Sunday, April 30, 2017
A Hands-On Journalist
When journalist John Scott worked with his hands, it was not just to type his eight books, scores of white papers, and countless Time magazine articles. Scott began his career a welder in Russia, and later, when he came to Ridgefield in 1948, built his stone-and-wood Peaceable Ridge home with his own hands.
The son of the liberal social reformer, Scott Nearing, John Scott Nearing was born in Philadelphia in 1912. He dropped his father’s name after a disagreement and left the University of Wisconsin after two years because of financial problems. It was during the Depression and, intrigued by communism and socialism, he decided to learn electric welding at the General Electric school in Schenectady, N.Y., and, after unraveling a lot of red tape, headed for Russia. There, at age 20, he began working in a Urals factory as a welder. After several years, he became a foreman and finally a chemist.
It was in the Urals that he met and married his wife, Maria “Masha” Dikareva, the daughter of illiterate peasant parents. Thanks to the free education system in Russia, Masha Scott had studied mathematics and chemistry at a Moscow institute and her siblings included two teachers, two engineers, two doctors, an economist, and a college dean. Throughout her life, along with raising two daughters, Masha Scott continued her studies and taught in many places, including at the University of Connecticut and Norwich University in Vermont. She had earned a master’s degree and, late in
Scott lost his job in Stalin’s 1937 purge, but he remained in Russia as a French and British news correspondent. Two weeks before the German attack on the USSR in 1940, he was expelled from the country for “slandering” Soviet foreign policy and “inventing” reports of Soviet-German tension.
He soon began covering World War II as a correspondent for Time magazine, and was in Japan in 1941, just before Pearl Harbor.
In 1942, Scott became a staff writer for Time’s foreign news section and during much of the war, headed Time-Life’s bureau in Stockholm. After the armistice he reopened the Central European bureau, covering the aftermath of the war. There are reports that especially early in the war, Scott worked for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, and had supplied the government with information on the Soviet war industry.
Throughout and after the war, he delivered many lectures on world affairs, speaking before such groups as the Foreign Policy Association.
In 1948, he moved to Time’s Manhattan offices and came to Ridgefield where he took a year’s break and began building his Peaceable Ridge home. He later confessed that “I was going to run for the senate and write the great novel. Those projects flopped ignominiously, but I did get my house built.”
Peaceable Ridge back then was called Standpipe Road, had only one house along it, and was
Scott decided to use the parcel’s natural resources — rocks and trees — to build his home, which wound up as an eclectic four-story structure along the side of a hill. The house had many walls of rock, beams from local trees, and no nails — Scott employed the colonial technique of using wooden pegs with mortise and tenon joints. He built most of the furniture, also without nails, including four large oak tables, one of which was so large that it could never be removed from the room in which it was fashioned. He took pains to make sure any “store-bought” furniture matched the hand-made look of the interior. “That was a regular Steinway,” he told a visitor in 1974, pointing to a piano, “but we sanded it down and stained it the same color as the rest of the stuff in the room.”
The grounds included many stone walls, a swimming pool and a tennis court.
The Scotts often entertained friends and associates at dinner parties and outdoor poolside gatherings — Vice President Henry Wallace of South Salem was a frequent visitor.
In 1951 he joined the close staff of Time-Life publisher Henry R. Luce, also of Ridgefield, and began in-depth reporting on crisis areas such as Latin America, the Soviet Union and the Middle East. Over 17 years he turned out 12 reports that Time distributed to leaders in government, education and business.
He also lectured widely, especially at colleges and universities. A gifted speaker (he won an oratory contest as a child at the Quaker school he attended in Pennsylvania), Scott never used prepared text or even notes for his addresses. His many talks were often spiced with good humor. Lecturing, he said in 1973, is largely a matter of “mastering diaphragmatic breathing. I’ve been told that if you breathe right, it doesn’t matter what you say.”
His first book, published in 1942, was “Beyond the Urals,” the story of his experiences in the Soviet steel mill, which the New York Times called “a genuine grassroots account of Soviet life” and “a rich portrait of daily life under Stalin.” It is still in print.
Other books were “Duel for Europe” (1942), “Europe in Revolution” (1945), “Political Warfare” (1955), “Democracy Is Not Enough” (1960), “China, The Hungry Dragon” (1967), “Hunger: Man’s Struggle to Feed Himself” (1969), “Divided They Stand” (about East and West Germany) (1973), “Detente Through Soviet Eyes” (1974), and “Millions Will Starve” (1975).
Despite his work at Time and at his home, Scott still had time for his hometown, especially its political side. He belonged at first to the Ridgefield Democratic Club. But he later became a Republican and promoted more conservative policies. He often spoke here, and in 1966, delivered the
After his retirement from Time in 1973, he became vice president of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, where he would also sometimes appear on the air. In 1974, he made “five broadcasts in Russian on hunger, beamed to millions of listeners from Leningrad to Odessa,” he told an interviewer.
He also continued to lecture around the country. And it was while on a speaking tour in 1976 that he suffered a stroke at the Lake Shore Club in Chicago and died at the age of 64.
“He wanted to build the structure of a better world,” said the Rev. Clayton R. Lund of the First Congregational Church at his funeral. “Such optimism never left him because he had such access to human weakness and nobility; he was obsessed with the triumph of the human spirit.”
Masha Scott survived her husband by 28 years. She died in 2004 at the age of 92.
Thursday, April 27, 2017
Sperry and Doris Andrews:
Artists with A Sense of History
Sperry Andrews was the third noted artist to own the old Beers farmhouse at the corner of Nod Hill Road and Pelham Lane. He and his artist wife, Doris, decided that their home should become a memorial to the two preceding owners.
Today thousands visit the result: Weir Farm National Historic Site.
“The Andrewses recognized their farm as a place of extraordinary significance to American art and were instrumental in preserving its landscape and artistic legacy for future generations of artists,” the National Park Service said.
