Friday, December 21, 2018

The Spragues of Steamboat Road

With this interview, by Oral History Project volunteer, Joseph Campbell, we reach once again into our archives for a narrative taking us back to the early 1900s. In 1976, Betsy Cullen interviewed William and Francis Sprague, who shared what it was like living in Greenwich at the turn of the century.

A married couple, born within a year of each other, who years later died within months of each other*, the Spragues tell of growing up and living in Greenwich and of residing on Steamboat Road.

This is their story:

Many times when we read the histories of former residents of Greenwich, their memories are of happy times growing up simply or during major events, such as World War II. The focus is usually on the positive. 

William and Francis Sprague grew up in Greenwich in the early 1900s, before and after the First World War. Their reflections include hardships endured as well as good times enjoyed. 

For the Spragues, growing up near or on the water on Steamboat Road (Mrs. Sprague lived there as a child; the couple moved back when they married), some of the good times included swimming in the bathing suits “God gave them.” They also recalled how Standard Oil had large oil holding tanks along the waterfront and how when they fished, they would have to move on to Greenwich Cove where there was less trash in the water and where the fishing was better.   

They tell of the winter of 1917 when the salt water froze up to 20 inches thick and prevented the barges from bringing in coal. Horses and sleds were used to go across the ice to get the coal in. They recount how they fished for eel by chopping holes in the thick ice and then using a long spear to stab them. We are told of the times when they had to burn wood before they had coal, and this was long before they had electricity in their homes. 

Sometimes the snow was so deep they had to dig their way out of the house to go for food, doing the best they could. There were no indoor toilets, and once they did get running water, the pipes froze all the time. In the morning they had to crawl under the house and warm up the pipes with boiling water to get it flowing again.  

Francis recalls working at the old Greenwich Hospital on Milbank Street. She worked in the kitchen with her sister when Francis was 12 years old. She worked 13-hour days.  

Lest we begin to think that theirs was a life of constant toil, there were fun times as well. You can read the descriptions of winter sleigh rides and summer carriage rides in beautiful English style horse-drawn carriages.  

The wondrous thing about these stories is the details that transport the reader to another time. The Spragues seem to remember everyone they knew when they were growing up, from the people who delivered the ice in the summer, to the shoemaker and pizza maker and the bakers. They reminisce about the streets and the buildings no longer there. In the fall there was Mr. Mead’s apple orchard, with apples ripe and so enticing, kids just had to pick the tempting fruit. They remember the old post office and before, when it was a hole in the ground filled with water that froze over in the winter, allowing the kids to ice skate. The Spragues describe a time when Greenwich Avenue had no lights and no cars, just horses pulling a trolley up and down with a water trough at the end.

The Spragues interview is a long one, well worth the reading. Their knowledge of old Greenwich and the people who lived and worked and played here is staggering. It contains much detail on life in old Greenwich. Life was hard and much was expected of kids who were many times forced by circumstances to grow up quickly and to take on adult responsibilities. But these hard times were also punctuated with good ones.

For an amazingly detailed remembrance of the Greenwich that used to be, I would encourage you to come to the library and read the Spragues story. It may inspire you to drive around to see where the old bakery with the warm rolls in winter was located or even to find the old Spragues house. And therein lies the value of the Oral History Project’s vast collection, memories that intrigue us and stir the imagination.

*Mr. Sprague was born November 11, 1893, in Waterford, Ireland; died March 22, 1979, in Stamford, CT.
Mrs. Sprague was born August 15, 1892, in Waterford, Ireland; died November 11, 1979, in Mount Pleasant, NY. 

All photos from Wiki Commons, Greenwich Connecticut, postcards.

The Sprague interview, Greenwich in the Early 1900s, can be found in the circulating collection on the Oral History Project kiosk on the first floor. Additionally, a copy of the interview can be found in the OHP collection in the local history reference area on the first floor. Library patrons may also read the interview at the OHP office on the lower level of the library.                 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Veteran's Day, 2018: A Greenwich "Miracle"

As we continue to recognize the forty-fifth anniversary of the Greenwich Library Oral History Project, we thought it fitting to reach into our archives for a heartwarming story about a World War I soldier's return. The interview we draw on is A Doctor’s Daughter, narrated by Alexandra Clarke Spann (1903-1977). Published as a hardcover “red book” in 1985, the contents draw on four separate interviews, telling the story of what it was like, growing up in Greenwich in the early days of the twentieth century, the daughter of an esteemed Greenwich physician.

