Saturday, March 3, 2018

Our 45th Anniversary

The Greenwich Library’s Oral History Project Celebrates its 45th Anniversary

The Greenwich Library Oral History Project, with its collection of more than 950 interviews and 138 books, staffed and run by volunteers, has been in existence since 1973. Before interviewing likely narrators, the volunteers sought and received training on the many skills required to run a successful oral history project. Over the years, the project has added to the town’s historical record by interviewing residents who have either made Greenwich what it is today or who have been witnesses to its history. Some of their recollections take us back to as early as the 1890s.

As a way of paying tribute to our earliest narrators, we have dug into our archives, and over the next few months, we will dust off their stories and retell them here. We have the recollections of founders, movers and shakers, and selfless volunteers. Our narrators tell stories of disaster, natural and manmade; of times when estate owners hosted annual, eagerly-awaited picnics on their grounds; when superintendents of estates were powerful keepers of gardens, livestock, and their employers’ vast real estate holdings. We have recollections of the town’s topography before there were paved roads, when horses and carriages were the taxis and limos of the day.

The project’s earliest recorded interview is with Mary Dodge Ficker, who describes growing up in Old Greenwich in the 1890s and then into the 1900s.
The Castle, Old Greenwich

We will start there . . .

Mary Dodge Ficker (born in Stamford, Connecticut, 1885; died in Old Greenwich, 1984) was interviewed at her home by interviewer Marian Phillips in 1975. Ms. Ficker describes moving to Old Greenwich as a child when there was no central town to speak of, when shopping required making a trip to Stamford. “You couldn’t buy a spool of thread” anywhere else, she recalls. She describes a sleepy town of modest homes, of summer people who rented houses while the owners took up residence in shacks out back. The summer people provided some interest, but church was the center of the town’s social life.

Ms. Ficker has a wonderful passage about a rift in the Congregational Church on Forest Avenue, which led ultimately to a split in 1894. The minister at the time left with a number of parishioners to form what would eventually become the Presbyterian Church. Fortunately, The Dodges were very fond of the new minister and neighbor, DeWitt Eggleston, and his family. They remained friends for the sixteen years of the minister’s tenure at the church.
Minister Eggleston

Ms. Ficker goes on to describe the continuing growth of Old Greenwich from a small community, to a popular summer destination, to a thriving small town with its share of wealthy year-round residents. Along the way, she reminisces about large backyard gardens that kept the residents in seasonal produce, some of which was stored away in root cellars for winter. It was not unusual for families to keep cows for milk on the property, she shares, until this practice gave way to milk delivery wagons and ice boxes.

Dutchman's breeches
Another interesting story she tells is of “Father Bigelow,” (Edward F. Bigelow, the first curator of the Bruce Museum’s natural history collection) who, according to Ms. Ficker, brought the study of nature to Old Greenwich. Ms. Ficker first knew of Bigelow from her school days in Stamford, where teachers released their students to go on walks with him to study various plants and flowers. Ms. Ficker attributes her own awareness of certain flowers to him. One in particular, Dutchman’s breeches, she grew in her own garden. He and his daughter ran a summer camp in Old Greenwich, which apparently became quite popular among the New York social set, and at some point, Wallis Simpson (of Prince of Wales fame) brought her children there. 

Ms. Ficker recollects other times, as well. She remembers a town before many services were available. There were no police officers, but there were sheriffs who “always were Palmers,” she notes. She remembers that swimming on the Tod property was by invitation. Without that, a swampy Binney Park stream would do. She remembers the hardships brought by World War I when coal was scarce.

She comments that her family always had its ups and downs. Her quote about those days is a fitting salute to her, the narrator of our first interview:

When we were up, we were high as a kite, and when we were down, well, we just stood, but we always kept our dignity . . .”

Mary Dodge Ficker’s interview, “Old Greenwich in the 1890s and 1900s,” is available in the library’s first floor reference area and through the Oral History Project office, located on the lower level of the library.


Thursday, February 1, 2018

In Honor of Black History Month

Celebrating Black History Month

Several years ago, we celebrated Black History Month by highlighting interviews from our collection. Among those were interviews with Alberta E. Bausal, who told her story of community and church; Andrew and Louise Blackson, who recounted their experiences in Greenwich over the years; Eugene J. Moye, Sr., who told of being the first African American police officer in Greenwich; Winston Robinson, who related his experiences as a former president of the NAACP in Greenwich; and many others. This year it seems fitting to reprise a post about two African American women of strength and resolve who were once residents of our town.

One woman who recounts a long life filled with hardship and joy, all with no complaints, is Louise Van Dyke Brown. From the beginning she is resolute. A woman of strength and accomplishment, she is most proud of the independent life she has lived. One suspects her independence as largely the result of her ability to make the best of every challenge she encountered.

Louise Van Dyke Brown was born in Greenwich on February 25, 1893 and was interviewed by one of our volunteers for the Oral History Project in her home the summer of 1977 when she was eighty-four.
Louise Van Dyke Brown

Her parents, she says, though not born in Greenwich, came early, met young, and were married in 1889. She counts her family among the first black families of Greenwich.

