Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why Live Here

The recent announcement of a small increase in the city's tax rate has been met with an outpouring of moaning and whining from people declaring that everyone should move out of the city, and politicking from local Republicans and Independents. I have not come across any viable suggestions of what can be cut from the budget to save money without harming needed city operations, just reactionary negativity about how this is a terrible thing. Yes, we have a municipal budget problem. But the problem will not be solved overnight, and short-sighted, knee-jerk reactions are not going to help.

There are far too many times when negativity has the loudspeaker in Waterbury. In the seventeen years that I've worked and lived in this city, I've encountered a seemingly endless parade of negativity. Too many people are eager to tell you what they hate about Waterbury, or how much they wish they lived somewhere else, and how nothing will ever change.

What amazes me most are the people who think that nationwide economic troubles exist only in Waterbury, or that Waterbury is somehow worse than any other city in Connecticut.

Enough moaning from me about other people moaning about Waterbury. Here is the list of reasons why I gladly choose to live in Waterbury.

That's right, affordability is at the top of my list. Yes, the mill rate is high, but that's because the property values are low. My monthly mortgage payment is $600, and that includes the property taxes. There is no way that I could get a mortgage that cheap in the suburbs, or anywhere in Fairfield and Litchfield Counties. I can't even rent an apartment for that small an amount.

Fresh paint and new flooring; from when I bought my house in 2007.

Quality Housing
Waterbury is full of houses and apartment buildings that were built to last, and built to be beautiful. Of course, if you want to live in a post-1960, cheaply constructed, firetrap apartment or condo where the walls are so flimsy you can hear your neighbors whispering in their living room, we've got that too. But if you want a distinctive, unique home that makes you smile when you get home at the end of the day, a house that suits your personality and sense of individuality, Waterbury excels.

A large home in the Overlook neighborhood.

Food Diversity
We may not have the diversity of restaurants found in a larger city, but if you look past the preponderance of Italian restaurants, Chinese delivery, and pizzarias, you'll find Thai, Japanese, Lebanese, Turkish, Pakistani, Jamaican, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, BBQ, Soul, and Portuguese.

We also have a good number of small international groceries and delis, each of which specializes in foods of a specific country.

Pastries at the Albanian Festival.

Cultural Diversity
Because there are so many different immigrant groups in Waterbury, it is a very culturally diverse city, which is a great thing. The festivals held throughout the year by the various ethnic groups is one of Waterbury's best features.

Although mainstream sports tends to dominate in Waterbury, there are plenty of organizations, businesses, and activities to appeal to people looking for something other than baseball, football, and basketball.

Coasters for sale at the Greek Festival.

We don't just have cultural diversity: we also have Culture. Sure, if your idea of entertainment is the movies, we've got that. We've also got museums, a library, music, theaters (the non-movie kind), outdoor Shakespeare performances, parades, lectures, and discussions. We've even got two state college campuses that regularly hold cultural events that are open to the public.

Shakesperience performance at Library Park.

Waterbury has some great parks and is working on building a new linear park along the Naugatuck River that will connect to other towns. If it's a beautiful day and you want to get outside and enjoy a walk in the park, or take the kids to the playground, Waterbury has that.

Tulips at Hamilton Park.

Central Location
I love being able to do day trips to New York City and Boston. I like being able to pop up to Hartford or down to New Haven for quick visits. I like that I can go to the beach, or go for 26-mile car-free bike ride, or go hiking in the woods during the summer, and spend the winter skiing or snowboarding (not that I'm any good at either of those things, and haven't done them in years, but I like that I could). From Waterbury, it's a short drive to a wide variety of excursions.

The three major transit routes to and from Waterbury: I-84, Route 8, and the train line.

Waterbury is a safe city. Our police department does an amazing job not only of keeping major things like the homicide rate extremely low, but they also do an amazing job of building community through PAL and the Community Relations department.

PAL's Summer Youth Employment Program at work, helping a senior with his yard.

Living in a city is all about convenience. I'm a ten minute drive, at most, from anything I need, be it a hospital or a grocery store.

Farmer's Market on the Green.

Waterbury's size is "just right" for anyone to have their voice heard or to establish a platform for success. In some ways, Waterbury is like an overgrown small town, where it's very easy to get to know a large number of people. There are countless volunteer opportunities to help you feel connected, keep you busy, or let you give back to the community. It's also a very supportive town: whatever you want to do, you will find someone to cheer you on and help make it happen. Despite the negativity I mentioned at the start of this post, Waterbury is full of people who are eager to see this city and its people succeed.

