Monday, August 15, 2022

The Hurricane of 1938

The unnamed hurricane of 1938 is purported to be the first major hurricane to strike New England since 1869. It was one of the most powerful and destructive hurricanes of the twentieth century.

Moving at 47 miles-per-hour, its center made landfall at the time of an astronomical high tide and fueled storm tides of fourteen to eighteen feet across the Connecticut coast. In addition, in 1938 there were no advanced meteorological technologies such as radar, radio buoys, or satellite imaging to warn residents of an oncoming hurricane.

Paul Palmer after he joined the 
U.S. Navy in 1942. Photo lent by 
the Palmer family to the Oral 
History Project.
Paul Palmer, aged fourteen and living on Willowmere Avenue at the time, experienced this storm first-hand. His vivid recollections were recounted to Barbara Ornstein of the Oral History Project in 1975.

On September 21, 1938, Paul and his classmates were dismissed from school at noon as heavy rain had been continuously falling for several days. “I remember coming home and how hard that wind was blowing. I can see the trees going over, you know, but there was no mention of a hurricane.” Once home, Paul and his friend, John [Buster] Clarke, helped Paul’s dad pump out the flooded cellar. Paul recounted, “Then I remember it started raining again that afternoon. The tide was due to come in at night. It was an afternoon tide. I’d say around five o’clock…That wind was blowing; man alive, that wind was blowing. And then, all of a sudden, the rain had let up. I guess the eye had come through, you see, and we thought everything was all over…And that’s when we all took off.”

Paul and Buster heard police and fire engine sirens coming down the street; they ran out to follow them and saw a boat aground on Great Island. “And so, Buster and I said, ‘Well, gee, we can get closer than this. Let’s walk the wall around’… and we crossed over to Quigley’s Island [then part of the Martin J. Quigley property]. We went out on the end out there, and we were watching them try to get the boat off and get the people off the boat.” By this time, the rain and howling wind resumed as the back end of the hurricane was coming around. The boys decided they had better return home.

They crossed back over the bridge connecting the Quigley property to the mainland and realized the water was to the top of the wall. One of their neighbors, Mr. Pitcher, called to them saying, “Boys, you better come in here for a minute. This tide is coming in awful fast.” Paul agreed to go into the house, but Buster decided to run home. “He ran around the corner of the house, and the water came up over the wall, and I heard him holler and his feet went out from underneath him, and he went down the wall with the wave… He went down alongside the house, and he grabbed ahold of that telephone pole stay out there when he went by it, on the side of the driveway.”

Flood waters on Arch Street during the 
September 1938 hurricane. Courtesy of the  
Greenwich Library Local History Collection.

Paul’s training as a Boy Scout helped prepare him for this emergency situation as he waded into the garage. “I found a barrel and some line. So, I tied the line to the barrel. And I went over to the side of the house, and I threw it out in the current, and let it float down to the telephone pole. Buster grabbed a hold of it, and I said, ‘All right now, I’ll tie it to the car, and you pull yourself in the lee of the house.’” Unfortunately, at that point, the car started to float out of the garage.

Destruction caused by the hurricane in the
Island Beach area. Courtesy of the
Greenwich Historical Society.
With help from other adults in the house, Buster was pulled into the relative safety of the Pitcher home in which the water was waist high. “I remember the [dining] table was floating around. The candles were lit on the table and the table was floating around with all the candles lit on it.” A neighbor, Doc Roper’s son Edward, came over in a rowboat and “we all got out of the kitchen window into the rowboat… We were scared to death to go home. We said, ‘Oh, boy, are we gonna get it.’”

Like any parent, Mrs. Palmer was beside herself with worry. “…and man alive, did we get it! My mother was having a fit. She didn’t know where we were, where we had gone.”

The hurricane of 1938 and Mr. Pitcher’s 1921 Sears and Roebuck house on Willowmere Circle in Riverside played a significant role in Paul Palmer’s life. Paul had always admired the home, and after Paul returned from naval service in World War II, Mr. Pitcher “put in his will that if he died before he could sell me the house, that I would get it through his estate at the assessed valuation. It was to be sold to me. I pretty near flipped.”

Eventually, Paul purchased the home and proudly described the many improvements he had made to it, most notably, putting the furnace and the washer and dryer on the second floor. In addition, “I rewired everything overhead. You see where the base plugs are? [waist-high] Well, I know how deep it can get!”

The book “The 1938 Hurricane in Willowmere” may be read at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The OHP is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the website at Mary A. Jacobson, OHP blog editor.

