Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Bob Gustafson: 
Ridgefield’s Cartoonist
Several nationally known cartoonists have lived here, but none has taken up Ridgefield as a subject for his art as Bob Gustafson did. The Ridgefield Press’s cartoonist for more than 40 years produced literally thousands of cartoons for the newspaper. Some teased town officials for their actions or inactions, others illustrated community problems,  many promoted good causes in a good-natured way, and a few were just good gags. 
 A native of Brookline, Mass., Robert D. Gustafson was born in 1920. He  was a paperboy as a youngster, served as a pilot in the U.S. Army, pitched semi-pro baseball in the Boston area, played drums in a band, and studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School. 
Before he was 21, he was sending cartoon gag ideas to The New Yorker, and several were purchased and used. He later did cartoons for magazines like Good Housekeeping and Saturday
Evening Post.
“You have to come up with something you like and let everybody judge it,” Gustafson said in a 1991 interview about his work. “Sometimes it flops. It’s not like being a plumber — when you go in and fix a pipe and turn the faucet on and the water comes out, you know it’s OK.”
After working for a Boston magazine and a newspaper, he got a job with King Features, ghosting several comic strips and eventually taking over the nationally circulated strip, “Tilly the Toiler,” which had started in 1921 when he was only a year old.  He later worked for Mort Walker on both Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois. And on the side, he did cartoons for The Press.
“Cartoonists never stop learning,” he said. “They’re always observing.” 
Although he lived in Ridgefield only from 1954 to 1960, Gustafson continued to “observe” town affairs at his Greenwich home through the pages of The Press, which he read thoroughly for ideas. He’d also chat by phone each week with the Press’s editor, looking for ideas on timely issues — and giving the editor hell if he had changed a word or two in a caption the previous week.
Gustafson had several favorite subjects, including the Cass Gilbert fountain. He was aghast at suggestions that the landmark be moved from its island at Main Street and West Lane, complaining repeatedly about that work of art’s being sacrificed to “the almighty automobile.” In cartoon after cartoon, he dealt with the issue. Saddened by cars all too often crashing into the monument, he’d offer entertaining suggestions for protecting it — one shows the fountain, raised on a mound and a
tunnel running under it to carry the traffic. But one week, seemingly giving up hope, he drew another showing the fountain, well-protected from cars by big railings, being hit by an airplane.
He also attacked vandalism, often portraying vandals as evil-looking thugs. Being a senior citizen himself, he encouraged help for Ridgefield’s elderly, and would offer suggestions on how to
improve their lot. He supported many town organizations, but especially the Community Center — he was active in the center in its early years and, as an accomplished photographer, used to take publicity pictures for them.
One of his favorite subjects in the 1950s and 60s was Leo F. Carroll, the colorful and charismatic first selectman and former state police leader. Carroll, who lived directly across Wilton Road West from Gustafson, was often teased for his pronouncements such as when he declared that
Ridgefield’s dump was “the most delightful dump in America.”
Though most of his Press cartoons were very local in nature, some captured wider attention. When controversy erupted over a new gas station’s need to cut down some large trees to make access to the highway safer, Gustafson drew a cartoon showing a couple of giant trees like the redwoods in California with a big opening so people could drive through them. Shell Oil Company offered to buy the cartoon. 
A gag, playing on the idea that we’ve all seen supermarket shopping carts in strange places,
showed an Arab on a camel in the middle of a desert coming upon a shopping cart. Grand Union later bought it.
Gustafson won many awards for his work including commendations from professional cartoonist organizations and from the New England Press Association. 
For relaxation, he enjoyed golf and following the Boston Red Sox. For many years he loved teasing Yankee fans, but by the late 1990s had come to enjoy watching the Sox’s arch enemy — he especially admired Derek Jeter.
Bob Gustafson died in 2001 at the age of 81. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Matilda Ziegler: 
The Heiress Who Helped the Blind
A wealthy heiress who found Ridgefield a retreat spent much of her life aiding the blind. Nearly a century after her death, she still is helping the visually impaired. Inspired by a young son who lost his sight, Matilda Ziegler founded a magazine and a foundation, both aimed at the blind. 
Her Main Street mansion is now Wesley Hall, part of the Methodist Church complex.
Electa Matilda Curtis was born on a farm in 1841 in Saratoga County, N.Y.,  and, when she was about 18, married a local boy, Edward Gamble. They had a son, Charles, who was blinded in an accident as a child. By 1870, she was divorced and living with the 10-year-old boy at her parents’ farm in Schuylerville.
Within 15 years, her life had changed dramatically. Mrs. Gamble was living in New York City when she met William Ziegler, a millionaire industrialist. Born in 1843 of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, Ziegler had worked a printer’s apprentice, clerked in a drug store, learned telegraphy, pharmacology, and chemistry, went to business school, and worked for a wholesale drug and chemical company before he wound up acquiring and heading a large company that produced baking powder and other cooking chemicals.
William and Matilda were married in 1886.
William Ziegler later  became famous for financing several unsuccessful expeditions to the Arctic in an effort to plant the American flag at the North Pole. He also created one of the most valuable estates in America. In 1902 he bought Great Island on the Darien shore and built a mansion as the center of a spread that included a huge 20-stall stone stable with indoor ring, a polo grounds, and a yacht basin. In 2016, the Ziegler family placed the 63-acre property on the market for $175 million, ranking it at the time as the fifth highest-priced home for sale in the entire United States. The price was reduced two years later to $120 million. The property is still owned by the family.
Ziegler himself got to enjoy his estate only three years, dying in 1905 of complications from a runaway carriage accident the previous year.  He left behind an estate worth some $30 million ($884 million today), of which $18.5 million went to his adopted son, William Jr. (who was actually his nephew).  Matilda was bequeathed $50,000 a year ($1.4 million) as well as lifetime use of their Fifth Avenue mansion and the Great Island estate. After a lawsuit challenging parts of the will, she wound up with another $2.5 million  ($70-million) in cash and stocks. 