Community volunteers creating the "Cool Waters" mural at the Palace Theater.

Last, but not least, when you live or work in Waterbury, it's very easy to feel connected to other people. Newcomers are quickly welcomed into a community of people who don't think twice about making them feel like they belong here. I've lived and worked in towns where newcomers are treated as pariahs, so that makes me appreciate Waterbury's openness even more.

A game of chess at the Old Skool Picnic at Lakewood Park.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Road Rules

Connecticut Road Rules: a compilation of what I've learned from other drivers.


Video: Driver making a left turn on red, because most
drivers know that you can ignore the red light at this intersection.

1. If someone is in front of you, no matter how fast they are going, regardless of whether or not they are passing the cars in the right lane, bully and harass them by flashing your lights, honking your horn, and threatening to rear-end them if they don't get out of your way.

2. If the posted speed limit is 25, you should be doing 45.

3. If the posted speed limit is 45, you should be doing 65.

4. If the posted speed limit is 65, you should be doing 80.

5. If the posted speed limit is 55, just ignore it; everyone knows the speed limit was raised to 65 years ago.

6. Shoulders are for passing on the right.

7. Bicycles should remain on sidewalks; if someone is stupid enough to ride their bicycle on the side of the road, honk your horn and curse loudly at them.

8. Ignore yellow lights; if the light turns red, keep going, especially if the car in front of you is still going.

9. Slow down, but don't stop, for stop signs.

10. Closer = Faster. If the car in front of you isn't less than three feet behind the car in front of it, that driver is going too slow.

11. If you've got three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, weave in and out of each lane, because you will magically get out of the traffic jam and reach your destination faster.

12. Drive like you own the road and everyone else is trespassing.

13. When switching lanes, use your turn signal after you've already moved into the new lane.

14. If you get stuck behind someone doing only 10 or 15 miles above the posted speed limit, go around them, and then pull back into their lane before you've finished passing them, just barely avoiding hitting them.

15. If there's only one lane and it's a no-passing zone, but the car in front of you is doing the posted speed limit, or even ten above the posted speed limit, you are justified in passing them on the wrong side of the road.

16. If you're driving on a narrow city street, especially if you're driving past a park or through a residential area, go faster. If a kid or pet darts out in front of you and you hit them, it's their fault for thinking they could cross the street.

17. Never stop for pedestrians trying to cross the street.

18. If you're driving a Lexus, especially if it's an SUV, you are entitled to be extra rude and aggressive, because, after all, you're in a Lexus and you're Special.

19. When passing on the right, honk your horn to startle the other driver and to let them know that you hate them because they temporarily prevented you from doing 80 in a 55 zone.

20. If you want to turn right on red, and the car in front of you isn't budging for whatever reason (pedestrian crossing the street, oncoming traffic, etc.), honk your horn to force them to get out of your way.

21. If you want to turn right on red, and the car in front of you isn't budging even after you've honked your horn, go around them on the left and then make the right turn in front of them.

22. Never be courteous or considerate of other drivers; after all, you are the only one who matters.

23. If you're about to make a left turn, pull to the right; if you're about to make a right turn, pull to the left. It will confuse the heck out of other drivers, and it will make you feel like you're driving a big ol' 18-wheeler and own the road.

Remember, driving is a competition, and you can't win if there's another car in front of you! Be rude, be aggressive, and they'll regret ever existing!

(Disclaimer: this is intended as satire, as a way to voice the frustrations I feel driving in Connecticut.)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

City Ready-Mix Concrete Co.

There are certain landmarks I drive past regularly, always meaning to stop and take a closer look, always meaning to find out more about what it is. The City Ready-Mix Concrete structure is one of those landmarks.

City Ready-Mix Concrete plant, 434 Harper's Ferry Road.

City Ready-Mix Concrete has been at Harper's Ferry Road since the 1950s. I haven't been able to find any information about the company, but I did solve the "mystery" of why concrete plants have towers and long conveyer belts.

City Ready-Mix Concrete plant, 434 Harper's Ferry Road.

