by Susan Barlow
reprinted with permission


Vet Haven didn't last long. It came in 1948, and departed in the early 1960s. It consisted of 85 tiny houses, sandwiched in between East Middle Turnpike, Hollister, and Princeton Streets, and right behind the Almshouse. There was not a tree in sight. The streets of Vet Haven were patriotically named Legion, Nathan, Hale, Silas, and Deane.

"It was a unique community and should not be dismissed and forgotten," said Ted Cummings, who lived there with his wife Lorraine and daughter Terry from 1948 to 1953. "What a wonderful opportunity it was for all of us, returning from the war. And every one of us who had the good luck to live there did not forget that."

Vet Haven was funded, Ted explained, through a State and Town program, "the bulk of the funds coming from the State, and the Town putting in a considerable amount of money. It was the only public housing project ever built in Manchester, other than for senior citizens, and we were fortunate to be one of the first ten families to move in. It was on the site that's currently occupied by Illing School near the Police Station."

Small Houses and Many Children

"The houses were the size of two-car garages, 22' x 24', four rooms, built on twelve piers. There was no more than 10 or 12 feet from the side steps of one house to the side steps of the next house. They were really packed in there. All of the families were veterans, and many of them had children, and many had children while they were there. Our son Timothy was born while we lived there.

"We took our hats off to the Town, because they gave us this opportunity. Many of us had moved in with our parents when we came back from WWII. This disrupted our parents' lives and households. And we were changed, many of us, by the War (and sometimes not for the better). So, Vet Haven got us out from under the roofs of our parents, and from tearing their places all to pieces. Otherwise, we had no place to go – no money, no place to go. And we always viewed it as a big break that we could thank the Town for. So many people got their start there – many people who went on to bigger and better jobs began their families there, and then moved out into their first house, or a much bigger rent."

Ted went on to open his own insurance agency, serve in the state legislature and on Manchester's Board of Directors and Board of Education; he continues to serve as Chairman of the Democratic Town Committee chairman. Al Seiffert and George Mrosek also went on to become prominent businessmen of Manchester.

Ted's daughter, Terry (Cummings) Bogli, remembers the closeness of the community. "I have some pretty neat memories of living there. But the best was that my father used to read to us sitting on those side steps at the back door to the house. And when the book would come out in the early evening, so would all the neighborhood kids. The steps would be crowded with kids while my father read. Many of the kids were my friends.

"It was all I knew, so it didn't seem unusual to have this extremely small house. I remember my mother scrubbing the linoleum floor in the kitchen on her hands and knees, and waxing it. It used to shine. They were spotless and beautifully maintained, not just by my mom, but by my friends' moms, too. When you'd go into these places, they were beautiful. To me, they were just beautiful."

But, built up on piers with no insulation and no storm or screen doors, the units were hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

Ted remembers, "The rent was $35 a month, and the heat was bottled gas. It didn't take long for the cost of heat to exceed the cost of rent. There was nothing under those floors except wood and asphalt tile, and not even skirting board on the piers, so the wind just whipped through there. The floors were so cold, the water in the bathtub didn't stay warm long – all the cold came up from underneath. We were grateful for a place of our own, but that didn't mean we would roll over and freeze.

The Veterans' Quiet Revolution

"Everybody was hard-pressed for money. Nearly everybody worked a six-day week, and eight- or ten-hour day, and many people worked two jobs. So we used to sit on the steps on Sunday when we weren't working and we'd talk. We decided to send a letter about the heat to the town. But that didn't work. So then a group of us ended up before the Board of Directors, and we asked them to please do something to reduce the cost of fuel. And that's when it was changed from bottled gas to oil. Later, the town insulated between the floor joists, which made it a lot warmer. We asked later for a screen door. We were always very respectful.

"But there was a feeling that maybe we should have sucked it up and not complained about it so much, but we just didn't think it was fair."

"The Poor"

"It was funny when TV aerials began to appear, the Town began to mutter. Because some folks had a concept – this is a fact – that we were poor, and that we should like it."