Charles Sperry Andrews III was born in 1917 in Manhattan (his banker father, Charles Sperry Andrews II, and his grandfather were from Danbury and he could trace his roots hereabouts back more than 200 years). When he was three, the family moved to Bronxville, N.Y., where his father had become president of a new bank.
Andrews attended both public and private schools, and knew from a very young age that he wanted to be an artist. He began sketching seriously at eight years old. He eventually studied at the
During World War II, Andrews served in the First Army Division from 1941 to 1945, in Iceland, France, Belgium, and Germany. He was in charge of munitions, and took part in the second wave of the invasion of the beaches at Normandy.
It was at Art Students League that he met fellow student Doris Bass, who became his wife for 55 years. A native of Louisville, Ky., she was born in 1920 — a great-granddaughter of William Kelly, who invented the pneumatic process of refining steel. She graduated from the Erskine School in Boston and served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a Morse code telegraph operator during World War II. After the war she moved to New York City to study art.
The couple had three children. In 1948 they moved to Ridgefield, living in the old “Book Barn,” which had been a bookstore and tearoom in the 1930s, on Route 33 right on the Wilton line.
They lived there nearly 10 years, painting, raising their children, and summering on Block Island — one of the artist’s favorite subjects for his pictures.
Soon after he moved here, Andrews learned that Mahonri Mackintosh Young, the noted American sculptor and son-in-law of American Impressionist Julian Alden Weir, lived in Ridgefield. As a new artist in town, Andrews knocked on the old artist’s door — “the door of the farmhouse the late Mr. Weir had acquired in 1882 and made a country retreat for a wide circle of turn-of-the-century artist friends, including Albert Pinkham Ryder, Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, and John Singer Sargent,” wrote Macklin Reid in Andrews’s obituary. “It was an artistic legacy that Mr. Andrews grew to deeply appreciate, first as a friend of Mr. Young, later as an owner and, eventually, as artist-in-residence at The Weir Farm.”
The Andrewses became close friends with Young (also profiled in Who Was Who). When Young died in 1957, they bought the main Weir farmhouse and surrounding property. They also became friends with Cora Weir Burlingham, a daughter of J. Alden Weir, who donated substantial portions of her nearby property to Nature Conservancy as the Weir Preserve.
During their 50 years in the house, “they never altered any of the original architectural footprints or interior details of the various structures on the site,” said Julie Trachtenberg, a former Weir Farm researcher.
In the late 1970’s, as the property in the area began to be developed for subdivisions, the couple started a grassroots effort to preserve the farm for future enjoyment by the public and by artists. “Both Sperry and Doris Andrews devoted tremendous amounts of time and energy to preserving the property and ensuring that others recognized its importance in the history of art in America,” Reid wrote.
They enlisted the support of The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land, the State of Connecticut, and various politicians, including U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman. Finally in 1990, Congress voted to create Weir Farm National Historic Site, the only national park property in the country that celebrates American painting.
While the Weir Farm was sold to the federal government, the couple retained life use of the main farmhouse and they continued to live and paint there until they died.
Sperry Andrews was an accomplished and well recognized artist whose specialty was plein air landscapes. He was remembered locally in the 1950s and 60s for his mobile studio — an old Willys Jeep with all but the driver’s seat removed.
He “paints year round out-of-doors,” New Britain Museum of American Art Director Charles Ferguson wrote in 1983. “His paintings are completed on the spot, not the usual ‘sketch from the field, redo it in the studio’ scheme.”
“That is undoubtedly why Sperry Andrews’ paintings and drawings have such freshness and harmony of light, color and line. One may find traces of Cubism and the Orient in his work but he has developed a blend which is uniquely all his own.”
New York Times art critic Vivien Raynor once observed that he “paints the Connecticut countryside, but with considerably more panache than Weir… Though he uses richer color and seldom if ever includes figures, Mr. Andrews often recalls Fairfield Porter in the suppleness of his Impressionistic brushwork and in his intimations of a life lived in comfortable middle class surroundings.”
Andrews worked primarily in oil, watercolor, charcoal, and pencil and over his long life, produced more than 10,000 works.
His art is in the permanent collection of the New Britain Museum as well as at the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Columbus Gallery of Fine Art, and the National Academy of Design.
He won many art awards and prizes and was elected a member of the Century Association in 1993 and made an academician of the National Academy of Design in 1994. He taught at the Wooster Community Arts Center in Danbury and at the Silvermine College of the Art in New Canaan.
Andrews was 87 when he died in 2005, and is buried in Wilton’s Hillside Cemetery. Doris had died two years earlier at the age of 82.
“His vision of a singularly beautiful world inspired all those who knew him,” said his
However, Catherine Andrews pointed out in 2003, her mother was also “a brilliant watercolorist. She really gave up her art work for him, when they got married and started a family.”
Catherine recalled that “at one point my father and a bunch of their artist friends were sitting around and my brother, Sperry, produced a number of her early works, watercolors, and everyone present was just amazed at how beautiful they were. There was just this stunned silence.
“And my father said, ‘Oh, my God, I should have given up my life for hers.’ ”
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Paul and Johanna Laszig:
A man who listened to advice and a woman who was grateful for help were behind a generous philanthropic effort. Since the early 1980s, the Paul and Johanna Laszig Fund for the Elderly has distributed more than one million dollars to help Ridgefield’s seniors.
Paul Laszig was born in Gonswen, East Prussia (now Poland), in 1900. After learning the trade of a barber, he emigrated to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1923. After only three years there, he decided to come to the United States, arriving in 1926 and living in New York City. There, in 1932, he married Irmgard Johanna Heine, who had been born in 1892 in Dresden, Saxony, which was later part of East Germany. She had come to the United States two years earlier to work as a maid.
The same year they were married, the Laszigs moved to Ridgefield.
For 33 years Paul Laszig operated The Modern Barber Shop on Catoonah Street, about opposite where the telephone building is today. The couple rented on Gilbert Street for many years before building a house at 245 West Lane (torn down around 2007 to make way for a more elaborate house).
