Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Van and Gert Kaufman: 
Successful Persuaders
Van and Gert Kaufman were persuaders, but they used different tools for different aims. Both were very successful at their crafts.
Van Kaufman was an artist whose work was seen by millions of people and who probably helped persuade many thousands of them to buy a Pontiac.
Gert Kaufman, an environmentalist in the days before the term was commonplace, used well-chosen words to persuade not only local, state and federal officials, but also ordinary citizens to
support innovative ideas about the environment and recreation. She was the moving force behind a pedestrian path from Norwalk to Danbury — what she and others called the “Linear Park” and what a half century later is being developed as the Norwalk River Valley Trail.
A native of Georgia who grew up in California, Van Justin Kaufman was born in 1918. He loved painting from a very early age and by 10, was taking lessons at Otis Art School — a fresco he created as a student still exists on a wall of his Beverly Hills high school. By the late 1930s, he was working for Walt Disney studios, drawing the animation cells and layouts for such cartoons as Fantasia and Dumbo. “He worked on the famous dancing hippo sequence in Fantasia, and actually created the scene in Dumbo where the gorilla tries to escape his cage — which earned him a bonus,” said his son, Kris Kaufman.
In the late 30s, while attending what is now the California Institute of the Arts, he met fellow student Gertrude Hollingsworth. A native of Glendale, Calif., who was also born in 1918, Hollingsworth was studying dress design. The two were married in 1940.
During World War II he became a sergeant in the Army Air Corps’ First Motion Picture Unit,
working with such veterans as  Clark Gable, William Holden, Alan Ladd, Clayton Moore, and Ronald Reagan — his family has a weekend leave pass for Kaufman to visit his wife, signed by Captain Reagan. Among other projects he designed approximately 100 war insignias.
Around 1948, the Kaufmans moved to Ridgefield to be close to the large colony of artists that existed in Fairfield County. Van freelanced, worked for Esquire magazine and in the 1950s moved to automobile advertising in the days when both promotional brochures and magazine ads for cars
employed paintings instead of photographs. He started out with Mercury, moved to Buick, and finally settled in for many years at Pontiac.
     Art Fitzpatrick, who had begun his career as an automotive designer (he helped design the 1940 Packard sedan, among other cars), asked Kaufman to do the scenics for his car ads. The two became widely known in the business as “Fitz and Van,” with Fitzpatrick painting the cars and Kaufman doing the backgrounds.
     “These lush images depicted scenes of glamour and sophistication populated by suave,
well-attired cosmopolitan characters, always accompanied by a larger-than-life Pontiac with shimmering chrome and glistening paintwork,” said automotive writer James M. Kraus. “These were images that the aspirational car buyer could fantasize inserting himself into, and they nourished the idea that maybe he himself could gain access to this beautiful and exotic world if he went out and bought a new Pontiac.”
Kaufman and Fitzpatrick would regularly fly off to visit many of the world’s most glamorous
places — Rome, Paris, Monte-Carlo, Acapulco, Hawaii, Caribbean island, and the like — looking for inspiration and taking pictures to work into the backgrounds of paintings.
“These international locales were a departure from the conventional advertising practice in the
U.S. at the time and occasionally met with resistance in the insular world of 1960s Detroit management,” Kraus wrote. “An executive once groused to Fitz that a couple of the backgrounds looked a bit too foreign. He ended up with a tinge of red in the face, however, as the locales of the two images that he objected to were actually Upper Manhattan and Washington, D.C.”
Today,  their automobile advertising paintings — often signed “AF VK” — can bring
thousands of dollars at auctions. Hundreds of them can be viewed online.
“The reign of Fitz and Van at Pontiac coincided with the pinnacle of the era of Jet Age glamour and sophistication — an age they exquisitely grasped and captured,” Kraus observed. “Their images remain today as frozen moments in time, reflecting the spirit of idealized gracious living, 1960s style.”
Kris Kaufman once asked his father how long it took him to paint the scenes for the auto ads.
“20 years and three days,” his father replied. “Three days to paint one and 20 years to learn how.”
The Kaufmans lived at 100 Cain’s Hill Road (now the home of Howard Sanden, noted
American portrait artist). “It was love at first sight,” Gert Kaufman said in a 1975 interview. “The mountains, the valleys, the trickling streams — it was beautiful. I was so awed.”
A few years after they moved here, she learned that the state planned not only a four-lane “Super 7” highway up the Route 7 valley near her home, but also a flood control project that would take some of their land. Instead of simply opposing the projects, however, she studied them to determine how they could be accomplished with the least impact. She then successfully led efforts to modify the path of the new road and to eliminate a planned Super 7 interchange at Florida Hill Road. 
The state took an acre of their land for the Norwalk River Flood Control Project, which had
been inspired by a disastrous 1955 flood. She did not oppose the acquisition and instead joined Ridgefield’s Flood and Erosion Control Board (now merged into the Conservation Commission) to help oversee flood control efforts throughout the town. “She was a dedicated person when it came to flood and erosion control — things people didn’t talk about much back then,” said fellow conservationist Edith Meffley, adding that research Kaufman compiled in the 1960s and 70s was still being used four decades later.
But perhaps she was best known for her tireless efforts to establish the Western Connecticut Linear Park, which she described in 1971 as “an attempt to preserve the state’s natural environment for recreation purposes along a major transportation corridor. The greenbelt concept for Route 7 will allow nature trails for hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, and cross-country skiing to be provided along the full 34-mile length of the new highway.”
Kaufman, who became chairman of the Western Connecticut Linear Park Committee, said the
34-mile, 1,000-acre park would serve an estimated 450,000 population by 1990 and cost only 3% of the total outlay on Super 7. She gained widespread support for the project and was, in the end, much more successful than were proponents of the highway itself — Super 7 was abandoned in the 1990s as too expensive and environmentally troublesome.
Nonetheless, her concept of a Norwalk-to-Danbury pedestrian park lives today in the efforts to build the The Norwalk River Valley Trail (NRVT),  38 miles of multi-purpose trail connecting Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk and Rogers Park in Danbury, passing through Wilton, Ridgefield, and Redding. In many places it would use state land acquired for Super 7 or flood control. Today, several miles of the trail exist in Norwalk and Wilton and another five or more may be completed this year.
“I won’t be able to ride a bicycle anymore by the time the bike trails are built,” Kaufman quipped in 1977. “But I’m not giving up. We’ve gotten too much, given too much.”
Her work on the linear park earned her much praise, not the least of which came from Richard M. Nixon. “It is a pleasure to learn recently of your efforts … to enhance the environment and provide additional outdoor recreation opportunities for residents of your community,” the president wrote her in 1972. “The successful results you have achieved I know will always be a source of great satisfaction to you and the members of your committee and, even more importantly, to countless Americans who in years to come will enjoy the legacy you have given them.”
