Thursday, January 25, 2018

Aaron Turner: 
Circus Pioneer
The circus was a form of entertainment immensely popular in the 19th Century. Traveling circuses visited communities large and small across the eastern United States. But Ridgefield had a more than passing connection with American circus history. One of America’s circus pioneers was born here, and some four-legged stars of early circuses died here.
Aaron Turner was born in Ridgefield in 1790, said to be the illegitimate son of Mercy Hony. When he was 9, he went to live on the farm of a court-appointed guardian, Dorcas Osborn, at the corner of Saw Mill and Turner Roads (the house is no longer standing). Turner eventually inherited the farm and much land in the Ridgefield and Danbury portions of Ridgebury. As a young man he farmed the land and also did some shoemaking.
However, farming and cobbling were not his calling. By age 30, he was associated with the circus world, part owner of a troupe that had sprung up from one of the circus families that lived in nearby New York State. By this time, 1820, his 7-year-old son, Napoleon, was already a trick rider in a New York City circus. 
Eight years later, Turner the elder had a traveling circus of his own, serving as ringmaster. In 1836, he hired a young Bethel man named Phineas T. Barnum as his ticket seller, secretary and treasurer.
Barnum became an important asset. When the Aaron Turner Traveling Circus failed to draw many customers on a visit to Rochester, N.Y., Barnum suggested that the circus should announce its arrival in a community by having a parade. Barnum later used that circus parade technique extensively with his Barnum and Bailey Circus.
P.T. Barnum learned another public relations lesson from Turner. During a circus stop in Annapolis, Md., Turner jokingly told a gathering that his ticket-taker, Barnum, was a wanted murderer. The crowd took Turner at his word, immediately seized Barnum  and began beating him when Turner screamed that it was just a joke. Turner later told Barnum, “It’s all for our good. The notoriety will fill our tent.”
During the winter, Turner’s circus stayed at his Ridgebury farm, which included land along
the west side of Ridgebury and Turner Roads. Many circus animals were reportedly housed there and at farms in the neighborhood. Some of these animals that died were believed to have been buried in the old fields along the western side of northern Ridgebury Road—including at least one elephant.
“Turner’s circus was one of the most important and popular in the country,” wrote Ridgefield historian Silvio Bedini, who said both sons Timothy and Napoleon were “skilled riders.”  Turner’s daughter married George Fox Bailey of Somers, N.Y., who later managed the circus and took it over after Turner retired. Barnum, of course, went on to found his own circus, which became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (In the 1870s George Bailey was a partner of Barnum, but the “Bailey” in the circus name was a distant relative, not he.)
Barnum described Turner as a genius, a man of untiring industry, a practical joker, and a good judge of human nature, reports William Slout of the Circus Historical Society.
Turner eventually retired to the quieter life of operating a hotel, Turner House, in Danbury facing the Main Street green. 
    He died in 1854 and his hotel, which subsequently became a Knights of Columbus Home, was torn down in the 1960s to make way for—alas—a used car lot. Today, a Walgreen’s pharmacy is there.

Turner Road in Ridgebury, of course, recalls Aaron. So does the Turner Hill subdivision, built in the early 1990s off the south side of Turner Road. Roads there are named for some of the circus families that lived in Ridgefield and nearby, including Hunt, Howes, and, of course, Barnum.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Dr. John G. Perry: 
Letter-Writing Civil War Surgeon
A young Harvard-educated surgeon from a well-to-do Boston family experienced the bloody horrors and the amazing heroism of the Civil War and described what he saw in letters to his fiancee and then bride. Forty years later, his wife turned dozens of those letters into a book that is still widely quoted — and reprinted — a century later.
  Dr. John G. Perry underwent experiences — including being trapped in the New York City Draft Riots — that seem unimaginable today. He later became a top New York City surgeon and had a summer home — the predecessor of Sunset Hall — on West Mountain for more than 20 years. He was one of many New York City physicians  around the turn of the 20th Century who found Ridgefield a healthful place to take a break. 
John Gardner Perry was born in 1840 in Boston. His father, Dr. Marshall Sears Perry (1805-1859), was a well-respected community physician while his mother, Abby Stimson Perry (1816-1857) “exerted a particularly strong influence on the moral and spiritual character of her son,” according to a 1918 biography. 
While his parents oversaw a top-notch education for their boy that included private schooling and attending Boston Latin high school, they also grounded him in the “real world” by sending him each summer to work on a farm. He said later that his love of nature and country life came from these summers; it may have led to his decision to buy an old farm in Ridgefield.
