Sunday, July 02, 2017
Col. Hiram K. Scott:
A Most Useful Man
If anyone could be called Ridgefield’s “most prominent citizen” in the 19th Century, it’s Col. Hiram K. Scott, a man who was a leader in the government, civic, religious, educational, business, judicial, social, and even military life of the town.
Scott was a town clerk, probate judge, postmaster, state representation, militia officer, trial justice, and a lot more. He started the first circulating library in town and founded, more than a century and a half ago, the store that is today Bissell’s Pharmacy.
And if that’s not enough, he provided Ridgefield with its first soda fountain.
Hiram Keeler Scott was born in 1822 in a house still standing at the corner of North Salem Road and Circle Drive (it later became the town farm or “poorhouse”). He was a direct descendant of James Scott, who came to Ridgefield in 1712 and whose family settled what was soon called the Scotland district because of the large number of Scotts there.
He attended local schools and, at the age of 19, became a teacher himself, probably at the Scotland or Titicus schoolhouse. In a few years he was teaching at the Center School where “many of Ridgefield’s prominent sons and daughters received their first instruction under him,” The Ridgefield Press reported.
By 1844, when he was only 22, he assumed the first of many public service posts, becoming a town constable, which was then an unpaid, part-time, elective position. He also served as a town tax collector.
His brains, hard work and ambition soon got him appointed the Ridgefield village
Two years later, he was elected Ridgefield’s town clerk, a job back then considered by many as more important than first selectman — town clerks were paid, first selectmen weren’t. He held the position for 45 years, longer than any town clerk before or since. (Scott’s birth in 1822 had been placed in the record books by Samuel Stebbins, the second longest-serving town clerk at 35 years.)
Scott sometimes seemed defensive, even a tad grumpy, about the town clerk’s job. “The duties of the town clerk, although looked upon by most people as very light and of little importance, are in fact very onerous and exacting,” the 86-year-old told a large audience at Ridgefield’s bicentennial celebration in 1908. “For the past 20 years there has been a deluge of genealogical searchers trying to find out whether their ancestors had a coat of arms or not. The town clerk must wait upon them and render such assistance as they demand, and hardly a week passes but his time is taken up for many hours, without any remuneration.”
Despite his apparent distaste for genealogists, Scott did get paid a small salary and he did sometimes charge for services. In March 1905, for instance, an out-of-town law firm wrote and asked for some detailed information on the Pulling family that had lived in town in the 1700s and 1800s. Scott wrote back that the lawyers were asking for a lot of work. “If I make a thorough search, and give you a transcript of what your letter indicates, it will be worth $10 ($270 today).”
In 1854, Scott was also elected judge of probate, a post he held for 33 years — he was forced to retire when he reached the state-mandated age limit of 65.
In 1853 (some accounts say 1857), Scott opened a general store on the east side of Main Street, where The Village Tavern and Interiors and Designs by Ursula are today. There he sold food, hardware, dry goods, medicines, and other items, and incorporated the village post office into the operation. In a wing alongside his building, he maintained the town clerk and probate court offices — there was no “town hall” back then. In the 1880s, the Ridgefield Savings Bank — now the regional giant, Fairfield County Bank — had its sole office in his store. Scott lived in a house behind the store.
Over the years the pharmaceutical side of his business apparently grew to the point where, by the 1890s, he may have been the chief purveyor of drugs and patent medicines in town. In 1895, perhaps because of the increasing workload as town clerk as well as his age, he sold the business to Harvey P. Bissell, who made it solely a pharmacy.
The sale was nicely timed for Scott but not so much for Bissell; four months after the transfer, the Great Fire of 1895 leveled 10 buildings on the east side of Main Street, including Bissell’s Pharmacy. Harvey Bissell quickly erected a new building that lasted until 2005 when it, too, burned down. But the venerable Bissell Pharmacy did not die in that fire either, and is still going strong today, located a couple hundred yards behind its original home.
Fortunately for the town, Hiram Scott had made sure the various town clerk and probate records were safe — among the buildings destroyed in 1895 was the 20-year-old “Town House,” an all-wood structure that preceded the present town hall. Even before the Town House was built, Scott had acquired a vault to protect the records — which included about 20 large books of deeds, births, marriages and deaths.
Scott talked about this during his address at the town’s 200th birthday celebration in 1908 at the town hall.
“It is very remarkable that our records have been so well preserved,” he said. “For about 150 years the town records were kept in private houses — the residences of the town clerks — and not until 1853 was a safe or vault provided for their safe keeping, then a vault was built and used 20 years, then safes were bought and placed in the Town House which was built on this spot in 1876.
“In 1895, the Town House was destroyed by fire, and the books came out safe and uninjured, except that the bindings of 40 volumes were so damaged that they had to be rebound.”
Being a merchant and town official was hardly all of Colonel Scott’s community involvement. In 1843, he was chosen colonel of the 24th Regiment of Connecticut Militia, and remained in command of that unit until the state militia was succeeded by the Connecticut National Guard. In 1862, during the Civil War, he organized a company of National Guard in Ridgefield, was chosen its captain, and served as such for five years. Despite the lower rank of the more recent position, he always preferred to be called Colonel Scott.
