Development and Reform
Evolution of the Town Manager Form of Government
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, June 2006
West Hartford’s town meeting served as a check on local governmental power from 1854 to 1919. For 65 years, the town meeting election of three selectmen and appointments to numerous boards seemed to serve the town well. But, as the population tripled from about 3,000 in 1900 to about 9,000 in 1920, the town meeting became unwieldy. There were no auditoriums big enough for the meetings and with the added services provided by the town, government had grown into something more than volunteers could handle.
By 1917, the state passed an ordinance allowing the town of West Hartford to move to a town manager system of government which seemed like it would be more responsive to the town’s needs. In 1919, the town adopted the council-manager form of government which put the power to run the town in a Town Manager, and the power to make policy in the hands of a 15 member Town Council. West Hartford was the first town in Connecticut to adopt this form of government.
The Town Council hired Benjamin Miller as our first Town Manager in 1919. He grew up in Avon, and took a two year business course at the New Britain Seminary. He served in Avon as selectman, founder of the Avon Library, chair of the school board, Judge of Probate and Democratic Representative to the General Assembly. During World War I, he was chair of the Draft Board for the Farmington Valley including West Hartford. When he became Town Manager, the three main issues facing the town were construction, maintaining and paving roads, zoning and running and building schools. The first charter called for the Town Council to appoint the Town Manager, Town Treasurer, Tax Collector, Controller, Town Engineer, Building Inspector, Town Auditors and Constables. They also had the power to appoint commissions and commissioners.
Under Miller, in 1923, the town established the first comprehensive zoning ordinance to regulate land use in Connecticut and a Town Planning and Zoning Commission. The town hired its first paid police chief in 1923. In 1925, candidates for Town Council ran as members of a party, rather than as non-partisan candidates. The grand list grew from $19 million to $65 million. In 1929, the first woman, Grace Honiss, a vice president of the League of Women Voters became the first woman elected to the Town Council. And the town built Plant Junior High (1922), Talcott Junior High (1922), Hall High (1924), Beach Park School (1926), Smith School (1926), Elmwood School (1928), added onto Charter Oak School (1930), and Sedgwick School (1931).
But all was not well with Miller’s administration. He was a Democrat and Republicans dominated the Council throughout the 1920s. It was unclear where power lay –- with the Town Manager or with Commissioners. Commissioners felt they had the right to appoint people to paid positions like Town Engineer and Building Inspector, and seemed to have used these positions as patronage. The Town Manager believed he should have the power to appoint the paid positions by merit, but this power seemed to have been taken away from him by the early 1930s. He resigned in 1933, under stress.
When Miller left in 1933, he sued the town for back pay from his original contract made in 1919. He started at $4,000 per year and his salary increased to $4,800. However, once the depression hit, Miller’s pay was cut from a high of $4,800 to $4,400, ostensibly due to the financial problems associated with the Depression. But, Miller also left amid tension over loss of power in his job and the rise in the power of the town commissions headed by Town Council Members. He also left as the Great Depression deepened and the town pushed to have its employees take pay cuts.
Within 15 years, the government charter already needed reform. By 1930, the population rose to almost 25,000 and the system of government had not fulfilled its original promise. In February, 1934, the Town Council hired a professor from Bowdoin College to study the way the town government worked, with an eye on proposing a more “businesslike plan of government.” The first report to the Town Council on the new plan for government claimed that by 1933, the town manager position had sunk to “innocuous desuetude,” meaning “disuse.” Apparently, Miller had fallen out of favor and spent little time at his job as his power got siphoned away by Town Council members, some of whom served as Commissioners.
By September 1933, the Town Engineer who had been appointed by the Republican controlled Engineering Commission, Rodney Loomis, was running the town as the Town Manager. He retained both posts until he was finally made the official Town Manager. New Town Manager Rodney Loomis’ salary had soared to $7,500 by 1935.
Loomis took much of the power away from the commissions by also serving as Director of Public Works, Director of the Police and Fire departments and the head of the Tax Department. In 1934, the 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats on the council agreed to this shift in power, believing Loomis had the best interests of the town in mind. Republican Max L. Goldenthal was President of the Council for the three years he served. While Loomis served, he convinced the Council to take advantage of building money provided through the federal government’s Work Progress Administration as part of the New Deal. The town built a town hall and library, financed about 45% by the federal government, on land that the First Church sold to the town to stay afloat during the Depression. The Democrats aligned themselves with the West Hartford Taxpayers Association, which submitted an alternative budget each year.
The new 1935 charter reduced the Council to seven members, five elected by district and two at large. The charter established the position of Council President which in 1947 became “mayor.” The council seemed willing to give up the day to day running of the town to Loomis where the previous councils were not so willing with Miller.
Loomis was known for being “gruff and business-like” and he ran the town efficiently. He stayed in his position for 22 years, until 1955, one year longer than Barry Feldman who just resigned after 21 years on the job.
In 2006, West Hartford is only on its ninth town manager in 87 years. A council that agrees to be a policy making body, not an administrative body, and a non-partisan manager seem to be a successful combination. At this rate, new Town Manager Jim Francis should take us through to 2020!
The Story of Susie Butler Andrews
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, December 2004
You’ll find the name Susie B. Andrews as the owner of land in West Hartford center in the 1909 Atlas of the City of Hartford and Town of West Hartford and the 1923 Sanborn Maps. Often women whose names appeared as property owners were actually holding land that their husbands controlled. But, in Andrews’ case, the Historical and Architectural Resource Survey of the Town of West Hartford (1982) by the Connecticut Historic Preservation Office tells us more. Susie B. Andrews, the study claims, “did a great deal to shape early West Hartford Center, building and managing commercial and residential properties.” How did she help shape the center as it moved from residential to commercial?
According to her grandson, C. Allan Borchert, Susie grew up on the northeast corner of Main Street and Farmington Avenue. Her house was torn down to build the West Hartford Trust Company (now Bank of America). When she married Myron Andrews, a banker at the Colonial Bank in Hartford, she moved to 12 North Main Street. She was a shrewd business woman, who, Borchert recalled, was a tough negotiator. He remembered his grandfather in the early 1930s bemoaning her death in 1930 while he worked on his dairy farm. “If only Susie were here,” his grandfather said.
The first residential development in the town center came when Frederick Rockwell bought and subdivided the King family farmland southeast of the center in 1896. Rockwell laid out parcels on Burr Street and had a grand plan for Boulevard which came to fruition between Memorial Drive and South Main Street. The houses in this subdivision were built between 1900 and the mid 1920s.
The second residential development, northwest of the center was named West Hartford Heights. Developers subdivided this land around 1900, and the lots sold, but houses were not built until after 1914 when amenities like paved streets, electricity, and water were available. Susie Andrews laid out Dale Road in 1912 and subdivided the property.
The development of West Hartford Center and the suburbanization of the town coincided with the improvement of transportation to West Hartford. In 1889, horse railway tracks were laid down Farmington Avenue and by 1894, the trolley was electrified. Those who worked in downtown Hartford had a regular, dependable transportation to and from Hartford, making the farm town more desirable as a residence.
Susie B. Andrews had designs on the center. When the population grew from about 3,000 in 1900 to 33,000 by 1940, the retail needs of the town grew as well. Andrews owned land on the north side of Farmington Avenue, west of Main Street and on North Main Street. Even before West Hartford’s zoning laws went into effect, Andrews knew that it was a good idea to separate residential and commercial.
One of Andrews’ residential development properties still stands at 9 Dale Road. This was one of the first houses built on Dale Street and is a beauty salon today. She also rehabilitated the building at 10 Dale Road which was probably an original barn to her childhood home on Farmington Avenue.
To make way for the commercial development, Andrews moved several houses from Farmington Avenue to Whitman Street. The house at 30-32 Whitman Avenue was moved in 1912 when Andrews laid out Dale Road. Frederick Brace’s house originally stood on Farmington Avenue on the east side of the present Dale Road. Around 1850, he set up the first omnibus route between West Hartford and Hartford allowing town residents to commute to Hartford. It operated until the horse railway took over in 1889. This building is thought to have been the Old Academy Building on South Main Street until about 1840 when it was moved to Brace’s property on Farmington Avenue and then moved again to Whitman Avenue.
Susie Andrews moved the colonial revival house built in 1912 which now stands on 75 Brace Road. Most houses along Brace were not built for at least another 10 years when amenities like piped water became available. This house was moved to its location from the corner of Farmington and Dale Street in the 1930s to make room for a commercial building. Myron and Susie Andrews’ son M. Morris Andrews built, owned and lived in this house which was just north of Farmington Avenue and Main Street. This house is identical to the one at 1022 Farmington Avenue.
It seemed that Susie got the area ready for commercial development. But the Depression hit and then she died in 1930 of tuberculosis. At that time, her business became the Andrews Corporation with each of her four children owning an equal share. Borchert remembers the family having lots of investments in land and property, but having very little money. When Borchert’s father died in the early 1930s, he and his mother and sister moved in with his grandfather at 10 North Main. He remembers his grandfather owning a dairy farm which he sold to A.C. Peterson’s farm in Bloomfield in the early 1930s. When his grandfather died, his mother took in boarders to survive.
The commercial building at 984-992 Farmington Avenue (In 2004, housing Chico’s, the Elbow Room, and eight other stores) was built in 1935 by the Andrews Corporation, inheritors of the property of Susie B. Andrews. The commercial buildings like these with storefronts for about ten shops were just starting to come into existence and were just beginning to be known as malls.
The 10-12 North Main Street building, now housing Sally and Bob’s, and the YMCA offices, was built in 1938 and was one of the first large office and commercial buildings in the center. It has details from the Colonial Revival style of architecture, and in that way, matches what was then the West Hartford Bank & Trust building from 1926 and the government buildings including the Noah Webster Library, the Town Hall and Hall High School. It was probably built by Susie and Myron Andrew’s son Morris. This building was built on the site of Susie B. and Morris Andrews’ residence. By this time, Borchert and his mother had moved to another one of the residential properties the family owned, first at 44 Whitman Avenue and then at 32 Grennan Road
The commercial building at 994-1000 Farmington Avenue, built in 1938, was also part of the Andrews retail empire. The Butler Building, named after Susie’s family name (the B stands for Butler) was built on the site of Susie Butler’s childhood home. This commercial building, influenced by the Colonial revival style, has much more architectural detail than the one to its east. Susie’s son Morris probably built the Butler Building as well.
Susie B. Andrews was indeed a businesswoman. According to her grandson, she was also a woman of many talents. She was an excellent artist, painting scenes from her travels to Maine, Bermuda and some from the local scenery. She never sold any of her artwork, but each of her children has many of her paintings,
It is surprising that there was so much development, both residential and commercial, in West Hartford in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Susie Andrews was instrumental in setting the path for this development. Andrews’ management of land in the first three decades of the 20th century helped to shape both residential and commercial development in the center. These commercial buildings have stood the test of time. Andrews’ attempt to separate commercial and residential properties has held to a great extent as neighbors fight the encroachment of businesses in their neighborhoods. Ironically, Dale Road, Susie’s first real residential neighborhood is almost all commercial today.
A Trip Back in Time to Westmoor Farm
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, January 2006
In 1925, Major A. Raymond Ellis bought 46 acres of land from Frank R. Scott on Flagg Road. He remodeled the barn, house and cottage to accommodate his pack of hounds to lead fox hunts at what he named Westmoor Farm. I usually think of West Hartford in 1930 as a developed suburb, but with a population of about 25,000, the town still retained some of its rural character.
The new suburban residential development was predominantly on the east side along Farmington Avenue near Hartford and along North and South Main near the center. West of Main Street from Albany Avenue to New Britain Avenue still remained pasture and cropland.
The land that the Major bought was originally the property of one of the earliest settlers in town, Thomas Merrill. Born in 1714, Merrill sold the farmland to Abijah Flagg in 1786. The land remained in the Flagg family for about 140 years; the last Flagg to own the property, Willis operated a dairy farm with 30 cows until about 1915. He grew vegetables as well and sold them at a stand he owned in nearby Bishop’s Corner. In 1922 he sold the land to Frank Scott and in 1925 Raymond Ellis bought the property.
Ellis was an architect by profession. He moved to the United States from Nova Scotia in the late 1890s and then moved to Hartford in 1908 after finishing architectural school at MIT. When he bought Flagg’s land and buildings he remodeled them to accommodate riding horses as well as his pack of dogs. Ellis served in the cavalry in World War I. He helped with the reconstruction work in France in 1918 and 1919, using his skills as an architect.
In 1922, just before he bought Westmoor, Ellis was named architectural editor of Woman’s Home Companion magazine. By 1929, over 650 houses of Ellis’ design had been built, in part because of his connection to the magazine. He designed the Park River Bridge, the main building of the Hartford Hospital, the Connecticut Institute for the Blind, and the Isolation Hospital at the McCook Memorial Hospital in Hartford.
At Westmoor, Major Ellis built a riding and jumping course. He also created what he named the “Westmoor Farms Polo Club” in a cleared field on his property. Those who had played polo at the Hartford Golf Club when it was in Hartford had been looking for a place to play since the Club moved to West Hartford around the turn of the century.
Ellis developed a fox hunt team and fox hunt. To lead a fox hunt, one needs open fields, water, and pastures for galloping horses that follow the pack of hounds. He had a pack of dogs trained and run by a man he hired. The fox hunts at Westmoor were done by “drag”: a set fox skin was dragged cross-country to leave a scent trail for the hounds. His hunt was cited in a book by A. Henry Higginson and in an English book called Bailey’s Hunting Directory from 1926 to 1930.
Ellis held two horse shows on his property to entertain those in the neighborhood and make them more friendly to the idea of the hunt. The drag hounds went out three days a week from the middle of March to the middle of May and from the middle of September until snow and ice made the area unrideable. At that time, there were only a few neighbors to win over.
Charles Allen Hunter (1874-1961) bought the land from Hartford Connecticut Trust in 1939 after the bank foreclosed on Ellis in the depths of the Depression. Hunter began to use it for a summer home starting in 1939, the year of his retirement. Hunter had been Vice President at Connecticut Bank and Trust when he retired after 45 years at age 65.
Hunter hired a German immigrant horseman named William Wouters. Wouters first worked at the Westmoor Farms Polo Club owned by architect and retired cavalry officer Major Ellis. Wouters transported horses for club members and saved enough money to buy a horse and wagon to carry building materials. In the early 1920s, Wouters opened his own boarding stables on Albany Avenue at Bishops Corner. When Hunter moved out to Westmoor in 1939, he convinced Wouters to come back to keep his business and take care of Hunter’s horses. Wouters expanded his business to board race horses from Narragansett, RI and Lincoln and Suffolk Downs in Boston. He exercised the animals at Westmoor before racing season began again in the spring.
From 1939 to the late 1960s, Wouters ran his business of breaking horses from Hunter’s stables in return for taking care of Mr. Hunter’s gelding. Wouters lived in a two bedroom apartment above the tack room in the stables. In 1984, at age 91, Wouters still lived in the stable. Wouters took care of the horses of students attending Ethel Walker School and jeweler Bill Savitt, who liked to ride.
In 1961, Hunter died. In his will, he left 56 acres to the town of West Hartford along with a large house, servants quarters, a large barn, stable, several smaller buildings, pasture, brook and pond. He was married to Leila Clark Hunter who according to his will could continue to use the property until her death. When she died in January 1973, the town had to decide what to do with the property.
By 1973, the neighborhood surrounding Westmoor Farms had changed considerably. Houses on Blue Ridge started to be built in the late 1930s through the 1950s. On Flagg Road, at least ten homes were built between 1956 and 1957. The suburban town had grown to a population of 62,382 by 1960. Neighbors had opinions about what should happen to the property.
In February 1974, the Conservation Commission in West Hartford recommended that eight acres of the land be used for an equestrian center for riding instruction and boarding horses. The indoor equestrian ring was to be about the size of the Veterans Memorial Ice Skating Rink, 85 by 185 feet on the southwest corner of the property out of sight of Flagg Road. They would build six paddocks and add some riding trails with his bequest. This they thought could provide a revenue stream for the town.
Besides the equestrian ring, the town planned to add a parking lot for about 70 cars, picnic facilities near the parking area with playground equipment, public bathrooms, a barnyard zoo, and a boardwalk and wood chip and gravel trails through the Hunter property. Hunter’s estate not only left the land, but also a sizable sum of $2.3 million to be used for maintenance of the park. The town received one-half the income from this trust, of about $130,000 per year.