Depending on the set-up, the long conveyer belt runs from a quarry to the processing plant. Either before or after being placed on the conveyer (from what I can tell, there are a couple of different plant types), the rocks and gravel are broken down into small bits.

The tower, better known as a silo, is used to store fine sand. The sand and the broken-up rocks from the quarry get poured into a mixer, combined with some water, and then squirted out as concrete.

High-quality concrete involves chemists monitoring the relative chlorides, sulfates, alkalis, and solids. There are a number of different recipes for making concrete. The ancient Egyptians used lime and gypsum. Today's manufacturers use materials including limestone, clay, gypsum, minerals, and various chemicals.

In modern manufacture, cement is used as the paste to hold together the bits and pieces (aggregates) of concrete. That's right: cement and concrete are two different things.

There's another abandoned concrete plant nearby, in Torrington. I've driven by it a number of times over the years, and always wondered what it was. Now I know.

Old concrete plant at a quarry on South Main Street in Torrington.

Ready-mix concrete is still in demand, and there is at least one ready-mix company still in business in Waterbury. Sega Ready Mix Concrete is in the industrial complex on Chase River Road in Waterville. Their silo and conveyor belt are visible from Route 8. If I have time this summer, I'll see if I can get a tour of their plant--and some answers to my lingering questions about how concrete is made!

Sega's conveyor and silo.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014


As reported in today's Hartford Courant, the last surviving woman to have worked for Waterbury Clock painting radium onto watch dials has passed away at the impressive age of 107. Mae Keane spent two months in 1927 working with radium, following the instructions to bring the tip of the brush to a fine point with her lips. Luckily for her, she was not very good at the job and was transferred to another job. Those two months were enough to cause lasting damage: Keane lost all of her teeth when she was in her 30s and suffered from pain in her gums for the rest of her life.

As I understand it, when radium is ingested (which happens when you use your mouth to point a brush containing radium paint), the body treats it like calcium, absorbing it into your bones. Without sufficient calcium, bones crumble. Since radium is radioactive, it quickly causes bone cancer. Many of the women who worked for Waterbury Clock and other companies using radium died horrific deaths from radium poisoning.

For more on the "Radium Girls" and their history, I recommend this article from 1996.

Although the dangers of radium were obvious, and very public, by 1928, using radium on watch dials continued until the 1960s. As of February 1, 1963, the sale of pocket watches with radium dials was banned in New York City, on the grounds that they exposed their owners to excessive levels of radiation. Wristwatches, however, were still considered safe.

By 1967, the general public was growing increasingly concerned about exposure to radiation. An article focusing on the dangers of X-rays mentioned that millions of bedside alarm clocks had radium dials, and compared the risk of wearing a radium-dial wristwatch to 30 years of nuclear fallout, a top concern of the '60s.

Manufacturers eventually abandoned radium in favor of less dangerous luminous compounds, but it wasn't out of concern for workers' safety: it was a response to public fear of being exposed to radiation by their watches.

A while ago, I had the opportunity to "play" with radium (don't worry, I did not touch it, breath it, lick it, or otherwise put myself in danger). I was given access to a box of Fitrite Radium Outfit, which has instructions on the label for coating the hands of a watch with radium. It would have been sold to watch repair shops, not used in factories.

The label design suggests it might be from the 1930s.

Inside the box: small metal containers for the radium paint, a radium spreading stick,
and a razor blade for scraping off excess radium from the watch hand.

The radium paint in strong lighting.

The same container in complete darkness. I didn't have at tripod with me, so it's very blurry.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Cheshire Country Club

One of the fun aspects of historical research is the way new discoveries emerge from seemingly unrelated topics. You start out looking for one thing, and wind up finding something else entirely.

While looking for biographical information about James E. Kefford, the general manager of Waterbury's Negro Business League during the 1910s and '20s, I stumbled onto a reference to the Cheshire Country Club, established in 1917 as an African American country club.

After doing a little research, I realized that the Cheshire Country Club might very well have been the first country club to have been owned and operated by and for African Americans. This statement is likely to cause some controversy. The Shady Rest Country Club in Scotch Plains, N.J. is widely considered to have been the first such club, but it didn't open until 1921. The Cheshire Country Club had two hundred members as of October 1917, placing it decidedly ahead of Shady Rest (sorry, New Jersey).

You might be wondering what this has to do with Waterbury, since the club was in Cheshire. As it turns out, the Cheshire Country Club was a Waterbury venture, owned and operated by members of Waterbury's African American community.