There are many interesting and colorful anecdotes presented in the interview but none so engaging as the World War I story Ms. Spann narrates—and that retelling is the incident our volunteer turned to. We went back to the book, and the following is what we found.

Well into the interview Alexandra Clarke Spann is asked about “dramatic incidents” she remembers from her life. She responds:   
The Havemeyer Building on Greenwich Ave., once the Havemeyer School

“Well I think the most dramatic was during World War I. One of our favorite mail carriers was Johnny Lockhart, whose brother was in a division in Europe that was almost completely annihilated. Johnny got word that his brother had been killed. The town loved Johnny so much, and they knew his brother, so they were planning a memorial service. I was just big enough to carry a small flag over my shoulder in a flag drill, which you don’t hear of anymore. They sang “America,” they prayed, they did all the loving things you’re supposed to, and almost finished—when the doors on the colonnade to Havemeyer School opened, and the captain stepped it.”

Interviewer:  “The captain?”

Spann: “He [Colonel Charles E. Lockhart] was a captain [colonel] in the regiment. Dead silence. You could feel it. It pressed on you. Then all pandemonium let loose. People shouted, stamped, whistled, threw their hats up in the air. Even the flags went up. It was absolutely the most dramatic thing I think I ever lived through.”

Interviewer: “How did you feel?”

Spann: “We all cried.”

Interviewer: “You cried?”

Spann: “Absolutely unashamed, men and women both.”

Interviewer: “Did he know that this was his funeral service?”

Spann: “No, he didn’t. Somebody told him there was a meeting in the Havemeyer Building, to go see what was going on. He just walked in cold.”

Interviewer: “That’s a truly dramatic incident.”

Spann: “I think it’s the most dramatic one in my whole life.”

Without further comment or explanation, Ms. Spann goes on to tell about Boss Tweed’s property on Milbank Avenue. But it’s the story of Captain Lockhart’s miraculous return to life that lingers.

This long ago tale about a beloved soldier brought back to a hometown in the midst of honoring him seems worthy of remembering on this holiday meant for reflection.

The red book, A Doctor’s Daughter(1985), narrated by Alexandra Clarke Spann, can be found in the circulating collection on the Oral History Project kiosk on the first floor. Additionally, a copy of the interview can be found in the OHP collection in the local history reference area on the first floor. Library patrons may also read the interview at the OHP office on the lower level of the library.                


Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Wondrous Time for Returning Veterans

For a copy of Tod's Point, contact the Greenwich Library Oral History Project on the library's lower level.
In honor of the Greenwich Library Oral History Project’s forty-fifth anniversary, we are continuing to honor the life of Greenwich resident, Nicolas Thiel Ficker. Previously, referring to on an earlier interview, we revisited Ficker’s life in Greenwich between World War I and World War II. This month, through a later interview, we pick up his life upon his return home after serving in the Army during the Second World War. The following is from that interview, conducted in 1975 by Oral History Project volunteer, Marian Phillips. This blog post was prepared by volunteer, Joseph Campbell.

Work underway to convert the Tod mansion to apartments
As troops began returning home from overseas, housing shortages became common, and Greenwich was not immune to this immerging crisis. With so many veterans returning from the war, the town, with a push by some residents, took action. As it turned out, one of those resident’s was Thiel Ficker’s younger brother, David, who, along with other residents, worked to have the town acquire the Tod Mansion, part of an old country estate, on the Long Island Sound. Their goal was to turn it into apartments for veterans. The town reluctantly agreed to the petitions and proposals and bought the property from a hospital in New York eager to sell because they could no longer afford to maintain it. The town bought the property for around $550,000.  

Following the purchase, a group of veterans formed a housing corporation, which was spearheaded in part by Ficker’s brother, who had convinced Ficker to return to Greenwich from Virginia where he was living. In 1946, Ficker came back and became part of the housing corporation that began converting the mansion into apartments. Upon completion, there were thirteen apartments ready for occupancy. An additional unit was added later when a butler’s pantry large enough to be an apartment was discovered. 

In his interview, Ficker recalls the history of the converted mansion and what life in it was like. He tells of a local contractor who broke the mansion up into the apartments but who left it to the veterans and their families to do the finishing work, including all the painting and woodworking. Each apartment had its own bedrooms and kitchens and baths and small living spaces, but the residents shared common rooms. Even the children had their own common play areas. While residents enjoyed this degree of communal living with common areas and close living quarters, they were not spared the travails and emergencies of life. 

