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Historic events and influential people of Darien

Published 1:05 am, Thursday, November 12, 2009
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Editor's note: To coincide with the Darien Historical Society's release of "The Story of Darien, Connecticut," written by former society president Kenneth M. Reiss, the Darien News has compiled a list of 10 influential people and events that have shaped Darien into what it is today.

By Mimi Citarella

Whether it's Darien's inspiration to renowned artist John Kensett's evocative seascapes (such as "Twilight on the Sound," hanging in the Metropolitan Museum), or the town's past as the go-to global locale for those looking to acquire ostrich and other exotic birds, or the fact that Darien's name was initially going to be Bellville after one of the town's leading men, Thaddeus Bell -- all are part of the town's distinctive 370-year history.

Beginning as a community of 28 farming families, Darien has become a bustling, sophisticated town of 19,000 residents and recognized by many as one of the most prestigious and desirable American towns to live.

The following is a list of historic events and influential people that have shaped Darien's geography, economy and social structure and helped define the town into what it is today.

Darien Established Independence from Stamford

Darien had a long path to independence and town-hood, originally part of Stamford and Norwalk. From 1640 to approximately 1730, Darien's residents traveled to Stamford for their most important weekly activity -- church service -- but after a particularly severe winter, it became clear that the weekly trek was becoming both dangerous and impractical.

Darien's residents appealed to the colonial government to approve authorization of a church in Darien. In 1737, approval was granted for the First Congregational Church -- officially known as Middlesex Parish -- with a young, 25-year-old bachelor from Yale Divinity school chosen as it's first pastor -- Rev. Moses Mather. The current First Congregational Church still stands at the original site at the corner of Post and Brookside roads.

Thaddeus Bell (1759-1851)

Darien's independence was solidified in 1820, when one of the town's most influential men, Thaddeus Bell, won a petition at the Connecticut General Assembly for secession of Middlesex Parish from Stamford (and Norwalk). While several earlier proposals were denied, his 1820 proposal was accepted (earlier versions had included more land, particularly in the northern areas that border Norwalk).

A first order of business was deciding a new town name, a task given to Bell (who turned down the townspeople's desire to name it Bellville in his honor).

Ken Reiss, a long-time volunteer and board member at the Darien Historical Society and former historian, said he believes that Bell likely chose the name "Darien" after hearing it in a then-new John Keats poem, titled "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." The sonnet ends, "silent, upon a peak in Darien."

"He may have felt that (Darien) was a very appropriate name," said Reiss, who pointed out that the word Darien means "a body of land between two waterways."

"Bell had a farm up on Ox Ridge at that time [and] he could overlook the waters of the Long Island Sound and very possibly, he was familiar with that (Keats) poem," said Reiss, whose 280-page hardcover coffee table book, "The Story of Darien, Connecticut" will be released this month through the Darien Historical Society.

The Advent of the Railroad

The advent of the railroad in the 1840s dramatically changed both commercial and cultural life in Darien in addition to the entire Northeast coast.

"[The railroad] just changed how people accessed the rest of the world," said Judy Groppa, executive director of the historical society. "It changed the farmers from having to sail their produce [by boat] to the New York market, which would take up to 24 hours. ... The train was less than two hours, so it dramatically changed everything."

The New York to New Haven train line also gave Darien's residents greater access to diversified employment in Stamford, Greenwich and surrounding towns (importantly, jobs other than farming) and also helped Darien and Connecticut to retain farmers in the area as they found other work, because the lack of ideal farming conditions in the state were causing many to flee to other states with better farmland, particularly Ohio.

With the railroad, there was a permanent shift of the town's commercial center to the intersection of the railroad and Post Road and away from the old center at Ring's End.

Interstate 95 and the automobile

The effects of the railroad were magnified by the introduction of Interstate-95 in the late 1950s. The road (in addition to Post Road and the railroad) physically cut through Darien and every other town along the New England coast.

Whereas most New England towns are centered around a town green and church (such as New Canaan), those along the I-95 corridor were split north and south by the road and became developed in a more linear route along the road's pathway.