Like her husband, Gert Kaufman was an artist — after graduating from art school, she had drawn Woody Woodpecker cartoons for Warner Brothers in Hollywood. Around 1960, Karl S. Nash,
Press editor and publisher, mentioned in passing that his newspaper needed a logo. “Mom happened to hear him and volunteered,”  son Kris recalled years later. “She drew the acorn that appeared on the papers for many years — for which she was paid $50.”
In 1976, after nearly 30 years in Ridgefield, the Kaufmans moved to the Los Angeles area where Gert earned a degree in landscape architecture. After Van died in 1995, she moved to Carmel, Calif.  She died there in 2002 at the age of 84.

In an interview in the 1970s, Gert Kaufman explained the drive behind her many years of fighting for the linear park and for conservation. “You can’t give up,” she said. “I think of Ridgefield as surrounded by dikes against which the developers are pushing all the time. They leak in, unless you keep your finger in. If you get tired and move away for just a minute, you’ve lost.”

Monday, May 29, 2017



The Tulipani Brothers: 
A Five Star Family
One of the happiest — perhaps one of the most amazing — stories of World War II was of the five Tulipani brothers, all of whom went off to serve in the armed forces and all of whom returned safe and sound to live long lives in their native Ridgefield.
Aldo, Joseph, Albert, Alfred, and John Tulipani, children of Vincenzo and Evelina Branchini
Tulipani, were all native sons, and grew up on the family’s 65-acre farm on Nod Hill Road.
Aldo Anthony Tulipani (1916-2003), the oldest of the boys,  graduated from Ridgefield High School in 1934. He joined the post office in 1940 as a mail messenger,  transferring the mailbags between the Ridgefield post office and the railroad mail cars passing through the Branchville Station.
In World War II Aldo served in the U.S. Army, which sent him to the Philippines with an anti-aircraft unit, in preparation for the invasion of Japan. Soon after he arrived, the atomic bombs were dropped and his duty changed to seeking out Japanese troops still holed up in Philippine caves. As the war was ending, he was transferred to a special entertainment unit, performing on the accordion in a band at various bases and outposts in the Philippines. 
Back home, he was hired as a letter carrier for the post office, and soon became well known and loved by the people on his 39-mile route through the southern part of town. For many years he would provide treats for children on his route. “Thursday was candy day,” he recalled. “But before the kids could get some, they had to say the Pledge of Allegiance.  I remember one little girl who
could barely even talk, but her brothers and sisters made her practice the pledge all week. When Thursday came, though, she said it all the way through. Oh, gosh, she was only about three years old — she could barely pronounce words like ‘indivisible.’”
He retired from the post office in 1976. 
Aldo was an accomplished accordionist, who made his radio debut in 1933 on a New York City station and later played before a crowd of thousands at the New York World’s Fair. He won the Connecticut state accordion championship in 1938, the same year he began teaching the instrument — he continued providing instruction for nearly a half century. Many Ridgefielders recall his car’s license plate, SQZBX — short for “squeezebox.” 
A founder of the local VFW post, he was the Memorial Day grand marshal in 1990. A video interview with Aldo about his war experiences is in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, and may be viewed online.
Joseph Anthony Tulipani (1918-2004) was a 1937 graduate of Ridgefield High School and worked on local estates before becoming one of the first Ridgefielders to fight in World War II. A member of an Army radar unit, he served in Australia,  and in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines. He survived Japanese bombing attacks in Australia and in the jungles, and was with General Douglas MacArthur’s forces in the liberation of the Philippines. 
Joseph was well known to the local Philippine guerrillas with whom he worked. One day a
Filipino, with pistol drawn, came upon Joseph’s brother, Aldo, also an Army man, who had recently arrived in the area. The guerrilla might have shot the stranger except that, Joseph said later, “they recognized him as me,” and let him go.
From the day he entered the Army — April 1, 1941 — until he was discharged on Aug. 25, 1945, Joseph kept detailed diaries of what he saw. “Whatever made me do it, I don’t know,” he told an interviewer in 1974. “I had this funny sensation when I got on the bus in Danbury. I sat down and until I got my pencil and pad out, this sensation wouldn’t stop. Somebody was telling me to write.” 
And write he did. When his service ended and he was being discharged, he was faced with a dilemma. He had a suitcase full of diaries that were illegal to bring home. “You weren’t allowed to take anything in writing,” he said. “No names and addresses, nothing concerning the unit.” He could have tried to smuggle them out, risking arrest and a court martial, but he decided to “play honest.” He told the inspecting officer what was in the case. “He said, ‘You know what you’ve got to do with those. You’ve got to throw them in the fire,’ ” Joseph  pleaded with the inspector, who finally agreed to turn over the suitcase to the base censors. “I never thought I’d see it again,” Joseph said. But six months after he arrived home, the diary-laden suitcase showed up on his door. 
He planned to produce a book of his memoirs, but never completed the project. (The diaries were nearly destroyed in a fire that heavily damaged his home in 2000, but were rescued by firefighters. The writer has not been able to find out where the diaries are now.) 
After the war Joseph became the superintendent of Jack Ward’s Ward Acres estate for many years. He also worked semi-professionally as a photographer. When the original St. Mary’s School was operating in the 1960s, he took many of the class and team pictures there. 
Albert Nazzareno Joseph Tulipani (1920-1994), also an RHS graduate, went on to attend a music school in New York City, majoring in string instruments. During World War II he served in the U.S. Navy aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Wilson, escorting convoys of cargo ships to Russia on the
harsh and dangerous “Murmansk run.”  The Wilson also patrolled the Atlantic for German submarines — the ship was credited with sinking two of them — and escorted ships carrying troops to England and, later, the invasion of France.
The Wilson then moved to the Pacific Theatre, participating in such battles as Wake Island and Guadalcanal. Albert also served aboard three aircraft carriers during his three years and 10 months in the Navy. He received the Presidential Unit Citation for service while on duty in the Atlantic and decorations and citations for service in the Asiatic Pacific Campaign, China-Burma Theatre, North Africa Campaign, Middle East Theatre, Solomon Islands, and Casablanca.  
Back home, he was a guitar teacher who also played professionally in the region until the early 1960s. He was also a familiar figure at Brunetti’s Market, where he worked for many years, and later at the Grand Union.
Alfred Anthony Tulipani (1921-2013), the last of the five brothers to die, joined the Army in 1942 and spent most of his service in Canada. He was stationed with an Army anti-aircraft unit, guarding Great Lakes locks during the war. 