The idea for the club originated with Johnson L. Haile, formerly a head waiter at the Scoville House Hotel in Waterbury and, at the time, steward for Harriet B. Thorpe, who lived on Hillside Avenue in Waterbury. According to account in the Hartford Times, later reprinted on the front page of The New York Age (11 October 1917), Haile frequently passed by the Cheshire property (which was on the New Haven-Waterbury trolley line, now Route 70, near Mountain Road) and considered purchasing it as a home for himself and his wife. Instead, he decided to buy the property and turn it into a country club for African Americans. He purchased the property, which included 22 acres and a house, from Minnie S. Stanwood of Hartford in January 1917. After making some alterations, the Cheshire Country Club opened in July 1917. Tennis courts and a five-hole golf course were added that year.

I don't know why Haile, who lived in Waterbury, chose Cheshire for the country club, other than the nice newspaper story about seeing it frequently. Cheshire was a dry town in 1917, preventing the Club from serving alcohol until they obtained a special license. There was plenty of land in Waterbury, but as a black man in 1917, Haile might have had a difficult time finding a white property owner willing to sell to him.

The Club was owned and operated by Johnson Haile, with a Board of Governors who oversaw memberships and finances. Founding Waterbury members of the Board were Johnson L. Haile, J. Edward Jones, James E. Kefford, Dr. P. F. Anderson, Dr. B. B. Costa, Henry A. Hatcher, Col. Fabian McKinney, and W. A. Bradley. Other founding Board members lived in Ansonia, Meriden, New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford.

Since the Cheshire Country Club was quite possibly the only African American country club in the country, it immediately attracted members from as far away as Washington, D.C. and Knoxville, TN. Other members lived in New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. An inaugural clambake was held on Labor Day, 1917 and was attended by more than 300 people.

I have not found any images of the Club, but here's a description from The New York Age (11 October 1917):

It is located on a slight terrace which extends back from the road about 150 feet to the house. The lawn in front presents a fine appearance. The clubhouse is well arranged for the use to which it has been put. A wide veranda extends across the front and the length of one side. The main entrance opens into a large parlor or ballroom which can be used for dancing, card parties or other functions. There is a billiard room and other small rooms.

The Cheshire Country Club was used for social gatherings both large and small, from clambakes to dances. One of the first events (at least, one of the first to mentioned in the social pages of a newspaper) was a dance held in August of 1917 (The New York Age, 23 August 1917). On February 16, 1918, sixteen couples gathering for dinner, dancing, and singing (The New York Age, 2 March 1918). The party was hosted by Waterbury's Arnold Munn and L.S. Munn in honor of Lillian Taylor.

On September 26, 1919, the club hosted a "dinner and smoker" at which sixty-five of Connecticut's leading African American men honored Charles W. Anderson, former Collector of Internal Revenue, who had delivered a speech about Theodore Roosevelt earlier in the day at Waterbury's Republican Club (as described in The New York Age, 4 October 1919). Anderson dined with Waterbury's James E. Kefford, and Dr. & Mrs. P. F. Anderson; after the meeting, Anderson returned to Waterbury to visit with the Cheshire Country Club's found, Johnson L. Haile and his wife. The committee that organized the event at the club included Johnson L. Haile, James E. Kefford, J. E. Jones, J. E. Hatcher, Emmet Evans, Dr. P. F. Anderson, Otis Tisdel, Col. Fabian McKinney, and Dr. R. B. Costax.

The Cheshire Country Club, as one of the only African American country clubs in the nation, attracted groups from far and wide. During the Club's first summer, the Sonora Wohelo Camp Fire Girls from New Haven spent a week camping at the Club; meetings were held at the Club by the Grand Lodge of the Household of Ruth and the St. Elmo Club of New Haven; a Bridgeport club came up for an evening of whist and dance; a group of high school students from New Haven held a dance; and the Nemberolic Club of New Haven held a clambake in a grove of trees at the Country Club (The New York Age, 11 October 1917). Later, in 1921, Bridgeport's Phyllis Wheatley branch of the YMCA rented the club for an all-day picnic (The Bridgeport Telegram, 8 August 1921).