In the 1920s with the invention of the automatic-starter (ending the laborious hand cranking to start a car), driving became commonplace even among women.

Before the automobile, people walked everywhere and lived close to the commercial center of town. When the automobile hit town, "it opened up the entire northern three-fourths of the town to residential development," said Reiss, who contends that the auto is the "biggest thing to ever hit Darien."

"That's when the population just went through the roof, not only did it open the town from development, but it brought traffic through town and social change."

Rev. Moses Mather (1719--1806)

One of the most influential families in Darien's history was the Mather family -- beginning with Rev. Moses Mather's arrival in 1737.

According to town historian Marian Castell, Mather was a visionary, determined and forceful preacher.

"In the Congregational Church, which was really like a town hall meeting, he talked about independence," Castell said. "And because of that, he inspired people to stand up for their freedoms against England."

Mather had three wives (two died), and 10 children. He lived to age 87 and was buried in the Rowayton Cemetery.

Among his many descendants is Stephen T. Mather (1867-1930), chief executive of Borax Corporation, and first director of the National Park Service. Mather's house still stands on Brookside Road and is one of three historic registry designations in Darien.

The Tories Raid on the Meeting House

Because of Darien's open-water line, it was ripe for attacks during the Revolution by the Tories (British loyalists who were headquartered on Long Island), who traveled across the Sound by boat and came ashore in continual raids on Darien homes -- taking food, livestock and other valuables.

On July 22, 1781, the Tories made a significant attack on Darien -- this time going after the town's most prominent and influential citizens, who were gathered at church services at the Congregational Church, including Rev. Mather.

Mather and approximately 40 to 50 other men were taken captive. Some escaped, while 25 were jailed on ships and in prison in New York, where they endured rough conditions that included little food and water. Only 19 survived, including Mather.

Melville Mead, Darien's first developer

Melville Mead was Darien's first large-scale real estate developer.

He bought property, especially in the Prospect Avenue area, and created the town's first subdivisions and spec homes.

"He was not an innovator, but he was the first one to do it in Darien, to buy properties and sell on speculation," Reiss said.

To market his spec homes, he borrowed some ideas from P.T. Barnum, where he would take out advertisements in the New York newspapers and meet potential buyers at the Darien Train Station with a brass band.

He connected the idea that "you can work in New York and live in Darien," Castell said. "Mead helped to shape the concept of the town as more than a farm, as a real bedroom community for sophisticated New Yorkers."

Many of his subdivisions remain along Prospect Avenue.

John Kensett (1816 -- 1872) and Vincent Colyer (1825-1888)

Among those sophisticated New Yorkers who came to Darien were Vincent Colyer and his close friend, John Kensett, an artist. The two shared a love of art and the coast and bought property together on Contentment Island (approximately 40 acres that Colyer is believed to have named Contentment). Many of the images Kensett painted have immortalized Darien coastal images and can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum.

George Tilley (1881-1946)

Anyone who has enjoyed a walk at the 8-½ acre Tilley's Pond Park on West Avenue and Lakeside Drive should know of its patriarch George Tilley.

Tilley raised and sold exotic birds from his estate. Running ads in the New York papers that read, "Everything in the bird line from canary to ostrich." He attracted the highest-end clientele of bird buyers from all over the world.

Philanthropist Benjamin Fitch (1802-1883)

Benjamin Fitch made his fortunes by opening a chain of dry-good stores along the Erie Canal. A son of divorced parents who placed him in a shaker home in New York, Fitch had compassion for the children of soldiers who became orphaned when their fathers died at war. He opened the Fitch Home for soldiers to provide a home for soldiers and orphans of the Civil War.

The Fitch Home was located in the current Allen-O'Neill area in the Noroton Heights section of town. It was later relocated to the upstate town of Rocky Hill and became the State Veterans Home and Hospital.

According to local historian Edmund Schmidt, Fitch also opened bank accounts with a deposit of $5 for each orphan living in the Fitch Home.

Fitch died in 1883 and is buried at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Darien.