Terry recalled that many in town felt, "We shouldn't have cars. We shouldn't have TV's. We were viewed as being poor. People in town talked about our being 'the poor people.' They used to drive through the neighborhood on Sunday, just to see us.

"After a while, the Town also put a fence up, all along the border of Princeton and Hollister Streets, with gates on it. And we always knew it was to keep us in, not to keep others out."

Tom Ansaldi, who grew up on Princeton Street, doesn't remember the fence, but he does remember the large number of houses in a small space. "It was great at Halloween. We kids could fill up a bag of candy in no time. And the kids from Vet Haven came around to our street, too."

Jane Johnson, Miss Wigren at the time, taught at first and second grades at nearby Bowers School from 1950 to 1955. "Many of the children I had in my classrooms lived at Vet Haven. I remember visiting one of the homes – they were snug and quite adequate. I had some wonderful children from Vet Haven. They were among the first of the 'baby boomers' as the fathers were trying to start their careers after returning from World War II."

The End of Vet Haven and Other "Projects"

By the early 1960s, Vet Haven's acreage was slated for other uses. Janet Adams, of East Middle Turnpike, says many units were bought and moved to Stafford Springs in a little development on the road to the racetrack. "But the people who lived at Vet Haven had a real community. Even after they moved out, they kept in touch with each other. They had a lot in common – all the men had served in wartime."

Frank Grimason, of the Manchester High School class of 1955, remembered that an auctioneer went up and down the little roads, selling the houses. "I recall one being hauled up Route 44 when I was a kid. Later, I worked on putting an addition on one of those houses up at Ashford Lake, where it had become a lakefront cottage. They had tiny, tiny bathrooms." Some of the additions that were put on are bigger than the houses.

The small houses of Silver Lane Village, off West Center Street, where elderly housing is now located, were taken down in the 1960s. Some found new use as cottages at the Rhode Island shore. Gary Benson, who lived with his family on Tyler Circle in the 1940s and 50s, went to first grade in the little Silver Lane School located in the project. He recalls, "The school was the same gray color as all the little houses." The streets in Silver Lane village were named for the letters of the alphabet: A, B, etc. You can see a listing in the 1954 directory. Thanks to Dick Jenkins and Susan Lyons for research on this topic. Click Silver Lane Homes for a map by Dick Jenkins.

Still Useful Homes

Orford Village, another war-related housing development, was built in the 1940s off Hartford Road, on Pioneer, Tyler, Seaman, and Oval Circles, Waddell and Bunce Roads. These 100+ houses, with cement foundations, provided 792 to 1000 square feet per family – larger than the Vet Haven houses. These houses are still there, some with added rooms and decks.

The Nike site, defense-industry housing from the 1950s, remains as Rainbow Hollow condominiums, with 32 units in the southern part of town.

So, although veterans' housing is gone, it lives on both in residence and memory. As Ted Cummings said of Vet Haven, "It was a real break. Nothing like it ever was, and nothing like it will happen again. That was a hell of a place."

Epilogue: Remedial Learning

Veterans had the opportunity to use the G.I. bill to further their education. But some had enlisted before finishing high school, and others just weren't ready academically to enter college. Ted Cummings tells about the veterans' program at the high school:

"To apply for the G.I. bill, we had to show the government that we meant business. The Town, I think through the Board of Education – I don't know how it was funded – developed an accelerated program of two months in the summer of 1947 or '48. And we veterans took that program. We were the most motley crew of people you ever saw. Ages 22, 23, 24, all who got out of high school by the generosity of the teachers, who knew that there was a national emergency on in 1940 and 1941.

"So we had to go back to school. And it was such a beautiful experience. There was one teacher who was just a giant – Miss Estes. She taught English. And she enjoyed teaching those guys – so diverse, and so motivated to be back in school, trying so hard – never having tried that hard to learn anything before. And she respected them. And you could tell, she just wanted to draw it out of us. And she did. She made you think, and she made you want to learn. It was such a rewarding experience. And it was all done down there in that old high school [now the Bennet Apartments]. I had no car. We walked.