He was for most of his career a trial justice, which meant he presided over the town court that handled relatively minor offenses. One of his more sensational trials took place on April 2, 1887 involving Henry Mead, William Crofut, Eugene Keeler, and Mrs. F. B. Daniels, who had been arrested for illegally selling booze in Ridgefield, a dry town back then. “Probably no crusade against illicit liquor-selling has created such agitation of the public mind in this town,” The Ridgefield Press said of the cases. The town even retained an attorney, J. Belden Hurlbutt of Norwalk, to prosecute the cases — there were no lawyers practicing in Ridgefield back then (imagine that!). Justice Scott’s findings sounded not unlike the sentences a modern court might hand down: Mead plea-bargained a fine of $30 plus costs on one count. Mrs. Daniels and Keeler maintained their innocence, were found guilty and fined $35 and $30 respectively; both said they would appeal to the Connecticut Superior Court. Crofut was “let off with costs.”
Long after he left teaching, Scott remained interested in education, serving on the equivalent of the school board that oversaw the operation of the Center School where he once taught.
During the Civil War he was a deputy collector of internal revenue, after President Lincoln and Congress created an internal revenue agency to collect income taxes to pay for the war. (The income tax was repealed in 1872.)
Even distressed children got help from Scott. In 1875, he was among the incorporators of “The Danbury Home,” which was approved by the General Assembly “for the purposes of relieving, supporting and educating children who are homeless and destitute.”
An Episcopalian, Scott served as treasurer of St. Stephen’s Church for 20 years and was a longtime member of the vestry. His “strong counsel so ably charted the church’s financial course,” said Robert S. Haight in his “History of St. Stephen’s Church.”
On the social side, Scott was a leader in the local chapters of the Odd Fellows and the Masons, holding top positions in both fraternal groups, locally and in the state.
Long before Ridgefield had a public library, Scott offered Ridgefielders the “Hiram K. Scott Circulating Library.” Begun in 1852, the library loaned out books for between three and nine cents a week, depending on how much the volumes cost; back then, most books sold for less than $1 brand new, and many were less than 50 cents. But 50 cents in 1850 was the equivalent of nearly $15 today. Thus, even three cents (about 88 cents today) was a fairly sizable amount of money; nonetheless, it was a lot cheaper than buying the book. The Scott library may have inspired the Library Club, formed in 1871. People paid $3 a year to belong and the money was used to buy books that were then circulated among members. After a year or so the books were sold and a new set purchased for reading.
The colonel’s books may have fed the intellectual needs of Ridgefielders, but there were more down-to-earth delights that Scott and his successor also satisfied. According to the Keith Jones of Ridgefield Historical Society, “The town’s first soda fountain was installed as far back as 1853 by none other than Hiram K. Scott at his Main Street drug store. In an incredible stroke of fortunate timing, Scott sold his drug business to H.P. Bissell four months before the Great Fire which completely destroyed the store in 1895. Bissell rebuilt immediately and purchased a shiny new state-of-the-art ‘frigid soda and mineral water draught apparatus’ from the Peeffer & Louis Company of Boston, complete with marble body, oaken top, fancy mirror, and assorted light fixtures.”
Scott was also involved in one of several unsuccessful efforts to bring a railroad to Ridgefield center. In 1867 he was named secretary and treasurer of small group who organized the Ridgefield and New York Rail Road. This and other efforts to bring rail service to the center shocked the Danbury and Norwalk Railroad into action — two years later, it began work on its spur line from Branchville to Ridgefield center, completed in 1870. That dampened interest on building yet another line into the center of town, and Scott’s railroad never laid a track.
Scott seemed rather progressive when it came to transportation and perhaps even exercise (to work off the ice cream consumed at the soda fountain?). Back in 1893 Ridgefield banned operators of bicycles — called “wheelmen” — from using the sidewalks on Main Street. Cyclists much preferred the well-maintained sidewalks to a muddy, rutty and dung-dotted roadway (bicycles, not cars, were the main reason many of the busier roads in Connecticut began to be paved around the turn of the 20th Century after the League of American Wheelmen pressed for better highways.). In 1896 when he was in his 70s, Scott joined 23 people, including some other prominent citizens, in signing a petition, asking that wheelmen be allowed to use the sidewalks. The effort failed, and it wasn’t until nearly a hundred years later that bicycles were permitted on sidewalks (as long as they don’t operate “in a reckless manner with disregard for the safety of other persons using said public sidewalk”).
Colonel Scott was still on the job as town clerk when he died in 1909 at the age of 87. He had survived three wives, and had five children. One son, Hiram Jr., briefly succeeded him as town clerk and, in 1924, son George was elected town clerk and probate judge. His descendants and relatives still live in and about Ridgefield today.
“So long a period of service in one community is a sufficient guarantee of Mr. Scott’s standing and worth as a man and citizen, as well as of his ability,” said The Commemorative Biographical Record of Fairfield County, published in 1899.
It added, “He has been through a long life...a kind of ‘general utility man’ in the community, his fellow citizens having the greatest confidence in his ability to further to success anything he undertakes, and in his integrity. In short, he has been a successful and a most useful man.”
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