Friday, June 5, 2015

The Community Gardens of Greenwich

“Know the story of your food.”  That is one mantra of Greenwich Community Gardens, a local non-profit that is responsible for Greenwich’s two community gardens. As explained by Founder and Assistant Garden Director Patricia Degelmann Sechi, “if you’re growing your own food, you not only know your own story but you’re writing your story, and what’s really fun to think about is that we’re writing this story together.”
Growing gardens

Greenwich’s first community garden was started by Sechi and volunteers in 2009, on a 15,000 square foot plot of property off of Hamilton Avenue and across a footbridge behind Armstrong Court.  With the strong support and help of the community, Sechi led the way in clearing the small jungle that had grown on a once thriving piece of land, formerly used as a garden for residents in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  Though they had no funding, the team of local volunteers and organizations were able to repair the existing irrigation and fencing and to obtain donations to start what is now known as the Armstrong Court Community Garden.

Today, the garden boasts 125 4’x8’ gardening beds, 2 storage sheds, a sensory garden, and native gardens to welcome migratory birds and local butterfly species.  Participants at the garden enjoy a real sense of community when congregating at the community center, found at the middle of the garden, which boasts a pergola, gardening classes and even a wood burning pizza oven built by the Junior League of Greenwich.

With the help of Wheels in the Woods, an organization dedicated to universal access nature trails, gardening and housing, Greenwich Community Gardens was able to open Greenwich’s second community garden on Bible Street in Cos Cob.  The plot selected had originally been deeded to the town by Colonel Montgomery (a former Greenwich resident and co-founder of what is today the world’s largest accounting firm, PWC), for horticultural purposes, but had turned into a dumping-station for leaves.  Once again with the help and support of the community, the mountains of leaves were transformed into a beautiful community garden, which opened in May of 2014.
Cropped Garden

The 12,000 square foot Bible Street garden boasts 99 beds, 12 of which are universal access beds, meaning that they have features that make gardening possible for those with restricted mobility.  Although the garden is already fully subscribed, the vision for Greenwich’s second community garden has not yet been fulfilled, and future plans include the construction of a pergola, beehives and an apiary.  There is also hope that the garden will one day feature a composting site and large-scale rainwater harvesting.

At the heart of these projects is the idea that gardening should be available to all residents of Greenwich, and special efforts have been made to remove any barriers to participation that may exist, whether physical or financial.  To that end, tools, seeds and other gardening equipment have been generously donated by local organizations, so that people wanting to garden just need to register in the beginning of the year, then just show up and have fun. In efforts to include those with physical ailments, the universal access beds at the Bible Street garden were built with higher benches and narrower beds.

For kids (and certainly some adults!) “fun” is the focus, especially at the Armstrong Court Community Garden where children can crawl through the bean tunnel, enjoy the occasional lady-bug dance or kid-friendly gardening class.  Beyond the fun, participating in gardening allows children to learn firsthand the importance of sharing, cooperation and responsibility.

But gardening is not just beneficial for kids, as adult members have reported that participating in the community gardens has not only given them a real sense of community, but has also given them the opportunity to grow their very own fresh, organic, local food.  Members also enjoy exercise, stress relief, solace and an appreciation of nature from participating in the gardens.
Yummy greens!

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of Greenwich’s community gardens is its endeavor not only to make gardening available to all residents of Greenwich, but also to undertake the project in a morally and socially responsible way.  The latter becomes apparent when one takes note of the several garden beds that are reserved for growing food to donate to Neighbor to Neighbor, a local nonprofit. Several independent gardeners also donate portions of their personal crops to the organization as part of their “Neighborly Harvest Program.”  Special consideration has also been made for migratory birds traveling along the Atlantic flyway, and a native garden has been planted so that traveling birds may have a natural environment to stop in along their way.

What began as the vision of a local Greenwich resident to have a community garden has now turned into a local Greenwich non-profit with an advisory board, a steering committee at Armstrong Court, and a building team at Bible Street.  All members are volunteers who dedicate their own free time toward making this project a success.  Due to the support and funding from local individuals, businesses, grants, garden clubs and foundations, we are very fortunate to have two wonderful community gardens in our town, and we can only hope that the future holds continued expansion of this wonderful project.

Prepared by Erin E. Adams, Greenwich Oral History Project volunteer

Patricia Degelmann Sechi’s interview, “Greenwich Community Gardens,” conducted by volunteer, Suzanne M. Seton, July 16, 2014, is available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library or in the reference area on the first floor.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Remembering Those Who Served…WW II Interviews

“I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

With Memorial Day upon us, it seems fitting to turn our attention to the oral histories of our veterans who, through their stories, preserve for us first-hand accounts of what it was like to have been there, to have seen war.