In August of 1931, the Cheshire Country Club held a dinner in honor of Judge James S. Watson of the New York Municipal Court (as reported in The New York Amsterdam News, 5 August 1931). Judge Watson was one of the first African Americans to be elected a judge in New York. During the 1920s, working as an attorney, Watson represented Marcus Garvey. His wife, Violet Lopez Watson, was one of the founders of the National Council of Negro Women. The dinner at the Cheshire Country Club featured local speakers as well, including William Pape of the Waterbury Daily American and Republican, John F. McGraw, senior judge of the Waterbury Municipal Court, and Waterbury probate judge D. J. Slavin. Following the dinner, Judge and Mrs. Watson traveled to Waterbury with Albon L. Hosley, executive secretary of the National Negro Business League.

Although dinners featuring well-known luminaries brought the most press for the Cheshire Country Club, golf and tennis were an important aspect of the club and its 22 aces. Members competed against a team from New Jersey's Shady Rest for the Cockburn Trophy in 1929 (The Afro American, 8 June 1929).

In 1933, the Mechanical Department of Naugatuck's U.S. Rubber Company Footware Plant rented the Cheshire Country Club for a golf outing (reported in the Naugatuck Daily News).

I have not found any information about the closure of the Cheshire Country Club, but it appears to have happened during the 1940s or '50s. New Jersey's Shady Rest, while no longer able to claim to be the first African American country club, can at least claim to be the longest operating.

Short Biographies Related to the Cheshire Country Club

(If you have more information, please share!)

Johnson L. Haile was born in Florida in 1867. He came to Waterbury during the 1890s (so far as I can tell) and found work as a waiter at the Scoville House Hotel. Haile quickly rose to the position of head waiter, and was highly esteemed by staff and patrons. He was, according to newspaper accounts, tall and handsome, and was known for dating numerous women, black and white. One of his girlfriends, Izetta Alexander, did not appreciate his philandering. She threw acid in Haile's face in 1900 to punish him for breaking her heart. The Bridgeport Herald ran the story with the headline "His Handsome Face is Spoiled" (30 December 1900). Haile refused to press charges. His luck worsened in 1902, when the Scoville House Hotel burned down and he lost his job. Undaunted, Haile found a new job and found a wife for himself. Haile married a woman from Tennessee named Nannie; their daughter Sibyl was born in 1904 and later attended Knoxville College. Johnson Haile purchased the property for the Cheshire Country Club in 1917 and oversaw its operations for at least two decades.

Henry A. Hatcher (1870-1922), originally from Virginia, married Nettie Dubois of New Haven in 1893. Dubois was a cousin of W.E.B. Du Bois, although they most likely did not know each other very well (see Gwendolyn J. Hatcher's book, Souls, for more details). The Hatchers were married at St. John's Episcopal Church on the Green, near their home on Bishop Street (they later lived on Bronson Street). Henry Hatcher appears to have arrived in Waterbury during the 1890s; his first job was as a waiter at the Scoville House Hotel, where he would have worked with Johnson Haile. In 1900, Hatcher was working as a janitor; by 1920, he owned his own cleaning business. Hatcher was an active member of the Waterbury and National Negro Business Leagues, as well as a founding member of the Cheshire Country Club.

James E. Kefford, born about 1871 in Virginia, was the secretary and general manager of the Negro Business League (NBL) of Waterbury. His office at 95 Bank Street was used as the main office for the NBL. Kefford was also the recording secretary for the National Colored Republican Conference League. Kefford was president of the J. E. Kefford Advertising and Distributing Agency, and he worked as a real estate, loans, and insurance agent. During the early 1930s, Kefford became president of the Cheshire Country Club, of which he was a founding member.

Kefford's wife, Mary E. Kefford (1860-1932), originally from Virginia, was a successful businesswoman. In 1917, she owned the only African American hair salon in Waterbury, employing five people (The New York Age, 23 August 1917). The Keffords lived on Pearl Street.

Fabian McKinney (1873-1961) was a Waterbury real estate agent and founding member of the Cheshire Country Club. He served during World War I, eventually being promoted to Colonel. After the war, McKinney, along with Edward F. Johnson and George Wilson, established the G.K.P. Association, an exclusive men's club for Waterbury's leading African Americans (Hartford Courant, 10 December 1919).  McKinney and his wife, Ella, lived on Easton Avenue during the 1910s and '20s. Both came to Waterbury from Virginia. The 1920 census listed them as sharing their home with two nieces, Alice McKinney and Hattie Lacey, and an adopted daughter, Ruth Newlin.