The reality of 2005 shows us that the park was much less developed in the final analysis. Neighbors on Flagg Road vehemently fought the development, and the park stayed in a fairly natural state. The idea of the equestrian ring, which was truly an extension of what Wouters had been doing for about 30 years lasted but a few months before the neighbors had convinced the town that this was not in their best interests.
Today, the vestiges of horses on the farm are few, but for a developed inner ring suburb, Westmoor Park still gives a sense of those rural days less than a century ago, when most residents were farmers and there was enough open land for a fox hunt.
Read more about the fox hunt in a pamphlet written by Robert Anderson called Westmoor Hunt, 1925-30 found at the Noah Webster House. A folder in the WHPL vertical file on Westmoor Park tells the history of the park in newspaper articles.
The Life and times of Edna Purtell
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, February 2007
I first encountered Edna Purtell while writing my master’s thesis on the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Movement. She was known for her abilities as a speaker. In an interview, she claimed that she “never wrote any of her speeches on paper, but I could consistently captivate audiences.” When I wrote last month’s West Hartford Life article on William Purtell, a Republican Senator from West Hartford, I realized that the two were brother and sister and yet they seemed to have diametrically opposed political views.
Edna Purtell (1899-1985) was born on Albany Avenue in Hartford, the daughter of a cigar maker. Her father was a member of Samuel Gomper’s Cigarmakers Union. Her father, apprenticed at the age of nine, became a leader in the Hartford union. In 1911, he fought to allow a black man into the union because he knew that blacks, just like the whites, paid the same 5¢ for a loaf of bread. Purtell’s mother was a cigar stripper who belonged to the union as well.
Edna Purtell graduated from the night high school. She held jobs as a babysitter, clerk at the five and ten, and as a tobacco stripper at Doyle’s Tobacco Shop. At 16, she was elected secretary of the cigar strippers’ union. By age 18 she went to work at Travelers Insurance Company in the filing department. Edna’s brother William was two years older than she. While Edna identified with the working class, her brother became an entrepreneur.
In her spare time, Purtell volunteered in the woman’s suffrage movement, handing out leaflets in downtown Hartford and going door to door to get signatures on petitions. A chance encounter in 1918 in front of the Brown Thomson department store between Purtell and Katharine Hepburn (the actress’s mother), the head of the Connecticut Women’s Party led to Purtell taking the train to Washington to demonstrate. There she was arrested in front of Woodrow Wilson’s White House and fined. Purtell represented working class women, and took the train to D.C. and got arrested four separate times and was finally thrown in jail for six days and there she went on a hunger strike all in the name of woman’s suffrage. She was also arrested for climbing Lafayette’s statue and proclaiming “Lafayette, we are here.” Lafayette, a French general during the American Revolution, was a champion of liberty. The police broke two of Purtell’s fingers snatching her suffrage sash while arresting her.
When she returned to work after protesting, Travelers President Batterson called her down to his office. He said, “You know, Miss Purtell, you’re liked very well here, but we don’t want you to be talking about suffrage and so forth.” She replied, “Mr. Batterson, during work hours I’ll take care of my job. But once I get in that elevator, what I talk about is my business, not yours. And on our coffee break, that’s our coffee break, and I’ll talk about anything I want.” Batterson never said another word to her and Purtell’s characteristic honesty prevailed.
Purtell’s suffragist activity with the Connecticut Woman’s Party was more radical than the work of the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Association. When women won suffrage in 1920, the more conservative women from the CWSA formed the League of Women Voters. Instead, Purtell became one of the first members and a leader in the State Federation of Democratic Women’s Clubs. Even into the 1970s, when the League became a more progressive group, she never joined.
Purtell served on many committees and was often the keynote speaker for these groups. In 1924 she supported Progressive Robert LaFollette for President because he supported the initiative, the referendum and the recall. She supported the movement to free Ireland from British rule. In 1928, she helped organize a “Women for Al Smith” committee to support the Democrat running for President. In 1930, Purtell was elected Parliamentarian of the Hartford Women’s Democratic Club. She served on the legislative committee which followed bills in the state legislature. She lobbied for jury service for women, old age pensions, and improving the status of women in factories. In March 1933, at a meeting of the Connecticut Women Democrats, Purtell reported on the conditions of jails for women in Hartford County. She said the cells were unsanitary and the women did not have enough freedom. In 1936, she was an alternate to the national Democratic Convention which nominated FDR for a second term.
Her interests were wide-ranging. In May 1934, Purtell was part of a group which sponsored a symposium on Nazi book burning. She joined the pastor of the Center Church, the head of the Seminary, two rabbis and Annie Fisher, the Superintendent of one of the Hartford school districts, to raise awareness of the public.
While Purtell immersed herself in Democratic politics, her brother opened a factory called Holo-Chrome and by World War II he had bought Billings and Spencer in West Hartford. Then he began to dabble in politics himself. Hartford Courant political writer Jack Zaiman claimed he too, was a great speaker, but his view of the role of government differed from his sister. He thought that social problems should be solved through private initiative first and only then through government action.
His sister may have agreed with him about labor issues for men who tended to have strong unions, but she believed strongly that the government needed to regulate businesses.
After several years at Travelers, Edna Purtell got a job as an investigator for the Connecticut State Labor Department. She gave a speech at a rally to support a state pension plan. In 1936, she exposed a case where a dressmaking shop in a Hartford department store made women work more than a nine hour day. She worked for the department for 14 years and was a pioneer for protective labor legislation, particularly for children employed in the state tobacco fields. She wrote a pamphlet for the Labor Department in the 1940s on children in the tobacco industry. She led the fight to end child labor in Connecticut and in 1946 outlined the problems of child labor in a news article. There was no minimum age for agricultural workers and the children worked as many as ten hours per day.
In 1948, the Connecticut Democratic Women’s Convention asked Purtell to be their keynote speaker. It was thought that she might have a place on the state ticket for elective office. At that time she and the Democratic women called for an end to the regressive sales tax and for a progressive income tax. However, she never ran for political office. Senate nominee Thomas Dodd, a Democrat, named her to head his office on women’s concerns in 1956. In that role, she worked for the man who ran against her brother.
After she retired from the state in 1956, she remained politically active. Governor Dempsey named Purtell to Connecticut’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women in 1966. When the Equal Rights Amendment was revived in 1970, Purtell was one of the first to testify before the legislature’s Human Rights and Opportunities subcommittee headed by Gloria Shafer (who later became Connecticut’s third female Secretary of State). Purtell defined herself as “an old style militant suffragist” claiming that even after women got the right to vote, they “were still not persons.” In 1975, at age 76, Purtell was still active politically. She published a letter to the editor supporting a state income tax and supporting Homer Babbidge’s run for Governor. At that time she served on the legislative committee of West Hartford’s North End Senior Center, continuing to monitor and lobby for legislative measures.
Purtell lived more than 40 years in West Hartford, well into her 80s. While her brother’s political career took him to Washington, it lasted only six years in the U.S. Senate. Edna continued her role as an activist throughout her life, speaking for the rights of those who had the smallest voice.
Amateur Radio in West Hartford
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, August 2010
Town Councilman Steve Adler and Dr. Rick Liftig are two of the more than 175 ham radio operators who live in West Hartford. In a day of instant communication through the internet and cell phone, these amateur operators seem something of an anomaly. In June 2010, Mayor Scott Slifka presented a proclamation to representatives of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) in recognition of West Hartford’s tie to the growth and support of this organization as he recognized amateur radio’s deep roots in West Hartford. Their communication system serves as a community service in times of disaster as well as a hobby, which three million people enjoy worldwide.
Different from the telegraph, which sent a Morse Code message by impulses over a wire, amateur radio operators send messages over the air waves. The U.S Government through the Commerce Department began licensing operators in 1912.
Hartford’s Hiram Percy Maxim founded the Amateur Radio Relay League in 1914 when he wanted to send a message from Hartford to Springfield and did not have a strong enough signal to do so. He contacted a relay in Windsor Locks and his Morse Code message made it to its intended receiver. Maxim, who invented the Maxim Silencer for guns (1909), and the car muffler, was a radio enthusiast who helped to develop a network of amateur radio operators. In 1914, he was a member of the Hartford Radio Club, but realized there would be an advantage to a wider network of hams. By September 1914, their network grew to over 230 stations. Just 15 months later, there were 600 stations and the ARRL published its first bulletin QST (meaning Calling all Radio Amateurs) to help coordinate the actions of the operators.
When the United States joined the Great War in 1917, the Department of Commerce sent a letter to all amateurs ordering them off the air. During the war, the ARRL coordinated the recruitment of operators into the armed services where they continued to hone their skills for the public good.
In 1918, at the war’s end, the U.S. Government tried to control the transmission of messages under the Department of the Navy, but the ARRL lobbied Congress to allow individuals to control their transmissions and they quashed several bills in Congress allowing them to do so. The ARRL under Maxim’s watch, provided technical advice and assistance to amateur radio enthusiasts, and regulated them before the Federal Communication Commission was founded in 1934.
With Maxim, the first ARRL headquarters inhabited “a couple of shabby rooms” on Main Street in downtown Hartford. In 1925 the staff of 18 moved to 1711 Park Street. West Hartford’s role really began in 1931, when the ARRL built its headquarters at 38 LaSalle Road, where Coldwell Banker was in 2010. This new location housed the League in a two-story building. They had a $200,000 budget and 28 full time employees.
Many amateur radio geeks moved to town who worked at ARRL headquarters. They found housing in the old Selden Hill farmhouse on top of Buena Vista. Rilla and Henry Selden lived in the house up on the bluff and their seven children had grown and moved away. Mrs. Selden posted a “Rooms for Tourists” sign down on Farmington Avenue near the Reservoir. When two men from the ARRL station looked for a place to live, they found, not only a “home,” but also a great radio location where they could experiment.
Associate Editor Ross Hull, an Australian, and Managing Editor Clark Rodimon of QST were some of the first boarders to move in. Rodimon invented the first two-way five-meter contact between Hartford and Boston –- over 100 miles in 1934 from Selden Hill. Hull was known worldwide for his pioneering work in developing the VHF and UHF spectrum for the 56, 112 and 224 MHz amateur bands. According to Rilla Selden, “they strung up a big contraption among the trees. Then Ross talked to a half a dozen fellows in Boston and none of them would believe he was in Hartford.” Hull had strung a high gain beam array in the trees. The amateur radio operators in Boston spent the next half hour “discussing that bootlegger who claims to be in Hartford.” They could not believe that the signal could be sent 100 miles. Hull proved that radio beams could go beyond the horizon and “bend” to the curvature of the earth.
The various boarders continued to experiment on Selden Hill. They scaled the old slate roof to put up transmission lines and they built sky-wires for fun on a Saturday afternoon. Even in 1944, according to an article “The Legend of Selden Hill,” in QST, remains of these structures still existed.
These amateurs were not just satisfied with experimenting with words over the airwaves. They built radio controlled gliders and airplanes. Selden Hill’s steep slope provided a great spot to use as a launch pad. One of these gliders, with a wingspan of 16 feet is at the ARRL station in Newington today.
In the early 1930s, Ross Hull experimented with television at Selden Hill. He wanted to “reduce to amateur practice” the complicated nature of sending pictures over the airwaves. He tried several television experiments in 1937 that debunked the professional opinions that the maximum range of television transmission was 30 to 40 miles. In fact, he successfully received NBC’s transmissions from the Empire State Building over 100 miles away in 1937. Hull criticized the professional television industry for their commercialism. Because the equipment was so much more expensive, amateurs had more difficulty experimenting. Hull moved to Bolton in 1938 where he accidentally contacted 6,000 volts while working on his experimental television receiver and died.
According to present day amateur radio operator Rick Liftig “Virtually all of our modern communication techniques derived from these experiments.” Almost 70 years later, amateur radio operators continue to help the public by radioing in times of emergency during natural disasters. Their dedication to public service and their dedication to their hobby symbolize the community involvement that continues to make West Hartford such a vibrant town. Perhaps an historical marker on LaSalle would help keep this 20th century history alive!
Dr. Caroline Hamilton
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, August 2012
Recently, the daughter of a good friend left for Thailand for a year’s service. Part adventurer, and part human rights activist, Katherine will be teaching English to Buddhist monks in Chang Mai, Thailand. The rise in interest in human rights issues, student exchanges, and college student travel around the globe, are all part of a 21st century global outlook. This generational shift, however, is far from new. Take a look at Caroline Hamilton.
On September 12, 1944, Dr. Caroline Hamilton died at age 83. Her obituary stated that she was a native of West Hartford, a graduate of Smith College, and a graduate of the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. It went on to say that “From 1892 to her retirement in 1932, Dr. Hamilton was medical missionary at the Azariah Smith Memorial Hospital, Aintab, Turkey, in charge of medical services for Moslem women.”
In 1930, William H. Hall, West Hartford’s retired Superintendent of Schools, devoted two pages in his book West Hartford to Dr. Hamilton. In his section entitled Biographical Notes, Hall wrote about four West Hartford families, and 24 individuals, two who were women.
According to Hall, Hamilton was born to Benedict and Electa Hamilton at their home on the south side of Farmington Avenue just east of Trout Brook, on a 70 acre farm near the present site of Kingswood Oxford School. Hamilton went to the West Hartford High School after it was opened in 1872 on North Main Street as the second floor of the Center District School. She went on to graduate from Hartford High School in 1880 and then Smith College in 1885 at age 24.
Hamilton graduated from the New York Women’s Medical College (1863-1918) in 1888. She enrolled in the school when the founder Dr. Clemence S. Lozier was still running the school. Founded in 1863 with seven women, by 1888, 219 women doctors moved into practices from Maine to California. She interned at the hospital for a year, and then got involved in “college settlement work” as a physician, just at the time that Jane Addams and Lillian Wald established Settlement Houses in Chicago and New York City. Wald and other settlement workers tried to ensure that all members of society, including women and children, immigrants and the poor, and people of all ethnicities and religious groups could realize the promise of American ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Hamilton also found time to teach in the Medical College where she got her degree and was a resident physician at the New York Infant Asylum which provided care for abandoned children. The Asylum also provided obstetrical care for unwed or indigent women.
She did more graduate study in New York and in 1892, at age 31, the American Board of Missions appointed her to the hospital in Aintab, Turkey where she worked from 1892 to 1932. A Hartford Courant article from September 19, 1893 quoted an article in Harper’s Bazaar saying that the Ottoman Sultan had granted permission ”for a woman physician to engage in her profession within his domain.” Caroline Hamilton was sent at the expense of a “Boston lady” and she set up a hospital for women and children in Aintab.
Hamilton’s work took her beyond the walls of the hospital in Aintab to help heal the sick and needy people in all parts of the city, going to individual homes in some cases, exposing herself to great danger. She also worked for the mission church and school. She played the organ, taught Sunday School, and conducted services.
Hamilton was in what we now know as Turkey during the Armenian genocide (1915-18). When Hamilton was in Aintab, she lived through three massacres, including one in which the perpetrators came to the gates of the hospital to destroy all the inmates.
In 1915, the city of Aintab near the Syrian border had 40,000 Armenians who were Christians, and by 1922 there were only 3,000 remaining. The Turks forced the Armenians to march into the desert to the east, leaving them with no supplies and no protection. They took their belongings and some were put in concentration camps. Historians estimate that as many as one million Armenians died in the genocide and 500,000 left Turkey.
In the middle of the genocide, in October 1917, a report from a returning missionary described Hamilton’s worth to the Turks. The Turks worried that she would leave when the United States entered the Great War. Though the U.S. never fought in Turkey, we allied with the Turk’s enemies. Hamilton was not in good health as she had contracted typhus in 1915 and never fully recovered. The other missionaries tried to get her to leave, but she pledged to stay until the war ended. Some city residents tried to get her to take on citizenship so that she would not be expelled from the country. Though she stayed, she was persecuted, having stones thrown at her when she visited patients and finally she took a soldier with her when she made home visits.
Her hospital for women and children was transformed during the war into a military hospital with ties to the Red Cross. Hamilton preached Christianity to the wounded soldiers. At the same time, she had to listen to soldiers boast of their role in the genocide.
Hamilton also cared for 12,000 refugee women and children. The missionary described Hamilton sewing a woman’s nose that had been almost cut off. The patient then went on to become one of the best workers in the hospital.
On February 16, 1920, the New York Times reported that The American Committee for Relief in the Near East said that Americans had escaped from several towns where Armenians were being massacred. Armenians were destitute and many were sick and wounded. Hamilton evacuated from Aintab and was safely in Marash with 16 other missionary workers.
In that same month, Hamilton came back to the US and spoke before the Smith College Club where she argued that the U.S. had to take action and move beyond its ignorance and indifference. She claimed that the U.S. was better suited than either the French or British to carry out this military action.
