Dillon Stadium flashback

Cover of the book "Connecticut Gridiron: Football Minor Leaguers of the 1960s and 1970s."Today’s ceremonial groundbreaking for the renovation of Dillon Stadium put me in mind of the Hartford Knights, the minor-league football team that played there in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was nine years old when my father brought me to Dillon for the September 5, 1970 game against the Indianapolis Capitals. I don’t remember much of the game action, but I vividly recall an incident that put the game in the news: a bomb threat that prompted a temporary evacuation of the stands. All 5,000 or so of us were led onto the field, where we milled around with the players and coaches. Soon, we had cleared spaces to watch players toss footballs around–with fans as well as each other. Everyone was smiling, enjoying the novelty of the moment and (seemingly) not taking the scare very seriously. Maybe at that point in the era, bomb scares were taken in stride.

Andrew Crossley’s excellent blog about minor-league sports franchises, Fun While It Lasted, has a great entry on the Knights. Then there’s “Connecticut Gridiron: Football Minor Leaguers of the 1960s and 1970s,” a book by William J. Ryczek that confirmed my memories of the bomb-scare game. (See page 240.)

Remembering Hartford in World War I

If all the national coverage of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I has you wondering how the Hartford region got through the war, check out David Drury’s fine 2015 book, “Hartford in World War I.” At 141 pages, it’s a quick read yet packed with  information and photographs. (I was especially struck by a photo of the Army demonstrating one of its early tanks — in Pope Park.)

News of the Armistice signing reached the east coast of the U.S. around 3 a.m. on November 11, 1918, and Drury describes the jubilation that broke out despite the hour in Hartford and surrounding towns:

In the Connecticut capital, a crowd of onlookers began forming outside the {Hartford] Courant’s State Street office at 3 a.m. to catch the latest bulletins, their voices soon hoarse from cheering and singing patriotic anthems. Within an hour, downtown streets were filling up … Over the din of parades and marching, the ringing of trolleys, the tooting of auto horns and the spectacle of hanging the Kaiser in effigy, newsboys scrambled to hawk special editions. Factories and schools closed for the day, as did the saloons, and city officials made preparations for an evening Peace Parade, with the route ending in Bushnell Park beneath the Capitol.

He goes on to quote Mayor Richard J. Kinsella’s proclamation, which seems to capture the relief so many must have felt at the war’s end. Perhaps it was that relief which led him to predict such a war couldn’t happen again.

God is in the heavens and all is right with the world! Autocracy has been crushed and Democracy has been exalted. Never again will a deluded human being, intoxicated by the belief that he is a superman, from the vantage ground of a throne, crush the heads of his people in mad pursuit of abnormal ambition. The Kaiser in ignoble flight to save his own head is a picture that warms the hearts of the American people today.

Hartford honored its World War 1 dead by planting a Trees of Honor Memorial in Colt Park, featuring 186 American elm trees–the known number of dead at the time. To go with the trees, plaques were created for each of the deceased. They eventually numbered 209, to reflect the updated casualty list. But by the late 1960s, the trees and plaques were all gone. More on that later.

CHS director moving on

The Hartford Business Journal reports that Jody Blankenship, CEO of the Connecticut Historical Society since September 2013, will leave in January to become president and CEO of the Indiana Historical Society. The CHS board of trustees will conduct a national search for his replacement, according to the Journal.

Established in 1825, CHS is the state’s official historical society and one of the oldest in the nation. Its headquarters at 1 Elizabeth Street in Hartford includes a museum, library, and the Edgar F. Waterman Research Center–all open to the public and funded by private contributions. The CHS collection includes more than 4 million manuscripts, graphics, books, artifacts, and other historical materials. It is a Smithsonian affiliate.

 

Listen as WWUH celebrates 50 years

WWUH, the FM radio station operated by the University of Hartford, is marking its 50th anniversary by airing a four-part documentary over four Fridays, at 12:30 p.m. The first installment has aired already; the next three are set for October 26, November 2, and November 9. Listen at 91.3 FM or http://www.wwuh.org/0043-listen-online. The project, produced and edited by WWUH volunteer Brandon Kampe, stems from interviews with more than 90 current and former staff members and a search of archival ta pes.

BTW, longtime WWUH staffter John Ramsey, now the station’s general manager and chief engineer, has created a huge archive of station history at www.wwuhhistory.org.

Longtime WWUH staffter John Ramsey, now the station’s general manager and chief engineer, has created a huge archive of station history at www.wwuhhistory.org.

