The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Town was well-organized with clubs for all causes
Groucho Marx would have had a dilemma in Darien in the early '50s; the caustic comic once cracked that he would never join a club that would have him for a member and back then he would have had a problem finding one that wouldn't accept him.
In fact, there was an organization to accommodate almost any standard or lack thereof and everybody belonged to something. If membership rosters of all local clubs were printed, the name of each of Darien's residents (there were about 11,000 then) might appear at least twice.
Early in the decade, the DCA coveted an estate on Middlesex Road for a home of its own. Mrs. Alan Fort, Mrs. Harrison Henry and Mrs. Henri (Kay) Esquerre led scores of women were in an ambitious effort that ultimately succeeded in buying the property that came to be called "Meadowlands."
A stately mansion in a garden setting, it soon became a hub of activity ranging from distinguished guest lecturers in academic courses to wedding receptions.
Men of the community were as busy. The Horseless Carriage Club, for example, doted on shiny old cars exhibited regularly by Byron Dugdale, John Oldrin, Willard Poole, Harry Street, Bayard Colgate, Ed Lawrence, Miley Heinbaugh and Nelson Page.
Oldrin was one of the movers and shakers at the Darien Library then and he ran the Red Cross for a while. It's a wonder he ever found time to polish his car. Poole was the head honcho at the Home Bank and Trust Company on the corner of Center Street and always made loan applicants nervous by cracking his big knuckles as he pondered their fate. Lawrence ran the funeral home as his father had done before him and as his son and now his grandson did after him.
Harry was a busy Street, running the Civil Defense Organization and the Auxiliary Police Force, Heinbaugh owned a lumberyard, Colgate hailed from the toothpaste family and Page was the bespectacled architect who designed most of the public and commercial buildings in town,
Banker Drew Painter, grocer Herb Williamson, postal clerk Stan Crosby, the Heinbaughs (father Miley and son Ronnie) and Wilbur Gainer were leading lights in the Masonic Order when Ivanhoe Lodge acquired and remodeled Schrader's Barn, where it held weekly square dances.
Another old-time weekly highlight, the Kiwanis Club lunch, seemed familiar decades later even in a different venue because some of senior members like Phil Morehouse, Eric Lundberg (more than 100 years old at this writing) were still in regular attendance.
In the fifties, the club lunched at Palumbo's TwinTerrace, a restaurant at the corner of Hecker Avenue where the library is now. With a roster that included the likes of Town Clerk Al Brunner, Bill Pratt, sewer plant supervisor, Charlie Mitchell of the old Review, Police Chief Eddie Mugavero, Steve Gannon of the Noroton Water Company and insurance men Connie Palen and John Bathrick, the Kiwanis Club was the town's chief charity fundraiser (and hell-raiser as well).
Across town, the ranks of the Lions Club were a bit thinner and the group had to meet in the evening because members were unable to leave daytime jobs. In the ranks were Frank Kermes and Woody Kurtz from a Glenbrook variety store, pharmacists Phil Varnum and Ray Humiston, Bill Schaberg, Johnny Keane, Lyman Mallett, Selectman Peter Sweeney and a handful of others, including the Darien Review editor.
The Lions' loudest roar was operating the refreshment stand and helping to direct traffic and parking at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club's annual horse show. For our efforts, we shared in the hot-dog receipts.
With World War II still a fresh memory, veterans groups were particularly active and the rosters of Darien's three volunteer fire departments were almost identical to those of the town's three post offices.
Sal Mazzeo, policeman Bill Dance and his wife, Alma, and his brother Chauncey, also a cop, were leaders in the American Legion Post and in nagging State Rep. Thomas "Cap" O'Connor to press the governor for funds for veterans' housing.
As a result, "Cap," a retired New York City fireman with a thick Irish brogue, was instrumental in town acquisition of the Fitch Home for Soldiers that the Navy used for a radio training school during the war. Located at the corner of West and Noroton Avenues, it became the site for the Allen-O'Neill housing complex.
Dick King, Ed Allodi and Bob Fatherley of the Town Housing Authority played major roles in the Allen-O'Neill success. Fatherley went on to join Bertha Mather McPherson and Janet Jainschigg in establishing the Darien Historical Society.
Most of the Fitch buildings were demolished, but two were spared. One still serves as a 2-story brick apartment building and the other, formerly the chapel, was moved across the road and is now headquarters for another active club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
It took some doing to get the chapel and move it and the VFW held all kinds of raffles and contests to raise the money. Al Abbott paid more attention to what he called "the VFW shingles drive" than he did even to his cigar. Al, a former Navy bos'n, ran a sign-painting shop in his back yard shed on Day Street and always seemed to be working on something for the VFW as he told war stories.
Just out of the Army, Russ had opened a photo shop with his wife, Loretta, who had served in the Women's Army Corps, and did all of the local news photography.
A series of energetic presidents followed him, including Sam Heft of the Bottle Shop and the pipe-smoking insurance man, Abbott Abercrombie. But a woman was behind their successes. Her name was Helen Knapp and she, as the lone paid officer, was a sort of solo Chamber.
Charlie Ertelt, Joe and Irene Winter, Bill and Cy Stoler, Joe Palmer, Fred Baur and John Tait led the business group in Noroton Heights. Charlie is remembered for the way he nagged the neighborhood kids to stop spinning around on the soda fountain stools in his drug store, Gilbert Pharmacy.
Of course, Wee Burn Country Club flourished after having moved from its original nine-hole digs on the Post Road, where Gennaro Frate, later a state representative, was the pro.
And Edgar Auchincloss was turning his family farm, Keewaydin, into the Darien Country Club. He raised the funds by inviting 250 Darien families to become charter members by posting $1,000 each. If memory serves, Al and Anita Brunner and Realtor Holly Seeley, Anita's brother, were first in line.
Up on Middlesex Road was the magnificent Ox Ridge Hunt Club where Otto Heuckeroth and Felicia Townsend developed equestrians like Ronnie Mutch and George Morris who went on to national and international competitions. After the stables burned down in a spectacular mid-decade fire, Ox Ridge rose from the ashes, like a phoenix, bigger and better than ever.
And there was the Tokeneke Club, where people like bankers Bill Jones and Don Blodgett basked on the beach; the Noroton Yacht Club with the Dorrance, Cox, Aymar, Franklin, Tweedy and Crimmins families prominent, and the Darien Boat Club just getting underway at Pear Tree Point with George Brencher, one-eyed Bill Loeffler and Lou Maynard at the helm.
Curiously, Woodway Country Club on the Stamford town line had its beach club at Shippan Point and Wee Burn's is in Rowayton.
Darien also has many neighborhoods on private roads and it seemed that each formed a property-owners association. Some had their own tennis courts, swimming pools and beaches. Tokeneke even had its own police. And there was an umbrella coalition called the Council of Property-Owners Associations.
Yes, contrary to occasional outward appearances, the Town of Darien really was well organized in the 1950s.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of the old Darien Review in the 1950s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.