Monday, May 31, 2021

 


The Jeremiah Bennett Clan:
T
he Days of the Desperados

One morning in 1876, a Ridgefield man was sitting in a dining room of a Philadelphia hotel and was served a cup of coffee. As the man picked up a silver spoon to stir some sugar into his coffee, he did a double take. The spoon bore the man’s own name.

He sought out the hotel manager who explained that he had just recently purchased a group of similar spoons from a Philadelphia man.

That evening the Ridgefielder received a letter from home, saying that his house had been recently burglarized and that suspects in the case had been caught. Found in the possession of the thieves was a letter from their brother in Philadelphia, reporting “Goods received all right and disposed of.”

The Ridgefield visitor was just one of dozens of victims of  “the notorious Bennett family,” a Ridgefield clan that became the center of a sensational 19th Century crime spree that made hundreds of headlines in newspapers throughout the Northeast. 

 Despite their ancient and respectable roots, members of the Jerry Bennett family were accused of breaking into houses, businesses, and even train stations, generating “terror” in the hearts of townspeople while amassing a trove of stolen goods in their house and barn on Silver Spring Road.

It was a tale of bold crimes and strange events like no other in Ridgefield’s three centuries.


Jeremiah and Adeline Bennett and five of their sons lived in a small house a quarter mile south of the West Lane Schoolhouse in the mid-19th Century. By the time the crime spree was over, Jerry, Adeline, and four of their eight children had been arrested and jailed. Three Bennetts wound up spending years in prison.

Born in Ridgefield in 1821, Jerry Bennett was descended from the same family that had come from Fairfield to Ridgefield in 1721 and settled what is now the Bennett’s Farm region of town. His great grandfather, Trowbridge, fought in the Revolution and his father, Daniel, served in the War of 1812. By 1850, he had a small, 25-acre farm adjoining the south side of his father’s spread.

Jerry seemed like just another Ridgefield farmer. Like many other residents of the West Lane district, he made extra money as a shoemaker, a trade his father also engaged in. He seemed a conscientious citizen — in 1855, he found a stray horse, “blind of the left eye, lame on the right fore leg,” and paid for an ad in the Norwalk Gazette to find the owner. 

In July 1869 his wife Adeline, a year older than he, won three prizes in the Ridgefield Floral Society’s exhibit, including $2 first place awards for Best Bouquet of Mixed Flowers and Best Collection of Pot Plants.  Other winners were well-placed women in Ridgefield’s small-town society.

Signs that something was amiss about  Jerry Bennett first appeared, not in the dozens of newspapers that would later cover his exploits, but in the diary of a neighborhood farmer. 

Jared Nash, who lived on Silver Spring Road about a mile south of the Bennetts, kept a record of his daily life and on Feb. 8, 1865, he wrote down that  his constable father, Charles Nash,  had “to go up to court tomorrow to take up J. Bennett for cutting hooppoles.” Bennett had apparently been arrested for sneaking onto someone’s property, cutting down and stealing young trees to turn into  hoop poles. The sticks were sold for a variety of purposes, including making barrels and fashionable women’s skirts. 

Ten years later, all hell broke loose.

On July 21, 1876, Jerry Bennett, then 47, was arrested along with his wife, Adeline, 48, and two sons, James Mortimer, 18, and Francis “Frank” Bennett, 16. They were all charged with being involved in the rash of burglaries and larcenies that had been occurring in recent months.

However,  two other sons — George, 23, and Arthur, 20 — had escaped arrest and were believed hiding somewhere deep in the Silver Spring Swamp.  The Ridgefield Press, founded only a year and a half earlier, covered the arrests in a lengthy story under the biggest headline it had ever printed: 

A CENTENNIAL 

BURGLAR HUNT 

It was, of course, the year of the nation’s 100th birthday, though one would be hard-pressed to explain how that fact related to the Bennett gang.

“Citizens Turn Out in a Body and Search an Extensive Swamp for the Desperadoes,” the headline continued. 

The story explained that “for several years our village has suffered severely from burglars. Houses were entered both day and night, [and] robbed. Every one looked with suspicion toward a certain family but none dared to accuse.” 


However, The Press continued, “during the past year robberies have been almost [a] daily occurrence. People began to talk publicly about certain parties and express their opinions more freely. Several fruitless attempts were made to ferret out the rendezvous of the burglars.”

