Since retiring as editor of The Ridgefield Press in 2014 (a post he’d held for 47 years), Jack Sanders has been busily engaged in doing what he likes — that includes daily bicycling and walking, reviving his “ham” (amateur) radio activities, and continuing his longtime interest in the history of his adopted town (born in Bridgeport, he grew up in Fairfield and Danbury). Fans of his Old Ridgefield Facebook page have learned to check each morning for a new biography of a notable Ridgefielder, someone locally or nationally famous or infamous, who’s no longer living. He’s posted more than 200 so far, with many to come as he continues to discover and record the stories of interesting Ridgefield characters from bygone days.
Sanders has written four Ridgefield histories so far, three since he retired, with the latest, Wicked Ridgefield Connecticut, published this week by The History Press/Arcadia Publishing. The three previous histories are Ridgefield 1900-1950, historical insights based on his extensive collection of Ridgefield postcards; Ridgefield Chronicles; and Hidden History of Ridgefield Connecticut. He’s also written two popular books about wildflowers (another of his interests): Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles: The Lives and Lore of North American Wildflowers and The Secrets of Wildflowers.
We asked the author about the inspiration for his historical research: was it sheer curiosity?
“Karl Nash, who hired me and was my boss for many years at The Ridgefield Press, had a deep interest in Ridgefield’s history — his ancestors were among the town’s founders and he lived on land his ancestors had owned for nearly three centuries. His enthusiasm about people, places and things of the past got me interested in the town’s history.
“One of the first things I wrote about was the town’s cemeteries, and many of the interesting graves in them. Then I started on a monster project of writing about the town’s place names and where they came from. That took a decade of research and writing, and wound up covering more than 1,200 with over 200,000 words — much too much for a book! But it was fun and it’s now all online at RidgefieldHistory.com.” (RidgefieldHistory.com is a website maintained by Sanders.)
Wicked Ridgefield Connecticut, as the name implies, is filled with tales of crime and other dark deeds, but it’s not all sad and bad. Asked for his favorite crime story, Sanders replied:
“I think my favorite is the story about the young married couple being tossed into the infamous ‘Tombs’ prison in 1896 for a crime that it’s pretty certain they did not commit. It’s a real ‘Downton Abbey’ – ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ tale that involves some fascinating people. I mean, here’s this farm boy from Ridgefield who marries an Irish maid from Manhattan, she gets accused of stealing her rich employer’s silver, her husband of a few weeks is called an accomplice, they get tossed into the Tombs, the folks back in Ridgefield get a support campaign going, headed by Father Shortell — the famous pastor of St. Mary’s, and the boy’s farmer father talks one of New York City’s top lawyers and a man who ran for governor of Connecticut, Ridgefielder Melbert B. Cary — into defending his son and daughter-in-law. What’s not to love about that story?”
How does the historian find these stories — is it serendipity? What resources do you use?
Sanders explained, “The story about the newlyweds in the Tombs was discovered when I was going through old microfilmed copies of The Press for something else and happened to see a small news note on the front page, mentioning the case. The Press actually had only a few paragraphs on this event, but seeing it inspired me to look further. And it turned out the New York Times and other city papers had given the case extensive coverage. Plus, I knew stuff about Melbert Cary already because he was a pretty famous guy a century ago.
“Other stories were discovered that way, like the “bombing” of the Ridgefield Savings Bank safe back in 1894. One story, the amazing tale of runaway-turned-millionaire Jack R. Dick, I happened to spot while doing research in The Times. He was a fairly rich teenager who ran away from his home in New York and was found working on a farm in Ridgefield. He later became a millionaire art collector and was accused of various misdeeds.
“However, I had learned about many of the cases from Karl Nash or his wife, Betty Grace Nash, who was managing editor of The Press. As newspaper people they knew about a lot of the shadier events of Ridgefield’s past. I was involved in covering a few of the cases in the book during the 1970s — either I was the chief reporter, or I assigned the reporters who covered the events, things like the cross-burning and the devil-worshippers. Clearly, newspapers are the best source for this kind of history, but I also used books, the Library of Congress, magazines, the town hall vital records and land records, and even ancestry.com, the genealogy website.”
Do you feel that the Ridgefield historical stories you’ve been recording have some universal elements that give a picture of life in this part of Connecticut or is there something that’s just unusual about the town?
“Most of my recent historical writing has been about the amazing collection of people who have lived in Ridgefield over the years. For various reasons, Ridgefield has attracted many fascinating people: six Pulitzer Prize-winners, a Nobel laureate, three Congressional Medal of Honor winners. Seven residents have been honored on U.S. postage stamps!
“However, most of what is in this latest book could have happened in any area town — in fact, some of the stories involve several towns besides Ridgefield. One thing that made Ridgefield a bit different from the others on the crime side is that State Police Troop A barracks were located here for many years, so you had some major personalities in the world of crime-solving, like Leo Carroll and John Kelly, living and working here. Leo Carroll was an almost larger than life character who could talk your ear off about the bad guys of the past. And he knew a lot of bad guys!”
Finally, if you were going to encourage families to preserve ephemera from years past, what types of things are most worth saving?
“I would save photographs that show people and places but always make sure the information about the picture is written on the back, including the date and people’s names. Letters that tell about aspects of Ridgefield life can be very useful to future historians. On eBay I often see stamped envelopes mailed from Ridgefield in the 1800s offered for collectors who want the old stamps or the cancellations. What would interest me more than the stamps or envelopes is the letters that were inside. I once came across a series of old stamped envelopes that did, in fact, still have the letters in them and it wound up being a mother in the 1860s (who lived on Catoonah Street) writing to her son who had just gone off to college to be a minister. I learned a lot about their family life from the half-dozen letters that survived.”
Jack Sanders will give an author talk about Wicked Ridgefield Connecticut on Saturday, Nov. 12, at 2 p.m. at the Ridgefield Library, 472 Main Street. Books will be available for sale and signing; to register, visit ridgefieldlibrary.org or call 203-438-2282.