On Wednesdays, when his shop was closed, Paul Laszig would visit the homes of some of
Laszig retired in 1965 after 51 years of cutting hair. He died in 1974 at the age of 74.
After Johanna died in 1980 at the age of 87, it was revealed that she had left an estate worth around $1.4 million, most of which was investments her husband had made thanks to his Wednesday clippings.
In her will Johanna bequeathed a share of her estate to create a fund to benefit the elderly. In her later years, she had had difficulty walking and was eventually wheelchair-bound. Friends speculated that the assistance she received from organizations such as Meals on Wheels and the District Nursing Association (now Visiting Nurse Association) helped inspire her to create the fund.
The will specified that the trust fund would aid elderly Ridgefielders “including, but not limited to, providing them with housing, medical assistance, transportation, food, or other services for their general welfare in order that they may live out the remainder of their lives in dignity.”
The estate took more than two years to settle, delayed partly because the main portion of the bequests was left to five of Mrs. Laszig’s relatives in East Germany including a cousin and a nephew. Since East Germany was a communist country, the will stipulated that if “for any reason whatsoever, including but not limited to the law or policy of the government of East Germany,” the German beneficiaries would not receive the money left to them, that money would go to the fund for the elderly.
Union Trust Company, the bank that through several mergers is now Wells Fargo, was in charge of the trust. Attorney John E. Dowling, representing the bank and the trust, questioned whether the money should be sent to East Germany because most of it would wind up in the hands of the communist government there.
Dowling and the bank’s senior trust officer flew to West Germany to meet with a lawyer the East German heirs had hired. They negotiated an agreement in which the East Germans would receive 65% of the investments instead of all of it. The Laszig Fund would get the remaining 35% plus the $100,000 from the sale of the house. Thus, the fund was set up with around $371,000 instead of $100,000. In today’s dollars, that’s $935,000 vs. $252,000 — well worth the trip to Germany.
Each year the fund provides an average of six grants to nonprofit organizations and efforts helping Ridgefielders who are 62 years old or older. Grants range from $1,000 to $25,000, and total around $50,000 — although some years, as much as $59,000 has been distributed.
Among the efforts the fund has recently help support are the fitness program at Founders Hall, the work of the town’s Commission on Aging, and buying large-print and audio books for the Ridgefield Library. Groups getting aid also include the Ridgefield Community Center, the town’s Social Services Department, Meals on Wheels, and the Ridgefield Visiting Nurse Association.
In 1983, the fund gave out $25,000 in grants — equivalent to about $61,000 in today’s money. So far over the years, it has distributed more than $1 million to aid the elderly of Ridgefield. The fund itself, which began at $371,000, has grown over the years and now has assets worth just over $1 million.
“I think Mrs. Laszig will be remembered for a long time for her generosity to agencies like Meals on Wheels,” said Romeo G. Petroni, who had been Mrs. Laszig’s attorney when her will was draw up. “Her memory and Paul’s memory will long survive — after we’re all gone — for the good they’ve done.”
Sunday, April 23, 2017
A Songful But Short Life
Michael Connolly had finally “attained every actor-singer’s dream — his name in lights,” said his father shortly after Connolly died of a stroke in Los Angeles.
It was 1989 and the longtime Ridgefielder, only 41, had just completed a successful, 14-month, national tour in Cole Porter’s musical, “Can-Can,” with Chita Rivera and Ron Holgate.
James Michael Connolly was born in Massachusetts in 1947, came to Ridgefield as a boy and began acting and singing as a pupil at Veterans Park School.
In 1965 he won the first $500 scholarship offered by the newly formed Ridgefield Workshop for the Performing Arts (now the Ridgefield Theater Barn). One of the judges in the scholarship competition was actor Cyril Ritchard, the Ridgefielder famed for his Captain Hook portrayal in “Peter Pan.” Ritchard was so impressed with Connolly’s talent that he personally sent him another $500. He said the 16-year-old singer had a lot of talent and should be encouraged.
During his high school and college years, Connolly performed in many local productions. He graduated from Fordham University with a degree in English and while a student there, founded and directed the first choral club at Fordham Preparatory School.
Although he was certified to teach (and did do substitute teaching in the Ridgefield schools), his career was on the stage and he went on to perform in more than 15 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with the Light Opera of Manhattan, in summer stock, and in many touring productions.
He appeared in several Broadway shows; his first was “Otherwise Engaged,” with Dick Cavett, in which he was assigned a dressing room at the Plymouth Theater that was once occupied by John Barrymore.
“It was humbling to me,” he said, “more like a shrine than a dressing room.”
His other Broadway shows included “Annie” and “Amadeus,” and he toured the country in the national company of “On the Twentieth Century” with Rock Hudson and former Ridgefielder Imogene Coca.
Another summer he toured in “Sherlock Holmes,” sharing the lead with Leonard Nimoy.
He also appeared in the television soap operas, “All My Children,” and “One Life to Live.”
Throughout his career, he continued to perform locally, and was especially remembered for singing the National Anthem at post-parade ceremonies on many Memorial Days in Ridgefield.
However, he told his family, he saved his best performances “for the ladies of the kitchen” at Italian-American Club functions he often attended.
“Whenever he dedicated two or three songs to them,” his father James Connolly said, “the staff would emerge, wiping their hands on their white aprons, to be serenaded by ‘Mattinata,’ ‘Torna a Sorrento,’ or ‘Santa Lucia.’ ”
Friday, April 21, 2017
Col. Louis D. Conley:
The Man from Outpost
Col. Louis D. Conley built an empire like no other Ridgefield has seen. At the height of the operation of Outpost Nurseries and Outpost Farm, he owned some 2,000 acres — nearly one tenth of the town’s area. He had a large home that became a famous restaurant, maintained a sizable farm with its own electricity, had the largest kennel in New England, and established a popular inn frequented by movie stars and even a first lady.