From the start Ms. Brown tells of a life of hard work and sacrifice, all without a trace of resentment. The second of seven children in the family, Ms. Brown dropped out of school at fifteen in order to help support the family but primarily to help her mother who worked long hours and who took in laundry to make ends meet. While several of her surviving siblings went on to graduate from high school, an accomplishment in itself in those days, Ms. Brown, in spite of her quick mind, never had that privilege. If there was one regret, it was that.

Not one to linger on life’s disappointments, she also tells of a happy childhood, filled with friends, black and white, of little or no segregation, and of a carefree, fun-filled Greenwich. There may not have been money to waste or a home filled with anything beyond the bare necessities, but life, as Ms. Brown recalls, was good.

She does not skirt the truly sad times, though. There was the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 that saw her family members sick and feverish, with Ms. Brown ministering to them as though she were a nurse. There is the heartbreaking rendering of her little sister, rising from her bed in the throes of death while her older sister rushes from the house to find the doctor, only to have her sister die in the process.

Ms. Brown married Granville Brown in 1919 and spent her life working in various capacities in Greenwich and being a vital member of the church, Bethel A.M.E., which her grandparents and father helped to found.

If life had been otherwise, she may have added an education and a career as a nurse to her accomplishments, but since that was not to be, she did not look back on her long life with anything but gratitude for her health, her family, friends, and her church.

Near the end of her interview, she tells of a happy life with her husband, until his death in 1952, and she says, “I love my home. I love Greenwich so much. I told everybody I’m never going to leave it. My grave is bought…by my mother and everybody. I’ve prepared for myself, and I take care of myself.”

Louise Van Dyke Brown died in Greenwich three years after this interview, June 7, 1980. 

In her interview of 1990, Gertrude Johnson Steadwell, born in 1909, says she is happy for the opportunity to tell of the struggles she encountered in Greenwich as an early activist in the civil rights movement. “It was tough going,” she says, but it was worth it. It was really worth it.”
Gertrude Johnson Steadwell

Gertrude Johnson was by nature a gregarious, open young girl, a joiner. She has warm memories of all the girls in their pretty dresses and the boys all dressed up for the annual Maypole activities, once a Greenwich schools tradition. She played basketball and field hockey, was interested in art and had her work exhibited and began to show an early talent for design. As involved as she was in high school, she also knew that in athletics she had crossed the color line, being generally the only “woman of color” on her teams.

Longing to become a member of the Camp Fire Girls, she was disheartened to learn that she could not. “Because of my color I couldn’t get in. I was really very disgusted about it,” she says. She was determined from that time on to do something about racial discrimination. She seems to have been born with a gene enabling her to recognize injustice when she saw it, igniting in her a desire to work toward change.
The Maypoles of Greenwich, a favorite memory

As an adult she seized the opportunity to make a difference. In the late 1930s, she and her husband, Orville Steadwell, joined The Action Committee on Jobs for Negroes, an organization that became a part of the Greenwich chapter of the NAACP, of which Gertrude and her husband were founding members. She also formed the Southwestern Connecticut Committee on Fair Employment Practices. Her work led to a bill being passed in the state legislature ensuring fair employment for blacks. “This was the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” she says of this period in her life.

In the midst of all her work to enhance workplace opportunities, Ms. Steadwell found time to raise a family of four, to break another color line becoming an interior decorator in Greenwich, being a member of many civic organizations, an active member of her church, and a recognized community leader.

Looking back over the years and the changes that have occurred, Ms. Steadwell concludes in her interview that much has changed for the better. She cites improved employment opportunities and improved choices, much as a result of affirmative action. Her own children were able to see the fruits of these changes having achieved good educations and jobs. 

“I’m really glad that I could tell you,” she tells our interviewer. “I figured one day it would come in good. Not for me, for my children, I was thinking.”

And “good” for the many others who followed after her, in the path she helped to clear.

Gertrude Johnson Steadwell died in Greenwich, August 15, 2007, at the age of ninety-eight.

The Oral History Project books, Louise Brown: Church and Community and A Civil Rights Activist: Gertrude Steadwell, are available for $5 in the Oral History Project office of the Greenwich Library.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Greenwich Library Oral History Project interviews used by the Greenwich Historical Society for its exhibition

An American Odyssey: The Jewish Experience in Greenwich
November 15, 2017 – April 15, 2018

Greenwich Historical Society

The Favorite Shoe Store, started by I. J. Weiss in 1906. 
Photo taken 1915, courtesy of Ricky Weiss Arcade and Joe Arcade.

We at the Greenwich Library Oral History Project are pleased to announce our part in providing oral history interviews from our collection in conjunction with the Greenwich Historical Society’s latest exhibition, An American Odyssey: The Jewish Experience in Greenwich.

The exhibition, which will run November 15, 2017 – April 15, 2018, explores the history of the Jewish community in Greenwich, focusing on family living and working experiences in the town for more than a century. It includes Oral History Project transcript excerpts and audio clips of narrators’ voices.