Today there are numerous archives intent on preserving the stories of those who have been there, none more diligently than the Veterans History Project (VHP) of the American Folklife Center. Their stated mission is to ensure that “future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”

Signed into law in 2000, the VHP, through its volunteers, has been gathering first-hand accounts of U.S. veterans from WWI to the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. These accounts and oral histories also include the stories of U.S. citizen civilians who actively supported these various war efforts as war industry workers, USO workers, flight instructors, medical personnel, and others.

One of our Greenwich Oral History Project volunteers, Janet Klion, has been conducting interviews for the Veterans History Project for many years, her first appearing in their database over ten years ago.

Since Ms. Klion has interviewed veterans who are Greenwich residents, her VHP interviews are included in the Greenwich Oral History Project collection as well. Her World War II interviews are with veterans, many in their nineties when she sat down with them, who, for the most part, tell their stories as though each detail had been permanently seared into their memories. Some narrators, though, struggle to remember events occurring so many years ago. Each interview, in fact, provides a first-hand account of what it was like to take on a soldier’s responsibility when so young, perhaps as young as eighteen or nineteen years of age.

Here are highlights from some of Ms. Klion’s interviews of the veterans of World War II, who are now or once were Greenwich residents.

Stuart Coan
Ms. Klion’s most recent veteran’s interview, conducted on November 1, 2013 is of Stuart F. G. Coan, born in Kashmir, August 1, 1923, while his family was on a summer vacation to escape the heat of Lahore, where his father was with the International YMCA, in charge of a major office there. The family remained in India unti1931 before returning to the states and settling in Princeton, New Jersey, where Mr. Coan’s father was head of the English Speaking Union. After graduating from high school, Stu Coan was admitted to Williams College.

In his second year there, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Pilot Training Program and entered into service early in 1943. But his stay was to be brief. He “washed out” because of poor night depth perception. This was followed by other brief stints, one in an army program for radio operators and another in the Army Specialized Training Program. His field was to be French language interpreter because of his coursework in high school and college. But this program lasted only a few months as well, having been “given pretty largely an axe” In late summer of 1944.

Things were then to take a dramatic turn, when he landed, literally, in the ground forces, where after training in Louisiana, he became a member of the reconnaissance part of the Eighth Armored division. “Well, as you can guess, the reconnaissance was the first tip of the unit. We were out in front to find out where the ‘enemy’ was and then try and find a way either around it or let the heavier stuff following behind us deal with this obstruction,” Mr. Coan notes.

In the autumn of 1944, the 8th Armored Division was sent to England to receive final instructions and training before departing for mainland Europe.

What happened next was momentous. In December, 1944, at the time of the German breakthrough at the Bulge, Mr. Coan’s division was rushed to France, without winter gear. “There was no place to accommodate us, so we were told to bed down,” says Mr. Coan. Bedding down meant rolling out a sleeping bag on the ground in the snow, trying to kick it away.

After patrolling in small groups along the front, the division was sent to the northern edge of the American army where the reconnaissance division relieved the troops, staying a few weeks before crossing the Rhine in the spring of 1945. “There were many parachutists, American and British, involved with the crossing of the Rhine,” says Mr. Coan. There was heavy fighting beyond the Rhine, and his division was involved in fighting in the Ruhr, a major military area because of heavy manufacturing there. “The fighting was brutal. We had heavy losses,” adds Mr. Coan. But this was a turning point, with many thousands of Germans captured. “At this point it was clear to the German citizenry that the war was getting near the end and that Germany was definitely going to lose. We encountered pathetic clusters of men, well over normal military age....They were poorly trained. They were scared.” And according to Mr. Coan, they were glad “to surrender at the drop of a hat, or the waving of a handkerchief.”

Later stationed near Pilsen, his unit was charged with welcoming General Patton. Sent out to the airfield to greet the general, the unit created “sort of a U” so that his plane could pull up into the open end. “Well, to see him descend from the airplane, the spit and polish with pistols on both hips as he reviewed our unit, this was quite dramatic. He loved showmanship...Then we escorted him back into the city at sixty miles an hour.”

With the war winding down, Mr. Coan had several more postings, this time in France, before the war was over and he was able to return to the states, demobilizing at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

 Mr. Coan completed his education at Williams and then earned a master's degree at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., going on to work at the State Department in intelligence research. He and his wife later settled in Greenwich with their growing family where Mr. Coan later became a fulltime fund-raiser for the NAACP.

