Saturday, June 30, 2018
Benjamin and Sarah Burt:
Surviving Frontier Tragedy
All of the town’s first settlers lived lives of hardship that today would be difficult to imagine. One couple, however, endured incredible adversity before even setting foot in Ridgefield: Benjamin Burt and his pregnant wife Sarah were captured by French and Indian fighters, forced to hike hundreds of miles through mid-winter snow to Montreal, and were held captive for two years.
This, after Sarah Burt’s mother, stepmother and several siblings had been slaughtered in frontier attacks.
Yet the Burts survived and became leading citizens of Ridgefield, raising a sizable family and owning considerable property. Their descendants still live in the area three centuries later.
Benjamin Burt was born 1680 in Northampton, Mass., one of a dozen children of David and Mary Holton Burt. Northampton in the late 17th Century was on the western frontier — not unlike the Far West a century and a half later. There was a constant threat from hostile American Indians. It was a time when England and France were at war and the French, who had allied themselves with the Mohawks and other natives, were attacking New England settlers and settlements.
When he was 11, Burt got his first taste of the dangers of frontier life. David, an older brother, was a soldier at a fort in Schenectady, N.Y., on Feb. 29, 1690, when it was destroyed by French and Indian fighters. David was taken prisoner and never heard from again.
As a young man Benjamin learned the smithing trade and in 1701 moved to nearby Deerfield, Mass., to work as a blacksmith. There, a year later he married Sarah Belden.
Sarah had already been through hell.
On Sept. 16, 1696, Mohawks and French descended on the Belden farm at Deerfield, killing Sarah’s mother, and three of her siblings, aged one, four and 16. Sister Abigail, 13, was wounded. The Indians captured her father, Daniel Belden, along with her 21-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister. Sarah, then 15, escaped by hiding in the barn.
Sarah’s captured father and his two children were marched 268 miles to a town outside Montreal, Quebec, where they were sold to Jesuits to work as servants at a seminary there. Although they were in effect slaves, Daniel Belden later reported that they were “favorably dealt with” by the Jesuits.
All three were eventually set free with the help of a “Dutch gentleman” after the French and English signed a treaty in 1698. They returned to Deerfield where they were reunited with Sarah and Abigail. Later that year, Daniel married Hepzibah Buell, who also had a tragic end.
By 1704, the British and French were fighting again. On Feb. 29, a band of 200 French soldiers and 142 Mohawks attacked Deerfield in what became known as the Deerfield Massacre.
And among the captives were Sarah and her husband, Benjamin Burt. Sarah was eight months pregnant.
The 25-day trek to Montreal was brutal.
The Rev. John Williams, a pastor at Deerfield, was also taken prisoner after seeing two of his children killed in the raid. He later described the ordeal of the march: “The condition and sufferings of these unfortunate creatures cannot be adequately described; in the few brief, agonizing minutes of the attack, they had neither forethought nor time to make the least preparation for such a fearful journey; poorly clad and shod, the rocks, bushes, and brambles soon rent their scanty garments and when sodden with the penetrating melted snow their power to resist the icy blasts was almost exhausted. At night when the exertion of motion no longer stimulated their blood, they could only save their vital warmth by lying close together in the snow, a feebly palpitating mass of misery.”
A Burt family historian reported that the captives “suffered from fatigue and insufficient food, and when they lagged or were disabled, they were slain.” Nineteen people on the march were murdered, mostly pregnant women. One of them was the wife of Pastor Williams, who later penned this verse:
“I saw in the naked forest
“Our scattered remnant cast,
“A screen of shivering branches
“Between them and the blast;
“The snow was falling ’round them,
“The dying fell as fast.”
In an 1893 book on the Burt family, “Early Days in New England,” Henry Martyn Burt wrote about Sarah Burt’s travails: “The writer has often in fancy depicted to himself this ancestress, subjected in her early wifehood to that direful ordeal; the days of unmitigated misery in the deep snows of the bleak and trackless wilderness; the piercing cold; the sore, aching, frost-bitten limbs; the ever gnawing hunger; the slaughter of her step-mother and of the many women burdened like herself; of the long nights haunted by the vague dread of the morrow with all its known and unknowable terrors. Was it with joy or dread that she felt within her the throbs of her unborn child?”
The Burts survived the march and, like Sarah’s family had been eight years earlier, were sold to the Jesuits to work as servants. Sarah gave birth to a son, Christopher, on April 25, shortly after arriving in Montreal.
Now a family of three, the Burts spent two years in Quebec before they were given their freedom. On May 30, 1706, they sailed aboard a ship up the St. Lawrence River and down the Atlantic Coast, arriving in Boston Aug. 2. While on the voyage, Sarah gave birth to a second son, named Seaborn Burt. Like his father, Seaborn would become a major character in early Ridgefield. (Historian George Rockwell incorrectly assumed Seaborn’s name was the result of his being born when his parents were immigrating to North America. Benjamin Burt’s father had come to Massachusetts around 1635; the Burts were already a well-established New England family by 1706.)
The Burts returned to Deerfield but clearly, with 18 family members having been slaughtered in battles with Indians and Frenchmen, the town offered not only great dangers but also bad memories. They decided to move to Norwalk in much safer southern Connecticut where Sarah had family. The Burts had another connection with Norwalk: Benjamin Hoyt — one of the 112 Deerfield settlers captured with them — was also living in Norwalk. Hoyt would soon be among the founders of the new town of Ridgefield in 1708.
Sarah’s uncles, Samuel and John Belden, were early residents of Norwalk, which had been founded in 1649. John Belden would become one of the proprietors — first landowners — of Ridgefield, along with Benjamin Hoyt.
The new community of Ridgefield needed a blacksmith, a tradesman who could produce nails, door hardware, and kitchen utensils for houses, plows, shovels, and other tools for the farm, and axles, brackets and other parts for wagons. Most of the Proprietors knew Burt from his Belden and Hoyt connections, and offered him the job.
As an incentive to move to Ridgefield, the Proprietors offered Burt a home lot and one-28th of the outlying land. In exchange, he would have to agree to work at least four years to gain full title.
The Burts apparently liked Ridgefield, for they remained here the rest of their lives. They probably lived initially at their granted home lot on Main Street, at the north corner of Catoonah Street (which for years was called Burt’s Lane). However, they may have later moved out near Lake Mamanasco. They added three more children to their family after moving here, and as many as eight offspring may have lived here. Some later moved to New York’s frontier.
Burt served his community in various offices, including being a selectman in 1720.