As “things were coming to a crisis, spies were sent to watch Mr. Jeremiah Bennett’s house and ascertain the hiding place of his sons who lived in the woods. For a while, all efforts were unsuccessful; but finally a cave was discovered. Nothing by way of proof was found.”

A local “Anti-Thieving Association” was formed and offered a $50 reward. That sparked the interest of a detective from New York State, and his investigations led to the arrests of Jerry, Adeline and the two sons. But it was George and Arthur Bennett who, with their father, were suspected of being the main culprits. 

That Sunday, the day after the arrests, “nearly every able-bodied man” in Ridgefield responded to a call from Ridgefield Constable John Gilbert to mount a massive search of Silver Spring Swamp for George and Arthur. 

“Guns were aplenty, pistols numerous,” The Press said. “It was a motley but courageous crowd.”

The search began around 5 o’clock Sunday afternoon. “The ‘chosen brave’ entered, determined to succeed or perish… Now and then a false alarm was given which caused no little excitement. At every sound, each one grasped his firepiece more firmly and peered into the bushes.”

Alas, when the hunters emerged from the swamp near sunset, “no one had discovered the slightest trace of the thieves. Our ‘chosen brave’ were in a pitiful plight. Some of them had been immersed in slough holes, others had been lacerated by briars and thorns.”

Meanwhile, a search of the Bennett house and barn had uncovered “large quantities of stolen goods,” reported the Hartford Courant. They included “accordions, fiddles, watches, finger-rings, bracelets, diamond pins, boxes of perfumery, guns, gold and silver thimbles, watch-chains, clothing, handkerchiefs, and several other things of value. One accordion was found in a stone pot in the milk-room, and the other and the box of perfumery were found in a box of bran up stairs.”


On Monday townspeople showed up to claim many of the recovered goods, including representatives of the Bailey and Gage Store (now the Aldrich Museum’s upstairs offices) who later went so far as to get local legislators to file a bill in the State Legislature, compensating them for their losses.

Jerry and Adeline, with sons Mortimer and Francis, were arraigned in Danbury that day and held in jail under bonds totalling $4,800 — nearly $120,000 today. All pleaded not guilty.

In court Jerry proposed something rather unusual. He would help in the capture of George and Arthur because “he felt sure their appearance would clear him,”  The Press reported. 

The capture would happen in a rather odd way. 

“The constable was to take Mortimer down to the edge of the swamp, where the other sons were supposed to be concealed, and he was to whistle them out,” The Press revealed. 

“The ‘chosen brave’ were again called for, and with alacrity did they respond. Sixty long minutes were spent on the edge of that swamp with nothing to relieve the monotony but Mortimer’s decoying whistle. It was no use; those boys were not to be whistled from their haunts. They knew the ‘chosen brave’ were lying in the bushes.”

Newspapers far and wide reported the goings on in Ridgefield, often rather colorfully. An account in the Washington (D.C.) Evening Star described the “two more sons still at large, but a force of men are looking for them, and have driven them into an almost impenetrable swamp southwest of the village where it is believed the brothers have a burrow.”

By Wednesday that week in August, people who lived along the fringes of Silver Spring Swamp were reporting chickens stolen, potatoes dug up and even cows milked by unknown hands. Then someone said he’d spotted George and Arthur. 

Constable Gilbert organized yet another hunt, this one more massive than the first.

“Every man that could be found was notified and requested to put in an appearance at the West Lane School House on Thursday morning at 8 o’clock to receive orders and information of the plan of operations,” The Press reported.

By 9 a.m. between 300 and 400 men — including contingents from Wilton and South Salem — had gathered at the corner near the schoolhouse. 

“Each man carried at least one fire-piece — and such a variety!” the newspaper exclaimed. “Some were armed with weapons that did service — and from their appearance, plenty of it — during the Revolutionary War!”

Under Constable Gilbert’s leadership, the mob — members spaced four feet apart — entered the north end of the swamp and began to move south.

It was no easy trek. “Before they had advanced one rod, Constable Gilbert sunk into the mud so deep that the top button of his vest only was visible,” The Press said. 

Others had similar problems but the searchers pressed on  through muck and thick underbrush. 

“They had gone but a short distance when a trail was discovered which led to a place where the fugitives had done their cooking. By and by, a valise was found and passed from one to the other until it reached the margin. It contained nothing, but was recognized as being one of the three taken from Wilton station.”

After four hours of searching, “it was evident that they had evacuated that swamp. The woods were then searched, but with the same result. Many of the scouts were getting tired and hungry, and the search was for the time relinquished.”