Stuart F. G. Coan died January 19, 2015.

Charles Standard in uniform with friends
Ms. Klion interviewed Charles (Chuck) Standard on March 1, 2013. Born July 26, 1919, Mr. Standard achieved the rank of lieutenant commander in the Navy—and his story begins with how he got there. Drafted into the Army between his junior and senior year, he was dismayed because his goal was to be a Navy pilot and “to fly off a carrier,” as he recalls it. He went to the president of the university to see what could be done. After some bargaining, he convinced the president to go to the draft board on his behalf to let him take his preliminary flight training at Purdue Airport, graduate, and then enter the service. Soon after graduation, he was in uniform as a Naval cadet and went on to learn to fly an SB2C in the war.

Soon aboard the USS Yorktown in Bombing Squadron, Air Group 1 as a pilot, he was flying off a carrier, as he had always envisioned, hitting targets in Guam, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Chichijima Island. But war dreams come with risks.

Mr. Standard remembers a particularly risky mission in 1944 when he took fire from the Japanese, an event that knocked out his hydraulic system so he could not close his bomb bay doors, lock his guns, or put down his landing flaps, all of which made a carrier landing impossible. He had to continue making runs to use up his ammunition before attempting a landing that might set off any remaining bombs. Once the ammunition was cleared, he had to land, as he tells it, “not knowing that my wheels would lock down.” He shook the plane to see if he could lock them, while having no landing flaps, with bomb bay doors open, and with no brakes. During landing, he says, “I caught the cable, and the guys came up and held the plane so I wouldn’t go back off to the stern.”

This occurred shortly after the only other incident that left Mr. Standard “scared,” an understatement for a mission in which he was lost and running out of fuel in the dark. Returning from a bombing run on the Japanese fleet near Guam, Mr. Standard knew that even with a compass, a dead reckoning for landing would be difficult. Flying on instruments, he eventually saw flares and heard from the radio. “Bobbing on empty,” he focused on one light, made a tight turn, “got a cut” (signal to cut the engine), and landed, miraculously, safely. The only problem? He was not on his carrier. He had landed on the USS Cabot, a small carrier, with no room for his plane, which had to be thrown overboard. After a week, he was returned to the Yorktown.

Mr. Standard was awarded the Navy Cross for valor but has remained humble about the recognition, preferring to focus on his good fortune, his successful career in advertising, his family, and his many years in Riverside before moving to Edgehill, which he describes as being very like a cruise ship.
Michael Weir, USMC
Michael B. Weir was born on February 23, 1925, and was interviewed on October 6, 2010. Mr. Weir’s father was in the Navy during World War I, but Mr. Weir himself had no childhood ambitions to follow in his footsteps. He, instead, attended Yale with no thoughts of war—until Pearl Harbor. According to Mr. Weir, the military “took over most of the campus,” the Army taking one part, the Navy taking the other. Mr. Weir ultimately joined the college Officer Training Program, his branch of service, the United States Marine Corps.

After training, in the spring of 1944, he was sent to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, a strenuous experience, and “not child’s play,” as Mr. Weir describes it. After ninety days and more advanced infantry training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and after receiving awards in marksmanship, Mr. Weir went to Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Weir was deployed to Iwo Jima as a replacement in March 1945. From there it was on to Hawaii where the 5th Marine Division, to which he had been assigned, had its base camp. Soon after, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki, at which point the emperor of Japan surrendered, and combat ended.

But the war was not over for Mr. Weir who was then sent to Japan as part of the occupation force, working to secure whatever military equipment was cached over the Japanese islands. During this time, Second Lieutenant Michael Weir flew missions to search out Japanese airfields and military installations and lived outside Sasebo, Japan in what had been a Japanese naval base. During this time, Mr. Weir became friendly with several Japanese families, as unlikely as that seemed at the time, given all that had transpired. Mr. Weir was in Japan from September of 1945 to the spring of 1946. 

After leaving, Mr. Weir was flown back to Hawaii to participate in the newly reinstituted Marine Corps rifle matches where he won the gold. When finally returned to the states, Mr. Weir returned to Yale, and went on to earn his law degree from Penn Law School. Reflecting on his experience during World War II, he comments that he was only nineteen when he was made a second lieutenant, noting that given his age and having been on the frontlines late in the war, he was spared the worst that so many others endured.

But his military career was not yet over.