McKinney made frequent business trips to New York City. During one such trip, traveling with George Washington, a barber who worked on Brook Street in Waterbury, McKinney and Washington were mugged by a gang of thugs. McKinney refused to hand over his money, and the pair managed to escape unscathed (Hartford Courant, 10 December 1919). Their misadventure became part of the public record in 1912, when a corrupt NYC police officer, Charles Becker, was on trial for the murder of Herman Rosenthal. George Washington was called to the stand to testify that he and McKinney had been accosted by a "strong arm squad" working directly for Becker.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Morden Manufacturing

One of the great things about Waterbury is the depth and breadth of its history. There are countless stories to be discovered and shared. Here’s one that starts as the story of an early woman entrepreneur, and ends as a tragic tale of suicide and a phantom lover.

In 1901, a woman named Lucena Mandana Morden left Portland, Oregon and came to Waterbury, seeking a manufacturer for her patent. Nicknamed Lulu, she was born in 1866 in Nebraska to Canadian immigrants. The youngest of eleven children, Morden at first chose a traditional career for herself, attending the Teachers’ College at Emporia, Kansas. She lived with her family in Nebraska during the 1880s, working as a teacher.

Sometime around 1890, Morden relocated to Portland, Oregon and trained as a stenographer. She lived with her brother, Charles Augustus Morden. Still not satisfied with her life, Morden enrolled as a History major at Stanford University, graduating in 1896. She returned to Portland, taking a job as a stenographer for the Chamber of Commerce.

Morden’s life took a new direction in 1898, when she filed her first patent, for a “Separate-Leaf Book” (book bound with two metal rings). The patent was approved on June 19, 1900. The next step was to find a manufacturer for her patent. Morden’s brother, Charles, helped finance the venture with a loan.

Illustration of Morden's patent, No. 651,950 (June 19, 1900)

Morden came to Waterbury hoping to find an existing company willing to manufacture her product. According to a very brief history of her company given in the December 1921 issue of Office Appliances: The Magazine of Office Equipment, the smallest order she could place was for 100,000 lots each of three sizes. Instead, she decided to establish her own manufacturing company for her new product.

Advertisement in The Inland Printer, November 1906.

Morden established her new business at 53 Canal Street in 1901, then relocated it to 59 Grand Street. The Morden Manufacturing Corporation of Waterbury was incorporated on August 9, 1904, and a factory space was established at 143 Waterville Street. The company relocated to 40 Johnson Street, in the former Turner mansion at the corner of Chestnut Avenue (the conversion of the house into a small factory was controversial; it has since been replaced by a massive brick apartment complex).

As president of her company, Morden may have been the first female manufacturing executive in Waterbury. For much of her company’s history, she was the only female manufacturing executive here.

Advertisement in The American Stationer, February 23, 1907.

In the 1920s, Morden moved into a part of the house/workshop on the corner of Johnson Street and Chestnut Avenue. She never married and apparently had few friends. She was dedicated to her business, garnering 47 patents. The company’s capital was listed at $40,000 in 1920—larger than many of Waterbury’s other small manufacturers.

Advertisement in Office Appliances: The Magazine of Office Equipment, July 1922.

Morden Key Ring, illustrated in Hardware, November 10, 1906.
The ring opened using a recessed lever ("A") to activate a swivel gate ("C").

Somewhere along the road of this success story, things went terribly wrong. The first possible hint of trouble appears in the 1910 census, which listed Morden as widowed. It’s possible that the census taker was mistaken—in fact, there are numerous errors in Morden’s listing. She claimed to be a full ten years younger than she actually was, that she was born in Connecticut, and that her parents were born in England. Was there a miscommunication between Morden and the census taker, or was Morden showing the first hints of mental health problems?

On December 21, 1926, Lulu Morden committed suicide. Her body was found by the police, alerted to the possibility of a problem by her gardener and handyman, Frederick M. Feest. Morden had sealed up the windows of the kitchen with quilts, and turned on the gas. Next to her body were letters and other documents addressed to the Waterbury National Bank – the content of the documents is unknown.

Morden was buried in California, alongside her mother, Hannah Lewis Morden. She was survived by her sister, Mima Morden, and her brother, Charles Morden.

