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.