Perry had always been interested in the profession of his father and, as a boy, was called “the little doctor.” In 1858 he entered Harvard College but soon transferred  to study at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School. He then entered Harvard Medical School.
While he was studying medicine, the Union Army issued a call for surgeons and, wishing to serve his country and gain surgical experience, Perry enlisted in April 1862 at the age of 22 as a contract assistant surgeon — because he did not yet have his medical degree, he could not be  commissioned.  
He was sent to northern Virginia where he treated countless badly injured soldiers, including Confederate prisoners. By August  Perry fell ill from the exhaustion of working almost non-stop
under trying combat conditions, and was sent home. During this break he finished his Harvard medical school studies and graduated with the class of 1863. He also married his longtime sweetheart, fellow Bostonian Martha Derby Rogers, in March of 1863. He returned to the war a month later, now a commissioned officer in the 20th Massachusetts Regiment.
During his periods of service, Perry wrote scores of letters to his fiance and then bride, describing his experiences. Forty years later, Martha Perry came across them in “a much weather-beaten trunk, which since the Civil War has travelled from one attic to another.”
She got permission from her husband to put together the book, “Letters from A Surgeon of the Civil War.” Published in 1906, the book was widely read, has been often quoted by Civil War historians over the past century, and is today still available in many reprint editions. 
“Letters” offers a well-written, frequently dramatic look at the often heroic and horrible results of combat. It also describes in non-technical language how the wounded were treated. 
Here is a sampling of Perry’s experiences:
  • “I hear that the surgeon who served before me, while dressing a [Confederate] soldier’s wound, laid the knife for a moment on the bed. The man seized it and made a lunge at the doctor, but instead of killing him, as he had intended, only ran it into his arm; whereupon the doctor instantly shot him. I suspect that the surgeon may have been rough in this instance, possibly intentionally so; I am careful, however, not to leave my instruments within reach of these prisoners, although they seem friendly and I do not fear them. —May 18, 1862, Chesapeake Hospital at Fortress Monroe
  • “This afternoon I collected all my convalescents in the kitchen of the cottage, placed them about a blazing fire — for it was chilly and raining hard outside — and started the singing of Methodist hymns. The music caught like an epidemic, and soon from every side came doctors, nurses, patients, negroes, until we had a rousing chorus. All of them sang with their whole souls, each one asking for his favorite hymn, and the concert ended with ‘Old Hundred.’ How I did enjoy it!” — June 15, 1862, Chesapeake Hospital
  • “A new contingent to-day of sick and wounded; in fact, the men arrived in such numbers that we laid them on the grass and dressed their wounds there. I was obliged to perform an operation on one man and cut off two of his fingers. He sat up perfectly straight and did not wince a particle. I called him a ‘man,’ for he truly deserved the title, though he, poor fellow, was a mere boy of eighteen years.” —July 1, 1862, Chesapeake Hospital
  • “Home! Oh, how that word still haunts me! Yet I am calmer now and take the situation more reasonably; but an awful sinking at the heart still sweeps over me, and I can easily understand how soldiers die of homesickness.” — Sept. 26, 1863, Culpeper, Va. (Many doctors back then believed both nostalgia and homesickness were deadly, says one scholar who quotes Perry and adds, “The idea that nostalgia and homesickness were lethal illustrates the fact that physically unwounded soldiers suffered debilitating symptoms, making them unfit for duty.”)
  • “We had a drunken row in camp last night, owing to some villain’s having sold whiskey to the men, and it was one o’clock before the noisy ones were secured and all became quiet. These conscripts, or rather substitutes, behave disgracefully, deserting at every possible chance, even to the enemy. Notwithstanding that two who belonged to our regiment were shot, thirty-four deserted immediately after. One fellow, having failed to escape in the direction of his home, attempted to go over to the enemy, but was prevented. He then shot his finger off, with the hope of being sent to the hospital, where the opportunities for desertion are greater, but the result is that he will serve with one finger less.” —Oct. 1, 1863, Culpeper, Va.