At first, the newspaper accounts (in the Waterbury American) detailed Morden’s health problems and loneliness as the likely cause of her suicide. The American ended its first article (21 December 1926) about her death by stating “Miss Morden’s career is a story of struggle against odds and a subsequent rise in the industrial world. When signing business letters she always used the business signature of L. M. Morden and, it is said, that hundreds of business men dealing with her for years were under the impression that they were exchanging letters with a man.”

The sensationalism of her death led to widespread coverage. Some newspapers fancifully wrote about her story as an illustration of the perils of ambition. Pennsylvania’s The Kane Republican (24 December 1926) wrote that Morden came east “with a determination to succeed in the business world… [and] killed herself here in her palatial home because in her eagerness for financial independence she had neglected to make friends.”

Other newspapers leapt onto a supernatural interpretation, beginning with the Waterbury Republican’s article, “Mystery Veils Strange Death of Woman Here,” on December 22, 1926. The paper reported that “Miss Morden imagined that she had lost a phantom lover” was being rumored about town. Although the significance and veracity of this were unknown to the paper, the article went on to explain that the phantom lover “is supposed to have appeared at various times in the reminiscent mind of the woman and influenced her strangely.”  The Medical Examiner denied any mention of the phantom lover in Morden’s will or other documents found with her body.

The phantom lover rumor, not surprisingly, became a national news item, spinning quickly from a “rumor about town” to a full fact. On December 25, 1926, the Los Angeles Times ran an article blaming Morden’s death on the mysterious phantom lover, declaring that she took her own life “as a result of ‘jilt’ by imaginary admirer.” Morden was described as “eccentric,” with a personal fortune worth half a million dollars, and wearing clothing twenty years’ out of style. The article claimed that Morden “told persons that this phantom appeared to her at times in her dreams and made love to her; and that it also advised her regarding business affairs.”

The Miami News ran a nearly identical article the following day, adding a few embellishments (such as her clothing being 25 years out of style). Both articles mistakenly gave her age as 50, rather than her actual age of 60. Since her age on the 1910 census was also off by ten years, maybe this was deliberate on her part.

Is there any truth to the rumor of Lulu Morden’s phantom lover? It is too remarkable to have been the invention of the Waterbury Republican, and it is too bizarre to have been an unfounded rumor. Perhaps Morden really did believe that she was visited by the ghost of a lost love—that could explain why she was listed as widowed in the 1910 census. While she never was married, if she suffered from a mental illness involving a ghostly lover, perhaps she considered herself to be the widow of the phantom.

This is the sort of story that most likely has no firm answers. It’s the sort of story that makes for great fiction. Maybe someday there will be a gripping ghost story written about Lulu Morden and her phantom lover.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hobart Victory Welton

This is a landmark familiar to most people in Waterbury, a mysterious stone arch built into the side of a wooded hill on Wolcott Street near the intersection of Manor Avenue. It's familiar, but most people don't know why it was built. Years ago, I was told that it was built as a shelter and watering spot for horses needing to rest after pulling carts and trolleys up the long, steep hill. An informal survey on Facebook this week suggests that a lot of people have heard some version of that story. One person remembers it being used by a fruit and produce truck. A few people figured it was a trolley stop and, later, a bus stop.

The story of its origin can be found in Anderson's History of Waterbury, published in 1896. When it was new, this was a shed for storing lumber and carriages, part of a farm owned by Hobart Victory Welton. Here's an engraving of how it looked during the 1890s. There was a carved bird on top which is now gone (although possibly at the Mattatuck Museum).

The shed was built in 1858; the date of its construction is engraved on a medallion on the front center of the arch, along with the Latin phrase Maneo ("I endure"). On the top center of the arch is decorative carving showing two cornucopias overflowing with fruits and vegetables--very appropriate for a farm--in between two Latin words: Puteus and Dolium.

"Puteus Dolium" is a play on the name of the man who built the shed, Hobart Welton. Puteus translates to "well" and Dolium can be translated to "tun." Welton is not a name that exists in Latin, so Hobart invented a phrase to use as his name.

The carriage shed, an iconic structure for Waterbury residents, is now officially historic. It was added to the State Register of Historic Places on November 6, 2013, thanks in part to the efforts of the Bouley Manor Neighborhood Association, which contacted the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation during a recent survey of historic barns in Connecticut.

