An estimated 200 residents filed into the Lamb Room at New Canaan Library on Monday night for a presentation led by NewCanaanite.com contributing editor Terry Dinan, on New Canaan in 1927.
New Canaan Library’s selection of “One Summer: America 1927” for a community-wide reading initiative will culminate this week with Wednesday’s speakeasy in the same Lamb Room and Saturday’s original play at the Powerhouse Theater.
Terry, who writes the news site’s popular “0684-Old” local history feature, walked the crowd through a rapidly changing time in New Canaan’s history. The 1920’s saw New Canaan’s population jump by 40 percent, and important pieces of the town’s downtown and landscape took shape in the period. In 1927 itself, both Karl Chevrolet and New Canaan High School were founded, and the town marked locally much of what Bryson chronicled in his book, including Babe Ruth’s 60-home run feat and Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight.
Here are five fun bits from Monday’s presentation. It soon will be available for viewing in full on the New Canaan Library website. The photos and documents shown and cited here and in the presentation—itself now with the New Canaan Historical Society—were provided to Terry and me by the historical society and the Franco, Karl and Stewart families (thanks to all).
1. New Canaan High School was two months old when the smack talk with Darien started.
Stamford essentially kicked New Canaanites out of its high school in the mid-’20s, and the first thought here was to build a new school on the site of Mead Park (back then it was a largely undeveloped cranberry bog known as ‘Rockwell Swamp’). Then a piece of land along South Avenue between Church and Oak Streets was gifted to the town, and New Canaan set about building its first high school there—the building we know today as the police department.
It opened in February 1927, and its first varsity sports team was its baseball squad. A front-page New Canaan Advertiser article from April 21, 1927 reads: “New Canan High School will make its world premiere on the baseball diamond Wednesday afternoon when it will don the spangles on the Darien High School field near the new high school building in Darien. The locals have been practicing for the past two weeks and declare they will have little trouble disposing of the Darien aggregation, even though the later has been working out for five weeks.”
The varsity team from early on played its home games at Mead Park, and on the very field where it plays today—remember that, at the time and with NCHS situated where it was, it was just a walk across the street and down a hill to Mead. (The scheduled game against Darien was a rainout, but when the two teams did meet at Darien High School—now site of Darien Town Hall—the Blue Wave bested the good guys, 22-7.)
2. The New Canaan Post Office in 1927 was located in small ground-level commercial space on Main Street.
Terry invoked his inner-Santayana during this section of the presentation, noting, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Many locals will recognize the original Raymond Building on Main Street—roughly opposite Pinocchio Pizza—by its modern finish of vertical slats. In 1927, the Post Office was located on the ground floor of the building. In 1930, it would move to ‘Railroad Avenue,’ which we know as Elm Street today, into a building located directly across the street from, and as a complement to, the 1923-built Playhouse: the cupola-topped Bank of America building.
3. They told Albert Franco he was crazy to try and establish a business on Railroad Avenue (modern-day Elm Street).
Born in 1907, Albert Franco would found his eponymous grocery shop on Main Street, on the site of what New Canaanites long have known as the Varnum’s building. When, some 20 years later, he decided to move up to Railroad Avenue (modern-day Elm Street), people told him it was a mistake to set up his business so far off the main commercial district.
Franco’s had five trucks during this era, and one of the business’s larger accounts was with the Lapham family, owners of the estate they named Waveny. It was an important account for the shop and—perhaps related to that fact—it is said that during Prohibition, the kitchen staff at Waveny House did not want for spirits. When Prohibition was repealed via the 21st Amendment in 1933, Franco’s by law had to keep a separate entrance from the regular grocery store for its liquor shop.
New Canaan historian Mary Louise King in a section on Prohibition notes in her “Portrait of New Canaan”: “Though saloons were closed, former bartenders brewed beer in their home kitchens; grocery stores (for known customers) carried their ‘private label’ brands of gin and applejack (you made a cocktail by mixing equal parts of applejack, grapefruit juice and maple syrup); and flasks and bottles were seen at private parties and dances.”
4. The original Walter Stewart’s wife, Nellie, was New Canaan’s first female representative in the state legislature.
Walter Stewart opened his business in 1907 on Main Street, roughly opposite Town Hall (and would remain there until the 1940s, when he moved to Main at the bottom of Elm through the ‘50s). In 1927, he was carrying a second store in Stamford and entertaining the possibilities of shuttering or relocating that store.
The Stewarts were kind enough to lend us the meeting minutes from Board of Directors and annual stockholder meetings in 1927. From the Jan. 17 directors meeting: “Mr. Walter Stewart explained that he was doing all in his power to unload the Stamford store, but he was tied up with a lease for eight months more, which made it very difficult to do.”
Then on May 19, 1927 at a directors meeting, the minutes note: “In regard to the Stamford, Mr. Walter Stewart said he could get a double store on Grey Rock Place at eighty dollars a month to start and later $125 on a five-year lease.”
With New Canaan’s rapid growth in the 1920s, the town earned a second seat in the state legislature. Nellie Stewart was elected to it as a Republican, New Canaan’s first female representative in Hartford. Walter and Nellie had purchased their home on Hoyt Street in New Canaan in 1918 and it’s been continuously occupied by the family ever since.
5. In its first year, 1927, Karl Chevrolet sold 34 new and 38 used cars.
John Karl, the oldest of seven sons from Milford, came down to New Canaan around 1906 or 1908 and got a job as a chauffeur because he knew how to drive (not many did at that time). He also had his family’s German ingenuity—the boys’ father had come over from the Old Country at age 17 during Civil War. John earned a reputation for being able to fix cars, and he got so busy that he gave up chauffeur job and just fixed cars. Karl Bros., a Buick garage, was established on Railroad Avenue (Elm Street) in 1914, and all seven Karl brothers came through it. The shop was located next to a 5-and-10 store, roughly where South Avenue comes into Elm Street today.
In 1927, Leo Karl, one of the seven brothers, got an opportunity to purchase a Chevrolet dealership that had been struggling. He opened it with a younger brother, Emil, on Sept. 15, 1927. For some months they were located on Elm opposite the train station, and they opened in their current location the following year.
One of the most fascinating figures in the Karl family was on Leo Karl Jr.’s maternal grandmother’s side. Henry Kelley was born in 1861 in Greenwich, and his family moved to New Canaan when he was a toddler, living on the Hoyt estate where his father worked. That father brought young Henry to Norwalk at the close of the Civil War to see President Abraham Lincoln come through on a train.
Fast-forward 60 years: Henry Kelley, a member of the New Canaan Board of Ed, laid the cornerstone at New Canaan High School. It was built in 1927, and in what likely was the following year, this photo was snapped in Cuba: Henry Kelley is standing third from the left, next to Grace Coolidge and her husband Calvin, president of the United States and a major figure of Bryson’s book.