Alfred maintained that his wife, Mary, was “the first war bride in Ridgefield.” The two met
in 1943 at a Woolworth’s in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. They were married a year later.
While he was still in the service, his new bride had to get a special “border crossing card” to be able to travel between Ontario and the U.S. While she was in Ridgefield at one point in 1944, she needed to go to Hartford to pick up the card. The only way to get there was on a troop train that stopped in Norwalk. 
Brother-in-law Aldo Tulipani drove her to Norwalk and the two boarded the train for Hartford. The 18-year-old newlywed was the only woman on the train, a fact that did not go unnoticed by all the soldiers on board. Several asked the conductor if he would stop the train and allow Mrs. Tulipani to walk down the aisles of the cars. The conductor did, Mary agreed, and she was greeted with countless cheers and much applause.” 
After the war, Alfred became a superintendent of local estates, including Casagmo on Main Street, as well as a landscaper. Late in life, he frequently contributed reminiscences about the “old days” in town to The Ridgefield Press. He and Mary had been married 69 years when he died.
John Vincent Tulipani (1922-2002), the youngest of the brothers, graduated from RHS in 1941 and entered the Navy two years later, serving with the 100th SeaBee Battalion. He was stationed in Hawaii, in the Marshall Islands where he helped build a landing field out of coral, and in the Philippines, where he built hospital barracks and other facilities. 
The Navy also took advantage of his skill at his lifelong love: baseball. As a seven-year-old
boy, John began playing on the family farm — long before there was a Little League, he and his brothers played in the fields, sometimes running into trouble with their father when they smacked fly balls into his vineyard.  He started playing organized ball at RHS in 1939; Coach Kip Holleran, who was also the school’s principal, called him the best player he ever coached.
In the service on Oahu, John played on the 1944 All-Navy All Star Team that included many former professional players. 
After the war he played on both baseball and softball teams in town and the area. He later coached Ridgefield teams, including Babe Ruth League. 
     Before entering the service, John worked for Domenic Gaeta, a Ridgefield plumbing contractor. After the war, he continued working with Gaeta, but in 1962, struck out on his own, establishing John Tulipani and Sons Plumbing and Heating.  Over the years he was noted for fashioning various tools and devices to assist in the plumbing and heating trade. “He liked to invent things,” said his daughter, Beth McKnight. “He loved to putter.” John retired in 1991.
     All five brothers were musicians. “Down on the farm was very lonely, so my father
bought us all an instrument and paid for our lessons,” Alfred said in a 2006 reminiscence. Before the war the brothers played together as the Tulipani Orchestra and in the post-war era, performed at countless square dances as the Sagebush Serenaders.  Aldo was on the accordion, Albert  guitar, Joseph sax, John drums or bass, and Alfred  bass.
All five had been active members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which, in 1982, honored them, observing that they were the only five brothers who were all World War II veterans and who were still active in the national VFW. 

     In 1991, Ridgefield filmmaker John Lydecker produced a 30-minute video, featuring the Tulipani brothers’ recollections of the war and called “Ridgefield’s Five Star Family.” 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Charles Cogswell: 
He Volunteered for More
Staff Sgt. Charles Cogswell had flown 43 combat missions as a waist gunner on the B-17 “Flying Fortress” and was eligible to come home and conclude his hazardous duty. Instead, he volunteered for more bombing runs.
Soon after, on March 11, 1944, his plane was hit by German fire over 
the Adriatic Sea near Padua, Italy. He was never found and was listed at the war’s end as “missing in action.”
Wayne DeForest, a nephew of Cogswell, reports that, “The letters from the War Department that my grandparents kept all these years, and that I now keep, reported that the aircraft he was on took enemy fire and exploded. The Germans reported they patrolled the waters where it went down and the only survivor was the co-pilot who was sent to a POW camp.”
Charles Gardiner Cogswell was born in Ridgefield in 1923, a son of Katherine and Richard Cogswell. His father was a local plumbing contractor and the family lived on Ramapoo Road.
Cogswell graduated from Ridgefield High School in 1941. A year later, at the age of 19, he joined the Army. By 1943 he had been promoted to sergeant.
Sometime after he was declared missing in action, “his family ... received a beautiful
memorial booklet, inscribed with his name, paying tribute to him for his flying duties, which in some cases were carried out from British bases,” recalled Charles Coles, a classmate of Cogswell at RHS.
For his service, Sgt. Cogswell earned the Purple Heart, the Air Medal Air Medal with 6 Oak Leaf Clusters, the American Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal, all awarded posthumously. 
 He is listed on the “Tablets of the Missing” at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, Nettuno, Italy.
The 1946 Ridgefield High School yearbook was dedicated to Cogswell and nine other former RHS students who had lost their lives in the war.
In 1942, shortly before enlisting, four teenagers happened to be on Main Street in front of the town hall when a Life magazine photographer was doing a photo shoot of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Westbrook Pegler participating in a scrap drive by donating his car’s bumpers. In the background of the full-page picture that appeared in Life, one can clearly see the faces of the four Ridgefield boys, watching the goings on. One of them was Charlie Cogswell.




Monday, May 22, 2017

Thomas Fitch IV: 
Yankee Doodle’s Dad
Connecticut’s venerable Fitch family loved the name Thomas. Generations of men were named Thomas Fitch I, II, III, IV and well beyond. But it was Thomas the Fourth who had a Ridgefield connection and it was his son, Thomas the Fifth, who could be one of the most unknown,
yet at the same time hugely famous people in North America.
Thomas Fitch IV was born around 1700 in Norwalk, son of — of course — Thomas Fitch III, one of the first settlers of that town and a man of some wealth. Thomas IV was the first Norwalk man to graduate from a college (Yale, 1721), where he studied law and also earned a master’s degree. He was a representative from Norwalk in the colonial assembly and was later a chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. 
He served as governor of the colony from from 1754 to 1766, a long stretch even by today’s standards. His tenure included leading Connecticut during the difficult French and Indian War, which resulted in the colony’s amassing a huge debt that led to a financial recession. However, he may be more famous as the father of  Thomas Fitch V,  reputed to have been the inspiration for  “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Thomas V’s gravestone as well as Musicologist Oscar George Theodore Sonneck, who was once head of the music division of the Library of Congress, maintain that Captain Fitch  assembled a company of recruits at the Fitch homestead in Norwalk in 1755  at the beginning of the French and Indian War. The recruits lacked uniforms and Fitch’s sister Elizabeth wanted these soldiers’ appearance to  have at least some degree of uniformity. So she presented each man with a chicken feather for his hat. Fitch then led the rather tatterdemalion group of new volunteers  to upper New York to fight. 