President Woodrow Wilson tried to help sustain the Armenian state which was established in 1918. Opposition from the Republican Party and a lack of troops led to the Armenian state collapsing in November 1920.
Hamilton left Turkey for 18 months from August 1920 to February 1922 when the Turkish government carried out more massacres against the Armenians and her hospital had to be abandoned. At that time, she went to Beirut where she ran an orphanage for 300 children.
Throughout her 37 years abroad in Aintab, Turkey and in Lebanon, Hamilton remained a member of the First Congregational Church in West Hartford. She wrote letters to church members and received gifts of money and supplies at Christmas from the church’s Bible School. When she came back to the United States on furlough, she addressed missionary meetings, not just at the First Church, but at churches throughout the area.
Hamilton’s work, which started more than 120 years ago brought one of the first woman physicians from the U.S. to a country where she witnessed mass murder. Her motivations, probably to live the life of an independent woman, and to play an important medical role in a place where she was “other” and could have more power, may not be too different from young people’s motivation for mission trips today. Hamilton’s Christian missionary zeal sets her in a different era, but her idea to use her expertise to help those in need still holds sway today.
William H. Hall and our “Highest Duty”
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, February 2010
My friend, Trinity Professor Jack Dougherty, and I were recently debating when it was that West Hartford began promoting its successful public schools as a selling point to attract families to settle in West Hartford versus surrounding towns. He held that West Hartford did not start competing for residents via their schools until the late 1950s. It seems like the commitment to good schools as a part of the civic virtue of the town, however, starts earlier.
A look at the schools’ history begins with one-room schoolhouses. By 1902, the town had consolidated its nine school districts. Adolph C. Sternberg was the Acting School Visitor (head of schools) until 1896. He was served in the General Assembly from 1895-6. He felt that the schools needed more skilled supervision than he could give them, and he arranged to have the Secretary of the State Board of Education, Prof. Charles D. Hine, assume the supervisor position until 1897. When Hine realized it was more than a part-time job, he hired high school principal William H. Hall and the position transformed into the Superintendent of Schools. Hall held that position for 25 years until 1922 when he was 77. Upon Hall’s retirement, Lloyd Bugbee, the Principal of the West Hartford High School, a youngster compared to Hall, stepped in and served as Superintendent until 1947.
There is some early evidence of pride in the town’s schools. In 1902, William H. Hall, wrote “A Historical Sketch of West Hartford” for the dedication of the new red brick Town Hall, in which he praised the school system. At the time, the town had about 3,000 residents and was still a farm town. Hall was the Superintendent and a town historian in his own right, and he used his speech to glorify and celebrate the town.
He related the history of West Hartford from 1679 –- the first settlement –- to 1902. He believed that to understand the present, the citizens needed to not only know the past, but also understand their indebtedness to those who came before them. From 1713 to 1796, according to Hall, the Ecclesiastical Society of the West Division supported five schools up and down Main Street. He argued, “our fathers made very wise and generous provision for the educational interests of the community,” an expression of civic virtue.
From 1796 to 1855, the state gained a role in school governance as the General Assembly established a School Fund with the proceeds from the sale of Western Reserve lands in Ohio. A state-mandated School Society managed the funds for the West Division (West Hartford). By 1885 the schools were consolidated under the town’s new government.
Hall believed that the successful town residents who went to schools here demonstrated how good the schools were. Hall listed Noah Webster, Theodore Sedgwick who became Speaker of the House and a U.S. Senator, Titus Hosmer, a member of Congress, John Woodruff a judge in New York State, Benjamin Burr who helped establish the glove industry in Gloversville, New York, James Seymour, banker, Ebenezer Belden, printer and publisher of the first daily newspaper in New York City, more than 25 ministers, including Lemuel Haynes, a “colored boy” born here and who became a successful minister in Vermont. His examples of success seem to be individuals who gave back to their communities. Hall concluded:
We certainly have good people, good homes, good churches, good schools, good laws, good officials, good roads and good public buildings. But none of these are so good that they do not admit of improvement, and it should be our constant aim to attain to that which is not simply better, but best.
Let us not forget, however, that our highest duty, our noblest endeavor, our grandest opportunity and our true success as a community are to be found in such use and improvement of all these advantages and blessings as will result in the training of our children and youth in character and life so that they may most worthily serve God and their fellowmen in their day and generation.
Hall’s priority to make educating children the “highest duty” led to big changes in the school system. As the population grew, so did his plans for the school system. West Hartford was on the cutting edge when it opened two junior high schools in 1922, only the second and third junior highs in the state. Ground had already been broken for the new high school.
When Lloyd Bugbee became Superintendent in 1922, he requested that the State Department of Education do a report on the state of West Hartford’s schools. State Commissioner A. B. Meredith spoke at Webster Hall in the Noah Webster Library, invited by the Democratic Women’s Club to deliver his report. William Hall presided over the meeting. While Supt. Bugbee praised his teachers, Meredith and the State Board criticized the town for falling behind in both its buildings and its student achievement.
Meredith pointed out the physical needs of the schools and the changes needed in the course of study. There was a desperate need for a new high school, and yet the cornerstone had already been laid. Three of the seven elementary schools were so crowded that they ran double sessions. Again, Bugbee quickly responded with the Beach Park School (1926), Morley School (1926), an eight-room addition on Smith School (1926) and Elmwood School (1928). As for student achievement, the elementary students were performing only slightly above average; the State Board felt Bugbee could expect more. Perhaps Bugbee was willing to receive the criticism and used it to his advantage to galvanize the public to support his building program.
Still, there were some anecdotal signs of good results. On February 11, 1924, the Hartford Courant headline read “West Hartford’s Schools Praised: Men Prepared there Do Well at College, Say Dartmouth Authorities.” Dartmouth College sent several commendations to the Superintendent “commenting on the splendid preparatory training received by graduates of the West Hartford Schools.”
Though its schools were not yet used to sell houses by 1925, the town leaders started to define civic virtue through caring about its schools. They did not yet provide the draw to the town that they would in the next 15 years.
Superintendent Lloyd Bugbee
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, March 2010
West Hartford’s population growth between 1910 and 1920, led to an emergency situation in the schools, as buildings were not constructed fast enough to keep up with the growing student population. At the same time, the administration couldn’t keep track of its teachers. Superintendent William H. Hall led the school system through this growth (1897-1922), but when he retired in 1922, his successor Lloyd Bugbee, jumped into action.
In 1922-3, Superintendent Bugbee asked the Connecticut State Board of Education to survey West Hartford’s schools. The 151-page survey provided Bugbee the outside pressure to accomplish much of what he may already have known needed to be done. As soon as the State Board published its survey, several towns asked for copies and the state department printed 350 copies for its own distribution.
Lloyd Bugbee was hired in 1917 at age 27 as the principal of West Hartford’s high school. He grew up in Vermont, graduated from Dartmouth College, and then did graduate work at Columbia Teacher’s College. When Bugbee took over for the 74 year old Hall, it was truly a changing of the guard.
Until 1917, William H. Hall served as both principal and superintendent and had no staff to support him. Between 1913 and 1922, high school enrollment jumped from 105 to 343. While the population grew about 84%, the high school enrollment grew over 300%. Under Hall, two new junior highs were built and construction began on the high school. Bugbee was known for both building the infrastructure and developing an innovative curriculum in West Hartford.
Bugbee had to address the overcrowding in the elementary schools. With a school population that almost doubled from 1910 to 1920 to 1,769 pupils, Bugbee had to find places for the students to attend school. Ten classrooms were so crowded that they had to go on double sessions.
Under his administration, 12 new schools opened. He added courses in the high school that included aeronautics, driver education, and nature study. And Columbia University’s Teachers’ College named the new elementary curriculum exemplary.
The State Board of Education Survey, published in 1923, recommended improved supervision along with a building program which entailed spending about $100,000 over two years. The Survey called for hiring a supervisor for the elementary schools while Bugbee would supervise the junior and senior high schools. The Board of Education hired that person. The survey called for establishing special classes for adult education. And, as schools began to take on more responsibilities than just the 3 R’s, the survey recommended West Hartford hire a school physician, dental hygienist, and director of physical education right away.
Bugbee used the report to act. In 1923, West Hartford began its adult education division by offering its first three classes at the Elmwood School. Also, Bugbee promoted the West Hartford public schools outside the town. He took on leadership roles in the region as well. In his second year as Superintendent, Bugbee chaired the fall meeting of the Connecticut State Teachers’ Association held at Hartford Public High School.
West Hartford excelled in writing elementary school curriculum. By January 1926, Teachers College at Columbia University commended Superintendent Bugbee on the new elementary curriculum. Bugbee, his elementary school supervisor Ethel Merriman and a committee of teachers designed a course of study in history and geography judged to be one of the top 25 out of several hundred submitted to the college.
West Hartford pioneered in foreign language instruction. In April 1926, Bugbee addressed a New York City conference of eastern junior high schools to describe West Hartford’s introduction of foreign languages in the eighth grade. Students spent one-semester learning word origins, six weeks of Latin, and five weeks of French, to learn the principles of words. The curriculum introduced all students to the study of language in an innovative way. Bugbee encouraged the implementation of exploratory courses for eighth graders.
The Beach Park School also helped put West Hartford on the educational map. With five acres of land donated by T. Belknap Beach in 1925, the Beach Park School was the first in West Hartford to be built in a park-like setting. Beach wrote in the deed that no trees could be cut except for park purposes. The architecture of the building was more like a home than an institution. The colonial structure and color scheme for the three-classroom building, finished in 1926, were a departure for school buildings. A national education journal wrote an article about the school and educators visited from across the country.
Bugbee’s idea was to develop a school with the “happy atmosphere and freedom which the preschool child enjoys at home. It is a place where children may live together working, playing and learning as they might do in a happy family.” The building enhanced the teachers’ abilities to reach these goals. In 1929, Bugbee wrote “This home-like and livable atmosphere is probably one of the most outstanding evidences of progressive education.”
Teachers and administrators in Connecticut viewed Bugbee as a leader. He was a regular at the state teacher’s convention. In 1927, he was elected by 200 state delegates to represent Connecticut at the National Teacher’s convention in Minneapolis.
The Hartford Courant praised Bugbee in 1929 for urging the town to buy school sites before the town was ready to build and before neighborhoods were built. Bugbee claimed this was a policy established by William H. Hall. In 1929, the town bought the site on Park Road on which Sedgwick School was built. It also bought two properties in the northern, undeveloped section of town. The Courant article claimed “Superintendent Bugbee is considered invaluable to the town by many officials because of his acute vision in school matters.”
By 1930, in his ninth year as Superintendent, Bugbee’s reputation continued to grow. Franklin E. Pierce, state supervisor of secondary education commended Bugbee for following through with a ten-year survey following high school graduates. Pierce commended the survey for following not just students who went to college but also those who went straight into the workforce. Bugbee used the survey to ascertain what advantage students got from the West Hartford.
While the Connecticut State Department’s Survey in 1923 was critical of the school system, Bugbee, at the young age of 32, used it to legitimize many of the changes he wanted to bring to the town. Bugbee’s leadership put the West Hartford schools in the vanguard in Connecticut and the nation.
The League of Women Voters: Building Leaders in a Democracy
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, June 2002 and October 2010
In February 1920, six months before ratification of the 19th Amendment, suffragists founded the League of Women Voters on national, state and local levels to crusade for “the success of democracy.” The founders of the non-partisan organization calculated that their job would take five years to teach the 20 million new women voters how to participate in a democracy and then they would disband.
The West Hartford League formed two years after the state and national Leagues and just three years after women won the right to vote. In 1920, West Hartford’s 9,000 residents lived in a suburb. There were still farms in the north and south ends of town, but the percentage of people in town who worked in farming declined. Some residents worked in West Hartford factories like Spencer Turbine or Whitlock Coil and Pipe, while many of the new residents took the trolley to insurance jobs in Hartford. The new houses built on farmland attracted middle class families, in which wives left the workplace upon marriage and often had time for, and an interest in, volunteer work.
The West Hartford’s League of Women Voters, established in 1923, has been a vibrant community organization dedicated to building leadership and “a better informed, more intelligent electorate.” The League’s longevity and success is based on several factors. They have specific goals based on civic engagement in a democracy, they build a sense of community within the organization, and provide many different types of activities for members, taking advantage of their strengths and abilities.
Women’s political roles expanded in the 1920s and the League reflected this. At the same time, many women held onto their traditional roles in society and in the organization. The sense of community built by the League played a large role in the League’s success. Through the mid-1920s, many of the League meetings worked around an elegant tea. Attendees dressed in their best clothes including hats and white gloves. At first, luncheons were held in the Masonic Hall, and by the late 1920s, luncheon meetings were held at the West Hartford Country Club (today Buena Vista) and the Hartford Golf Club. The Hospitality Chair was one of the most important women on the Board. These luncheon meetings catered to women who, though they did not work for wages, maintained a concern about the political world. This sense of community, fostered by these luncheons, gave the League staying power.
The activist women realized that socializing did not do enough to educate new voters. League member Charlotte Lundgaard led a drive to register more voters. Only 23% of the West Hartford electorate voted in 1922, and the League took it upon itself to target West Hartford’s 2,200 women voters who had not registered. The League bought 1,100-penny postcards, at a cost of $11 and sent them to eligible voters. On registration day in 1923, they set up a tent in the center of town, provided babysitting, and served coffee. League President Mrs. E.E. Stiles, said that the league would organize a “motor corps” to drive women to the Town Hall to register to vote. The drive netted 940 new voters. The movement was non-partisan and the idea was to “waken the women to their civic responsibilities.”
At the local election in mid-March 1924, West Hartford residents cast twice as many ballots as ever before in West Hartford’s history. Lundgaard entered a contest with The Woman’s Home Companion magazine on behalf of the League and won the $150 prize! The magazine editors knew only 26% of newly enfranchised women had exercised the franchise and they encouraged groups to share their success stories. Lundgaard wrote in her application for the national award that even if not a single voter had been registered, “the labor of that enterprise would have been worth it to ascertain what League “team power” was. Our organization worked as a man that day, with magnificent esprit de corps.” Lundgaard’s definition of success in this case was working like “a man,” despite the fact that all the work was done by women. In this sense, Lundgaard bought into the male idea of success, but did it all with women power.
Once the women were registered to vote, the League offered classes to educate new voters. Members needed to know about state and local issues and chairs of committees took on the task of educating their members. In the 1920s and 1930s, the League sponsored “Citizenship Schools,” which organized speakers to talk about the problems of the day. Both men and women attended these “schools” and the League provided childcare for mothers with young children.
Those who came to the March 1924 meeting heard Mr. Christopher M. Gallup, president of the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce, talk about West Hartford elections. Gallup, an officer at Travelers Insurance Company, and a one time chair of the West Hartford Democratic Party, was one of the first advocates in West Hartford for the Council-Manager system of government and he helped make West Hartford the first in Connecticut to adopt this system in 1919. Gallup and his wife lived on Steele Road, and Mrs. Gallup served as Secretary on the Board of the League. She became involved in the national League and traveled as a delegate to several national conventions in the 1920s.
In 1924, the League sponsored an exhibit entitled “The Fair Tariff.” In June 1925, they spent $1.85 on a Child Labor Study Guide from the national organization. They set up study committees about town government, education, and planning and zoning. These committees provided leadership roles for women who had for so long been kept out of the public sphere.
League members also raised money. In the 1920s and 1930s, the League used rummage sales, bridge parties, tea dances, and yearly dues to raise money. Committees formed to organize each event.
The League served as a training ground for women who got involved in politics. In 1929, Grace (Mrs. William) Honiss, the Vice President of the League ran and won election as the first woman to the Town Council. In that same year, she was elected chair of the board of directors of the West Hartford Library. In 1931, the school board appointed Mrs. Edward Lorenz as its first woman. Louise Duffy was appointed to the school board in 1938. The Board was appointed well into the 1950s. Before entering formal political office, all three women were longtime members of the League.
This wide-ranging, bipartisan organization offered numerous opportunities for women to get involved in the political world. Though many historians see the 1920s as a time of frivolity and flappers, characterized as the “Roaring Twenties,” many women continued to pursue the reforms that had started in the Progressive Era before World War I.
Anne O’Hare McCormick, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, for her work as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, was the inspiration for a pen and ink drawing of a woman with a broom on the front cover of the 1945-6 West Hartford League of Women Voters pamphlet. The League, and McCormick believed that women should find careers and not be intimidated by men. They also believed women would help clean up politics.