Soon after William’s death,  Mrs. Ziegler — she  went by Matilda Ziegler, E. Matilda Ziegler or Mrs. E. M. Ziegler, but never by Electa Ziegler — began devoting herself to the needs of the blind. In 1907, she founded the Matilda Ziegler Publishing Company for the Blind in New York City.
“As the loving mother of a son who lost his sight in childhood, Mrs. Ziegler knew from personal experience how few resources were available to enrich the lives of the blind,” says the E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind.  “At the time, communications reading material in Braille was limited. By creating and distributing a monthly, general-interest magazine in Braille, Mrs. Ziegler helped break through the isolation that defined the lives of blind people.”
When the magazine started in 1907, circulation was 6,500 copies and a subscription cost only 10 cents a year — a nominal fee that was charged to make the publication eligible for an inexpensive second-class mailing rate. About a year  later, a law was passed, making periodicals for the blind postage-free, and the magazine itself became completely free.
Each 48-page  copy, looking like a large scroll when it was delivered,  included a summary of current events, scientific advances,  a short story,  poetry,   popular music,  reports from blind people describing their successes in various fields, and sometimes even raised maps as “illustrations.” By 1919,  the magazine was producing 96,000 copies annually, which required printing more than 6,000,000 pages per year on a special Braille press. The print edition lasted until 2009, but the magazine continued online with audio feeds until 2014 when it shut down.
Along with the magazine, Ziegler built a printing plant that produced not only the magazine, but books for the blind.
In 1929,  Ziegler established the E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind to pay for the magazine and for other services that benefited the blind.
Meanwhile, in 1912, she bought Hawley Cottage, later called Ashton Croft, the Main Street
mansion built about 1892 by Henry E. Hawley, a tea importer. His widow, Elizabeth, sold the 11.4 acre estate to Ziegler for an undisclosed sum. The property then extended from Main Street along King Lane to High Ridge Avenue.
Why Mrs. Ziegler bought a house in Ridgefield when she already had a six-bedroom mansion 15 miles away on Great Island is unclear. Also unclear is why the renovated the exterior, which had been shingled, into a Tudor-style design of posts, beams, and stucco. (The only other Tudor building on Main Street, built at about the same time, is the so-called Pizza Block of stores and offices in the central business district.) One of the exterior changes  she made to the house was facing porches and chimneys with stone, similar to the look of the manor house at her Darien estate.
It’s also unknown how often she was in Ridgefield instead of her Manhattan and Darien homes. She must have spent some time here — she had three automobiles registered in Ridgefield in 1914.
In 1924, when she was in her middle 80s, she sold the house  to Sanford H.E. Freund, a New York City attorney. Tax stamps on the deed suggest that the price in today’s dollars was about $720,000. The Odd Fellows bought the estate from the Freund family in 1956. Three years later,  the organization sold most of the property — retaining the carriage house for its lodge — to Jesse Lee Methodist Church, which planned to eventually build  a new church there to replace the old one at Main and Catoonah Streets. 
Matilda Ziegler died in 1932 at the age of 91.
Her adopted son, William Ziegler Jr. (1894-1958), continued her work, serving as president of both the foundation and  publishing company  as well as the American Foundation for the Blind, and the American Foundation for Overseas Blind. His son,  William Ziegler III, his son, became president of the foundation and the publishing company, serving until his death in 2008.  
Today, while the magazine is gone, the foundation is alive and quite active in providing money for vision research — in the past decade, more than $4.5-million in grants were awarded to “scientists whose research holds the promise of major impact.”

Friday, November 15, 2019

Timothy M. Cheesman, M.D.:
The Doctor’s Stone Legacy
Timothy Cheesman didn’t get to spend much time in Ridgefield but he nonetheless left behind an edifice that has been a part of helping humankind in various ways for nearly a century. 
Which is fitting, since Dr. Cheesman had spent his life trying to heal others.
Although descended from old Quaker stock in Philadelphia, Timothy Matlack Cheesman was
born in New York City in 1824, a son of a local physician, John Cummins Cheesman. Following in the footsteps of his father, he graduated in 1859 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, now known as Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Even before completing his medical training, Dr. Cheesman was serving as a surgeon in the 7th Regiment of the New York National Guard, starting in 1853. In 1861, he was mustered into national service in the Civil War as a surgeon with rank of colonel on the Staff First Division of the New York National Guard. He remained in the guard after the war, retiring in 1874.
He maintained a practice in New York for many years and was the father of Dr. Timothy Matlack Cheesman Jr., also a Columbia graduate who became a pioneer in the teaching of bacteriology. 
In the late 1880s, like many other wealthy city folk, Dr. Cheesman Sr. and his wife, Maria Louisa, decided to build a country home in Ridgefield. They chose nearly 30 acres on the east side of East Ridge, an area that was being touted as “Prospect Ridge” for its view.
Cheesman was probably ill and may have been seeking the clean air of the country climate to help his health or at least as a place to rest. He had Bright’s disease, which would lead to kidney failure and prove fatal for him (and for his son in 1919). 
In 1886, he made out a will, distributing his property to his wife and children. But on March 1, 1887, he added a codicil to the will, noting he had recently “purchased certain property at Ridgefield, Connecticut, upon which I am about to erect a dwelling house.” He added,  “I give and devise unto my wife Maria Louisa Cheesman in addition to the bequests and devises to her in said will contained, the use of said land and any dwelling house which may be thereon erected at the time of my death, with the furniture, plate and pictures which may then be contained therein…” (“Furniture, plate and pictures” was an old legal term for “contents.”)
This showed Cheesman was concerned about his family’s future; at the same time he was dating the construction of the house at 1887.
He named the place “Matlack,”  an ancestral name in the family of his mother, Mary Matlack Hicks Cheesman. The exterior of the house was almost all stone, perhaps reflecting the fact that it was built on a rock outcropping that projects well into the cellar of the house and is quite visible there.
Dr. Cheesman died July 8, 1888, at Matlack. He was only 63 years old. (His son was 66 at his death in 1919.)
