Sunday, December 30, 2018

Dick’s Dispatch #119
The Last Blacksmith & Greatest Walker
By Richard E. Venus

Under the spreading chestnut tree, 
the Village Smithy stands. 
The smith, a mighty man is he, 
with large and sinewy hands, 
and the muscles of his brawny arms, 
are strong as iron bands.

It was 143 years ago that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his famous poem. That was 43 years before Harry Marvin Thomas was born, so we can not say that the great poet had Harry in mind, when he composed it. Yet, the description of the village smithy fit Harry to a T, especially the references to his honesty and sterling character.
I was less than ten years of age when l first met Harry Thomas and a friendship began that was to last all those many years. Harry enjoyed a great reputation for miles around and we felt very privileged to be included in his circle of friends. When he passed on, just a few years ago, in his 89th year, he was the last of Ridgefield’s many blacksmiths. Just a few years later his wife Minolia, followed him to her reward at the age of 96.
Harry Thomas was a descendent of Benjamin Stebbins, one of Ridgefield's very earliest settlers. Members of the famous Stebbins family lived where Casagmo is now for almost 200 years.  Harry’s father, George M. Thomas, was a conductor on the railroad branch that ran from here to Branchville. George was only 27 when he was crushed to death while assisting the brakeman in the coupling of two railroad cars.
As reported in an earlier column, the business of hooking the railroad cars together was probably the most dangerous part of railroading. This tragic accident left Mrs. Thomas with  the task of raising three children, a daughter, Edna, and two sons, Harry and Howard.
Howard will probably be best remembered as the proprietor of the West Lane grocery, where Gene Casagrande has his CasaMore store today. Sports enthusiasts will recall how Howard made those great left-handed shots in basketball games at the old town hall. For some reason, Howard would always shout “Hey” as he unerringly made those shots from either side of the court.
Harry and Minolia had three daughters, Gertrude, Esther and Marie. Gertrude is now Mrs. Lawrence Hoyt and still lives on Silver Spring Road. The Hoyts' daughter, Doris, is Mrs. George Ventres and the Ventres’son Dale is proprietor of the Ridgefield Power Equipment Shop. So Dale can easily trace his lineage back to 1714, when Benjamin Stebbins came to town.
The Thomas family has had an active participation in town affairs for many years. Harry's great grandfather, Albert N. Thomas, was town clerk for Ridgefield back in Civil War days. Albert was also an original member of the Library Club, which formed a nucleus for our present Ridgefield Library.
Albert’s son Elijah L. Thomas (grandfather of Harry) succeeded his father as town clerk and also served as a judge of probate for the town. All this would seem to indicate that the Thomas family were pretty solid citizens.
At the time Harry's father suffered his fatal accident, there was no such thing as Social Security to assist Mrs.Thomas in raising her three children. When Harry was 16 he went to Purdy's Station, near Brewster, N.Y., to learn the blacksmith and farrier trades.
Perhaps we should explain for those not familiar, that a farrier is a shoer of horses, whereas, a blacksmith performs all kinds of iron work and may also engage in horseshoeing.
During his years at Purdy’s, Harry worked 12 hours each day and six days each week. The shop opened at six in the morning and normally closed at six in the evening. However, if six o’clock came around and there were still horses to be shod, the farriers continued to work until they were done.
Harry was a religious man and always looked forward to Sunday. After church services he would walk the 15 miles to Ridgefield to visit his mother. He would time his return walk to Purdy’s so that he would arrive in time for work on Monday morning.
Harry Thomas was the greatest walker we ever saw and even in his late 70's, he would think
nothing of a Sunday walk to Danbury or Brewster. Though he was of average height, his long strides were as great as those of the long-legged giants that play basketball today. He was often offered a ride but would always, graciously, turn it down and then many times he would keep pace with the horse, whose driver had offered the ride.
Ridgefield had several real good walkers. Frank Parks Jr. took very quick steps, when he was a young man and Earl Hibbart had a very smooth and graceful stride, but they could not keep pace with Harry Thomas.
He was by nature, a very friendly man, but always walked alone, for no one could keep up with those great strides. He got over the ground, at a walk, just as fast as some of the joggers that I see on the highway.
Harry was born in the old Bailey Inn that was located on Main Street on the west side almost directly across from where the Christian Science Church is now. Before he and his family moved to their new home, next to the firehouse, he walked daily from his home in Flat Rock near the Wilton town line.
He rarely wore a jacket, except in real cold weather and very seldom was seen with a hat, although when he got to his shop he would don the little black cap with the shiny visor that was the trademark of the smithy.
After Harry had finished his apprenticeship at Purdy’s, he returned to Ridgefield and worked at the Big Shop for a short time. The Big Shop was, as everyone knows, at the rear of the Allan Block, where it had been moved from the corner of West Lane and Main Street, to make room for the Congregational Church. Today the old building is home to a multitude of enterprises, but at the time it served as a blacksmith shop and a carriage shop.
Soon Harry was able to open his own little blacksmith shop. It was located on the Rufus Seymour lot on Olmstead Lane about opposite from where the Piser family now lives. It was while he had this shop that he almost lost his life.
When you brought in a horse to be shod, Harry would never refuse to tackle the job, no matter how bad or unruly the horse might be. He was shoeing a real wild horse one day when he received a kick in the head that Dr. Bryon said would have been fatal if it were one half inch closer to a vital spot. Fortunately Harry was in excellent physical condition and recovered.
  [The next  column will continue the story of Harry Thomas. Dick Venus, who became Ridgefield’s first town historian, wrote 365 “Dick’s Dispatch” columns for the Ridgefield Press, telling about life in Ridgefield during the first half of the 20th Century. This column appeared Sept. 27, 1984.].

