The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Readers joining stroll down memory lane
E-mails arriving from all over the country demonstrate how this weekly meandering through the good old days in Darien has stirred many memories.
Memories build on themselves, expanding exponentially as each one triggers several more. When shared that way, nostalgia is a lot more fun, maybe even more accurate and certainly more extensive.
Internet reactions have come most recently from Darien ex-patriates now living in New Mexico, Florida, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, California and Indiana, as well from towns throughout Connecticut and folks right here at home.
As a case in point, mentions here of the store Bill Stoler and his brother, Si, ran in Noroton Heights have led many to remember working there when they were teenagers. Latest to join that list were Agnes Monti (nor Mrs. Agnes Troy) of Ridgefield and William Demms of Trumbull, who is still active in his portrait photography career.
Demms recalls working as a newspaper boy at Stoler's for $5 a week when he was a 12-year-old student at Baker School on Noroton Avenue. Typically, that reminded him of the chaotic school schedules in those days as the town tried to squeeze growing enrollment into limited space. Seventh- and eighth-graders were on half-day sessions for a while and students were dividing their time between two or more buildings, including the old wooden Hindley School, pressed into service as an annex.
Demms recalls the day Vincenzo "Jimmy" Raffaele shot and killed Jim Montenero in front of Charlie Ertelt's Gilbert Pharmacy (then on Noroton Avenue before thruway construction forced the relocation of the entire Noroton Heights business district). The shooting climaxed a long feud between the two over control of the sole thermostat in the building they both occupied, Montenero with his wife and three daughters on the second floor and Raffaele in his shoe repair shop on the ground floor.
Page one of the Review that week featured a photograph of Sgt. Hugh McManus taking Raffaele into custody. "Mac," a big genial guy who called everybody "Pal," later became chief as did two of his protégés after him, John Jordan and Hugh Jr.
In a dramatic hearing at the town court (then on the second floor of the police station on Hecker Avenue), Judge Matt Hanna found "probable cause" for a trial after Prosecutor Bob Quimby asked Mrs. Montenero if the man who shot her husband was in the room. Clad in black, the widow rose in the witness stand and pointed to Raffaele. The accused was bound over for Superior Court, Bridgeport, where the charge was reduced from murder to manslaughter and he was sentenced to three years in State's Prison, Wethersfield. Shortly after, both families moved away.
The building in which Raffaele and Montenero had lived and worked was purchased by Matt and Mary Darby and, with the advent of the thruway, they moved it to the corner of Noroton Avenue and Maple Street where they ran a variety store. Merchandise there included the weekly issue of the Darien Review, delivered by its editor.
Demms' family bought Ralph Skelton's house the corner of Hecker and Noroton avenues in 1945 and he lived there for more than half a century. He remembers when that section of Hecker was a cornfield owned by John Tait. Lacking a leg, Tait perched on crutches as he ran a florist shop and was among leaders in the Noroton Heights business community and fire department.
Even back then, the Sugar Bowl was a Darien institution, frequented by most teenagers, and many recalled getting their first taste of pizza (they called it "abeets") at Bill Obuchowski's Wonder Bar, also on the Post Road, though they thought it odd that a man with a Polish name could be an expert on an Italian dish.
The Sugar Bowl then was run by Marion Dugan of the "Little Dublin" Dugans on Stamford's East Side. She can be credited with introducing pizza burgers to the local teen diet. Her son, Fred, was frequently on hand to help, but few patrons knew that he had been an all-America end at Dayton University and had a long career in the National Football League, mostly with the Washington Redskins.
Up the road just a bit in a building that now houses Uncle's Deli was Lyman's Meat Market, where steaks and roasts were cut to order by the proprietor, Lyman Mallett. He had been the butcher at Fred Baur's food store before he went off on his own, but he is remembered also for his outrageous puns and attempts at humor (he called Willie Demms "Dese, Demms and Does").
Mallett was an ardent Lions Club member and working and laughing with him and Lions Bill Schaberg, Woody Kurtz and Frank Kermes at the hot dog stand during Ox Ridge Hunt Club horse shows made the pungent sauerkraut odor bearable in the stifling summer heat. Running the concession stand at the shows, back in the day before they got to be big time and prize money was counted only in the hundreds, was an annual Lions Club fundraiser.
Mallett, who didn't look like he had ever missed too many meals and always had a hearty ho-ho, also was an ideal Santa Claus as he arrived in a fire truck for the annual Christmas caroling around the lighted tree on the little green that was at the intersection of Hecker and Noroton avenues before it was wiped away, along with the intersection itself, by construction of the turnpike.
Most meat market customers probably were unaware of their butcher's other talents. But then again there were so many prominent Darienites with hidden talents and avocations that sometimes eclipsed their daily jobs. At least a dozen of them were reviewed in this column back on June 17 and there will be more when time and space allow it.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review in the '50s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.