  • “Colonel Mallon was at that time with me in the rear, for, as the brigade had made a breastwork of the railroad embankment, he could not be in front; and we were lying side by side, flat on the ground, so as to be out of range of the enemy’s guns, when the colonel, who was very fond of Major Abbott, said he must take a look round and see if he were safe. I begged him not to, saying that he would surely be shot, but he answered, ‘No, I cannot stand the suspense, and it will take but a moment’; where upon he rose, and was instantly shot through the abdomen. I dragged him to a little muddy stream — the only place of safety — where the poor fellow lay with water almost running down his throat. He lived until the fight was almost over, and finally expired in my arms. He was just married.” —Oct. 22, 1863, at Auburn, on the banks of the Bull Run River. (In a footnote, Mrs. Perry adds that “Major Abbott was shot through the body, and lived for about eight hours after. He left all his money to the widows and orphans of the regiment.”)
  • “Exhaustion and confusion, worse confounded. Although perfectly well, I am tired and hot, having slept only a couple of hours out of the last forty… the thought of sleep makes me absolutely silly. I now sit on the ground in the woods, leaning against a log and writing on my knee. I am surrounded by soldiers, bon-fires, and kicking horses — but out of their reach, I assure you; dust is sweeping over me like smoke; my face is black with dirt and perspiration, clothes soiled and torn almost to pieces. I am too tired to sleep, too tired to stand, and should dislike to have you see me just now. Although we have been steadily banging away at each other for a week, neither side has gained much advantage. The enemy has gradually fallen back, but each day shows a bold front.” — May 8, 1864, Cold Harbor, Va.
  • “It seems to me I am quite callous to death now, and that I could see my dearest friend die without much feeling. This condition tells a long story which, under other circumstances, could scarcely be imagined. During the last three weeks I have seen probably no less than two thousand deaths, and among them those of many dear friends. I have witnessed hundreds of men shot dead, have walked and slept among them, and surely I feel it possible to die myself as calmly as any — but enough of this. The fight is now fearful, and ambulances are coming in with great rapidity, each bearing its suffering load.” —May 24, 1864, near Hanover Junction, Va.
  • “Every day there is a fight, and every day the hospital is again filled. For
    four days now we have been operating upon the men wounded in one battle, which lasted only about two hours; but the wounds were more serious than those from former engagements. I am heart-sick over it all. If the Confederates lost in each fight the same number as we, there would be more chance for us; but their loss is about one man to our five, from the fact that they never leave their earth-works, whereas our men are obliged to charge even when there is not the slightest chance of taking them. Several times after capturing these works, our troops were unsupported and had to evacuate immediately, with great loss. The men are becoming discouraged, but there is plenty of fight in them yet.”  —June 4, 1864, Cold Harbor, Va.
  • “We have had thirty of our division wounded to-day by shell which the Confederates manage to throw into our pits, but we are successful in dropping some into theirs also. The heat is intolerable, and the roads are covered with dust six or eight inches deep, which every gust of wind sweeps up, covering everything with a dirty, white coating.” —June 10, 1864, Cold Harbor
  • “I had to follow the hospital wagons, look after the stores, and attend the sick and wounded in the ambulances. These wagons took the same route as the troops but kept far in their rear. The heat each day was intense, and the dust beyond any expression of which I am capable; but suffice it to say that most of the time I could not even see the head of my horse.” —June 21, 1864 near Petersburg, Va.
By the middle of August 1864, Martha Perry had fallen seriously ill and Dr. Perry was discharged from the Army to go home and care for her. After her recovery, the Perrys settled in New
York City where the doctor became  well-known for gynecological surgery and treatment of diseases of the thyroid and pituitary glands. He spent some time as a surgeon at the New York State Woman’s Hospital in Manhattan, now part of Mount Sinai Hospital.
Among his patients in the early 1870s was Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873), chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who had been secretary of the treasury under Abraham Lincoln.
Perhaps recalling his childhood summers on Massachusetts farms, Dr. Perry decided to buy a summer place in Ridgefield. In March 1891 he paid Stephen Burt $1,100 for about seven acres and buildings on Old West Mountain Road. The Burt family had farmed this land since the 1700s. In the coming years, John and Martha bought more adjacent land.
It is unclear whether Perry built a new country home or modified the old Burt farmhouse, but his “cottage” was considered a showplace at the turn of the 20th Century. A picture of the house, taken in the late 1890s by Marie Kendall, shows a residence more modest than the 22-room mansion called Sunset Hall that is now on the property. Sunset Hall may incorporate parts of the Perrys’ place, or may have been built from scratch by Ambassador James Stokes, who bought the estate from the Perrys — by then including some 27 acres — in 1912.