In this organization, women educated themselves about political issues, learned from speakers at meetings, and studied national and local political issues. They enjoyed the social activities like tea dances and fancy luncheons at the country club and used them to build support and community. For others, organizing fundraisers gave them a means to develop a sense of worth and a sense of community. For still others, the experience with the League led them into the male dominated world of politics. League women went with a broom in their hands to clean up abuses of power as they saw them, while they tried to broaden the electorate and wholeheartedly support democracy.
Ruth Dadourian: A Stalwart for Justice
Connecticut is often seen as the “land of steady habits,” with a conservative base that did not take to political change very readily. This held true for the Connecticut state legislature’s lack of ability to pass the woman’s suffrage amendment until after it became a federal amendment in 1920. But in other ways, women like West Hartford’s Ruth Dadourian (1892-1983) led the way for rights for women and justice for many others.
Ruth and her husband Haroutune lived much of their adult life in Hartford. In 1950, after Prof. Dadourian retired from Trinity College, they built a house on the Old Mill Pond north of the American School for the Deaf, and moved to 177 North Main Street, West Hartford to live out their retirement years.
Ruth McIntire was born in Italy in the late 1890s, and by time she graduated from Radcliffe in 1912, she was an accomplished linguist knowing Italian, Russian and French. She took part in her first woman’s suffrage demonstration when she was a student at Radcliffe College. There she met her husband, H.H. Dadourian who became a math professor at Trinity College in the late 1910s.
Ruth Dadourian’s first job was as a publicist for the National Child Labor Committee. In 1918, Dadourian wrote a pamphlet for the National Child Labor Commission decrying child labor. She found children as young as five working in the beet fields. Dadourian’s main academic interests were in child welfare and labor, public health education and labor laws.
When she first arrived in Hartford, she didn’t know many people but brought with her a desire to work for justice. While shopping downtown, she discovered the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association headquarters. She walked in and was “greeted with open arms,” a young woman interested in suffrage. She said, before she knew it, she was on the board of the organization.
Dadourian actively participated in the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. When the Connecticut Woman’s Party, led by Katharine Houghton Hepburn, split off from the group in 1917, there was not the same rancor between the two groups as existed on the national level. In fact, Dadourian argued that “the Woman’s Party was really the spearhead and then we (CWSA) could follow through… The more outrageous they were, the better off we were.”
When women won the right to vote, Dadourian knew the battle for women’s rights was not over. She knew that the campaign had not just been to win the vote, but women had to continue to educate both suffragists and their opponents, and make policy makers know women would actually participate in political matters. In 1920, she said, “Even if we wanted to, could we possible escape the responsibility of victory?”
On March 21, 1921, Dadourian appeared at a hearing for House Bill No. 722, providing for the extension of the personal tax to women. Assessing this $2 tax collected each year by each municipality would show that women had “equal franchise rights” with men. If men failed to pay, they were imprisoned. Male legislators seemed to think it would not be the right thing to imprison women so were hesitant to pass the bill. Dadourian, the legislative secretary of the Connecticut League of Women Voters, favored extending the personal tax to women, but suggested exemptions, possibly in the case of mothers, to demonstrate that women were, in fact, equal.
In 1923, Ruth Dadourian was instrumental in starting the West Hartford League of Women Voters. She served as the director of the state league from 1926 and then became its president and lobbyist from 1934 to 1935.
On March 19, 1927, Dadourian wrote a letter to the editor of the Hartford Courant in support of women serving on juries. She argued that hundreds of women from all over the state supported this bill and packed the hearing. The lobbying effort was thorough. Urban and rural women testified from every part of Connecticut. Women who served on juries from surrounding states testified as did judges, lawyers, and prosecuting attorneys. Dadourian wondered if those against the bill believed that Connecticut women were “inferior in intelligence and ability to women in the twenty-one states where they are now serving.”
There were those who believed that the state should hold a referendum to poll women on whether they wanted to serve on juries because the opposition claimed they did not. Dadourian argued “our representatives are elected to use their best judgment in enacting wise legislation for the State.” In 1927, Connecticut had 15 women in the legislature, more than in any other state and women had every other legal right men had.
Dadourian and her husband also weighed in on international affairs. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the United States did not recognize the new revolutionary government. In 1930, she and her husband, a native of Armenia and fluent in Turkish, Armenian, Russian and French took a seven month study tour to Europe. When they returned, the Dadourians advocated for diplomatic and commercial recognition of the Soviet government, which finally came in 1933. They praised the Soviet people for their “enthusiasm and willing sacrifice… in their efforts to attain the Communist ideals.”
Mrs. Dadourian argued that before the war, two-thirds of the Russian population were illiterate. Just 13 years later in 1930, only one-third was illiterate. The government built hospitals and nurseries for women workers. The Dadourians saw that the Russian Soviet people sacrificed greatly for the changes made by the Communist government. The institutional changes that impressed the Dadourians the most were communal apartments with communal kitchens to free thousands of women from kitchen drudgery; parks for children, and a penal system, which the Dadourians believed did not use retribution. One wonders if they felt the effects of the McCarthy questioning 20 years later.
During the New Deal, Ruth was supervisor of the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects of the Works Progress Administration in Connecticut. During Governor Wilbur Cross’s tenure, the Connecticut League of Women Voters presented the state with a memorial tablet commemorating 31 women who according to Dadourian, “built up public opinion which resulted in women winning the franchise.” Isabella Beecher Hooker, a nine-year-old great-granddaughter of Isabella Beecher Hooker unveiled the tablet. You can still find it in the south corridor of the Capitol.
In 1935, Dadourian chaired the Connecticut Committee for Ratification of the Child Labor Amendment. (She must have known Louise Duffy who supported it as well.) Dadourian wanted the National Recovery Administration Codes, which banned child labor in many occupations, and was set to expire in 1935, to continue through a constitutional amendment. This law was never passed.
In 1934, both Ruth and her husband Haroutune appeared in a publication called The Red Network: A “Who’s Who” and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots. In this book she and her husband were listed under a group called “communist recommended authors,” a group officially endorsed by the Soviet Union Review, an organ of the Soviet government in Washington D.C. The pamphlet publicized their leftist leanings, probably based on their glowing reports of the Soviet Union after their travels.
In 1941, Governor Robert Hurley (a West Hartford resident) appointed Dadourian to the Board of Trustees of the University of Connecticut. Just two months later she was appointed field representative to assist the chair of the woman’s divisions of local defense councils and volunteer offices in planning and carrying out their activities. She served as chair of the statewide conference for women in defense.
Bob Stewart, retired Trinity professor of mathematics, remembered Ruth Dadourian after she had a stroke. She invited guests over for dinner. When it was time for dinner, it took Dadourian about ten minutes to make her way from the living room to the dining room, but according to Stewart, everyone in the room knew enough not to ask her if she needed help. She was very strong willed and had few soft edges, remembered Stewart.
But people enjoyed being in her presence. They knew what she stood for and they wanted her on their side.
Louise Day Duffy
If you enter Duffy Elementary School on any morning, you will hear the Duffy “pledge” over the loudspeaker:
As Duffy citizens,
we show respect,
and take responsibility for our learning and our actions.
That is a motto that Louise Day Duffy could embrace. Her matronly portrait that hangs in the hallway of Duffy Elementary School belies the active life she led as an advocate for students, the poor, women, and those without a voice. In 1949 when the Board of Education voted to name an elementary school after Duffy, they showed their support for these moral ideals and her belief in public service.
Louise Day Duffy (1885-1973) joined many politically active women in West Hartford by breaking the mold about what was acceptable for women in the first half of the 20th century. Her leadership in our town is remarkable.
When Louise Day was 11, her parents moved from Avon with their seven children to Raymond Road; her father helped develop Frederick Rockwell’s Boulevard with the median down the middle between Trout Brook and South Main Street. Her father’s contracting business, P.R. Day & Sons included two of Louise’s brothers and they built a number of homes on Raymond Road near Boulevard and on Westland Avenue. Her father served as Justice of the Peace, and as the first chairman of the Business Men’s Association (later the Chamber of Commerce). Louise Day’s father figuratively and literally built community. Later they moved to a house on Outlook Avenue when the area had a 10 hole golf course.
Louise Day graduated as the valedictorian from the West Hartford High School in 1902 in a class of four students, the first entering class at the school. She went on to study at Smith College, graduating in 1906. She taught for one year at Windsor High School until Superintendent William Hall persuaded her to come teach English and Math at her alma mater. She taught and coached there for four years, from 1908 to 1912.
The basketball photo shows a 26 year old Louise Day as the coach of one of the first girls’ basketball teams at the West Hartford High School. Just as today, her athletes had long hair secured to keep it out of their face as they played on the court. Their knickers, stockings and neck ties, variously displayed, showed the individuality of each of the young women who built the team. Though no one in the picture is smiling, they exhibit a sense of determination and pride, and respect for their coach, qualities that Louise Day carried through her life.
Between 1912 and 1915, Louise Day left West Hartford to be secretary to the superintendent of the Horace Mann School in New York. When she came home, Louise married Ward Duffy (1891-1961), the year he graduated from Trinity College. She met him at the West Hartford High School where he was a 1911 graduate. Duffy’s family lived at 208 North Main Street in the John Whitman house. Ward’s father, Frederick (1864-1928) had been a high school teacher in upstate New York, but looked for a place to live where he could farm. He found their house along a section of Trout Brook which was called Whitman Falls. His wife Elizabeth grew up on a 400 acre farm just south of the Canadian border. Duffy “farmed from the book,” and grew a herd of Jersey cattle and sold milk. He ran for office and served on the first Town Council in 1921. He later became editor of the Hartford Times.
Louise and Ward Duffy had five children: two boys and three girls. Louise ran the household and raised her children (born between 1917 and the mid-1920s). She was one of the founders of the Hall High School Parent Teacher Association in 1924 and one of its first presidents.
Duffy got involved in the political world, first in the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Association with Katharine Houghton Hepburn, and then, in 1923, at age 38 she helped found the League of Women Voters in West Hartford. The purpose of the League, was to get women politically involved in voting and running for office.
And run she did! In 1924, she ran as a Democrat for the 5th Senatorial District seat in the General Assembly against Republican Huntington P. Meech, a 46 year old insurance underwriter for Hartford Fire Insurance. Duffy campaigned supporting the Democratic platform which unabashedly appealed to liberal people. She shared the podium at a political rally at Yale in October 1924 with New York’s Governor Alfred Smith and Alabama Governor Brandon.
She wholeheartedly supported the Child Labor Amendment to ban child labor. She also supported shorter hours for women in industry. She supported good education and felt she would be a good representative in the legislature because of her background as a teacher. She said the “supreme question in this election was whether the state government should be run by the people or by one man who dominated everything.”
Duffy did not carry a single town in the district. According to the Hartford Courant, “no doubt many Democrats voted against her on account of her pledge to vote for ratification of the federal Child Labor Amendment if elected.”
While Duffy ran for Senate she served as the chair of the special committee on the Citizenship School of the League. Duffy organized the first school conducted by a local unit in the state. She ran the “school” over the course of three weeks. Duffy spoke on “Two Types of Politicians” and distinguished between machine politicians, who she said worked for their own interest, and the type of politician who served the common good. Duffy, who had a reputation as a liberal with an iron will, had just come off her loss in the 1924 state Senate election.
The first set of lectures was on the machinery of national, state, county, and town government. Professors from Trinity College and Columbia University ran these sessions. The second course focused on World Politics. Lectures included The World Today and America’s Part in It, History of the Peace Movement, Europe and the World Peace Movement, and How Shall We Lessen the Possibility of War?
The second set of lectures addressed political culture in the United States with sessions dedicated to a History of Political Parties in the United States, a Study of Platforms focusing on economic and political theories, honesty in government, education, civil service, conservation, foreign relations, tariff, taxes and finance, agriculture, labor, railroads, and civil liberties.
Even without television and the internet, Duffy’s attendees must have felt well equipped to cast their votes in November. The next spring she ran again, this time for Town Council from the Center District and failed to get the nomination. However, she continued working for the common good through the league, the Parent Teacher Association and then the Board of Education.
In 1932, Duffy went to Chicago as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. She sat in the front row at the convention hall taking in the the first speech ever given at a convention by the nominated presidential candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Connecticut delegation was sharply divided between Al Smith and FDR, and Duffy put her support with FDR. After he was nominated, according to the Hartford Courant, she “was among the members of the Connecticut group who attended an after the business session and met the candidate and Mrs. Roosevelt in their informal reception.” From there, Duffy took on the mantle of the “New Guard” of leaders of the Democratic Party in Connecticut.
She served as vice president of the Connecticut Federation of Democratic Women in 1934 and at the same time served as the Vice President of the Connecticut State League of Women Voters.
Duffy’s statewide service included being chair of the state Child Welfare Association and a member of the Connecticut Public Welfare Council. She used her skills as an advocate for those without a voice. She met with the Prison Association to coordinate juvenile and adult probation services. And her testimony at numerous state legislative hearings can still be read in the Connecticut State Library collection.
In October 1935, Duffy headed a five member State Commission to Study the Pauper Laws. The Commission, named by Governor Wilbur Cross in the middle of the Great Depression, was prompted by the passage in August 1935 of the federal Social Security Act, establishing a federal system of old-age benefits for workers, victims of industrial accidents, the unemployed, dependent mothers and children, the blind and the physically handicapped. Until this act, it had been families and towns who took care of the poor. With the Great Depression, towns were no longer capable of fulfilling that responsibility and people were no longer willing to accept that poverty came with old age.
Here in Connecticut, Duffy continued to be concerned about the stigma attached to monetary help from the government and the term “pauper.” The term had the connotation of being poor, “shiftless, incompetent and derelict,” and as the state and federal government turned to providing old age assistance checks of $30 per month, Duffy and her commission wanted to change that stigma tied to government issued aid. At that time, anyone receiving town aid was named a pauper.
Duffy’s commission found that the history of being a pauper in 1635 included all needy people. Slowly, people were removed from the weight of the pauper designation: in 1650, neglected children, in 1699 the insane, in 1711 the diseased, in 1812 the deaf, and in 1820 the blind were no longer considered paupers. The unemployed on direct relief, those who did not work regularly, and those who were retired were still considered paupers in 1935. Duffy and her Commission were able to remove senior citizens getting an old-age pension from the list.
In West Hartford, the Town Council appointed her to the West Hartford Library Board (1936 to 1938). They appointed Duffy to the school board in 1938 and she served until 1948. She was the first Democrat on the Board in 15 years, and just the second woman. She was quickly named secretary and served through the end of the Great Depression, World War II and the rapid suburbanization that began after the war.
In 1946, as a member of the League of Women Voters and the Board of Education, she helped write a press release urging the Town Council to appoint another woman to the Board of Education. It was not until 1958 that this became an elected Board.
Duffy’s public service exemplifies a woman who used her abilities to improve the lives of others, both as a role model and a spokesperson for people who didn’t have a strong public voice. From her position, she saw government as a force of good in building community and she acted on her beliefs. Those values which include respect and compassion continue to be carried on at the school named after her in 1949.
Women in the General Assembly
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, October 2006
On November 7, 2006, West Hartford voters will have the chance to do something they haven’t done in 22 years: elect a woman to the state legislature. Republican Barbara Carpenter and Democrat Beth Bye are squaring off in the 19th District, guaranteeing that the 19th District will be represented by a woman.
West Hartford has a long history of electing women to public office, but the road to elective office has not always been easy. Most of those elected came through the “training ground” of the League of Women Voters, not through traditional political channels.
The League began as a continuation of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. Louise Duffy helped organize the West Hartford League in September 1923, (two years after the state and national Leagues) just three years after women won the right to vote. The leadership in the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Association and the Connecticut Women’s Party became the leadership in the League.
In 1929, Grace (Mrs. William T.) Honiss, the Vice President of the League was elected as the first woman to the West Hartford Town Council. At that time, candidates ran in each of five districts to gain a West Hartford Town Council seat. Honiss, of Concord Street was a Republican and ran unopposed. She graduated from Wheaton College in 1921, so may have been only about 30 when first elected. She was elected again in 1930 and 1931.
In 1930, a Hartford Courant article proclaimed, “Women Want School Board Memberships.” A group of women circulated a petition to the Town Council, asking for a study to enlarge the Board to make room for women to serve. Until 1958, the Board of Education was appointed by the Town Council. Honiss started the petition among women in the League of Women Voters. The petition had some effect as Honiss was appointed to the Board in 1931 at the same time she served on the Town Council.
In 1931, Mrs. Edward Lorenz, at age 45, was elected to the Town Council. She, like Mrs. Honiss, was also appointed to the School Board. Lorenz lived on West Hill Drive and was involved in the League of Women Voters, the YWCA, the Charity Organization Society, and the Community Chest.
