There was a time when the center of Newtown was mostly farmland and empty lots. Trees shaded grassy plots and tourist homes populated Church Hill Road. Grocery shopping meant a trip to Danbury or Southbury. Traffic passed leisurely up Queen Street, with no full-service banks or restaurants to lure drivers away from the route.
At the age of 95, George William Wheeler can be forgiven if precise dates and places are not easily recalled. But in his reminiscences with The Newtown Bee, and through the stories shared with his children, Linda Wheeler, Darleen Wheeler, and Bryant Wheeler, he is able to recreate a scene of by-gone days in Newtown and the role he played in shaping the more modern town center of today.
Born in Newark, N.J., June 12, 1919, Mr Wheeler moved with his mother Lilian and her husband, William H. Wheeler, to Boggs Hill Road in Newtown, when he was a young man. Shortly after, he enlisted in the Army, serving in the 13th Brigade (nicknamed the “Thundering Thirteen” by famous war journalist Ernie Pyle) during World War II.
He returned to Newtown at the war’s end, having been a part of the rout of Vichy French troops in North Africa, and service in Italy, Germany, and England. He rubbed shoulders with General George Patton, was wounded three times, made friends with French President Charles de Gaulle (“He called me the little soldier with the big cigar,” recalled Mr Wheeler), and was awarded two Croix de Guerre by the French government, for bravery.
Having picked up drums as a student in grade school, he was happy to sit in with members of the Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller Big Bands, or back up drummer Gene Krupa when they came to entertain troops. “I met Frank Sinatra, too,” he said. “Frankie was great.”
His uncle had taught him carpentry, even before he enlisted, Mr Wheeler said, and he had gone to school in New Jersey for architectural drawing. During his enlistment, he made use of those skills, several times.
“I constructed a house for our Captain, in North Africa, out of a bombed out vehicle, so the Captain could stay out of the rain,” he said. At Tulle Air Force Base in France, the soldier pitched in to build those buildings making up the base. He built sheds that were sent to the Arctic Circle that would be used for offices there.
Back stateside, the young George W. Wheeler again turned to building, first in Jacksonville, Fla., where he advised the building of a factory there, and after he was discharged, back in Newtown.
“We used cut nails, in that era. My first job was straightening out nails to reuse,” he said.
It was not long before Mr Wheeler would be putting his natural building ability to far better use than straightening nails.
As his uncle, George F. Wheeler, became more involved in development around the area, he often turned to his nephew to construct the buildings. One of the early projects was the Beech Brook residential housing, in Sandy Hook, off Glen Road. A Newtown Bee article briefly mentions that the Beech Brook residential project had been approved, in 1954.
“I was the contractor for that,” Mr Wheeler said, recalling as well that after the development was completed, there were often summer block parties in that area.
His daughter, Darleen Pane, recalled Independence Day picnics and games for the residents as they neighborhood was developed.
George W. Wheeler, working for his uncle, also built many of the houses in the Apple Blossom neighborhood, off of Route 25.
“I built them from the hole in the ground,” he said.
The Apple Blossom property, said his daughter Darleen Pane, was on property owned by his in-laws, Frank and Edna Diorio, who had a real estate business at the time.
His daughter, Linda, added that in Newtown alone, her father probably had a hand in building over 500 homes. He also built many in the Silver Mine Road section of Brookfield, including the five-bedroom family home where he and his wife, Mary Louise, had moved the family, she said.
“I grew up watching him pound nails,” she laughed.
Her sister also remembered her father’s passion for building.
“I don’t remember a day that he was not building something,” Ms Pane said.
Mr Wheeler preferred to design houses he would build, but some of his clients brought their own designs to him. He was a hands-on builder, laying bricks, pounding nails, and raising timbers, said Mr Wheeler. He hired others to assist him, and remembered that at one time, he could hire workers for $1 a day.
“I would supply all the materials, and tell them what to do,” he said.
Where George W. Wheeler feels he really left his mark, though, is in the center of Newtown, where his uncle, George F. Wheeler, developed Newtown’s first shopping center. Referred to by many as “the Wheeler Shopping Center,” Newtown Shopping Center on Queen Street was built in phases, said George W. Wheeler.