He was apparently a wise investor in land and local industry. His name appears frequently in land transactions. By the 1730s, he owned a saw mill on the west side of Danbury Road, selling it in 1746 to David Osburn.
In 1742, Burt purchased the gristmill at Lake Mamanasco. Probably the major wheat- and corn-grinding mill in town, it had been built around 1716 by Daniel Sherwood, the town’s first miller.
Sarah Burt died in 1749. After Benjamin’s death in 1759, he bequeathed the mill to his son, Seaborn, who continued to operate it until his death in 1773.
Meanwhile, members of the growing Burt family were acquiring much land around Lake Mamanasco. In fact, so many Burts lived in that vicinity that the lake was often called Burt’s Pond and an old path on nearby West Mountain was referred to as Burt’s Road. (The land for Sunset Hall, the famous estate on Old West Mountain Road owned in 2018 by Dick Cavett, was once an old Burt farm belonging, in 1890, to Stephen Burt, great great grandson of Benjamin.)
Many of the Mamanasco Burts ran into hard times when the Revolution broke out. Most were Tories and fled Ridgefield. Several children and grandchildren of Benjamin went to Canada and wound up establishing a Burt clan that today is large and spread throughout several of the provinces.
During the Revolution, the ownership of the Mamanasco mill seemed to be in chaos; part of it had been owned by Burts who had fled. At one point, the Proprietors seemed to step in and take control of it.
After the war, some of the Burts returned to Ridgefield. Among them was Theophilus Burt, one of Seaborn’s sons, whose property had been confiscated by the state in the 1770s; some was sold off with the notation he “hath absconded and taken side with the British troops against the United States of America.” On his return, Theophilus petitioned the General Assembly for title to his old land; the assembly in 1792 restored title to what was left of his property in government hands, probably including a share in Mamanasco grist mill. Burts continued to have an interest in the mill into the 1800s.
Benjamin Burt is a rare example of a first settler for whom we have a sample of writing. That
In the 1753 letter, Benjamin asks his son, Benjamin Jr., to give Christopher a cow, adding that dad would pay for it when senior and junior next get together. Christopher had evidently had a life of considerable hardship, which Burt family historian Henry Martyn Burt attributed to the traumatic birth in Canada. He “did not have a prosperous life,” the author said. He “came into life under such distressing circumstances, ... which does not appear to have lessened in his declining years. The prenatal influences upon the child, which must have colored his whole life, no doubt had much to do in unsettling what otherwise might have been a prosperous and stable career.”
Friday, June 29, 2018
Erland Van Lidth de Jeude:
A Large Talent
Erland Van Lidth de Jeude was one of the most colorful, talented and fascinating people to grow up in town.
Born in the Netherlands in 1953, Van Lidth de Jeude became a giant of a man, standing six foot six and weighing at times more than 400 pounds. He lived here from 1962 to 1970 and while at Ridgefield High School was a champion shot-putter.
He turned down a football scholarship to Harvard and went to MIT where he took up Greco-Roman wrestling – “I found it more fun to throw people; they came back,” the shot-putter joked in a 1978 Ridgefield Press interview.
By that year he was ranked third in his class in the world, based on his performance during the World Cup competition in Teheran, Iran (the year before the Islamic Revolution there).
He was to compete in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, but the U.S. boycotted the games.
While still an undergraduate at MIT, he was a teaching assistant, a rare honor. After college, he became a systems and computer analyst for Citibank, but also studied opera and sang with companies in three states (siblings, Philip, a tenor, and Philine, a soprano, are both classical singers).
In 1978 Warner Brothers cast Van Lidth de Jeude as “Terror,” a member of the Fordham Baldies street gang, in “The Wanderers.” Using the name Erland Van Lidth, he went on to play a prisoner in the 1980 film, “Stir Crazy,” with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. He appeared a horror movie, “Alone in the Dark,” starring Jack Palance, that has become a sort of cult film.
Van Lidth de Jeude’s last film was “Running Man” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, completed shortly before his death from heart failure in 1987 when he was only 34 years old.
Thursday, June 28, 2018
Women and Power
Jane Trahey’s accomplishments read like those of a half dozen people put together, all talented.
She was a leading fashion copywriter, the first adwoman to earn more than a million dollars in a year, and among the first to establish her own New York City agency (with such clients as Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, and Elizabeth Arden).
She wrote a half dozen books of humor, including “Pecked to Death by Goslings,” a novel about living in the small town of Old Gosling — i.e., Ridgefield. It described her conversion of a New Road barn into a home, a place she called Versailles, “not because it looks like it, but because it costs as much,” she said.
Her novel, “Life with Mother Superior,” retitled “The Trouble with Angels,” was made into a Hollywood movie starring Rosalind Russell and directed by Ida Lupino.
Trahey was a playwright, the author of “Ring Around the Bathtub,” which was on Broadway.
She had also written screenplays, cookbook parodies, and regular columns for Advertising Age, The Chicago Tribune, and Working Women.
She was a leader in the National Organization for Women, wrote and lectured extensively about women and power, and was a founder of the First Women’s Bank of New York. She wrote an autobiographical self-help book called “Jane Trahey on Women & Power: Who's Got It. How to Get It.”
And she won more than 200 awards for advertising, writing and public service.
Born in Chicago in 1923, Trahey graduated from Mundelein College, a Catholic women’s school, in 1943. Her first job was at The Chicago Tribune in the records library, known as the morgue. “My mother never got over it,” she once said. “Every time she would call and someone would answer ‘the morgue,’ she'd cross herself and hang up.”
Her real career began writing advertising copy for men’s underwear. One of her first ad jobs was at Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. She came to New York in 1956 and soon founded Jane Trahey Associates, which operated for many years under several names..
“It was a very informal company, like a playground,” Rocky Piliero, Trahey’s production manager, told The New York Times. “Ms. Trahey didn’t like accounts. She liked projects. She liked to do something new. She’d be gung-ho for six months, then get bored.”
She had her country home on New Road from the 1950s until the early 1970s, when she moved to Kent. She shared her place here with fabric artist Tammis Keefe, who died in 1960, and with her companion for more than 40 years, pioneering TV producer Jacqueline Babbin.
Ms. Trahey died in April 2000 in Kent at the age of 76.
Wednesday, June 27, 2018
It’s not many people who can invent a phrase that becomes part of the language. Alvin Toffler did just that. “Future Shock,” the title of his 1970 book, is now in every dictionary, defined as the inability to cope with the many, fast-paced changes of modern society.
Toffler was once the nation’s leading “futurist,” a person who studies where we’re going. “Future Shock,” published when he lived on Deer Hill Drive, discussed what happens “when too much change hits too fast for people to absorb.”