Louise Duffy, as early as 1934, was considered to be one of the “New Guard” leaders of the Democratic Party in the state at the same time as she served as the Vice President of the Connecticut State League of Women Voters. Duffy was an avid Democrat and she was involved on the local, state and national levels. She was the vice president of the Connecticut Federation of Democratic Women’s club. One of her favorite memories was sitting in the front row for Franklin Roosevelt’s speech which included “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” She was the chair of the state Child Welfare Association and a member of the Connecticut Public Welfare Council. She also helped to found the Hall High PTO. Duffy served on the town’s library board from 1936 to 1938. She was appointed to the school board in 1938 and served until 1948. In 1946, as a member of the League and the Board of Education, she helped write a press release urging the Town Council to appoint another woman to the Board of Education. Because of her dedication to the education of children, in 1950, the Board of Education decided to name the next elementary school for her.
Between 1948 and 1974, a number of women won election to the Town Council and the Board of Education. But it took until 1974, for a West Hartford woman to be elected to statewide office.
In 1973, Democrat Joan Kemler began her bid to be the first West Hartford woman elected to the state legislature. Kemler got her start in politics, like the three women before her, in the League of Women Voters. In the early 1970s, Kemler was Vice President of the United Way of Greater Hartford. As a woman, Kemler was shunned by Democratic Party Chair Harry Kleinman and the Democratic Party and was forced to a primary. In the primary, she defeated the party endorsed candidate and a petitioning candidate, both male. Kemler was interested in expanding Project Concern (now Project Choice) busing program and was accused of supporting “reverse busing.” In the campaign, she stated clearly that she did not support reverse busing.
Kemler believed that some people were interested in her candidacy because she was a woman. In the November election, she won 6,800 to 3,500. She was elected five times from the 18th District between 1975 and 1984.
Republican Dorothy Barnes was the second woman elected to statewide office for three terms from 1977 to 1982. She first ran for the 21st Assembly District which included Elmwood and Farmington. She ran against Tom Clark first in 1974 and ran again in 1976. Republican Maureen Baronian served the town in the state legislature for three terms between 1981 and 1986. She was a stockbroker who ran and won in 1980. Republican Anne Streeter served in the state Senate from 1981 to 1986 after serving on the Town Council from 1975 to 1981.
Though neither candidate for the 19th Assembly District in 2006 had their political education in the League of Women Voters, both women will be beneficiaries of the League’s involvement in local elections. When they square off in the League’s debate and answer the Voter Guide Questionnaire, they will become part of the League’s legacy here in town.
A West Hartford Woman’s “Success” at Travelers
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, March 2013
West Hartford’s Eleanor Boyle’s obituary from August 14, 2012 said, “Prior to retiring in 1985, Eleanor was a Purchasing Agent at Travelers Insurance Company for 47 years.” When I read this line, I realized I had interviewed Boyle 27 years earlier in 1989 for a study of working women at Travelers. Her successful career at Travelers from 1938 to 1985 symbolized the role of women in the white collar workplace in the mid- 20th century.
Successful careers for insurance men and women took distinct paths into the 1980s. Though the same success rhetoric was trumpeted to men and women, the company made sure that “success” applied differently to men and women. While successful men became company officers, women rose to become an officer’s private secretary, or a supervisor of women in the steno or typing pool.
In the new white collar workplaces of the 20th century corporation, management developed job ladders which men climbed, not through years of experience, but by merit. Men advanced by being comparatively better than other men. This encouraged the competitive spirit between white-collar workers while blue-collar workers tended to develop a more cooperative spirit.
For a long time, labor historians and employers assumed women did not strive for success or have ambition. Eleanor Boyle belies that assumption. Historians, like the employers, assumed women would be docile and compliant in the workplace. These historians assumed that women resigned themselves to their fates in boring and repetitive jobs with few if any chances for meaningful promotion. Most women expected that they would work only for a few years until they married, and therefore had no reason to be ambitious.
But for women like Boyle, who never married, their work lives broke the mold. Women’s historians have taken a different look and showed that women developed their own work culture to take some control of their workday and developed a woman controlled culture at work. And, at Travelers, women were encouraged to “push for success.”
Boyle entered the workforce a month shy of her 18th birthday in 1938, near the end of the Great Depression. She vividly remembered her first day at work in the stenographic department. She had applied ten times before she finally got the job. Boyle graduated from Stafford Springs High School and because she couldn’t get a job, she moved in with her aunt in Hartford and went to Morse’s Business School. The Depression hadn’t let up, so she went to Morse’s during the summer and then after Labor Day. She said she used to cry when she saw the other kids on the bus going to to work because she didn’t have a job. Finally in the Fall of 1938 she was hired at $14 per week. By that time, the federal government had started taking a Social Security out and her wages didn’t go far.
Boyle worked first as as an ediphone operator where she had “things in her ears all day long.” She took dictation from cylinders. By 1940, she went out and took dictation directly from an officer and then come back to the steno pool and typed it up. She worked in the steno pool for about 4 ½ years. Her supervisors kept track of her production by measuring the amount she typed with a ruler.
Then she got the opportunity to take dictation from Miss Gilbert, an officer in the Group Department steno pool, whose “girl had left.” She was a “nervous wreck” on her try out, but got the job as her secretary. According to Boyle, “all the women in the stenographic were women; there weren’t any men in those days.” She worked for Howard for eight years.
In 1950, she was promoted to an administrative assistant of the steno pool. Finally in 1959, after 21 years at the Travelers, she became the first woman buyer in the Purchasing Department. When she was offered the job, Mr. Smith told her to go home and sleep on it to decide if she wanted it. Boyle asked if this was a better opportunity, and Smith replied “yes.” Boyle said, “I don’t have to go home and sleep on it, I’ll take it.” For Boyle, perseverance, loyalty, and good work paid off in a higher position with the company.
Once she joined the purchasing department, none of the men with the same job helped her. They didn’t want her there. She had two friends who helped her. One was a secretary (with whom she shared an apartment) to the Purchasing Agent and another was the secretary to another officer who took her work and typed the orders to help her. According to Boyle, “the men were trying to defeat me and have me give up. But I was determined that I was going to make it. So I plugged along and it was a very interesting and very challenging job.” She found that the sales people from whom she bought various items also helped her.
In 1966 her big boss promoted her to Assistant Purchasing agent, but they never made her an officer. She said they played this promotion up in the paper as she was the first woman given the opportunity to be a buyer. But still, she did not get cooperation from any of the men in the office. She said “I always had the feeling that I had to work much harder at it than they (the men) did because they were watching all the time… hoping I’d stub my toe, but I guess they eventually respected me.”
Near her retirement in the early 1980s, she compared her salary with a young male co-worker who had been at the company for only a few years. She found that after more than 45 years at the Travelers, she made only $1,000 more per year than he did. She was never made a company officer.
Finally, by the mid-1980s, when Boyle was ready to retire, she found that they were starting to promote women. Even in the mid-1980s, she said, there was still a feeling that they weren’t going to push a woman. Or they would have “little pets” who they would promote, but there was not a program to promote women. Finally, they gradually began to bring “girls” into jobs. In the end, Boyle said she “had a very happy time in the Travelers.” But she still resented that “of all I gave to the company, they didn’t make me an officer.”
While opportunities for young women began to open up, and Boyle could say that for women “times have changed,” she was stuck with a set of lower expectations for women that kept her from reaching her potential or getting the pay and benefits that she could have earned had she been a man.
Remembering Beach Park School
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, September 2000
West Hartford has long prided itself on its excellent school system. Even before it came out from under the shadow of Hartford’s nationally recognized schools, West Hartford believed it was on the leading edge of educational philosophy and innovation. Whereas excellence today is measured by standardized national and state tests, in the first half of the 20th century, some educators measured success differently.
In 1949, West Hartford Superintendent Lloyd Bugbee ran a school system which claimed to set trends around the country. He wrote:
The things which we prize most, cannot be pictured, viz. the kind voices, the happy, eager faces, the glad exclamations, the joy of accomplished tasks, the pride in work well done, the growing children, and the general hum of happy industry. More and more do we need to seek the teacher who considers these to be of equal importance to the accumulation of facts — the teacher who desires to make each individual child in her classroom a more complete, wholesome and happy personality.
Bugbee believed that the education provided at the Beach Park School, built on Steele Road and opened in February 1926 embodied this philosophy.
As West Hartford’s population grew at the turn of the century from 3,100 in 1900 to 8,800 in 1920, the town had to adjust the way it educated its children. Superintendent William H. Hall consolidated the system of one-room district schools spread throughout the town in the early part of the century. These one-room schoolhouses had desks nailed to the floor and teachers who taught mainly by rote. The town began to invest in larger elementary schools, building Charter Oak School, in 1884 for grades K through 8 and the Center School (later Whitman School, the Hall High School Annex, and the Police Station) in 1896 as an elementary school. The Seymour School (later Smith School) opened in 1915.
But it was the Beach Park School that helped put West Hartford on the educational map. With five acres of land donated by T. Belknap Beach (grandson of the founder of Travelers Insurance Co.) in 1925, the Beach Park School was the first in West Hartford to be built in a park-like setting. Beach wrote in the deed that no trees could be cut except for park purposes. The architect designed a building that was more like a home than an institution. The colonial structure and color scheme for the three-classroom building, finished in 1926, were a departure for school buildings.
The Kindergarten Room exemplified this new educational philosophy. By the 1920s, educators realized the importance of education before students could grasp the “3 R’s.” The Kindergarten room resembled a large beautiful living room. It had an open fireplace at one end of the room, a four-foot basin with live goldfish, a piano, a slide, doll furniture, children’s rockers, and a sand table. Instead of bolting furniture to the floor, teachers could move the new furniture to adjust the classroom to the children’s daily needs. Educator John Dewey’s Progressive education ideas found a home in West Hartford.
According to Bugbee, a school should have a “happy atmosphere and freedom which the preschool child enjoys at home. It is a place where children may live together working, playing and learning as they might do in a happy family.” The building enhanced the teachers’ abilities to reach these goals.
The curriculum in the Kindergarten and the two primary classrooms, combining Grades One and Two, and the other, Grades Three and Four, began with the child’s interest and experiences. The teachers at Beach Park believed students learned by doing. They believed that once children had lived through an actual experience, it became the pupils’ own with a much fuller meaning than reading from a book. Thus, students took excursions and wrote and performed plays that gave them skills to meet a changing world.
West Hartford’s practice of establishing a “model school” began with Beach Park. In 1927, the Fern Street School and in 1928 the Elmwood School both opened, patterned after the Beach Park School. Educators based both on the progressive education model, built in park-like settings, with movable furniture.
Beach Park’s three-room schoolhouse was soon bursting at its seams. West Hartford’s population grew from about 8,800 in 1920 to about 25,000 in 1930 to 44,000 in 1950. When the Hartford Golf Club sold some of its land, now known as Golf Acres, for development, enrollment grew even more. In 1929 the school added four classrooms giving the school one classroom per grade. In 1947, after a legal battle, the town took down trees to build a ball field. In 1949, administrators added an auditorium/playroom, a small kitchen, and a teachers’ room. The last remodeling as a public school came in 1961 adding an enlarged office and a conference room.
By the 1960s, Beach Park had become something of an anomaly in town. With 13 other elementary schools, all at least twice as large, Beach Park became, according to a 1972 West Hartford News editorial, something of a “private country day school serving wealthy and socially prominent families in the northeast quadrant of town.” It was the only elementary school in town without a cafeteria. Students still walked home for lunch. Parent volunteers staffed the library. The public school closed in 1972, the victim of a restrictive deed, the beginning of declining school enrollment in West Hartford, and a desire for socio-economic integration in the elementary schools.
In 1999, the Beach Park School reopened as Saint Joseph College School for Young Children. Much of the philosophy of the public school, embodied in both educational values and architecture, has been retained at the pre-school. The homelike atmosphere, the use of the outdoor woods as classroom, and the idea that education is based on actual real life situations are all part of the early childhood education center.
The practice of model schools continues with West Hartford’s magnet schools, which have included Smith, Charter Oak and Norfeldt. School administrators give teachers in these schools the freedom to try innovative educational techniques in the hopes that they will become an integral part of the curriculum of the other schools. Town-wide math and science curriculum and foreign language instruction in 4th and 5th grades are a result of the innovations in these magnet schools. The School for Young Children in the restored Beach Park School is one of two Model Lab Schools in Connecticut. Visitors from all over visit the school just as they had visited the Beach Park School over a half a century ago.
In 1949, Superintendent Lloyd Bugbee argued:
If knowledge is to be loved for its own sake that which is now abstract and remote would be wedded in some way to practical life… We believe that the system at the Beach Park School is calculated to foster the child’s curiosity, to make the desire for knowledge a chronic and habitual one and to familiarize each child with the best methods of acquiring it by his own efforts.
Bugbee’s educational philosophy, articulated in relationship to the Beach Park School, continues to make West Hartford’s school system excellent today.
“Harmony, Cooperation and West Hartford First”
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, January 2008
A recent trip to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s library and home in Hyde Park, New York sparked a new interest in West Hartford during the Great Depression. It reminded me of asking my grandmother about the Depression when I was a young teacher. My grandfather had lost all his money in the 1929 stock market crash and my grandparents had gone from having two houses (one in Bronxville and one in Litchfield) and eight servants, to one house in Litchfield and one Irish servant named Bridie who worked for room and board. I still remember Grandma’s reply to my question about how the Depression affected her. “It brought the family together.” She remembered, in what historians argue is memory, not history.
In West Hartford, memories would definitely differ over the impact of the Depression. Welfare cases went up from 29 in 1929 to over 500 in 1934. Police officers and teachers took a 10% pay cut. But statistics that show growth in the town provide a more complicated picture than the grim national statistics and provide a view into a community that both suffered and thrived in the 1930s.
Geer’s City Directory for 1930 and 1934, found both in the Town Hall and the Noah Webster Public Library provide a statistical view into a town on the move in the 1930s. The information represents ways citizens and government adjusted to an economic downturn in which 1/3 of the workforce was out of work by 1934. The West Hartford pages start with the quote, “Harmony, Cooperation and West Hartford First.” Each volume provided current statistics and the town’s history.
Table 1: West Hartford Population and Services
|Year||Population||Native born||Bonded debt||Library volumes||Telephones||Churches|
This first table shows the population growing by 7.5% in just four years. The number of telephones increased by almost 40%. This phone increase is partially due to families adding phones in their household, but may also show the ubiquity of phones by the mid-1930s. During times of depression, use of the library increased. This must have included an increase in the use of tax dollars for the more than doubling of the number of volumes in the library. Even those without money could enjoy reading during the Depression.
Table 2: West Hartford Property and Financials
|Year||Assessed valuation||Mill rate||Bank deposits||Real estate transfers||Building permits||Value of permits|
Table 2 demonstrates a distinct economic downturn. The Grand List declined by almost 9% and the mill rate declined 20%. Clearly revenues for town government were down. West Hartford Bank and Trust, which opened in 1926, lost 12% of its assets in the economic downturn. Like other banks, it had to close because of FDR’s Bank Holiday, directed in March of 1933. But it reopened and most investors kept their money there. Sales of homes dropped by 43%. The value of permits to build housing declined by 80%. FDR’s New Deal stepped into the building vacuum by establishing the Public Works Administration, which sponsored the building of both the Town Hall and the Noah Webster Library in 1935.
Table 3: West Hartford Public Schools
|Year||Public School Pupils||Teachers||Pupils per Teacher|
The rapid growth in West Hartford’s population from 1920 to 1930 led to the construction of six new school buildings: Beach Park (1926), Morley (1927), Elmwood (1928), Talcott Junior High (1922), Plant Junior High (1922), and Hall High School (1924). But who would guess that in the first four years of the Depression, when the Grand List and the mill rate declined, that the school population would increase by 27 percent? And yet, the number of teachers grew by only 5 percent. Student teacher ratios almost doubled in just four years. The increase must have challenged the teachers and administration; at the same time, teaching is seen as a “depression-proof” employment in that the number of students attending schools tends to increase during economic downturns.
