The Gifts Of Town Historian Daniel Cruson, Remembered
When the final history of Newtown is written, it is Daniel Cruson who will be best remembered as the author of this town’s past.
Spanning nearly a half century of exploring Newtown’s history, the last 27 of which he served as Newtown’s official Town Historian, Daniel Cruson, who died February 21, has left a gift for which Newtown will be always grateful — meticulous records of the people and places of our town.
With his passing, this town has lost a man unparalleled in his ability to tease the truth from historical artifacts, to appreciate the richness of the men and women who first called Newtown home, and a man who reveled in sharing Newtown’s history with all who wanted to learn.
Dan Cruson was born in New London, Conn., December 6, 1945, and raised in Easton, the son of Daniel Cruson, Jr, and Brenda Cruson. In 1968, he became a charter member of the Easton Historical Society, where his interest in local history was set fire. He moved to Newtown in 1970, and turned his attention to this village.
He was the author of numerous books that captured the essence of Newtown and Sandy Hook from the historical perspective, including: Legendary Locals of Newtown; The Slaves of Central Fairfield County; and A Mosaic of Newtown History, published for the tercentennial of the town in 2005 and gleaned from the hundreds of essays in the Rooster’s Crow newsletters he composed for the Newtown Historical Society, rich with details that brought history to life. Newtown Remembered oral histories — for which he served as coeditor, along with Mary Maki and Andrea Zimmermann — was also among his contributions well received by this community. Newtown and Newtown: 1900-1960, photographic histories published by Images of America; the histories of places like Newtown Savings Bank and the C.H. Booth Library; pamphlets to encourage the average citizen to explore their homes and properties, and about town benefactress Mary Elizabeth Hawley and her great-grandfather William Edmond: these and more have offered an access to the past.
As a community we grieve the passing of Daniel Cruson, even as we celebrate his memory, which will live on in his collective works and the people of whose lives he was a part.
From his son Dan Cruson, Jr, come these memories: “For as long as I can remember my father was devoted to history. From early memories of visiting him while he performed archeological excavations behind the Matthew Curtis House, to more recent memories of spending time with him in the Town Historian office while he met with people interested in knowing more about the history of Newtown, it has been a regular part of life around him. I remember when he was named town historian and how much he enjoyed serving as the authority on history in Newtown for many years. I also remember his excitement when he uncovered new facts or solved mysteries about legendary figures and fixtures in town.
“While I knew about his passion for history my entire life, it wasn’t until lately that I realized just how far back his involvement with the history of Newtown stretched. One day, a few years ago, I was visiting him at his office in the Edmond Town Hall when someone from the Middle Gate School PTA brought in two boxes containing newspaper clippings and pictures that had been collecting dust in a closet at the school. As I was going [through] everything out of curiosity, I found myself looking down on a picture of my dad looking much younger than I ever remembered him. The picture was him holding a portrait of Cyrenius H. Booth in the restored museum exhibit that he was credited for. The article it accompanied was titled “A Nice Place to Visit” and was dated July 27, 1979. It is a perfect example of how long my dad had been involved in the preservation and presentation of the town’s history, as well as the passion he put into it.” Dan Cruson, Jr, also notes that the Newtown Historical Society will be awarding a scholarship in his father’s name to a Newtown High School senior, and a part of money donated to the Society will go toward that.
Dan Cruson’s son Ben recalled his father in these words: “My father is the primary reason I love history today. Our family vacations were always filled with visits to historic places. When I developed an interest in maritime history in high school, he indulged my interest by taking me to Mystic Seaport and the site of the Battle of Stonington. That was the day I decided that I would major in History in college. Since then, my love of history has only grown. Over the past couple years, he took me under his wing and began teaching me what he knew about researching local history. I still have much to learn, but I hope to be able to use what he taught me to carry on his legacy of discovering and preserving Newtown’s history. I also hope to follow in his footsteps and make a career in education. I have been touched and inspired by some of the amazing comments we have been receiving from his former students whose lives he changed for the better. I am tremendously grateful for having him in my life and I will miss him more than I can possibly say.”
Discovering, Teaching, Preserving
“Newtown has lost a most valuable treasure in the passing of Dan Cruson,” noted Newtown Bee Publisher R. Scudder Smith, upon hearing of Cruson’s death. “Personally and through The Bee files over the years, we provided each other with so much information about our beloved town and its residents as he held his reign as Town Historian. He made such a mark in the town, sifting through all the knowledge at hand from public records and people to whom he could easily speak with, as he was a personable and friendly man.
