Stephen’s: His son, architect W. Kerr Rainsford, designed the church building, completed in 1915. Kerr Rainsford also designed the War Memorial at the head of Branchville Road.