The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
A curbside signal that the town was changing
It was just a tree and there was nothing special about it, but it made front page news when it was cut down on a windy March day in 1950.
Tall and stately, it had stood at the corner of West Avenue and the Post Road for probably more than 100 years and had not yet been affected by the Dutch elm disease that had begun to ravage woodlands in the Northeast. It had weathered countless storms, too, but was just taken for granted as an unremarkable part of the scenery.
Nobody really paid much attention until it began getting in the way, interfering with traffic and commerce and making road and sidewalk maintenance difficult. But when Tree Warden Bill Cotta's crew took it down, the old elm was noticed in its absence, significant as a turning point in Darien's transformation from a sleepy little bucolic burg to a burgeoning retail center.
Soon after, the big old house (where Mrs. Pratt lived) directly behind the curbside elm was demolished, clearing the way for a new one-story retail building with a modernistic curved façade. Margo Moore's women's wear boutique and Ellen Harrel's gift shop moved in and the central core of Darien's retail community began to change.
The town's population hovered around the 11,000 mark, two bus lines connected Darien to Norwalk and Stamford and George Brencher was still presiding over his cluttered one-pump gas station on the triangular corner of Mechanic Street, directly across from where the elm had once reigned. George, a former fire chief and later a member of the Representative Town Meeting, always knew all about everything going on in town and it was always fun (and instructive too) to get his version of it, spiced up perhaps with an acerbic comment or two.
The Darien Review offices and printing plant were still housed in the white wooden building on the Post-West corner. The Liquor Locker, run by Lou Paulnack and Fred Galati, a Chinese laundry and Bill Kelly's TV repair shop were in adjacent wing along West Avenue.
The seat of Darien government was still at the Mansfield Avenue corner where Town Hall offices were in the wooden building that looked like an old school because that's what it was. Next door, Herb Williamson was still running the A&P "supermarket" which, in truth, was more like a mom and pop grocery store in a small wooden building.
And the post office and firehouse were still down the block a bit, across from the Post Restaurant and Conrad Rossner's stationery store. Pete Shand, George Gaffney, Jim Lechak and Stanley Wasel and their families still lived in the apartments above. Stan had only recently taken over the Post and the apartment from John Spillane. Square dances were still held once in a while in the meeting room on the second floor of the firehouse or at Schrader's Barn, the Masonic lodge.
The center of Darien then, such as it was, was clustered around the infamously low railroad bridge, where many a rueful trucker had met his waterloo by underestimating the height of his vehicle and trying to squeeze under. Frank Morris still had his auto repair shop on Center Street and Steve Gannon, Walt Brunner, Myrtle McIntyre and Betty Flaherty ran the Noroton Water Company offices in a small converted house nearby. Willard Poole, Don Blodgett and Bill Quirk were still at the Home Bank and Trust Company on the corner. Across the way, Al Abbott was still cutting and painting signs in his backyard workshop on Day Street.
So the core of the old "downtown" remained pretty much the same, but business had long since begun to spread along the length of the Post Road from the Cocolis family's Half-Way House (now Giovanni's) at the Stamford line to the orange-roofed Howard Johnson's (which later became the Red Coach Grill) near the Norwalk line. Close by, too, were a Liggett's drug store, the Mexican Room store, Pottery Corner, Oscar Noyd's plumbing shop, Ed Wagner and Vinny Falcioni at Wagner Pools, Christman's Furniture, a cozy nook of a restaurant called The Little Brown Jug (later becoming a paint store), Old MacDonald's Petting Zoo and diner, Pete Zangrillo's golf shop and driving range and Carol Masterson's women's wear shop.
But the winds of change, as though taking their cue from an elm tree that had been taken down to clear the way, were breezing through town. Gennaro Frate was putting up a new building for his landmark Darien News Store, Steve Zangrillo was looking for larger quarters for the Darien Sport Shop, Loretta and Russ Fairbanks opened a photography supply store, the Post Office was preparing to move to Corbin Drive and Morris Neuger, the Tokeneke Road dry-cleaner, was planning a new three-story building (the tallest in town) at the Corbin-Post Road corner.
Al Wilson and Ed Norvell already had moved an authentic "little red schoolhouse" to Tokeneke Road to accommodate their hardware store, The Toolbox, and the old beer garden in back of Amend's Tavern was gone when the bar was sold to Ernie Harris of Norwalk.
Meanwhile, the "new" Royle School stood vacant after a replacement building was erected off Mansfield Avenue and plans were underway to relocate the Town Hall once again to that old school.
Elsewhere, Sam Grasso and John Nastasi had their eyes on a large parcel of land off Old Kings Highway North and were talking about building a modern shopping center there. Before the decade was out, Goodwives Shopping Center was a reality, anchored by a "real" supermarket, the Grand Union.
Among the first retailers there was Elizabeth Ziegler Lucas. In our faulty memory, we had listed her as the owner of Land and Sea, a women's clothing store, but alert readers have corrected us. "Liz," as she preferred to be called, ran The Book Shelf. Land and Sea was Sid and Sylvia Heft's store. Sid was the brother of Sam Heft, a former Chamber of Commerce president who also was among the first Goodwives merchants when he opened The Bottle Shop.
Looking back, the removal of an old elm tree was more than just a coincidental harbinger of the "new wave" in business here. A sentinel of the past had left the scene and cleared the way for change.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of The Darien Review in the '50s. He can be reached at email@example.com.