Dr. Perry was among the physicians cited in an 1894 New York Times article, headlined
“Doctors Recommend Ridgefield.” The writer maintained, “That which has contributed largely to the success of Ridgefield as a summer resort is the influence of many of the prominent physicians of New York, who have induced their patients to pass the summer here.” 
Perry left Ridgefield after he had left New York. By 1912, he and Martha had retired to a
brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue back in their native Boston where she died in 1916 and he in 1926 at the age of 86.
John Perry witnessed untold suffering during the Civil War, but also experienced it himself well north of the battlefields. On June 15, 1863, somewhere near Fredericksburg, Va., he fell from his horse, badly breaking his leg. “Seeing the sole of my boot facing me, I knew what had happened — a multiple fracture,” he wrote Martha.
He was put in an ambulance where, for some reason, he was left for more than 24 hours. “The next day after my accident a wounded officer was placed beside me in the ambulance, who died during the following night, and to add to my torments, the body of this poor man incessantly rolled over and against me, rendering my condition absolutely unendurable.”
After pleading for assistance, he was eventually moved to a railroad freight car and shipped to a hospital in Alexandria, Va. There a surgeon removed his boot, revealing “a black and angry-looking limb,” Perry said.  The surgeon quickly declared, “It is gangrene and the leg must be amputated!"
Perry refused amputation, maintaining his leg was just swollen and dirty. “Determined to save that leg, and to avoid any serious conflict, [I] felt that I must, as it were, escape from the hospital. I called one of the nurses to me, told the circumstances, and asked her to find two trusty
men, whom I would pay liberally, to carry me on my stretcher to a steam-boat bound for Washington. This she agreed to do; and that very evening I was carefully lifted through a window and placed on the deck of a boat which was to sail in the morning.”
Arriving in Washington, he convinced a doctor at a military hospital to send him to New York where he hoped to get his leg properly cared for. In New York, however, “one physician after another was called to set my poor long-suffering leg, but each left with the same response, ‘I am not a surgeon-doctor; call this one and that.’ At last, in sheer desperation, I asked my wife’s brother to find splints, plaster, and bandages, and we, together, set my leg.”
But the tale doesn’t end there. During his recuperation in Manhattan, John and Martha Perry found themselves in the middle of the famous Draft Riots of July 1863 (featured in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film, “Gangs of New York”).
“About noon that same day we became aware of a confused roar,” Martha writes in the book. “As it increased, I flew to the window, and saw rushing up Lexington Avenue, within a few paces of our house, a great mob of men, women, and children; the men, in red working shirts, looking fairly fiendish as they brandished clubs, threw stones, and fired pistols…
“The mass of humanity soon passed, setting fire to several houses quite near us, for no other reason, we heard afterward, than that a policeman, whom they suddenly saw and chased, ran inside one of the gates, hoping to find refuge. The poor man was almost beaten to death, and the house, with those adjoining, burned.”
As the days of rioting continued, she witnessed more fires and “men, both colored and white, were murdered within two blocks of us — some being hung to the nearest lamp-post and others shot,” Martha said. “An army officer was walking in the street near our house, when a rioter was seen to kneel on the sidewalk, take aim, fire, and kill him, then coolly start on his way unmolested.”
At one point, “a crowd of boys arrived with stout sticks, threw stones at our house, called for the ‘niggers,’ and then rushed on. This added to my alarm, I having heard that a rush of street arabs always preceded an attack by the mob. Parties of Irishmen passed and pointed to our house, and a boy ran by shouting, ‘We’ll have fun up here to-night.’ My heart felt overloaded as I looked at John in his helpless condition. What were we to do?”
Fortunately, patrols of citizens and police  protected their neighborhood that night and soon federal troops arrived to quell the riots. John was unaware of much of the goings on; Martha kept him away from windows and did not reveal the seriousness of their situation, feeling it would interfere with his recovery.
Ninety days after he signed himself out on medical leave, Dr. Perry returned to his unit in Washington where he had to meet with the surgeon-general to be approved to return to service. He hid his crutches so that the surgeon-general would not send him to the “invalid corps” and he “managed with great difficulty” to walk unaided across the superior officer’s office. His infirmity went undetected.
Eventually his leg fully healed and for the rest of his life, John Perry’s favorite form of exercise was walking.

(Note: Dr. John Perry was not related to the Perry family that produced three generations of respected Ridgefield physicians, Dr. David Perry, son Dr. Nehemiah Perry and grandson Dr. Nehemiah Perry Jr.) 