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Charles Roswell Bacon: 
An Unappreciated Artist
Among the thousands of gravestones in the Ridgefield Cemetery off North Salem Road is one lying on the ground. It’s hard to tell whether the stone was once upright and fell over, or was placed flat when it was new. But slowly the surrounding sod has been covering the face so that it is becoming harder and harder to read.
The disappearing gravestone is perhaps symbolic of the life and death of Charles   Roswell Bacon, a promising American artist and father of noted American author and illustrator Peggy Bacon. The son of a man who drank himself to death, Bacon lost two sons in infancy, struggled with poverty as he sought success as a painter and, depressed over the lack of recognition for his work, killed himself.
Born in New York City in 1867 to a middle-class family, Charles Roswell Bacon knew hard times from a very young age. His father, after the failure of his business as a marble importer, drank
himself to death when Charles was only six years old, and Bacon left public school at the age of 10 to help support his family. However, he showed an early talent for painting, and was able to study at the Art Students’ League in Manhattan. There he met his future wife, Elizabeth Chase, a miniaturist who came from Kentucky.
The artistic pair studied for a year in Paris, including spending time with Claude Monet at Giverny. They returned to the United States and wound up in Ridgefield where they were married  in 1892 and, to support themselves, took jobs managing a new resort hotel here. 
The Inn, built in 1891-92 on the eastern side of southern Main Street,  operated only during
the warmer months, giving both Bacons a chance to paint and travel in the off-season. They continued to operate the hotel into the early 1900s.
Their daughter, Margaret Frances “Peggy” Bacon, was born there in 1895. Two sons born later died in infancy, and are buried in Ridgefield Cemetery.
The three Bacons became a tight-knit family, one that Peggy Bacon remembered with fondness.
“I had the most charming and amusing parents,” she said in a 1973 interview. “We led a very close life together. There was a great deal of reading aloud. They were both very well read.”
“Mother and Father were never affluent. That’s putting it mildly,” Peggy told a Smithsonian Institution interviewer. “As I recall, all my life we had an extraordinary amount of amenities and delicacies even, and delights considering that they were poverty-stricken. The food was marvelous, very gourmet food. And there were quantities of books, endless books arriving. And a great deal of charm. 
“They were people of taste. Father was very well-read in French. He spoke French so well
that French people mistook him for a Frenchman. And yet he had no schooling from the age of ten.”
When the Inn was closed off-season, “We spent certain winters in New York when I was a child,” Peggy Bacon said. “He took me around to galleries. Then we lived in France for a couple of years, at Montreaux-sur-Mer in Picardy. It was absolutely delightful….It was a lovely life, really. Well, Father was very gregarious.”
Peggy herself was largely home-schooled as a child. Because they were always struggling to earn enough money to live on, the Bacons were unable to send Peggy to the equivalent of high school. Seeing this, two family friends in Ridgefield paid to send Peggy to a boarding school, Kent Place School in Summit, N.J. 
Perhaps it was at this time that Charles composed the poem and drew the self-portrait and sketch of Peggy that is now in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection. He wrote:
What is it that this Daddy wants?
“Perhaps a drink o’water!
“O! No. He is so sad because
“He wants his Little Daughter.”
At the turn of the 20th Century, Charles Bacon was gaining some notoriety. He had exhibitions at the Fulton Gallery and at the Milch Gallery in New York. His works were also in the famous Armory Show in Manhattan in the early 1910s. 
However, by 1913 when he and Elizabeth had a home in South Salem and he had a studio   in Manhattan, he was becoming increasingly depressed. And on Friday, Oct. 10, he went to his studio, apparently finished a landscape he had been painting, wrote a two-sentence will, and turned on the gas jets in the room. He was found dead by a janitor the next day.
The New York Times had never covered Bacon’s work until he died. Like a yellow tabloid, it then did the 725-word story about the discovery of his body, under the headline, “Find Artist Dead A Suicide by Gas.”
The story reported police finding a note, composed to be his will. “I leave to my beloved wife everything of which I die possessed — pictures, frames, clothes, everything. Intending this night to commit suicide, I cannot have this witnessed, but it should carry conviction with it.”
While his wife and daughter were shocked at the suicide, there had been signs that the artist was troubled.
“Mr. Bacon had been despondent for some time over the lack of recognition of his work by the public and critics,” The Times reported his brother-in-law, J.W. Colt, as saying.
Three months later, the newspaper carried a brief story about the sale of his studio full of paintings at the Anderson Galleries. The entire collection brought $4,255 — more than $100,000 in today’s dollars, with the biggest sale being $435 ($10,800 in 2018).
Today, a fact that might surprise the painter, Bacon’s works sell for as much as $7,000 at at auctions. Some, however, fetch only a few hundred dollars.
Elizabeth continued to live in the 18th Century farmhouse at the corner of Spring Street and Boutonville Road in South Salem, and by the 1930s was operating an antiques business. A barn on her property was used as an office by both the local visiting nurses and as the performance venue for an active South Salem theater group. However, in the 1950s the barn was purchased and moved to Route 35 where it became the dining room — and probably the namesake — of the popular restaurant called The Hayloft.
Bacon was not only a painter, but a poet, whose work appeared in magazines and newspapers at the turn of the 20th Century. Probably his best-known poem was published in The Century magazine in 1901 and was reprinted in newspapers across the country. It was a somewhat dark work that ended, unlike his life, on a note of hope:  

The men who have gone before us
Have sung the songs we sing; 
The words of our clamorous chorus,
They were heard of the ancient king.

The chords of the lyre that thrill us,
They were struck in the years gone by,
And the arrows of death that kill us
Are found where our fathers lie.

The vanity sung of the Preacher
Is vanity still to-day;
The moan of the stricken creature
Has rung in the woods alway.

But the songs are worth resinging, 
With the change of no single note.
And the spoken words are ringing
As they rang in the years remote.