It sold millions of copies and has been translated into dozens of languages.
In his sequel 1980 best seller, “The Third Wave,” he predicted that a worldwide technological revolution, like the agricultural and industrial revolutions before it, would change the way in which the world lives and works.
The New York Times reported that Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang of China convened conferences to discuss “The Third Wave” in the early 1980s, and in 1985 the book was the No. 2 best seller in China. Only the speeches of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sold more copies.
Toffler was born in New York in 1928, the only son of Polish immigrants. He was writing poetry by the time he was 7. Though he admitted he was hardly a scholar in college and more interested in political activism, he managed to graduate from New York University with a degree in English and, there, met his wife, Adelaide Elizabeth “Heidi” Farrell.
He began his writing career as a reporter for a trade magazine called “Industry and Welding” in 1954, primarily because he was experienced in mechanics.
“The editor told me, ‘You’re getting this job because you know how to weld,” Toffler once recalled. “Now show me you know how to write.’”
He eventually got a job at Fortune magazine, and wrote many free-lance articles for both scholarly and popular magazines. The Times said his 1964 Playboy interview with Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov was considered one of Playboy’s best.
Heidi Toffler, who survives him, helped in writing all his books, including “Powershift” (1990), the final volume in their trilogy, and War and Anti-War (1995). In all, he wrote 13 books. The Tofflers lived here from 1967 to 1974. He died June 27, 2016, in Los Angeles where he had lived for many years. He was 87 years old.
Monday, June 25, 2018
Six-Time Candidate for President
A conservative, Republican town like Ridgefield hardly seemed the place where one of the 20th Century’s leading liberals would live. But Norman Thomas, six-time candidate for president of the United States on the Socialist ticket, had not one, but two summer homes here.
Thomas was born in 1884 in Ohio where as a boy he delivered newspapers for Warren G. Harding’s Marion Daily Star. Like his father and grandfather, he was a Princeton graduate (magna cum laude) who became a Presbyterian minister.
One of his first posts was in East Harlem, where he devoted himself to helping struggling immigrants, especially Italian-Americans.
“The neighborhood’s tenements were densely packed and could be tense,” wrote Louisa Thomas in “Conscience,” a biography of her grandfather. “Kids carried brass knuckles and the occasional pipe.” The latter was for beating, not smoking.
He and his wife, Violet, loved their work, but there were many differences between the poor immigrant residents of his parish and the Presbyterian minister and his wealthy wife, Louisa Thomas said. “One of them was that when the summer heat rose and released the street’s smells, when the Catholic church a block away held its annual festa and the carousing lasted all night, the Thomases could leave.”
And where they often headed was Ridgefield. In 1911, Violet bought a place on Limestone Road, which they called “Old Farm” and used weekends and summers.
“Norman would take the train out whenever his parish responsibilities and the countless organizations to which he belonged would allow,” Louisa said. “There was a large garden and woods, and a lake nearby where Norman and the kids would canoe. They thought it was a refuge.”
By 1914, the Thomases moved to a house on West Mountain Road, but continued to own the Limestone farm until 1923, by which time they were no longer summering here.
Thomas was a pacifist, and opposed America’s entry into the first world war. After the United
He also grew increasingly critical of the capitalist social order and joined the Socialist Party. In a letter he included with his application, he said that he did not agree with all the Socialist Party’s platform and he feared any state that tried to master the minds and hearts of men, but that it was time for those who despaired of injustice to “stand up and be counted,” Louisa Thomas said.
He left the Presbyterian ministry to spend his life promoting the welfare of the poor and Socialist ideals. He ran for president in every election from 1928 to 1948, winning his greatest vote — 885,000 or 2.2% of the total — in 1932, the year Franklin Roosevelt was first elected. Some of his ideals were adopted by Roosevelt’s administration.
He initially opposed getting involved in World War II but supported participation after Pearl Harbor, though he believed that the conflict could have been avoided honorably. However, he opposed the internment of Japanese Americans and called the ACLU’s support of internment “dereliction of duty.”
He remained an activist all his life. He promoted birth control, opposed the Vietnam War, supported many labor causes, and backed the Civil Rights movement — Dr. Martin Luther King telegrammed him congratulations on his 80th birthday in 1964. Conservative leader William F. Buckley chose Thomas to be the first guest on his new television interview show, Firing Line, in 1966.
“Thomas had superb oratorical skills and passionate convictions,” The Ridgefield Press said in 1982. “They combined with a limitless energy to make him a strong spokesman for Socialist principles throughout his long life. During his few years in Ridgefield he soaked up his East Harlem experiences and distilled it into a coherent mission that he led until his death in 1968.”
One of Norman Thomas’s sons was Evan Welling Thomas 2d (1920-1999), who, as an editor for HarperCollins and W. W. Norton & Company, published such best sellers as John F. Kennedy's “Profiles in Courage,”’ “Death of a President'' by William Manchester, and “The First Circle” by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. In 1967, Evan Thomas acquired the memoirs of Josef Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, who’d defected to the United States. Her payment, which generated a huge amount of publicity, was more than $1 million, then a record amount for a book.
Evan 2nd’s son, Evan Welling Thomas III, was a Newsweek editor and columnist, and author of nine books, including two New York Times bestsellers.
Sunday, June 24, 2018
A Pioneering Chef
Although he spent his final years operating a country inn in the small Connecticut town of Ridgefield, Albert Stockli was one of the most renowned chefs in America, the man who helped create some of the nation’s top restaurants a half century ago.
Probably the best of them — and once the best in the United States — was the Four Seasons (which closed its doors in July 2016 after 57 years of serving fine food).
A native of Switzerland, Chef Stockli began cooking at the age of nine, studied in the capitals of Europe and came to this country in the 1940s.
He joined Restaurant Associates as their chef and, created the menu at the associates-owned Mermaid Tavern, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, Trattoria, Charlie Brown’s, Zum Zum, and other famous New York City dining places. But it was the Four Seasons, which opened in 1959, that was the most famous and respected.
“The Four Seasons, probably the most important New York restaurant of the 20th century, Americanized fine dining and set in motion many of the trends that still dominate restaurant culture in the United States,” wrote William Grimes in the July 10, 2016 New York Times. “In its time, the Four Seasons was the most modern, the most daring, the most New York restaurant the city had ever seen.”
Grimes called Stockli “Restaurant Associate’s chameleon-like Swiss chef” who “emphasized fresh ingredients supplied by small producers around the United States, seasonal changes and a contemporary, international slant on flavor combinations.”