Maria Louisa Cheesman continued to use Matlack until her death in 1903. 
In 1922, the estate was acquired by the Holy Ghost Fathers (officially now called the Congregation of the Holy Spirit), who set up a school for novices — new members of the order — who would get their initial training to be priests or brothers there.  Holy Ghost missionaries were  sent to countries around the world. Many of them spent their lives helping the poor in poverty-stricken nations. 
The order enlarged the house, especially for dormitory rooms, and built the addition with stone to match the original dwelling.
Declining numbers of candidates for the order caused the Holy Ghost Fathers to shut down
the novitiate in 1970 and move operations to their seminary at Ferndale in Norwalk. The town bought the property in 1971, paying $395,000 ($2.4 million in 2019 dollars) for 26 acres and sundry buildings.
Matlack and its dormitory addition were soon used as headquarters for the  public school administration offices, overseeing a growing school system that reached as many as 6,000 students in the early 1970s.
Outbuildings on the property became Ridgefield Guild of Artists gallery, Ridgefield Theater Barn performance center, and Marine Corps League quarters. Some of the estate land is the Bark Park and Fitzgerald Little League Field.  The town also donated some of the land for 25 units of
privately developed affordable housing called Halpin Court along Halpin Lane, opened in 1991.
In 1987, soon-to-retire First Selectman Elizabeth Leonard announced plans to turn the main building into congregate housing for the elderly. The facility at 51 Prospect Ridge opened in 1991 as “Prospect Ridge congregate housing,” and includes 34 one-bedroom apartments with 24 hour supervision, housekeeping services, and a common dining room with one meal a day.
The town also built 20 two- and three-bedroom affordable apartments at Prospect Ridge soon afterward.
Dr. Cheesman would probably be pleased to know that the refuge he built during his final illness had turned into a place that has provided help for the poor, education for the community, housing for the elderly, and even a spot for dogs to play.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Capt. Everett Roberts, 
Lifetime in Defense of His Country
Ridgefield had many heroes in World War II, but among the native sons who seem to have been forgotten is Everett Roberts, a naval officer who once was adrift for more than a day in the
South Pacific after his destroyer was sunk in a major battle. 
Roberts went on to spend a long career working on the defense of his country, both in the Navy and in civilian life.
Often called Bob, Everett Earl Roberts Jr. was born in Ridgefield in 1916, son of E. Earl and Alice May Stevens Roberts. His dad was a longtime electrician and local businessman who was also Ridgefield’s dealer in the once famous Locke mowers. His sister was Marion Roberts Haight, wife of the town’s second police chief, John F. Haight Jr.
Roberts was accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy where he became known for his abilities at tennis and sailing. After graduating in 1940 as an ensign, he was assigned as gunnery officer on the USS Indianapolis, based in Pearl Harbor. Fortunately for the Indianapolis and for Ens. Roberts, the heavy cruiser was conducting Marine landing drills 800 miles away at Johnston Atoll when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.
While stationed in Hawaii, he met Dorothy Ida Bechert whom he married in 1942. 
After his tour on the Indianapolis,  Roberts was promoted to lieutenant commander and assigned as the executive officer on the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts — its namesake, not a relation, was Navy Coxswain Samuel Booker Roberts Jr, who posthumously received the Navy Cross for rescuing stranded Marines from Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands earlier in the war. The ship participated in the Battle of Samar, a part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which has been described as “The U.S. Navy’s finest hour.” The U.S. forces lost 3,500 people, and six ships while 10,000 Japanese were killed, and 27 of their ships sunk, including four aircraft carriers.
After it made repeated torpedo runs against a Japanese cruiser, the Samuel B. Roberts was sunk on Oct. 25, 1944.  
Everett Roberts made it to a life raft. A U.S. Navy historical account of the Samuel B. Roberts says  that for those aboard the raft, “The long ordeal, marked by sporadic shark attacks and lack of food and water, lasted for 18 hours. Nearly every survivor was covered head-to-toe in thick black oil. Rubbing one’s eyes only made them burn more and many, accidentally ingesting it, began retching and vomiting. One sailor removed his oil-smeared clothes in order to help him swim easier, but in doing so, exposed the lower portion of his pale white skin not covered with oil. An attentive shark swam up to the naked survivor and nudged the exposed portion. The man quickly put his clothes back on.”
Lt. Cmdr. Roberts’s raft that drifted three days in the oil slick. On the third day they were spotted by a rescue ship that was on its way back to base after giving up hope of finding more survivors. The rescuers were wary, “worried the men in the water might actually be Japanese, known to play possum before attempting to kill any U.S. sailors trying to rescue them from the sea.”
As the rescue boat approached, “the sailors on board, with guns drawn, were ready to fire. One of the rescuers on the bridge yelled out, ‘Who won the World Series?’ Several survivors shouted back, ‘The St. Louis Cardinals!’” The Cardinals had played their cross-town rival St. Louis Browns, winning the series in six games only 16 days before Samuel B. Roberts went down. 
In all, 120 men of Samuel B. Roberts’s crew of 220 survived the sinking.
Back in Ridgefield  Roberts’s wife and parents waited weeks to learn his fate. By mid-November 1944, they knew that his ship had been sunk in what news reports were calling “the Second Battle of the Philippines.” Then, The Ridgefield Press reported Nov. 30, “Mr. and Mrs. E. Earl Roberts and Mrs. Everett Roberts enjoyed a belated Thanksgiving dinner last Sunday at the Roberts home on Mountain View Avenue following receipt of a letter on Friday from Lt. Everett Roberts which stated that he was safe and well and hoped to be home on furlough sometime in December, preferably for Christmas.”
Roberts received the Legion of Merit  for “exceptional meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services” during and after the battle.
After the war ended,  Roberts remained in the Navy and eventually became the commanding officer of the destroyer escort USS Marsh and then commanded the destroyer USS Porterfield.