“He stored all that bountiful knowledge in his memory, so he almost always had an immediate answer for any question that arose from any quarter. And beyond that ‘almost always’, if he didn’t have that answer at his fingertips, he found it in short order. Blessedly, he leaves us with his published books which will educate our present and future generations.
“With his historical background and his dedication to his position of historian, it is going to be difficult for anyone who chooses to follow in his footsteps. Dan will be greatly missed.”
Curtiss Clark, former editor at The Newtown Bee, until his retirement in 2016, recalled Cruson, saying, “Dan Cruson was without a doubt the world’s champion reader of The Newtown Bee. He perused, I believe, nearly every issue going back to its 19th Century origins. Plus, he seemed to have a remarkable recall of everything he had read. I spent much of my lifetime observing Newtown and telling its stories, but any pretense I may have had about ‘knowing’ the town withered away when I would talk to Dan. The breadth and scope of his knowledge of the town and its people, from the fishing spots of the indigenous Potatucks to Mary Hawley’s ill-fated romance to a man of the cloth, made me feel like I had been observing the town through a pea shooter. The town’s fascinating narrative is bigger than anyone could possibly know, except perhaps for Dan. Dan would always serve up his stories and historical tidbits, all meticulously researched, with a certain bemusement, much like Santa Claus, whom he closely resembled.”
Longtime friend and coeditor Andrea Zimmermann said, “Dan was a brilliant man who freely shared his deep reservoir of knowledge. He had a wonderful, dry sense of humor. Dan was a kind person, who was genuinely interested in others.
“I first met Dan in the mid-1990s when I was a reporter for The Newtown Bee, writing features about Newtown’s history. Dan suggested people to contact and pointed me in the right direction. We became friends and, during the next 20 years, worked on many projects together including the Newtown Historical Images Archive, and the Newtown Oral History Project with Mary Maki. I well remember Dan spending hours at the microfilm reader at the library, scanning old films of The Bee for answers to a particular question, but then finding ten more tantalizing questions along the way. His entire face lit up when he shared a new discovery.
“Dan graciously took up the mantel of Town Historian, dedicating much of his free time to researching and writing books and essays about Newtown’s history. He was so enthusiastic about any fact he unearthed, spending equal effort on tracking down information about a bottle found inside the wall of a Newtown house, or the history of an individual, such as Cato Freedman, a Newtown slave manumitted in 1783. That’s why he was such a good teacher and mentor — he introduced the value and relevance of history by encouraging people to look in their own back yards. Although Dan also worked to document and preserve objects, I feel his legacy will be having made the town’s history accessible and interesting to everyone. Newtown has lost a great preservationist, historian, and friend.”
Mary E. Maki, collaborator with Zimmermann and Cruson on the oral histories, and now a resident of Virginia, recalled, “I met Dan Cruson just after we moved in next door to him on Hanover Road in July 1997. Little did we know at that first meeting that a couple years later we’d team up with Andrea Zimmermann to produce three volumes of Newtown oral histories. I learned so much about Newtown’s people and history from those interviews and then from Dan’s meticulous footnotes in those three volumes. History was Dan’s passion. Sharing that knowledge was a close second. Newtown has been blessed that Dan volunteered his time, energy, and research skills to document and share the long and rich history of Newtown, Connecticut. That love, passion, and willingness to share his knowledge with others comes through loud and clear in his own oral history taken two years ago. We will miss you, Dan. We are privileged to share the reflections of those who called Dan Cruson friend, teacher, colleague, and true town treasure.”
From fellow Newtown Historical Society member Gordon Williams come these words: “It is with great sadness that I learned of the death of Dan Cruson, our town historian. He was so important to Newtown in numerous ways. There are many families living here who asked advice from him and got it. He was a walking encyclopedia of Newtown lore. Also, for many, many years he was president, vice president, and board member of the Newtown Historical Society. We board members were educated by his presence and his thoughtful analysis of issues and events. We also have been enriched by the numerous books he wrote about Newtown or area history. In addition, every January for many years he gave a lecture which was full of interesting and curious facts, and some of which even gave us chuckles. Rest in peace my friend, you will be long remembered.”
