During the first half of the 20th century, S.S. Denton was, The Ridgefield Press said at his death, “Ridgefield’s best-known business man” who had “a keen business sense and an uncanny system of calculating the future.” Denton had his hand in many parts of the town’s economy, but he also stands out as a man who did what many others would not do: He provided good, affordable housing for Ridgefield’s black population.
Samuel Scribner Denton, born in South Salem in 1865, grew up in Ridgefield and by the 1890s, was selling coal and wood for home heating. In 1910, he bought the block of stores and offices just north of where Books on the Common is now, and his name could still be seen under the paint high on the façade well into the 21st Century.
He was active in real estate, sold fuel oil, farm machinery and insurance, maintained a car repair garage, and was vice-president of the Ridgefield Savings Bank. He was a state representative in 1912, served on the school board, and was active in the Republican Party.
He was also very careful with money. According to Karl Nash in a 1950 profile, “Mr. Denton operated somewhat on Benjamin Franklin’s theory that ‘a penny saved is a penny earned.’ One day somebody in the village saw him stand up suddenly from his favorite seat in front of his own business block, take a few quick steps and bend down to pick up a penny. Joshed about it by a fellow citizen, Mr. Denton replied: ‘Well, I was going that way anyhow.’ ”
Denton had many business associations among Ridgefield’s small community of blacks. He owned Bailey Avenue properties that he rented to black families, giving those of modest means a chance to live here. “It was independence in a sense — the rents were within reach of the people,” said the Rev. William Webb, a black minister and longtime Ridgefielder.
Webb said that the 1930s and 40s was an era when many in town thought blacks should live only in servants quarters. “Most of the blacks then either worked in the service field or for the town,” he said. “There was no real middle class here. Nobody then would think of renting to black people. All were quartered in private homes.”
However, Denton ignored that and became the first person in decades to sell a house to a black family — and on Main Street.
When Ridgefield’s black community was looking to establish a church in town, it was Denton who in 1942 sold them the former creamery on Creamery Lane for $3,500 (around $60,000 today).
Denton also had a dry sense of humor. “Coming home from work with pockets full of nails, screws, keys and the kind of miscellaneous junk a man collects during the day, he spread the whole lot on the kitchen table, much to Mrs. Denton’s displeasure,” Nash said. “Fingering the conglomeration he presently remarked: ‘Now just look here, Lena, see what I found in my pocket.’ It was an expensive diamond ring, the engagement ring he had wanted to buy her many years earlier.”
Denton died in 1944 at 79. He and Lena May Campbell had been married 51 years.
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