According to the monument at his gravesite in Norwalk, “Upon entering West Albany with these plumes and their homespun and forlorn clothing, their motley appearance caused Dr. Richard Shuckburg, a British surgeon, being both a poet and musician, thru derision and mockery to write the verses dubbing them ‘Yankee Doodles and Macaronies’ ”:
Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it macaroni.
A macaroni was an 18th Century term for a fop or extravagant dresser, and the British doctor was likening the group from Connecticut to a pack of country-bumpkin dandies.
 However, the song that had been written in sarcasm soon became widely popular among the colonials, especially after their successful campaigns.
During the Revolution two decades later, both the British and Americans used their own versions of the tune as rallying cries.  Ferenz Fedor in his 1976 book, “The Birth of Yankee Doodle,” maintains it “became one of the most famous marching songs ever written.” It’s the official state anthem of Connecticut.
So what’s all this have to do with Ridgefield? The Doodle’s dad, Thomas IV, had farmland in what is now Ridgefield.
Sometime during the 1700’s, Thomas Fitch IV acquired at least 132 acres in a part of Redding that is now Ridgefield. “Fitch’s Farm” or “Governor Fitch’s Farm,” as it came to be known, was located in the northwestern part of Redding and what’s now the northeastern part of Ridgefield. The  farm extended along what is now northern Route 7 north of Great Pond, and probably included  the vicinity of modern-day Laurel Lane and the Laurel Ridge, Ridgefield Crossings and Regency senior citizen communities.  That land was  part of Redding until 1786 when it was ceded to Ridgefield.
When Governor Fitch died in 1774, his farm passed on to his heirs. One of these was another son, Jonathan Fitch (1723-93), a sheriff in New Haven County, who apparently got into some financial difficulties. The Ridgefield land records report that in 1787, Samuel Squire of Fairfield sued “Jonathan Fitch of New Haven, sheriff of said New Haven County,” to recover a 126-pound debt, and obtained as settlement from the County Court 132 acres of land – Fitch’s Farm. 
Squire subsequently sold the land to Thomas Sherwood, noting that it “is commonly known by the name of Governor Fitch’s Farm, lying in the northwest corner of the town of Redding, lately sett off to the township of Ridgefield.”
A year earlier (1786), Sherwood and others had petitioned the state legislature that a piece of Redding be annexed to Ridgefield because most of its inhabitants found it “inconvenient ... to attend public business in said Reading.” 
William Blodgett’s map (published in 1792, but not up-to-date) shows a triangular wedge of Redding extending nearly a mile into Ridgefield, north of Great Pond. Other boundaries on the map were not very accurate, but the document gives a clue as to the location of both the farm and the annexed territory.
The terms “Governor Fitch’s Farm” and “Fitch’s Farm” appeared fairly frequently in the land records in the 1780’s and 1790’s, but thereafter disappeared. 
Although the farm had been called Fitch’s, the governor probably never lived there. He may have maintained the land for growing crops, sending up crews from his Norwalk home to work the fields. 
Fitch IV died July 18, 1774. He is buried in the East Norwalk Historical Cemetery. The Fitch house in Norwalk, which had been partially destroyed during the “burning of Norwalk” raid carried
out by William Tryon and British troops in July 1779, had been home to Fitch family descendants until 1945. In 1956, a portion of the Fitch house was relocated to make way for the construction of the Connecticut Turnpike and stands today as part of the Mill Hill Historic Park next to the Green in Norwalk.
 Thomas V finished his service in the French and Indian War with the rank of senior colonel, in command of 16 regiments. Back home in Norwalk, he became a prominent citizen during and after the Revolution. He served as a town councilman and was  in the first delegation from Norwalk to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1776. He helped with the reconstruction efforts after the burning of Norwalk.  He died in 1795 and was also buried in the East Norwalk Historical Cemetery. 
As for that name, Thomas, it just kept on going among the Fitch family descendants, including lawyer and congressman Thomas Fitch  (1838-1923), “the Silver-Tongued Orator of the Pacific Coast.”  Attorney Fitch, a former newspaper editor who helped teach the young Mark Twain how to write well, successfully defended Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp plus Doc Holliday when they were charged with murdering Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881.

And he had a son named Thomas, too.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Samuel Rubel: 
The Ice and Beer Baron
The life of Samuel Rubel reads like a script to a lively Hollywood drama. A penniless Latvian immigrant arrives in the United States at the turn of the 20th Century, begins peddling ice on the  streets of Brooklyn, soon creates a growing company, has his fiancĂ© arrested for grand larceny and
then marries her, becomes a multi-multi millionaire, is indicted for heavy handed business practices, turns into a beer baron, parties with 10,000 orphans at Coney Island, sees his 32-room home burn to the ground, moves to a mountaintop mansion in Ridgefield, and soon dies. Oh, and his widow marries a supermarket magnate and lives on Fifth Avenue.
Samuel R. Rubel was born in 1881 in Latvia, then part of Russia. Around 1904, he emigrated from Riga and, with barely a dollar to his name, arrived in Brooklyn. “He went to work in a seltzer-bottling establishment and by dint of many privations and much frugality, saved enough to buy a horse and wagon,” The New York Times once reported. “He then sent to Russia for his brother, Isadore, and together they started the Independent Ice Company.”
It was the era of the icebox, long before the days of refrigerators, and Rubel sold blocks of icebox ice to the occupants of the tenements in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The  business grew, expanded to include coal for heating, and within a few years, he and his brother headed the Rubel Coal and Ice Company in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
In 1912, The Times published the first of dozens of stories about Rubel — this one probably the most extraordinary. In February, he pressed charges of forgery and grand larceny against Dora Nachumowitz, who had been his bookkeeper. She had also been his fiancĂ©. 
According to The Times, testimony in police court revealed that “Rubel had promised to marry her, but the engagement had been broken. She then sued him for breach of promise. The suit is still pending. Among the witnesses against Miss Nachumowitz was Henrietta Marcus who succeeded her as bookkeeper. Miss Marcus testified to finding that Miss Nachumowitz had indorsed [sic] a check for $50 payable to the company, and had not entered the payment on the company’s books.” 
Nachumowitz was released on $1,000 bond but apparently the charges were soon dropped, for not long afterward, Rubel and Nachumowitz were married. They went on to have two daughters, and remained together until his death. She, in fact, took over his corporation when he died.