Soon after passing the bar, he was mobilized in July of 1950, this time landing in Korea, the initial Inchon landing in September of 1950. The mission was to land at Inchon, capture Seoul, and take it from the North Koreans. That mission was accomplished, but then Mr. Weir was to take part in General MacArthur’s plan to invade North Korea. American troops pushed the North Korean army up to the border of Manchuria. But by the time the troops reached the Chosin Reservoirs, the Chinese had entered the war, exposing MacArthur’s underestimation of the difficulties to be encountered and the seriousness of the Chinese invasion. Mr. Weir would go on to receive the Purple Heart after being wounded during the withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoirs, an operation that took weeks and cost many lives.

Returning home, Michael Weir practiced law until his retirement as a partner with Chadbourne & Parke. He built a home in Greenwich where he lived with his first wife and family until her death, later remarrying and remaining in Greenwich until his own death.

Michael Weir died March 20, 2015.

Lee L. Davenport
Lee L. Davenport, born December 31, 1915, in Schenectady, NY was interviewed by Ms. Klion in December of 2008. Mr. Davenport is best known for his pioneering work in the development of radar, work begun as part of a secret mission at MIT where he arrived in 1941 as a research fellow at the secret Radiation Laboratory developing an antiaircraft system. While never enlisted as a soldier or officer, he would later be able to cut red tape as necessary to work in combat zones. He once carried papers that identified him as a captain in the Signal Corps in case of capture by the enemy.

After being summoned to MIT in a fashion reminiscent of a good spy novel, he was assigned to a project to make a radar system that, in his words, “could operate in all weather, pick out airplanes—a single airplane—and follow it automatically so that it would be accurately possible to aim an anti-aircraft gun at the plane and shoot it down.” His role in that project “was to get this thing built.” Undaunted, he set about doing exactly that, his efforts since credited with helping to end the war. The result of the project would forever after be known as SRC-584 (Signal Corp Radio, #584).

By 1943, the SRC-584 would be ready for action in Italy, at the Anzio beachhead. Two of the 584-directed gun batteries shot down nine German planes. According to Mr. Davenport, the Germans stopped bombing immediately. “They had taken losses that they couldn’t understand.”

According to the official history of the Radiation Lab, says Mr. Davenport in his interview, about a thousand German aircraft downed by anti-aircraft fire were directed by SCR 584 radars. On the basis of his work at MIT, the University of Pittsburgh, where he had begun his graduate studies, awarded him a PhD—on a project what was secret for twenty-five years after World War II ended.

Mr. Davenport went on to marry and have a family and to embark on a multifaceted career from undertaking important research at Harvard to holding various executive positions and including receiving many high honors and awards.

Dr. Lee L. Davenport died September 30, 2011, in Greenwich, CT.

It is impossible to read these interviews and others without being struck by a single thought: these veterans of a war that has receded into distant memory for many served with great humility, almost embarrassed by their accomplishments and forever grateful for their good fortune and long lives.

These interviews and others pertaining to the VHP in the Greenwich Oral History Project collection are available through the Greenwich OHP office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library or in the reference area on the first floor.

To see Janet Klion's interviews for the Veterans History Project, go to:

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Heart of the Dynamo: Lewis Grant O’Donnell, Chief of the Cos Cob Power Plant

Today, plans are underway to celebrate the opening of the new Cos Cob Park. Near the beginning of the last century, in 1907, a very different opening was in the works on those very grounds. That is the year the Cos Cob Power Plant opened its mighty doors, and one man who had been there since the beginning was destined to become the plant’s chief electrical engineer.
The Cos Cob Power Plant, 1907
Lewis Grant O'Donnell

In an Oral History Project interview conducted in 1989 long-time Cos Cob resident, Gertrude O’Donnell Riska, remembers this man, her father, Lewis Grant O’Donnell, who maintained overall responsibility for the plant from 1923 until his retirement in 1940.
Gertrude O'Donnell Riska

When Ms. Riska quotes her father in her interview, she tends to get her reader’s attention:

“My father would scare me to death. At different times he’d say to me, ‘See that turbine over there? There’s a big wheel inside it. If that wheel ever broke loose—and it has in other power plants—it would cut a path of destruction for ten miles…’”

The turbine she is describing was one of half a dozen or more, each as big as a house, and between them were generators weighing fifty tons each. The turbines made the steam that went into the generators that made the electricity. The turbines and generators were like “soldiers down a huge hall” and they were “bigger than houses,” located in bedrock four stories down with support pillars six feet thick. Her primary impression inside the plant was of heat and noise.