Table 4: West Hartford Private Schools
|Year||Private Schools||Pupils||Pupils per teacher|
|Mt. St. Joseph Seminary for Girls||181||9|
|Kingswood School for Boys||160||11|
|American School for the Deaf||212||7|
|Mt. St. Joseph Seminary for Girls||105||6|
|Mt. St. Joseph College||95||5|
|Kingswood School for Boys||150||11|
|American School for the Deaf||230||8|
|Oxford School for Girls||205||5|
|Fernwood School for Boys||25||8|
|Laidlaw Boarding and Day School||15||15|
At the same time as the public schools student teacher ratio almost doubled, the private schools in town expanded and kept two to five times as many teachers per pupil as the public schools. Though times were hard, increasingly, West Hartford residents sent their children to private schools, both parochial and independent, with an increase of 53% over four years. When times were hard, parents chose small class sizes for their children. West Hartford’s first post-secondary school arrived in 1932 with the opening of Mt. St. Joseph College, a junior college that began with 63 students. By 1933, the college became a four-year school, established primarily to train teachers. It wasn’t until 1936 that the college moved to its present location on Asylum and Steele and was renamed St. Joseph College.
To survive the Depression, West Hartford’s government and business communities certainly yearned for “harmony, [and] cooperation…” to make “West Hartford first.” By analyzing the statistics of the era, the challenging times display contradictory evidence about standards of living dependent on economic status and age. West Hartford’s experiences in the early years of the Depression remind me how my grandmother’s memory could paint over the real difficulties people faced.
Studying African-American Migration to the Suburbs
Originally appeared with co-author Katie Campbell in West Hartford Life, September 2010
A few months ago, this column was about the discovery of restrictive covenants in West Hartford in the 1940s. Developers restricted where African-Americans could live in town and that clearly affected settlement patterns in the quickly growing suburb. But what were the patterns before the suburban developments?
We do know that African-Americans were enslaved in West Hartford during the time of the American Revolution and we know that some, like Bristow, bought their freedom and lived in their own households.
It is not clear how autonomous African-Americans were through the 19th century and into the 20th century, but by 1930, it is clear that three quarters of West Hartford’s African-Americans lived as servants in white people’s homes. They lived in nine of 15 census districts, with the largest number in the Northeast section of town, in the Hartford Golf Club area.
As an historical source, the 1930 Census is rich. It reveals street addresses, home ownership, gender, race, place of birth, parents’ place of birth and occupation. While the census is but a list of information, it provides data on people who may not leave other records and provides a more complex picture of the emerging suburb.
The patterns of African-American settlement in Hartford in the early 20th century have been studied by sociologist Kurt Schlichting, of Fairfield University, and his colleagues in his 2006 article “Residential Segregation and the Beginning of the Great Migration of African-Americans to Hartford, Connecticut: a GIS-Based Analysis.” Schlichting and others explore the movement of African-Americans to Hartford in the first 20 years of the 20th century. His study showed a large increase in the African-American population in Hartford.
“In 1900, over 80% of the total African-American population of the country lived in the southern states of the former Confederacy. During that decade from 1910 to 1920, about half a million migrants made the journey north,” he said.
By 1920, African-Americans made up 3.1% of Hartford’s population and by 1930 it was up to 4%. Their level of independence depended on the jobs they could get.
By 1930, some African-Americans moved to the suburbs. West Hartford’s population grew to about 25,000 by 1930. But only 129 African-Americans were recorded in the 1930 census pages, making up 0.5% of the town’s total residents. Of these 129 people, only 30, or about a quarter, lived in a household they headed themselves.
One example of an African-American headed household was the Robinson family, who owned their home at 1070 Farmington Avenue, across from Riggs Avenue. The house was valued at $30,000. The head of household, Burrest, was 58 years old and had been married to Elizabeth for 22 years. He was born in Connecticut and his parents were born in Virginia and Massachusetts. He was a steamfitter and his wife was not employed. Burrest’s brother James was widowed and lived with the Robinsons. He was a gardener who helped to maintain the household. Economically, the Robinsons were independent.
The Backer family, who were white, lived on Arundel Avenue, not far from the Robinson’s Farmington Avenue home. Lloyd Backer, a 39-year-old, married Nettiebelle who was 33. He was an assistant general agent with an insurance company. The Backers had four children ages six months to eight years old. The wife Nettiebelle, who was not employed, was born in Mississippi and her parents were born in the South as well. They hired Mary McMiller, a 24-year-old “Negro servant,” to care for their family. Mary was not married. She was born in Georgia, but had probably moved north with the great migration of African-Americans during the World War I decade.
We can’t know what the dynamic was within the household, with the southern mistress. We can only guess about whether Mary ever interacted with the Robinsons, even though they lived about five blocks from each other.
We can imagine that Mary was busy.
On Mountain Road, an African-American family, the Plummers, and a white family, the Dewings, were considered part of the same household. Alexander and Gladys Plummer had been married for three years and in 1930 were listed as butler and cook, probably for the Dewing family. The Dewings, Harold (born in North Carolina) and Marjorie (born in New York), were both 46 years old and had been married for 21 years. Their house was worth $50,000.
Dewing was a real estate official. They had three teenage children in the household. It seems likely that the Plummers lived in a rear apartment or an out-building on the Dewing property and took care of the Dewing family.
Bloomfield’s demographic snapshot was quite different. That town’s population in 1930 had only reached 3,247, only one-eighth the size of West Hartford. The non-white residents recorded in the census numbers 121, almost as many as in West Hartford, and they made up a larger percentage of the town’s population at 4%. The east side of Bloomfield was nearly 5% nonwhite.
Unlike in West Hartford, there were no non-white servants in Bloomfield. In fact, 99% of non-whites in Bloomfield lived in a household that was headed by a non-white.
The majority of African-Americans living in West Hartford had varying degrees of autonomy. It is curious that both of the white families who had live-in servants had an adult born in the South.
Historians await the release of the manuscript census from 1940 in 2012 to see if these servant relations persisted and if there was an increase in economically independent African-American households. But from the patterns established in Bloomfield, it seems more likely that those African-Americans with means would choose Hartford’s northern rather than its western neighbor.
Note: Katie Campbell is a senior at Trinity College working on the “On the Line” project with Prof. Jack Dougherty. She completed the 1930 census research and provided basic outlines of this article. Read more at http://ontheline.trincoll.edu.
Helen Van Dyck Brown and the Oxford School
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, August 2003. Sources for this article include the interview by Mims Butterworth, The Kingswood-Oxford Magazine Spring and Winter 2002, and Oxford Remembers.
In a democracy based on merit, education is often viewed as the path to a successful life. Most people who consider education in this way speak about public schools. In West Hartford, realtors would tell you that many people move to town for the public education system.
But, every year about 10% of the secondary school students in town attend private schools. West Hartford has several private and parochial schools and the Oxford School, which was founded in 1909 and merged with Kingswood in 1972, is one of them.
Mims Butterworth’s interview with Helen van Dyck Brown in 1997 illuminates the value of a private school education. Brown taught science at Oxford from 1931 to 1970, and lived in West Hartford in the Sunny Reach neighborhood, just north of the University of Hartford off Bloomfield Avenue, starting in 1940. Her personality, her intellect and, some might argue, her antics made for a memorable teacher and a memorable education for her students. Van Dyck Brown graduated from Barnard College in 1927 with a major in Biology and a minor in the Fine Arts. When she went to Oxford, she taught both Biology and Art.
Oxford was first established as a “country day school.” In the early 20th century, there were private boarding schools, but the philosophy of the day school was that teachers and parents had to work together to shape the bodies, minds and character of young people in a setting away from the hazards of the city in a wholesome school environment. When the school was founded, Hartford had over 100,000 people, while West Hartford had only about 4,800 residents and was still more of a farm town than a suburb.
What makes a private school worth paying for? For some it is the low teacher to student ratio and the high level of involvement of the faculty members in the school community. It is the sense of belonging that is built around a common moral and educational purpose, shared ideals, and the sense of empowerment and control that comes with a small, private community.
The Oxford community was just such a place; teachers pulled on their strengths and interests to foster lifelong learning. Before van Dyck arrived at Oxford, it enrolled students from Kindergarten through the 12th grade. In 1924 for instance, Oxford had an enrollment of 103 students, 81 girls in the junior school and 22 girls in the high school.
By 1931, enrollment had grown to over 250 despite the Depression. Between 15 and 20 girls graduated each year from Oxford in the 1930s. Until the 1930s, most girls attended Oxford and then went on to boarding school and “finished” there. Often only four or five students graduated from the school in the 1920s. But, starting in 1936, the school discontinued the primary grades and focused more on being a college preparatory school.
For van Dyck Brown, after she married in 1933 and had her own two children, she sent them to Oxford’s Junior School. In the 7th grade, she sent them to Hartford’s Noah Webster Elementary School. She said that in the early 1940s, “We didn’t think much of the West Hartford School system, so we sent them to Noah Webster.” She thought the Hartford Public Schools could provide “a rough and tumble type of schooling to make it in the world.” Her sons went there for two years until they could go to Loomis.
When van Dyck arrived at Oxford, the curriculum depended, to a great degree on the background of the teachers. The philosophy was to expose students to a breadth of academic subjects and the arts. Girls took American History, English, French, Latin, mathematics, geography, penmanship, spelling, physical education, cooking and sewing classes, gym, singing, and piano. Each day began with a non-denominational Protestant chapel service. By the 1940s, service became a top priority and students got involved in community service projects as a regular part of the school experience. Promoting democracy and individual responsibility were official visions of the school. The administration and teachers wanted to educate the heart, the body, and the mind.
Van Dyck remembered lunch time when teachers and students were served a hot dinner. The faculty and students ate together and the faculty was to remind students of their table manners in their continuous effort to educate the whole child.
In good weather, the students walked from Highland Street up Fern Street past the hill where Mt. St. Joseph Academy stood (Vanderbilt or now West Hill) until the paving ended at Quaker Lane. Dancing, basketball, track and field, soccer, and gymnastics were some of the physical activities provided for the young women.
When she first arrived, during the Depression, she did not have a full schedule and she was asked to teach manuscript writing. This was a new movement, to teach what we would call “printing” today, instead of script. Van Dyck read up on it and taught it. She gave a lecture on it to parents and this is how she met her husband, Wallace Brown. He was a doctor in Hartford, and had a daughter attending the school. She was only one of two married women teachers at Oxford in the 1930s.
Faculty members realized their fortunes were tied up with the school as well, and when van Dyck first arrived at Oxford, she and other faculty members agreed to take a 20% pay cut.
Van Dyck was famous for her science course. She turned the “Nature Study” program at the Oxford School into a Science Department in the 1930s. Van Dyck hired a chemistry teacher and taught a General Science course to give the school a Science Department. That was in 1933. Van Dyck Brown’s reputation was to bring the real world into her classroom, teaching ecology early on, and getting the students involved in labs.
Van Dyck Brown was also famous for adding a course in basic auto repair. She taught the girls about engine parts and how to do basic maintenance repairs. One student claimed this was the most valuable course she ever took.
In a tribute of “Van” written by colleague Muriel Forbes, she describes her room as the Porch Room which looked out on Prospect Avenue and had quotations on the blackboard, not necessarily about Biology, but about life. She challenged the students to think about the relevance of what they were studying to their lives outside the classroom. This practice fit well with the model of educating the whole student.
In early June 2003, the Kingswood-Oxford Middle School at 695 Prospect Avenue saw its last private school students. Many of the buildings will soon be torn down, though the original mansion, bought by Oxford in 1924, will remain and the town of West Hartford will build a magnet middle school incorporating this building. The spirit of a love for learning, building a sense of community, and educating head, heart and body will continue at 695 Prospect Avenue, but this time as a public school.
Universalists Celebrate 75 Years in Town
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, July 2006
The Universalist Church of West Hartford (originally known as the Church of the Redeemer) moved out of Hartford 75 years ago, following the pattern of St. John’s Episcopal Church which moved out of the city in 1907. St. Brigid Roman Catholic Church was established in Elmwood in 1918 as a mission church of St. Lawrence O’Toole in Hartford, and presaged the move of Congregation Beth Israel in 1936. The movement of these houses of worship fueled and reflected the movement of people to West Hartford and increased the religious diversity of the town.
West Hartford’s only church until 1855 was the Congregational Church in the center of town. St. James Episcopal (1855) on South Main Street where Friendly’s is today, and the Baptist Church (1859) on the site of the Farmington Savings Bank in the center were followed by the Elmwood Chapel (1876). St. John’s and St. Brigid brought the number of churches in town to five.
In 1920 the Swedish Methodist Church on the Boulevard was built and the next year a Swedish Lutheran Church opened on Park Road near Oakwood Avenue, reflecting the large number of Swedes who moved here in the first two decades of the 20th century.
In 1926, St. Thomas the Apostle moved to Farmington Avenue, just east of Trout Brook and then in 1931, the Church of the Redeemer (the Universalist Church) opened on Fern Street. It was the first church built in town north of Farmington Avenue, and it was built on open land. In 1936, a third house of worship, Congregation Beth Israel, moved out of Hartford to Farmington Avenue following the suburbanization trend of the Episcopal and Universalist churches, bringing the total number of houses of worship to ten.
West Hartford was well on its way to being a suburb when the Universalist Church opened at the beginning of the Great Depression. The population grew from about 9,000 to about 25,000 in the previous decade. Between 1922 and 1931, the town built eight schools including three junior high schools and a high school. The only two built north of Farmington Avenue were the Beach Park School on Steele Road and Morley School on Fern Street, showing that development in the north and west ends of town was only beginning.
The Universalist Church of West Hartford opened its doors to the townspeople on Monday, April 5, 1931. According to the Hartford Courant, “throngs of people visited the buildings of the new Church of the Redeemer, on Fern Street, West Hartford.” In 2006, the church celebrated its 75th year in West Hartford; its tradition of being a free liberal faith continues.
When the church was built on Fern Street, there was only one other house, built in 1930, on the stretch of Fern Street between Trout Brook and Main Street. Plots had been laid out in the neighborhood just to the north, with a number of houses on Linwold Street built between 1928 and 1931.
About this time, the town had begun to feel the effects of the Great Depression and Town Manager Benjamin Miller developed public works jobs for unemployed men in town, working in the town parks, helping to dig sewers and work on the roads. The welfare rolls increased, and Miller felt it was necessary for the government to intervene to stop the downward cycle. He would have embraced the building of the Church of the Redeemer at 433 Fern Street for it provided jobs for masons, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers and carpenters.
The Church of the Redeemer’s journey to Fern Street began back in 1821, when Boston’s Hosea Ballou preached in Hartford, proclaiming that there was no punishment for sins after death. He preached that love, not sin, was the most powerful force in religion. He believed that atonement, or as he called it, reconciliation, not damnation, was at the core of a person’s relationship with God. He preached about the holiness and happiness of all people; he believed that the spirit of the gospel of the Son of God was to love your enemies, and render good for evil.
Ballou’s beliefs were radical in the early 19th century, especially when the ideas of the Second Great Awakening swept the eastern seaboard as evangelicals tried to fend off the spread of religious rationalism. According to these religious revivalists, converts had to submit totally to a vengeful and all powerful God. Those who were “born again” believed that a life of good works on earth could earn grace in the eyes of God at death. The Universalists reacted to the evangelical belief that there was judgment at death. For Universalists, God was a God of love who did not judge. They were laughed at and ridiculed for this belief. When Ballou first started preaching, there were about 18 Universalists ministers in the whole country, and by the time he was buried in 1852, there were over 800,000 Universalists. In 2006, there are over 1,000 congregations in the United States.
Ballou’s message hit fertile ground in Hartford and disgruntled Congregationalists formed the “First Independent Universalist Society of the City of Hartford” and by 1824, built their first meeting house on Central Row across from the Old State House. By 1860, this building was too small and the church moved to the location of the present day Travelers Tower. In 1906, the church moved west to Asylum Hill. There was a time in the 20th century when it was thought the Universalists would merge with the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, but it kept its own identity. Each of the first three sites was prime real estate and each sale paid the expense of building the next church.
In November 1929, just a week after the stock market crashed, the church voted to erect a new building in West Hartford. They gathered $13,000 within the next eight weeks to buy the plot of land, and with the uncertainty of the economy, their hope, and their faith, they went ahead with their plan. Walter Crabtree, a Hartford architect designed this colonial revival church as well as many houses in West Hartford in the 1930s. The congregation laid the cornerstone in 1930, and the building was finished in the early spring 1931 at a cost of $185,000. Richard McLaughlin was the first minister in West Hartford.
The congregation continued to grow at the Church of the Redeemer. In 1961, the Unitarians and Universalists merged to become the Unitarian Universalist Association. In 1962, the name of the West Hartford Church changed to The Universalist Church of West Hartford, and an addition was built which included classrooms and a multi-purpose hall. The membership of the church peaked in the late 60s and early 70s, just as the population of West Hartford topped out at about 73,000. The church is growing again, signaled by the reinstatement of two services on Sunday in 2001, with the vigorous leadership of Rev. Jan K. Nielsen, providing a home for religious liberals from around the region. Today the Universalist Church of West Hartford is one of the twenty largest UUA congregations in the country.