A friend of Cruson’s for over 50 years, John Renjilian shared, “I first knew Dan Cruson when we discovered mutual interests in old records and research areas, long before either of us had a connection to Newtown. Dan made that connection before I did, and once made, he became inseparable from the town. His contributions to Newtown’s history and cultural environment have been immeasurable. He worked closely with the library for many years, serving on the library board as well as managing the history sections of the annual book sale. The town’s Tercentennial Celebration would have been a skeleton of what it became with his active involvement.” Cruson’s “activity with the Historical Society and as Town Historian were legendary,” according to Renjilian. “He was always open for help and collaboration,” Renjilian continued, “and if you had a question of when something happened in town, or where your grandfather’s home was and what happened to his family, the chances were good that Dan would have his finger on the answer or would soon find out. His many books and articles will serve as a legacy, and someone will eventually succeed to his offices, but a true replacement is unimaginable. I will greatly miss our friendship of more than half a century, but Newtown’s loss is incalculable.”
“Intellectually curious, a natural teacher, Dan Cruson was a kind man with an easy laugh who enjoyed sharing what he knew and delighted in new discovery,” recalled Janis Gibson, a friend and former copyeditor at this paper. “I first became aware of Dan by reputation when I moved to Redding in the ‘90s; he seemed to be the favorite teacher of many of my friends’ children. I initially met him after I began working at The Newtown Bee about 20 years ago; he stopped into the office frequently and we would exchange a few words. I really began to know Dan, however, in 2008, when he, with his white hair, mustache, and beard, was asked to portray Mark Twain at an event celebrating the centennial of the arrival of the famous author to his new Redding home called Stormfield. I got to interview Dan for the Redding newspaper. That was the first of many stimulating conversations we would have over the next decade. I learned so much from him, and am grateful to have had him for a friend,” she said.
A Place For Discovery
The C.H. Booth Library was a place of research and discovery for Cruson. He is remembered by former reference librarian and Assistant Director Beryl Harrison, who said, “After he retired from teaching, Dan spent many hours at the library researching Newtown’s history, following in the footsteps of Ezra Johnson, Newtown’s first historian. He wrote wonderful articles for the Newtown Historical Society’s newsletter, all available in the Reference Department at the library, as well as many books about Newtown’s past. He was Newtown’s historian and we are all grateful for his contribution in recording and preserving the history of our town.”
Recalled Joanne Zang, who initiated the annual Friends of the C.H. Booth Annual Book Sale, “During my 45 years working on the Friends of the Library Book Sale, it was my great pleasure to have worked with Dan for over 40 of those years. His vast knowledge of Newtown’s history and also that of history in general added so much value to not only the sale, but to Newtown as a whole. His love for the library was evident, from his many years on the Library Board of Trustees to his work with the Friends group, and to his publishing the book The Cyrenius H. Booth Library & Earlier Reading Institutions. I will miss Dan’s intellect and good humor.”
Denise Kaiser, book sale chairperson for the Friends of the C.H. Booth Library, shared her thoughts on her longtime acquaintance: “Although we interacted for years and years at the annual book sale and had sons who were at school together, I really got to know Dan Cruson during the last decade or so, when he was part of a group of Friends of the C.H. Booth Library volunteers who sorted books at the library on Saturday afternoons. The conversation flowed easily, about his three boys, about his students — when he was still teaching — and his work as town historian or on an archaeological dig, what he had planned over the weekend with friends or family. He seemed to know everyone in town — past and present — and was always curious about what others were up to, and why. And then he’d open a donated history book, and if it were a biography, he’d start talking about that person, too. He was just fascinated by people.”
A Newtown Influence
“I was saddened to learn of Dan’s passing,” said Newtown First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, adding, “There’s no question Dan loved Newtown, as evidenced by the countless hours he dedicated to researching, documenting, and teaching our history. He worked closely with the Newtown Historical Society and was admired and appreciated for his work. I was pleased to be able to attend a Historical Society event in the summer of 2018 at the home of Jean and Lincoln Sander where Dan was appropriately recognized and a scholarship was announced in his name. Dan will be missed by all that had the pleasure of knowing him. My sincere condolences to his family and friends.”
“I am reflecting on how wonderfully fortunate we in Newtown — and surrounding towns — were to have Dan Cruson in our lives for these many years,” former Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra said. “His body of work is impressive and instructive, ranging from modest essays and simple slide shows to more robust pieces of anthropological research and YouTube presentations. Dan’s passion for the living history of Newtown and environs helps us bridge the past with the present. That, after all, was his goal, as he explained once in response to a question about why we should care about things and persons past: To paraphrase Dan — we know ourselves better when we learn what came before us and understand the persons and events that created the societal foundations upon which we exist. We learned a lot through Dan’s work. He was ever-sharp in his insights and in his personal understanding about what and who were important pieces of our past and how those persons and events influence us today.”
Llodra’s closing words repeat what is in the hearts of all who knew Dan Cruson, Town Historian: “Thanks, Dan. You will be missed.”