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Artifacts From Sandy Hook Building Intrigue Town Historian

Published: November 03, 2018 at 07:00 am

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Virtually all of the debris builder Chris Hottois amasses during a large-scale renovation project gets carted away in huge dumpsters.

But a relatively compact collection of antique bottles, grocery ledgers, receipts, and tattered comics discovered at a former Sandy Hook grocery store were instantly deemed “snapshot in time” treasures when they were spread out in front of Newtown Historian Dan Cruson.

While the quantity of documents and bottles fit into a couple of small boxes and a trash bag, Mr Cruson said the mid-20th Century artifacts Mr Hottois recovered from the basement and attic of Sabrina Style at 4 Washington Avenue represented a quality find.

“Documents like these tell a lot of stories,” he said after closely examining a payroll ledger with a magnifying glass. “They tell me things like the names of the people who worked there during that period of time and could better fill in the timeline if any of them went on to be notable community members.”

The yellowed and tattered documents also reveal other historic micropoints that are useful to someone like Mr Cruson, who has authored a number of books and articles about Newtown history and some of the community’s more colorful residents.

The local historian currently maintains an office in the former probate court office at Newtown Municipal Center, where people regularly drop in to say hello and occasionally show up — like Mr Hottois did — bearing what many may deem trash, but are actually historical gems to a community historian.

As Mr Cruson meticulously studied a payroll sheet with a magnifying glass, he made note of the names that were still legible enough to read.

“You see here — Joe Davies listed himself as manager, while the other are listed as his clerks,” he said. “This was their permanent record, I guess... from 1948. That coincides with the period I guess the building was used as a First National. The Davies brothers apparently had a store there before that, and in the 1940s when First National took over, it looks like the company just hired them to manage the store.”

“There’s quite a cast of characters there as you get deeper into the time sheets,” Mr Hottois replied. “These receiving sheets are pretty cool, too.”

The local builder was referring to a number of receiving ledgers and receipts from various beverage and provision companies that made deliveries to the market. One of the things the pair noted was how separate brands of soda were delivered by their own distributors and bottling companies, which is in stark contrast to today, when many different brands of beverages might arrive at a store in the same truck or from the same distributor.

“Here’s something you never see anymore,” Mr Cruson said as he leafed through a receipt book with carbon paper in between the pages, which was employed to create copies from original.

As the historian came across the name of a new employee entered into the ledger, Robert Reiner, Mr Hottois pointed out that the family who previously lived at 6 Washington Avenue — right next to the former grocery store — was named Reiner.

Disseminating The Details

By cross referencing just a few details from the document, Mr Cruson was able to determine the clerk was a full-time employee at the store and was quickly able to calculate his weekly salary and his withholding tax.

Turning his attention to the glassware Mr Hottois began placing on the table, Mr Cruson was immediately able to identify a medicine bottle, while another piece was decidedly older and easily pegged as hand-blown versus machine-made.

“I hadn’t seen one like that in the past,” Mr Hottois said. “It’s like Christmas for Dan, here.”

“This one is nice because it’s got the portrait on it,” Mr Cruson said, magnifying the detail on a Millbrook Club Soda bottle. According to a single internet reference, Millbrook may have been the house brand of the First National Stores soft drink beverage line post World War II.

The company had a distribution and bottling plant in East Hartford, according to the online post.

At that point, Ben Cruson, Dan’s son and frequent assistant, arrived at the office.

“What have you got there?” Ben Cruson asked as he sat beside his father and began examining the items Mr Hottois found during his renovation project at 4 Washington Avenue.

“We were looking at time sheets from 1947,” Dan Cruson replied.

Picking up another bottle from Mattatuck Beverages immediately spurred observations from both the Crusons that its origin was likely from Waterbury because the community was briefly referred to by that Native American Algonquin name during the late 1600s.

Tiny Mysteries Solved

Reaching into one of the boxes, Mr Hottois produced what appear to be either paperweights or some type of caps that might be used to extinguish candles. While such items might be considered mundane by many, these tiniest of artifacts ignited an air of excitement as each one was revealed and examined.

“It seems heavier than what might be used to put out a candle,” Ben Cruson ventured.

“Maybe it’s supposed to be a weight hung from a pull cord on some type of blind or curtain,” Dan Cruson offered.

“Or maybe a cap for an inkwell — although the time period doesn’t match up,” Mr Hottois said.

On closer examination, it was Ben Cruson who solved the mini mystery, however.

“No, this one seems to have red wax inside of it, so they were used for putting out candles,” he said.

Mr Cruson said the grocery eventually met its demise as a result of its limited capacity and no physical room to expand. He also noted that the period represented in the found documents was the point in retail history where small stores like the Sandy Hook market switched from having clerks fill customers’ orders while they waited to more modern facilities where the customers moved through the shelves picking out their own products.

“This was the point when they were developing what would soon become known as supermarkets,” Dan Cruson said. “As businesses started expanding so you could do all your shopping — prepackaged grocery items, meats, produce — these tiny stores disappeared.”

The historian said the beauty of Mr Hottois’ discoveries is that there was no previous detail on that business or those who ran it, nor would there ever be if the builder was not astute enough to save the relatively few artifacts that he did. But the unique value of those items may have still been lost or underestimated if Newtown did not have the resource and enthusiasm that Dan and Ben Cruson share regarding the community’s history.

“This serves as a starting point for an area of research into Newtown’s retail history as stores evolved,” Dan Cruson said. “And these items were from a particularly interesting period post World War II when the town didn’t experience a typical postwar depression. We actually were seeing this as a period of economic expansion, where companies were discovering new ways to serve consumers. The evolving supermarket was one of those new ways.

“Now I have more pertinent data on prevailing wages, the size of the store’s workforce, and then I can begin comparing that to other business data to create a more detailed picture of the economy of that time,” the historian said.

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