And thousands of trees he planted still beautify the town.
He was, as his Ridgefield Press obituary observed, a “man of large affairs.”
Louis Daniel Conley was born in 1874 in New York City, where he grew up and attended St. Francis Xavier College (now Xavier High School) in Manhattan. He and his two brothers took over their grandfather’s Conley Tinfoil Company, considered a major U.S. industry at the time. He married Elise Ehret, daughter of beer baron George Ehret of the once thriving Ehret Breweries.
In the early 1900s, Conley became active in the military, serving in New York’s “Fighting
Around 1914, apparently wearying of the hot, fetid summers in New York City, Conley acquired a large tract of farmland along Bennett’s Farm Road west of Route 7 and erected his 34-room mansion atop the hill as an “outpost” from city life.
“It was the most beautiful place in the state of Connecticut,” said Julius Tulipani, who came to work as superintendent at Outpost Farm in 1919. “And it was the most difficult to run.”
Tulipani first met the colonel when he did some contracting work on the estate. Then only 20 years old, Tulipani had almost single-handedly constructed a 40-foot-high water tower that could hold 90,000 gallons. (The tower stood off Great Hill Road until 1974 when a pair of youthful arsonists who had been on a rampage burned it down in a spectacular, nighttime blaze.)
Outpost Farm was a self-sufficient operation in those days. Water came from springs across
To back up the power plant, Conley purchased a giant, wind-powered generator with a flywheel some 36 feet across. Manufactured by a Canadian outfit, only two or three of the devices ever operated in the United States, Tulipani said. A 1926 Ridgefield Press article called it “the second largest windmill in the world.”
Running Outpost required many skills, Tulipani recalled in 1973 when he was 82. Besides fields of rye, oats, corn, and 10 acres of lawn to care for, there were thoroughbred Guernseys and their products. When the colonel wintered in Manhattan, he’d have the fresh milk and butter, packed in ice, sent almost daily to the city on the 7:32 train out of Ridgefield.
Pigs were bred on the farm — 40 to 50 of them a year — but like the other farm products, were used only for the estate and never sold. Tulipani also oversaw the raising of sheep, chickens, pheasant, and even quail for the Conley food supply. He also had charge of the work and riding horses.
Conley was always a large-scale employer. In the early days of Outpost Farm, five families lived on the estate, tending to the farm and grounds. Among them were names later commonplace in Ridgefield: Marinelli, Cassavechia, Servadio, Baldaserini and, of course, Tulipani.
In the house the colonel employed a staff of at least seven women, including a cook, kitchen maid, waitress, parlor maid, chambermaid, laundress, and nurse for his four children. He also had one or two chauffeurs and a private secretary.
Tulipani described Conley as tall and “quite a man. They were a nice family, a good-living family.”
“They were very nice people, lovely people,” agreed Bill Oliverson, who tended to the Conley dairy operation. “They were very good to the workers.”
With the invention of cellophane sometime around 1920, the future of tinfoil began to dim. Conley sold off his interest in the company and retired. But one day soon after, he was chatting with his friend, Max Schling, head of a well-known seed producing firm on Long Island (and whose name was used in the title of an Ogden Nash poem). Schling had visited Outpost and was struck by the land, then almost all fields. He suggested that Conley put some trees on it.
The colonel like the idea, began planting trees in 1923 and founded Outpost Nurseries. While the operation was started as a hobby, it wound up as a business — and a giant business at that.
During the 1920s Conley awed the small town of 3,500 people by buying up parcel after parcel of land, paying comparatively high prices. Before he was finished, he had acquired virtually every acre along both sides of Route 35 from just south of Copps Hill Plaza north to the town line on Route 7 and onward into Danbury. His holdings also stretched through Farmingville to Route 7 and up into Ridgebury.
Conley’s control over the northeast portion of town, particularly Danbury Road, prompted some to call him “a one-man zoning commission,” for he prevented those properties from being developed for many years.
Throughout most of this 2,000 acres, Conley and his successors planted hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs. Although most were sold over the years, thousands still stand today in town. Roads recall the names of species of nursery stock Conley grew in their vicinity: Poplar Road, Birch Lane, Linden Road, Cherry Lane, Copper Beech Lane, Dogwood Drive, and Laurel Lane. And, of course, there is Nursery Road.
Outpost Nurseries also had a huge greenhouse where Copps Hill Plaza is today. Several hundred thousand seedlings were raised there each year.
Outpost soon became one of the largest retail nursery businesses in the East. Among its many jobs between 1925 and World War II were the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the 1939 New York
The business was doing so well that additional nurseries were established in Long Island, and in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina to grow trees and shrubs that couldn’t be raised in Ridgefield’s climate or soil. The company also maintained a Park Avenue office in New York City.
At the height its operation in the late 1920s and 1930s, the Outpost estate, farm and nurseries included between 30 and 40 houses in which employees lived; a 1926 Press article places the number of employees at between 30 and 60, depending on the season. Those numbers grew in the 1930s when Outpost became Ridgefield’s largest employer.
Besides supplying much food to its workers, Outpost also had its own garbage removal system and dump, and provided ice cut from Bennett’s Pond for the iceboxes.
But the nursery wasn’t the colonel’s only interest. In the 1920s, he built a kennel along
Just north of the old kennel site is a large stone and wood building, which served as Outpost’s
In 1928, Conley acquired a Danbury Road house that had been built around 1812 by a carpenter for his bride. Two years later and only two months before his death, the colonel opened The Outpost Inn on what is now the site of Fox Hill condominiums. He created the pond that still exists
Many celebrities visited the inn — most to dine and some to stay overnight. Among the diners was Eleanor Roosevelt, who drove herself there for lunch in 1940. It was also a popular dining spot for Ridgefielders, and several local organizations had their meetings there.
In 1983 letter to this writer, Elise Conley Cox, the colonel’s daughter, reminisced about the inn.
