Darien is preparing to take a trip back in time, and also to welcome President Abraham Lincoln to town.
Or at least, someone who looks an awful lot like him.
In conjunction with a ceremony to honor the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, as well as the unveiling of a bronze Gettysburg Address plaque at the state veteran cemetery in the town’s Spring Grove Cemetery, the state’s Department of Veteran Affairs will hold a ceremony on Sunday, July 1, at 11 a.m.
The ceremony will include some actors re-enacting the time period including President Lincoln.
The department’s commissioner, Linda Schwartz, secured the plaque for Darien, telling The Darien Times the cemetery has great historical significance for veterans, as does the town, which had America’s first home for veterans.
The Fitch Home for Soldiers, now the site of the Allen-O’Neill Moderate Income Family Homes, was established by Benjamin Fitch of Darien for Civil War veterans and later for children of fathers killed in that war.
From 1864 to 1940 the Fitch Home served the needs of hundreds of orphans and thousands of men who served the US in various wars. More than 2,000 of those veterans now rest in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Darien.
The home eventually expanded from five acres to 12 acres with another five acres across the street and two more acres at Spring Grove Cemetery. The Fitch Home steadily grew from 197 resident veterans in 1889 to 500 in 1905 and 547 in 1910.
Anyone living in Noroton Heights would hear reveille in the morning and taps in the evening those days. And somtimes hear the drum-beat of the long roll when a veteran died. Taps would be played as the remains passed through the big gates.
The Fitch home became the Connecticut State Veterans hospital in 1940 and then relocated to Rocky Hill upstate.
The Allen-O’Neill housing was completed in 1953.
Schwartz told The Darien Times she visited Spring Grove Cemetery shortly after taking her position as commissioner and was impressed by how important it was to the town and how well its residents cared for it.
“They came together to make the place look great,” she said.
Schwartz said she felt it was time to do something of historical significance for the town, and when the opportunity came up to order a plaque, as a fan of President Lincoln, and of history, she jumped on it.
“What better way to honor those veterans than to order the plaque and get it installed,” Schwartz said.
The timing of the Gettysburg plaque seems to be coincidentally around the same time that a Gettysburg oak tree, planted 20 years ago on the Allen-O’Neill site, was cut down in error recently during the project’s renovation.
Schwartz said though the two events had nothing to do with each other, she was “crestfallen about the tree.”
“We are working on negotiating a tree from Gettysburg, though it won’t be as big,” she said.
Schwartz also said she plans on the replacement tree being located at the cemetery, on town property, instead of the privately owned Allen O’Neill property, owned by the Darien Housing Authority.
The Darien Housing Authority also expressed regret at the accidental cutting down of the Gettysburg tree, and commissions say they intend to replace the tree and have a dedication ceremony.
Schwartz is concerned with the current Allen-O’Neill renovation project to double the currently 53 single-family houses to town house style units, which began a few months ago.
She said she was surprised that none of the current structures, especially the brick apartment building on the site, were being preserved for historical significance, especially the brick apartment building, given their importance to state and veterans’ history.
As she oversees the relocated facility in Rocky Hill, Schwartz said she is “carrying the torch” for Fitch, and said if she wanted to do anything to the relocated facility’s structures, she’d need some sort of historical approval.
“He left us a legacy with this veterans’ home, and there’s one in every state of the union now — that’s his legacy he started,” she said.
The Darien Housing Authority did not respond to questions about the current historical significance of any of the buildings at the Allen-O’Neill Homes or whether any inquiries regarding preservation had been made.
According to the Darien Housing Authority’s website, “most of the original buildings from the Fitch estate are gone; however the chapel was moved across the street and remodeled to become Darien’s VFW Post 6933.”
The site refers to the brick apartment building mentioned by Schwartz — saying “the current apartment building at 20 Allen O’Neill Drive was remodeled from one of the Fitch buildings.”
Karen and Dave Polett, both members of the town’s Monuments & Ceremonies Commission, said they are “really pleased” with all of Schwartz’s efforts, including obtaining a new tree and the plaque.
“Darien has a long heritage of serving our veterans, especially those from the Civil War, and the new Lincoln monument and the memorial tree will be a further tribute to their sacrifice,” they said in an email to The Darien Times.