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.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Life and Legacy of Clementine Lockwood Peterson

At this time of year it is fitting that we honor Clementine Lockwood Peterson, born June 3, 1903. Her extraordinary legacy to the Greenwich Library is well worth remembering. The blog post reprinted below and taken from the Greenwich Library Oral Project’s book The Lady in the Portrait was first published September 24, 2013. The book, comprised of eleven interviews, tells the story of this remarkable woman whose multi-million dollar bequest to the library remains unparalleled.

Below is the original 2013 post: 

There are three portraits hanging in the Greenwich Library, two on the wall to the left of the main entrance and the third in the listening area of the music room on the second floor. Regular visitors will no doubt pass these portraits many times, perhaps glancing at them hurriedly, momentarily wondering why these almost “homey” images are on display in their town library. The two on the first floor are of Mr. and Mrs. J. Whitney Peterson, and the third is of their son, Jonathan. Their family story in many ways reads like a fairy tale of good fortune and graceful living, but it is also a tale of great sorrow. Ultimately though, it is a story of love and generosity. And the lady in the portrait on the first floor of the library, Clementine Lockwood Peterson, is the subject of the Oral History Project’s latest book fittingly entitled, The Lady in the PortraitClementine Lockwood Peterson.

Recently, the Oral History Project hosted a reception to launch the book about Mrs. Peterson’s, her life and her legacy to the Greenwich Library. The reception was not only in recognition of this accomplished and generous woman, but was also to honor those narrators who gave of their time to make this book a reality. 

Born June 3, 1903 in Greenwich, Clementine Lockwood Peterson spent her early life in Ridgefield, Connecticut. She attended prominent schools in the East before graduating from Bennett Junior College, a finishing school, in Millbrook, New York. Then, in 1925, she
J. Whitney Peterson
married tobacco heir, J. Whitney Peterson, later settling into the Zaccheus Mead Estate in Greenwich where they lived for many years. Mr. Peterson later became president of the United States Tobacco Company. The couple had only one child, Jonathan, of the portrait on the second floor, who was known as Jay.

Mrs. Peterson, who in many ways led a charmed life, came to know tragedy and heartbreak. Jay died in an automobile accident in 1957 at the age of twenty-three and then, just two years later, her husband died. In 1992, after her death on the eleventh of April of that year, to honor her husband and son, Clementine Lockwood Peterson, through her attorneys, left a bequest of $25 million to the Greenwich Library. Her wish was for the funds to be distributed by trustees through a foundation established in her will. The Clementine Lockwood Peterson Foundation was created primarily to benefit two main areas in the library, business and music, in honor of her husband who had led one of the nation’s largest companies and in honor of their son whose great passion had been music. 

Jonathan "Jay" Peterson
The bequest remains the largest ever made to a local library in the United States.

After much deliberation and with deep commitment to honor the terms of the bequest, the Peterson Wing, which added 32,000 square feet to the library and would house, among other subjects, the library’s business and music collections, officially opened its doors on June 12, 1999.

Although she had been born in Greenwich and had spent many years in town, Mrs. Peterson was not a well-known presence at the library. In fact, when news of the bequest was announced, few among the library trustees knew who she was. Many of the narrators in the interviews that make up the book who did know her comment on her penchant for privacy, but she was at the same time an active member of the community. In fact, what emerges from the interviews is a woman with many sides. At various times during her years in Greenwich, she was an active volunteer in local organizations. She was an avid dog breeder and owner of show dogs, literally having written the book on Keeshonds, her favorite breed. In addition to writing, she was a skilled sculptor of animals, primarily of birds and dogs. 

In her personal life, she was the formal Mrs. Peterson, the informal Mrs. Pete, and the familiar Auntie Clem. There is the proper, businesslike mistress of a large estate and the fun-loving hostess with a playful sense of humor. But most poignantly perhaps, there is the observant and caring benefactor who sees need and intervenes to provide help. 

But the light must have gone out of the life of this accomplished and generous woman when she lost in quick succession her son and her husband. A year after her husband’s death, she sold the estate. She then lived for many years in a house on Taconic Road. Finally, she moved to a retirement home, Crosslands, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania where she died in 1992, but not before she meticulously set up one last act of incredible generosity. And the town of Greenwich will forever be the beneficiary of her largess. 

The Lady in the Portrait is a compendium of eleven interviews. They include interviews with three trustees of the Peterson Foundation, past members of the board of trustees of the Greenwich Library and of the Friends of Greenwich Library. Also included are interviews of former employees of the library and an interview with a daughter of a family who were employees of the Petersons at their Greenwich estate. The book is divided into three sections: “The Lady,” “The Bequest,” and “The Legacy.” 