“Food historians,” Grimes said, “now see it as the starting point for a series of trends that came to define American dining: the cult of freshness and organically grown ingredients…; the inventive interpretation of regional American dishes, which became known as New American cooking; the international blending of styles and ingredients, later described as fusion.”
“In 1959, they were naming the places where the ingredients came from,” Jeremiah Tower, the chef at Chez Panisse in the early 1970s, said of The Four Seasons. “They would write: ‘Handpicked tomatoes from Long Island, carved tableside.’ They were the first to pick up on farm-to-table.”
However, a liver ailment in 1965 prompted Chef Stockli to leave the city’s hectic life and his partners, Restaurant Associates, and to run Stonehenge in Ridgefield.
Already famous under founder Victor Gilbert, Stockli’s Stonehenge gained a worldwide reputation for excellence, and many notables dined there, including scores of United Nations diplomats.
He was known for his inventive dishes that used fresh neighborhood foods – he visited farms and dairies himself, and had a network of hunters and fishermen who would bring him game. At a deer park near Millbrook, N.Y., he even maintained his own herd of Damhirsch, a variety of deer from his homeland that he used as a source of venison.
“Everything will be made fresh on the premises,” he told Craig Claiborne, then The Times’s food editor. “We will have game in the fall, the freshest of vegetables whenever they are available. There is a well‐stocked trout stream near the restaurant and customers may have trout whenever and however they like. We will make our pates and country sausage.”
In 1970, Stockli put together a book of his favorite recipes, which Knopf published as “Splendid Fare: The Albert Stockli Cookbook,” and which is still being sold today.
Stockli was only 54 years old when he died in 1972.
Saturday, June 23, 2018
Sam and Joseph Farruggio:
The Murderous Brothers
The Murderous Brothers
The early 1930s was a wild time on the national scene. Prohibition had created crimes and criminals, murders were commonplace and the Depression was sparking social unrest.
Involved in all of these problems were three brothers—Sam, Joseph and Calogero Farruggio—who spent their childhood in Ridgefield.
Involved in all of these problems were three brothers—Sam, Joseph and Calogero Farruggio—who spent their childhood in Ridgefield.
In May 1934, two of the brothers made big news: “Desperate Man Hunt Centers in Ridgefield for Alleged Murderers of New York Cop,” screamed the front-page headline in the May 10 Ridgefield Press. In the New York Times, it was “2 Fanatics Named as Police Slayers.”
On their way to burn down a church, Sam and Joseph Farruggio had shot and killed a New York City policeman and a passerby, and seriously wounded another officer.
The shootings occurred on Friday, May 4, around 3 a.m., when the Farruggios were stopped by Patrolmen Lawrence Ward and William Brennan as the brothers were walking on East 101st Street in Harlem. One brother was carrying a two-gallon can of gasoline.
The two were on their way to “burn the first Roman Catholic Church they came to,” police said.
When the patrolmen tried to question the pair, they ran into a building at 322 East 101st Street where they lived with their other brother, Calogero, and “their aged mother.” Calogero was on the stoop, and Officer Brennan held him outside the building while Officer Ward chased the other two brothers.
A shot rang out. Ward was hit in the shoulder and fell backward down a staircase, breaking his back. He died shortly afterward.
Brennan released Calogero and chased Sam and Joseph up the stairs, over a rooftop, onto
Sam and Joseph escaped, prompting the manhunt in New York City and Fairfield County. Calogero was held in jail as a material witness.
Hundreds attended the funeral of Officer Ward, who had been married only three weeks earlier. The Times described his widow weeping as the coffin was carried into the church, and the police band played “Nearer My God to Thee.”
The Press story reported that two New York detectives were working with Lt. Leo F. Carroll, head of the state police in Ridgefield, in trying to track down the brothers. The two were “well known to Lt. Carroll” and were “said to be religious and social fanatics.” The Times quoted New York Police captain Edward Mullins of the homicide squad as saying they were “inflamed by Communist literature and atheist pamphlets.”
Captain Mullins said, “It was plain from Calogero’s story that the brothers were obsessed with the idea that they were haunted by ‘evil spirits’ and that the only way they could rid themselves of the spirits would be by setting fire to a church—any church.”
Police were checking out the pair’s former haunts in both Ridgefield and Bridgeport. They were aided by information provided by Calogero, whom detectives described as “dull-eyed and not overly bright.”
Some six months later, on January 18, 1935, two New York City transit policemen picked up “several suspicious-appearing individuals on the Astoria elevated line,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on January 20. They included the Farruggios, who were “carrying brown paper bags which, they said, contained bread....As they were led to a patrol wagon by Patrolman Thomas Connors, they ripped the bags open, and drew revolvers from them. Firing away, they fled down a Brooklyn street. Police returned the fire and the pair dropped. They were taken to St. Johns Hospital, where they died.”
The Eagle’s account was buried at the end of a long story that recounted six murders and shootings over the previous day or two in New York City.
The origin of the Farruggio brothers (also spelled Farruggia) is unclear. The Times said they were the only surviving offspring in a family that once numbered 24 children and that they came from “a remote corner” of Sicily. Citing Connecticut State Police, the Times said they had entered the country without passports.
However, in Ridgefield Town Hall are birth records that indicate the Farruggios were both born in Ridgefield—Salvatore “Sam” Farruggio in 1913 and his brother Giuseppe Liopoldo “Joseph” Farruggio three years later. They were listed as the sixth and seventh children of Calogero and Cyrenna Norata Farruggio, who, the records said, had come to this country from Parma, Italy. Calogero, the father, was listed on both birth certificates as a laborer.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the birth records appear to have been supplied by the Connecticut State Police sometime after Sam and Joseph were killed. What’s more, the birth years appear to conflict with the ages published in the Times, which had said Sam was forty and Joseph forty-two.
State police described Joseph as a “transient factory worker who settled down in Ridgefield as a small-time merchant and bootlegger” who had operated “an alcohol cutting plant.” Salvatore, they said, “is a similar cut from the same cheese. He beat the war cloud out of Italy.”
The Times said that Joseph and Salvatore had been arrested in Ridgefield in 1931 on a charge of receiving stolen goods and were sentenced to one to three years in state prison. “Their Ridgefield job was bad,” Captain Mullins said. “It wasn’t professional. They’re not too sharp. It was the only crime on their record.”
After they moved to New York City, police said, the brothers eked out a living peddling hot dogs from a hand cart along Third Avenue. Calogero did most of the work, with Sam and Joseph helping out.