Monday, January 15, 2018

Charles Pope: 
King of the Choristers
Music has long been an essential part of Ridgefield life, and among the people who kept the town in song was Charles Pope. But the founder and leader of the Charles Pope Choristers had a stage and reputation that extended far beyond Ridgefield.
Over 34 years the choristers sang more than 1,600 concerts, most of them in and around New York City, including dozens of performances at Carnegie Hall.  But that was just one of the many activities of this man who often worked seven days a week providing people with music.
Charles Frank Pope was born on June 4, 1930, in Brooklyn, N.Y., At the age of 3,   he started his musical instruction at the piano under his father, Alfred August Pope Sr. He gave his first organ recital at 15 and a year later, was hired as a church organist.  
Though his father was a pianist, the young Charles Pope was discouraged from pursuing a career in music. “My family felt music wouldn’t be lucrative enough and thought I would starve,” he said in a 1966 interview. “I got a job in a bank for six months, but decided that it wasn’t for me so I went back to the organ.”
At the age of  17 he was attending Guilmant Organ School in Manhattan, and was studying choral and orchestral conducting, organ, piano, harmony, counterpoint, composition, and improvisation. In his younger days he was mentored by many leading musicians, including Robert Shaw, Elaine Brown, Fred Waring, Alice Parker, and Willard Irving Nevins.
At  Guilmant, Pope organized and began conducting the Charles Pope Choristers. Over the next 34 years this full chorus and show group presented more than 1,600 concerts and shows   — many years, he did two concerts annually at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In addition, he conducted more than 800 performances of other choruses in metropolitan New York.
Pope’s skill at leading the choristers often gained recognition in the press, including The New York Times. For instance, in 1961 after the choristers sang at the Town Hall in Manhattan, Alan Rich of The Times wrote that “the chorus has about 65 members, chosen without regard to musical training. This fact did not deter Mr. Pope from choosing an exceptionally varied, interesting and difficult program. The major work, in which the ensemble was joined by a group of brass players and a timpanist, was Purcell’s imposing Funeral Music for Queen Mary, of which few, if any, previous American performances are recorded. Energy and devotion characterized the performance, along with a remarkable degree of professional polish.”
According to his family, “he also won acclaim from the New York critics when he appeared at Carnegie Hall as a soloist with his interpretations of Bach.”
In the 1950s and 60s, Pope was also organist, choir director, minister of music, and youth director at many houses of worship in the city — ecumenical in his outlook, he performed at Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Congregational and Catholic churches as well as Jewish synagogues.
At many churches, he organized, directed, and supervised up to five vocal, two handbell and brass choirs. He also influenced and oversaw the replacement of organs at seven churches.
 Pope’s Choristers appeared on both TV and radio. For the CBS television network, he conducted several hour-long, national Christmas specials and, for NBC, performed for the Kraft Music Hall and the Ernie Kovacs Show. For radio, the Charles Pope Choristers sang on  many WNYC radio broadcasts. 
He presented more than 250 fully staged Gilbert and Sullivan productions, including the Mikado, H.M.S. Pinafore, Iolanthe, and the Pirates of Penzance; staged tributes to Rodgers & Hammerstein; and did dozens of Broadway shows, including The Sound of Music, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Annie Get Your Gun, Guys and Dolls, Bye, Bye Birdie, Brigadoon, 1776, and The Wizard of Oz. 
Pope also served as the festival conductor for the Associated Male Choruses of America, at times leading a chorus of 2,000 men!
He was so busy he often worked seven-day weeks,  performing at the keyboard, leading  his choristers and other groups, and teaching music.
In 1965 when he moved from Brooklyn to a home on five acres in Ridgefield, he moved the choristers’ base of operations from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to Ridgefield. “My big dream for years was to have a home in Connecticut,” he said. “I looked for two years before I found this.” (To this day the sharp curve of Ridgebury Road where the Popes lived is called Pope’s Corner.)
A year later he married Eleanor Zettelmayer, whom he had met while serving as musical director for the Equitable Life Assurance Society where she was an expediter and he led the company choral group.
In 1972, he opened the Ridgefield Musical Kindergarten, aimed at teaching music to   four- and five-year-olds — who he said were “the ideal age to acquire with ease the language of music.”  By then he was also leading a bell choir and a boys choir, as well as the Charles Pope Choristers, from his house.
The Charles Pope Choristers continued to perform in Ridgefield and the region into the 1980s when the Popes decided to semi-retire and move north. He was living in Bethel when he died in 2006 at the age of 75 and had been providing organ music for churches in the area, especially Immanuel Lutheran in Danbury.
