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The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski

Published 1:02 am, Friday, July 30, 2010
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There were fewer than 11,000 people here when I arrived in 1950, but Darien was far from just a sleepy little town bisected by a highway and the railroad tracks.

Even before the advent of the Connecticut Turnpike, Darien bustled with traffic along several miles of the Boston Post Road (U.S. Route 1), then the major thoroughfare between Maine and Florida and, of course, it was a major stop for New Haven Railroad commuter trains into New York.

But there was more. How many towns of that size were served by two bus lines that not only coursed through local streets daily but linked them to larger cities on either side? It was more than what exists 60 years later.

The Connecticut Company's blue buses ran between Stamford Hospital and the Darien railroad station, taking the route along West Avenue and through Glenbrook. It reached the Darien depot every hour on the half-hour until 11:30 p.m. when it made its last return trip to Stamford. Many local residents used it to get to stores and jobs in Noroton Heights, Glenbrook and Stamford. The fare for the full run was two tokens (they were three for a quarter).

During World War II, it was a godsend to sailors who were stationed at the Navy radio school at the Old Soldiers Home (now the Allen-O'Neill housing complex at the corner of West and Noroton avenues) and anxious to begin their leaves at Stamford bars. Nan Parker's bar on East Main Street in Stamford was the first on the route and most of the sailors disembarked there, except for some those who preferred to stay closer to "home" and sip beer at Sam Saverine's tavern in Noroton Heights.

Meanwhile, the green and yellow CR&L (Connecticut Railway and Lighting) buses came through town every hour on the hour as they shuttled between Norwalk and Stamford, along the Post Road and Route 136 (Tokeneke Road) through Rowayton. The schedules thus made public transportation available in Darien ever half hour to a wide range of destinations.

Buses served other purposes as well. It was not uncommon then for newspapers in Norwalk, Stamford and Darien to share advertising or news copy and, in the dark ages before electronic messaging, we simply gave the material to the bus driver and, a representative of one of the papers would meet the bus at its destination. We used the trains the same way when the Associated Press wanted one of Russ Fairbanks' photos. Conductors, encouraged by a buck or two, were more than willing to cooperate and a courier from the AP office in Rockefeller Center would meet the train at Grand Central. Delivery wasn't quite as rapid as e-mail, but it was pretty fast for those primitive days.

Of course, Darien's "big city" attractions weren't limited to public transit. Darien was pretty much of a self-sustaining community all around.

Naturally, with such a large stretch of the busy Post Road as our main thoroughfare, there was a whole string of gas stations, a few restaurants and even a couple of bed and breakfast places for travelers. The automotive business boomed here and full-scale dealerships were run by Carl Baker (Ford), Emil Karl (Chevrolet), Ed Wallin (the subcompact Crosley popular during gas rationing days) and Walt Moore (Volkswagen and other foreign imports). Frank Morris on Center Street and Frank Sandmeyer on Noroton Avenue ran auto repair garages that were second to none and Lou Szivos had a body shop on West Avenue.

Nor did Darien ever have to go hungry. Food stores abounded. In town, even before the Grand Union came to the new shopping center, were the A&P in a small wooden building next to the old town hall near the Mansfield Avenue corner, and the First National, where the CVS Pharmacy is now. Dominick Conti ran a meat market on the ground floor of his home on the corner of West Avenue and Hollow Tree Ridge Road, and Bill Albrecht had a neighborhood grocery at his house on West Avenue. Of course, Joe Palmer's store had long since become a fixture for food shopping in Noroton Heights and popular also were the Royal Scarlet, Gristede's and Darien Provision Company on Tokeneke Road and Fred Baur's store and Ernie Eggers' delicatessen on the Post Road. Later, Lyman Mallett opened a meat market in the little wooden building that now houses Uncle's Deli.

As business manager of the Darien Review, Charlie Mitchell was eager to secure some of that food store advertising. When he finally persuaded First National's home office to use the local paper, the store manager wanted to test the ad's drawing power by including in it a coupon for a bottle of ketchup at a discounted price. The number of coupons brought into the store would indicate how many people saw and read the ad, he reasoned. That week, Mitchell ordered a press over-run and clipped dozens of coupons from the extra papers, which he distributed to all employees with instructions to use them early and often. It worked. First National ads ran weekly for years after that.

The liquor market was always on tap also. Nick Florentine had a store on Tokeneke Road and there was Happy's Spirit Shop run by Darien High School Coach "Happy" Holahan and Jack Forte, a junior high school principal, first on Linden Avenue and then on Noroton Avenue. Lou Paulnack and Fred Galati had the Liquor Locker on West Avenue, Ed Fitter had Gold Bond on the Post Road and Sam Heft ran the Bottle Shop while the Vitti brothers, Joe and Mike, had Glen Liquors on Heights Road.

Remarkably, for a town of just under 11,000, there also were at least five drug stores, all of them prospering. Pharmacists included Alfred Bell on Tokeneke Road, Charlie Ertelt at Gilbert's in Noroton Heights, Bob Greib near the theater, Joe Lombardi on the Mansfield Avenue corner and the Daddona brothers (Ed and Everett) at Village Pharmacy on the Post Road.

We always joked that Darien was a petty clean town what with dry cleaning establishments run by Art Danna in Noroton Heights and Morris Neuger on Tokeneke Road. In addition, a Chinese family operated a hand laundry in the front section of their living quarters next to Bill Kelley's television repair shop on West Avenue across from the train station.

Darien even had its own "private eye." After retiring from the Darien Police Department as a sergeant and head of the Detective Bureau, Harold "Cap" Curtis, who always smoked a curved pipe a la Sherlock Holmes, opened the Darien Investigation Bureau on the second floor of an old wooden building, since refurbished, on the Post Road.

Of all the commercial establishments, none brought greater recognition to Darien than Stanley Bulpitt's nurseries on Brookside Road, consistent gold medal winners in the national flower shows in New York. Unless it was Traendly's Greenhouses, located on the Rowayton line and famed far and wide for roses. Of course, Joe Kirschbaum, Hilda Nielsen and John Tait also were prominent florists.

In short, there wasn't much that Darien's 11,000 people couldn't buy right here at home.

Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review during the '50s. He can be reached at skicrow@att.net.