About 100 searchers remained, however, and after lunch looked for the caves that the boys had occupied. “Three caves were found which showed signs of recent habitation,” The Press said. “They were all small — the largest one being about eight feet long, four feet wide, and five feet high. After this examination, further search was abandoned.” 

“The boys”  remained on the loose and still very active.

On Thursday,  Aug. 10, they were spotted with stolen butter and a kettle along the tracks near the Cannon Station in Wilton. They dropped the goods and fled into the woods.

On Friday,  they broke into Elmer Olmsted’s shirt factory in Wilton and stole all the cash. “Mr. Olmsted pursued them, armed with a seven shooter, and they dropped their plunder,” reported The Courant. “He had a good chance to fire at them, but was afraid to do so.” 


The Courant added with some apparent amazement, “It is reported that on Tuesday night, they visited a hotel in Danbury and called for Schenck beer. They were recognized, but allowed to depart in peace.”

 The following Monday night, they broke into the Bailey and Gage Store once again. First they first stole a ladder from the King estate barn across Main Street. They used the ladder to reach a second-story window at the north end of the store where they removed a pane of glass to gain entry — why they bothered with a difficult, second-story entrance when there were plenty of first-floor windows is unclear. They stole guns, ammunition, knives, and cigars, as well as gold pens, gloves, clothing, pocket-books, and even perfume.

The fledgling Ridgefield Press attempted to express the community’s outrage and frustration. “Is it not in the power of the authorities to discover the guilty parties and bring them to trial and well-deserved punishment, thus putting a stop to such nefarious proceedings, of which there have been too many recently in this vicinity?” the  newspaper asked on Aug. 16.

Apparently to avoid the increasing heat in and about Ridgefield, the Bennett brothers then headed west to the Hudson River Valley. However, they were tracked down and, on Monday, Aug. 21,  Arthur gave up — in a rather bizarre fashion.  Another member of the Bennett family, Henry Bennett, 28, a brother who lived in Peekskill, N.Y.,  and was five years older than Arthur, handed Arthur over to a Peekskill police officer, stating “that he brought him there for the purpose of giving him into custody and claiming the reward of $100,” The Press reported. “Arthur made no objection to the arrest and quietly accompanied the officer.”

It sounded as if Arthur had had enough of being on the run. He knew the rest of the family was in trouble, and may have believed that he would be able to help financially by letting brother Henry collect the reward money for his capture.

Peekskill authorities telegraphed Constable J.H. Barlow in Ridgefield who came and took Arthur to the Bridgeport Jail.

Then, the following day, George Bennett was spotted at Fort Montgomery, a village across the Hudson River  from Poughkeepsie, where he was peddling “small notions and passing by the name of Smith.” He had camped at Cronk’s Cove, along the edge of the river, and was expected there again that night. Constables and local officers set up an ambush and captured him at the cove when he arrived. He was rowed across the Hudson, taken to Peekskill down river, and then to Bridgeport Jail.

All six Bennett suspects were behind bars in Bridgeport. 

Justice was more swift in those days, and the trials took place in early September.

“They are very respectable looking people, and are the last who would be suspected of crime,” said a brief account of the proceedings in the Bridgeport Standard.

A jury found half the clan guilty of burglary and theft. Jerry Bennett got five years in the state prison, and George and Arthur each got 15 years. 


The jury found Adeline not guilty, saying that “she acted jointly with and under the influence of her husband, and that the criminal intent was lacking.” James Mortimer was found guilty on a single count, but since the goods were valued at less than $15, he escaped a prison sentence. Charges against Francis were nolled (not prosecuted), perhaps because he was only 16 years old.

Although free again, Adeline and her two sons were still in trouble. Many claims were being filed against the Bennetts’ property in an attempt to recoup losses suffered by people who were burglarized and whose goods had been fenced. 

Indeed, two weeks after the trial, Henry Bennett appeared before the Ridgefield Board of Selectmen, seeking the $100 reward for turning in his brother. “He satisfied the authorities as to the correctness of his claim, and they paid him the money,”  The Press said. Henry probably used the reward — worth nearly $2,500 today — to help his mother and brothers who were in dire financial straits.

By January, Probate Judge Hiram K. Scott had declared Jeremiah Bennett an “insolvent and assigned debtor” and that anyone with claims against the Bennett estate had three months to file a notice with the court. To pay off at least some of the debts, the property was sold.

