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
69th” and rising to the rank of colonel, in command of the entire regiment. However, in 1916, when the 69th was sent to Texas to Pancho Villa who was raiding border towns, Army surgeons found Conley had a heart ailment and ordered that he be relieved from duty. The colonel appealed, but President Woodrow Wilson sustained the surgeons’ opinion.
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
Route 7, and was pumped up the hill into the tank to serve the house and barns. Conley even had his own electrical generating plant (the generator had two 4,500-pound flywheels) that supplied all of the electricity for Outpost until sometime in the 1920s when utility lines replaced it.
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
World’s Fair, the National Gallery of Art  in Washington, D.C., parks along Riverside Drive in New York City (for which trees were brought down the Hudson River on barges), Tryon Park in Manhattan, Parkchester in the Bronx (one of the first large-scale housing projects in New York City), colleges like Harvard, Yale, and Williams, Narragansett and Monmouth Raceways, and the estates of such people as songwriter Cole Porter, commentator Lowell Thomas, statesmen Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey, columnist Walter Winchell, actor Robert Montgomery, and the Buckleys at Sharon.
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
Danbury Road, right at the intersection of Routes 7 and 35. The 175-foot-long building was the largest kennel in New England. At one point the colonel had 20 Kerry blue terriers (his favorite — he was a pioneer in bringing the breed to America), 19 Sealyham terriers, 40 cocker spaniels, and 60 English setters in the kennel. After the colonel’s death, the building was acquired by Waldeck Kennels, which bred St. Bernards and cocker spaniels. Later the Coast Guard trained dogs there, and then the Gaines dog food company took it over as a research center. Finally, in the 1950s, the doghouse became a steakhouse, and then in the 1970s, the Red Lion. The Italian restaurant, with that odd hidden history, was torn down in 2006 to make way for apartments.
Just north of the old kennel site is a large stone and wood building, which served as Outpost’s
offices. It’s now part of Stonehouse Commons condominiums.
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
there — calling it Willow Pond — on which thousands of Ridgefielders used to skate in winters from the 1930s until the 1960s.
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
Sheraton dining room; the lovely entrance hall, with its graceful stairway.  Lily Pons had a beautiful dinner party there one evening — and wore a stunning gown!
“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
spectacular views of the countryside, the inn drew many diners from New York City. In 1970, owner John Yervant accepted an offer from IBM to sell the property. The computer company wanted to use the site as school for its executives in a country-club setting. But IBM also wanted to be able to fly those executives in and out by helicopter, and the uproar over the potential aircraft noise prompted IBM to abandon its plans. Vandalized, decaying and a hazard, the Outpost/Fox Hill Inn mansion was torn down in 1975.
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
distributed to several shipyards along the Atlantic Coast.
     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
of the great outdoors. He had as well a sense of beauty in architecture, but chiefly he made the land which he owned flare into such satisfaction of eye and mind as artists desire.”
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.”

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