The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
When all signs pointed to 'withering' Heights
You could tell the players without a scorecard, but you might need an updated map of Noroton Heights to find them in the early 1950s.
After all, the merchants were familiar to everybody, but they led a pretty nomadic existence when construction of the Connecticut Turnpike uprooted them from locations they had occupied for generations.
Indeed, Charlie Galbo, who ran a local moving and storage company back in those days, might have been the busiest man in town as the Heights merchants hop scotched through the neighborhood always just a step or two ahead of the bulldozers.
Warning signs came early in the decade and before it was all over, a score or more of buildings had been demolished, Linden Avenue was all but wiped off the map, the village green where Hecker and Noroton avenues met was gone and more than 100 stores and families, many of them living in apartments above the businesses, were displaced and became known as "the thruway DP's."
No official announcements about a new highway had been made as the decade dawned, but after talking to Darien's state legislators, Thomas "Cap" O'Connor and Gennaro Frate, some of the merchants already had an inkling that something was going to happen. They found it hard to believe that their entire business community was going to be wiped out and some of them spent a great deal of time, money and energy trying to get the State to shift the route a bit. But the State wouldn't budge.
Bill Stoler, who ran a variety store with his brother, Cy, had a tract of land near the Heights railroad station (about where the Post 53 headquarters are now) and suggested that new stores could be built there. So Stoler's and Joe Palmer's grocery put up a building there and because all the Heights merchants wanted to stay together, plans were made for expansion at the site.
But within about five years, it was obvious that the site would not be spared by the new road and Palmer and Stoler were joined by Fred Baur, Charlie Ertelt and Joe Winter in searching for a new location. They had their eyes on a 28-acre tract called "Leonard Woods," but the town refused to rezone it for business and it later became the town dump.
Attention turned next to four acres owned by the Calve family and lying at the corner of Hollow Tree Ridge and what was then Glenbrook Road. The Olson Construction Company and the Darien Trucking Company were already on adjacent parcels and the post office, a liquor store and a couple of other small business were on Glenbrook Road, but Hollow Tree Ridge was still residential.
Abbott K. Hamilton, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, was reluctant to rezone the corner property for business, fearing commercial spread into residential neighborhood, but he eventually relented and the Noroton Heights Business Association bought the land and drafted plans for 15 stores there. The merchants, anxious to preserve their Noroton Heights identity, also succeeded in persuading the town to change the name of Glenbrook Road to Heights Road.
Even then, the shifting of locations continued. Palmer leased additional land along the east side of the tract and erected the present store there. Stoler's moved into Palmer's former site and others occupied the space Stoler left open. Over the years, another supermarket moved in and what began as a replacement for the old neighborhood stores became the busy shopping center that thrives there now as Hamilton had predicted years earlier.
In the meantime, the "mainline" merchants along the Post Road in the center of Darien were having site problems of their own.
Conrad Rossner, who ran the big variety store next to the Post Restaurant, was retiring, the Post Office moved to Corbin Drive, Morris Neuger, the Tokeneke Road dry-cleaner, erected a new building (at three stories, the tallest in town) at the Corbin corner. The Royal Scarlet (Tokeneke Road) and the Darien Provision Company (corner of Tokeneke and the Post Road) grocery stores were closing. Center Street also was in for some changes as Steve Gannon talked about moving the Noroton Water Company offices and prospective buyers had "higher uses" in mind for Frank Morris' auto repair shop property next door.
Post Road merchants objected vigorously when directional signs at the corners of Sedgwick Avenue and Mechanic Street pointed to the "Darien Shopping Center." They were still the Darien Shopping Center, they insisted, and so the new development changed its named to "Goodwives Shopping Center."
Most of the businesses moving into Goodwives were new ventures. Grand Union opened a supermarket, though First National continued on the Post Road. Sam Heft, who ran the liquor department at Darien Provision, opened his own store, "The Bottle Shop," and Elizabeth Ziegler Lucas launched "Land and Sea," a women's wear boutique. Ralph and Vilette Celotto moved their Oxen Yoke restaurant and bar from the Post Road to Goodwives and, over the years, additional stores and restaurants expanded the center into what Grasso and Nastasi had envisioned.
It had become clear by then that time was limited for some of favorite stopping places in town. Al Wilson's Tool Box in a historic former one-room schoolhouse that he had moved to Tokeneke Road is now a pet grooming parlor. Marvin Gruss' Darien Lumber Company is gone. There's a condominium where Pete Sweeney and Bill Handley had their gas station on the Sedgwick corner. Gone too are John Pleasic's diner, Nick Cardelle's lunch counter and Roy Fitzgerald's school bus depot, all long-standing neighbors of the firehouse on the Post Road.
Paradoxically, change was the only constant in the business scene, gradual and relatively calm in Darien center, but noisy, disruptive and dramatic in Noroton Heights. Yet, each managed to retain its historic identity and some familiar names remain.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of The Darien Review during the 1950s, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.