The three convicts were all sent to the state prison at Wethersfield, a sprawling complex that held nearly 500 prisoners. The 1880 census reveals a somewhat touching situation, however:  Both Jerry and George, father and son, were working together in the prison’s shoe shop.

By 1886, the New Haven Register was reporting that George had undergone treatment for “very peculiar delusions.” One of them was that “at night he could pass out through the keyhole in his cell and go anywhere in the state, but that the moment anyone to whom he appeared touched his body, he would disappear and instantly be back in his cell at the prison.”

The Register said “he would not, when examined, hear any disbelief of this notion  and offered to prove his story by appearing some night to Dr. Packard or Dr. Root.”

The doctors eventually used “a most plausible reasoning” to finally convince George that what he experienced was a delusion.

Arthur Bennett was apparently a model prisoner and in July 1888, was paroled by the Board of Pardons. “Arthur, in his statement before the board, said he pleaded guilty to save his father,” reported the Waterbury Evening Democrat. The paper added that the prisoner “shows the effects of his long imprisonment.”

Arthur indicated he would probably join his mother, Adeline, who was then living in Philadelphia. After the trial and loss of the family farm, Adeline may have gone to Philadelphia to live with her oldest son, Seth, who was a shoemaker in that city. It may have been Seth who had sold the spoons to the hotel operator, perhaps unaware that they were stolen.

It is not known whether Jerry and Adeline ever saw one another after the trial. Sometime after he was released from prison around 1881, Jerry Bennett went to live with yet another son, John S. Bennett, a shoemaker, and his family, in Syracuse, N.Y. In the 1900 census, Jeremiah Bennett was described as a widower and a shoemaker. 

A year later, Jerry died in Syracuse at the age of 80.

Whatever happened to Adeline and her sons has not been discovered. All quickly left Ridgefield — either as prisoners or as debtors — and probably would have liked to forget their old home town and what happened here in 1876. The townspeople likely felt the same way about them.


 


Larry Hoyt: A Centenarian Who
Loved Horses and the Harmonica
 

Larry Hoyt was a rare Ridgefield centenarian who spent nearly all of his 100 years in his hometown, and was well-known locally for his love of horses and the harmonica. 

Lawrence Chestly Hoyt was born in 1902 in his grandfather’s house on Wilton Road West, a member of a family that dated back to the settlement of the town in 1708. His earliest education was in one-room schoolhouses. One of five brothers, he quit after one year at Hamilton High School to go to work to help support his family.

When he was 17,  Hoyt falsified his age so he could enlist in the U.S. Army, with the aim of serving in the cavalry. Raised among farmers, “I had always loved animals, especially horses,” he said in an interview when he had just turned 100.

He was sent to Vermont to train  horses for military combat and drills, and then to Texas, serving with Troop A of the Third Cavalry. He was one of the last of the “Brave Rifles” — a name coined by General Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War for the Third Cavalry.  “We were the last mounted cavalry,” Hoyt said. “They were changing over to a completely motorized army at that time.”

“I think being in the cavalry was a highlight for him,” said his daughter, the late Doris Hoyt Ventres of Ridgefield. “If he didn't get married, he probably would have gone out and been a real cowboy.”

When he did leave the Army, he went to work for the village blacksmith, Harry Thomas, on Catoonah Street, shoeing 25 to 30 horses a day. He commuted the five miles to and from work on foot each day. 

Working for Harry Thomas was more than a chore. There he got to court Gertrude “Trudy” Thomas, Harry’s daughter, whom he had known since grade school. The two were married in 1925.

 Preferring to work outdoors — and with horses, Hoyt soon went to work on the Silver Spring horse farm of a wealthy New York lawyer, not only serving as  superintendent, but also training, riding and showing horses. His favorite mount was Bobby, who won more than 30 ribbons.

After 13 years of estate work, he started his own landscaping and tree business.

In 1956, however, he took a better-paying job as the head custodian at the then-new Veterans Park School. “I had a hard time getting used to this indoor work,” he told Ridgefield Press reporter Rick Honey. “At the beginning I wanted to quit every three months.”

When he’d complain about the job to his friend (but not relative), Irene Hoyt, the popular Visiting Nurse Association nurse, that his feet hurt from the custodial work, “All she would tell me was that they would toughen up.”

So he worked nearly 18 years at Veterans Park before retiring at the age of 71. And he did not regret working those years at VP. “They keep you young,” he said of the pupils, who would years later often come up to him in stores or on the street and say, “Hi, Mr. Hoyt.”