“I remember the Japanese room, with its imported silk panels; the blue crystal sconces in the
“The antiques throughout were carefully chosen by my father, who loved scouting them out: The wall fountain, in the formal Linden tree garden, we found in Florence. Heavens only knows what happened to Bacchus and the other statues.
“When the swamp was drained and the Willow Pond formed, we had stately swans patrolling — and its rustic bridge was a copy of the one in Monet’s garden.”
As for Danbury Road, it was a “lovely winding maple-shaded road, wandering to the village — somewhat different now.”
Outpost Inn operated until the early 1960s when it became the Shapley School, a college preparatory school that lasted until around 1967. David Paul, developer of Casagmo, bought the 28-acre property and turned it into Fox Hill, the town’s first condominiums.
While Conley’s inn became a site for homes, his home became the site of an inn. In 1946, his Outpost Farm mansion was sold and converted into the Fox Hill Inn. Known for its fine dining and
IBM held on to the Fox Hill land until the 1990s when it sold its holdings to a New Jersey developer called Eureka, which wanted to put multifamily housing there. After battling the developer for several years, the town acquired the Fox Hill Inn site and other former IBM land totaling 458 acres in 2001, and sold it to the state for Bennett’s Pond State Park two years later. (In 2017, Eureka still owned former Conley/IBM land on the south side of Bennett’s Farm Road, but no development has taken place there.)
Colonel Conley was active in various civic efforts. For many years he operated a camp at Outpost Farm for underprivileged Catholic boys from the city. The camp took children for two-week sessions throughout the summer, had its own director and staff, and offered many activities, including swimming in a large pool.
The colonel was a strong supporter of Boys Scouts, and contributed substantially to St. Mary Parish (more than 25 clergymen attended his funeral there).
After Conley’s death, his family took over the nurseries operation.
Conley and his companies left behind a legacy of the countless trees that still grow in the Farmingville, Limestone and Ridgebury districts on his old nursery land. But he also bought many people to Ridgefield who had worked for him or his family, including two nurserymen who became first selectmen — Harvey Tanton and J. Mortimer Woodcock. Others were also significant contributors to the community, among them Bill and Marywade Rodier, whose flower shop still exists today on Main Street — Bill was one of the five founders of the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra in 1964.
In 1942, Outpost Nurseries joined the war effort, setting up a large sawmill on Route 7 south of Little Pond (site of the old Benrus/Perkin-Elmer plants, now used for the Pond’s Edge medical offices). Another mill stood on the site of today’s Pamby Motors service center at Danbury and Copps Hills Roads. Outpost could cut huge logs for building Navy patrol vessels, minesweepers, PT boats, and other small craft that required structural wood instead of iron and steel. President Franklin Roosevelt supplied trees from the 1,500-acre Hyde Park estate for this effort — some of them may have come from Outpost originally.
Several hundred thousand board feet of oak for shipbuilding was cut from Hyde Park in 1942 alone. The trees had to be hauled 55 miles to Ridgefield where the wood was cut and then
After Conley died of meningitis on Sept. 7, 1930 at Outpost, many words of praise were written. “The colonel has done much to beautify Ridgefield,” The Ridgefield Press said. “Attractive buildings have been created, and formerly where hundreds of waste acres had been allowed to run to scrub and wild grow, have been cultivated, grade and thousands of trees have been planted.”
His home, The Danbury Times said, was “one of the showplaces of the East.” The nursery became “a splendid public park, running for miles along both sides of roads between Danbury and Ridgefield.
“The instinct for beauty which Colonel Conley possessed ran peculiarly to the improvement
Praising the colonel’s revamping of miles of the Routes 7 and 35 corridor, The Danbury News added: “Thousands of people… who did not know this splendid man personally became familiar with his name through his work along this busy highway and came to respect and admire him through the exceptionally fine character of that work.”
In a 1973 letter, Elise Cox, his daughter and last surviving child, observed: “He loved Ridgefield and Outpost Farm, and constantly sought ways to make both more beautiful. His life was simply lived, with honor and integrity the measure of all his actions.”
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Nehemiah Lyman Keeler:
A Last Link
When Lyman Keeler died in 2005, the town lost a last link with what Ridgefield was for most of its existence: A community of hard-working farmers, most of whom were born here and most of whom spent their lives in fields and barns, tending crops and livestock. For much of his life, he tilled land and milked cows, just as had generations of Keelers before him.
Fuzzy Keeler was a direct descendant of the pioneers who came to these hilly, rock-riddled woods in 1708 to create a new settlement called Ridgefield. One of his Keeler ancestors built the house in which he was born. It was the same house in which he died — the famous “Pink House” on Ridgebury Road that was torn down in 2009 amid much controversy.
“He gives you a flicker of what Ridgefield used to be, and the uncommon people that made it what it was — in a word, a pleasure,” fellow Ridgeburian John Katz once said of him.
Nehemiah Lyman Keeler was born in 1913 in that Pink House; it was one of the town's oldest buildings, dating from the early 1700s and believed to have been erected by Jonah Keeler. It had remained in the Keeler family for more than two and one-half centuries. His ancestors, Ralph and Samuel Keeler, were among the first settlers of Ridgefield and, later, its Ridgebury parish.
When he attended first through eighth grades in the one-room Ridgebury Schoolhouse at the corner of Ridgebury and Old Stagecoach Roads, Keeler was known as a boy with an eye for the prank. He once filled a bag with leaves, climbed a ladder onto the school’s roof, and stuffed the bag in the chimney. When the teacher lit a fire in the stove, the entire schoolhouse filled with smoke.
“They closed school for two days for that one,” Keeler, a twinkle in his eye, recalled in a 2002 interview.
From northern Ridgebury, Danbury was two miles closer than Ridgefield center, and Keeler attended Danbury High School — reached by horse and buggy. After high school, he began working
the family’s 124-acre dairy farm. “We were the biggest one — milked around 40 head,” he said. “I sold milk to Stew Leonard for 15 years.”