Meanwhile, he was promoted to captain and  in 1954 earned a master’s degree in bioradiology from the University of California, Berkeley. Captain Roberts was working with the Military Liaison Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission at the time of his retirement from the Navy in 1958. (The AEC eventually became part of the U.S. Department of Energy.)
After his retirement from the Navy, Capt. Roberts worked for 24 years for RCA in Moorestown, N.J. where he was involved in the development of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) and the U.S. Navy’s AEGIS Combat System used for guided missiles. After his retirement from RCA, he was active in various civic service organizations in the Moorestown area.
Captain Roberts died in 2007 at the age of 91 and is buried in Lewistown, Pa., next to his wife, who died in 1999.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Sylvia Hodge: 
A Life of Music
Among the most popular of the many 20th Century teachers at Ridgefield High School was a woman who had to commute 85 miles round trip to get to her classes. But Sylvia Hodge apparently liked teaching in Ridgefield and also liked living in her native New Haven.
And her students certainly liked her.
“What an amazing woman and teacher she was,” said Barbara Asketh Amaral. 
When she arrived at Ridgefield High School in 1964, she was known as Sylvia Randall and taught in the then tiny music department. Her name changed after her marriage to Cullen Hodge, who taught mathematics in New Haven.
She was born in 1920, a daughter of parents who had immigrated from the island of Nevis in the West Indies. Both a pianist and a singer, she studied at Yale School of Music and Columbia University and was a graduate of both the Juilliard School of Music and Albertus Magnus College.
During her 25 years at Ridgefield High School, she taught music and led choral groups (by the late 1970s, RHS had singing courses in A Capella Choir, Mixed Chorus, Choir, Voice, and Madrigal Singers). Her choral groups gave countless concerts both in school and in the community — even at Yale University, and in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. After she led students in a concert for three Ridgefield senior citizen groups in 1973, Eddie Olsen of the OWLS said, “Sylvia Hodge certainly deserves an award as music director of the year.”
He wasn’t alone in his respect for Hodge. Dozens of her students have sung her praises on Old Ridgefield.
“She was an amazing person,” said Stacy Acon in a 2017 remembrance. “I was privileged to have her as my chorus teacher for four years.”
“She was such a kind lady,” said Tracy Skelly Brooks.
“Many wonderful memories of this lovely lady who let me sing even though I couldn’t carry a tune,” said Ellen Cole Tim. “She was the best!”
“Loved Momma Hodge!” said Tracy Petry. “My best memories of RHS are of being in her class.”
“Mrs. Hodge was my mentor — all my inspiration in music came from her, and also life in general,” said James Edighoffer. “She always encouraged me in everything I did.”
“Only woman in the world that could get me to sing in the choir,” said Guy Rossini.
“She used to have a sign up in the chorus room that said, ‘When you sing, you pray twice,’” said Patrice Sarath. “I always liked that.”
“Loved her,” said Deborah Karably. “She taught me how to sing the right way, and if she noticed that one’s diaphragm was not moving the right way to get enough air in your lungs, she had a ‘hands on’ technique that made sure you never made that mistake again!”
“Mrs. Hodge was one of a kind,” said Elizabeth Capalbo. “Juilliard-trained and should have been teaching at a much higher level than RHS. She was extremely talented musically and so very kind to me personally.  I was forced to audition for her in my sophomore year because I kept singing in Study Hall and the only way to not get detentions was to I did, of course.  When I had nodules on my vocal chords a year or so later, Mrs. Hodge found two doctors for me to see in Hamden and at NYU... When I was unable to sing for a short period, she would give me an excuse note and send me to Peach Lake Deli to buy her a shrimp salad grinder (best shrimp salad ever) and then have me organize the sheet music closet … Fond memories of a great woman who was a safe haven in a tough time.”
Hodge continued to teach into her late 60s, retiring around 1988. In New Haven, however, she continued to be active in music. She was the organist and choir director for many churches — including her own, St. Luke’s Episcopal. Over the years she served as a musical director for organizations in both Connecticut and the Virgin Islands.  
“She graced many stages here and abroad with her gift and love for the piano,” her family said at the time of her death.
Sylvia Hodge died in late October 2008 at the age of 88.
Perhaps the most touching tribute to her as a teacher came from Allison Staudacher, RHS 1974. “We had this great chorus that Sylvia hoodwinked us into,” she said. “Lots of us were drawn by her charm and effervescent humor. 
“I did not have the picture-perfect upbringing, and once I made the mistake of having so much enthusiasm and pride that I pleaded with my mother to attend a concert. She showed up drunk — badly, sloppy drunk. We all knew the norms, the acceptable; I was mortified. 
“I went to the girls room to wallow in tears. Sylvia came to my rescue. How many were there in her chorus — 50,  75? There were a bunch of us — but she knew each and every one. I won’t get into specifics, but the words she said to me changed my life. Sylvia Hodges saved my life.  
“I am 60 years of age; I will continue to pay it forward. I would not feel I gave her justice if I did not try to live her words.”

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

E. Armitage McCann: 
A Man of Many Models
Captain E. Armitage McCann. An impressive name but one that’s not exactly widely known — unless you’re a student of maritime history and especially model sailing ships. For Captain McCann has been credited with virtually founding the hobby of model ship-building.
And he knew what he modeled: McCann spent much of his life at sea, most of it captaining ships plying the Seven Seas. His first job, as a young teenager, was aboard  clipper ship on which Joseph Conrad was a first mate.
McCann’s last days were spent in Ridgefield, where he left behind a collection of models that seem to have vanished, unwanted, but would be worth tens of thousands of dollars today. 
      A son of an Irish clergyman, Ernest Armitage McCann was born in 1875 in Glasgow,
Scotland, and was educated in England. He left home at the age of 14 to go to sea, becoming an apprentice aboard the steel-and-wood clipper ship, Torrens, which was the fastest passenger vessel sailing between London and Australia in the 1880s and 90s. In 1891, the first mate of the Torrens was a Polish mariner who took the name, Joseph Conrad. Encouraged by a passenger, Nobel laureate John Gallsworthy, Conrad changed careers and became a celebrated novelist. Thus, McCann’s first ship was Conrad’s last.