Below is a partial list of the interviews from the Greenwich Library Oral History Project’s collection that helped to shape the exhibition’s exploration of the Jewish experience in Greenwich:

Eskowetz, Jennie, Jewish Community in Greenwich and Childhood Memories.
Detail from early Clam Box Menu, 
OHP archives
Gross, Arthur, The Clam Box.
Kletz, Marie, The Jewish Community of Greenwich.
Levine, Jennie M., Early Life in Greenwich, Establishment of Marks Bros. Stationary Store, and the Jewish Community of Greenwich.
Resnick, David, Life in the Fourth Ward.
Schacter, Edward, Richards and Greenwich Avenue.
Silverman, Rabbi Hillel E., Temple Sholom/Jews in Greenwich.
Steinberg, Sayde Cohen, Mayer H. Cohen and Cohen Brothers.
Tuchman, Barbara, Growing Up in Cos Cob.
Photo of Jennie Marks Levine,
 OHP archives
In all, twenty Greenwich Library Oral History Project interviews were consulted by the Greenwich Historical Society for its exhibition.
Anyone interested in reading these interviews may do so by visiting the Greenwich Library Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the library. Copies of the interviews are available for purchase and can be requested by phone by calling 203-622-7945 or online by emailing The interviews can be read in the Greenwich Library reference area located on the first floor. All the interviews will also be listed on the Oral History Project kiosk on the first floor near the non-fiction collection.

An American Odyssey: The Jewish Experience in Greenwich will be curated by Dr. Ann Meyerson, a nationally recognized independent museum curator who most recently co-curated The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World (October 28, 2016 to March 12, 2017) at the New-York Historical Society.

The address for the Greenwich Historical Society is 39 Strickland Road Cos Cob, CT 06807. The phone number is 203/869-6899, and the website is The Greenwich Historical Society is open March-December, Wednesday—Sunday, noon—4 p.m. January—February, Saturday—Sunday, noon—4 p.m. Adults: $10, seniors $8, children under 18 free. Free first Wednesday of each month.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Jane Milliken, Activist for Peace

In October 2013, Oral History Project volunteer, Harriet Feldman, interviewed town resident and fellow volunteer, Jane Milliken, who was no ordinary citizen. While the rest of us were tending our gardens, Ms. Milliken, also a gardener, had for much of her life been involved in something larger, nothing short of world peace.
Jane Milliken, Peace Activist, and more...
On June 27, 2017, when Jane Milliken died, the world lost a fervent protector, and we at the Greenwich Oral History Project lost a valued and loved member.

In her interview Ms. Milliken, who came to Greenwich in 1966 from New York City, notes that the Peace Movement, of which she was to become an active member, evolved in Greenwich soon after the end of WWII. The first organization in the area, according to Ms. Milliken, was the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. Its leaders included Norman Cousins and Joan and James Warburg, prominent literary figures and peace activists in Greenwich at the time.

For Ms. Milliken, though, the galvanizing moment came when she read Jonathan Schell’s book, The Fate of the Earth (1982). For her, the book, “spelled out in dramatic terms that we must disarm completely, get rid of the nuclear bomb, because otherwise the Earth would be annihilated…and I vowed at the end of that book to do whatever I could to stop it.”

As she traces the peace movement in Greenwich, Ms. Milliken comments on other noted Greenwich residents who were involved in the quest to stop nuclear proliferation, among them Barbara Tuchman, author and historian. Ms. Milliken recalls a town meeting she and others called “to gather people who were concerned about the nuclear arms race. We had a full turnout,” she notes, continuing: “and it was there that we decided we would form what became known as the Greenwich Campaign for a Nuclear Freeze Now. Everybody insisted that they put in the word “now.” This organization “reached out to those people who didn’t mind marching on streets,” Ms. Milliken says. The point was education: “You need to educate people on all levels and have demonstrations that attract attention.”

Another organization devoted to the same end but through different tactics was The Greenwich Forum on Nuclear Arms Control. They were also committed to education but through lectures, bringing in renowned speakers.

These two organizations, under different names as time went on, proceeded to educate through perilous times in our nation’s history, working in tandem with other grass root organizations nationwide.

In 2013, though, The Greenwich Forum on War and Peace and Greenwich Peace Action closed, giving a scholarship to a student at Greenwich High School, who was very active in peace issues.

In her 2013 interview, Ms. Milliken fears not having made enough progress, noting that perhaps people don’t think as much about nuclear weapons now. “It’s a quiet period,” she says, adding, “except they do think about them at the U.N. and they do think about them if they’re a part of an institute of peace or an organization devoted to that. I could only say I’m humble. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

It is painfully ironic that Ms. Milliken died just days before North Korea launched an ICBM capable of hitting Australia—or Alaska. Perhaps it is time we all begin to read anew the Jonathan Schell book that first propelled her to devote her life to peace. It may no longer be a quiet period with regard to nuclear weapons, but may Jane Milliken rest in peace knowing she and others like her have left us a worthy blueprint for action.
Jane Milliken and daughter, Cordelia Persen

The Greenwich Oral History Project interview, “The Peace Movement in Greenwich,” October 2, 2013, narrated by Jane Milliken, can be read in the Greenwich Library reference area on the first floor or in the Oral History Project office, located on the library’s lower level.