Larry and Trudy Hoyt raised two children during the Depression. Doris Ventres recalled her father as a gentle man who never got angry. “I don’t think I have ever seen him mad,” she said. “He’s been a wonderful daddy.”

Around 1980,  his wife was diagnosed with a disease similar to Alzheimer’s. Hoyt refused to allow her to go to a nursing home and he cared for her at their home on Silver Spring Road for nine years until her death in 1989.


An avid gardener, he enjoyed raising hybrid tea roses. In season his yard was always filled with flowers, much to the enjoyment of those who traveled Silver Spring Road. Even at 100, “he spades his own garden, he mows his own lawn, he trims his hedges, he takes care of his perennial bed,” said a neighbor and friend shortly before Hoyt’s death.

As a boy,  Larry Hoyt learned to play the harmonica and eventually became known in the community as “The Harmonica Man,” entertaining both young and old with his playing. At his 100th birthday party, he put on a harmonica performance.

At the Early Bird Cafe, the Ridgefield Men’s Club or among family and friends, Hoyt was known as a charming conversationalist who could tell stories of early 20th Century Ridgefield and Army cavalry life. He enjoyed recollections of listening to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats. “Roosevelt was a very effective president,” he told an interviewer when he turned 100. “His character was different than presidents today.”

He also had a fine sense of humor. Three months before he died in August 2002, when more than 100 people gathered to celebrate his century of life,  Hoyt confided that when he arose each morning, he’d look at a picture of himself as a young cavalryman and would ask: “What is that handsome young man going to do today?”

 


Nancy-Carroll Draper:
She Created A Museum

Nancy-Carroll Draper stood out, not just in her hardy, six-foot stance but especially in her wide-ranging accomplishments. 

An heiress and a granddaughter of a Massachusetts governor,  Draper was an author, legislator, dog breeder and judge, a wildlife advocate, conservationist, cattle rancher, photographer, and philanthropist who founded the acclaimed Draper Museum of Natural History near Yellowstone National Park. 


Although she was a member of a prominent Boston family and lived in Ridgefield from 1947 until 1988, she  had maintained  a cattle ranch for many years outside Cody, Wyo., a region that turned out to be her first love. 

Nancy-Carroll Draper was born in Boston, Mass., on Aug. 28, 1922, daughter of Eben Sumner and Ruth Carroll Draper. Her father owned a textile mill and her grandfather, Eben Sumner Draper Sr., was governor of Massachusetts from 1909 to 1911. She attended private schools in New York City and Virginia, and studied at Goucher College in Baltimore.

At the outbreak of World War II, Draper was one of six people appointed by the admiral of the Sixth Naval District to serve in the Headquarters Motor Corps and soon became the youngest supervisor on the East Coast during the war.

In 1947,  Draper bought what had been the country home of Westbrook Pegler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist, and soon became active in local Republican politics, including serving for many years on the Republican Town Committee.


In 1952, she ran for state representative at a GOP caucus in which six people — four of them women — sought the job of representing Ridgefield in Hartford. Interest in the contest was so intense that among those who showed up to vote was former congresswoman and future ambassador Clare Boothe Luce of Great Hill Road. Draper won the party’s endorsement and the November election.

She served four terms as a state representative, losing her bid for a fifth term in 1960 to native son Romeo G. Petroni. 

A breeder of Great Danes since 1945, she had maintained a kennel, Danelagh, at her home on Old Stagecoach Road for many years. Dog News magazine in 1964 named her one of the top 10 Great Dane breeders in the nation. She was a recognized national and international judge of the breed — awards today in Scotland still bear her name — and she served as the president of the Great Dane Club of America. She also wrote the book, The Great Dane – Dogdom’s Apollo, in 1981.

          She traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, and in 1984 published a book of her  photographs of African wildlife, titled On Safari – Dogs Are the Excuse.

          Her love of the West and the Rockies began as a child when her family would visit the well-known Valley Ranch southwest of Cody. Around 1960 she purchased land  along the South Fork of the Shoshone River and created her Slide Mountain Ranch — her 1,900 square foot ranch house was much more modest than her 5,800-square-foot Ridgefield home. She’d spend part of the year in Ridgefield and part in Wyoming, where she raised and bred Highland and Charolais cattle.


          Draper began contributing to  Cody’s Buffalo Bill Historical Center in the 1980s. She was appointed to the advisory board of the center’s Whitney Gallery of Western Art in 1985. After she moved full-time to Wyoming in 1988, she began promoting the creation of a natural history museum at the historical center.  She gave some $13 million to what has been named the Draper Museum of Natural History.