       McCann went on to be  an accomplished writer himself, but only after being a first-rate sailor. At the age of 19 he was the master of the 412-ton bark Umvott that sailed the Indian Ocean. 
       Captain McCann also served on land. At the turn of the 20th Century, he fought in  the Boer War as a member of the Imperial Light Horse regiment in the South African Army. He was injured in battle and sent to Johannesburg to recuperate. There he remained for a while after the war, acquiring “a modest fortune,” according to one historian. 
He eventually returned to England  where he was director of the International Art Association in London for several years.
World War I drew him back to the sea. He held captain’s licenses in both England and the United States, and commanded merchant marine vessels for both countries during the conflict. 
After the war, he occasionally captained American vessels but he seemed to tire of the maritime life — but not of ships. An accomplished artist who had painted many sailing ships and had built his first model ship at the age of 16, he began in the early 1920s to design precise scale model replicas of famous vessels. And it was here that he found a second “calling.”
His very first post-war model was praised by the noted American maritime artist Gordon Grant, and wound up being sold to Col. Henry Huddleston Rogers, a collector who donated the Rogers Collection now housed at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis.
One of his best known creations was the very ship he signed onto when he was 14: the Torrens of Joseph Conrad. By the 1920s, the Torrens had long been scrapped and he had to recreate the miniature vessel almost entirely from memory. The result was so good, it sold for $18,000 — around $275,000 in today’s money. Quite possibly, the high price was attributed not only to the craftsmanship, but also to the Conrad connection and the fact that the craftsman had sailed the same ship.
McCann’s love of model-making led him to start contributing a series of how-to columns to the magazine, Popular Science, starting in 1926. The last article was published in 1938, the year after his death. The columns, each offering detailed model plans for a different ship, generated such a large number of followers that McCann joined artist Grant and naval architect Charles G. Davis in founding the Ship Model Makers Club in 1929.  Thanks to his popular columns, the club soon grew to more than 1,000 members nationwide. 
During the same period, McCann was also writing books on model making, including some very focused, such as one dealing solely with how to tie the tiny knots and string the fine rigging lines on accurate miniatures of sailing ships.
He wrote scores of articles for newspapers, including The New York Times. In a 1936 Times piece, he explained some of the attractions of the hobby:
“With a very small outlay of money for material, one can either get results fairly quickly or spend the spare time of years in endeavoring to achieve perfection; some even say that a ship model should never be completely finished. A workshop is convenient, but not necessary. Good models have been made by the bedridden. Unlike so many things that are uninteresting until finished, a ship model is good to look at from the first roughing out of the hull. An earnest modeler is as eager to invite comment and praise of his progressing ship as of his finished product.”
McCann also edited the club’s magazine, The Shipmodeler, for five years until, in 1933, his health started to fail.
Thinking that the country climate might help his illness, Captain McCann moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Ridgefield that year, finding a house on Bryon Avenue. 
“The captain’s Bryon Park home was filled with models of ships of all descriptions as well as pictures of vessels and other treasures collected during his lifetime,” The Ridgefield Press reported. “One of his masterpieces was his model of the frigate Hartford, the masthead of which is in the state capitol at Hartford.”
Four years after he came to Ridgefield, the captain died at the age of 62. The Press noted that he left a nearly completed article  (which Popular Science published in 1938) and  “virtually complete a model of the Confederate ship Alabama on which he had been working for more than a year. Judging from the value of his other work, this model should be worth several thousand dollars.”
Alas, a sad story was to soon unfold. Captain McCann died without a will and had less than $60 in the bank, said modeling historian John C. Hudock. He was estranged, possibly divorced, from his wife, British sculptor Wilhelmina Louisa Neuwirth (1877-1964), who lived in England. They had had no children.
McCann left behind 22 models and a library of books that required 15 pages to list in the
Ridgefield probate records. “Remembering that Captain McCann died in the depths of the Great Depression, it is not too surprising that the court was unable to sell the models and the books in four years of trying,” said another historian, Bill Russell. “At that point the court gave everything to the undertaker to compensate for the debt he was owed.” 
No one knows what ultimately happened to the models, but they were probably sold for a fraction of their true value which, in today’s money, would be more than $1 million! The funeral home was Lawrence and Gillespie on Main Street (predecessor of Kane), which may have sold or given away some of them locally. Thus, somewhere in Ridgefield today, on shelves gathering dust, may be a few priceless E. Armitage McCann models of historic ships, just waiting to be discovered.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Adolf Gund: 
Ridgefield’s Geppetto
To Ridgefielders in the 1930s, the old man with the German accent might have been Geppetto. Working in his shop in the barn behind his house on North Salem Road, the   white-haired retiree created marvelous stuffed animals, many with innovative moving parts. People came from far and wide to acquire his creature creations, made mostly because he loved to make them.
The man was Adolf Gund, who years earlier had founded the Gund Manufacturing Company, “creator of novelties” that included some of the earliest Teddy Bears.
Today Gund stuffed toys are sold around the world, both new and as antique collectibles, thanks to a man who loved making things for children but who had none of his own.
 Adolf Gund was born in 1869 in the Bavaria section of southern Germany, and came to the United States in 1894. Four years later in New Jersey, he married Luise Bigler, a fellow immigrant from Germany. 
That same year, Gund established a small toy company in Norwalk, Conn. Probably to get closer to more potential customers, he soon moved the operation to Manhattan where it was incorporated as the Gund Manufacturing Company. 
There he continued to design toys, especially plush animals, sometimes with fairly elaborate moving parts for which he obtained several patents. Some could walk, some could dance. One could jump, thanks to a spring mechanism, “bringing it to life.” He also patented a large-sized duck that children could ride on; as the wheels moved, the duck’s bill opened and closed.
Gund was not only an innovator in the toy world, but a strong believer safety. One historian says he created some of the early safety standards for toys.