The first phase, which went up in 1951, was not his handiwork, Mr Wheeler said.
“My uncle had an empty lot on Queen Street. The White Birch Inn was on a corner, and the Oberg’s gas station was near. My uncle hired someone else, cheaper,” he said. Mr Wheeler remembers his uncle called him in for advice on moving forward.
The opening of the Newtown Shopping Center changed the face of Newtown completely, Mr Wheeler said.
“Before that, everyone had to go out of town to shop. People were opposed to putting the shopping center in,” he said, concerned about increased traffic. “They wanted Newtown to stay country. It took a while, but then people [who were shopping at the Center] would tell people who were still going out of town, and then they would come,” he said. Before long, residents were pleased with the convenience of the shopping center, he said. His uncle continued to pursue expansion of the property.
They had their differences at the time. “Put two hard-headed men together, and what do you get?” asked Ms Pane.
When it came time, however, to put up the freestanding Newtown Post Office in 1959, and the building that would house Connecticut National Bank (originally First National Bank and Trust of Bridgeport, located in the phase I section of the shopping center, and which, according to the Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, changed its name to Connecticut National Bank in 1955), as well as the next phase of five shops, it was George W. Wheeler, Inc, Builders of Brookfield that handled the construction.
Dedicated on November 12, 1960, the Newtown Post Office moved from its Edmond Town Hall location to the center of town. That building is today occupied by My Place Restaurant. The formal opening of the Connecticut National Bank, in what is now the Bank of America building, was on May 29, 1961.
Mr Wheeler had not been idle during the construction of those freestanding buildings. At the same time, his uncle, after being turned down by the town earlier in the year, had received permission to construct an addition to the Newtown Shopping Center, in April 1961.
The anchor store would be a new A&P Supermarket. (Advertising and articles in The Newtown Bee do not clarify what became of the Newtown Tru-Valu Supermarket, the store that was the centerpiece of the original section of the shopping center. It was still in business as of February 1961, when a police report notes a break-in there. It may have succumbed to competition. As the 1950s came to a close, the Grand Union Supermarket had opened directly across Queen Street. While not owned by his uncle, Mr Wheeler said that he had acted as “unofficial advisor” for the construction of the competing Grand Union shopping center.)
The nearby smaller cluster of businesses, now home to businesses that include Queen Street Gifts & Treats, The Color Center, and Newtown Pharmacy & Surgicals, said Ms Pane, was also the work of “the Georges,” although she could not determine the date of construction.
The October 12, 1962 Newtown Bee contains an article regarding the upcoming October 16 opening of the 10,420 square-foot A&P, crediting builder George W. Wheeler with great innovation for the times. “Of particular interest in the construction of the building, is the fact that it has no cellar and the heating system is ingeniously arranged in the ceiling of the large main room,” reads the article in part.
Not only the uncle and nephew butted heads, said Ms Pane. She recalled her father telling her of picketing by the Teamsters Union when the A&P was being built.
“Dad’s was not a union company, nor were the subcontractors,” she remembers being told, and the Union “put up a big stink about it.” Her father, a small but solid gentleman, was not afraid to stand up to the “big, burly teamsters” when they got pushy. “That’s how he got the name of ‘Little Caesar,’” Ms Pane said.
He is unsure of just when it occurred, but Mr Wheeler said that he remembered an overnight fire in a shop known as The Closet, that caused quite a bit of water and smoke damage to that business and adjacent businesses. Mostly, he recalled the shopping center as becoming a hub of activity.
He and his uncle were supporters of the popular summer block parties in the 1960s, recalled Mr Wheeler. Community wide dances took place to live music in the parking lot of the Newtown Shopping Center during the Labor Day weekend “Newtown Progress Days” celebration, he said.
“All of the shopkeepers supported the block party. It was just something for the community,” Mr Wheeler said.
Designs For Better Living was also a George W. Wheeler business, Ms Pane said, and offered “all types of construction, home improvements, and remodeling.”
He is amazed to think back on the number of homes, apartments, and stores that he has built in the area, Mr Wheeler said.
“I actually ask people, ‘Did I build that?’ I was in love with building. It was the idea,” he said, “that I had built something no one else could do.”