“The Draper” – how Cody people refer to the  facility – was completed in 2002, the first museum of natural history to open in the 21st Century.


 

“The 55,000-square-foot museum looks a bit like the Guggenheim in Manhattan, only with more glass and more light,” said an account of the opening. “A great spiral of levels descends through the building as though the visitor were hiking home from alpine tundra to Douglas fir and lodgepole pine forests, to plains and meadows, all edging a 10,000-square-foot rotunda.  At each level a different ecosystem — its smells, sounds, textures and wildlife — is represented.” 

At the “trail’s” end, there’s a tiled map of Wyoming and Yellowstone, with a great lighted ‘sky’ above that serves as a planetarium.

Before Covid, more than 170,000 people were visiting the museum each year.

Draper said she wanted a natural history museum “to commemorate and interpret the Yellowstone area. I call it the missing link.”


In 1994, she established the Nancy-Carroll Draper Charitable Foundation which today is worth more than $16 million and distributes some $1 million in annual grants to not only the museum, but also natural history and wildlife organizations, including  African Wildlife Foundation and the Nature Conservancy.

Nancy-Carroll Draper died in 2008 at the age of 85. Her gravestone in a Cody cemetery is a simple boulder, bearing her name and the dates of her birth and death.


“It was one of my great privileges in life to know Nancy-Carroll when she first came to Wyoming,” said Alan K. Simpson, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming and the historical center’s chairman of the Board of Trustees — and a neighbor of Draper.

“Nancy-Carroll was big in stature, big in heart, big in generosity, and big in the lives of those of us who love the Buffalo Bill Historical Center,” Senator Simpson added. “I'll never forget the sight of her in that big yellow backhoe at the ground-breaking for the Draper Museum of Natural History. She hoisted herself into the cab, started digging, and has been digging for us ever since.”

 


Liebovitz & Knapp Families: 
Much Talent and Generosity

A remarkable but locally little known family who lived on Bennett’s Farm Road for more than a half century gave Ridgefield a large and important part of their estate as parkland. 


For 30 years, David  Liebovitz, a writer whose father rose from a poor immigrant to a millionaire industrialist, and his wife, a concert violinist whose friends included Jascha Heifetz,  maintained a 45-acre farm, more than half of which their grandchildren donated to the town in 2013.

The story begins in 1852 when Simon Liebovitz was born in Russia. As a young man he emigrated to America,  arriving  in 1874 penniless and jobless. Within two years he had met and married Fannie Unterberg, another recent Russian immigrant, and they began producing a family that wound up totalling six boys.


But Simon and Fannie also worked together to  establish  one of New York’s first silk factories at 60 Canal Street in Manhattan. A half century later, S. Liebovitz & Sons employed several thousand people at factories in five states, producing silk, shirts and other garments. When he died in 1930 at the age of 76, his estate was valued at more than $11 million in 2021 dollars, but he had already given much of it to his sons and to charities such as the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. Fannie Liebovitz was also a major philanthropist, especially aiding Jewish causes, and was a founder of the Young Women’s Hebrew Association in New York City. She died in 1944 at the age of 82.

Most of their sons had entered the business with their father, but not David, the youngest, born in 1892. He favored the arts. While David attended Columbia University, he took a break to spend a year in Europe visiting scores of museums and art galleries, reading European literature, and attending many concerts and operas. After graduating Columbia in 1915, he decided to become a writer  — with a break to serve in the Navy during World War I. (For his 1917 draft registration, he gave his occupation as “author.”)

His play, John Hawthorn, was produced by the Theatre Guild in New York City in 1921. It got awful reviews, mostly complaining of stilted dialogue — although one critic criticized the critics for missing the significance of the play’s plot.

Perhaps taking that experience as a lesson, he turned to writing novels, producing three in the next two decades. The first, Youth Dares All, came out in 1930 and “has all the juiciness and humor of Mark Twain,” said historian, sociologist and literary critic Lewis Mumford, with whom Liebovitz became good friends and a correspondent for more than 40 years.

The Chronicle of An Infamous Woman (1933), about a woman whose life is tarnished by local gossips, was called “one of the major novels of our decade” by one reviewer and The Canvas Sky (1946) was described as an unusual novel of circus life.

David Liebovitz also had a taste for art. Starting in the 1920s he began collecting contemporary Western  art as well as Asian works. Pieces of his are now in museum collections.