Back when he was a boy, Ridgefield was mostly an agricultural community. “Every place was a farm, every place,” he said. “I remember when there wasn’t a car on the road, just horse and wagons.” Occasionally a car might come along the dirt Ridgebury Road “and everybody’d run out to see and see who it was.”
“It’s like a city now,” he said in 2003. “I waited for 51 cars to go by my driveway the other day before I could get out.”
“But you can’t stop progress,” he added. “You got to keep going.”
By 1961, when Keeler was having difficulty finding enough good help to keep the farm going, he decided to sell most of the pastures, some 120 acres. Jerry Tuccio eventually acquired the property, turning it into the Pleasant View Estates subdivision. Keeler Drive there recalls the land’s past.
Over the next 30 years, Keeler held a variety of jobs, including car salesman, gun shop owner, assistant service manager for a Chrysler dealer, owner and operator of a trucking delivery business, and an auctioneer selling everything from cattle to go-carts.
When he was 90, he worked at the Parks and Recreation Center, opening the building at 5:30 each morning — the same time he used to milk the cows. He retired the year before he died.
In the 1930s, Keeler began his lifelong interest in motorcycles, acquiring a four-cylinder Henderson. “His true love was motorcycle riding,” said his son, Peter. “He received many ‘oldest rider awards’ at rallies and rode up until the summer of 2004.”
He was also an avid hunter, gardener, and animal lover.
Keeler loved Ridgefield and had no inclination to leave. “I’ve been to Florida a few times, but I won’t go back,” he said. “It's like a jungle down there with the heat and the noise. I said, ‘What the hell kind of place is this?’”
And while the farming community of his youth has disappeared, he accepted change. “There is nothing you can do about it,” he said. “But it is good to think about the old times.”
After his death his “Pink House” on Ridgebury Road was purchased by a couple who lived next door and who planned to restore it. When they found restoration would be too expensive and fearing liabilities from having a vacant, deteriorating building, they offered the old house to the town, which would have to move it to another site. When the town did not act on the offer, they tore it down, prompting many townspeople to decry landmark’s loss.
When Lyman Keeler died at the age of 91, The Ridgefield Press observed: “Over the years many people have been called ‘Mr. Ridgefield,’ chiefly for their involvement in town affairs. But few have had more Ridgefield in them than Fuzzy Keeler, a man who was born, lived and died in the home of his ancestors and who had worked the same land those ancestors carved from the wilderness nearly three centuries ago.”
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Edwin D. Pickett:
Grasping the Colors
A total of 3,155 Union soldiers died at the Battle of Gettysburg at the beginning of July, 1863. Among the first was Eddie Pickett, who was killed on July 1. He was 28 years old and left a wife and two-year-old son.
Unlike most victims, however, his name survived long after most others were forgotten.
Edwin Darling Pickett was born in Ridgefield in 1835, a son of Rufus H. “Boss” Pickett and his wife, Betsey Parsons Pickett. His father was a noted furniture-maker in town; his first shop was on Main Street, opposite today’s Christian Science church, and he later worked from a building on Market Street.
In 1857 Edwin Pickett married Sarah Chickering Harrington — a descendant of a Revolutionary War captain — in Taunton, Mass., and four years later, they had a son, Edwin William Starr Pickett.
Described by a friend as a “taciturn country lad,” Pickett was working as a clerk in the early 1860s when he enlisted as a corporal in the 17th Regiment from Connecticut in August 1862.
“He rose rapidly, and was promoted to sergeant by mid-November to 1st sergeant a month before his death,” wrote Charles Pankenier in his book, “Ridgefield Fights the Civil War.” “As ‘orderly,’ he was entrusted with running the company in the absence of its captain, and in preference to the lieutenants who were his nominal superiors.”
On July 1, his regiment was advancing at Barlow’s Knoll. “They were led by the flags that were the symbol of regimental honor — and a high-profile target,” Pankenier said. “Years later a comrade would recall: ‘Here Orderly Edwin D. Pickett was shot down while grasping the regimental colors, being the third bearer, who had carried them to the death.”
News of Pickett’s fate had reached home by July 6 when Anna Resseguie, daughter of the
Resseguie also reported that at the July 12 funeral, “a long procession of pedestrians, as well as carriages, followed his remains to the grave.”
After the war ended, Ridgefielders formed a post of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the equivalent of an American Legion for Civil War veterans. Among the founders was Aaron W. Lee of Farmingville. A close friend of Pickett, Lee was also at Gettysburg, was with Pickett in the battle at Barlow’s Knoll, and was wounded at the same time. Lee woke up to find his buddy lying dead beside him.
It was Lee who suggested the new GAR group be named for his fallen comrade, and for many years the Edwin D. Pickett Post of the GAR was a major organization in Ridgefield. In fact, in 1884, it played host to the Connecticut GAR reunion that included a parade of 400 Civil War veterans down Main Street, watched by some 2,000 people. (The entire town’s population back then was 2,100.)
Among the speakers at the gathering was Attorney Rufus Starr Pickett of New Haven, who 21 years earlier had searched Gettysburg for the body of his heroic brother.
Friday, April 14, 2017
Irving B. Conklin:
A Symbol of Change
In a way, Irving Conklin symbolized the changing nature of Ridgefield in the 20th Century – from a farming town, to a haven for estates, and then to a bedroom community for commuters. Conklin participated in all three levels of the community, and was a leading participant in all three.
Born in 1899 in Hyde Park, N.Y., Irving B. Conklin Sr. came to Ridgefield as a young man and became superintendent of Dr. George G. Shelton’s estate along West Lane at the Ridgefield-Lewisboro line.
From 1928 till the early 1940s, he owned Conklin’s Dairy on Ramapoo Road, Ridgefield’s largest and last major dairy farm. Over those years he had supplied most of Ridgefield with milk.
