Thursday, November 29, 2018

David Dann,
Newlyweds In The Tombs
The story of David Dann and his wife, Susan, reads like an episode from Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey or some other Edwardian melodrama. Susan, a maid in the home of a rich New York City banker, was accused by her employer of thievery, and thanks to incompetent police, she and David were both thrown into Manhattan’s notorious “Tombs” prison, eventually rescued by a wealthy lawyer and future candidate for governor of Connecticut.
David Dann was born on a Ridgefield farm in 1873, a son of Levi Dann, who was a Civil War veteran and well-respected local citizen. In the summer of 1895, a young Irish woman named Susan Lyons was visiting in Ridgefield and met David, then working as a house painter. They fell in love and David followed Susie to New York City where she worked as a servant in the Broad Street home of Maurice B. Wormser, a prominent Manhattan banker. They were married soon after but kept their marriage secret, an arrangement that contributed to their arrest.
On the evening of Saturday, Jan. 18, 1896, Maurice Wormser played host to his brother and his brother’s wife. Around 10 p.m., as the couple was about to depart, the brother asked to see an evening newspaper, which was in the dining room. 
“I went into the room to get it and found the silverware drawer open,” Wormser later testified in court. “I thought nothing in particular of this, but then at 10:45 two servants saw Susan Dann, who was known as Lyons, a waitress in our employ, in the dining room with a big tray of silver, which she was sorting over. The house was then locked up and the burglar alarm set.” The two servants were named Amelia and Minnie.
At 8:30 the next morning, Susan Dann reported to Wormser that the silver had been stolen. “She said she discovered this when she had returned from mass,” Wormser testified.
However, the cook, a Mrs. Ebert, had told Wormser that Susan was seen admitting the baker at 7:45 a.m. and had also been seen at 7:15 in her nightclothes when Mrs. Ebert had dealt with the milkman. That prompted Wormser to question Susan about how she could have had time to go to mass.
“She admitted that she had not been to mass, but said that she had an appointment to meet a man. After some further questions, she said the man was her husband, although we thought until then that she was a single woman. She stated that she was married a week ago last Sunday in the Dominican Church.”
Since Susan Dann was the last one reported seen with the silverware, and the doors were locked overnight, suspicion pointed to her. However, she denied having taken anything. “I put the silver away, as I always did, on Saturday night,” she told a newspaper reporter. “And when I missed it on Sunday morning, I reported it at once to Mr. Wormser.”
She admitted lying about going to mass, however, and had instead gone for a walk with her husband. She said lied because she did not want Wormser to know she was married until her husband had found work in the city, in case she might lose her job.
“I know they say the house was locked, and that the basement gate was fastened,” she said. But when she returned from her early morning meeting with her husband, she found the gate open. “And that was not the first time I have found it open,” she said.
She also told a New York Herald reporter that Amelia’s and Minnie’s statements that she was handling the silver late Saturday evening were false.
Adding to the suspicion surrounding the Danns was the fact that Nellie Lyons, Susan’s sister, visited the Wormser house Saturday evening. Nellie at first denied she had been there, but later admitted she had indeed paid a visit to her sister.
A police captain named Casey of the East Sixty Seventh Street station house headed the investigation. He told a reporter for the Herald on Jan. 23 he was “confident he had arrested the persons concerned in the robbery.”
The police suspected the Danns in part because of the lies Susan and Nellie told. Detectives used Amelia, the servant, to identify Nellie Lyons as the woman who visited the house Saturday and, Amelia maintained, several times in recent months. 
Both Susan and David were taken to the precinct station house where they were questioned and eventually arrested, and sent to the city prison, known as The Tombs (today’s city prison, the fourth edition of the facility, is still nicknamed The Tombs). Because Nellie had lied about being at Wormser’s Saturday, police arrested her on a charge of complicity in the theft. However, police also suspected her because the house in which she worked as a cook had been robbed by a masked man several weeks earlier after the owner had been put to sleep with chloroform.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Ebert, the Wormser cook, identified David Dann as a man who had come to the house about 10 days earlier. Posing as a plumber, she said, he went through various rooms in the place. Though nothing was taken, it was just one more alleged event that was suspicious.
Captain Casey told a Herald reporter that “he had been looking up Dann’s record, and it was anything but satisfactory in Ridgefield. He has been shifting about from place to place in this city, apparently trying to get work.” He maintained that the silver had not been pawned and that “his men would discover it in the possession of the confederates.”
Alas for Casey, that never happened.
Word of the arrests quickly reached David’s hometown. “It is said in Ridgefield by a good many people that David Dann, who has been under arrest in New York with his wife on a grave criminal charge, has always appeared to be a quiet, inoffensive young man, and people here cannot believe that he would go wrong,” the Ridgefield Press reported.
Levi Dann, David’s father, quickly began seeking support for his son and daughter in law. A Catholic, he approached Father Richard Shortell, popular pastor of St. Mary’s Parish, who helped gather statements about David’s character. 
Levi also knew Melbert B. Cary Sr., a prominent New York City attorney who had palatial
residence in Ridgefield. Levi approached Cary about helping his son. Cary immediately wired Father Shortell, saying the imprisonment was “an outrage,” and maintaining he would procure David’s release as soon as possible.