There is no new road to follow, Love!
Nor need there ever be,
For the old, with its hill and hollow, Love,
is enough for you and me.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Old Students Teach Young Students
We had an unusual problem: We knew the names of everyone in these four pictures but we didn’t know for sure just where they were and exactly what they were doing.
Could it be the preschool that operated at Ridgefield High School back in the 1980s? Or was it some new private preschool that used RHS students? According to several members of the Old Ridgefield group on Facebook, the answer was definitely the former.
The RHS preschool operated to the advantage of big students who wanted to learn child care, little students who wanted to begin school, and parents who were looking for an inexpensive preschool — probably free!
Shown are, at upper left, Kira Skorpen and Michelle Bellagamba, student teachers and  high school students, with a girl named Murphy and a boy, Jonathan Henry; upper right: student teacher Kira Skorpen with Rebecca Pawlik, Edward Keane, and Chris Hornyak; lower left: Terri Garofalo, Ryan Williams and probably Ryan’s mom, Joan Williams; lower right: Lisa Besse and Tracy Geary with Tom Cofone in the “housekeeping corner.”
The Ridgefield High School alumni directory says Kira Skorpen was a 1986 graduate, and that  Lisa Besse, Michelle Bellagamba, Terri Garofalo, and Tracy Geary were in the Class of 1985, so that pretty much places the pictures in the mid-1980s.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Youth On Parade
Several pictures of the Children’s Parade during Ridgefield’s 250th anniversary celebration  have been posted on Facebook’s “Old Ridgefield” group, but none quite as impressive as this one. 
The scene is Governor Street looking west from East Ridge on Friday, May 23, 1958. Led by the high school cheerleaders, the parade of the town’s public and Catholic school children had marched down Main Street and was now nearing its end as it approached  the athletic field behind the old Ridgefield High School.
The town had about 1,500 school children back then and it’s fair to say most of them marched in this parade. (Today about 4,765 are enrolled, which would make for a much longer parade!)
At the ballfield, thousands gathered for performances staged by students of various grades and schools.
An interesting aspect of this picture is the field to the right. Just a few weeks after this picture was taken, ground was broken for the new Ridgefield Boys’ Club on that property. In May 1958, the club was still in the old Loder House, on the same north side of Governor Street but west of this scene, about where the Fairfield County Bank drive-in is (the trees are hiding it from the camera).
The lawn and walk visible beyond the future club site at the right led to the Victorian house that soon became the Donnelly office building for a half century. It was torn down four years ago for the new Ridgefield Visiting Nurse Association headquarters. (For more on this, search this blog for “House of Friends.”)
Up the hill behind the trees on the same side would, in another year and a half, appear the Donnelly Shopping Center, with its First National supermarket and Woolworth’s. 
The left or south side of Governor Street looks pretty much the same today, except it’s irrigated baseball and soccer fields instead of just lawn.
One last interesting feature of this picture is the cheerleaders. If you look closely, most of them, along with some band members, appear to be looking at something happening behind the lead cheerleader in the middle. And they are smiling about it. Why?
The picture was taken by Bramac Studio, according to the back. While no photographer’s name is given, Bramac was owned by James Kavallines,  and was the contract photographer for The Norwalk Hour; that is to say, The Hour did not have staff photographers and used Bramac for photo assignments for many years.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Dick’s Dispatch #82
Tales of Christmas Past
by Richard E. Venus
Most everyone, with the possible exception of those who have to clear the roads, will look forward to a White Christmas. Perhaps it would be nice to look at some over the years that were white and some that were not.
It is interesting to note that more than half of the last 60 Christmas seasons had snow. Some were just light dustings of white while others were of blizzard proportions. There were no patterns set, as sometimes several years would elapse without a snowflake and then there would be four or five years in a row when the ground was covered with white.
So Christmas 1983 is here and by now everyone must be caught up in the spirit of the season. Some will experience the joy and the peace that this holy period brings to them. Others will feel the great urge to give something nice to people they are close to and better yet, some will make life brighter for those they may not even know. Most of us will be touched in one way or another.
In looking back, we will skip a few that are a little vague and start with 1920. It was white that year and the snow was about 20 inches deep. We helped to decorate a little old cedar tree that we thought was very beautiful. 
It is doubtful if any such trees are used in Ridgefield today. We have become accustomed to the imported pines, balsams, and firs that are so pretty and then we tend to over-decorate them so much that the tree itself is completely hidden. These modern trees have a bright green color whereas our little cedar had some dark green interspersed with some faded brown.
An important feature of the cedar tree was that it did not cost anything. All that was necessary to acquire such a tree was a trip into the great wooded areas of town where they flourished on some of the poorer soil. 
After cutting the tree with a hatchet, it was fun dragging it home over the carpet of snow. There always seemed to be snow back then. 
There was considerable excitement, associated with the decorating process. No electric bulbs were used and only a very few candles. When they were lit, someone was required to be in constant attendance as the tree was a veritable tinderbox, just waiting to be ignited. 
A long rope of golden tinsel was woven through the branches of the tree and sugar plums were hung, along with candy canes and popcorn balls that my sister Mary had made in advance. If one had never seen the overdressed, over-lighted trees of today, they would no doubt agree that this quaint little symbol of Christmas, in all its simplicity, was actually a thing of great beauty.
 Christmas day started with a trudge through the snow to church and only after that, were the presents that came during the night, opened. I got a railroad engine that year that Santa had placed under the tree. It was red and by vigorously pushing it a few times, weights and springs that were carefully concealed, were activated, causing the little engine to run from room to room. It should be noted that two of my older brothers, Jack and Charley, worked on the railroad and this must have influenced Santa.
Christmas dinner was always served at 1 p.m., and though we had a large family, nine children, we always had company as well. Mom used to put the turkey in the oven of the old coal stove, the night before, as it took a long time to cook. 
The pumpkin and mince pies were hand made, as was everything, including the cranberry sauce (not jelly) and the plum pudding, with its delectable hard sauce. 
We also had nuts of various kinds and some came from our own butternut tree. Butternuts were hard to crack and we used to take an iron from the stove that was used for pressing, turn it upside down between our knees and use a hammer to open them. It was even more of a job to remove the meat but they were so good it was well worth the effort.
After dinner was over and everything put away, the older ones sat around the pot bellied stove in the living room to talk or play games while the younger ones walked to New Pond for an afternoon of skating. It seemed that skating started much earlier then, sometimes even as early as
That year, on Christmas night, it rained and froze a very heavy crust on the snow. The crust was strong enough to support a grown person. We had great fun the next day, making tunnels under the crust and crawling around under it.
The next year we had an even heavier snow storm and on Christmas morning there was a pair of ice skates under the tree, with my name on them. They were the kind that clamped onto your shoes and a key was used to tighten them, but they always seemed to come loose. The skates had a familiar look and I don’t think they were brand new. Perhaps Santa took them from some boy who had outgrown them. However, they worked out fine and after a few falls, we got used to them. 
I should have mentioned that in those days, fresh fruit was always a treat and we always looked forward to getting an orange.
We did not have snow for Christmas in 1923 but under the tree this time was a fine Hohner harmonica. I found later that my cousin Ed Sullivan had given it to Santa for delivery.  This was an exceptionally fine musical instrument and I soon taught myself to play it. In fact, in the next few years, I made considerable money with it. It was the same harmonica that I played on the program that opened radio station WICC in Bridgeport in 1926.
It snowed again in 1924 and this year the church was allowed to celebrate midnight Mass for the first time in 25 years. It was snowing hard as we walked to church carrying our lanterns. There were no street lights on Catoonah Street and only a very few on Main Street at the time.
It has always been my opinion that people tend to remember only the things they want to remember. Therefore, the year 1925 is pretty much of a blank to me. It was that year that I had to leave friendly little old Titicus School and advance to the big school on East Ridge. The advancement was not appreciated in the least. 
However, two things happened around Christmas that broke through the barrier. One of my newspaper customers lived in one of the apartments over Bissell’s Drug Store. Her name was Mary Cooney and we called her Miss Cooney. She was a doctor and I think she was a chiropractor. At any
rate, she took a liking to me and bought a chance in a raffle at S.D. Keeler’s store, across the street where Ridgefield Auto Parts is now. Miss Cooney put my name on the raffle ticket and when I delivered the paper to the store, they informed me that I had won the 25-pound turkey that was offered as a prize. 
The store offered to deliver the huge turkey to what was then 181 Main Street (now 612 Main). However, I was so excited that I placed the turkey in my little red wagon and raced home with it. In those days the food given to poultry did not contain the vitamins we have today and a good-sized turkey would be around 15 pounds. I was very proud to have made this contribution to our family's Christmas, but I guess that this monster caused my mother all kinds of problems because of its size. 
Also, about this time, Jimmy Begin bought Charles Wade Walker’s “Happy Hour Store” and gave me the job opening the store in the morning. This was a big thing for me and I took my new responsibilities very seriously. 
Our original intention was to write a little something about each Christmas and whether or not it was white, from 1920 to the present time. As can be plainly seen, I will not get by the first five years. So perhaps there will be another time.
My mother, my brother Joe, and my daughter Elizabeth Ann were all born during the Christmas season and we always felt that their birthdays suffered a little because of the proximity to the Lord’s birthday. 
We thought Lizzie might be a Christmas present but instead she was the first baby born in Norwalk Hospital in 1942. The William Roys had beautiful twin girls, Mimi and Margy, born the next day, on January 2. They were good friends of Elizabeth Ann and came to her party one New Year’s Day when they were still little girls. Someone asked them why they were not born on New Year’s Day and Mimi quickly answered, “We would have been, but my Daddy had to go hunting that day.”
We will take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy, healthy, and holy holiday season and a better 1984.