The town of West Hartford matured as a suburb in the last 75 years. The area around the Universalist Church is completely developed. West Hartford offers almost 40 different houses of worship, which is four times more than the ten offered 75 years ago. The wide variety of religious choices is a unique strength of the town.
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, July 2003
In 1997, the Noah Webster House began an oral history project and collected ten interviews with long time residents. Atwood Collins (1917-2004) was one of those interviews. His story helps to develop the texture of life in the growing suburban town for a successful young lawyer.
When Atwood Collins’ mother gave birth to him in 1917, she was at home on 35 North Quaker Lane. Their home was surrounded by a dairy farm owned by the Griswold family, and as he looked toward Fern and Asylum, he saw farmland, not houses. In the 1920s in West Hartford, daily life would have been a lot different than it is today. The population stood at about 9,000, the trolley had been running through town for almost 30 years, and cars were starting to be used for commuting, not just leisure time drives.
Collins’ childhood reflects more the life of a rural town than a suburb. Collins remembered sledding from Mt. St. Joseph Academy, which the Sisters of Mercy opened in 1908, on West Hill to the pond at the base of the hill. At the corner of Frederick Street, on land still owned by Mt. St. Joseph, Collins remembered a baseball diamond.
The horses from Troop B, what we now know as the Governor’s Foot Guard, were housed at the armory on Farmington Avenue, in smelling distance of his house.
In kindergarten and first grade, Collins attended the East School on the corner of Farmington Avenue and Whiting Lane. From second grade to sixth, he went to the Fern Street School on the corner of Bretton Road and Fern Street. Morley School opened in the late 1920s at the end of his time there. Then he went to Kingswood, which moved from the Mark Twain House in 1922 to its present location. In his day, in the late 20s and early 30s, Collins related, Kingswood Masters wore mortar boards during the day and they wore black gowns to class. Only seniors could walk on the green around which the four classroom buildings stood.
Where Wood Pond is today, Collins remembered the Trout Brook Ice and Feed Company’s ice storage building. Korszak Ziolkowski, the man who carved the Noah Webster Statue in 1941, lived near there. He remembers the iceman coming every week to his house with ice tongs and a block of ice over his back. He remembered an Italian man who drove a vegetable truck through their neighborhood as well.
M.J. Burnhams, the grocery story in the center was where everyone shopped (until it closed in 1958), according to Collins. From Quaker Lane, his family would have gone west on Farmington Avenue, which, until the late 1920s was not paved between Trout Brook and Main Street. Steps lined the front of the store. Burnham had, according to Collins, a “tremendous following; everybody loved him.” Everyone who shopped there had credit and they paid for their groceries per month. According to Collins, “MJ Burnham was a real institution.”
Collins graduated from Yale College and then Yale Law School in 1942. Right out of law school, at age 24, Collins was appointed State Department Vice-Consul in Punta Renas, Costa Rica. He first went to the School of Economic Warfare, US State Department in Washington D.C. to get trained on economic warfare where he “learned how to put Germans and Italians out of business in all of Latin America.”
The State Department had a blacklist. When he got to his town in Costa Rica, he must have been shocked to find Germans in the street goose-stepping. The Germans and the Italians sank two boats in the harbor to make trade difficult. Part of Collins’ work was to document Argentina’s Juan Peron’s complicity with the Germans during the war. This helps explain why so many former Nazis escaped to Argentina after the war.
He did this work for two years, and then served in the Army from 1944 to 1946, participating in the Occupation. In 1945, as the Political and Liaison Officer to the U.S. Delegation, he attended the San Francisco Peace Conference. He was at the first meeting of the United Nations as a specialist in Latin American affairs representing the State Department. When the war ended, President Truman sent him to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials where he interrogated Von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany, 1938-1945. Von Ribbentrop was convicted of helping to start World War II and engineering the Holocaust. In October 1946, he was the first of those sentenced to be hanged.
Collins’ keen recollection of these events revealed just how important they were to the development of his world view.
When Collins’ turned back to civilian life and professional life in 1946, Day, Berry & Howard, hired him as a lawyer at $25 per week. There were 12 men on the stationery at that time. Mr. Conning of Conning and Co. lived next door to Collins and advised him to invest in Connecticut General stock. He did, and that, according to Collins, is what allowed him to live.
Collins raised his family in Sunset Farms and became a member of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford. He gave back to the community through his work as a founder of University of Hartford, President of the Board of the Mark Twain House, the board of the American School for the Deaf, and he served on the West Hartford Town Plan and Zoning Commission.
Collins’ oral history, which can be listened to at the Noah Webster House, is a reminder that our memories of growing up are an important part of a larger enterprise. Matched with other primary sources, these memories can help us to understand the events and values of life at other points in time. His experiences in the military and at the Nuremberg Trials helped him to understand the importance of a participatory democracy which he helped to build here in this growing suburb.
Democracy and the Town Hall
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, November 2001
Democracy is a messy system. Decisions can take years to make because democracy provides ways for every manner of people to express their opinion and it often ends up dividing a community. Sometimes democracy is infuriating: representatives hesitate and compromise too soon, elected leaders often face unjust criticism, and it is often difficult to question the majority. But this messy process, occurring over and over again, and what it symbolizes helps define our democratic tradition.
West Hartford’s Town Hall history is fraught with democratic hesitation and expressions of opinions. Not only did West Hartfordites fight about building new Town Halls, they spent much time arguing about what to do with the old ones. Between 1934 and 1957, the local leadership and the citizens joined together to build the new town hall and then squabbled for 20 years about what to do with the old building. West Hartford was a solidly Republican town from its independence in 1854 until the 1970s. Even so, political tension existed, and Republicans were not afraid to take advantage of help from the Democratic federal government in the 1930s to build.
Studies of the need for a new Town Hall came as early as February 1934, from three civic groups – the Chamber of Commerce, the Civitan Club, and the Exchange Club. They wrote a letter to the Town Council providing reasons for a new municipal building after a prolonged and careful study of the town’s need. The Council drafted plans for a “civic center” in the ensuing year, but chose to act on the town hall when they saw the possibility of some federal money to help pay for the building.
By June 1935, in the heart of the Great Depression, West Hartford town officials clamored for a new Town Hall. Max Goldenthal, President (no Mayor until the 1950s) of the Town Council appointed a committee of three men to study allowing West Hartford to take advantage of money provided under a new grant plan of the Projects Works Administration (PWA). The town thought they could get 45% of the building costs paid by the federal government.
Many Republican towns refused to accept money from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, disagreeing with his premise that it was the role of the federal government to help out at the local level. In fact, once the building plan had been presented in October, Mr. Ludlow, the president of the town’s taxpayers’ association said “We are lending approval to the scheme of the New Deal. How can we Republicans accept this grant this year and then next year oppose the administration?”
But Ludlow’s ideas were in the minority and the town went ahead with plans for the new town hall. Chosen to present the project to the town was Councilmen D. Hayes Murphy, President of Wiremold, and Dennis Ahern, a local builder.
At the well-attended public hearing, Louis N. Denniston, representing the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce, gave a brief history of the present town hall, which was the remade third building of the First Congregational Church, situated on the northwest corner of Farmington and North Main and presently the site of of our peace memorial. Controversy had raged over the inadequacy and safety hazards in the building for years. Denniston argued that the present building was unsafe. West Hartford, he argued, was one of the wealthiest communities in the country for its size. He believed it should have “a building in harmony with its position.”
By October 23, 1935, the Town Council approved building the new Town Hall and hired architects to draw a plan. The federal government wanted things to move quickly and the Council agreed that there wasn’t time to have competitive bids between architects. On October 29, the Council voted to accept the $141,300 grant from the PWA. Total cost of the project was about $314,000, which included $100,000 for buying the land from the First Congregational Church that lay just south of the church. The plan had to be in place by December.
Only six months elapsed from the idea to breaking ground on December 10. The federal government, to help get more men back to work during the Depression, pushed this speedy timetable. When the building opened 13 months later, the federal reports showed that the project had employed a total of 635 men. A daily average of 185 men from the building trades and allied industries were employed for about eight months. At least 460 men gained employment off-site to provide materials for the building. The federal government funded 40% of the cost of five town halls in Connecticut by 1937 for a total of $1,000,000.
The building process went smoothly, but the plans hit a temporary snag when, in October, a group of townspeople protested the felling of ten old maples in front of the almost-completed South Main Street building. The street, town officials said, had to be widened. David J. Raynsford, a 90 year old resident, said “Folks out here do about as they like,” as he protested taking the trees down. He said, “Those trees are over a hundred – it took a lot of time for them to grow. And now they’re turning them into cord-wood. It isn’t right.” Though these protesters may have supported the building, they balked at what they saw as destroying the environment.
Mrs. Roy D. Bassette, secretary of the West Hartford Garden Club wanted an injunction to stop the cutting. She started protesting a week before, but not enough people came to her aid for legal action.
Town Manager Rodney L. Loomis said that the trees would be made into stove wood and would be distributed to people cared for by the Welfare Department.
This building, according to the townspeople, represented the messiness of democracy. At the dedication of the building, U.S. District Attorney Robert P. Butler, alluding to political events in Europe, said:
May this building which we here dedicate, be the spiritual as well as the physical temple of constitutional self-government… The sovereignty of man will sometimes be denied, his rights of free self-government will sometimes be surrendered as we have seen them denied and surrendered before our very eyes these past few years. But make no mistake, these things are only temporary. Sooner or later the deceived and deluded peoples will reclaim their heritage. The right of democratic self-government cannot be wholly destroyed.
Getting rid of the old town hall ended up as one of those messy decisions about which many people had a say. One of the selling points of the town hall project was that the town could sell the site of the old town hall on the northwest corner of Farmington and South Main to get money to pay against the cost of the new building. But, in true democratic fashion, where sovereignty lies with the people, voters voted in a 1937 referendum not to sell the property or the buildings. But, by 1939, two years after the opening of the Town Hall, the three buildings on the site – the old Town Hall (built in 1835), its brick annex, and the old library still stood vacant. The old Town Hall was in such bad shape that most people felt it was unsafe to occupy. But others believed it was a historical building worth saving.
Mrs. Bassette, the woman who wanted to save the trees, also wanted to save the building. In a letter to the Town Council she wrote:
Symbolically the old Town Hall is more than just a bit of architecture occupying a valuable piece of land. It is the roots of our community, and together with all town halls throughout the country it is the roots of America. Such a thing should not be destroyed for a comparatively small amount of money, when many times that amount would never pay for the historical and spiritual value of this building.
In January 1942, the Chamber of Commerce President proposed that the abandoned buildings be set up as an emergency hospital to care for the injured in case of an air raid. The building was never used as an emergency hospital, but was used as a billet for quartermaster troops assigned to the Farmington Avenue Armory and as an examining station by the Selective Service during the war. In 1947, the town tried to sell the property and claimed, in the real estate boom, that they had bids of up to $175,000 for the land. One bid was from Best & Co. department store wanting to build a suburban store. Town Council candidates in the 1947 election made a campaign issue out of the land, hoping that the proceeds could be used to build a veterans hall. Another town referendum, this one on April 8, 1947 allowed townspeople to vote.
Various town groups weighed in on selling the property, but the townspeople voted 2 to 1 to save the land and the buildings. In June, the council voted for funds to demolish the brick annex and it was knocked down by the end of the summer.
In 1956, the old Town Hall still stood vacant, 19 years after the new town hall opened. Attempts to put it to use were prohibitively expensive and the building was an eyesore. But the local government was not sure how long the 1947 referendum bound them to keep the land.
Finally on March 27, 1957 the Council ordered the building to be razed. The site became a park and the stone benches were made from the old church steps. It was reported “it is significant to note that West Hartford has taken the leadership in providing a small park within a high commercial district.”
The town moved quickly to get the new Town Hall built, but agonized over the old town hall building because of what it symbolized — not so much for the value of the building. We can still identify with the power of these symbols and the importance of a democratic process, no matter how messy.
West Hartford Art League
Adapted from a talk delivered at the West Hartford Art League, April 9, 2016
In 1933, two artists organized the West Hartford Art Center to provide instruction in painting, drawing, sculpture, oil, pastel, watercolor, terra cotta and linoleum. Housed on the second floor of a vacant school building at 14 North Main, both children and adults flocked to the Center to hone their skills in rooms set aside for artists. The Center grew out of the friendship between artists Gertrude Patterson (1882-1952) and Rebecca Field (1905-2002) who shared a studio in the old school building.
From the instructional Art Center, grew the idea of an art league to bring together West Hartford people interested in various aspects of art in an organization that would give the community a center for art activities. The West Hartford group modeled their organization after successful art leagues in Springfield and New Britain.
The West Hartford Art Center became the West Hartford Art League (WHAL) in 1934 and, originally, the old Center School provided an ideal place for creative expression. Their space included a stage for modeling, large windows facing south and lilac trees and woodbine out the windows. Those who became members got to use the studios, received free instruction weekly in drawing and painting, could exhibit their art, and could attend functions including lectures, social gatherings, and exhibitions. The League wanted to stimulate interest in art in West Hartford and the vicinity.
The League held an art appreciation discussion group every Wednesday night. In 1934, when the Picasso Exhibit came to the Avery Memorial at the Wadsworth Atheneum it was the first major retrospective of his work in the United States. The WHAL sponsored a talk and discussion on Picasso’s work both for those in the League and those in the community.
But, the artists shared the Center School with dancers and singers and they yearned for a space of their own. When Sedgwick School was completed in 1931, the West District School closed, and this building became a possibility for the WHAL. In 1935, the president of the Art League went to Town Manager Rodney Loomis to request larger quarters for the growing art group. Loomis recognized the space issues of the league, and offered them the building. League members felt its central location trumped the problems with the building. It had no plumbing or central heating and only a wood stove. Members had to carry water in pails from a neighbor’s house before holding their spring exhibition and tea party in 1935.
The League had to raise money, and they made it fun. They held teas and fundraisers to fund a furnace. By 1939 they raised enough money to build a kiln. They hired Simon Kelsey, a well known pottery artist, to conduct classes in pottery making.
Gertrude Hough Patterson and Rebecca Field met at the Art Center and partnered to found this organization and make it work. They were of different generations, Patterson at 50 and Field at 27 when they founded the organization. But they both felt that there was more to the art world than making their art and teaching students. While they started by giving art lessons, they soon realized they wanted an organization for the community of people who loved, appreciated and lived their art.
And Field and Patterson helped draw people to the League. Patterson worked in oil and pastel, as a portrait and landscape painter. She studied at the Norwich Art School, the Yale School of Fine Arts, the Eric Pope School, the Chicago Institute, and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. She taught at the Norwich Art School, Norwich Free Academy, in private schools and at Mount Holyoke College. One of her portraits hangs now at the WHAL.
Rebecca Field studied at the Mass College of Art in Boston and then, in the late 1920s for two years in Munich, Germany. On her return, she settled in Hartford and taught for 40 years at the WHAL. She often exhibited her watercolors, sculpture, prints and miniatures at the League building. Her sculptures, according to a catalogue of works done under the aegis of the Federal Arts Project, are largely female figures and heads of women students done in plaster and bronze and ranged from realism to decorative in purpose. Field also used watercolors to paint landscapes and marine scenes. She painted scenes from the Berkshires and Grand Manan Island off of the Maine coast, as well as scenes from her travels in Germany, Scotland and England.
Patterson and Field’s organization was actually buoyed by its start in 1933 during the Great Depression. The federal government funded many artists. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, he felt the federal government’s job was to help get the economy out of the depression by employing people in public works. Artists benefited from his relief measure to employ artists and artisans to create murals, easel paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, theatre scenic design, and arts and crafts.
The first federal money came to the town through the Federal Emergency Relief Agency (FERA, 1933-35). Field worked with children in the West Hartford grade schools on an FERA project to provide instruction for the more talented pupils. She wanted them to have special art training instead of being slowed by instruction in classes where both talented and non-inspired pupils were subject to the same teaching. The FERA was replaced by the WPA and its Federal Art Project (FAP) in 1935 as the feds continued to think that employing people was the right thing to do. The WHAL found a way into the Federal Art Project (1935-1943) money. Though it did have a cultural impact, its main purpose was to get artists producing public art and to document American design. Artists created over 200,000 works, among them, some of the most significant pieces of public art in the country. Connecticut artists produced over 5,000 pieces of art including 107 murals, many of which still exist.