Melbert Brinckerhoff Cary was a good man to have on your side. A Princeton graduate who practiced law with a leading Manhattan firm, Cary was also a writer, whose books included The Connecticut Constitution (1900) and The Woman Without A Country. In 1902, Cary ran for Connecticut governor on the Democratic ticket—he had been chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee for several years. He lost to a Meriden Republican, but remained a power in Connecticut politics as well as influential in Ridgefield goings on. He died in 1946 at the age of 93; at the time he was the oldest living Princeton alumnus.
Levi collected a large number of testimonials from Ridgefielders, endorsing his son’s good character, and turned them over to Cary. “Mr. Cary was zealous in his endeavor to free these innocent persons,” the Press said.
Cary told the Times on Jan. 31, “I have gone through the evidence … and the only way it connects Susie Dann with the silver is through the fact that she had charge of it. The only way her husband is connected with it is through the fact that the morning after the robbery, he walked with her in public for an hour. The only connection made between Miss Lyons and the Wormser house is through her visit there the night the theft was committed. Yet our clients were kept in jail ten days. It was simply an outrage.”
After those 10 days under arrest, the three suspects were “liberated from the Tombs,” as the Press put it. A grand jury found no evidence to support the arrest of the three.
“The prisoners report the most abusive treatment from the detectives, and say they were placed in the same cells with the foulest criminals,” the Press said. “Every conceivable effort was made to extort a confession, and the unfortunate victims were subjected to all sorts of indignities.”
After their release, Susie Dann discussed her treatment with a reporter from the New York Times, who described her as “a tall, comely young woman, with a slight Irish accent.” 
The Sunday she reported the missing silver, she said, she went to the police station where “Capt. Casey asked me all kinds of questions. He asked me why I had not said anything about being married, and I said it was because my husband was out of work, and I did not want to lose my place until he got work. Then he asked me if I was really married. He also asked me a great many other insulting questions.”
That night she went to her husband’s boarding house room, where “detectives kept coming around and asking me to tell them where the silver was.”
Then, on Tuesday night, “Detective Herlihy came up and told me my sister was drunk down in the police court, and that she had said I stole the silver and had told where half of it was. They took my husband and me down to the station that night, and said we wouldn’t be detained, and when they got us there, they locked us up. Detectives and the matron came to me about every fifteen minutes and kept asking me insulting questions and telling me I was lying and try to make me confess that I was a thief.
“After our arrest Detective Herlihy went up to my husband’s boarding house and told Mrs. Knott [the landlady] that Mr. Wormser would give her $20,000 if she would tell where the silver was.”
Susie also described her and her sister’s experience in the Tombs. “They put us in with the lowest kind of women. We heard things that were terrible to us, and were compelled to associate with women who were awful. They said things that men would not say.”
Melbert Cary not only got the Danns freed from prison, but also sued Susie’s employer. Cary blamed Wormser for convincing the police that she should be arrested. He sought $20,000 damages (around $575,000 today) for each of the three people imprisoned. 
It seems unlikely, however, that much if any money was awarded; perhaps there was an out-of-court settlement for a small amount. Four years later, David Dann was working as a janitor. By 1910, he was painting houses in Rye, a town in lower Westchester County, New York, where he and Susan rented a house. They had four children by then. 
In 1916, the Danns were back in Manhattan, where David was still painting houses. But in 1918, when he filled out his military draft information, he was in a New York City hospital, suffering from tuberculosis. A month later, David Dann was dead, only 45 years old. — From "Wicked Ridgefield" by Jack Sanders, © 2016, The History Press

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Charles Coles, He Loved The Bank
Charlie Coles had many interests, but his two favorites were banking and local history. A man who rose from teller to  president of the Ridgefield Savings Bank (now the Fairfield County Bank), he had a love of and faith in banking that was demonstrated in many ways, but few quite as intensely as when he chewed out a Ridgefield Press editor for a half hour after the newspaper ran a humorous quotation over the front page flag, saying: “A penny saved is a penny getting smaller.”
He was fascinated by Ridgefield history and memorabilia, collecting and studying items ranging from candlesticks made here in the 1800s to hundreds of antique Ridgefield postcards. He was also a collector of and expert on antique clocks, many of which he had exhibited at the bank's several offices. 
Though many people thought of him as a native, Charles H. Coles Jr. was born in Oakville, Toronto, Ontario, in 1922. His parents, Charles Sr. and Elizabeth Evans Coles, were natives of England who immigrated to Canada and in 1925, moved to the United States. By 1928, they were in Ridgefield, where Charles Sr. became a gardener on the Maynard estate on High Ridge. Charles Jr. attended Ridgefield schools and graduated from Ridgefield High School in 1941. 
During his high school years, he was active in athletics, especially baseball, and earned the nickname of “Slugger Coles” because of his hitting abilities. He was a member of an RHS team that nearly won the state championship for little Ridgefield in 1940. 
Coles was a student at Danbury State Teachers College in 1943 when he joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 193rd tank battalion. Sent to New Hebrides in the Pacific, he took part in the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945. He was a tank machine gunner and driver.