(NOTE: Dick Venus, who became Ridgefield’s first town historian, wrote 365 “Dick’s Dispatch” columns for the Ridgefield Press, telling about life in Ridgefield during the first half of the 20th Century. This column appeared Dec. 22,1983. We plan to publish many of them on Old Ridgefield.)

Sunday, December 23, 2018

 Dick’s Dispatch #183:
When Charlie Was Santa
By Richard E. Venus
His name was Charles, and most everyone called him Uncle Charlie — that is, except at this time of the year when he became a very famous character, in a bright red suit, and a long white beard. Of course, we are referring to the one and only, Uncle Charlie Ashbee.
More than 60 years ago, Charlie and his wife, the former Ida Smith, lived at 3050 Grand Concourse, in The Bronx. They used to come to Ridgefield quite often to visit the James Smith family on North Salem Road and later at the Smiths’ farm on Barry Avenue. Big Jim Smith was Ida’s brother.
Like everyone else who came to visit in Ridgefield, the Ashbee grew to love our favorite town. Charlie made up his mind and Ida agreed, that when he retired, they would buy a lot and build a home in Ridgefield.
Charlie had been an executive for some 30 years with a large insurance company. The Ashbees were so anxious to get to Ridgefield that Charlie took an early retirement in 1928 at age 55. In those days early retirements were not common, but then Charlie was not common either. 
The Ashbees bought a good-sized lot from Arthur Carnall on Wilton Road West. The lot was where the old Ridgefield Fair and Cattle Show took place more than 100 years ago. Then they built what must have been their dream house and it shows that they must have put a lot of
thought to it. It is a very attractive house and few, if any, in our town, are like it.
After living in The Bronx, the place on Wilton Road West must have seemed like a spacious ranch to the Ashbees, when they moved into their new home in early 1929.  Both Charlie and Ida were friendly, outgoing people and they fit right into the social life of their adopted town.
Charlie wasted no time in getting involved in local affairs. About the time he arrived in town, the Promoters Club was being reorganized as the Ridgefield Lions Club. Charlie jumped right in and became one of the original members of the new club. Thirty years later, the Lions Club had a big party at the Inn at Ridgefield. They called it Uncle Charlie’s Night and it was a well deserved tribute to this fine gentleman, for his years of service to the club,  the community as a whole and especially the kids whose lives were made brighter by his annual visits.
It was at a Lions Club Christmas party that Charlie’s role as the man in the red suit began. Someone was needed to act as the man with the long white beard and as usual Charlie volunteered. Little did he, or anyone else, realize that this would develop into a tradition, in a town noted for traditions. He certainly must have been the longest running show in Ridgefield’s history. 
Charlie got to be such an important part of the Christmas season that letters addressed to the man at the North Pole were rerouted to him. He would never fail to visit the home of the little kid that wrote the letter. In many cases he was able to locate a toy that a youngster had asked for. When he did he would take it along with him and leave it with the parents, to be put under the tree. Bill Sturges was a great help in this connection as all year long he collected and repaired toys.
To say that the kids loved Charlie would be a gross understatement. Not only the kids, but grownups as well thought that he was just the greatest. Many people who are grandparents today, were visited by Charlie when they themselves were little ones. These people all have fond memories of him. 
It was quite a distance from the Ashbee home on Wilton Road West to the business area and when we saw Charlie walking to town each day, we suspected that it was a part of his health program. Such was not the case. What we did not know was that Charlie had never learned to drive a car. 
Charlie’s brother-in-law, Big Jim Smith, was a rural mail carrier and when Jim wanted to take some time off, he asked Charlie if he would substitute for him on the mail route. Charlie, agreeable as always, said that he was willing to learn to operate Jim’s old Dodge. The Smiths lived on Barry Avenue where Paul Korker lives now and they had a farm on which there was an orchard. Jim acted as Charlie’s tutor and helped him familiarize himself with the brakes, the steering apparatus, etc., and then took him out into the orchard where he charted a course among the apple trees. Charlie soon mastered the operation of the vehicle and announced that he was ready to deliver the mail. 
Jim Smith’s mail route was in the northern section of town and included the Ridgebury area. The houses were a considerable distance apart as this was some time before developments started to spring up. The people along the mail route liked Big Jim, but they considered it a rare treat whenever Charlie filled in for him. Charlie’s personality would be best described as effervescent and the people looked forward to his visits.
Jim Smith had a sideline in which he dealt in furs and collected the hides of foxes, skunks,
muskrats, raccoons, and rabbits. All of these animals were in abundance along Jim's mail route. Therefore, he established a trap line and set steel traps under each of the many bridges along the way. Jim would check the traps each day anything that he caught was put in the trunk of his car. Charlie was expected to check the traps when he did the mail route. He did stop and examine each one but after doing the route several times, it was noted that he did not bring back any game. 
The reason was quite simple. Charlie could not stand the thought of trapping any animal. If he found anything in a trap, he would release it. If there was nothing in the trap, Charlie would spring it so that nothing would be caught in it. He was a kind man.
Charlie never ran for any major elected office in town government. If he had he would have been a shoo-in, because of his popularity. He did serve several terms as registrar of voters. Charlie served for many years as a valued vestryman at St. Stephen’s Church.
In his younger days, Charlie, who was a great lover of sports, was a very good left-handed pitcher. He used to umpire the baseball games and he was exceptionally good at settling disputes. His word was always taken as the players had a lot of respect for him.
He also used to keep score at the Congregational Church Bowling Alleys for the big pin bowling league. We well remember one occasion when a violent dispute erupted between two very angry, very big and very tough bowlers. 
As they were about to tear each other apart, Charlie jumped from behind the bench on which he was keeping score. He threw his cap on the floor and jumped between the huge gladiators and announced that if there was going to be any fighting, he would do it. No doubt he saved someone from serious injury, as the sight of this great little man serving as a buffer between the big fellows, caused everyone to laugh. All agreed that his quick action had quelled a potentially dangerous situation.
Charlie developed several nice hobbies during his long life span. He had a real fine stamp collection but his greatest collection was of autographs and especially those of Presidents of the United States. He had them all, with the exception of George Washington. He also had the autographs of Civil War Generals, missing only J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson.
The Ashbees sold their home on Wilton Road West in 1946 to Elmer Q. Oliphant. In case you never heard of Ollie. he was the greatest athlete ever to graduate from West Point. He was on everyone’s All-Time All American Football Team.
Charles Francis Ashbee received many tributes and he deserved every one. He was the first to receive the Citizen of the Year Award from the Ridgefield Rotary Club. 
One year after his passing in 1962, the road Ashbee Lane, off Route 7 was named in his memory. 
Uncle Charlie continued his role of the man in the red suit, at this time of year, until his 88th birthday. At that time he was a patient at Altnacraig on High Ridge and felt bad that he could not go out to visit his kids. So the procedures were reversed and his kids all came to see him. It was a great tribute to a great man.