Ms. Riska describes the plant, owned by what was then the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad Company, as the first to use alternating current electrification to run the trains, a claim confirmed by the Historic American Engineering Record. The plant supplied power for trains “from Long Island, Mount Vernon and the west, to Cedar Hill, which is beyond New Haven.” Additionally, “it supplied power to feeder branches to Danbury, New Canaan, and While Plains.” And as Ms. Riska puts it, running the plant “certainly was not a small undertaking.”

In 1933, the power plant underwent a critical modernization. The fourteen furnaces were replaced with boilers, mammoth in size, and each with a fixture to eliminate the smoke and dust creating such havoc for the community. During all the changes and over the years, O’Donnell was there. In fact, Ms. Riska recalls never going on family vacations, except once to the Grand Canyon and one or two trips to relatives in Ohio. Her father was on call twenty-four hours a day, she says.
The four-story boiler room, 1940

Costly mistakes and accidents always a worry, in 1938, after a series of mishaps left Mr. O’Donnell distressed, he put one of his other talents to work. Not only was he the keeper of the power plant, he was an artist, and so he created a painting with movable parts, of racehorses representing different departments. Each horse advanced or was moved back monthly, depending on the safety record of its department. The painting hung over the clock with its punch cards. For the next seven years, after the painting went up, there were no accidents.
The racehorse painting and clock

Because the plant was not a place for a little girl to be roaming free, Ms. Riska was well aware of her father’s boundaries. One day, to her surprise, he told her to climb up several stairs that had until then been off-limits. At the top was a little slot barely wide enough to fit a pair of eyes, even a little girl’s. Her father told her to look through the opening. There she saw a “fairyland,” an enchanted landscape of shimmering ice and snow crystals. In a place where the heat generated by the furnaces was maintained at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, it was impossible to imagine ice!

Her father informed her then that she was looking at white heat and that the glass she was looking through was very special, inches thick, because, as he told her, “if you looked at it with your naked eye, it would burn your eyes right out of your head.”

According to Ms. Riska, her father invented many of the power plant’s regulators and gauges in use until the plant’s last day. As a result of his many inventions, Mr. O’Donnell became a member of the National Institute of Inventors in 1920. One of her father’s most significant inventions was the “piggyback” system.

A little background:

In 1933, when the railroad was losing business to trailer and lumber trucks, Mr. O’Donnell sat down at his large “library table” in the living room of their Victorian home. With his colored pencils and his drafting pads in hand, he set about creating an invention with the potential of regaining crippling lost business. One day he emerged from his work, announcing, “I’ve got it. I think I’ve got it solved.”

He had created a system whereby the trailer of the truck could be detached from the cab and loaded onto a railway flatcar for rapid transport to the destination. The trailer would then be reattached to the truck’s cab. It was ingenious—not a way to take over the trucking business but to “piggyback” on it by using the speed of the rails, rather than the highway system. The “piggyback” of the plan, of course referred to the use of the railway flatbed to hold the truck’s trailer.

The plan then went to the New Haven Railroad. Ms. Riska has a letter, dated March 6, 1933, from New Haven’s president, which says in part, “I have been greatly interested in reviewing the papers you brought in covering an arrangement whereby motor trucks could be transported on freight cars over the railroad.” Ms. Riska’s father was commended for his plan but heard nothing further.

Years later, according to Ms. Riska, when in newspapers and books, others were credited with the invention, her father was crestfallen. He wrote a letter asking for his drawings and his plan to be returned to him. The reply came back that no drawings or other materials could be found. In support of her father, Ms. Riska has held onto the letters and proudly maintains the written proof of his invention.
The power plant, midcentury

Lewis Grant O’Donnell retired in 1940 at the age of sixty-eight, three years beyond the usual retirement age, but even after his retirement, he was called on to set things right during times of trouble at the plant. He died in 1963 at the age of ninety-one.

As a final tribute to her father, Ms. Riska says, “…the day we toured the silent, sad power plant [a tour conducted in 1988 after its closing], and I looked up at those huge turbines and miles and miles of electric cables and all kinds of massive equipment, I just said in awe, ‘How did he do it?’ That day’s gone forever. For a person with a sixth grade education would not even get his foot in the door unless he had a degree to throw in first.”
Lewis Grant O'Donnell, on his last day of work, June, 1940

Quite an achievement, indeed.

The Cos Cob Power Plant was designated a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1982 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. In spite of its listing, the plant was demolished in 2001.
Ms. Riska, born November 16, 1919, still resides in her home in Cos Cob.

Gertrude O’Donnell’s interview, “Chief of the Power Plant,” 1992, is available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library or in the reference area on the first floor.