Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New Arrivals in Tradition of East Hampton

Since I began writing about East Hampton Past, dozens of people have very kindly told me how much they enjoy reading about our Town’s history. Whether it is in Stop & Shop (how soon we forget Shaw's), restaurants such as Angelico's or Governor's Tavern, at town meetings, or church, I appreciate the comments and positive feedback and will keep writing.

On April 12th, the Laurel Ridge Association invited me to speak about EH since so many were new to our Town. As you may know, Laurel Ridge is an over 55 community located on the East side of the Lake on Route 66 and is situated near Bear Swamp.

This was a very enjoyable evening and I’m pleased that this engaging group chose EH as their home. Since the early 1700s, tremendously talented people have settled here. From my prospective, these transplants are equally able and given the nod, will contribute to the vitality and enhancement of our Town. So, welcome!

Topics that evening included a discussion on the founding of the bell industry by William Barton in 1808, and its importance to many other industries including Henry Ford's Model T. I also discussed the the creation of Chatham and some of our illustrious citizens such as Gov. William O’Neill. We all remember fondly our friend and neighbor Bill O’Neill, but we forget, he almost never became Governor. Unsuccessful in the 1960 and 1962 elections, with 1964s postponed due to a reapportionment stalemate, Bill had little desire to run again in 1966! Only significant arm-twisting prevailed and from there, his meteoric rise to the Governorship.

East Hampton Fife & Drum Corp Major, Morris Lanzi, then State Representative and Majority Leader, William O'Neill, and Governor Ella T. Grasso at the signing of Legislation making Yankee Doodle Connecticut's State Song. In background, members of the Fife & Drum Corp including Thomas Distefano.

Fielding many questions that evening, one of which I wanted to expand upon was how did Hurd State Park come about? Named for an early family that settled at Knowles Landing at Middle Haddam (bottom of Knowles Road) the now 900 acre park, located off of Rt. 151 as you leave Middle Haddam towards Moodus and situated on the Connecticut River.

Among the first land acquisitions by the newly established Parks and Forest Commission in 1915, Hurd State Park began with 28 acres purchased from Frederick and Sophia Colson in 1916. Apparently after threats of litigation, the Eureka Flint & Spar, a New Jersey company, sold 90 additional acres to the State in 1923. Eureka had planned on mining Feldspar from the site as it did at other quarries in Chatham, Haddam & Middletown, but State pressure changed management’s minds.

Today the Park has scenic and panoramic views of the Connecticut River Valley and numerous hiking trails and recreational opportunities – all for free!

Knowing Our Past Gives Me Better Information to Serve You

WILLIAM BARTON House circa 1765 - located at the crest of Barton Hill

William Barton was the Founder of the Chatham Bell Industry. From has hands and apprenticeships, no less than 37 other bell maker companies were formed and operated in the East Hampton Society area.

Understanding the past can often prevent you from making an incorrect decision about your future - especially when buying or selling your most valuable asset - your home!

I have the knowledge of our Community's past and the proven experience and ability to serve your current Real Estate needs - whether you are marketing an antique or historic home or a house constructed last week.

Please remember, I'm never too busy for your referral at Prudential Connecticut Reality. I'm always available to take your call and can be reached at (860) 918-4400.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Aftermath of EHHS Fire

After assessing the damage and salvageable portions of East Hampton High School (our current Center School) which was nearly half consumed by fire on March 27, 1962, the Fire Marshall determined that only the auditorium/gymnasium was deemed usable and accordingly it was subdivided into 4 classrooms in addition to the stage becoming a fifth. The old grammar school section was not affected by the flames and continued to be used as classrooms. The Congregational Church, American Legion and Library were also used for classes as we began double sessions - a way less than half a usable facility could still accommodate the entire high school population.

For the remainder of the 1962 school year, I attended afternoon sessions. Depending on ones point of view, that could be good or bad. If you liked to sleep late in the morning, starting classes at 12:15 PM was probably wonderful. If you were a morning person like me, the afternoon really dragged.

In September, my freshman Class of 1966 was split - half attending morning session and the other half afternoon. That was the most devastating aspect of the fire and aftermath. My class was the only one split. The reason related to the number of teachers. The class was split according to those in the college preparation program versus students in the secretarial or industrial arts programs. Because teachers couldn't work both morning and afternoon sessions and foreign language or advanced math or science teachers mainly taught the upper classes, it was deemed most economical and effective to split our freshman class to follow the teachers.