On April 19, his unit lost 22 of its 30 tanks in the assault on Kakazu Ridge, the greatest tank loss of the campaign. Only an hour after Private Coles was transferred from a tank that morning, its entire five-member crew was killed. 
After the war Sgt. Coles served in the Army Reserves and was on active reserve status during the Korean War. 
Back home in 1946, he joined the Ridgefield Savings Bank as a teller and bookkeeper. He became assistant treasurer in 1956, an incorporator in 1958, a director in 1970, and president in 1971. He served as president, chairman of the board, and chief operating officer at various times through the 1970s until his retirement in 1987. He remained a director until 1993. 
Ridgefield Savings Bank became “the fastest-growing savings bank in the state” in the 1980s, Coles reported at the 1984 annual meeting. Under his leadership, the bank acquired land at the corner of Danbury and Farmingville Roads to build its new headquarters, now the main office of Fairfield County Bank. 
Over the years he completed the Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University, and graduating from the American Institute of Banking (of which he was later a board member) and from various schools sponsored by the national Association of Mutual Savings Banks. He served as
president of the Fairfield County Bankers Association, was on the Conference of State Bank Supervisors in 1985, and had been a member of the Legislative Committee of the Savings Bank Association of Connecticut. 
“His whole life was the bank,” said Paul S. McNamara, longtime chairman of the Fairfield County Bank board of directors. “He loved the bank — he loved going to work. 
“Charlie really believed very strongly in the value of the customer,”  Mr. McNamara added. “His focus was always on the customer.” 
Coles had a way with not only money, but also words.  For a while in the 1950s, he was the part-time sports editor for The Ridgefield Press. 
In 1971, on the occasion of the bank’s 100th anniversary,  Coles teamed up with Karl Nash, editor and publisher of The Press, on a history of the Ridgefield Savings Bank.  Coles did the bulk of the research for the publication, which appeared as a special supplement to The Press and chronicled the history of the bank, its leaders, and the community they served. The 36-page section was based on many hours of interviews with longtime residents and from research into old documents, and included dozens of old photos of the town, many from  Coles’s postcard collection. 
Twenty years later,  Coles was one of the lead writers on another history section in The Press, describing the town’s participation in World War II. He spent months researching the 49 members of the Ridgefield High School Class of 1941 and their contributions to the war effort. His long article was entitled “Class of ’41: First to Go.” (Two classmates, George Vetter and Charles Cogswell, never returned.) 
Coles had a great interest in antiques and especially antique clocks, a subject on which he became known as a local expert. He was especially interested in Ridgefield antiques and ephemera and had dealers all over the country helping him locate Ridgefield-related items. In 1983, for the town's 275th anniversary celebration, he put together a large display of old postcards, which he exhibited at the bank’s Main Street office. 
He loved athletics. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Coles played softball in leagues in Westchester and Ridgefield. In his first game in the newly formed Townies Softball League in Ridgefield in 1953, he hit a home run and pitched Hyde’s Liquors to a 10-6 win over Martin’s Jewelry Store. 
He also became active in youth sports. He was one of the organizers of Ridgefield Little League, and later served as its president. He managed Babe Ruth League baseball teams, had been a coach in the Red Raider football league, and managed boys teams in the Townies Basketball League. 
In 1999, the Ridgefield Old Timers honored him with its Civic Award, citing his “dedication and hard work  in the various youth programs... Charlie spent many hours helping young athletes improve their skills.”
Coles was also fond of golf and invariably had a set of clubs in his car trunk, along with some of his latest antiques acquisitions. 
He was active in Boy Scouts, serving as committee chairman of Troop 47. He had been a member of the Rotary Club for many years, an incorporator of the Ridgefield Boys’ Club, a treasurer of the Community Center, and treasurer for the local Red Cross. In 1967, he was given the Ridgefield Jaycees Distinguished Service Award. 
When he retired after 42 years with the bank, he received testimonials for his service to  community from many leaders, including President Ronald Reagan.
Coles died in 2003 at the age of 80.
“Something about Charlie that a lot of people are not aware of,”  Paul McNamara said after Coles had died. “He was very helpful to people in town in a very quiet way. If someone came to Charlie with a financial problem, he found a way to solve it. And he did that over and over again.”

Friday, November 23, 2018

Bedient Block, ca. 1900
Remarkably, all four Main Street buildings visible in this picture from around the turn of the 20th Century are still standing today, though one of them has moved a mile away.
Dominating the photograph at the corner of Main Street and Bailey Avenue is the Bedient building and its D.F. Bedient general store (and funeral parlor) on the ground floor (now Books on the Common). 
Barely visible on the store’s porch are a variety of wares including a rake, a hoe, sundry baskets, an American flag, and pails or cast-iron pots. 
A sign on the porch, partially obscured by a bicycle leaning against it, advertises “Oliver Chilled Plows.” Oliver plows were made in Indiana with a “chilling” technique invented by James Oliver that made the iron more durable and its surface stayed smooth despite rough use. They were very popular with farmers in the late 19th and early 20th Century.
On the side of the building, a sign advertises American Fencing. Not Gilbert and Bennett Fencing from Georgetown, alas.