By Mary Jacobson, OHP Blog Editor

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Tod's Point and WW II Veterans

A mansion at Tod’s Point served as a residence for Greenwich WW II veterans and their families from 1946 to 1961

Thousands of people enjoy the beauty and sanctuary of Tod’s Point, yet few are aware of its connection to the veterans of WW II. From 1946 to 1961, the former mansion of Mr. and Mrs. J. Kennedy Tod, the original owners of Tod’s Point (known now as Greenwich Point), served as a residence for WW II veterans and their families. The home was demolished in 1961.

East side of mansion
In 1981, the Oral History Project published Tod’s Point: An Oral History, a complete history of Tod’s Point from its earliest times populated by Indians. Sixty-seven narrators were interviewed for this extensive project and it is from this rich trove that the stories of the WWII veterans are excerpted.

In 1945 the Town of Greenwich purchased the 148-acre property of Tod’s Point from Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, to whom it had been bequeathed upon Tod’s death, for the sum of $550,000. The mansion on the property had not been used as a residence since Mrs. Tod died in 1939. Concurrently, with the end of WW II, veterans were returning home to a severe housing shortage.  Approval was given by the Town of Greenwich to lease the mansion to thirteen veteran families for one dollar a year. 

"...we were all young, just out of the army. It was fun."

Completing renovation
The thirteen families planned to move into the mansion in 1946. First, however, its thirty-nine rooms had to be converted into thirteen apartments. They formed an independent nonprofit corporation called Vetaptco (Veterans’ Apartment Corporation). Each family floated a $1,000 loan from a local bank (The Greenwich Trust Company). According to resident Nicholas Thiel Ficker, “We paid (monthly) rent to our own corporation. I think forty dollars was the cheapest and seventy dollars was the most expensive. Of that, twenty-nine dollars went to the bank. The balance went into our Vetaptco account, and from that we paid for our oil, our heat, our electric, and so forth.”

To ready the apartments, according to Ficker, “This contractor (Peter Danziger) did the basic work and we did all the finishing work. We did all the painting, and some of the plastering, and a lot of the carpentry.” Ficker continued, “To get thirteen young families living down there, it took some courage. . . . It’s cut off from the public, you know, during the dark and winter months. . . . For that particular time, we were all young, just out of the army. It was fun.”

Mansion after snowstorm
Living at Tod’s Point had its challenges. The Town plowed the snow only to the entrance to Tod’s Point. During a blizzard at Christmastime in 1947 Ficker recalled, “Well, we didn’t have any snow shovels . . . so we took these sheets of aluminum and cut them up and made long wooden handles, and nailed these rectangular pieces of aluminum to the wooden handles and made about thirteen shovels. . . . We shoveled all day long, and at six o’clock at night, we finally broke through to Shore Road where they had plowed it.”

Another emergency, that required a communal response, was the inadequate septic system. As Ficker described, “The septic system filled up. . . . There was an old, poor old septic tank, and it just couldn’t take it any longer. On Thanksgiving Day of 1946, we dug a whole dry field. Thirteen men got out there with shovels, picks, and we dug trenches through that. We honeycombed that whole field, laid tiles, filled in gravel, and connected it in with the septic tank which was across the road. . . . We worked up an appetite for turkey.”

Resident Martha Hankins credits her childhood years living at “the Point” with her lifelong appreciation of the environment. “Just the experience of everything and being able to just have so much around you, so much nature, and nature still really affects me. . . .

Aerial photo of Tod's Point

And the bird sanctuary, around Thanksgiving time all the ducks would flock into the lake. There’d be thousands of ducks in the lake.” Ficker reminisces, “. . . we’d go down to the pond. We had a big net on the end of a long pole, and we’d catch blue crabs. Oh boy! Blue crabs were all over the place.”

By 1961, the last family moved out.  According to Ficker,” I think it ended simply because time had run out on it. . . . The Town had said they wouldn’t renew the lease, and there was good reason. . . . It was really starting to get run down. It would have taken a tremendous amount of money to put it into any shape at all. . . . And then there was the decision to demolish the house. Of course, we were all sad to see it go.” Unfortunately, before it was torn down, the building was vandalized. “It was a mess.”

Demolition of the mansion

Martha Hankins returned to her apartment shortly before the demolishment. “The piano we had was pushed down the stairs. . . . I couldn’t come back to see it torn down. It was just too much for me, because we had good memories there.”  Resident Joseph Callachan agreed, “It was just a simply marvelous experience, and one that we’re awfully glad we have in our background.”

