Thursday, October 13, 2016
The Stern and Staunch Commuter
When he was 86 years old, Samuel Keeler was still commuting to his law office in New York City and was reputedly the oldest commuter on the New Haven line — both in age and length of endurance. He was still making the trip until a month before he died in 1932; he had started this daily journey back around 1870 and may have been among the first passengers on the Ridgefield to Branchville railroad spur that opened that year.
That’s more than 60 years of riding the rails to work in the era of the smoky, noisy steam locomotive. No wonder he looked so grumpy.
Although his business was in the city, “Lawyer Sam,” as he was called to distinguish him from grocer Sam (S.D.) Keeler, had a considerable influence on the town toward the end of the 19th Century and during the first third of the 20th.
“He was sharp, learned, without much humor, small of stature — but solid,” wrote longtime Ridgefield Press publisher Karl S. Nash in a 1971 profile of Keeler. Nash knew the man personally.
Born in 1845 in Wilton, Samuel Keeler had as one of his childhood teachers George E. Lounsbury, who later became governor and from whose brother he later acquired The Ridgefield Press.
He began commuting to law work in the city soon after graduating from Yale in 1867, but eventually also became busy in Ridgefield, serving as a school board member for 20 years from 1892 until 1912, one of the burgesses of the borough, and a pillar of the First Congregational Church.
In 1900, he was a founder of the First National Bank and Trust Company of Ridgefield (now Wells Fargo), and was later fifth president of the Ridgefield Savings Bank (now Fairfield County Bank), serving from 1907 to his death.
Early in the century, controlling interest in The Press was held by ex-Gov. Phineas Lounsbury, a staunch, tee-totaling Methodist who had ordered that no liquor advertising appear in the paper. One day, he picked up The Press and saw a liquor ad. Outraged, he immediately sold the newspaper to Keeler, “as staunch a Democrat as Mr. Lounsbury was a Republican,” Nash said years later.
While he kept his feelings out of the news columns, Keeler wasn’t afraid to take on Republicans editorially, and he fought a long battle with the administration over inequitable property assessments, going so far as to publish several pamphlets on the subject. He remained owner of the newspaper until his death, at which time The Press observed: “Mr. Keeler was a man who always minded his own business. In the wake of his course over the sea of life, there was no tacking or filling.”
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