A rather enigmatic sign is mounted on a pillar holding up the porch at the left (next to a barber pole). The only words visible are “Detroit Free Press CIGARS.” The Detroit Free Press was — and is — a newspaper. What it had to do with cigars is unknown and why a Michigan newspaper would be advertised on a sign in little Ridgefield, Connecticut, is equally mysterious. Perhaps it has something to do with the barber shop that’s not visible down the alley — smoke a cigar and learn the Detroit news while getting a haircut and a shave? 
The Barhite Block, the next building to the left, was owned by William C. Barhite, who had his dry goods, grocery and feed store there. From 1901 until 1922, the building also housed the main Ridgefield Post Office. 
Barhite’s building later belonged to Samuel S. Denton, who replaced that prominent “Barhite Block” sign at the top of the facade with one that said “Denton Block.”  Today the spot where those signs were advertises not the building’s owner, but a second floor occupant, Robert J. Creamer, attorney at law.
There seems to be a gap between the Barhite building and the next one to the left. However, there is actually another building in that space, but it’s set farther back from the road and is just barely visible here. 
The next structure that is clearly visible is the venerable 426 Main Street building that has held many stores since the 1890s. At this time it may have been Gottlieb’s shoe and clothing shop. In recent years it’s been home to such businesses as Finch real estate and 50 Coins restaurant. Today, the front of the building is occupied by Baja Cocina, which describes itself as an “intimate eatery” with “authentic and modern Mexican food.”
Just beyond that, at the left edge of the picture, there’s the front porch and roof of a building that looks like a small house — and it was, in fact, the small home of the Lannon family. In 1947 this house was moved a mile south to the west side of Main Street where it was named Tuppence and today is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gary Singer.
Where the Lannon house stood in this picture is now 440 Main Street, mostly  occupied by the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, but once home of The Gap and, earlier, Allan’s Men’s Store.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Karl S. Nash, 
The Country Editor
While most people thought of him as a newspaperman,  Karl Nash was really a teacher. His subject was Ridgefield and his students were its residents. As a country newspaper editor and publisher for more than 60 years, he spent his life telling townspeople about themselves, their neighbors and their institutions.
Nash not only taught Ridgefield, he also served it in many official capacities – including  20 years on the Board of Education. 
 Karl Seymour Nash was born in 1908, descended from several of the founding families of the town including not only the Nashes, but the Seymours, Smiths, Olmsteds, and Keelers. His homestead on Main Street had been in his family since the town’s first settlement.
His father, Howard Patterson Nash, died when Karl was 13, and his mother, Christie Law Jones Nash, was left with little money and five children to support. She worked as a librarian at the Ridgefield Library almost next door to their home  — now an apartment building at 486 Main Street — and hooked rugs to sell. 
As the oldest child, Karl became a head of the household, helping care for the children and doing many of the chores. As he grew older, he also worked at his grandfather’s Walnut Grove Farm in Farmingville, including delivering the dairy’s milk in the village.
He was a top student at Hamilton High School (later called Ridgefield High School) on Bailey Avenue, where he graduated in 1926. He went off to Harvard, planning to become a minister.
However, after getting a Harvard degree in government in 1930, he turned to journalism instead. 
As a teenager he had already developed a nose for news, covering local events for The Ridgefield Press and area dailies, and even starting his own, short-lived “Ridgefield Record.” Back home from college, he became a Danbury Evening News reporter and in 1935, married Dorothy C. Baxter, granddaughter of D. Crosby Baxter who had founded The Ridgefield Press in 1875. (While the Baxter family was no longer associated with the newspaper, they were prominent in the community.) Karl and Dorothy later divorced; however, Dorothy’s brother Frank was married to Karl’s sister, Elizabeth, who became the longtime treasurer of the Acorn Press, parent company of the Ridgefield Press.
In 1937, Karl and his brother, John, bought The Press for just under $2,500. It was a struggle. “I had been married in 1935 and had an eight-month-old daughter, so I didn’t have any money to invest,” Nash recalled years later. “John had $92 and he and I borrowed $250 from my mother. With this and $2,000 we borrowed from the town’s jeweler, now the town’s banker  (Francis D. Martin), we bought the Press.”
The business included a small print shop that produced stationery products for local customers. 
“How John and I thought we could both ever make a living from this run-down $12,000-a-year-gross business, I don’t know,” he said. “But we went to work at it and worked hard. We put ourselves on the payroll at $25 a week and for months on end didn’t collect it.”
A year later, they established The Wilton Bulletin and moved  their operations from the Masonic Hall, just south of town hall, into an old garage on Bailey Avenue. Over the years the parent company, Acorn Press, grew into a multi-million dollar group of eight weekly newspapers, which merged in 1997 with the Hersam family’s weeklies based in New Canaan to become Hersam Acorn Newspapers. In the early 2000s, Hersam Acorn was publishing nearly 20 newspapers in southern Connecticut, Westchester, N.Y., and Vermont. The papers remained in the hands of the Nash and Hersam families until October 2018 when they were purchased by Hearst.
John left the business in 1948 to own and operate other weekly and daily newspapers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He died in 2013 at the age of 101.