“They seldom made more than 35 or 50 cents a day,” the Times quoted police as saying. —from “Wicked Ridgefield,” The History Press, 2016.
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Carlton Ross Stevens and his motorcycle in World War I.
Carlton Ross Stevens:
War Hero and Inventor
Barely 20 years old, Ridgefield native Carleton Ross Stevens had one of the most important jobs in World War I: He delivered the first sectional terms of the Armistice to General Pershing.
To do that, Sgt. Stevens rode a motorcycle more than 800 miles in 19 hours. He stopped only three times — once when he crashed — and ate only chocolate.
Sgt. Stevens, who had entered the service in June 1918, was often under fire while on duty as a motorcycle dispatch rider. In one case, while on a motorcycle trip in France, enemy fire was so heavy he had to hide in a swamp for five days, with only raw bacon to eat.
Never formally schooled beyond the eighth grade, Mr. Stevens went on to invent numerous machines and electronic devices, lecture at Yale, and build a highly successful manufacturing business in Waterbury.
Born in 1898 of a longtime Ridgefield family, he joined American Brass in Waterbury after the war and began inventing automated machines and later, electronic devices. (In 1912, as a boy of only 14, he had set up the first wireless "ham" radio station in Ridgefield and he remained a ham operator all his life.)
Stevens founded his own firm, the Stevens Company in Waterbury, and during World War II, created devices for the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb; he lectured at Yale on the Manhattan Project. During the war, he was also a major in the Army signal corps.
He died in 1970 in Thomaston at the age of 72.
Sunday, June 17, 2018
Octavius ‘Tabby’ Carboni:
A Caesar as Spry as A Cat
Tabby Carboni came to this country as a child and grew up to become a contributor Ridgefield’s civic, business and recreational life for most of the 20th Century. He was an insurance agent, a banker, a school board member, the town’s treasurer, and a lot more — including an accurate source of what life was like a century ago.
Octavius Joseph Carboni was born in Monterado, Italy, in 1899, a son of Benvenuto and Assunta Casagrande Carboni. His father came here in 1901 and worked as a mason on the town’s new water supply system. In 1903, Tabby, his older brother, Adrian, and their mother sailed to the United States to join Benvenuto in Ridgefield. (The family would later grow to include Olinto “Lynce” Carboni, Mary Carboni Mitchell, and Reno “Renz” Carboni.)
“My mother was the first Italian woman in town,” Carboni said in a 1971 interview with his sons Stephen and Robert (which will be posted here in the coming days). “My brother and I were the first two Italians who went to the public schools.”
In 1908 his parents opened a grocery story at the corner of Prospect Street and Bailey Avenue, living in an apartment on the second floor. As a boy, Caboni worked at the store, doing various chores to help his parents.
Also as a boy, he had to deal the discrimination aimed at the immigrant population. “I always felt a little inferior,” he said. “I regarded myself as a foreigner. I just felt myself lower, especially when they called you names that you don’t hear too much today. Kids would do that.”
But he quickly decided to become a part of his new nation and community. “I paid more attention to school work and Adrian and I did pretty well. We both graduated at the top of the class in the school we went to through the eighth grade.”
This, after attending kindergarten for two years, “just to learn the language.”
He in fact learned the language so well that, from his childhood through his teen years, he served as a translator. He was often called upon to accompany Italian-speaking mothers when they took sick children to English-speaking doctors, and was also a translator at weddings and other ceremonies. Even adults studying English in night school would seek the boy’s help with their homework.
Besides helping his father at the store, Carboni got his first official job when he was 13: he was a “printer’s devil” at The Ridgefield Press, assisting in the paper’s production in the basement of the Masonic Building, just south of the town hall. However, he also wrote up local sports events for The Press — setting his words in lead type, letter by letter, with his own hands. He eventually earned $7.50 a week — about $190 in 2018.
Carboni later worked for the Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Company in Georgetown, and the U.S. Post Office. He then spent 28 years as an agent for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, retiring in 1957. Two years later, he joined the State National Bank — among the first employees of the office here when it opened in 1959 as the first new “commercial bank” in town since 1900. He retired in 1967.
During World War I he served in the Connecticut Home Guard. In World War II, he was a member of the Ridgefield Ration Board, in charge of tire distribution, which was very restricted in the war years. Sometimes, he recalled, people without a real need for a tire would come up to him and ask for one, half in jest.
“Walk!” Carboni would reply. “It’ll do you good.”
He believed in exercise. In 1989, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, more than 100 family and friends attended a party at the Italian American Club where he joked to the audience: “I’ve had to cut my jogging down to two miles a day from five.”
Active in sports from his youth onward, Carboni played for Ridgefield baseball, basketball and football teams. He was also an accomplished golfer and bowler.
In 1992 interview, he described the source his nickname “Tabby,” bestowed by schoolmates. “I was spry and somewhat athletic,” he said with a grin. “The kids called me ‘Tabby Cat.’ Finally, they left off the ‘cat.’”
He was honored for his sports achievements by the Danbury Old Timers in 1973 and the Ridgefield Old Timers in 1992 — the first year the then-new organization handed out awards.
Carboni was also active in the Italian-American Mutual Aid Society — the “Italian Club” — and served as its president during World War II. (Years later, his son Steve was elected president, the only father and son to have both served as president.)
Carboni was a member of the Board of Education for 20 years during the 1930s and 40s, and was the town’s treasurer from 1957 to 1959 — between his retirement from Met Life and his job at State National.
His concern for the older population in town was demonstrated by his service on the Housing Authority, which oversees apartments for the elderly, from the 1970s until his death in 1992 at the age of 93.
Carboni was esteemed for his memory of the long-ago people, places and events in Ridgefield. Over the years he was often consulted for information about life in the early 20th Century, and his recollections of the people and events of long ago remained clear, even when he was in his 90s. (He and another oldtimer, Francis D. Martin, sometimes publicly disagreed about various historical events. In the end, however, Carboni was usually proven to have the more accurate information.)
For many of his last years, Carboni met regularly with other older Ridgefielders at the Keeler Tavern Museum to help identify scenes and individuals from the historic collection of photographs taken by Joseph Hartmann from the 1890s into the 1930s.
Many were snapshots of the details of life long ago. Recalling in 1971 what the Ridgefield Station — across Prospect Street from his father’s store — was like, Carboni said, “The 5:15 was a very popular train, coming in at night with people who commuted to New York City. The area where the Ridgefield Supply Company is now was full of horses and carriages waiting for the trains…. Some of the horses were high spirited. When the train came in, it made a lot of noise and the people had to hold on to them with all their might.”