(NOTE: Dick Venus, who became Ridgefield’s first town historian, wrote 365 “Dick’s Dispatch” columns for the Ridgefield Press, telling about life in Ridgefield during the first half of the 20th Century. This column appeared Dec. 23, 1985.)

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Burying Time
The people are town tax collector Mary Hart Foyt, left, and town clerk Barbara Serfilippi. The date is Dec. 28, 1999. The place is not a cemetery, however, but the front lawn of the Ridgefield Community Center. 
The two are helping bury a time capsule in connection with Festival 2000, the town’s rather extensive celebration of the “new millennium,” and Scott Mullin was there to photograph the event for The Ridgefield Press.
The 124-page commemorative book for Festival 2000 says the capsule was “filled with mementos from our schools, organizations and individuals” and was designed to be exhumed in 50 years.
“And what will Ridgefield be like in 2050?” the book asks. “That’s easy. It will be a charming New England town with gorgeous, tree-lined streets, a bustling core of shops and a vibrant arts community.”
If you are wondering why the capsule looks like a burial vault, it’s because it IS a burial vault. Dan Jowdy of Kane Funeral Home, who donated the vault, explains: “It was a Wilbert ‘air tight, water proof’ burial vault that normally a casket would go into prior to burial.  Most often a vault is required to maintain the integrity of the grave site...Some are not air tight/water proof.  This one is cited by the manufacturer to be.  The only air in the space is the air that was in the box when sealed.”
 Thus, if anyone in 2050 remembers the 2000 time capsule — and where, exactly, it was buried, the contents are likely to be well preserved. However, the exhumers may have a tough time getting to the contents. According to Danny, “The vault is constructed with concrete, reinforced with steel rods and bands.  There is a fiberglass seamless box with in and base and one under the lid.  With the tongue and groove design, the company fills the groove with an epoxy before setting it on the base and then the tongue and groove with the epoxy creates or binds the top piece with the bottom piece.”
Sounds like a jackhammer will be needed.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Great Fire of 1895: 
December 1895 was not a season of cheer in Ridgefield: Much of the center of the village, including the Town Hall, had burned to the ground.
The fire broke out around 9 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 8 on the second floor of the Bedient & Mead Building (where now Books on the Common is). Those people clustered in the distance at the left are apparently examining the Bedient site.
The fire jumped Bailey Avenue and spread southward, destroying the wooden Town Hall, the Masonic Hall (which held the Ridgefield Press offices and printing equipment), some houses and stores, and was finally stopped at the Scott Block, where Bissell’s new pharmacy was then and where today is the Village Tavern (that location would be off to the right of where the picture above ends). The fire also leveled McGlynn’s hardware and plumbing building on the north side of Bailey Avenue, behind Bedient & Mead.
To provide a bit more orientation in the picture above,  the town hall had stood where that last elm on the left is. The next three elms are about where the Masonic Hall was (and its replacement is today, housing Coldwell Banker real estate). 
To the right of the chimney stack in the center of the picture, in the background, there’s a large building with a tower in front: That was Hiram K. Scott Jr.’s livery stable that stood on the site occupied until last month by The Ridgefield Press. Thus, that tower was right on the edge of Bailey Avenue. A description of the “most heroic effort” to save that building will appear in a coming post about the fire. 
Across Bailey Avenue from the livery stable, you can see a one-story building with awnings — that may be the only structure in this picture that exists today. Then it was Fogarty’s hardware and plumbing, and today it houses shops across from the old Press building (now a gym). It was saved largely because it had a tin roof protecting it from dropping embers.
Just to the west of Fogarty’s Plumbing was McGlynn’s hardware, which burned down.
Visible just to the right of Scott’s livery stable is a portion of an apartment building, or tenement, where early in the 20th Century, many immigrants from Italy lived.
Damage from the fire was estimated at $100,000, the equivalent of nearly $3 million in today’s dollars. Much of the losses was covered by insurance.
The picture was probably taken by Joseph Hartmann, whose studio in the Bedient & Mead building was destroyed. Hartmann was almost killed in early attempts to fight the fire, as we will see in a coming posting. 
While the town hall was destroyed,  virtually all the town’s important records survived —
primarily because  many were kept in the offices of the people who maintained them, such as the town clerk and probate judge which were not in the town hall; the records were rescued before the fire reached them in the Scott block. (Ridgefield’s land records are complete back to the day of the town’s founding as are birth, marriage and death records — though not all births or marriages were recorded, usually because families failed to notify the town clerk of the events).
What follows is  the dramatic account of the fire that appeared in the Ridgefield Press the Thursday after the blaze. While The Press office and printing equipment were destroyed, Editor Edgar C. Bross was able to work with nearby newspapers to get out that week’s issue of The Press, on time and with complete coverage of the biggest story since the Redcoats came to town in 1777 