In 1951 Karl married Elizabeth Grace Boyd, daughter of novelists Thomas Boyd and Margaret Woodward Smith. She had been hired as an intern on a 75th anniversary issue project, and the two co-edited the newspaper for many years. Under their leadership in the last half of the 20th Century, the Press’s paid circulation reached nearly 90% of the homes in Ridgefield.
Always active in town, Nash was chairman of the school board for 17 years and a member from 1942 until 1962, “devoting my efforts to raising the standard of a somewhat backward school system,” he said years later.
He served on several school building committees, belonged to the Parks and Recreation Commission, and moderated countless Town Meetings. 
A Republican much of his life, he was kicked out of the party in 1963 when he helped people
who were forming the Good Government Party in reaction to what they saw as anti-education efforts by both established parties. The GGP ran candidates for the school board in 1963 and 1965, and though none was elected, one collected nearly 1,300 votes. The GGP itself never had more than 75 members and was disbanded in 1981 after many years of inactivity.
Always curious about the town’s past, Nash wrote many pieces about Ridgefield history and as chairman of the town’s huge 250th anniversary celebration in 1958, arranged to have Silvio Bedini write the town history, “Ridgefield in Review.” 
He also organized, wrote for, and led substantial projects to compile histories of all aspects of Ridgefield life for special 75th and 100th anniversary editions of The Press in 1950 and 1975. The result was hundred of thousands of words of history of the community, illustrated with scores of pictures.
In 1983, the year he turned 75, Nash was named the Rotary Club Citizen of the Year.
He was 84 when he died at his retirement home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. in 1992.
Many who knew him considered Karl Nash the epitome of the country journalist. “He was a gifted and tough editor who taught dozens of young men and women how to write — and appreciate the beauty of — a simple, declarative sentence,” said his son Thomas B. Nash in his father’s obituary. “He was a serious newsman who sought to treat people fairly and in a consistent manner.”
“Karl had a love and sensitivity for his home town that came from being not only a  native son, but also a descendant of the founders and earliest settlers of the community,” said an editor who worked under him for many years. “Generations of Ridgefield were in his blood.”
Karl Nash himself was less effusive about his contributions. “Our papers might be called progressively independent,” he wrote in 1960. “They are said by some to be a force for good in their communities, by others a menace to the inhabitants.”
 “They continue to grow and prosper, however,” he added, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

William H. Keeler, 
Killed by A ‘Non-hostile’ Mine
Not all the casualties of war are in combat. Some soldiers and sailors, like Billy Keeler, die in the service of their country because of tragic accidents.
In Keeler’s case, death came to a young man who had already survived one near-fatal accident — when he was only three years old.
Born in 1949, William Howard Keeler grew up on Cooper Hill Road in Ridgefield and attended schools here.  By 1959, when his family was living in South Salem and he was 10, his father, Robert, died. His mother, the former Frances L. Coughlin, was left with nine sons and two daughters, most of whom were still young enough to be at home.
She returned to Ridgefield with her family, living on Roberts Lane.
Keeler worked in construction until February 1968 when he joined the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the 31st Engineer Battalion and by that summer, he was in Vietnam.
On March 24, 1969, he was killed in what the Army coldly termed “non-hostile action, accident.” Little was publicly released about the cause of his death but one Vietnam War archive reports that “he was killed in an accident while clearing mine at Camp Gorvad … north of Bien Hoa/Saigon.”
While he appeared to be involved in one of the most dangerous duties of modern warfare — land mine clearance — it is uncertain how this could be considered a “non-hostile” death, unless he was clearing mines planted by Americans. Of the 58,000 servicemen who died in Vietnam, the deaths of nearly 11,000 — almost 20% — were called “non-hostile” by the military. One in five.
Keeler was only 19 years old, one of six people who had lived in Ridgefield to die in the Vietnam War.
After services at St. Mary’s Church with a military honor guard, he was buried in Mapleshade
Cemetery. His name is on Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. 
The hazards of Vietnam proved fatal to William Keeler, but the dangers in his own backyard almost did nearly 17 years earlier.
In early September 1952, three-year-old Billy Keeler was playing at an old-fashioned open well at his parents’ Cooper Hill Road home. Suddenly, he slipped and plunged 15 feet down the shaft into a 10-foot-deep pool of icy water.
No adults were around, but one of his siblings saw what happened and ran to the nearby home of Mrs. Joseph F. Beck on Branchville Road, crying “My brother has fallen in the well!”
She called state police who also alerted the fire department. Among the first to arrive on the scene was Fire Chief Horace A. Walker who grabbed a ladder from the fire truck, lowered it into the well, climbed down, and brought the boy to the surface.
“In all likelihood the Keeler youngster can attribute his life to his own presence of mind and to the fact that a vertical pipe runs through the center of the well,” The Ridgefield Press reported the next day. “Although stunned by his 15-foot fall, he kept  his head above water by clinging to the pipe until help arrived. A cut on the back of the head and several body bruises were his only injuries.” 

Thursday, November 08, 2018

 The Selling Of Eight Lakes
“Nowhere else in these United States is there such an abundance of fabulous, natural scenery,” boasts a remarkable brochure, published around 1955 to promote the Eight Lakes Estates and clearly aimed at dwellers of New York City. “That long dreamed of estate you have only wished you could afford is here NOW at a price you can afford.”