While everyone knew him as Tabby, Carboni had a somewhat unusual given name, Octavius. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that his father explained where that name came from and that one of his middle names was Caesar.
Asked whether he was impressed to learn he’d be named for Octavius, who became Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, Tabby Carboni replied with a chuckle, “No. I didn’t know him — or Julius either!”
Friday, June 15, 2018
George J. Stengel:
George J. Stengel was an artist who spent his last years in Ridgefield and who was instrumental in the founding of one of the region’s major museums.
A native of Newark, N.J., Mr. Stengel was born in 1866 but moved as a child to Yonkers, N.Y., where he lived until 1920 when he moved to Ridgefield. At 14, he went to work for a Yonkers carpet manufacturer, Alexander Smith and Sons, and soon developed an interested in art. He attended night classes for two years while working days. The head of Alexander Smith recognized his artistic ability, and sent him to the famous Julian Academy in Paris, where he studied for two years.
When he returned, he joined the carpet-maker’s design department, which he led for many years until his retirement in 1920. In his free time, Stengel painted, mostly country scenes in the impressionist style he had learned in Paris where, among his Julian classmates was Childe Hassam.
In Ridgefield he and his wife, Grace Varian, moved to lower Main Street in Ridgefield, a house almost opposite Rockwell Road and known as the "Hoyt Place." Stengel remodeled the house and transformed the barn in the rear of the house into a large artist's studio.
He spent his retirement painting and was a frequent exhibitor at art galleries in the metropolitan area. He was widely known for his paintings of Mexico, which he and his wife had visited.
He was a member of the Salmagundi Club and the Guild of American Painters.
In 1916, he and noted sculptor Isidore Konti founded the Yonkers Art Association. Eight years later, the association petitioned Yonkers’ city council to turn the Glenview Mansion, overlooking the Palisades, into the Hudson River Museum. “The members of the Association were instrumental in convincing the city of Yonkers to use the beautiful Glenview Mansion as a museum,” said art historian Thomas C. Folk. “The newly organized Hudson River Museum opened its doors in December of 1924 with the ninth annual exhibition of the Association. Although the Yonkers Art Association no longer exists, the museum is thriving, and is an important part of Stengel's legacy.”
The museum is the largest in Westchester County.
Stengel died on November 31, 1937. “Stengel’s body of work is amazing for the quality and quantity he produced in about a twenty-year period toward the end of his life; achieving the dream of a career in the fine arts following a successful career in design,” Mr. Folk said.
Today his paintings can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction.
Thursday, June 14, 2018
Henry G. Stebbins:
Civil War Congressman
Ridgefield’s second native-born Congressman apparently didn’t like politics much, preferring the world of high finance.
According to the official Library of Congress records, Henry G. Stebbins was born in Ridgefield in 1811, though the New York Times said in his obituary that he was a native of that city.
Henry was a great-great grandson of Benjamin Stebbins, one of Ridgefield’s founders whose large saltbox house stood at the north end of Main Street and was used as a hospital during the Battle of Ridgefield. (Razed around 1893, the house stood on the site of today’s Casagmo.)
Henry’s parents were John and Mary Largin Stebbins. A Ridgefield native, John became a fairly well-to-do bank president in New York City and the couple may have been living in New York
(Henry’s sister, Emma, was born in New York City in 1815. Emma became a noted American sculptress and feminist lesbian — her 1873 statue, “The Angel of the Waters,” also known as the “Bethesda Fountain,” stands in Central Park, probably thanks in part to her brother, who headed the Park Commission.)
His father wanted Henry to become a lawyer and sent him to a private school. However, according to a rather bizarre account in his Times obituary, “while prosecuting his studies, he was accidentally struck on the head with a heavy ruler, and was prostrated for some time from the effects of the blow. When he recovered, his physicians insisted that he must give up his studies and his father, reluctantly abandoning his original plans, provided a position for him as an errand boy in the bank.”
Clearly, the ruler blow had no lasting effect for, by 1833 and in his early 20s, the “errand boy,” was working for S. Jaudan & Co., and that year became a member of the New York Stock Exchange. In 1859, he founded his own brokerage, Henry G. Stebbins & Son.
He became a colonel in the 12th Regiment of the New York militia in 1847 and for much of his life was known as Col. Stebbins.
Stebbins eventually rose to the top of the stock exchange, serving three terms as its president: 1851-52, 1858-59 and 1863-64. During the last term, he was also a U.S. congressman.
A Democrat, Stebbins was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1862, took his seat March 4, 1863, but resigned on Oct. 24, 1864, six months before his term ended. He left because he felt his Democratic constituents didn’t support his hard-line approach to the Civil War; he was a strong supporter of President Lincoln’s handling of the conflict. Many Democrats just wanted the war to stop.
“Throughout the session I favored a vigorous prosecution of the war, until the authority of the Government should be reestablished over every part of the United States,” he said in his letter of resignation to the “Democratic citizens” of his district.. “Throughout the session I was opposed to the taking of any steps to a peace calculated to weaken the national authority, or that required negotiations with men in rebellion who had not laid down their arms.
“I am now convinced, though with much regret, and have now to acknowledge my conviction that in all these respects my conduct is, and would continue to be, disapproved by a large majority of those who elected me.
“That you may have the opportunity to put in my place one who will more truly carry out your views, I have resigned my seat.”
“That you may have the opportunity to put in my place one who will more truly carry out your views, I have resigned my seat.”
Stebbins added, “In the future all my efforts from the position of a private citizen will be directed to the support of such men and such measures as I shall consider best calculated to sustain the honor of my country, to develop its unparalleled resources, and to perpetuate our beneficent institutions.”
A subsequent convention of the Union Party, a conservative party that promoted both the union and the constitution, nominated Stebbins to fill his own vacancy.
“The bold and independent course of Mr. Stebbins, and the reasons which induced him to cut loose from the peace-at-any-price influences … should now receive a hearty indorsement from the War Democracy and all other Union men of that District,” The Times reported after the convention. “With proper effort, he may be returned to finish the term which he has so honorably begun.” He declined to do so.
Stebbins continued as a leading financier in New York, including serving on boards of directors of major corporations. In late 1860s and 1870s he was president of the city Park Commission which oversaw Central Park, a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, president of the Academy of Music, and commodore of the New York Yacht Club.
He died in 1881 at the age of 70.
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Seaman and Wordsmith
Seaman, writer, boxer, and show dog breeder: Eric Sonnichsen was no ordinary Ridgefielder.