Rev. Paul M. Ritter, pastor and activist

The Hartford Courant reports that Paul Ritter, leader of the Warburton Community Congregational Church on Brookfield Street for 25 years until his retirement in 1997, died last week at age 82.

Ritter, a North Carolina native who came to Hartford in 1969, may be best known outside the city for his three unsuccessful runs for mayor, in 1979, 1993, and 2001. But he was best known around the city as an activist for those who lacked political power, particularly the poor and sick.

For instance, as the Courant notes, “Ritter had long been a voice for those living in Hartford’s public housing, much of it dilapidated, ridden with vermin, and difficult for the elderly and disabled to navigate. In 1977, his Brookfield Street church was ransacked after he spoke at a rally for low income tenants, the sixth time in 12 months his church had been burglarized … Earlier that year, its windows had been shot out after Ritter led a demonstration to rid a housing project of rats and roaches.”

In the 1990s, he pushed for giving those living HIV/AIDS a publicly funded apartment building on Wethersfield Avenue. That failed amid controversy–it was opposed by neighbors and even some HIV/AIDS activists who feared creating something of a leper colony–but Ritter and other clergy eventually opened a building on Homestead Avenue for people living with HIV/AIDS and their families, called Zezzo House.

According to his obituary, a memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 28, at the Victory Cathedral, at 205 Bellevue Street.

By the way, if you’re wondering where Warburton Community Congregational Church got its name, check out this great article on the Historic Buildings of Connecticut site.

Joe Marfuggi, riverfront visionary

Joe Marfuggi, the man who led Riverfront Recapture for 29 years, died last week at age 77. It’s hard to think of anyone who did more to revitalize Hartford in the past half-century. The Hartford Courant summed up his impact nicely:

Marfuggi, energized by a vision of reconnecting residents with the Connecticut River waterfront in Hartford, ran the nonprofit from 1986 until his retirement in 2015. Under his leadership, the organization built a plaza at Riverside Park that has become one of the state’s major attractions, with more than 800,000 people visiting the area the year he retired.

State Treasurer Denise Nappier, who brought Marfuggi to Riverfront Recapture during her stint as the organization’s executive director, described his style for the Hartford Business Journal:

He was always that kind of person that garnered respect in a way that compelled others to want to be on his team … He was someone you could rely upon to get things done and done well.

According to his obituary, a celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, October 28, in the Belding Theatre of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

How bad was the hurricane of 1938? This bad.

As Dennis House of WFSB-TV reminds us, today marks the 80th anniversary of the day an historically destructive hurricane began ripping through Connecticut, including Hartford.

As Dennis House of WFSB-TV reminds us, today marks the 80th anniversary of the day an historically destructive hurricane began ripping through Connecticut, including Hartford.

CT Humanities, through its Connecticut history website, offers a nice summary and list of resources on the hurricane, and the Hartford Courant published this look back in 1999. For video, there’s the 1997 Connecticut Public Television documentary “When Disaster Struck Connecticut,” which looks at four historic weather disasters, including the ’38 hurricane. You can watch it in segments on YouTube.

The hurricane caused massive flooding of the Connecticut River on Hartford’s low-lying East Side, long an immigrant neighborhood. Glenn Weaver noted in his “Hartford: An Illustrated History of Connecticut’s Capital” that residents and merchants there were still recovering from the spring flooding of 1936, which had claimed five lives and still ranks as the worst flood in city history.

“In 1938,” Weaver wrote, “Nature struck again, with the most severe hurricane in the city’s history. On September 21 at 4 p.m., the hurricane struck with full force, leaving the city a shambles: streets blocked by fallen trees and utility polls, crushed automobiles, stranded trolley cars, and debris from hundreds of destroyed or damaged buildings.” Employees of the city and the Works Progress Administration, a federal program that gave work to people left jobless by the still-lingering Great Depression, joined college students and other volunteers in filling and stacking 50-pound bags of sand to reinforce the straining dikes. Around 5:30 p.m. on Friday, September 2, the river reached 35.1 feet above normal; it stayed there until 10 p.m., then slowly began to recede.

The most vivid and detailed account, though, may belong to William Manchester, in his epic 1974 social history “The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972.” Manchester had lived through the hurricane as a teenager in Springfield, but he relied on oodles of research to describe the destruction that convulsed all of New England and New York. (Nearly as great as the destruction was the shock; New England hadn’t experienced a hurricane since 1815, and the poor state of weather forecasting at the time resulted in almost no one seeing this one coming.)