The fabulous abundance consisted of 1,750 acres — “over three times the size of Central Park” — spread across two states and including “eight magnificent, crystal clear, fresh water lakes, miles of lakefront studded with stately trees, hundreds of picturesque lakeview sites, divine locations high in the hill-tops [and] thickly wooded hideouts near streams.”
It was a masterpiece of real estate hype, aimed at “Mr. Family Man” who wants to make his “dreams come true.”
At times during the mid- to late 1950's, as many as 20 salesmen for Eight Lakes were
working in Ridgefield over weekends, selling houses and lots in the development. 
As we know two-thirds of a century later, not all of this real estate dream came true — though a lot of it did.
Only the Connecticut portion of Eight Lakes Estates was ever developed — today’s Mamanasco Road, First through 12th Lanes, Walnut Hill Road, Birch Court, Rock Road, Scott Ridge Road, Blue Ridge Road, Caudatowa Drive, Sleepy Hollow Road, Round Lake Road, and the west ends of both Barrack Hill and Old Sib Roads.
Those roads served more than 400  lots carved out of around 500 of 1,750 advertised acres. Virtually all of the New York side of the old Port of Missing Men resort — some 1,250 acres — was acquired by Westchester County and turned into the Mountain Lakes Park in North Salem.
Which means that only three of the “eight lakes” are in the Eight Lakes Estates: Lake Mamanasco, Hidden Lake, and Round Pond (which the real estate folk deemed too lowly a name and changed to Round Lake; fortunately, the town has stuck with the original 1700s name of Round Pond).
The other “lakes” in New York — mostly big ponds — are Mirror, Laurel, Pine, Deer, and
Rippowam, as the brochure points out. Lake Rippowam is in fact large enough to be a lake, but not a lot of the old Eight Lakes Estates property bordered it.
The language of the brochure is seducing, especially to anyone tired of the noise, grit and crowding of 1950s New York. 
“Astonishingly low prices prevail on lakefront estates bedecked with beautiful trees and estates nestling midst Pines and Cedars overlooking the lakes,” it promises. “Superb low-cost locations are limitless even to hideouts for cabins, near lakes and streams. Those wishing to live real high-up will find Sky-toppers in the famous ‘Blue Hills’ or along a road which winds up to great heights.” (There is no record of a place in Ridgefield known as the Blue Hills, much less a place famous as it, but the developers named Blue Ridge Road apparently to celebrate those unknown hills.)
The map in the brochure will bring back memories of the days, before the Interstates, when
the way to get from New York to Ridgefield was via the Saw Mill River Parkway — complete with the infamous Hawthorne Traffic Circle — or the Hutch to the Merritt. Note that the “model house” for Eight Lakes was on the west side of Mamanasco Road.
The brochure includes quite a bit of history of the property, which is fairly accurate. However, one might not term it a “Believe It Or Not” fact that millionaires once owned the land; much of Ridgefield in the early 20th Century was estates owned by millionaires.
All that said, Eight Lakes proved to be a great place for many families looking for an affordable home in the suburbs that wasn’t on a cookie-cutter lot. Countless kids grew up in the Eight Lakes neighborhoods with plenty of woods, streams and ponds to explore, and much fresh air to breathe.
It may not have been “another Tuxedo Park,” but it’s been a wonderful place for a simple country home.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Voting, The Old Way

Today is Election Day, and Ridgefielders are going to the polls to select a variety of public officials. They will do so using a method that combines systems both quite ancient and quite modern. 
Ridgefield essentially uses paper ballots, a method that’s been around since ancient Rome. But instead of writing out the names of the people we want for each office on a piece of paper, as Romans and early Americans did, we blacken boxes next to their already printed names.
The pre-printed paper ballot began to be used in the middle 1800s, but the new twist is that instead of human eyes tallying the results of our choices, computers do the job. We feed our ballots into a high-tech machine that scans and counts all our votes.
From the mid-1800s until 1914, Ridgefielders turned in ballots that had the names of candidates printed on them, to be viewed and counted by election officials. Ballots could be pre-printed or entirely hand-written. One pre-printed ballot was provided by the Republican Party for Republicans and one by the Democratic Party for Democrats. 
The technique of pre-printing ballots allowed each party to encourage their members to “vote the party line.”  Just check off everyone on our list of names and you’re done!
However, a Republican voter using a Republican ballot could legally cross out a Republican name and instead insert the name of a Democrat — or any local citizen — for a given office. And, of course, Democrats could do the same switch on their ballots.
To make that possibility more difficult, parties started printing their ballots with the names of the candidates close together to make it hard to squeeze in a new name. Such may be the case with the late-1890s ballots that accompany this article.
The alternative to using a party ballot was to write out in longhand all your selections for elected officers on a blank ballot. That’s what unaffiliated voters did or what party members who liked to split their votes between the two parties’ candidates might do.
The arrival of voting machines in 1914 made it much easier and quicker for people to vote for the person instead of the party. The voter could simply push down a lever over the name of the candidate desired.