The New York City native, whose mother was a Russian countess and a journalist for The International Herald Tribune, ran away from home at the age of 16 (his father had done the same thing at 12).
He sailed on freighters around the world, crossed the country on freight trains, and boxed professionally on three continents, including in Golden Gloves competition. He worked in the lumber mills of the Pacific Northwest and was a gandy dancer for railroads, laying and repairing tracks.
But he was also writing, and H.L. Mencken, then editor of The American Mercury, accepted his first story when Mr. Sonnichsen was 19 years old. He also sold work to Story magazine.
While he continued to write most of his life, he stopped trying to sell his work after he went back to sea. “He was bad at marketing,” said his daughter, actress Ingrid Sonnichsen.
He spent more than 45 years as a merchant seaman, including service aboard Liberty ships plying the North Atlantic during World War II. Twice his vessels were torpedoed by German submarines. He retired in 1973 as a first mate.
He and his wife, Muriel Gallick, a Broadway actress whom he married at the Stage Door Canteen, came to Ridgefield in 1965 and operated Meriking Kennels, breeding and showing German shepherds.
Mrs. Sonnichsen, who most of her life was afraid of dogs, became so enchanted with them that she wound up an American Kennel Club official recognized to judge 26 breeds. She died a year and a day before her husband. He died Dec. 31, 1999, the day before “the new millennium,” at the age of 90.
Monday, June 11, 2018
Edward H. Smith:
He Hated Slavery
Aside from being a well-known Ridgefield businessman of his era, Edward H. Smith had two unusual and noteworthy characteristics: He was an impassioned orator against slavery and he died on the same day as his wife.
Although a native of Westport, Edward H. Smith was a descendant of one of the founders of Ridgefield. He was born in 1827 and grew up in New York City and in Wilton. When he was 17, he went to Mobile, Ala., to be a clerk in the store of a clothing manufacturer who was a relative. He was there for five years, and witnessed slavery for the first time; he never forgot the scenes and the pain he saw.
In 1848, he returned to Wilton but moved to Ridgefield a year later to work as a clerk.
He soon started a general store on Main Street, something that was then called a “mercantile,” and owned the business for more than 40 years. He also became a partner with D. Smith Sholes in operating the Ridgefield Shirt factory.
During the Civil War, Smith served as a first lieutenant in the Connecticut National Guard — by then he was probably too old to be on the battlefields of the war. He was, however, a strong believer in the cause of the Union.
A member and president of the Ridgefield Debating Society, Smith was known for his oratory skills. He used those skills on May 30, 1893, Memorial Day — then called Decoration Day — to recall the horrors of slavery. In his oration, delivered in Town Hall, he seemed to criticize not only his country’s founding fathers but also its religious leaders. And he praised the attack of the South on Fort Sumter as a “messenger from God.”
Excerpts from his speech were included in an 1899 biographical history of Fairfield County.
“A little over a quarter of a century ago,” Smith told Ridgefielders, “there were over three million men, women and children, slaves in this Christian land of ours; men who had no rights to the fruits of their labor and toil; men without a right, without a hope, sold at the auction block like so many articles of merchandise; wives separated from their husbands, children from their parents — lovely girls, as fair in face and form as any within this hall today, bought and sold as young cattle in the streets.
“I speak of scenes and events which I have repeatedly witnessed in the streets of Mobile and New Orleans, and therefore speak feelingly.”
The founding fathers were a party to slavery, he said. “Our forefathers were partakers in this great wrong in the earlier days of the Republic, and only abandoned it when they found it unprofitable.” He maintained that in the past, “from the press, yes, even the pulpit, argument and appeal ... in defense of the doctrine of the right of the stronger to enslave the weaker, were listened to with pleasure and applauded as the words of wisdom falling from the lips of experience.”
He recalled that some of the nation’s leaders considered it “the loftiest act of patriotism to intercept and return, under that flag, the poor fugitive in his midnight flight to liberty or death.”
He bemoaned the fact that “a great nation, boasting of its religion and independence, had become so debauched by its professional politicians that it seemed almost ready to adopt the sentiment which might be inferred from the decisions of the highest tribunals of the land. Witness the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Dred Scott case — ‘the black man had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’”
The outbreak of the Civil War was heaven-sent, Smith suggested. “I wonder at God’s goodness to us as a nation, and feel that we ought reverently to thank God for that first shot fired at Sumter’s battlements — for it was the forerunner of a doomed system, announcing a day of deliverance; the breaking of the bonds; the opening of the prison doors that the captives might go free; that no more should be witnessed the scarred and bleeding backs of its victims, no more the sobs of the mother, the wail of anguish from the bruised heart of the father, as they saw their little ones torn from their embrace and home.”
“Reverently I can but feel that that shot was a messenger from God, proclaiming that no more should the soil of his chosen land be pressed by the foot of a slave, but by men, free men, no more to be called chattels, articles of merchandise... What a triumph for humanity! What a victory for justice!”
Edward Smith was active in the civic and social life of Ridgefield. He served as a state representative in 1859 as a Republican and in 1873 as what was called a “Liberal Republican.” He was a member of the Board of Selectmen, president of the Ridgefield Agricultural Society, and head of the Ridgefield Improvement Society. He was active in the Masons and St. Stephen’s Church where he was a warden and the parish treasurer.
But it was in his departure from this world that he gained his final distinction. In February and March of 1905, an outbreak of “La Grippe” — as the flu was called — occurred in Ridgefield and at least five people died from it. Both Edward and his wife, Delia Gregory Smith, came down with La Grippe and both developed pneumonia because of it. They died on Feb. 24, 1905. He was 77 and she, 76. They had been married for 56 years.
75 Years in Journalism
For three decades Ridgefield Press readers were treated to the usually light-hearted columns of Duncan Smith, a journalist who spent 75 years turning out news and opinion, much of it for the Chicago Daily News.
Duncan MacMillan Smith was born in Illinois in 1863, one of 10 children of farming immigrants from Scotland. He began his newspaper career while still a teenager, writing a column called “The Cornfield Philosopher” for a local weekly paper. He was eventually hired as editor of a nearby weekly, and soon started his own in Seward, Ill., called The Blue Valley Blade.
He moved on to work for a paper in Nebraska where he met and married school teacher Grace Woodward, and then bought a weekly in Indiana. Offered a job at the Chicago Daily News, he grabbed the opportunity and wrote for that paper for 20 years, including penning a well-known column called “Hit or Miss,” which eventually became syndicated. Many columns employed verse, not surprising since among his circle of friends were poets Carl Sandburg and Edgar Guest.