In West Hartford, Rebecca Field sculpted a bas-relief of William Hall for Hall High. As a WPA artist, she painted 39 works listed in the WPA inventory. In 1935, she painted a cultural and historical pictorial map of West Hartford for Connecticut’s Tercentenary Committee with FERA money. She included ten former citizens who were prominent in West Hartford history. Artist Walter Korder, also an active member of the WHAL, got paid $23.60 per week to paint murals at Charter Oak School and the old Hall High, now the Town Hall. The town only had to pay for materials.
By 1940, The West Hartford Art League was one of fastest growing organizations in town. Founded as a place where artists could meet, learn and become inspired, the organization built a community of artists and patrons and an appreciation for art carried on in the schools and by this organization today. While federal, state and local government has helped the League survive, continued public funding is needed for the organization and the arts to prosper.
Governor Robert Hurley
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, August 2011
On April 9, 1942, a caravan of 30 cars drove by 99 Outlook Avenue, jubilant in the Republican Town Council sweep of the local elections. 99 Outlook was the home of Connecticut’s Governor at the time: Robert A. Hurley. A Democrat, Hurley was likely not amused by the makeshift parade of cars.
Robert and Evelyn Hurley moved to West Hartford from Bridgeport in 1937 when he was appointed Commissioner of Public Works. Robert Hurley (1895-1968) was born to Irish immigrants, attended Cheshire Academy and studied engineering at Lehigh University. He worked as a hod (brick) carrier to support himself at Lehigh. He was a four-sport athlete, starring in football and baseball; he played professionally in both sports after a stint in the US Navy on submarines during World War I. He then started a construction company in his hometown and in 1925, at age 30, he married a Bridgeport native, Evelyn Hedberg, a nurse. They had a son and two daughters.
Hurley got involved in state government in 1935 at age 40, during the Great Depression, when he served as the director of Fairfield County’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). When the 1936 Flood hit, then Democratic Governor Wilbur Cross named Hurley a special representative to coordinate relief activities between Hartford and the federal government. Hurley then stepped up to coordinate the WPA for the entire state.
Hurley was an “ardent supporter” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a big supporter of the New Deal.
When Governor Cross appointed Hurley as Connecticut’s first Public Works Commissioner in 1937, Hurley moved to Outlook Avenue in West Hartford. Hurley stepped into a hornet’s nest in state government. Cross wanted him to oversee road planning, construction and repairs, while others believed that the Commissioner of the State Highway Department should be in charge. Cross believed the Highway Department was in cahoots with real estate agents employed by the State Highway Department who were benefiting by purchasing land along the planned route for the Merritt Parkway.
Hurley issued a report that was damning towards the Highway Commissioner and the report called for the Commissioner to resign.
Hurley used his record as Commissioner of Public Works to run for Governor. He seemed to run on Roosevelt’s coattails. The sitting Governor at the time was Republican Raymond Baldwin who had defeated the Democrat Cross in 1939. Hurley defeated Cross in the Democratic Convention and went on to defeat the incumbent Republican Governor by almost 14,000 votes.
Hurley was only the fourth Democratic Governor out of 25 Governors in the previous 56 years. He was, as the Hartford Courant reported, “West Hartford’s leading Democrat,” who represented the New Deal Democrats that West Hartford Republicans wanted to taunt.
Hurley served for one term. He introduced programs that helped both workers and the unemployed. He helped electrify some rural areas of Connecticut. He established Bradley Field as an airport and pushed the state to prepare for war. He developed “Connecticut’s Compact for Victory” pledging that all of Connecticut’s resources and industrial might and skills and energies of workers would be used in service to the U.S.
When Hurley became Governor, he appointed several men from West Hartford to fill out his administration. He re-appointed Dr. Stanley H. Osborn as Commissioner of Public Health. He appointed West Hartford’s George L. Burke to be the new Commissioner of Public Works, the position Hurley held when he became Governor.
Hurley also seemed to be an integral part of town life based on his speaking engagements in 1941, his first year in office.
In April 1941, the West Hartford Grange gave Governor Hurley and his wife Evelyn the third and fourth degrees at a ceremony at the Masonic Hall on South Main Street. Hurley spoke as if the U.S. were on a war footing, saying “the Grange must continue to live up to its ideals, but if we are to continue down the path of democracy we must crush out the rule head of intolerance… Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and American would rather die than give it up.”
In May 1941, Governor Hurley broke ground for the foundation of the Noah Webster Memorial Statue. About 60 people gathered to hear the Governor honor Webster as “the town’s most famous citizen.” A WPA band sang Auld Lang Syne, and Korszak Ziolkowski, the sculptor, was the master of ceremonies.
Later on in the month, Hurley spoke before one of the largest Memorial Day crowds in the town’s history. He gave his speech at the North Green Cemetery and spoke about the war in Europe. He said that the U.S. had warned the Axis: “an attack upon any base which may endanger the integrity of the Western Hemisphere will be resisted with force.” He spoke about fighting for freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly to stop the totalitarian state which took away citizen rights, and against governments that had the ability to “intern us in concentration camps and inflict upon us the cruelest tortures which were ever devised.”
On June 13, 1941, Governor Hurley gave the commencement address at St. Joseph College when 49 young women graduated. Hurley again spoke of the war saying “We must not try to escape the consequences of the wrath of a Hitler, a Mussolini, a Stalin or any of those who follow their bloody emblems… we must not seek comfort by hiding from reality.” He claimed “women’s education plays a vital part in this world” emphasizing “those human values upon which society depends for its very life.”
Hurley ran for reelection in 1942, but lost to former Governor Baldwin by 26,000 votes, the man he had defeated just two years before. Baldwin proceeded to abolish the State Department of Public Works, which had led to Hurley’s political success.
In 1944, Hurley won the Democratic nomination for Governor, but lost to Baldwin, again by 26,000 votes, even though it was a presidential year in which FDR won his fourth term. Hurley retired from politics, and allowed the Democratic Party to unite after it had split into factions.
In December 1944, the federal government appointed Hurley to the Surplus Property Disposal Board. He was confirmed by the Senate and he flew to Washington DC to take up his duties.
Hurley retired from government work and became vice president of the Narragansett Machine Company in Rhode Island, but continued to live in West Hartford. Hurley Hall at the University of Connecticut is named after him. In 1947, Hurley headed a manufacturing company that made silver and stainless steel ware called the Old Colony Silver Company.
If you go to Fairview Cemetery, in section 9 in the southwest section, you can see the Hurley headstone in the second row up a slight hill. You would never know that Hurley had been Governor. The nondescript moss covered stone reads Beloved Husband Robert A. Hurley, His Beloved Wife Evelyn L. Hurley, Father and Mother of Joan, Robert & Sally. The stone does not tell that Robert A. Hurley was Connecticut’s first Roman Catholic Governor when he served from 1941-43.
Wolcott School and Wolcott Park
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, December 2005
The pending Blue Back Square development has many townspeople worrying that the “character of the town” will change and somehow be lost. Some people think that the Board of Education building and the Town Hall should not be sold or changed because of their historic value.
The story of the Wolcott Farm in the southwest section of town can give some insight into how the use of land has evolved with economic and technological change as land moved from the private to the public sector.
Chester Francis owned 141 acres of land in the southwest corner of town, south of New Britain Avenue in the early 1800s. In 1882, Francis’s son Samuel inherited 50 of his 141 acres and lived there until 1899. He had lived in the area since before the Civil War and built a house there in 1861. It is this house which became the Wolcott farmhouse.
In 1899, the Long family bought the property, and reports showed that Long developed a “model farm,” just as Charles Beach had developed in the property up the hill that is now partially Beachland Park. Long planted an orchard with apple, pear, cherry and quince trees. He planted one half acre of asparagus and had a huge vineyard out of which he made 2 to 3 hogsheads of wine per year. He had a small herd of cows and a least three teams of horses.
In 1902, Long sold the farm to a dentist named Chapman who suffered economically during the Panic of 1907. Chapman hired Henry A. Wolcott to draw up plans for several large buildings on the property. Chapman could not pay Wolcott because of the economic downturn, and ended up selling Wolcott the farm for a small amount of money and the mortgage. In August, 1907, Wolcott moved from his house at 46 South Main where the present Town Hall is, to the farmhouse.
Henry and his wife Annie built up a vegetable and egg business as a result of the Panic of 1907. There was very little building and Wolcott, a civil engineer, had to close down his Hartford office. Wolcott had made his living designing and supervising factory construction. He designed the West Hartford Armory among many other buildings. By 1910 he converted an upstairs room in the house to a drafting room and began again to make money surveying and designing buildings again. His office remained in his house. He served as Second Selectman for West Hartford in 1909 and served on various boards, including the Board of Education, until 1933. He represented West Hartford in the General Assembly for four years in the 1920s.
The Wolcott Farm was never a large dairy farm, like Charles Beach’s Vine Hill. His son, Henry F. Wolcott remembered his father’s farm as having 4 or 5 cows, from which they got their own milk, cheese and butter. They raised one or two pigs and cured them in the smoke house. They had 40 to 50 chickens and sold eggs. Later on they had sheep as well. They grew corn, wheat, oats, rye, and vegetables. A wheat field stood where Wolcott School is today. Wolcott was most known for his vegetables. There are residents who still remember buying vegetables at his roadside stand which operated until 1966.
Wolcott’s son, Henry F., remembered the game on the farm. Lloyd Bugbee, the Superintendent of Schools, used to hunt pheasant on the farm. The Wolcott children recalled shooting the raccoons, which caused havoc with the horses with their holes in the fields. Ruth Wolcott, Henry F.’s sister, remembered eating raccoon meat. She remembered catching and cooking snapper, frogs and eel from the pond which is now behind the baseball field at the park.
Ruth also remembered her father cutting ice out of the pond in the winter. They stored it in the lower barnyard beyond the cow barn. Like the Trout Brook Ice and Feed Company, they packed the ice in sawdust and it lasted through the summer and kept their ice boxes cool.
In 1953, the Town of West Hartford bought the 50 acre Wolcott Farm for the purpose of building an elementary school. Elmwood School, built in 1928, the present Elmwood Community Center, and Duffy, which opened in 1952 were overcrowded. The Wolcotts sold the property with the understanding that Henry F. Wolcott’s wife Susan could remain in the homestead as long as she wanted. The school opened in April of 1957 after the students had done half-day sessions at Elmwood School from September.
In 1967, when Susan died, the town went ahead with its plans to make the northern section of the Wolcott land into a park. The 28 acre park officially opened in 1972 with 300 townspeople attending the ceremony, ending with a municipal ball. Henry F. Wolcott believed his father would have been delighted by the park. He had always wanted it to be one.
This piece of property, which was farmed for over 200 years, has served the town well in its last 50 as a school and last 30 as a park. In the 1950s, when 10 new schools were built, more public land was needed and the town was willing to give up some of its tax base for the public good. The suburban neighborhoods which surround the original farmland are symbolic of the rapid change from farm town to suburb. Wolcott’s name reminds us that it was but a generation ago that farms still existed here.
How does a town keep in touch with its past and yet keep up with new needs and desires of its citizens? How can the government’s need to build an infrastructure, keep taxes reasonable, and the developers desire to make a profit be balanced in the 21st century and how does it differ from 1950s? These decisions are made over and over again by the town leaders, the citizens, and those business people who can alter the landscape, but only the citizens control the character of the town.
The Vanguard of America
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, February 2001
West Hartford Public Schools ranked number one among peer municipalities!!
West Hartford Public Library ranked number one in Connecticut!!
An award-winning calendar displaying our parks!!
The highest voter turnout among peer municipalities for the 2000 election!!
Superlatives abound in West Hartford. Mayor Rob Bouvier, in his “State of the Town” speech in 2001, regaled the town with its accomplishments — which are not just the result of one year’s work, but are part of a long history of the town being at the forefront of serving its citizens.
West Hartford has never been shy about selling itself to the world. Today we have banners around town touting our accomplishments. In 1940, the Chamber of Commerce proclaimed in a 16-page booklet called Vanguard of America: A Small Town that Grew Up, that read:
West Hartford can rightfully claim position among those communities that are the highest fulfillment of the dreams and decisions, heartaches and toil that founded America.
What type of a community were we in 1940 and how did the Chamber of Commerce portray us?
When the pamphlet was written, the country and the town were just starting to make their way out of the Great Depression. Many residents suffered during the economic downturn, but the town as a whole grew. The population in 1930 was about 25,000 and reached 44,000 by 1940, a growth of 76 percent. Architects designed houses with 1½ baths, attached garages, and architectural detail that attracted urban dwellers to the growing suburb. Many of these houses appeared in national magazines as examples of houses with charm and appeal for the middle class life.
The Chamber of Commerce claimed that we were a vanguard because of our political system. West Hartford was the first town in Connecticut to adopt the council-manager system of government in 1919. We were the first town in Connecticut to have a planning commission that established zoning laws in the mid 1920s. We were the first town in the state to have the unit system of realty appraisal that “meant equitable taxation for rich or poor, merchant or industrialist.” This political organization provided a means to run the town by trained experts, not elected officials.
Probably because of the Town Manager, Republican West Hartford readily took advantage of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs including the Public Works Administration. This program, established to provide work for the unemployed and to build public works, funded 45% of the Town Hall and Library built in the mid-1930s.
In 1940, the Chamber of Commerce claimed that West Hartford had the largest per capita income tax of any town in the United States and the lowest welfare percentage in the state.
The pamphlet claimed that West Hartford’s schools were “among the finest schools, public or private, in the United States.” A survey of 200 secondary schools, including private schools, completed by the Cooperative Study of Secondary School Standards in Washington, D.C. rated Hall High among the top ten of the 200 surveyed. And yet, the Chamber of Commerce boasted that the town was economical in its school spending. We were 132nd out of 169 towns in percentage of income spent on schools. We were 51st in the amount spent per pupil.
In 1940, the town was proud that 45% of its students went to college. And it was proud of the type of education students got in the town: one that made citizens of a democracy understand their freedom and use it for good purpose. By 2000, the public high schools boasted that over 90% of their students went on to college, a sign of both the need for a college education in the work world and the growth in the number of colleges available. American Government, a required course in both the town and the state, continues to teach students how to be good citizens.
The Chamber was also proud of the houses of worship here in 1940. There were a total of twelve: two Congregational, two Baptist, two Roman Catholic, two Episcopal, a Swedish Methodist, a Swedish Lutheran, a Universalist, and one synagogue. The Chamber believed that this showed a commitment to religious liberty, one of the foundations of democracy.
In 2000 in West Hartford, with a population which grew 50% since 1940, there were 37 houses of worship including five Congregational, four Baptist, seven Roman Catholic, two Episcopal, one Lutheran, a Unitarian Universalist, and nine others and eight Jewish houses of worship split between one Reform, two Conservative and five Orthodox. The Chinese Baptist Church, a Society of Friends, a Spanish Pentecostal Church and a Jehovah’s Witness underline the increasing diversity of the town in the 21st century.
The town was one of the first in Connecticut to hire a recreation director. In 1940, the town already boasted three parks: Beachland, Fern and Elizabeth. In 1940, the “Fern Street playfield” had a large swimming pool, a small children’s wading pool, nine lawn tennis courts, paddle tennis courts, horseshoe courts, a softball diamond, a picnic grove with benches, and fireplaces and playground apparatus. At Beachland Park, residents could sail boats in the summer and ice skate in the winter. They also had paddle tennis and horseshoe courts. Since then, the town has added Eisenhower, Kennedy, Wolcott, Westmoor, and Spice Bush Swamp to its parkland.
The Chamber of Commerce tried to attract businesses as well as residents to the town. In the last section of their pamphlet, they encouraged “modern business executives” to consider the town as a site for their business. They stressed that land was available, schools were good, and the political structure of the town led to equitable tax rates. Economic planners today continue to try to lure businesses to the town with all the same arguments except that there is little open land left in the town.
What is the basis for all these superlatives about our town? Those who have lived here for a while experience the pride that people have in West Hartford and for good reason. West Hartford’s citizens are proud of the democracy in which they live, appreciate the services the town offers, and take advantage of the opportunities available. They believe, like the Chamber of Commerce did in 1940 on the eve of America’s entrance into World War II, that:
We are only one rather small American town, but we know that we can continue to find within our experience and under our flag the means for nobler and more joyful lives.
About this book
Copyright © 2018 by Tracey M. Wilson. Life in West Hartford is freely available online at http://LifeInWestHartford.org and distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Readers may share the work for non-commercial use, by including a source credit to the author.
Print copies of this book are available for sale from the publisher, the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, in West Hartford, Connecticut. Proceeds of sales benefit the Society http://noahwebsterhouse.org.