The Rubel ice and coal empire, with Samuel now in command, continued to grow. By 1913 his company was worth $2 million and in 1925, 20 years after he’d arrived from Latvia, he’d engineered a $25-million merger with several companies into the huge Rubel Coal and Ice Corporation, which became the largest purveyor of those commodities in the eastern United States. (His newspaper ads in the late 1920s proclaimed that he had “the largest coal and ice office in the world.”) He had 25 ice plants and 15 coal supply yards spread around New York City alone, and was also serving customers in northern New Jersey. Two years later he acquired even more companies, had 40 ice factories, 50 coal yards, 2,000 employees, and a value of nearly $30 million. Rubel would promote his coal with a bit of humor: “One good ton deserves another,” he’d quip.
But legal problems were beginning to arise. In 1927, a court in Brooklyn indicted Rubel and two of his officers for conspiracy to drive competitors out of business. They were also served with 28 separated civil actions.
“Among the intimidations charged to the defendants is a demand that stockholders in the Paerdegat corporation turn over their minority stock of the Rubel corporation to them on pain of being driven out of business,” The Times said. “When this demand was refused, according to the indictment, the Rubel corporation not only refused to sell ice to those stockholders, but prevented them from getting it elsewhere. Free ice was furnished to customers of the Paerdegat corporation to take them away from that corporation.” The cases were eventually settled quietly.
Later that year, one of Rubel’s own partners named Henry J. Senger sued him for $6 million, charging that Rubel had lied to him about the degree of authority Senger would have in the company — Senger said he understood he would be an equal partner when he merged his company with Rubel’s — and that Rubel even had detectives spying on him. The two settled that suit out of court a year later.
In 1930, Rubel filed a libel suit against Jay Carton, an investment broker and one of his minority stockholders, charging that Carton had written a letter to other Rubel minority stockholders in which alleged that Rubel had failed to pay them dividends and forced them to sell their stock at less than book value.
Two years later, Carton himself sued, charging Rubel with mismanaging the company and speculating on Wall Street with its funds, causing the company to lose $20 million. The Rubel company by then was said to be worth $40 million — $715 million in 2016 dollars — of which more than 90% was owned by Samuel Rubel himself. That December, after a two-week trial, the suit was suddenly and unexpectedly settled out of court.
Finally, in 1934, a New York Supreme Court judge sentenced Rubel to 10 days in jail for contempt of court after he had shown a “flagrant disregard of court mandates.” The judge had ordered him to appear in court in connection with another civil suit by a company called Paramount Ice, which had charged Rubel with using illegal tactics to take over their territory and thereby create a monopoly in Brooklyn.  Rubel failed to appear and was sentenced to jail. He appealed and escaped the sentence, but paid a fine.
Meanwhile,  if all those legal battles were not enough, in 1931, two 20-year-old men sent a letter to Rubel’s wife, Dora, threatening to kill her if she did not pay them $10,000. The two were arrested, convicted of attempted extortion and sent to prison.
And then in 1944, during World War II, Rubel’s son-in-law was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $1,000 after pleading guilty to 37 charges of violating the wartime Office of Price Administration ceilings on the sale of coal. He had charged five to fifty cents per ton above limits for coal sold to dealers handling small lots of fuel in poor sections of the city. The Times headlined the story: “Coal Chiseler is Jailed.”
By 1927 Rubel was seeing the future of ice beginning to melt. Refrigerators were becoming
more common and his ice sales were declining. So in what some might consider an odd move during Prohibition, he bought the Ebling Brewery Company in the Bronx, noted for making beers “aged in natural rock caves.” Perhaps he saw the repeal of Prohibition as inevitable. Probably he  got a great price in the dry decade, especially after a scandal in which Ebling’s headquarters were padlocked by police after a raid uncovered two truckloads of beer with higher-than-legal alcohol content, The Times reported. At any rate, while Rubel told authorities that he planned to use the factory for making ice cream, he probably instead produced legal “near beer,” which had a very low alcohol content, to keep the operation alive until until Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
The brewery became a big money-maker in the 30s and at least the early 40s. In 1947, Rubel was widely quoted when he decided to take part in voluntary grain rationing to help provide more food for Europe, which was still struggling in the aftermath of World War II. “When it’s a question of beer or bread, our vote is for bread every time,” he told the President’s Food Committee in Washington.
The brewery closed in 1950, the year after Rubel’s death. Many years later, developers leveled the old brewery building and were about to start foundation work for a big apartment complex when they stumbled upon the long-forgotten cluster of caves Ebling had dug a century earlier for aging its beer — 20 feet wide and up to 100 feet deep. Workers — unaware of Ebling’s old motto of “aged in natural rock caves” — at first speculated that the caverns were part of the Underground Railroad or perhaps old bomb shelters. “It was amazing,” said one building official. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
While Rubel and his wife lived in Brooklyn, they had a country estate in Roslyn, on Long Island, consisting of a 32-room home atop a hill surrounded by 50 acres. In April 1946 a workman spread some paint remover on exposed wiring, causing an explosion. The house burned to the ground, destroying more than a million dollars worth of antiques and jewelry as well as a pipe organ worth more than $100,000 ($1.3 million today). “The ruined house presented a strange picture this morning,” The Times said. “In the cellar, which was nearly full of water, hundreds of cases of Scotch whisky and other liquors stood exposed amid charred debris.”
In 1947, Sunny Cutten was trying to sell her house, Sunset Hall, a mansion built in 1912 on Old West Mountain Road in Ridgefield. She even offered it to the United Nations as a possible headquarters site, and they came and took a look. The handsome house included eight bedrooms, six baths, nine fireplaces, a full-sized ballroom, views if the New York City skyline, and many other amenities.  
Burned out on Long Island, Rubel went looking for a new place to the north, came across Sunset Hall, and fell in love with the place. After moving in, he made some of his own entertainment modifications,  including an elaborate stone barbecue in the pool area. However, a more unusual feature was described by town historian Dick Venus. “One of the surprises for his guests were slides, similar to those on a playground, that went from the bedroom windows to the pool,” Venus reported in 1987. “This was before the day of the heated pools so it is expected that those using the slide in the early morning would be fully awake by the time they reached the cool waters of the pool.”
Rubel also lined the walls of his house with art. “It was said that Sam Rubel had so many works  of art that before long, the place began to look like a museum,” Venus wrote. “It sure looked like a museum a few years later when I was selected as one of the appraisers for the estate.”
Samuel Rubel may have been hard-nosed in business, but he was soft-hearted when it came to kids. He supported the work of many orphanages in the city and in 1933, brought more than 10,000 orphans at his own expense to Coney Island for a day of fun to mark the 65th anniversary of the Ebling Brewery. A few months before he died, he donated 1,100 acres — including the 350-acre Lake Stillwater — in the Poconos to the Boy Scouts of America. The land,  now known as Camp Minsi, is still in use today (an inlet on Lake Stillwater has been named “Rubel Cove.”) A longtime member of the Brooklyn Boy Scout Council, Rubel said the gift expressed his gratitude for the opportunities that America had given him.