Ridgefield In Ashes 
By Edgar C. Bross
The Ridgefield Press, Thursday, Dec. 12, 1895 — All night long, Sunday December 8, 1895, the citizens of this town watched with feelings of consternation the spread of the biggest conflagration that ever swept through the village, and no adequate means were at hand to check the awful destruction which was the result of it.
A smouldering ruin, with thirteen business firms and several families without shelter, and nearly $100,000 worth of property destroyed, was the condition of things as the gray winter light dawned Monday morning. The entire community was saddened by the awful calamity which a night had brought forth; and, added to the general gloom, every able-bodied citizen had become so weary and sore and blistered, in the almost futile endeavor to check the spread of the fire, that the village was practically prostrate.
The business firms which suffered so seriously were with but few exceptions, composed of enterprising young men, who had engaged in business only a short time, older men having given way with the weight of years, and for this reason the burden is especially discouraging.¶
Notwithstanding, as will be seen later on, nearly all of the business firms have recovered from general paralysis, steps have been taken to at once resume in temporary quarters, and efforts will soon be made to build the burnt district.
There have been all sorts of stories as to the origin and discovery of the fire, and we have
carefully sifted them, believing that the account given below is as accurate as can be gathered from any source, inasmuch as the parties interviewed were reliable eyewitnesses of the conflagration from 9 o’clock Sunday evening till nearly daybreak Monday morning.
Louis Joffee, Joseph Hartmann, and some other pedestrians in the vicinity, discovered smoke issuing from Bedient & Mead’s undertaking and furniture store at the hour mentioned above. They ran to Catoonah Street shouting fire, and were joined by Dr. W. E. Weed, who heard the alarm. Dr. Weed rushed upon the piazza of D. Francis Bedient’s residence and rang the bell vigorously, which brought Mr. Bedient to the door.
“You’re needed over to your store,” quietly announced the doctor. “'There’s something wrong.”
Mr. Bedient took in the situation, hastily put on his shoes — for he was just preparing to retire — and hurried to the scene of the fire. He opened the front double doors of the store with his keys, and endeavored to enter the burning building, but was immediately driven back by clouds of smoke and the intense heat. He immediately closed the door, remarking to a few people who had gathered that it was practically impossible to enter, and followed by Joseph Hartmann and others he went to the rear of the store, finally gaining entrance through a cellar door, at great peril, as a dense cloud of smoke rendered it almost impossible to grope his way about the dingy place.  
Joseph Hartmann followed carrying a lantern. By aid of this light, Mr. Bedient found a hitching post with which he forced open a door to the stairs leading to the main store. On the stairway the draught had carried the smoke above, thus giving Mr. Bedient a brief respite from the suffocating heat and smoke and enabling him to reach the upper floor. 
There he saw the fire burning naturally in the stove, and no flames near it, proving that the source of the fire was not the stove. Glancing hastily about, he discovered the stairway directly above the northeast corner of the store, adjacent to the wing of the building occupied by the Western Union Telegraph office. He gathered together a couple dozen pails and handed them outside to others, and ordered them to be filled. He secured enough water to quench the flames on the railing of the upper stairway, but the fire was gaining headway so rapidly beyond, he realized that such slight efforts to save the building would prove futile. 
Almost exhausted, he managed to get outside the cellar door. By this time a large number of people had been attracted to the scene, and efforts  were made to secure a number of ladders stored in the front of the cellar.
Mr. Bedient, Mr. Joseph Hartmann, and another man, whose name we failed to learn, crawled under the front porch. and succeeded in getting about a dozen ladders. Mr. Hartmann lost his way, groping blindly about, when Mr. Bedient went to his rescue, leading him to the door and into the open air, nearly exhausted from inhaling the hot air and thick smoke. 
No further attempts were made to get into the building, with the exception of saving some oil  barrels, tools, and a few other things near the door in the rear of the cellar.
By this time flames were issuing from the building, and in a few moments the whole block was enveloped in a mass of seething flames. It was less than half an hour later that the Western Union Telegraph office and Barhite & Valden’s big general store adjoining were burning fiercely. 
Efforts were then directed toward saving the dwelling house occupied by Robert Wilson,
adjoining Barhite & Valden’s, and the wind favoring,  this was accomplished, but not without strenuous labor and remarkable courage on the part of several impromptu fire fighters.
Never before had Ridgefield experienced a bonfire so enormous or so destructive of property. The flames now wildly swept the entire row of frame structures, including Barhite & Valden’s, the telegraph office,  and Bedient & Mead’s store, and onlookers held their breath as they saw that the loss of the Town Hall was inevitable. 
The large frame block on the north side of Bailey Street occupied by Peter McGlynn, the hardware dealer, and Mrs. Susan Canfield, and George  Rich above as a dwelling, was now in imminent danger. Almost simultaneously this building and the Town Hall caught fire, and the people were too dumbfounded to realize the awful ending of it all. 
It was not later than ten o’clock when it was clear to everybody that the conflagration would last all night. Nothing could be done to save the buildings already on fire, and efforts were at once directed towards saving property of a portable nature in other buildings in imminent danger. 
The Masonic Hall, occupied on the first floor by the office and plant of The Ridgefield Press and by the barber shop of E. S. Reynolds, and on the upper floor by the Masonic and Odd Fellows’ lodges, was only a few feet south of the Town Hall, and everything was carried from this structure possible to secure until the rescuers were driven away by the fierce heart. 
The weight of the printing machinery, engine, and boiler, as well as the type was so great that it was impossible to save more than the desk, books, some of the newspaper files, the mailing list, and a few cases of type from the printing office, and as has already been mentioned elsewhere, we decided that it would be very disappointing to our readers did we fail to issue a paper this week with the full particulars. So all day Monday we telephoned, telegraphed, and planned to meet the emergency. Later in the day we were flooded with letters and telegrams of sympathy from our generous newspaper brethren, with offers of substantial aid, the result being a full account of the fire and on the day of publication. A history of our personal woes, with acknowledgments of kindness. appears elsewhere. 