"You never saw such a bunch of people! We had been through a war, and we were just so happy, so desirous of learning…so up for learning. The men were all inquisitive, like little kids – inquisitive and curious, and charged up to learn. And Miss Estes enjoyed it. You could tell she was enjoying making these goofballs learn something. She was a teacher at the high school when most of us had been going before the war. Amerigo Excelmonte, Gentilcourt, Boharsky, Rubaha – all of the same guys who had graduated – were such a conglomerate of people. My marks were so poor in high school. And we were all dummies. And Miss Estes knew that, because she had known us four or four-and-a-half or five years before. She must have seen it as a heck of a challenge, and an opportunity to teach us something. And we wanted to learn. So we listened up."

When asked how the War had changed him, Ted said, "It made me want to take this opportunity to be something I wouldn't be unless I had an education….and gave me the notion that you couldn't run away from responsibility once you had undertaken it, even though you wanted to. That's about the size of it."


Prologue: "There's Going to Be a War"

Ted described an encounter with his family just as he was graduating from high school in 1941:

"I brought the enlistment papers home, and my mother said, "You see your father." I went to see my father, whom I remember most for his working – always working – and it was a summer afternoon, sunny and warm. I said to my father, 'Ma says that you should sign these.' We were in the backyard. He had finished his day's work, which started about 3 a.m., and finished about 3 p.m. He was a milkman. Milkmen delivered their milk early, so it would be there at the customers' houses by 5 to 6 in the morning.

"My father thought about the papers a little bit. I had brought a pen. And he said, 'There's going to be a war, you know.' He didn't talk much. He read the papers from the first word to the last. And I knew nothing. I knew less then than I know now, which is not a heck of a lot. And I thought to myself, he doesn't really know anything.

"All I wanted to do was to get in the Marines and see the world. I was going to see the world – just like the sandwich-board signs said – with Uncle Sam pointing at you, 'We want you. Join the Marines. See the world.'

"But my father said, 'There's going to be a war, you know.' This was maybe six months before the war. 'Are you sure you want to go?' And I said, 'There's not going to be any war. Pop, just sign it.' So he signed it. And six months later, there was a war.

"I have told that story about my father, and suggested that it would be good idea for the younger to listen occasionally to the older, because maybe they do know something. Six months before the war, and he knew. And he had figured that, concluded that because of the way things were going in our relationship with Japan. England and all of Europe were at war with Germany. And the Germans had overrun Europe. Blitzkrieg was a new word. Stuka [German airplane, a dive-bomber] was a new word. Edward R. Murrow would come on at 7 and 11 o'clock, and we'd gather around the radio. He would say, 'This is Edward R. Murrow, from London.' You could hear the bombs dropping and the anti-aircraft in the background. And in 1941, my father already knew that we would go to war. And what did I know?"




About the Author: Susan (Cronin) Barlow has served on the board of the Manchester Historical Society since 2001. She produces a Local History public access television show, and has written articles for local publications — most of these stories involve the history of Manchester and its residents –including Harry Maidment, Fred Towle, Dorothy Denton Olcott, and other WWII veterans. She leads walking tours and nature hikes for the Historical Society, scout troops, and school groups.

Susan and her husband, Malcolm Barlow, are active in their church, the Land Trust, and other conservation groups. Their two adult children live nearby in Manchester and Bolton.


To read more about Manchester veterans...

• Click Veterans Memorials to access a page in our "Places to Visit" section, describing memorials put up in honor of Manchester's veterans.

• Click Harry Maidment to read an interview by Susan Barlow with Harry Maidment, who served in the Army in the artillery during World War II.

• Click Dorothy Olcott to read an interview by Susan Barlow with Dorothy Olcott, who served with the WAVES in World War II.

• Click Silver Lane Homes to read about Susan (Miner) Lyons' home in Silver Lane Homes project.

       



Reproduced 2011 from www.mhs1955.com with permission of its webmaster Dick Jenkins.
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