The Lady in the Portrait is available through the Oral History Project office and can be purchased for $18. Call the project office at 203.622.7945 for further information. The book is also part of the library’s circulating collection. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Remembering Lloyd Hull, Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy

As we celebrate the forty-fifth anniversary of the Greenwich Library Oral History Project, we are eager to share an interview of historical significance, “World War II—the USS Laffey,”conducted by OHP interviewer Allan Gibb in May, 2017. The following blog was written by guest blogger, Joseph Campbell.

Officer Lloyd Hull, U.S. Navy, 1944
Lloyd N. Hull lived in Greenwich for more than 60 years and had an amazing life. Lloyd passed away on January 13, 2018, and before we lost him, he was kind enough to share his story with the Greenwich Oral History Project, including his time in the U.S. Navy during World War II. As we approach Memorial Day, it is altogether fitting to tell the story of this son of Greenwich and of his service in the war.  

When the war in Europe began in September of 1939, Lloyd was attending the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and, like millions of other Americans, would soon be swept up in a war that would engulf the entire world. While the war was raging across the Atlantic, most Americans were going about their daily routines until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. While at school, Lloyd was a member of the Naval ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) and, upon completion of his degree, received his commission and graduated from Midshipman’s School in June of 1943. He was initially assigned to a minesweeper operating out of Newport, Rhode Island, and patrolled between Rhode Island and Newfoundland. When not on patrol, he and the crew were able to enjoy their stateside port, spending free time with the locals and at the beach.  

In September 1943, Lloyd was assigned to a newly commissioned destroyer, DD-724, the USS Laffey, which would become known as “The Ship That Would Not Die.” Lloyd joined the crew of nearly 350 enlisted men and officers and was placed in charge of the Combat Information Center, which coordinated the ships weapons and radars and relayed vital information to the crew on the bridge. He commanded a team of nearly twenty men, all of them older than he was.  
USS Laffey during the war
After a brief training and shakedown cruise in the Bahamas, Lloyd and the crew of the USS Laffey headed to Europe and joined their squadron in time for the D-Day landings. Lloyd describes the duties of the Laffey as escorting ships into the invasion zone, shelling German positions along the French coast, including Cherbourg, and helping defend against German E-boat attacks (E-boats were German Motor Torpedo Boats similar to American PT boats). Lloyd describes how during the Normandy landings he was able to see the men going ashore under fire and struggling to move off the beaches. In spite of the intense fighting at Normandy, the Laffey was only hit with a German 88 shell, which pierced the ship but failed to explode. With the Laffeydamaged, Lloyd and the rest of the crew were sent to Belfast to make repairs, and then came back to the States (Boston) for a refit with new radar and firing computers. While in Boston Lloyd was able to have his family come and visit him during the refit. Lloyd goes on to describe how he could not tell his family when he was leaving or where he was going once the refit was finished and, as luck would have it, one day his family came to visit and Lloyd was gone with the Laffey having shipped out.   

Immediately after the refit, the Laffey made her way to the Pacific, first stopping at Hawaii after transiting the Panama Canal. Lloyd and the crew of the Laffey then took up duty escorting and protecting battle groups and carriers. In 1944, Lloyd found himself in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. From Leyte Gulf he then went to Okinawa. It was at Okinawa that the Laffey suffered several kamikaze attacks which, according to Lloyd, took the lives of many of his crewmembers and caused extensive damage to the ship. Lloyd’s thoughts were not only with his shipmates but also with the Marines that had to land and fight on Okinawa. He describes watching the Marines climbing the cliffs and the brutal fighting they had to endure against the determined Japanese. After Okinawa, Lloyd and the Laffey came back to the States for repairs, and Lloyd was able to take much needed leave and see his family. Lloyd was back on the East Coast with his family when the war ended, and soon thereafter he had to report back to his beloved Laffey.  
The Laffey in 2007

Lloyd loved America and the Navy. He continued to serve after the war, leaving the Navy as a lieutenant commander. He was proud of his service and the men he served and fought with. They formed a bond that lasted more than 70 years. Lloyd was not shy about sharing his opinion about many things, including the war, politics, family, New England, and leadership. Throughout his life he always remembered his fellow sailors as well as the men who were fighting to take and hold the ground, the soldiers at D-Day and the Marines on the islands of the Pacific. To read Lloyd’s story is it to read a slice of American history. His interview, especially near Memorial Day, serves to remind us of the sacrifices made on our behalf by those who were willing to answer the call to defend our great nation. 

(The interview, World War II—the USS Laffey,” can be found on the first floor of the Greenwich Library, the reference area, or in the Oral History Office, lower level of the library.) 

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 Steadwell, 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.