Most distressing and something that still bothers me today was that at the one point where students and classmates need to bond and build relationships and a comradely with their peers, we became two different and distinct Classes of 1966. Some of those scars probably exist to this day, and I, for one, am truly sorry for what it did to isolate and maybe alienate friends and classmates from one another.

If a similar tragedy occurred today, parents and students alike would not stand for such treatment. At that point, the decade of protest had not begun. In 1962, we had not yet emerged from our sheltered cocoons and complacency of the 1950s. JFK was still President. Walter Cronkite was just beginning to report about race riots and freedom marches in the South and our biggest concerns centered on nuclear missiles from the Soviet Union.

Those last 2 months of the 1962 were dreadful. The late afternoons were hot and sticky and the buildings reeked of that musty smoke that permeated the whole downtown.

Many events shape our lives. I think the fire molded me and many others to appreciate what we had and to use our given talent for the public good.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Disaster - The High School Consumed in Flames

Have you ever had the experience of being woken from a sound sleep, being incoherent or not grasping what someone is telling or asking you? To this day, that is what I remember about the night of March 27, 1962.

Around midnight, I was woken by my father who informed me the High School (our current Center School) was burning! I probably made (know I did make) some inappropriate comment and continued to doze. As the reality finally sunk in, I sat up with a start and looked out the window. We lived on the top of Barton Hill and my bedroom overlooked the Village Center. Flames had enveloped the entire downtown illuminating the night sky. Normally at that hour it would have been pitch blackness. That night however, the Congregational Church glowed yellow as the flames danced higher than the perch of that pointed steeple spire.

The blaze as reported in the Middletown Press showing the second story engulfed in flames.

Near total destruction to 16 classrooms – the entire Bevin Boulevard wing –totaling $600,000, occurred. The auditorium/gymnasium and the portion known as the old Center Grammar School was saved. A couple days later, some of us were allowed into the school to retrieve books if our lockers had been on the first floor of the burnt wing. It was an amazing outpouring by members of all the classes. Then grades 8 – 12 attended the high school. A huge percentage volunteered to assist in whatever cleanup we could, salvaging books and organizing them to be redistributed. School was cancelled for a week as the Board of Education, School Officials, Town Selectmen and numerous organizations such as the American Legion, the Library Board and Congregational Church all pitched in.

Immediately, those portions of the Bevin Boulevard wing salvageable were cleared, cleaned and made ready, as normalcy, or the closest we could get to it, set in.

A New High School?

Like most communities in the late 1950s, growing pains struck East Hampto and with it some contentious issues. In rapid succession, the Town’s leadership began proposing and planning for a Sewer System, a Water System, formation of an Industrial Development Commission, a Parks & Recreation Commission which assumed oversight of Sears Park, and, school expansion.

The post WW II “Baby Boom” stretched facilities. In some instances class sizes ranged upward to 35 or 40 students per class. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was fully engaged, Spuknik had been launched and served as the first volley in our race into outer space. The emphasis of government and educators was in the sciences and East Hampton had pitiful class and labratory facilities. Today we would gasp at student levels of over 25 per class, but then, nearly every community was caught flatfooted.

Expanding the High School (now Center School) or building a new facility, pitted neighbors against neighbors and young parents against senior citizens, many of whom were on limited incomes. The senior citizens had weathered the depression years and were leery to be saddled with significant property tax increases.

But on December 29, 1959, a Special Town Meeting approved a High School Building Committee to investigate (a) expansion of the current high school, (b) constructing a new high school, and (c) finding a proposed site for a new high school. The Committee was composed of the First Selectman, John Paonessa, Board of Finance members Robert Ostergren and Barbara Hurley, Board of Education members Richard Burnham and Roy Nicks and 4 citizens elected at the meeting, Gladys Smith, Winfred Eilert, John Callahan and Newton Percy Clark, who began their work immediately.

The Citizens Committee for Good Government rumored 17 to 19 mill increases with any new school. Many leaders rebutted. Mr. Ostergren stated, “The rumor involves a failure to understand the tax system of EH,” or, “is a deliberate attempt to deceive the voters on a new school issue.” Fed up with cramped and inadequate quarters, the townspeople approved $1.45 million in March 1961, for a new high school. And believe it or not, at a Town Meeting on March 26, 1962, added $195,000 for an additional science lab, an auditorium and library. Today such amenities would be considered necessary to meet accreditation standards.