In the early 1900s,  along with Steiff, he was also among the first to produce Teddy Bears, capitalizing on a much publicized incident in which President Theodore Roosevelt was reported to have refused to kill a captured bear. Gund Teddy Bears are still being made today.
In the 1920s, Gund hired a Russian immigrant named Jacob Swedlin, teaching him to become a cutter and pattern-maker in his small factory. He liked Swedlin and eventually taught him the business operations of the company. In 1925, when he decided to retire, Gund sold his company
to Swedlin for a mere $1,500 — about $22,000 today. Perhaps the low price reflected their friendship and also Gund’s requirement that the company always bear his name. To this day, after being led by three generations of the Swedlin family and now owned by Enesco, a European conglomerate, the brand name is still Gund. And the motto for many years has been “Gotta Getta Gund.”
Soon after he retired, Gund moved to the country, buying a farmhouse in 1927 at the corner of North Salem Road and Wooster Street. Why here? He probably knew Ridgefield from his days in Norwalk, but he also had another connection: His half brother, Fritz Gund, a book-binder by trade, died here in 1915. He is buried in Ridgefield Cemetery.
Though retired, he continued to make toys in a workshop he set up in a barn on his property. These one-of-a-kind creations were sold to people who admired his work and didn’t mind driving hundreds of miles for a hand-made Gund. The barn he worked in was later converted into a house.
Although much of his Adolf’s life was spent creating stuffed toys that entertained youngsters, he and Luise had no children. In 1936, Luise died at the age of 64. She is buried in Fairlawn Cemetery. Two weeks after her death, Gund sold his house and moved back New York City where he died in 1945 at the age of 75.
Most Ridgefielders — then and now — were unaware the toymaker had lived here, probably because he and his wife were a quiet couple who kept to themselves. But as a young man, town historian Richard E. Venus knew of him.
“Adolf was a master toy maker and  used the barn on this property for his shop,” he wrote in a Dick’s Dispatch column in The Ridgefield Press. “He enjoyed such a reputation as a fine toy maker that people traveled great distances to purchase his handiwork.”
But even in 1982, when he wrote his column, Dick Venus didn’t realize that the very private Adolf Gund was the man behind a thriving company that has brought smiles to the faces of hundreds of thousands of children who’ve loved his stuffed toys for more than a century.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Evelyn Wisner: 
A Hero At 7,000 Feet
War heroes always seem to be men. Not so with Evelyn Schretenthaler Wisner.
The World War II flight nurse landed in war zones, located seriously wounded Marines, loaded them on an airplane, and treated them while flying high over the Pacific Ocean. How many lives she may have saved or help save will never be known.
“Those young Marines were so glad to get on that plane — all they wanted was a drink of water,” Wisner told Kate Czaplinski of The Ridgefield Press in 2010.
Near the war’s end, she recalled, many of the wounded soldiers looked so young she wanted to hold them on her lap like children. “They were beat-up kids,” she said. 
Evelyn Schretenthaler was born in 1920 and grew in a small North Dakota town.  She graduated from nursing school and, as a 22-year-old RN, decided to help the war effort by becoming
a Navy nurse. She underwent training at Great Lakes Naval Station where she was the only member of 200 in her class who met the tough requirements for becoming a flight nurse, including being in top physical condition and having the ability to swim.
Lt. Schretenthaler then wound up being one of only a dozen nurses, based in Guam, who flew into combat zones in the Pacific to rescue the seriously wounded.
Flights would take off at midnight and land at dawn on islands such as Iwo Jima. There she spent only enough time on the ground needed to screen the patients who required the most urgent care and get them loaded onto the aircraft.
It was dangerous work. “There was shelling,” she told James Brady for his book, Why Marines Fight. “We could see it and hear it. I was young and frightened.”
She flew on C-47 cargo planes that were converted into flying hospitals — except that there were no doctors on board. “We were on our own over all that water,”  Wisner said. “Me, the pilots and a medical corpsman,” treating 18 to 20 soldiers, mostly Marines from the fighting on Iwo Jima and later, Okinawa. The patients were headed for treatment at hospitals in Guam, Hawaii or in the States.
Treating wounded patients at 7,000 feet had special hazards. The cabins were not pressurized and at high altitudes bleeding was exacerbated. On her very first flight, “I almost lost a patient because, at 7,000 feet, he started to bleed, and I got the pilot to drop down to 3,000, even though it was bumpy.” The soldier survived.
The flights also carried food and supplies to combat zones. “We had our hands full,” she said.
In her interview with Czaplinski, Wisner recalled being asked to take a soldier home on the plane, even though he seemed uninjured.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Well, what’s wrong?’ I was told, ‘Nothing, he’s 16 — take him home.’ 
“A lot of young men lied then [about their age] but it was rare for them to make it that far,” she said. “Usually they got caught in boot camp.”
Wisner missed the announcement that the war was over. “When the war ended, I didn't know — I was up in the air,” she said with a smile.
Back in the U.S. she continued to treat soldiers including former prisoners of war. She also met
her future husband, a Navy dentist named Edwin J. Wisner. He died in 1985.
After her discharge in 1946, Wisner continued her nursing career, working for years as a  neonatal special care nurse at a Michigan hospital. In 1990, she moved to Ridgefield to be closer to her daughter.
In 2012, she was named a “Hero of Western Connecticut” by the American Red Cross.
She died in 2018 at the age of 98. She was survived by three brothers who all fought in World War II and all came home. 
 Although she and her siblings all survived the conflict, she did not look back fondly on her war experiences and disagreed with those who might call World War II a “good war.”  
“Wars are pretty nasty stuff,” she said. “I always said if a woman ran the country, there wouldn’t be as many wars because women have children and women have sons.”
But Wisner was also not without a sense of humor about the experience. “No one goes through a war without feeling it somehow,” the 89-year-old said. “I tell my daughter that I wouldn’t look so old if I hadn’t been in a war.”