One such problem was facing down hurricanes. Ficker and his wife, for example, had to carry their children to higher ground on the property during a storm when the water rose around their car. It was waist deep before the family reached safety. Other times the problems were more mundane but nevertheless required immediate action. Ficker describes the Thanksgiving when the septic system failed. The men in the families spent the holiday rebuilding the entire system, making the day a Thanksgiving never to be forgotten. Then there was the incident of the skunk with its head stuck in a mayonnaise jar. The poor trapped fellow was finally saved by one brave individual, and the skunk, as Ficker describes it, once freed from the jar, scooted off, without so much as a thank you, maybe because it was covered in mayonnaise.  

Sadly, the cost of maintaining the building became unmanageably high, and eventually all the residents had to move out. Ficker and his family lived there for eight years before they had to move on from Tod’s Point.

The mansion was demolished in 1961. Ficker’s story gives the reader a real sense of how wonderful those years were to him. Though there were trying moments, he looks back with a sense of humor and appreciation, knowing he was part of something historic and very special. Because of this interview and Ficker’s recollections, we too can appreciate a time lost to us but not lost to history. After reading Ficker’s interview, go to Tod’s Point, and as you look out over the Sound, remember the veterans and their families who for wondrous years made an old mansion at the Point their home. 

To read this interview, Veterans' Housing in the Tod Mansion, go to the library’s first floor reference area or to the Oral History Project office, located on the lower level of the library.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Visiting Greenwich of Long Ago

As we celebrate the forty-fifth anniversary of the Greenwich Library Oral History Project, we continue to share interviews from our archives that shed light on the history of our town. The following is an on interview conducted in 1975 by the Oral History Project’s esteemed interviewer, Marian Phillips. It is narrated by Thiel Ficker who sat for several OHP interviews. Ficker was the son of Mary Dodge Ficker (1885-1984) whose interview was the subject of our March 2018 post.

This month’s post was written for the Oral History Project by guest blogger, Joseph Campbell.
WWI Monument Dedication
Greenwich Library Collection
Thiel Ficker, born in 1915, lived in Greenwich all his life. He left to serve in World War II but returned soon after. To read his story is to be transported back in time to a Greenwich that is no more. Mr. Ficker grew up in the years between World War I and World War II, and to read his story is to be immersed in the Greenwich of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a time of soda fountains and trolleys and playing in forests and parks that are gone now. It was a time when families would spend the day at the beach and come home in the evening riding the trolley from Norwalk all the way back to Greenwich. Stamford was where residents went shopping, and getting to the train station to commute to New York was a trip in itself. 
WWII Bond Drive
Greenwich Library Collection
As we read his interview about growing up, we realize it is not just the young Thiel who is growing. Greenwich itself is growing up as well. Mr. Ficker describes buildings that were new when he was growing up but are now old and part of the daily fabric of Greenwich or are perhaps gone, their existence only distant memories for some. Areas that were woods and swamps to be played in are now roads and neighborhoods. Mr. Ficker grew up in a time when after church families had picnics on the church lawn, when families knew each other, and when life moved at a much slower pace.  

Reading his interview affords a glimpse into the troubled depression years in Greenwich. Mr. Ficker describes how hobos would travel through the area looking for food and shelter for the night. He tells of his grandmother who fed and provided humble shelter in the family barn for some because that is what was done then. He describes how one such roaming man who was taken in ended up staying on for years.  

Mr. Fcker tells about the town’s parades at a time when Memorial Day was still known as Decoration Day. The telephone switchboard was by Lake’s Drug Store, and ice was delivered daily to the resident’s icebox.

The beautiful thing about an oral history like Mr. Ficker’s is that it transports the reader to a different place and time, even if that place is one’s hometown.

If you are interested in what life was like in Greenwich before the traffic and the crowds, take the time to read Mr. Ficker’s story. Take notes and then get in your car and go see what exists today in the locations he describes.  Unfortunately (and perhaps fortunately), we cannot take the trolley anymore, and Mike the cab driver is long gone, too, but you can be guaranteed a wonderful trip down memory lane to a different time. You will lose yourself in a time in America’s past that seems simpler and more hospitable. But you will also be reminded of hardships we no longer face, such as long walks to the trolley on a cold winter day or on a hot summer day. It may serve us well to think of that the next time we unhappily sit in traffic—adjusting the car’s heat or air conditioning. 
Commuting by Trolley
Wikimedia Commons Collection

Thiel Ficker’sinterview, “Growing Up in Old Greenwich,” 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.