In 1920, he married Emily Gresser, a Brooklyn native who was a violin prodigy. Born in 1894 to parents who had fled Czarist Russia, Emily began studying the violin at  the age of six. When she graduated from high school, she was accomplished enough to give a recital in Mendelssohn Hall whose audience included such notables as Booker T. Washington, future Harvard president Charles Eliot, and Mark Twain. “My child, you do not know how much joy this evening gave me, how I enjoyed your playing,” Twain told her after the performance.


      Gresser went on to study the violin in Europe and there gave many solo concerts and performed with many leading orchestras. The outbreak of World War I brought her back to America where she toured the country, giving concerts on her own and with large and small  orchestras.

      She also became friends with the young violin prodigy, Jascha Heifetz. Much later, Heifetz  would have a home in Redding and Emily would drive over and join him playing the violin in Heifetz’s “music barn.” Today, Heifetz’s home and music barn are owned by Albert Knapp and Ruth Oratz, both physicians. Albert is  Emily and David’s grandson.


      In the mid-1930s, the Liebovitzes sought a home in the country, perhaps driven by David’s interest in nature. As their daughter, Dr. Bettina Liebovitz Knapp expressed it, he “turned to the world of nature in all its full-blown wisdom for solace and inspiration.”

In 1936, they purchased a former Todd brothers farm spanning both sides of Bennett’s Farm Road east of Knollwood Drive. The Greek Revival-style farmhouse at 219 Bennett’s Farm Road was built around 1785 by the Selleck family, whose branches had several large farms in southern Ridgebury. David and Emily, and their two children, Bettina and Daniel, would spend summers and many weekends there, while maintaining an apartment in Manhattan. David died in 1968, Emily in 1981.


Their son Daniel became a physician in California and a professor at Stanford Medical School. Widely known as “Dr. Dan” Liebowitz (spelled with a W), he was, like his parents, a person of many interests. He was a model steam locomotive hobbyist, who had a sizable outdoor track layout  running a number of small-scale, real-steam locomotives. Like his dad and his sister, he was a also writer, producing a novel, The Lion and The Flame, in 1992; two biographies, John Kirk, the Livingstone Expeditions, and the Crusade Against Slavery in East Africa (1999) and The Last Expedition — Stanley’s Mad Journey Through the Congo (2005), as well as a cookbook, Cook to Your Heart’s Content on a Low Fat, Low Salt Diet, (1970). He died in 2014.


      David and Emily’s daughter, Bettina, born in 1926, became professor at Hunter College and author of more than a dozen books on a wide variety of subjects ranging from French fairy tales, gambling, women, and Hebrew myths to biographies of such writers as Emily Dickinson and Jean Cocteau.


She died in 2010 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery alongside her husband, Col. Russell Sage Knapp,  a highly decorated World War II Air Force veteran whose bravery in action as a bomber navigator  over Europe was recognized by the French government which named him a Knight in the National Order of the Legion of Honor. He later served in Korea and Vietnam.  Born in 1920 and a 1947 graduate of the Columbia University School of Law, he had a long and distinguished career in both law and business, and was a partner of the U.S. Senator Jacob Javits in the Manhattan law firm of Trubin, Sillcocks, Edelman, and Knapp.


Russell died in 2012. Like many members of the family, he and Bettina were philanthropists. He established the Russell Sage Knapp Education Fund, a foundation that aids medical research and higher education.


      Sons Charles and Albert Knapp  inherited the family farm. No doubt also  inheriting the generous spirit of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, they decided to turn the 28 acres south of Bennett’s Farm Road into open space while selling the 16-acre homesite to a builder. They knew that the 28 acres bordered Pierrepont State Park — connecting the park with Bennett’s Farm Road — so they offered it first to the state. The gift would enlarge the Pierrepont Park from 386 acres to nearly 415 acres. However, the state suggested that it would be faster and easier for the Knapps to give the land to the town as open space than to deal with the bureaucratic delays involved in donating to the state.


 

That pleased Dr. Ben Oko, then chairman of the Conservation Commission, who had for some years been trying to contact Bettina Knapp about letting the town have that land.

“When coupled with the development of the property across the street…, that property will give us a connection between Hemlock Hills and Pierrepont State Park, two of the largest open spaces in Ridgefield,” Dr. Oko said in 2013. The subdivision on the north side of Bennett’s Farm Road, he added, “will have five acres of open space with pedestrian access from Hemlock Hills to the donated property.”