One of the churches he had served early in his career was the Dutch Reformed Church in Brooklyn, which had been established in 1654. There he started a “cherub choir,” and among its members was a young Lois Brennan. Both Brennan’s father and cousin were members of the Charles Pope Choristers, and “Uncle Charlie” became almost a part of her Brooklyn family.
“Charles and his dad were colorful characters in our family life,” Brennan recalled. “He would join us in the Berkshires for a week in August and scare the likes of us with ghost stories!”
Years later, when Brennan moved to Ridgefield, she was surprised to find Charles Pope and his choristers here. Their concerts could bring back many memories. 
“I was ushering the Charles Pope Choristers Christmas Concert at East Ridge Middle School when I heard them sing the old Scottish hymn, ‘God Be in My Head,’” she said of one occasion. “Well, tears filled my eyes at the remembrance of days long ago when my dad was one of them.” 
 For a while in the 1990s, the Popes’ son led a new group, the Jonathan Pope Choristers. Today he is teaching music at Newtown Middle School where many of his students describe him as “amazing.”

Jonathan had an amazing teacher himself.

Monday, January 08, 2018

B. Ogden Chisolm:  
A Voice for the Imprisoned 
B. Ogden Chisolm devoted much of his life — and a good deal of his money — to a portion of the population few Americans have ever cared about: prisoners. Though a wealthy member of a prominent New York City family, Chisolm served with government prison agencies as well as wrote books and lectured widely on the need for humane prison reform.
He was also a prominent Ridgefielder, a friend — and helper — of many in the community over nearly four decades.
     Benjamin Ogden Chisolm was born in 1865 in the Chisholm Mansion in Queens, New

York (family members spelled their name either of two ways, but his branch went for Chisolm). Built in 1848, the family mansion was said to have been a refuge for fugitive slaves in the years before the Civil War. In the 1930s the house was donated to New York City and became the summer city hall for Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. However, the old building was expensive to maintain and was razed in 1940. (In the 1840s, a member of the family had sought to establish an Episcopal men’s college on the  property, which is located a high bluff overlooking the East River; that’s why this section of Queens today is known as College Point.)
    Chisolm studied architecture at Columbia University but after graduating entered the world of banking, serving as secretary and treasurer of the Greenwich Savings Bank of New York for 41 years.
    Chisolm had a lifelong interest in improving prisons and reform schools. In 1908 he was elected to the executive board of the New York Prison Association and 15 years later, President Calvin Coolidge appointed him the commissioner from the United States to the International Prison Commission. In this post he traveled to many nations to inspect prison conditions and often contributed his own funds to support the commission’s operations. In promoting prison reform that focused on rehabilitation, he believed sentences for a term of years were wrong and urged that confinement for crimes be set at one year as a minimum;  release would depend on the prisoner’s fitness to return to society. 
 He produced both books and pamphlets on prison reform bearing such titles as “The Man Who Slipped A Cog,” “If It Were Your Boy,” “Man-Power in Prison,” “Making the Prisoner Over,” and “How Shall We Curb Crime.”
In 1902 Chisolm came to Ridgefield, buying a 22-room  “summer cottage” on Peaceable Street near High Ridge. He called it Wickopee Farm — a previous owner had named the house Wickopee Cottage, but Chisolm expanded the property to 12 acres on Peaceable Street, High Ridge and Bryon Avenue, adding barns, fields and some livestock. (Some authorities believe   “wickopee” or “wiccopee” is an American Indian word for the basswood or linden tree. Local historian Richard E. Venus wrote that “Wickopee may have been derived from ‘wickiup,’ which the Algonquin Indians called the huts in which they lived. One thing was sure, the Chisolm mansion was no mere hut.”)
Chisolm was hardly a snob, however, and mixed as easily with the town’s working class as with its gentry. He prefered to be called B.O. in the days before that acronym became a famous advertising term for “body odor.” 
His many interests included billiards and movies. His house had its own billiards room with two tables and he was always on the lookout for a good competitor at pool. Among his favorites was Tabby Carboni.
Chisolm often attended showings of “moving pictures” at St. Stephen’s parish house and in
the town hall. According to Venus, Arthur Ferry was in charge of the Saturday night movies at the town hall, and “B.O. rarely missed a show.”  Whenever the ticket proceeds were not enough to cover expenses, Venus added, Chisolm would, “in a very discreet manner,” slip Ferry money to make up the difference.  Chisolm was also one of the major financial backers of the construction in 1940 of the Ridgefield Playhouse on Prospect Street, the town’s first movie theater (now replaced by The Prospector).