Finally, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to re-post one of my favorite photos, taken in Hartford’s Riverside Park, on the path along the Connecticut River. The plaques on the pillar indicate the high-water marks for the 1936, 1938, and 1955 floods. The river is out of the frame, to the right, and down an embankment. It makes you thankful for the new and much bigger system of dikes that were already in the planning stages in 1938 and completed in the early 1940s.

What a way to go, indeed

The Journal Inquirer newspaper of Manchester had a great article over the weekend on the “theme” tours being held at beautiful Cedar Hill Cemetery, the final resting place of such notables as actress Katharine Hepburn, gun maker Samuel Colt, poet Wallace Stevens, robber baron J.P. Morgan, and anesthesia pioneer Horace Wells.

Writer Tom Breen took the “What a Way to Go” tour, which–you guessed it–focused on the gruesome deaths suffered by some of the famous and not-so-famous residents. Among the former was Horace Wells, who “eventually became addicted to one of the chemicals he was experimenting with and cut his own throat after throwing acid at two prostitutes,” Breen wrote. Also on the tour was Walter Treadway Huntington, a Harvard junior who left his family’s home in Windsor one night in 1929 to buy a pack of cigarettes and never came home. Mysteriously, his body was found the next morning “with a gunshot wound to the head, his pockets stuffed with bloody handkerchiefs and Chesterfield Kings stubbed out around his body.”

Breen reports that upcoming tours include:

  • “Angels Among Us,” an examination of the allegorical figures that decorate tombs, on July 24;
  • “Sunset Notables,” a tour on the evening of Aug. 9 that looks at some of the famous residents of the cemetery; and
  • “Arts & Letters” on Sept. 25, which focuses on writers, painters, actors, and other artists.

More Horace!

Speaking of Horace Wells, his sad story is told in the August issue of Connecticut magazine by Erik Ofgang, under the headline, “How the Hartford Dentist Who Pioneered Anesthesia in Medicine Was Driven Mad.”

Circus fire show airs Friday

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the 1944 Hartford circus fire. If you want to learn about it, there’s no better place to start than the audio documentary aired a few years ago by WWUH-FM, radio station of the University of Hartford. The station will re-air the program the program tomorrow at 12:30, the approximate time the fire started. You can listen online or at 91.3 on the FM dial. There’s also an event page on Facebook.

Here’s our page on the fire.

Photo of tent burning at Hartford circus fire, 1944.

When the Hartford kids invaded the beaches

Cover of the book "Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline"Few talk about Ned Coll today, but in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s he was constantly in the news. Raised in a middle-class, Irish-American household in Hartford, he quit his insurance job in 1964 to start the Revitalization Corps, a nonprofit whose volunteers provided tutoring, employment training, and other help to residents of the city’s largely African-American North End. The Corps also staged public confrontations to expose racism in Connecticut–not just the blatant kind, but the subtle racism of people whom Coll dubbed “armchair liberals.”

That’s why, starting in 1971, Coll and company began drawing attention to Connecticut’s beaches, many of which were effectively off-limits to people of color. There was no outright prohibition, but since the beaches ran through predominantly white and wealthy communities, it was easy to keep “outsiders” out; private beaches were restricted to members only, and public ones were restricted to town residents or visitors with enough money to pay sky-high parking fees. Coll thought the beaches should be open to all, and his tactic for making that point was simple: He simply loaded North End kids on buses, brought them to a beach, and challenged authorities to do something about it. The kids had fun, and Coll attracted a lot of publicity. But it took a lawsuit filed by a beach jogger in the 1990s to loosen some of the restrictions on beach access, though Coll testified on his behalf.

The full story of Coll’s campaign is told in a new book, “Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline,” by Andrew Karhl, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia. In an interview with Smithsonian.com, which has a great overview of the book, Karhl sums up Coll’s outlook this way:

“He understood, on an instinctual level, that the problem of racism was a problem of white people, and white people needed to solve it. So he targeted these very liberal but passive communities that, on the one hand, talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk, and so often actually made the problems worse.”

For more on Coll and his legacy, check out this CT Viewpoints column by Tom Condon, who began his long career as a Hartford Courant reporter, columnist, and editor by covering the beach “invasions.”

“Have things changed since Coll began his journey?” Condon asks. “Somewhat.”

New trivia question

Hartford found itself in the national spotlight on October 14, 1975, when a limousine carrying President Gerald R. Ford collided with a car full of teenagers at a city intersection. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt. At what intersection did this occur? You’ll find the answer–and a photo of the scene–here.

traffic light