“That was a time when the per capita consumption of milk in Ridgefield actually exceeded the per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages,” former town historian Dick Venus once observed, perhaps with a wink of an eye. As a young man Venus had delivered milk for Conklin, usually by horse and cart, and later had his own dairy.
In the 1950s, as more and more commuters were eyeing Ridgefield as a place to live, the Conklin farm was subdivided; it includes today’s neighborhoods of Farm Hill Road, Overlook Drive and Nutmeg Court.
In 1944 Irving Conklin and Leo Pambianchi started Ridgefield Motors, which grew into Conklin Motors, then became Village Pontiac-Cadillac on Danbury Road; the building now houses Party Depot.
In 1941, he acquired Stonecrest, the large estate on North Street, and had his home there. During the war he and Joseph Young raised beef, pigs and sheep on the Stonecrest Farm.
In the 1950s he and his wife, Ethel, subdivided much of the property into the Stonecrest Road and Dowling Drive neighborhoods and around 1953 also established a riding stable on the old estate that is still in business today.
Ethel, incidentally, was famed for her homemade ice cream. “There can be no other
Irving Conklin was a president of the Lions Club, a member of the Rotary Club, and belonged to the Odd Fellows.
He retired to Florida where he died in 1966 at the age of 66. Ethel died in 1991 at the age of 94.
Conklin’s Dairy Farm was a huge operation and had so many cows that Conklin at one point was ordering freight-car loads of peanut shells from the Planter’s factory in Virginia to use as bedding for the livestock. Venus recalled that the light but bulky shells cost $11 a ton to buy, but $15 a ton to transport. They were packed in sacks “that were almost large enough to hold a Volkswagen.”
However, Conklin eventually found that, even though the shells had no particular food value, the cows would on occasion eat them.
When he finally discontinued using peanut-shell bedding, Venus asked him why. “Because the milk was beginning to taste like peanut butter,” Conklin replied.
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
A Crisis for the Church
The American public seems to expect many politicians to have a crooked side, but religious leaders tend to be more trusted. Perhaps that’s how one Ridgefield church official managed to pocket a sizable amount of money before being caught.
The son and grandson of two of the wealthiest men ever to live in town in the 19th Century, Cyrus Cornen wound up his relatively brief life as a poor traveling salesman far from home and family.
Cyrus Alexander Cornen Jr. was born in 1878 in the oil fields of Pennsylvania, where his father, Cyrus Cornen, and grandfather, Peter P. Cornen, both Ridgefielders, had moved to dig oil wells.
Peter was among the earliest oil wildcatters in the United States; he was probably also Ridgefield’s first millionaire. He and Henry I. Beers, his brother-in-law, bought a 50-acre farm in Cherry Run, Pennsylvania, for $2,500. By 1864, the farm was dotted with oil wells. At one point the two rejected an offer of $4 million for the farm — $64 million in 2016 dollars.
Peter Cornen was also a shrewd real estate man; in the 1860s, he acquired 16 lots in Manhattan. He sold them in 1872 for $65,000 — $1.2 million today. Part of Grand Central Terminal now stands on those lots.
Cyrus Cornen Sr. also made more than a million dollars in the Pennsylvania oil fields and, like his father, returned to Ridgefield and occupied the family homestead at the corner of Danbury and Farmingville Roads (now the site of the headquarters of Fairfield County Bank, one of whose founders was Peter.). Cornen Sr. wrote in 1911 that his estate included “a house large enough for a moderate-sized hotel...”
By his 20s, Cyrus A. Cornen Jr. was becoming involved in many aspects of hometown life, serving as master of the Jerusalem Lodge of Masons, a member of the building committee for the new Benjamin Franklin Grammar School (the “old high school” on East Ridge), treasurer of the Ridgefield Electric Company, an officer of the Ridgefield Savings Bank, and treasurer of St. Stephen’s Church, where he was also on the vestry and his family had been active for years. In 1910, he ran for and was elected town clerk. Around the same time, he was also elected judge of the town’s Probate Court.
However, in 1916, suspicions began to arise that not all was going well with Cornen’s handling of finances for St. Stephen’s parish.
St. Stephen’s had just completed a huge project: The building of a new church, the handsome stone structure that stands today on Main Street. The first service took place in May 1915, but the official consecration ceremony was scheduled for May of 1916, led by the Right Rev. Chauncey B. Brewster, bishop of Connecticut. However, a few months before the consecration, the vestry, the committee that oversaw the church’s operations, had begun to notice the church coffers seemed to lack some of the money that had been contributed toward the building project. Bills weren’t being paid — and the building had to be free of debt when the consecration took place.
According to records and reports that Robert S. Haight uncovered for his 1975 history of St. Stephen’s, the rector and the parish clerk met with Cornen in the early spring of 1916. “From these discussions, it developed that the treasurer had virtually no records to support either expenditures or receipts,” Haight said.
A committee was appointed to examine the situation with an accountant. “Surprisingly, considering the condition of the church’s finances, Mr. Cornen was reelected treasurer in April 1916.
By early May the church faced an unexpected deficit of $13,000 — equivalent of more than $300,000 today.
What Haight called a “whirlwind campaign” was undertaken to pay off the debt. And since St. Stephen’s had quite a few wealthy parishioners, the money was quickly collected and debt on the building cleared in time for the consecration ceremony May 30.
Cornen resigned effective May 26, in time for the ornately printed program for the consecration to list his replacement, Seth Low Pierrepont, as parish treasurer. A millionaire diplomat and naval officer who later donated what’s now Pierrepont State Park, Pierrepont probably was largely responsible for getting Cornen’s losses covered, both through donations and his own money.
There was extensive coverage of the consecration ceremony in The Ridgefield Press, but the leaders of the church were apparently able to keep Cornen’s financial misdeeds out of the newspaper. Nor was there any indication about his having taken money from the town through his posts as town clerk and probate judge until more than 50 years later when The Press, then under different management, said he’d reportedly pocketed an undisclosed sum.