The book, “Tod’s Point, An Oral History,” may be read in its entirety at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The OHP is sponsored by Friends of Greenwich Library. Visit the website at

Mary A. Jacobson, OHP blog editor

Saturday, May 8, 2021

 Village Life in Old Greenwich

The roots of Old Greenwich run deep from a tiny and close community at the turn of the twentieth century to the vibrant town center that exists today. In 1989, OHP volunteer Marian Phillips interviewed Daniel Catanzaro, a longtime resident of Old Greenwich who currently resides in Riverside. Our thanks to Elizaveta McCauley, a sophomore at Greenwich High School, for her contributions to this blog.

Daniel Catanzaro was born on October 8, 1926, in Old Greenwich. His parents were Mary Catanzaro, a nurse, and Nicholas Catanzaro, Old Greenwich’s shoemaker and a central figure in the community. Daniel’s recollections take us back to earlier days.

 “My family settled here around 1910. But Dad was commuting here, walking from Stamford to Old Greenwich. At that time the trolley ride was five cents, and it was too expensive. That was a luxury. So, we go back to right around the 1900s, when Old Greenwich was really a great town to live in. Old Greenwich was a crowded little town from, say, June 1 to September 1. Then on September 1 all the summer people moved out.”

 Life in Old Greenwich was nothing short of carefree and merry. The close, friendly bond between neighbors and families was perfect for young Catanzaro, who enjoyed being able to go out and about with his friends at just about any time. “I remember playing basketball any hour of the night down at the Old Greenwich School and then walking home ten, eleven o’clock at night. You’d never meet a soul, and you never had a fear of anyone doing anything to you, because you’d just run into somebody’s house and they’d walk you home. Old Greenwich was the safest place I could ever think of for a youngster to grow up in.”

 Taking care of Binney Park, Catanzaro notes, was a great part of his summer. “That’s where we all got our spending money. We’d go down there and pull weeds out, and that’s why Binney Park always looked so beautiful . . . Ed Sullivan used to ride by when he was a columnist with the New York Daily News, and he’d always write about the beauty of Binney Park.”

 As an older child, Catanzaro picked up and delivered shoes to and from his father. “The Shorehame Club had a lot of prominent people there, show people…I was one of the few that would actually go down there; I used to deliver repaired shoes or pick them up and bring them to my dad. I couldn’t remember many other people going down there. There were a few homes, but not many.”

 Daniel Catanzaro also delivered some items other than shoes. “One of the bad things that happened was during World War II. Lake’s Drug Store handled all the Western Union. Anyone that was killed in the service, the telegram would come into Lake’s and we would have to deliver them. If no one was home, the majority of times we’d bring them back and try and find someone who was associated with the family.”

 Catanzaro shared his memories of certain other deliveries from Lake’s Drug Store after Prohibition ended in 1933. “We had liquor down in the cellar. Sunday was our big day. In those days you packed ice cream in a quart container. Everybody used to fight to work for Lake’s on Sunday because you went to deliver a quart of liquor in a quart ice cream container. Whose ever house you delivered it to, you were always good for a nickel or dime tip, so there was always a waiting line to work in Lake’s on Sunday. You were not allowed, like you’re not now allowed, to sell liquor on Sundays. But our commuters would forget on Saturday. They’d call on Sunday, and we’d deliver it in a quart ice cream container.”

 The closeness of the Old Greenwich community extended to the canine portion of the neighborhood—that is, Sound Beach Fire Department’s beloved firehouse dog, Spot. A proud, dignified-looking Dalmatian, he was a common sight to see around the firehouse. Spot accompanied his fellow firefighters as they responded to fires and he would wear his collar—decorated with the emblem of the Fire Department. Unfortunately, Spot passed away in 1949.

 “When that dog died, it was like the most important person in Old Greenwich passed away.  He was buried in a casket and a full funeral ceremony, right in front of the Old Greenwich firehouse. That’s where Spot was buried. I’ve never forgotten that. There was an awful lot of broken hearts when Spot finally left us. They had a formal funeral for him, and everyone in Old Greenwich had tears coming down their eyes.”

 The Oral History Project interview of Daniel Catanzaro, and the book by the same name, Village Life in Old Greenwich, are available for purchase through the OHP office at the Greenwich Library. The OHP is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at Mary A. Jacobson serves as the OHP blog editor.