Monday, September 16, 2019

Alonzo Barton Hepburn:
Farm-boy Financier of Altnacraig 
Barton Hepburn apparently had a lot on his mind as he rushed along 23rd Street in New York City that cold Friday afternoon in January 1922. He was on his way to the Fourth Street branch of the Chase National Bank — an institution he once headed. As he reached the intersection with Fifth Avenue, he did not stop and strode into the traffic. He was promptly hit by a Fifth Avenue bus.
Hepburn suffered a double fracture of his right leg. Doctors that Friday didn’t think the injuries were serious, but by Monday “they saw that the aged financier’s nervous system was not rallying from the shock,” The New York Times reported. Two days later,  Hepburn was dead. He was 75 years old.
A man many considered a genius at banking and at finance in general, Hepburn had risen from being a farm boy and small-town teacher to become the United States controller of the currency, heading the agency that charters and regulates all national banks. He was later president of Chase National Bank, one of the country’s largest financial institutions. 
He and his wife Emily also built the legendary High Ridge mansion called Altnacraig.
Alonzo Barton Hepburn was born in 1846 on a farm in Colton, N.Y., one of the most northern and remote parts of New York State.  
Alonzo, as he was called as a boy, had no interest in farming, much to the distress of his father. He had instead come under the influence of his three uncles, one of whom founded the famous Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.  The others were also “in occupations that seemed to Alonzo more interesting, if not more profitable, than farming,” The Times said.
He attended nearby St. Lawrence Academy, then a teacher training school and now SUNY at Potsdam. To continue his studies he borrowed $1,000 to take courses at Middlebury College in Vermont. He taught in local schoolhouses in winter and labored in the summer on farms to work his way through Middlebury, graduating in 1871.
Hepburn then became a professor of mathematics at St. Lawrence Academy, by then called Potsdam Normal School. He was soon named principal of the Ogdensburg Educational Institute, the high school in Ogdensburg.
Meanwhile, he was also studying law on the side. After he was admitted to the New York
Bar. he opened a law office in Colton. There he had some clients who owned huge tracts of forest land in the northern Adirondacks. He saw an opportunity and began buying timberland — 30,000 acres at 50 cents an acre (equal to $10 an acre in 2019 dollars) — and soon left the law for lumber.
He was elected a state representative yearly from 1875 to 1879, and in 1880 was appointed superintendent of the State Banking Department, where he was a leader in efforts to reform the way New York State banks did business. As his interests turned more toward banks, he sold his lumber business for $200,000 (about $5,250,000 today) and devoted the rest of his life to banking.
He became a national bank examiner in New York City around 1890, gaining such a reputation as a conscientious reformer that, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him the U.S. controller of the currency. A year later, he resigned to become president of the Third National Bank in New York City.  By 1899, he was president of Chase National Bank, a post he held until 1911 when he became chairman of the Board of Directors.
 He was also a director of such companies as New York Life Insurance, Sears, Roebuck & Company, Studebaker Corporation, the Woolworth Company, and the Great Northern Railway Company.
Hepburn was a writer, producing both books and many magazine articles on banking and finance as well as money itself — he wrote History of Coinage and Currency in the United States: Perennial Contest for Sound Money (1903) and  A History of Currency in the United States (1915). 
One of his more unusual books was published in 1913 by Harper & Brothers. The Story of An Outing is a light-hearted, 100-page account of a hunting safari that year to Africa with four friends. It contains many pictures of the hunters, the native people they met and the places they went, along with the usual  shots of dead animals.
 Hepburn was also a philanthropist, particularly when it came to education. He left   bequests of some $3 million — about $45 million today — of which $2 million went to colleges and libraries, including Middlebury, Princeton, Columbia, Williams, NYU, and one school in the South: The historically black Tuskegee Institute. He also gave $500,000 to libraries in his native St. Lawrence County, N.Y. (the Hepburn Library in Norfolk and Hepburn Library in Colton are on the National Register of Historic Places), and $600,000 to the A. Barton Hepburn Hospital in Ogdensburg, N.Y., now the Claxton Hepburn Medical Center.
In 1873, Hepburn married Harriet A. Fisher of Vermont. She died in 1881, leaving him with two young sons. Around 1885, he met Emily Eaton, who was 19 years younger than he was.
“It seemed unbelievable that he should be interested in me,” Emily said 60 years later. But Hepburn immediately began wooing Emily in a rather unusual way: He founded a cribbage club, named her president, sent her a cribbage board, and scheduled meetings — at which he was the only other member present. He would write letters that would include messages like “Can’t we have a meeting of the Cribbage Club the first night after I get back?”
She was soon beating him at the game, but he had won the prize. They were engaged in 1886 and married a year later. She became, with her husband’s support, an active suffragist and after Barton’s death, a Manhattan activist  for women and business leader who built the landmark Beekman Tower hotel near the United Nations in New York City (her profile has been posted on Old Ridgefield).
While Barton was Chase president, the Hepburns decided they wanted a country retreat. 
They opted for a lot on High Ridge in Ridgefield with a spectacular view to the west but from which one could also see Long Island Sound to the south.  The Ridgefield Press reported in May 1908 that “Mr. A.B. Hepburn, one of the most prominent financiers of the country, former comptroller of the currency and now president of the Chase National Bank of New York, is building one of the most handsome homes to be seen in this town of beautiful homes.”
The magnificent mansion was called Altnacraig, a Gaelic name that they translated, “high crag”  (Hepburn traced his ancestry to Scotland. However, Philip Palmer, operator of Allt-Na-Craig House, a B&B  in Scotland, reports the term means “water from the hill.”)  The building later became a well-known nursing home, also called Altnacraig. The mansion burned to the ground in a suspicious 1994 blaze, and was replaced with a house of similar size, but entirely different design.
The Hepburns counted many people in the arts among their friends, including artist Frederic Remington, novelist Irving Bacheller (both born in St. Lawrence County) and writer/humorist Mark Twain. 
Bacheller introduced the Hepburns to Twain, who lived in Redding. When the Hepburns arrived at Twain’s house, called Stormfield, for their first visit,  they were greeted by the yapping of  Twain’s dog. Before even introductions took place,  Twain told them, “This is my dog; whatever he does is law in this house.”