But to go on with the story proper. E.S. Reynolds, the barber succeeded in saving some of his stock, and number of lodge men carried valuables from the lodge rooms above to places of safety.
When the flames shot up over the Masonic Hall, someone thought of using dynamite to blow up this large building, hoping thus to collapse the structure and check the conflagration southward.
In the meantime the fire was making serious headway down the north side of Bailey Street, the blaze furiously consuming the McGlynn building and leaping across the street to the livery stable occupied by Hiram K. Scott, Jr., besides imperiling the low building in which is located the hardware store of J. W. Fogarty. The latter building was its own protection, inasmuch as the roof was tin and but one story high, consequently the flames rose high above, and the main danger was from sparks which constantly kept falling. Mr. Fogarty and his men watched carefully these flying pieces of fire, and with dippers of water were able to subdue them before great damage was done.
To save the Scott stable was not a task so easy. There were two high towers on either end to the front, and the building was so high throughout that it required the most heroic effort of all concerned to save the building from general ruin. It caught fire several times, and once it seemed almost impossible to check the blaze, but it was finally out of danger.
To return to the progress of the fire on Main Street. When the use of dynamite was suggested, persons were dispatched for the dangerous explosive, about a mile away from the disaster. On  their return, the dynamite was found to be frozen, and before this could be thawed out the Masonic Hall was nearly in ruins. 
Nevertheless, under the management of Ebenezer W. Keeler, the fuses were laid and the explosive sounded with a tremendous noise and effect, what remained of the burning building being blown into kindling wood. Visitors from 20 miles around, the following day, said they could hear this and the subsequent reports like a rumbling earthquake. 
Notwithstanding this plan, the fire continued to rage and it was finally decided to blow up the residence of E.W. Hibbart’s next door to the south. Had this been done before the structure was in flames, it is generally believed that the buildings below could have been saved. But, of course, it was a serious question to settle, and no one would think of attaching the blame to those who had the matter in charge. 
Mr. Hibbart’s house caught about 11 o'clock and then it was realized that nothing could save the adjoining market building, occupied by Hibbart & Sherwood, fish and vegetable dealers, Willis S. Gilbert, cigars and confectionery, and the central office of the Southern New England Telephone Company on the first floor, and Louis Joffee, the tailor, and Conrad Rockelein, the barber, on the second floor.
Everyone was breathlessly awaiting the arrival of the steam fire engine from Danbury at this
time, but it failed to put in an appearance, though a message had been sent by telephone between 9 and 10 o’clock for assistance from the Danbury fire department. It was afterwards learned that the firemen would have started immediately for Ridgefield, but before the engine and hose could be taken from the city, it was necessary to receive permission from Mayor Rundle, and other preliminaries were imperative, besides the ordering of a special train through Superintendent Payne. This action consumed so much time that it was nearly 3 o’clock Monday morning before the special train carrying the firemen steamed into Ridgefield station, too late, of course, to be of service.
When the Hibbert & Sherwood block caught fire, the anxiety of the people lining the streets reached its highest tension, many gazing with tears glistening in their eyes, and wringing their hands in despair. 
During the progress of the conflagration, sparks were flying across the street so thickly that it required constant vigilance to shield the hundreds of pieces of furniture and other goods which had been removed to the lawn of St. Stephen’s rectory, besides endangering many buildings on the west side of the street. 
At this point in the disastrous progress of the fire, someone suggested that the little south wing, one story high, of Col. Hiram K. Scott’s block, used as the office of the town clerk, judge and clerk of probate, be torn down before the Scott building caught, thus securing if possible the limit of the conflagration southward with Col. Scott’s block. Willing hands were soon at work at this destruction, which was done in time to accomplish the desired object, but not until the main structure was enveloped in a mad blaze. 
It was generally conceded that the fire raged more furiously on the Scott building than previously, but the wind had commenced to blow steadily from the northeast, and the impression became general that the  probate office being razed, the end of the dreadful night’s havoc was in sight at last.
It was now nearly midnight, and the Scott building was a mass of flames, and men were fighting furiously to save the barns of E.W. Hibbart and Col. Scott, keeping the fire as far away as possible from the group of buildings to the southeast on Governor Street, including the Loder House, while other men were working vigorously in the attempt to save the Gage block adjacent to the Scott property, which constantly caught fire on the roof and under the eaves, great lurid flames shooting far over the endangered building.
This courageous action checked the destruction of property southward, but it was morning before the flames from the Hibbart & Sherwood and Scott buildings began to smoulder. 
On the north side of the lower floor of the latter structure was located the pharmacy of Harvey P. Bissell, who also dwelt in the apartments above. He succeeded in saving a greater portion of his household effects, but lost his stock of goods. 
As has been mentioned, in the south wing was the office of Town Clerk Scott. This having been demolished, the huge safe of the town was saved, and the furnishings, valuable papers, etc., were taken out. Col. Scott’s dwelling house adjoined his store directly in the rear. Besides himself and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Hiram K. Scott, Jr. occupied the house, but all were successful in saving the main portion of their furniture and other goods. 
It was not till 3 o'clock that the people realized it was safe to depart to their homes to gain a few hours’ sleep, and indeed, many stayed about the dying fire during the entire night, watching the goods that had been rescued from the flames, in order not only to save them from the sparks, but also from the hands of the petty thieves who were discovered pilfering small articles of value, and even large pieces of house furnishings. It will certainly go hard with these despicable creatures if caught by indignant citizens. 
From two reliable sources we glean valuable information which would indicate that the origin of the fire may have been incendiary. 