“Mr. Chisolm had great compassion for those who were suffering through the Great Depression and felt that he should do something to furnish employment for those who were unable to find it,” Venus said. “In the mid-30’s, he hit on the idea of building a new barn. It should be said that the last thing he needed at that time was another barn. However, he felt that in doing this, he was doing his part, as he phrased it, ‘to drive the Depression blues away.’ ” 
When construction was done, he placed a large sign on the barn, saying “Grand Hotel,” the name of a movie popular at the time. He invited all the workers and their families, as well as friends and neighbors, to a ball in the building, which was well decorated for the occasion.  He hired a band consisting of Jim Bacchiochi on piano, Paul Waldarke on sax, Gene Casagrande on violin, Val Roberti on trumpet, and Dick Venus on drums. 
“Mr. Chisolm stood in the doorway as the people arrived,” Venus recalled years later. “He had a bottle of milk in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other. After greeting his guests and exchanging pleasantries, he would then ask, ‘Which will you have, milk or champagne — they both
cost me the same.’ At that time one man was supposed to easily take care of 20 cows and at Wickopee Farm, there were two men to care for two cows, so B.O.’s greeting can be considered to contain more truth than poetry.”
The superintendent of Wickopee Farm for many years was Julius Tulipani, who was as well-known in town as his boss and who was a member of the Board of Selectmen. Chisholm was so pleased with Tulipani’s service that he gave his superintendent a home and the portion of his farm that fronted High Ridge, where Tulipani lived the rest of his life.
In the 1930s his wife, Bessie Rhoads Chisolm, had a serious fall and became wheelchair bound until her death in 1940. Chisolm had an elevator installed in their house, and also ordered two specially designed Buick convertibles, with extra-wide doors and higher than usual roofs to accommodate his wife’s handicap. The cars were called Red Bird and Blue Bird after their colors. Each day at 3 p.m., Venus said, their chauffeur would show up with one car or the other, and take the Chisolms for “a ride around the town they were so fond of.”
B.O. Chisolm died in 1944 at the age of 78 and a few months later, his estate was auctioned off by his second wife, Geri Mooney Dorsey Chisolm, a former singer with the Chicago Opera Company. Chisolm’s residence was torn down not long afterward and replaced with the house now standing at 38 Peaceable Street. “The great white mansion...was a real classic and we feel bad that it is gone forever,” Venus lamented in 1986.
One of Chisolm’s five children, all daughters, was Priscilla Chisolm Davis Lee (1905-1994), who owned the old Bissell building on Main Street for many years. For decades Priscilla Lee was one of the town’s most public-spirited citizens, serving with — often as a leader of — the District Nursing Association, Ridgefield Boys’ Club, the American Women’s Voluntary Services in World War II, the Wadsworth R. Lewis Fund, the Ridgefield Garden Club, and the Village Improvement Society. She was named a  “Citizen of the Year” by the Rotary Club.
“She was always a favorite of everyone who knew her and spent much of her life doing nice things for people,” Dick Venus said.

She was like her father.

Sunday, January 07, 2018


Robert W. McGlynn: 
Beloved Man
Many of us often forget the impact that teachers have had on us. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee never forgot a Ridgefield native who had a major influence on his life.
    Robert William McGlynn was born in 1921 into a working class family who lived on Fairview Avenue. His father, J. Edward McGlynn, was a house painter who late in life became an acting postmaster of Ridgefield.
    McGlynn attended Ridgefield schools and excelled at Ridgefield High School. In his senior year he was editor of The Hilltop Dispatch, the school newspaper, which that year won high praise in the Columbia University scholastic press competition. He was ranked second in his class of 37 students  (behind Stata Norton, who went on to become an acclaimed professor of pharmacology and dean of the University of Kansas School of Health Professions).
    As #2 in his class, McGlynn became salutatorian at the 1939 graduation. His speech, called “Through the Rough,” likened life to a game of golf, in which a group of men play the 18th hole. One player gets a hole in one while others, running into obstacles with their shots, struggle to
reach the cup. The strugglers are gaining more from the game — or from life, he suggests. “It is always wisest and best to seek that goal by the more difficult pass, for with the dumps and the knocks come the care and experience demanded by the importance of the position to be attained,” he says. “Those same bumps and knocks mold the character of the individual and the more intricately molded the character, the more capable the individual.”
