The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Old Soldiers help name neighboring rival town
Countless stories, some factual and others less so, about the Fitch Home for Old Soldiers in Noroton Heights have been told and retold over the years, but there's one that has attracted only scant attention.
It's an improbable tale recalling how war veterans living there were instrumental more than 100 years ago in giving New Canaan a nickname, "The Next Station to Heaven," that is still proudly used by its residents. Versions of the story vary according to who is telling it, but the basic facts are the same.
It all began with a parade in 1894 when 125 old soldiers boarded a special train in Noroton Heights for a round-about journey to New Canaan, via Stamford, to take part in ceremonies honoring Dr. William O. Brownson, a former Union Army surgeon who had become a commanding officer at the Fitch Home.
In the hot day's long hard march, the Civil War veterans worked up a fierce thirst but, according to a report the next day in The Republican, Stamford's newspaper in that era, the people of New Canaan denied them so much as a glass of water. A couple of days later, the editors apologized for that report which they said was erroneous and had been based on a quote from Noyes J. Pardee, known as "the resident crab" at the Fitch Home. More likely, it was said, Pardee and his buddies had been hoping to get "a few schooners of ale" and were disgruntled when only water was offered.
But it was too late. The die had been cast. Other small town papers in the state picked up the story and editors clucked a critical tongue at New Canaan's "monstrous" lack of hospitality. That was enough to raise Will Kirk's hackles. Kirk was editor of The Messenger, New Canaan's newspaper at the time, and he felt compelled to rise to the town's defense.
Kirk reasoned that New Canaan hadn't quite reached paradise only because the branch line railroad stopped there, leading him to conclude that heaven must surely be the next station.
The account of how New Canaan got that mantra is true and basically accurate even if the reaction of the people involved is apocryphal, but it's all part of the legend and lore that always has emanated from that land at the corner of West and Noroton avenues.
The home for indigent veterans and children orphaned by the Civil War was built there by Benjamin Fitch, a Darien resident who had prospered in the textile industry in New York and had become one of Connecticut's first millionaires. He retired at the age of 51 to devote his life to philanthropy and one of his beneficiaries was the home for veterans and orphans.
Too old to serve in the Army, he felt he could do his share by giving five acres of land and $100,000 for construction of the home and it was dedicated on July 4, 1864, in ceremonies featuring Horace Greeley, famed New York editor, as the principal speaker. Throughout his life, Fitch continued his financial support and, in fact, for a while the Town of Darien also appropriated one dollar a week to be added to a bank account for each orphan there.
The Fitch Home, first of its type in Connecticut, ultimately included a 250-bed hospital, a chapel (now the VFW clubrooms on Noroton Avenue), a residence hall (still in use as an apartment building) and barracks, a library with about 5,000 books and the base commandant's home still on West Avenue.
Soon soldiers who had fought in the Indian wars, the Spanish-American War and World War 1 were housed there and the population peaked at about 1,000 during the Depression.
The home and the people in it became very much a part of the town. Uniformed troops from the home marched in Darien parades and it is estimated that about 2,000 of them were buried in the veterans' plot at Spring Grove Cemetery. Neighbors grew accustomed to the early morning reveille bugle calls and the mournful "Taps" each time the gates opened for a hearse taking another old soldier to the veterans' burial ground at Spring Grove Cemetery.
In 1888, the State Department of Veterans took over and operated the Fitch Home until 1940 when a new facility opened in Rocky Hill. More than 500 veterans, led by the last surviving Civil War soldier, then 97, boarded special trains in Noroton Heights for the trip to their new home upstate.
The site wasn't idle for long. The U.S. Navy took it over shortly after World War II began and assigned about 100 men there for training in radio communications, baking and cooking. Soon there were lots of new stories to tell about the site. Sailors being the attraction that they are for young women, flirtations through the chain-link fence became commonplace, occasionally warranting the attention of police.
In those days. the Stamford bus line ran right past the corner and "swabbies" on liberty took full advantage of it, riding as far as the first bar, "Nan Parker's" on East Main Street, near Lafayette Street, in Stamford.
When the war ended and the sailors went home, the corner was still making history. The Darien Housing Authority, led by Dick King and Bob Fatherley, acquired the site, by then expanded to 10 acres, and built 41 one-family houses on it. In addition, the old residence hall was converted into 12 apartments.
Young veterans and their families began moving there in 1952 and the complex was dedicated to the memory of two Darien men who perished during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 --- Lt. Eric Allen, a Naval Air Force pilot, and Ensign Bill O'Neill, who was aboard the USS Arizona when it was sunk.
The lot at the corner of West and Noroton has undergone several historic transformations, but Benjamin Fitch also left an indelible mark elsewhere in Darien. He built a big house, called "Canary Cottage" because it was painted yellow, for her on the Post Road. It later became the clubhouse for Wee Burn when it was a nine-hole golf course there.
Charlotte Fitch was a devout Episcopalian and when she got tired to going to Stamford for services, her son, Benjamin, gave the land at the corner of Ring's End and the Post road on which the present St. Luke's Church was built in 1856 and he was a major donor to the building fund. He died in 1883 at the age of 81 and he and his mother are interred in a crypt under the chancel at St. Luke's.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of The Darien Review during the '50s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.