He left the newspaper business in 1912 to become a press representative for the new Populist movement in Minnesota and the Dakotas, but was soon back at the typewriter, buying the Rockford, Ill., Republican, a daily in the town in which he was born. When his wife died in 1929, he moved to Ridgefield to live with his daughter, Margaret, a novelist who wrote under the name of Peggy Shane and who was married to humorist and writer Ted Shane.
Here, he turned out a column called “A Birdseye View” almost every week for 30 years for The Press and eventually its sister publication, The Wilton Bulletin.
Smith loved words and loved playing with them in verse. One time a group of Ridgefield Press staffers was talking about words that had no rhymes — like orange. Someone mentioned Titicus, the name of the river and neighborhood in Ridgefield, and Smith took up the challenge, offering the following in "A Birdseye View":
I live upon the Titicus,
a river rough and raging,
where fishes to a city cuss,
will come for a simple paging.
I used to read Leviticus,
or some such ancient volume,
before I saw the Titicus
or started on this column.
And now, my dears, you might agree
it really takes a witty cuss,
a crossword puzzler (that's me)
to rhyme with Titicus.
(It really should have said 'that's l'
to show for words I have nice sense,
but for such slips, I alibi
with my poetic license.)
Duncan Smith died in 1956 at the age of 91.
Saturday, June 09, 2018
Rev. Richard E. Shortell:
A Beloved Pastor
When he died in October 1934, The Ridgefield Press called the Rev. Richard Edward Shortell “one of the most beloved priests in the State of Connecticut.” The St. Mary’s pastor was so popular that, for years, babies were named Richard Edward in his honor — among them, former selectman, postmaster and town historian, Richard E. Venus.
Born in 1860, Father Shortell came to Ridgefield in 1893 and led St. Mary’s Parish for 41 years. It was in the days when a clergyman could spend nearly an entire career at one parish.
“With his coming to Ridgefield, St. Mary’s Church seemed to grow and prosper,” The Press said.
When he arrived, the parish had only 200 members and was still using a tiny church — a
But he was not just a pastor, but also an influential citizen of the town who served for many years on the Board of Education, “contributing incalculable services to the public school system here,” The Press said.
As early as 1927, he was promoting the benefits of zoning (which wasn’t adopted until 1946).
Town officials, whether Catholic or not, would often seek his advice, and the newspaper once reported that early in the 20th Century, the three men considered the “powers” of the town used to meet regularly in the back of Bissell’s Drug Store to discuss town affairs: H.P. Bissell himself, Dr. R.W. Lowe, the town doctor, and Father Shortell.
In 1918, Father Shortell quashed efforts to give him a 25th anniversary party. But when he reached 30 years in 1923, parishioners took matters into their own hands and had a surprise party at which “the largest crowd of Catholics ever seen in St. Mary’s Hall assembled” and gave him not only a grand party, but a brand new Cadillac Coupe.
Father Shortell died in 1934 and is buried in St. Mary Cemetery, next to his mother.
Friday, June 08, 2018
D. Smith Sholes:
A Man of Many Shirts
Catoonah Street today is a microcosm of Ridgefield, with everything from stores and offices to condos and large, single-family homes, not to mention a church, a post office, a cleaners, a restaurant, and a firehouse. But it once also had a shirt factory.
Yes, Ridgefield in the 19th Century was a center, albeit small, of the shirt-making industry, thanks to a man named D. Smith Sholes and his partner, Edward H. Smith, both leading citizens of the town.
David Smith Sholes was born in Ridgefield in 1830, son of a shoemaker who’d moved here from Vermont. He attended local schools including a private school taught by the Rev. David H. Short on Main Street, where Sholes acquired a love of reading. He later helped found a circulating library in Ridgefield that grew into today’s Ridgefield Library, of which he was once treasurer.
When he was 15, he became a clerk at Henry Smith’s store on Main Street but after a few years went to Bridgeport to learn bookkeeping.
He returned to Ridgefield and, in partnership with Smith, operated the Ridgefield Shirt Factory, which had been founded in the 1840s by George Hunt. The factory was at first located in the Big Shop, a large building that stood where the First Congregational Church is now. (Moved around 1888 to the center of town, the Big Shop is now the home of Terra Sole and Luc’s restaurants, and other businesses off the Bailey Avenue parking lot.) The shirt factory later moved across the street to a building on what’s now an empty lot, and then to Catoonah Street on the site of the current Ridgefield Fire Department headquarters.
“Colored shirts were a specialty of the factory, which employed as many as sixty persons at one time,” said historian Silvio Bedini. “The chief market was New York City.”
However, it appears many more Ridgefield Shirt “employees,” mostly women but including a few men, worked from their homes. Sholes and Smith would provide them with packages of shirt “components” and the women would sew them together in their spare time. The final product was prepared for sale and packaged at the factory. The New York Times reported in 1860 that there were 1,100 home-working women in the area, sewing for Ridgefield Shirt.
Sholes continued in the shirt-making business until around 1893 when, probably faced with competition from large-scale, mechanized clothing operations in New York City, the factory was closed.
In 1886 Sholes was elected treasurer of the Ridgefield Savings Bank, now Fairfield County Bank; he had been one of its incorporators when it was founded back in 1871. He eventually became the bank’s president.
“It was in the discharge of the duties of this important position that he achieved the most marked success of his life,” said The Ridgefield Press in Sholes’s 1907 obituary. “It was under his administration that the institution has grown from a small beginning to be the depository of nearly a million dollars of the savings of our frugal people, and its affairs have been so wisely managed by him that no person has ever yet lost a dollar by his imprudence or mismanagement.”
This profuse praise appeared in a newspaper whose company president was D. Smith Sholes.
Possible pro-Sholes press prejudice aside, the man was clearly a respected and popular personality in town. An active Democrat, he was appointed Ridgefield’s postmaster in 1886 by President Grover Cleveland, also a Democrat. When Cleveland left office, so did Sholes, but when Cleveland returned for a second term, so did Sholes.
He was a town assessor, a registrar of voters for 17 years, the probate judge in 1870, a member of the Democratic State Central Committee for two terms, treasurer of the Ridgefield Water Supply Company, and a clerk of St. Stephen’s Church for a quarter of a century. He also helped found the First National Bank of Ridgefield in 1900 and was its first cashier.
Seven years after he died in 1907, he was remembered on Old Home Day, July 4, 1914, when he was saluted as one of Ridgefield’s “sturdy citizens, whose place it seems impossible to fill …Many can testify to his kindness in hours of trouble.”
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