However, to appease party leaders — who didn’t want to lose the opportunity for people to vote “the party line,” voting machines included a special lever that allowed voters to, with one flick, select every Republican or every Democrat. Not only party bosses but lazy voters liked that.  
Those machines were mechanical, consisting of a complex system of rods, switches, gears, and drums. However, each included a roll of paper, and, through a slot on the face of the machine, one could write in the names of people not on the ballot — just as one could write in candidates 200 years ago.
In 2007, Ridgefield introduced the current voting system, using paper ballots  read by computers. The system was almost instantly cheered by both voters and by the election officials who disliked dealing with the clunky old mechanical machines. 
Unlike many localities’ super-high-tech, all-electronic, paperless voting, Ridgefield’s system has a “paper trail.” You fill out your paper ballot and feed it into a tallying computer. If the computer fails or the election is challenged, all of the paper ballots still exist and can be recounted — by human eyes, if need be.
And it’s a system virtually impossible for Russians — or anyone else — to hack!

Saturday, November 03, 2018

‘A Delightful Day’s Run’
A century ago, Ridgefield was a popular tourist destination, with a half dozen “hotels” in the village where visitors could stay. It was also a fine place to visit on Sunday drive.
An example of Ridgefield’s fame in the tourism world  is this 32-page booklet, called “Short Trips by Automobile from the Pershing Square Hotels.” The guide was published in 1922 by the hotel group in Manhattan, owned by Bowman Hotel Companies, which included such well-known establishments as the Biltmore and Commodore.
The guide’s aim was to help hotel visitors explore the countryside outside of the city via a choice of 18 automobile tours — which it called “runs” — across Connecticut, New York, Long Island, and New Jersey. 
Remember that this is an era when automobiles were far from the comfortable, reliable vehicles they are today. And for much of the routes, they were traversing dirt roads.
Tour #11 took motorists northeasterly from Manhattan out to the Boston Post Road along the Long Island Sound shore towns from New Rochelle, Mamaroneck, Port Chester, Greenwich, Stamford to Norwalk, where the route then headed north through the Norwalk River Valley over what would now mostly be Route 7 up to Branchville. 
From there the drive headed up Branchville Road (now Route 102) to Main Street. At this point, the normally dry description of the tour turns almost ecstatic as it announces that Ridgefield “is called the prettiest town in New England, with a village street 200 feet wide with large towering elms and maples, and in full foliage forms a perfect canopy over the road.”
The directions then sent motorists out West Lane and South Salem Road (Route 35 today) into New York state and back toward Manhattan.
Branchville Road, Main Street and West Lane/South Salem Road were all dirt surfaced back then.
The entire tour, which the guide calls “a delightful day’s run,” covered 118 miles.
If you didn’t happen to have your own automobile, the Commodore and Biltmore offered a rental service at their combined garage. “Experienced chauffeurs familiar with New York and vicinity are available at all times,” the booklet said. In addition, “a wrecking car will answer S.O.S. calls anywhere in the Metropolitan district, by night or day.”
The accompanying picture shows the cover of the guide, and pages 18 and 19 with tour featuring Ridgefield.

Friday, November 02, 2018

The Mugavero Family: 
A Tonsorial Dynasty
Theirs is a dynasty of haircutting expertise. For nearly a century, members of the Mugavero family have been cutting the hair of Ridgefielders. But their tonsorial tradition goes back long before they came to Ridgefield.
In 1891, a young man named Pietro Mugavero came to this country from Italy and soon established his own barber shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., and soon a second shop in Manhattan.
There is a belief in the family that Pietro’s father back in Italy may have been a barber and perhaps even earlier generations practiced the profession.
In 1900 Pietro or “Peter” married Agatha Vitali, also from Italy, and two years later, Vincent was born. In 1904, Jerome “Jerry” Mugavero arrived. 
Vincent graduated from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1924 and decided to enter the profession of his father. He eventually moved to Norwalk where he had relatives, and then, in 1931, he bought the Ridgefield Tonsorial Parlor on the east side of Main Street north of Bailey Avenue. He was soon joined by his younger brother, Jerry.
In 1938, Vincent decided on a change of careers. He left barbering and, with his wife Bernice,  eventually opened the B-V Ranch restaurant on Route 7, just north of Topstone Road. (After he retired around 1962, the restaurant became The Alibi, which burned down in the 1970s. The site is now an empty, reforested lot.)
Vincent was active in the community, serving on the Board of Assessors, the Republican Town Committee, and as a volunteer fireman for more than a half century. He lived in Ridgefield for 37 years and then moved to Redding where he was also involved in community service. 
Vincent died in 1987 at the age of 84. Bernice had died in 1961; his second wife, Mary Kovacs, survived him.
Meanwhile, after Vincent left the business, Jerry Mugavero continued the Ridgefield Tonsorial Parlor with Francis Sansevieri, but in 1950, the two split up and Jerry opened his own business, Jerry’s Barber Shop in the Masonic Building. He eventually took on a partner, Mike Pontello — Mike was married to Jerry’s daughter, Agatha, better known as “Tina” (the flagpole in front of town hall is a memorial to Tina Mugavero Pontello, a gift to the town from her husband.)  Mike Pontello took over the Main Street shop when Jerry retired in 1970 after 50 years as a barber. 