  

The Conservation Commission created a trail on the south side’s 28 acres and today describes the tract  as having a “one-mile loop with interesting rocky knolls, seasonal streams, a cascade, and a vernal pool in the spring.”

This open space on the south and a pedestrian access on the north also provides a new connection between Pierrepont State Park and the Ives Trail, a long, parkland path commemorating composer Charles Ives that runs through parts of Ridgefield, Danbury, Bethel and Redding.

The 28-acre donation is known as “the Liebowitz- Knapp Sanctuary,” recalling a generous family who had found “solace and inspiration” in their Ridgefield farm.










     



Walt Ryba:

Good Sport & Good Business

Fellow students at Ridgefield High School knew that Walt Ryba would be a future leader. After all, the recently arrived Ridgefielder  had, by his graduation in 1959, been president of his sophomore, junior and senior classes, and co-captain of the football, baseball and basketball teams.

In fact, the Class Will gave “Walt Ryba’s many abilities and class leadership to future senior class presidents.”

It also gave his “oinky Studebaker to anyone who doesn’t like fast cars.”

His abilities and class leadership — not car choices — led to a lot more, and 40 years later, Dr. Walter George Ryba Jr., was dean of the School of Business at Fairfield University, where he was also professor of business law. 

Dr. Ryba (pronounced Ree-ba) was born in Stamford in 1941. His family moved to Craigmoor Road when he was a freshman. Learning that he had been active in youth sports in Stamford, RHS Principal Kip Holleran quickly signed up Ryba  for the baseball, football and basketball teams. He played end on the school’s first 11-man football team, was a basketball forward known for his “stylistic jump shot,” and as catcher for baseball, was “a mainstay of the team.” He was a leading hitter in the Housatonic League and named the high school's MVP in 1959.

Ryba went on to Dartmouth where he played baseball and football until a severe injury ended his college athletic career, but not his educational pursuits. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1963, he earned a master’s degree in economics at Trinity College in Hartford in 1971 and a law degree from the University of Connecticut in 1975.

Dr. Ryba began teaching at Fairfield University in 1982. He specialized in business law and regulation, focusing on antitrust regulated environments and international regulation, and his research appeared in many professional journals.

In 1994, what had been an academic department at the university became a separate school, offering a master of business administration (MBA) program. Three years later Ryba was named acting dean and the following year, dean.

He and his wife, the former Geraldine Pannozza — his high school sweetheart from the Class of ’59 — had been living in Lyme for two decades. As Ryba’s workload increased, the commute to Fairfield — as much as three hours coming home — became too much and the couple bought a house on New Street in their old home town.

At the school, now called Charles F. Dolan School of Business, Dr. Ryba made many changes. Under his leadership, the university added concentrations to the MBA in e-business and health care management, introduced a master’s in management of technology — offered jointly with the School of Engineering — and joined a consortium of Jesuit universities offering an MBA program at Peking University in China. He opened sites for MBA courses in Greenwich and Stamford and  added an “Executive MBA in Community Banking,” the first of its kind in the nation.

Dr. Ryba also oversaw the school’s final approval of accreditation and its move to the former campus Conference Center, which was completely renovated to accommodate the school’s expanding programs.

All the time, he continued to teach at least one course a year to maintain close contact with the students. 

“His door was always open to students and faculty,” said his wife. “As a result, he brought home a lot of work. He used to stay up till 1 o’clock in the morning doing work. But he loved it, he absolutely loved it. And he had so many plans.”

Dr. Ryba’s energetic leadership was tragically cut short. In August of 2000, he was stricken ill at his home and died shortly afterward at Danbury Hospital. He was only 59.

 “Walt Ryba was honest, straightforward and always used good judgment,” said Dr. Orin Grossman, academic vice president of the university at the time of his death. “His contributions to Fairfield University and particularly the School of Business will have a lasting impact.”

A year later, the Walter G. Ryba, Jr. Scholarship was established   to honor him by benefiting  multicultural students who have shown significant leadership in academics, student activities and athletics in high school. The same year, the Ridgefield Old Timers Association honored him posthumously for his excellence in athletics and education.

While much of his life was devoted to work in education, Walt Ryba also had more than a passing interest in rock and roll music. He particularly enjoyed Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fleetwood Mac, and Buddy Holly — he saw productions of “Buddy” in London and on several stages in the United States.

He had also never lost his interest in athletics, and was Fairfield University’s faculty representative to the NCAA.