If Cornen did also embezzle town funds, how did it go unreported? Speculation is that Cornen’s friends and family quickly paid off any missing money and managed to convince the town
Cyrus Cornen soon left Ridgefield, never to be seen again in the community. He and his wife, Annie Mae, first moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; his draft registration application from 1918 says he was working as a “motor truck salesman” at a business called Mueller Brothers, perhaps operated by an old family friend from the Cornen family years in the oil fields.
By 1930 he was living in Richmond, Virginia, and three years later, he was in Newport News, working as a traveling salesman. He died there in 1935 at the age of 51, succumbing to the effects of high blood pressure.
Cyrus’s body was shipped back to Ridgefield where he was buried in the Ridgefield Cemetery. There, the wealthy Cornen family has a gated plot, complete with one of the tallest monuments in any Ridgefield cemetery. But Cyrus is not in the Cornen plot, perhaps a sign of his estrangement from his family. Instead he is buried with his wife’s parents, Richard and Roxana Nash Walker. Cyrus’s parents and four siblings who died young are all mentioned on the monument; he is not.
After her husband’s death, Annie Mae Cornen came back to Ridgefield to live with her sister. Late in life, the two moved to Bradford, Vermont, to live with her sister’s daughter. Annie died there in 1958 at the age of 83. Her brief obituary in the Press said little about her life, but did note she was “the widow of a former Ridgefield town official, Cyrus Cornen.” —from “Wicked Ridgefield” by Jack Sanders, The History Press, © 2016
Saturday, April 08, 2017
Help and Understanding
“It was Miss Burdick who opened my eyes to the world of poetry, took the monotony out of grammar, and awakened me to the value of literary creativity,” Grant Drake, a former student, wrote of Eleanor Burdick when the Ridgefield High School English teacher retired in 1963. Burdick had taught at the school for 43 years, longer than almost any staff member in the school’s century of existence.
Eleanor Larissa Burdick was born in Massachusetts in 1897 and grew up in the town of Monson. She attended Colby College, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1920.
That year, she came to Ridgefield to teach at the old Hamilton High School on Bailey Avenue. Over her 43-year career, she taught English, history and math, chaired the English Department, directed the Drama Club, and inspired innumerable students. Back in the days when the senior class each year took a trip to Washington, D.C., Burdick organized the journey and went on many of them.
Her career spanned the tenures of nine superintendents, one of whom, Philip Pitruzzello, said of her: “That such power and humanity reside in one person is reserved to the few; that Eleanor Burdick chose to teach youth is a magnificent expression of God-given talents.”
After her retirement, she returned to her native Massachusetts, where she was active in church work. She died in 1979 at the age of 81.
The staff of the Class of 1955 yearbook dedicated that year’s Caudatowan to Burdick, citing her “indefatigable help to our class and friendly understanding of our problems.”
The dedication added, “During her teaching years at Ridgefield High School, she has become a symbol of guidance to all. In her association with the students, she has never failed in her patience and encouragement to everyone.”
That same year, The Ridgefield Press also paid tribute to her, observing “Her chief satisfaction in teaching is derived from the young people themselves. The idea of helping them get a start and the satisfaction of seeing them accomplish something are her chief pleasures in teaching.”
Thursday, April 06, 2017
Writing Was in Her Blood
In 1950, when Hildegarde Oskison had turned 79 years old and had written nearly two dozen books, she announced that she would retire from writing and commence to enjoy what others had written. She did not, however, retire from community involvement and continued to attend Ridgefield Town Meetings and First Congregational Church activities and could be seen each day walking to the post office from her home on East Ridge and later, The Elms Inn.
During her long career, Oskison had probably out-produced her more illustrious grandfather, publishing 23 books and many newspaper and magazine pieces, usually under her maiden name, Hildegarde Hawthorne.
One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s seven grandchildren, Hildegarde Hawthorne was born in New York City in 1871 but spent much of her youth growing up in England, Germany, Jamaica, and Long Island — her father, Julian Hawthorne, was a journalist, novelist and poet who moved around a lot.
She had little formal education, outside of tutors and her parents, but clearly had inherited her family’s love of writing. When she was only 16, her first short story was published in St. Nicholas, a magazine for children, and she continued to write for young people throughout her life.
When she was 20, Harper’s published the first of her articles aimed at adults and she went on to produce hundreds of pieces on travel, gardening, and other subjects, as well as to write many ghost stories. Among her 23 books were half dozen biographies, including one on her grandfather, called
“The travelogues, such as Corsica (1926), are highly descriptive, personal accounts,” said biographer Jane Stanbrough. “Of her histories, ‘California’s Missions’ (1942) is a very interesting and directly related account of those missions and the men who founded them. It is a well-written work that still deserves to be read.”
As for those Westerns, Stanbrough characterized them as “superficial and hackneyed.”
In 1920, she married John Milton Oskison (1874–1947), a writer and journalist who was the first person of American Indian descent to graduate from Stanford University. They lived for many years in California where Hildegarde became a frequent hiker and camper, and often established friendships with both backwoodsmen and American Indians. She produced three books on California and used her wilderness experiences in writing her Westerns.
During World War I, Oskison assisted the soldiers by serving with the YWCA troop support services in France and with the Red Cross. At the same time, she provided dispatches to The New York Times and The New York Herald about aspects of the war she was witnessing. In the 1920s she also wrote many book reviews for both papers.
In the early 20th Century, Oskison was active in the woman’s suffrage movement and took
She came to Ridgefield around 1940, living on East Ridge; by then, she had been separated from her husband. By the late 1940s, she had moved to The Elms Inn on Main Street. She died in 1952 at the age of 81.
Her last article, written for Reader’s Digest when she was nearly 80 years old, described her aunt, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, a writer who after a troublesome marriage to an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis, became a Catholic nun. In 1901, as Mother Mary Alphonsa, O.P., Rose Hawthorne established the Rosary Hill Home for terminally cancer patients, which still operated today in Hawthorne, N.Y., by an order of nuns that she founded.
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