The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
All news is big news, even in small towns
Published 5:16 pm, Thursday, September 9, 2010
Fresh out of college, an aspiring journalist arrived in Darien on a cold winter morning in January 1950, intent on covering the town like the heavy-duty blanket it seemed to need.
It was an unusual place, crisscrossed by railroad tracks and the heavily traveled inter-state Post Road (a further dividing line was to be drawn across town with the advent of the thruway a few years later) and it seemed more like a collection of villages than a town.
There was Tokeneke, an elegant shorefront community with its own pistol-packing policeman (Charlie Murphy) patrolling a network of private roads. Noroton Bay, another seaside enclave, had its own beach club and private tennis courts for neighborhood tournaments. Rowayton, actually a part of Norwalk, preferred to link itself with Darien. And, of course, there was Noroton Heights, which had its own fire department and its own post office, but lacked any voice in town government until liveryman "Chick" Kerrigan upset the political odds and swept into the first selectman's office, where he was to be ensconced for 18 years.
Obviously, gathering news in such a decentralized setting and piecing the splintered geography together would be a challenge. But things happened.
When Tree Warden Bill Cotta's crew cut down the lofty oak that had stood at the downtown corner of West Avenue for about 100 years, that was front page news. And it happened right outside the newspaper office. In fact, the newspaper office's location also offered a front-row seat to many stories when trucks slammed into the low railroad bridge. None of it seemed to be of great consequence, but events like those were clues that the town was growing up. The tree gave way to the construction of a strip of new retail outlets. Crashes into the bridge foretold the inevitable coming of a highway that would bypass the center of town.
In those early weeks, an old shoemaker closed his Post Road shop and retired. A bed-ridden woman celebrated her 100th birthday at her home on Bailey Avenue. Those were important interviews. Hardly Hollywood stuff to a reporter yearning for the glitz and excitement of clacking typewriters and roaring presses. Still, keeping people up to date on their neighbors helped weave the fabric of community life.
And a weekly stop at the Noroton Water Company office in a small house on Center Street was essential for gathering news. That was where the staff, Betty Flaherty and Myrtle McIntyre, were able to tell you who was moving into or out of town because they were called when service had to be shut off or turned on. In fact, they knew as well as Manager Steve Gannon and his foreman, Walter Brunner, where all the valves were.
Occasionally, the news there would include tips on celebrities among arrivals or departures. There was little thought then to invasion of privacy. In fact, publicity staffs at resorts often sent local newspapers photographs of residents from their towns basking in the sun or sipping tropical drinks adorned with cute little paper umbrellas. These really were notices that vacationers' homes were vacant, virtual invitations to burglars and vandals, but there were no problems in an era when people left doors unlocked.
By mid-decade, construction of the Connecticut Turnpike obliterated the entire Noroton Heights business community, displacing 80 businesses and families. Darien had what amounted to a direct line to Hartford on developments there because Gennaro Frate was chairman of the legislature's powerful Roads, Rivers and Bridges Committee and he could be consulted daily at his store on Tokeneke Road Lessons in practical politics also were free for the asking there.
Tragedy stalked the decade. In 1953, a man and two boys perished in their burning home on Wakemore Street. A year later, two Stamford sisters were killed when their car was hit by a train as they drove onto Camp Avenue after visiting their mother's grave in at St. John's Cemetery. We sat in a police car later with Lt. Walter Berquist and we both choked back sobs as he answered questions about it.
In 1958, a distraught young mother killed her crying infant and then herself at their home in Cherry Street, leaving behind a bloody scene that caused Policeman Cliff DeForest and this reporter to retch through their tears.
During the decade, a Noroton Heights man was shot and killed as he walked across Linden Avenue. A shoemaker from the shop below the man's apartment was charged with the crime and police said the two had argued about control of the heat in the building they occupied. He was convicted at a dramatic trial in the Town Court on the second floor of the Hecker Avenue police station.
Police were called also when a Hollow Tree Ridge Road woman shot her husband as they prepared for bed after attending a party. Fortunately, the bullet just grazed the side of his neck, drawing hardly enough blood to discolor the towel she then wrapped around his wound. The matter was settled quietly and perhaps the night was made memorable only by Policeman Jim Dance backing the ambulance into a patrol car at the scene.
In October, 1955, streams spilled over their banks with destructive force after several days of rain. A Glenbrook couple got out of their car when it stalled in flood waters on Old Kings Highway and was swept away in the raging current of Goodwives River, usually not much more than trickle.
They were the only local fatalities in a night of horror that also included a train wreck. Little Stony Brook, swollen by the storm, undermined the railroad tracks near the Ring's End lumberyard and derailed a freight train, spilling several cars and their cargo over a wide area. The main line was closed for months after.
Fire department news, a newspaper staple, was difficult to come by at times. The Noroton, Noroton Heights and Darien departments were completely volunteer and firehouses were likely to be vacant during the day. The trick was to go to the gas stations because that's where the firemen were -- Chief Jim Tiano at Roy Fitzgerald's, Pete Sweeney and Bill Handley at their station on the corner of Sedgwick Avenue, the Strassers, Bill Sr. and Bill Jr., on the Post Road in Noroton and Rod Myers at his sheet-metal shop in Noroton Heights. The three departments collaborated in battling the spectacular blaze that destroyed the Ox Ridge Hunt Club stables in 1957. Covering that story required touching all bases.
Darien's headlines in the fifties might not have matched the horror the six o'clock news presents daily on TV, but the life of the community wasn't really all that humdrum either. The joys and sorrows, the achievements and the failures, the heroism and the tragedies uncovered along the newsbeat mirrored that of life itself.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review during the '50s. He can be reached at email@example.com.