On April 27, 1949, Rubel suffered a blood clot while at his New York office. Two days later, he died at Sunset Hall. He was 66 years old. 
At his  death, the value of his estate was placed at $8 million ($81 million today). Much of the
contents of Sunset Hall were sold at a 1950 auction at Parke-Bernet Galleries — now Sotheby’s. The catalogue for the sale was 142 pages long.
The estate itself was purchased in 1955 by the Congregation of the Mission of St. Vincent de Paul. It was used as a novitiate to train future Vincentian priests and brothers until the late 1960s when it reverted to a single-family residence. For many years, it was the home of actor Robert Vaughn. 
In 1959, Dora Rubel, then chairman of the board of the Rubel Corporation,  married a recent widower, Louis Daitch, one of the owners of the Daitch Supermarket chain which became known as Shopwell and now, The Food Emporium. She died in 1969 at the age of 74 and is buried next to Samuel in Mount Ararat Cemetery, East Farmingdale, Long Island.

Rubel’s colorful and litigious life included a history-making event with which he had no personal connection, yet bears his name. On Aug. 21, 1934, an armored car, collecting money for deposit in a bank, had stopped at one of Rubel’s ice and coal depots in Brooklyn to pick up a $450 deposit. A gang of hold-up men overpowered the guards and stole $427,000 — nearly $8 million in today’s dollars — from the truck. “The Rubel Ice and Coal Corporation Robbery” was famous for decades as holding the record for the largest amount of money ever taken in a robbery in New York City history.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Walter Gengarelly: 
His Own Drummer
Four Ridgefielders have been their party’s candidates for governor of Connecticut.
The Lounsbury brothers, Phineas and George, were both Republicans and both successful at winning the office.
Melbert B. Cary was a Democrat, but he lost.
And Walter Gengarelly was a Libertarian and, perhaps needless to say, he also lost. 
But few people have been as dedicated to a party and its ideals as was Gengarelly, who  died literally while running for office and whose name is recalled today in an award offered by the Connecticut Libertarian Party.
Walter Janvier Gengarelly Jr. was born in 1935 in New York City, but grew up on a poultry farm in Hillsdale, N.J. He  served three years in the U.S. Army as an artillery radar technician.
Gengarelly began his career in aviation when he took a job at the Ramapo Valley Airport in Spring Valley, N.Y.  to earn money to help pay for his own flying lessons. He worked his way up from a mechanic’s helper to a commercially rated charter pilot, flight instructor, and finally manager and vice president of the airport itself.
In 1967, while living in Vermont, he was involved with stage and screen choreographer Michael Kidd in establishing the Red Fox Airport, a small air strip near Bondville, which he subsequently managed. He owned a Cherokee 235 and used it in business and pleasure for many years.
Gengarelly became an advertising and promotions executive for publications in the aviation field. He and his family moved to Ridgefield in 1974, after he joined Air International News, a magazine based in Danbury. 
In Ridgefield he became active in the Ridgefield Taxpayers League, the Mill Rate Watchers,
and the Republican Party. As a Republican, he ran unsuccessfully for first selectman in 1979 against popular incumbent Louis J. Fossi.
Three years later, after dropping out of the GOP, Gengarelly ran for governor on the Libertarian ticket. He knew he would not win the election, but putting himself up as a candidate allowed him and his party to spread the Libertarian message. 
“The simplest explanation is that we are fiscal conservatives and social liberals,” Gengarelly told The Ridgefield Press. “The point, really, is that people should have a right to make choices about their lives themselves, and not have the government make it for them. How you would educate your children, what kind of medicine you would use if you’re sick, what kind of doctor to get to if you’re sick, what work you do, what you get paid for working.”
Gerard Brennan, state chairman of the Libertarian Party at the time, said Gengarelly was chosen based on his political experience and his ability to articulate the party’s philosophy. Because the Libertarian platform was not well known, it was that articulation, rather than winning the election,
that was most important, Brennan said.
“We don’t have any delusions about winning right away, but it’s important to disseminate our ideas,” added state secretary Richard Loomis.   
In the end, Gengarelly got only about 8,000 votes — winner William A. O’Neill, a Democrat, received 569,000 votes and Republican Lewis B. Rome, 496,000. 
Gengarelly did not give up with his efforts to promote Libertarian positions. He ran for state representative from Ridgefield in 1983 and  for congressman in the 5th Connecticut District in 2002, 2008 and 2010.
Gengarelly was locally known not just for his political activities but also for his rather troubled gas station. In 1978, he bought what had once been called the Hilltop Service Station on Route 33, Wilton Road West, near the Wilton line. In the late 1960s, Shell had acquired the old family-run operation, tore down the low-key but comely Hilltop building that had included a convenience store, and built a modern, glassy station with three service bays — and no store. 
Shell sought a permit to do auto repairs at the station, something Hilltop had never done. The Zoning Board of Appeals refused to allow repairs, saying it would be an illegal expansion of a non-conforming use, and courts upheld the board. Shell was stuck with a three-bay station that could sell only gasoline, oil, and tires, not a moneymaking proposition back then, and the operation eventually shut down.
When Gengarelly took over, he gave up his job working for the aviation magazine, which required a lot of travel, and began working full-time at the gas station. Long hours, many problems and lots of stress resulted. Six months after he bought the station, the nation was hit by the big fuel crisis that resulted from the Iranian revolution. Many stations — especially Gengarelly’s new operation — could not get needed supplies of gas. Long lines formed at stations, and rationing was common.   
All this stress helped lead to the breakup of his marriage. It was a sad irony, Gengarelly said,
 because he had given up his magazine work so he wouldn’t have to travel. “I wanted to be home with my family, that’s why I switched careers,” he told The Press in 1990. “But it wasn’t a good career move.”
The station could not bring in enough money to pay the bills and eventually failed, but Gengarelly, as a Libertarian believer in free enterprise, did not blame the failure on the system. “That’s one of the perils of the free enterprise system,” he said. “Sometimes you go into business and you make money. Sometimes you go into business and you lose money. It just didn’t work out for me — or us, I should say,” referring to his family.
Things got so tough that, for a while, Gengarelly was living in the gas station. Despite all his problems, however, he always seemed optimistic and invariably wore a big smile.
The property was eventually sold, owners got permission for it to become a convenience store, but the station has nonetheless remained closed for years — a sad eyesore on a scenic highway with no other commercial properties for miles.