Soon after, the dog got a hold of Barton Hepburn’s brand new hat and took off with it, prompting Twain to point to a motto hung over his mantlepiece: “Life is just one damned thing after another.”

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Lillian Loomis Dempsey: 
The Heiress of Northoline
A color postcard from around 1910 depicts “Northoline,” the then-new West Lane mansion of Lillian Loomis Dempsey. Recently widowed, Mrs. Dempsey had built the house after receiving a huge and somewhat controversial inheritance that made headlines from Georgia to New York.
 Lillian Dempsey was the wife of Thomas C. Dempsey, who had  died July 4, 1899, in Asbury Park, N.J. A few months later, on Sept. 25, 1899, The Baltimore Sun reported that “active negotiations have been pending for several weeks to prevent a threatened controversy” over Thomas Dempsey’s estate. 
That estate, according to The Sun and other newspapers, was said to be worth $1 million — equal to about $30 million in today’s currency.
“While Mr. Dempsey, who was 85 years old, was in bed three days before his death, he executed his will, by the provisions of which the bulk of his fortune goes to his widow, Lillian Loomis Dempsey, whom it appointed executrix,” the Sun continued, then adding, “She is about 32 years old and had formerly been the companion of one of his daughters by his first wife.”
In his will, Thomas left nothing to that daughter, Nellie, who was married to Richard Needham, a wealthy merchant from Columbus, Ga. He also ignored his son, Wilson P. Dempsey, who was an “inmate of a sanitarium” near Baltimore, The Sun said.
“Mr. Dempsey was a retired dry goods merchant of a Southern family, having his residence in Macon, Ga. He owned valuable real estate in that city and an old homestead in Ireland. The rest of his estate is comprised of securities, the exact amount of which is not known.”
Dempsey had lived most of the year in New York City and elsewhere in the North. “He was a member of the Roman Catholic Church and made liberal gifts to charity,” The Sun said. “There was much astonishment when it was ascertained that he had made no charitable bequests.”
While the will had been offered for probate in Macon, no formal objection had yet been filed, the newspaper said, adding, however, that “Mrs. Needham is much dissatisfied with its provisions, as she thinks she is entitled to a share of her father’s fortune. She has threatened to make a contest in behalf of herself and her brother.”
Who were this wealthy 85-year-old man and his 32-year-old wife?
A native of Ireland (he was not from a “Southern family,” as the Sun suggested), Thomas Charles Dempsey had been born in 1814 and came to the United States as a young man. He became a citizen in 1842 in Savannah, and was soon living in Macon where he amassed his fortune as a retailer and investor in real estate. Around the beginning of the Civil War, he married Marie Lumpkin. Wilson was born in 1863 and Ann Ellen, called “Nellie,” was born in 1871. His wife died in 1885.
Lillian Loomis Wickes was born in 1867 in Macon. While in school there, she became friends with Nellie Dempsey. At some point the widowed Thomas Dempsey began noticing this companion of his daughter and by the early 1890s, he had proposed to her. They were married around 1893, when he was about 79 and she was 27.
One wonders how Nellie Dempsey felt, seeing her old schoolmate become her stepmother. 
The next year, Lillian and Thomas had a daughter, Marie Monica. In 1896, Thomas Charles Jr. arrived, and on June 6, 1899 — a month before his father’s death — Norbert Anthony was born.
According to subsequent newspaper accounts, including an article in The New York Times, Mrs. Dempsey hired a New York City lawyer named Robert O’Bryne to handle the dispute over the will. In the end, Nellie and her institutionalized brother got $250,000, leaving around $750,000 for the widow Dempsey. That today would be about $7.5 million for Nellie and Wilson, and  $22.5 million for Lillian.
Attorney O’Bryne claimed a lot of credit for the settlement, but it is quite possible that Lillian Dempsey felt an obligation to her old friend and his brother — her stepchildren — and that Nellie, hardly poverty-stricken, realized that she would never get much more than that, especially considering that her dad had fathered  three children with Lillian — all of them then under 10 years old.
As one dispute ended, another began. Attorney O’Boyle filed suit in a New York City court in July 1900, claiming he had not been paid for his services. He maintained “he was the one who kept down a contest over Mr. Dempsey’s will, and for his services he was entitled to $24,000,” The Macon Telegraph reported.  
It added, “The widow vigorously denied owing him any money. She said she had never employed him, but had paid him for all he had done. He is insisting that what he did was worth the $24,000 additional.”
That $24,000 would be about $731,000 today.
The case went to a referee who apparently worked things out without publicity.
Meanwhile, Lillian Dempsey, who had been living in New York City, decided she would like a country house and somehow came upon a tract of West Lane farmland on a small ridge overlooking South Salem. The land was owned by John Brophy, who, like her husband, was a native of Ireland. Brophy had for many years been a  U.S. customs official at the Port of New York, a job in which he dealt with many influential people. It’s possible he and Thomas Dempsey had known each other and that Brophy offered the land to his widow.
She bought the property in 1901 and built her 22-room house. It is not known how much  she used Northoline, but she probably was in New York City and Macon much of the year. She apparently lived a quiet life, and her name no longer appears in newspaper articles. She was not active in the social world nor did she seem to become involved in any philanthropy. She was living in Macon in 1930, but by 1940 when she was 73, she shared a home in Scituate, Mass., with her two sisters. She died in 1946 in Cambridge, Mass., and is buried in Macon.
Her house is at 209 West Lane, a little south of Silver Spring Road and a bit north of the New York line — presumably the inspiration for its name, though it’s really more west than north of the state line. It later had a less controversial but far more famous owner:  Metropolitan opera star Geraldine Farrar, who bought the place in 1924, renaming it “Fairhaven.” Here, though retired from the stage, she entertained many international celebrities in the arts, especially the world of music.
Now surrounded by trees and shrubs, the house still stands, though at last look, it was painted white.

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