Town Historian Daniel Cruson’s newest book, Legendary Locals of Newtown, will be released by Arcadia Publishing of Charleston, S.C., on July 26. The book, a compilation of images and information on many of the men and women who have formed Newtown since its purchase from the native Pootatucks in 1705, will be available at book stores, online at Amazon.com, at Newtown Historical Society events, and locally at C.H. Booth Library and other outlets. Library sales of the book, priced at $21.95, will benefit the historical society.
Mr Cruson began work on his 15th book, all historical in nature, a year ago, after being approached by the publishing company. Arcadia was familiar with his work, he said, as he has published three books in the company’s “Images of America” series: Newtown, Newtown 1900–1960, and Redding and Easton.
Looking to go beyond the small towns featured in it Images of America series, the Legendary Locals series from Arcadia seeks to focus on people. “It’s About The People. It’s About The Time” is its banner headline on promotional material.
Legendary Locals of Newtown will be the first in the series of countrywide books related to Fairfield County, said Mr Cruson.
“I had just finished Putnam’s Revolutionary War Winter Encampment when Arcadia approached me. I was casting about for another project and this one fell into my lap,” he said. He welcomed the challenge it would present.
“I knew I had the resources to do it, but this focused on the people who have built this town [rather than the town and buildings] and who have created Newtown’s unique character,” Mr Cruson said.
Primarily a book of images, the Legendary Locals series is intended to have more depth than the Images of America, so far as information goes.
As Mr Cruson pondered how to approach the book, he set guidelines for himself. His first was that the person had to be important to the town’s heritage.
While not an easy task to choose among the many movers and shakers, the people of Newtown who immediately leapt to mind were Mary Elizabeth Hawley and Arthur T. Nettleton. Ms Hawley provided the impetus and money to build Edmond Town Hall, Hawley School, and C.H. Booth Library.
“Mary Hawley did so much for the town, of course. But Arthur Nettleton probably did more for the town than Mary Hawley,” said Mr Cruson, but his actions were in the background to what Ms Hawley did. Mr Nettleton, who served as treasurer of Newtown Savings Bank for the first half of the 20th Century, and also as the bank president, beginning in 1938 until his retirement, was a close advisor to Ms Hawley.
“He was on all the building committees for her buildings. He gave form to her ideas,” Mr Cruson pointed out.
After Mr Nettleton’s death, it was discovered that for several years he had selected a scholar and given that boy or girl a full scholarship to whichever school he or she was planning to attend.
“It was done very discretely,” said Mr Cruson.
His second general rule was that the people included must be deceased, a rule to which he found he had to make exceptions.
“For instance, with the Smith dynasty at The Newtown Bee, I had to change my guidelines to include Publisher Scudder Smith,” said Mr Cruson. “Or someone like Mae Schmidle, whose contributions are so broad and comprehensive.
“People like Chuck Newman of Planters’ Choice and Morgen McLaughlin of McLaughlin Vineyards, who changed the face of modern agriculture in Newtown, are included. These were two good examples of people who started out in agriculture, but had to change the direction of their businesses to make them viable,” he said. It was an editorial decision as to which living people ended up in the book, he said, as well as a concern for space.
“I was only allowed a maximum of 280 photographs, and I used nearly that many,” Mr Cruson said.
Among those highlighted in his book are more familiar names such as Judge William Edmond, Eleanor Mayer, Ezra Johnson, Grace Moore, William Cole, and William Upham. Lesser known people, but ones who had a great impact on the shaping of Newtown, include Pine Swamp Hill and Sandy Hook pioneer Abijah Merritt, Newtown Academy Headmaster John Homer French, school teacher Annie Murphy, and Alfred Jefferson Briscoe, the son of a slave who became a popular local stagecoach driver in the late 19th Century.
There is a thread that runs through the book. On page 11 is a photo of the Newtown Bicentennial committee of 1905, most of whom belonged to the Men’s Literary and Social Club of Newtown Street. Sandwiched between that photograph and one on page 120-121 of members of the Men’s Literary and Social Club on its 100th anniversary, in 1994, are profiles of many of those early club members. In the 1994 image can be seen the faces of people who continue to mold Newtown’s character.
Learning About People
Although familiar with many of Newtown’s historical figures, researching Legendary Locals was a pleasure, Mr Cruson said.
“I was learning things about people I had been only peripherally familiar with,” he said, giving Joe Engleberger and the late Robert Fulton as examples.
“I knew that Joe was a giant in the field of robotics. I didn’t know how pivotal he was in that field. The name ‘Father of Robotics’ is truly deserved when used with Joe,” he said.
He was quite aware that Robert Fulton was an inventor, but discovering the man’s lesser-known inventions and finding out fully about Mr Fulton’s trip around the world by motorcycle was a gift of the research, he said.
Discovering that antiques dealers Wilton Lackaye and Florence Johns (Lackaye) had both been successful Broadway actors before coming to Newtown was a revelation to Mr Cruson.
“Maude Knapp gave me the photos of Florence, and a couple of Lackaye,” he said, noting that Al Knapp had been involved in the formation for SAC boys’ athletic club founded by Mr Lackaye.
“Getting details like that was the true delight of this project, and making connections between the people in town,” said Mr Cruson.
The book is broken down into ten chapters: The Creators of Newtown, Agriculture, Education, Health, Worship, The Arts, Industry, Retail, Sports, and a final chapter that gave him a great deal of pleasure, Characters.
Mr Cruson stressed that “characters” does not have a negative connotation. “These are people like Al Penovi of toilet scrap yard fame, or Birdsey Parsons. They were characters, in that they did things their own way,” he said.
Space limitations, availability of information or of a usable image meant that Legendary Locals of Newtown does not include every notable Mr Cruson would like to have included.
“Israel Nezvesky is not included. The only image available was of him at the synagogue groundbreaking. He was one of the patriarchs of the Jewish community in Huntington District,” Mr Cruson said, “and I was really disappointed not to be able to include him.”
He was also unable to get his hands on a good image for Fenn “Slim” Dickinson, for whom Dickinson Memorial Park is named, and as the book is meant to be primarily one of photographs, that meant the late first selectman could not be featured in the book.
The book would not be complete, he felt, without paying homage to the children and adults who died on 12/14, as Legendary Locals of Newtown was under way. The two-page photograph, at the book’s end, reminds readers “of 26 legendary locals whose lives were cut short.”
Mr Cruson is hopeful that others will find the same fascination in discovering, or rediscovering, the legendary locals that he has placed on the pages of this book.
“A town is the product of its people,” Mr Cruson reiterated from the introduction to the first chapter, “The Creators of Newtown,” and he is pleased to present this book to the reading public.