Gengarelly eventually moved to Newtown and later Danbury. He died of heart problems in 2010 at the age of 75 while in the midst of yet another campaign for Congress. In his honor, the Connecticut Libertarian Party State Central Committee issues the Walter Gengarelly Jr. Award at its annual convention to a person who has exhibited a “sustained and selfless effort to support the cause of liberty” at “extreme sacrifice to him or herself.”
“He was a kind, gentle and generous person who — to those of us who knew him well — very much marched to the beat of his own drummer,” said Wilson Leach, managing director of Air International News. Citing Gengarelly’s Libertarian campaigns for governor and congress, he added, “To the average person this may have appeared to be an unrealistic pursuit, but clearly Walt was a staunch believer in individual liberties.”


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Peter Cornen: 
Oil in Them Thar Hills?
Oil wells on our ridges? If Peter Cornen had had his way more than a century ago, Ridgefield might have become a town dotted with derricks pumping black gold.
One of Ridgefield’s few millionaires in the 1800s, Cornen knew oil. He had made a fortune wildcatting in the western Pennsylvania oil fields where he and his Ridgefield partner, Henry I.
Beers, drilled one of the first hugely successful wells.
And he was certain Ridgefield was a gold mine of oil.
Peter P. Cornen was a storybook example of an adventurous, 19th Century, self-made man. Born in 1815 in New York City to a working-class family, Cornen attended city schools and started his career as a shipbuilder. By the 1840s he owned a Manhattan ship chandlery, a store that sold nautical items for vessels large and small, and had married Lydia Beers, a farmer’s daughter from Ridgefield. 
As a teenager in the 1840s, Lydia’s brother, Henry, went to work for Cornen. When the Gold Rush erupted in 1848, Cornen, then 33, decided that a life of adventure in and around the gold fields sounded more exciting — and profitable — than being a merchant in Manhattan. He sailed for California to make his fortune,  according to The Ridgefield Press, “round the Horn to San Francisco.” 
But it wasn’t gold that brought him success among the 49ers. For three years he “engaged in mercantile pursuits, his energy, perseverance and keen business foresight adding greatly to his accumulations, so that he ranked with the moneyed men of those days,” The Press  said. 
Soon after Cornen got established in California, he sent a message to Henry Beers, who was running his New York store, telling him to sell the business and urging he come to California. Beers did just that and he, too, made out well in retailing and real estate.
However, by the late 1850s, both men were back East, operating real estate and investment companies in New York. (Cornen sold Cornelius Vanderbilt much of the land on which Grand Central Terminal was built.) In the early 1860s, word was arriving of  new “gold,” this one liquid, in the hills of northwestern Pennsylvania. Back then, oil was in growing demand for producing lamp and stove fuels, lubricants and such (the first modern internal combustion engine was yet to be made). 
Cornen and Beers got together in 1862 and decided to give oil a try, becoming among the first wildcatters in America.
They spent time exploring the area around Oil City, Pa., and finally bought the Smith farm on the Cherry Run, about a mile north of Rouseville. “It was a common saying around Oil City at that time that ‘Those crazy Yankees will never get oil because they are going away from Oil Creek,’” said a local newspaper’s historian in 1922. The “Yankees” proved the locals wrong and drilled what some have called the first really successful well in the Pennsylvania fields. And they called it “Yankee.”
     In his 1893 book, “Sketches in Crude-Oil,” John P. McLaurin aid Yankee flowed “like Mount Vesuvius spilling lava.”  Later other wells on the farm, bearing such names as Auburn, Gromiger, Cattaraugus, Aazin, and Fry, added to the output. Cornen and Beers had paid $3,500 for the 50-acre farm (that had some years earlier been sold for “a yoke of oxen”); by the mid-1860s, they had turned down an offer of $4 million ($64 million in today’s dollars) for the property.
     Cornen eventually returned to New York business world and was prominent in financial circles. He “made and lost several fortunes,” a Press feature said in 1887. The Panic of 1873   “swallowed a great share of his large fortune,” The Press later said. “Thereafter he engaged in enterprises on a smaller scale, including real estate here and there, but remained a wealthy man all his life. “Those who know him well say that in spite of reverses, he is still able to draw his check for half a million dollars, and as he is a man of quiet tastes, this sum will probably be sufficient to keep the wolf from his door as long as he lives,” The Press said in 1887.
Drawn by his wife’s roots in the town, Cornen had come to Ridgefield in 1854 and built a Spanish-style house on the corner of Danbury and Farmingville Roads. He eventually amassed hundreds of acres surrounding it and was much praised for planting scores of maples along Danbury Road, which became informally known as Cornen Avenue.  
Peter’s son, Cyrus A. Cornen Sr., lived there, describing it in 1911 as “a house large enough for a moderate-sized hotel, with 11 feet 6 inches ceilings on the first floor with 11 windows, each of which can be made a door if you wish it; with cultivated sugar maples of some 45 years’ growth on either side of a wide highway for over three quarters of a mile and … a cultivated sugar maple orchard of some 250 trees of the same growth.” The estate included “a trout stream running through
this 300-acre property where my two sons from the banks of this same property last season caught six trout that weighed seven pounds and seven ounces.”
Because of a great fear of fire,  Peter Cornen had lined the insides of the walls of his house with brick for better protection. The house eventually became part the Outpost Nurseries property in the 1930’s and, having fallen into disuse, was torn down about 1942.  (Karl S. Nash, publisher of the Ridgefield Press, said the house-wreckers had no idea that the walls were brick-filled when they started dismantling the building, a project that consequently took much longer than expected.)  
In 1976, the Ridgefield Savings Bank – which Cornen had helped establish – purchased the site of this house and some years later, built its headquarters there. 
In 1887, The New York Times carried a story reporting that “Ridgefield, the home of Gov. Lounsbury and a favorite summer resort for wealthy New-Yorkers, is agitated over discoveries and statements made by Peter P. Cornen, a wealthy citizen, who has had years of experience in the Pennsylvania oil fields and who, after months of prospecting, is led to believe that the little town is situated over an oil field of considerable magnitude.”
The Times said that Cornen was “so positive that oil can be had in Ridgefield by simply boring in the earth for it that he is willing and even anxious to be one of a company to erect the necessary machinery and sink a well. A score or more of the wealthiest citizens are deeply interested….”
Cornen based his views on what today would be some pretty weird science. The Press said he cited  “the volcanic formation of the country, and then he notes the abundance of oil producing trees and plants. Butternut, hickory and walnut trees fill the forest, and their fruit, as we all know, abounds in oil. As no traces of oil have ever been found in raindrops, it is plain that the oils of the walnut, the butternut and the hickory nut are drawn from the soil, and if there is oil in the soil, it can probably be gotten out.”