The origin of the stories about the shed being used as a watering spot for horses can be found to the north of the carriage shed, where Welton built a stone fountain for people and watering trough for horses. Again, here's an engraving of how it looked in the 1890s.

The watering trough was inscribed with the date of its construction: 1870. The fountain and trough was fed by a pipe running from a nearby spring. They remained in use until the 1970s, when the State Highway Department gave them to the Mattatuck Museum. This stretch of Wolcott Street was Route 69 from the 1930s until the 1960s. The carriage shed is still owned by the State Highway Department.

Wolcott Street, before it was paved. The carriage shed can be seen on the left. The house is now a dark red. (Photograph from the Collection of the Mattatuck Museum)

So who was Hobart Victory Welton?

Born in Woodbury in 1811, Hobart moved to Waterbury when he was 8. His father was a retired minister, and the Welton family moved into a new farm house built on what is now the corner of Wolcott Street and Manor Avenue (opposite the carriage shed).

When Hobart was 14, his father died. Late in life, Hobart wrote that “If I were to write my own biography, to please myself only, it would be somewhat as follows: With an inborn taste for sculpture, but obliged from early youth to earn my own living, I have been of some service to society in my day and generation. Had I not been placed under such limitations, I might have been nothing more than a third-rate artist.”

As is the case with all artists, Hobart seems to have felt compelled to create his art, adding decorative flourishes everywhere on the Welton farm. Even the steps of his house were ornamented with fruit and lions' heads.

The lions' heads were salvaged and are preserved at the Mattatuck Museum.

There was also a carved wood gate on the Welton farm. More portable than his stone carvings, the gate has traveled the world. Recognized in 1940 as a classic example of American folk art by the Works Progress Administration, the Gate was exhibited at the Museum of Early American Folk Arts in New York City in 1966; at World Exposition in Osaka, Japan in 1970; and at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974. 

The Gate was donated to the Mattatuck Museum by the Welton family in 1938 and remains on view there today. It was designed with symbols of the farm: a yoke, sickle and chain, harrow, and plow. The top of the gate features a carved array of fruits and vegetables spilling out of a cornucopia.

While art was his passion, Hobart Victory Welton was equally accomplished as an engineer. He served as superintendent of the city roads for 25 years, oversaw the construction of a system of reservoirs on the Mad River to power brass factories, engineered Waterbury's first stone bridge with an arch in 1848, and engineered Connecticut's first iron bridge in 1863, built over the Naugatuck River at West Main Street. Welton served in the State Legislature in 1852 and 1853. He died in 1895, but his art continues to influence us today.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

2013 Election Results

This blog post did not go in the direction I expected. I thought I would write up a quick analysis of this year's election results. I thought I would comment on the remarkably low number of votes received by the Republican and Independent Mayoral candidates as indicative of specific problems with their campaign strategies.

Instead, I decided to find out just how much the voter turnout has really declined over the years, and how long this has been going on. What I found was stunning. If voter turnout continues to decline at the same rate that it's declined over the past fifty years, in another decade the only people who will vote in Waterbury's municipal elections are the candidates, members of the Town Committees, and their immediate circles of friends and family.

If we don't change what we're doing, in ten years our voter turnout could be reduced to maybe 3,000 people.

That sounds extreme, but take a look at the table below, and you'll see why it might be reality.

Mayor Elected
Total Voter Turnout
Total Voter Turnout Percent

Election results were pulled from the City of Waterbury Registrar's webpage, from the Connecticut Secretary of State's Election Results Archive webpage, and, for years prior to 1999, from various newspaper articles. For the years prior to 2001, my data is incomplete. I hope to eventually fill in the blanks.

This is a problem that goes beyond party lines, beyond the failings of any particular campaign. All three parties need to come together to reverse the steady decline in Waterbury's voter turnout.

Before we do anything, we need to find out why people aren't voting. We can't sit around guessing at why they didn't vote. We need to know the real reasons. This will take some work. Probably the best way to go is to survey every registered voter who didn't vote. This will require some serious funding. There might be a national organization that can help.

I suspect that the solution to the low turnout will require even more work. The three parties need to do a better job of connecting with the voters, of making them feel like they are part of the system, that their voices and their votes count. But that's just speculation. We won't know for certain how to solve the problem until we find out why 40,000 people did not vote this year.