Among the first to discover smoke issuing from the Gage Block were James Halpin, John Quinlan, George Lane, Charles G. Fairchild, and Eli Burr. These were at the scene in time to notice the fire breaking out of the new bay window on the south, which Mr. Gage, had just had built in the room upstairs, used so long as a hall. James Halpin and Eli Burr broke in the side door leading upstairs to this hall, and discovered great volumes of smoke and flames burning in the room above, far away from any chimney stove, leading them to believe that the blaze was started either by a match thrown carelessly into some papers or shavings, or else it had been wilfully set afire. In conformation of the latter theory, a window was open on the north side of the building, near the rear of the telegraph office, which easily could have given admission to anyone villainously inclined, and diligent detective work will be done to ferret the the criminal — if such there be. 
These young men did all they could to check the first flames but they found it impossible to check the rapid spread of the fire. 
For a distance of nearly 1,000 feet in the heart of Main Street, and many feet east of Bailey and Catoonah Streets, the frame structures were constantly threatened with destruction. Among these were the Methodist parsonage and church, Henry Mead’s store, which caught fire at once; his barns; St. Mary's Church and sheds, the latter blazing at one time; M. B. Whitlock’s livery stable, which was on fire twice; the rectory, church, and barns of St. Stephen’s parish, all of which caught but were discovered in time; and it might be remarked here that possibly the entire west side of Main Street might also have been in ashes now, had it not been for the timely discovery of the venerable Mr. Brown, the father of Mrs. Ely. He found some inflammable articles blazing away in that outbuilding at a great rate and succeeded in extinguishing the flames. 
Other houses and buildings menaced were the dwelling on the northeast corner of Main and Governor Street, occupied  by Leonard L. Beckwith; the house next door to the east, in which lives Samuel Nicholas with his family; the Ridgefield library, the Loder house, already mentioned; the house owned by L. Beckwith and occupied by Nathan L. Rockwell and family; and the residence adjoining owned by William H. Beers. 
There was little danger to the wooden store occupied by Frank S. Hurlbutt as a shoe store, and J. W. Benedict as a bakery. Neither of these thought it worth while to move out their stock of goods, though E. S. Reynolds, William Wilkinson, and J. W. Benedict, who lived with their families in the building, prepared for an emergency by packing up their household effects to be moved at short notice. 
Monday morning dawned raw and cold, but this did not deter hundreds of people living in surrounding places from visiting the scene of the disaster, and relic hunters were anxious to secure mementoes of the fire. There were visitors present from Norwalk, Danbury, Bridgeport, and as far away as Stamford and New York to gaze on the ruins. 
Besides these curious people, the town has been filled since Monday with drummers [salesmen], insurance adjusters, and all sorts of travelling men, called here in connection with the resumption of business. 
In the meantime, the stores which are still in-tact are doing a rushing business, and everyone who was burned out has been eagerly looking for a suitable temporary shelter. For some time this has been a very difficult matter, but last night nearly every business concern was temporarily housed, or, had plans for continuing their business once more. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Strolling Along Main
Early 20th Century photographers of the village seemed fascinated with the section of Main Street that includes the Bedient building. At least a half dozen shots of the Main and Bailey corner a century or more ago have been posted here.
This view, probably shot with an inexpensive camera like one of those new-fangled Kodak Brownies, provides a little bit different angle. It’s taken on the sidewalk in front of the Masonic Building (where Coldwell Banker has its real estate office now, but the Ridgefield Press had the spot then.)
Odds are the woman whose back is to the camera was connected with the photographer, whose identity is unknown (Joseph Hartmann’s photos, taken with a high-end camera, were much sharper).
We’re guessing the picture is from the late 1910s, but an antique car buff with a good eye might be able to give us a closer date from the various cars parked along the street. Or an expert on fashions might be able to estimate a date from the dress worn by the woman.
The shot definitely is after 1914, about when the Tudor-styled Telephone Building in the distance, left, was erected. (It later became the home of Roma Pizzeria and other well-known businesses.) And it’s before 1925 when Main Street was paved. 
Those striped awnings, probably red and white, were very popular on both houses and stores back around 1920 or so.
At the extreme left, you can see the picket fence that surrounded the Methodist Church compound.
Notice that the front of the town hall, right, was covered in ivy. That remained the case for many years, but the greenery was removed in the late 1960s or early 1970s after it was determined that the plants were harming the bricks.
Speaking of which, just this fall, the brick wall in front of the woman was completely replaced as part of a restoration of the town hall “plaza.” It looks just the same now as then, but is apparently less likely to fall over on a passerby.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Ebb and Flow of the Pond
When I first saw this Joseph Hartmann photograph many years ago, I figured it showed a mill somewhere in Ridgefield. It looked as if there was a sluice to power the mill built into that dam.
Only problem was: Where was the wheel the water would turn?
Then my boss, Karl S. Nash, publisher of the Ridgefield Press, explained what was probably shown here, a scene almost impossible to find today.
The stone-and-earth dam has an adjustable spillway, made of wood. Many farmers would use such an arrangement to keep their brook-fed ponds high in the winter so they could cut and store (or sell) ice, and low in the summer so the bog grass could grow, later to be cut as bedding for livestock.
This small barn or shed, and house to its rear, might be along some major highway in town, possibly North Salem Road. Karl believed that utility pole, visible just to the left of the barn’s peak, was part of an interstate telephone trunk line, connecting such cities as Boston and New York. It ran through town even before telephone service was available locally to many outlying sections of Ridgefield. It was the 1900 version of the underground interstate cable and gas lines that run through town now.
Unfortunately, neither Karl nor our readers back in 1982, when this photo was published in The Press, were able to identify the buildings shown here. Judging from their condition, they probably didn’t last too many years after the picture was taken by Joseph Hartmann.

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