One sentence in his talk, describing stronger vs. weaker players, perhaps hinted at one of his own struggles: “Determination, education and competency are ready and willing to back up the weaker.” In his senior year, his physician told McGlynn his health was too fragile for him to attend college and that he might not live beyond the age of 21.
McGlynn ignored the doctor’s advice and went to Wesleyan University where, in 1942, he was chosen a member of Wesleyan’s Honors College. Early on in his college years, he had planned to become a psychologist, “an outgrowth of my profound interest in human nature and all its intricacies,” he once told Karl Nash, editor of The Ridgefield Press.
However, McGlynn apparently found literature more rewarding than psychology. After he graduated in 1943 he was immediately hired as an English instructor at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, where he eventually became a legend.
At Deerfield, around 1948, McGlynn met a new student named John McPhee, who had transferred for a post-graduate senior year after completing Princeton High School and before entering Princeton University. Though McPhee never actually had him as a classroom teacher, McGlynn became both a mentor and a lifelong friend. 
In a 1996 essay McPhee recalled one of his first encounters with McGlynn — on a football practice field.
 “Attendance was taken exactly 17 times a day,” McPhee wrote, remarking on how closely
Deerfield students were watched. “In fall, attendance was taken on the Lower Level by Robert McGlynn with a clipboard. Relying on recognition alone, he checked off names. In the ranks and files of lightweight football calisthenics, he failed to see me. He walked around behind my jumping and flapping teammates, and found me lying on the ground looking at the sky. He liked that. He checked me off. In the extended indolence on the grass, he recognized essence of writer.”
    McPhee biographer Norman Sims describes McGlynn as “a voracious reader with an Irish background and a babbling, fluid way of talking.” He got McPhee excited about literature in a way his classroom teachers never had. One day he’d hand McPhee a book and later McPhee would go back and discuss it with him. “He was willing to talk about them, that was the thing,” McPhee said. “Like the students, he lived there the whole time and the school was his life.” 
And talk he did. McGlynn was famous for his amazing outpourings. As McPhee put it in 1984, his words “come in cloudbursts, in flooded rivers, braided cataracts, foaming white cascades. Kick him in the leg and words pour out his ears.”
In the foreword to McGlynn’s only novel, Ten Trial Street, McPhee wrote that McGlynn “became, among other things, a student of his students, exposing their innards with rays of humor that went to the bone but cut nothing. He led us up the hill to Joyce and Conrad, and down the other side to meet ourselves. He was prodigal with his talent — that brook he was babbling wherever he might be. It was for anyone. It was for me. As a writer now, I am forever grateful to him. And, as it happens, I was never in his class.”
McPhee biographer Michael Pearson put it simply: “McGlynn sparked in McPhee a deeper love of reading than he had ever experienced.”
During his years at Deerfield, McGlynn became widely known for inspiring many young writers and teachers, and for his interest in the literature of Ireland, birthplace of his grandmother and his great-great grandfather. He brought several Irish poets to the campus to speak and work with with students — one, Peter Fallon, spent a year at Deerfield. These visits helped spark McGlynn’s interest in publishing the works of Fallon and others by creating the Deerfield Press, a publishing house
described in its day as “important in the worlds of letters and small presses.”
In 1984, the year he retired, Deerfield Press published the small book, The Little Brown House: A Garland for Robert McGlynn. Among its contributors were poets Seamus Heaney and Robert Creeley. And, of course, John McPhee.
Three years later, alumni and friends donated $850,000 toward establishing the Robert W. McGlynn Chair in the Humanities at Deerfield Academy.
After his retirement Bob McGlynn moved to a log cabin in Warrenton, Va. He read  four to five books a week, gave readings of Irish poetry in the area and maintained a sizable correspondence with former students around the world. (More than two dozen of those students became school, college or university English teachers.)
McGlynn also eschewed technology of almost any kind. “I know nothing of faxes, word processors and computers,” he told a friend around 1990. “I don’t even own a telephone.”
He was only 72 when he died in 1993 — but he was long past 21. His ashes are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery. 
Among the new friends he made in Virginia was newspaper publisher Arthur Arundel, who greatly admired the retired teacher. “There are so few like McGlynn who so completely earn and define the appellation of ‘Beloved Man,’” Arundel wrote after McGlynn’s death.