Audrey Stewart: Matriarch of the Market

[This is the first installment in a four-part series “Matriarchs of Main & Elm,” profiling the women behind New Canaan’s great business families.]

Audrey Bailey Stewart had recently married Walter Stewart, Sr. when the young couple moved in with her husband’s parents—Walter Stewart, who had founded his eponymous food market on Main Street in 1907 and his rather formidable wife, Nellie, New Canaan’s first woman elected to the state legislature—at the Hoyt Street home that’s still in the family. A smart, strong-willed woman in her own right, Audrey didn’t always have an easy time living with the in-laws and “she didn’t always get along with Nellie,” family historian Karen Brockway Izzo said, recalling one funny story from her grandmother. “Once, Nellie told her that she didn’t like the color purple,” Izzo recalled. “Grandmother apparently had a bit of a rebellious streak, and after a disagreement, painted her entire apartment purple. Even the bathroom.”

After meeting her would-be husband through a chance encounter after taking in a movie at the (then relatively new) New Canaan Playhouse on Elm Street while still a teenager, Audrey Stewart would go on to immerse herself in one of the town’s most important and civic-minded business families. From humble beginnings and acquainted with tragedy even as a young girl, Audrey Stewart would go on to forge a definitive and direct positive impact on the family business during a crucial period of growth, while rearing and raising an entire generation of Stewarts well known to locals.

Raised and Rearing in New Canaan: Frog Days of Summer

My mother kept her beach chair in the back of the car for impromptu trips to Kiwanis. She had her favorite spot where she would set up camp with our sand toys, towels, baby oil, Bain de Soleil SPF 2 for later in the day, and a makeshift ashtray. We five Pennoyer kids would spend the entire day there with her, and at least one of us would cry when we had to leave. Our mother’s beach chair was the sundial, turning to a new angle every so often, her watchful eye on us although we believed we had the run of the place. We leapt around like frogs in the pond, played Marco Polo, couldn’t see through the water until we were close to shore, and loved the random cool spots we could find on the pond’s sandy bottom.

How Much Is Too Little?

A mom friend in town asked me recently why New Canaan should build onto Saxe. “Why not build another elementary school instead and make them K through five? Then the middle school would really be a middle school.”

I told her the story of Center School, New Canaan’s fourth elementary school, now the farmer’s market parking lot next to the public library. My friend had no idea that New Canaan used to have a fourth elementary school. In 1983, the economy was what it was, enrollment was not as robust as it is now or will be, and the town went back and forth between closing Center School or South School.

The Nature of New Canaan: Sappin’ It up at the Nature Center

One of the best parts of winter is the maple tree tapping program at the New Canaan Nature Center. My family and I await with anticipation this quintessential New England activity each February. Sure, we sled down our luge track of a driveway each year, and Colin has dubbed the six-foot snow pile at the bottom of our driveway “Camp Raccoon” —perfect for ducking behind when a snowball whizzes by one’s head. However, nothing beats the Norman Rockwell feeling of leading your kids through the snow to outfit a maple tree with a spile (the spout that gets tapped into the tree) and a bucket just like pioneers must have. This year, donning our new snow shoes, my son Aidan and I trekked through the snow with several other families to find the right tree.

‘Tis the Season to Jam It All In

My mother rarely left New Canaan in December, and I couldn’t understand it. While we five kids were at school, my dad was at work, and I thought she was home all day smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Now I get it. It’s the same bewilderment my husband feels when he wonders what I do all day as a mom and freelancer. I tell him I have my feet up and eat Bon Bons, and that perhaps I shouldn’t do all I do for one whole week and then he would really notice what gets accomplished around the house.