Monday, January 25, 2010

Venture Smith - Africian Yankee

Chatham, Haddam Neck and East Haddam in the late 18th century all shared the industriousness of neighbor and friend, Venture Smith. Born “about 1729,” the son of Saungm Furro, the king of Dukandarra, in Guinea, West Africa, he was the equivalent of a “Crown Prince.” Captured by the ruler of a neighboring land, Smith, then a 7 year old boy, was sold into slavery, sent on a slave ship first to Barbados, finally ending up in Rhode Island. His African name Broteer was changed to Venture during this ordeal. Enduring a long and arduous life and being sold several times until a Colonel O. Smith bought him at age 31, who permitted Venture to purchase his own freedom, though on terms that yielded an exorbitant profit. Working on Fishers Island and Long Island for several more years he earned enough to purchase the freedom of his wife Marget and 3 children. At age 47, Venture sold his Long Island property and moved to East Haddam, finally buying 10 acres in Haddam Neck were he engaged in numerous businesses including owning a score of boats and sailing vessels. Smith wrote his autobiography in 1798 and lived to the year 1805.
One of his many stories related to the day he married Marget in 1751. Apparently, he threw a rope over his master’s house and told Marget to pull on one end, while he pulled on the other. Neither budged the rope. Then he called her to his side of the house, and together they pulled it off in a jiffy. He then told her, “Marget, if we pull in life against each other, we shall fail; but if we pull together we shall succeed.” And so, together they pulled all through their difficult life and their mutual affection continued to the end.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Our First Meeting Hall - Seibert's Opera House

Basketball, musical shows and town meetings! You might wonder what all these have in common. There has been talk recently to build a new town hall, take over center school and even construct a new school. But prior to 1913, we had no town hall and prior to 1939 when the high school was constructed (the Center School), no schools had gymnasiums. In 1913, the Town voted to convert the center grammar school (the current Board of Ed. Offices) to a Town Hall. So where did local teams play basketball? At Seibert’s Opera House of course. And where were theatrical productions and musical shows performed? At Seibert’s Opera House of course. And where were East Hampton Town Meetings held? You guessed it! So where is Seibert’s Opera House? It still exists located on the corner of Main Street and Walnut Street opposite Center Package Store and across from the Board of Ed. Building.
In recent years, the second story hall was converted to apartments, but in the late 19th and well into the 20th century, this was used for numerous community activities. One of the last public events occurred in 1985 when the Democratic Town Committee sponsored a Valentine’s dance. I recall it being a very cold February night and all the guests were waiting in anticipation for our home town friend, Governor Bill O’Neill. The Governor was running late. Ironically, a group of labor protestors were outside picketing, probably over some budget crisis. I suspect Governor O’Neill took his time coming from other stops on his schedule to let the protestors cool their heels. By the time he arrived around 10:30 p.m., demonstrators and a TV News Team that had been waiting to capture the confrontation had left, which was fine with all the home town folks since the protestors had been an unwanted intrusion to those of us in attendance anyways.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Sears Park - 100 Year Old Gift

On Saturday January 8, 1910, exactly 100 years ago today at a Special Town Meeting, the citizens of Chatham, voted to accept a most generous gift of 3.93 acres of land from the heirs of Stephen G. Sears on Lake Pocotopaug, creating “Sears Park.”

Recently, our Park and Recreation Department has begun planning a 100th Anniversary Celebration of “Sears Park” to unfold later this year and all are welcome as volunteers to assist with the festivities. You could make a difference to our community by joining the committee and contributing valuable commodities - your time and talent.

Much more will be written documenting the centennial span of Sears Park in coming months, but today’s date, coinciding with the acceptance by the people of Chatham (our name wasn’t changed to East Hampton until 1913), served as a wonderful reminder of certain aspects here that enhance our quality of life. Many communities glare with envy at this wonderful asset, the panoramic views all can enjoy from the casino (as it was originally called) deck overlooking the seven hills of East Hampton or just lounging on the beach.
Up until the late 1960s, there were several concession stands operated along the southerly boundary line but these were demolished after an additional piece of property was acquired in 1968 from the Estate of Mary K. Nichols. The excursion boat moored here was one of several on Lake.

The outcome at that meeting in 1910 was obvious. Our forebearer’s valued the pristine waters of the Great Pond, Lake Pocotopaug, as described in the deed to the Town’s original settler, James Wright, from which this Sears plot of land emanated.

Sears Park’s value is explicably tethered to the abutting but fragile Lake Pocotopaug, which too needs our immediate attention. To once again enjoy crystal clear waters as seen in 1910, to witness a summer where the algae has not turned our Lake pea green, to once again have fresh water mussels abound and crayfish dwell along the rocky shores will take the voices and diligent efforts of us all. It will take every property owner in the Lake watershed to abate harmful fertilizers. The new “green” isn’t a lawn! It’s a way of preserving planet Earth and I for one Lake Pocotopaug.