Although he worked in the center of town, Jerry lived in Branchville (his house at 25 Ethan Allen Highway is still standing, used today as offices for American Irrigation Systems). Active in the Branchville community, Jerry was a founding member of the Branchville Civic Association, which built the ballfield on Playground Road; served as an auxiliary state policeman; was a member of the Board of Assessors and the Branchville School Building Committee; and was a president of the Italian-American Mutual Aid Society. He died in 1988 at the age of 83.
Jerry’s son, Peter, began barbering with his dad in the late 1950s, but in 1961, he established his own Peter’s Barber Shop in the Ancona shopping plaza. He then moved to nearby 33 Ethan Allen Highway — just north of his parents’ house. There, he renamed the business, “Peter’s Mane Concern.” Peter retired in 2005 and with his wife, Leslie, moved to Florida where they live today.
But that’s hardly the end of the Mugavero tonsorial dynasty. In the 1990s, Peter’s daughter, Linda Mugavero Morganti, began working alongside her dad at Peter’s Mane Concern. When her father retired, Linda took over the business and today operates the  shop, appropriately named “The Barber’s Daughter,” at 723 Branchville Road.
She is the fourth generation in America and the third generation in Ridgefield to practice the profession.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Joseph Jay Deiss: 
Knight of Italian Solidarity
When Jay Deiss lived in Ridgefield in the 1940s, he was itching to write his first book.  After years of working in Washington and New York, at first for the government, and later for Big Pharma, he sat down and turned out a novel that sold well enough to let him buy an “oysterman’s cottage” on Cape Cod, to which he eventually moved.
Its success also helped enable him to quit writing PR and instead delve into subjects he cared about, especially Italian history.
Joseph Jay Deiss was born in 1912 on a ranch in Idaho, but grew up in Texas. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Texas, but it was the Depression and he spent his early life, as he described it, “as a pots-and-pans salesman, truck farmer, seaman and gravel-shoveler on a road gang.”
He started out his writing career as a reporter in Texas, wound up in Washington working for a New Deal farm agency, and then became a public relations writer for pharmaceutical companies, especially Pfizer, in New York City. One afternoon in the 1940s, according to his own third person account, “he walked out, headed for the country, and settled down to write the novel which came to be ‘A Washington Story.’”
The “country” was New Street in Ridgefield, where he lived with his wife and two children. 
Set during the period of the anti-communist “witch hunts” of the late 1940s, “A Washington Story” centers around Faith Vance, who had worked for the government for eight  years in a job she liked, but she was unhappily married to Thatcher Vance. Suddenly and without any cause she is
subpoenaed by the House Investigating Committee, which has been told she may be a subversive and which, because she cannot find her birth certificate, questions her citizenship. Her husband walks out, taking their young child, she is hauled off to Ellis Island for deportation, and she is left with no friends or support — except for a young attorney named Dave Chandler, who tries to come to her rescue. “There’s a high pulse beat here, and more than a little fictional glamour, but there’s also a definite basis in fact,” said Kirkus Reviews.
The novel’s dust jacket described it as “a story so strange that its counterpart can be found only in the newspaper headlines of today.”
Years later, The New York Times reported that “A Washington Story” was on the Moscow City Library’s list of 19 books described as “the most important literary products of the U.S.A. published after the Second World War.” The list included novels by Ray Bradbury, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, William Saroyan, and John Steinbeck. 
Deiss continued to write fiction. In 1957, “The Blue Chips” was published by Simon and Schuster. It delved into the ethical drug business and, said Kirkus, was “the first to treat the world behind the wonder drug prescription ... it traces the discovery, exploitation and down-grading of multicilin, a broad-range antibiotic.”
The same year, Deiss moved to Positano, Italy, became vice director of the American Academy in Rome, and began studying and visiting the nearby ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. This led to an interest in many aspects of Italian history.
In 1963, he produced “The Great Infidel,” a biographical novel about Frederic the Second
(1194-1250), a Holy Roman emperor and king of Sicily. While it is a work of fiction, largely because Deiss imagined the dialogue for the characters, Orville Prescott wrote in The New York Times that the book’s “fidelity to history is sufficiently great so that it can be read as an able account of Frederic and the spectacular drama of his life.”
He turned to non-fiction, with books like “Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure” (1966), “Captains of Fortune, Profiles of Six Italian Condottieri” (medieval soldiers of fortune) (1966), “The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller” (1969), and “The Town of Hercules, A Buried Treasure Trove” (1995).
His writings and lectures on Italian history so impressed the Italian government that in 1971 it knighted him in the Ordine della Stella Solidarita Italiana (Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity), which honors expatriates or foreigners who made an outstanding contribution to the reconstruction of Italy after World War II.
Deiss spent his later years living in Wellfleet on Cape Cod and in Florida where he taught in the Classics Department at the University of Florida and where he died in 1999 at the age of 84.
Today, his love of Italy is reflected in the Joseph Jay Deiss Memorial Scholarship  for Summer Study in Italy, awarded annually by the University of Florida.

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