But what probably really sparked his interest in prospecting was his friend, Aaron W. Lee, who had a big farm in Farmingville.  “Two years ago,” The Press said, “Aaron Lee dug a well near his barn to supply water for his stock. Water was found at the depth of about eight or ten feet, but the cattle would not drink it. It had an oily appearance and a disagreeable smell. Mr. Cornen says the well diggers encountered a small pocket of natural gas, and that where there is gas, there is oil.”
Cornen proposed organizing a joint stock company, the Ridgefield Oil and Gas Heating and Lighting Company, to do the drilling, requiring a shaft some 2,000 feet deep.
Cornen, the Press added, “very truly says that no man can look at the earth and tell what lies beneath, but from what he knows about Ridgefield and the country for ten miles around, he is satisfied that oil can be found there in paying quantities.”
A Cornen fan, Press Editor E.C. Bross added, “There are those who fear that the discovery of oil will forever ruin Ridgefield as a fashionable summer resort, but the operators have made a solemn promise to locate the wells at such a distance from the fashionable center that the clothing of the summer resident shall not be soiled nor her delicate nostrils be in the least offended.”
Articles of incorporation were approved at a meeting Nov. 20, 1887. The committee of backers read like a who’s who of Ridgefield businessmen and included L. H. Bailey, owner of the Bailey Inn and developer of Bailey Avenue; Hiram K. Scott, who owned the predecessor of Bissell’s Pharmacy and was town clerk and probate judge; D. Smith Sholes, wealthy Main Street merchant; Isaac Osborne, who operated what’s now Ridgefield Supply; and Aaron Lee, Farmingville farmer and first selectman. 
However, by March 1888, The Press was reporting that “a New York paper this week prints the localities where natural gas is found, but makes no mention of Ridgefield.”   And after that, mention of the oil drilling scheme dried up in the newspaper and by March 1891, Cornen had suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Two years later he was dead.
If exploratory drilling ever took place, it was undoubtedly unsuccessful. But it’s also possible that people concerned about the effects of having oil fields in Ridgefield — which had been promoting its clean, quiet, and unpolluted hills as a refuge from the dirty, noisy, and noxious city — may have quietly gained an upper hand and quashed the project. 
Perhaps, too, folks decided that Cornen was a bit too odd to trust. He was, after all, “a man of marked eccentricities,” said his nationally published obituary. “Whether upon stock exchange or in the legislature, he appeared in clothes which had seen years of service. When he had millions invested in railroads, he preferred to walk rather than ride in the cars, and frequently tramped nine miles from Ridgefield to Danbury.”
On other fronts, Cornen was an active participant in the Ridgefield community. A Democrat, he served as a state senator in 1867 and in 1871 he was elected to the House of Representatives. That fall he was elected first selectman and served one term. 
Cornen was one of the original directors of the Ridgefield and New York Railroad Company, which had proposed and started building a rail line from Titicus into Westchester County to meet the main line at Port Chester. That plan was abandoned after the Danbury and Norwalk Rail Road built the branch line into town in 1870. 
A more successful venture was his participation in the founding in 1871 of the Ridgefield Savings Bank, which today has grown into the large Fairfield County Bank.
He was also a member of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the Odd Fellows Lodge. 
Cornen died in 1893 at the age of 79 and is buried in Ridgefield Cemetery in a gated family
plot over which looms perhaps the tallest gravestone in town.
At his death The Press said: “Mr. Cornen, in business, through often indulging in transactions involving millions, was governed by none but the most honorable motives. His judgment was considered sound and his opinion once given was seldom erroneous.” The obituary never mentioned the oil scheme that was big news only six years earlier.

Perhaps “an oil field of considerable magnitude” does exist beneath Ridgefield, but it’s pretty certain it will remain there, untapped.

Saturday, May 13, 2017


William J. Cumming: 
First to Go, First to Die
Bill Cumming was the first man from Ridgefield to enlist in World War I and was the first in the conflict. An ambulance driver, he was “a soldier to the end,” said the headline in the Feb. 5, 1918 Ridgefield Press.
Son of James and Margaret Cumming, William James Cumming was born in 1895 in South Salem, N.Y. His parents, natives of Scotland,  moved between 1906 and 1909  to Ridgefield where his father worked as a gardener on local estates.  
Cumming enlisted on April 3, 1917 — three days before Congress declared war on Germany. He died in less than a year, on Jan. 5, 1918, in a hospital in Vitel, France, where he was being treated for “a serious illness” (which may have been the result of an influenza virus that was soon to cause one of the deadliest pandemics in history).
“I do not think we have a member that was thought more of than Private William J. Cumming and a better boy could not be found,” Private W.E. West wrote to the Rev. John M. Deyo, Cumming’s pastor here. “He was the first one in our company to be taken from us…Even in the end he did not give up and died a brave American.” 
In his sermon at the funeral in the Methodist church, Mr. Deyo used St. George and the Dragon as his theme. “For over three years,” he said, “the foulest dragon of all time has gone forth in his slime and devoured the flower of youth on a gigantic scale. Private Cumming answered the call and went forth to give battle to the foul dragon. Private Cumming has now answered his final summons. Though no longer with us, he conveys to us a message: ‘Carry on.’”
Cumming had been a private first class in the 102nd Ambulance Company and is buried in the American Cemetery, Romagne sur Montfacon, Meuse, France. There is also a monument to him
in the family plot at Fairlawn Cemetery on North Salem Road. “Died in the line of duty,” it says.
The Cumming family lived on Catoonah Street in a green-shingled, 19th-Century house just west of today’s post office.  James and Margaret, Bill’s parents, were known as Jim and Ma. Their son, Henry, also served in World War I, and they themselves were very active on the home front, even after the death of Bill. Jim Cumming was Ridgefield director of  the efforts of local farmers to grow food for the war effort. He also served on the school board.
Ma Cumming “was some kind of a little dynamo,” said town historian Dick Venus. “She was a detachment commandant in the local Red Cross and she and her group performed yeoman’s service. When the local Home Guard was organized, Ma presented the platoon with a flag that she had made.”
After the war, she became the first president of the American Legion Auxiliary and spent countless hours selling poppies to benefit the veterans, Venus said.
“One of our fondest memories is of Jim and Ma, sitting side by side, in their rocking chairs, on the front porch, after their duties for the day were completed,” Venus said. “It kind of gave you the feeling that everything would be all right.”

The Cumming homestead became vacant in 2003 after the death of their daughter in law, Helen Cumming, widow of their son, Donald. In December 2016, the house was torn down and today is an empty lot.