|Francis D. Martin and his wife, Doris.|
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Francis D. Martin:
“Known affectionately as Mr. Ridgefield,” his Ridgefield Press obituary said, Francis D. Martin “was a jeweler, optician, banker, traveler, church and community leader, figure skater, and a philanthropist who aided many organizations and causes.”
Mr. Martin was probably also the best known Ridgefield resident of the 20th Century. When he and his wife, Doris, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1966, more than 1,500 townspeople attended the open house at their gymnasium on the former Ridgefield School property on North Salem Road.
“My first hobby is helping my fellow man, my church, and my community,” he once told The Press.
Born in 1893 in West Park, N.Y., “Marty” came to Ridgefield at the age of three. His father was for 50 years superintendent of Gov. Phineas C. Lounsbury’s Main Street estate — including what’s we now the Community Center — and his family lived in a house on the south side of Governor Street, where the Wells Fargo bank parking lot is now.
Mr. Martin attended school on Bailey Avenue — “where there were no toilets and no running water, just a pail with a dipper from which everyone drank and no one got typhoid fever,” he once wrote.
He began working at the age of six, carrying mail to the Vinton School for girls on East Ridge (now the Ridgefield police station). At 12, he was caddying at 15 cents a round. A year later, he got the job of night operator for the telephone company at $3.50 a week — five cents an hour — working from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. He said he'd then go home, eat breakfast and catch the 7:35 train for Norwalk High School (Ridgefield didn't have a high school then).
At Norwalk he was captain of the basketball and baseball teams. At basketball, he said, he was high scorer in the state in his final year on a team that had a 21-1 record and won the state championship. The same year, he reported, he pitched Norwalk High’s baseball squad to a 19-1 record, and had the highest batting average, .421.
He later played regional baseball and basketball and, in 1916, pitched three no-hitters for the Woosters of Danbury. That September, he said, he tried out for the Chicago White Sox, was offered a contract, but refused because he was about to be married to Doris Godfrey, his wife of more than 60 years.
Mr. Martin attended the Philadelphia College of Horology and Optics. In 1911, at age 17, he opened Ridgefield’s first clock and optician store in the Donnelly building on Main Street. “For the first 23 years I never failed being at my place of business later than 4:30 in the morning,” he said. “And we kept the stores in Ridgefield open every night in those days.”
He became active in the community, helping found Ridgefield's first Boy Scout troop in 1912, raising funds for the county YMCA, establishing the Promoter’s Club, and serving as first president of the Lions Club. He was a 27-year member of the Board of Finance, a state commissioner of opticians, chairman of the Boys’ Club, chairman of the Red Cross during World War II, president of the First National Bank for many years, and a trustee of Danbury Hospital.
With A.J. Carnall, he worked on the acquisition of the Lounsbury estate to become Veterans Park and the Community Center, and even tried to convince the United Nations to establish its headquarters in town.
For many years, Mr. Martin headed the Branchville Fresh Air Camp, which hosted some 100 children a year through the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund. The camp was on the site of today’s Branchville School.
A leader in the Jesse Lee Memorial United Methodist Church, he was chairman of the church’s Board of Trustees for 35 years and led the church’s move from the center of town to its present location. He gave the church more than a half million dollars.
One of his favorite activities was figure skating, and for many years in February, he would plow snow off the ice at Lake Mamanasco and invite the entire town to a skating party there. Often, more than 1,000 people would attend.
In 1934, he was seriously injured in a skating accident. While he was recuperating, Mr. Martin decided to undertake “five projects to benefit Ridgefield and my fellow man.” He completed four and never revealed what the fifth was.
“The Depression was on, and business was very bad at that time,” he wrote of his first plan. “Foremost in my thought was that in 30 years, wealth would be gone and Ridgefield needed some kind of industry, but no factories, as we are a beautiful residential community.”’
So he began buying properties near the village, particularly along Grove Street and Old Quarry Road. Some people thought he was crazy, he said. One teacher even told his son’s class, “Wise people buy high and dry land; foolish people along railroads, town dumps, and filter beds.”
Eventually, however, the land was zoned for light industry and, improved by Mr. Martin, became home to such companies as Schlumberger and Digitech.
His second project was to upgrade his business into “the finest country jewelry store in America.” (By the time he sold the store to Helen Craig in 1950, he calculated that he had personally repaired 125,000 watches and 25,000 clocks.)
His third project was the acquisition of many run-down properties including the Tudor-style building where Planet Pizza is today. Many were fixed up, and shacks out back torn down.
In 1941 he bought the old Ridgefield Boys School on North Salem Road “with the sole purpose in my mind of keeping out of Ridgefield a very undesirable group of people who were after it,” he said without further explanation. He eventually decided to make it his home and much of the building was razed to make it more house-sized. (The property was once among the sites considered for the world headquarters of the United Nations, now in Manhattan.)
Around 1950, Mr. Martin purchased the 14 acres at the corner of Danbury and Copps Hill Roads so that “when Ridgefield (was) large enough, we would have a shopping center outside congested areas with parking room for over 1,000 cars.” The spot is now Copps Hill Plaza, built in the early 1970’s.
Mr. Martin’s final project was his favorite. “While still in bed, I laid great plans to have an exceptionally fine swimming place for the people of Ridgefield —a place that would be absolutely clean, well-guarded by the police and lifeguards.”
The land at Great Pond was acquired by Mr. Martin and others. Volunteers created a beach in 1953. Fees high enough only to cover costs of operating the private park were charged.
When the Great Pond Holding Corporation donated the property to the town in 1970, Mr. Martin had only two stipulations. “It is the wish of Francis D. Martin,” the deed says of one, “that this park be continuously self-supporting.” He did not want taxpayers who don’t use the beach to have to pay for it and thus, the town must charge fees for its use.
The only other stipulation was that “said premises will be known as Francis D. Martin Park.”
Francis Martin died in 1982 at the age of 88. His wife, Doris, died five years later.
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