REPRINTS


Bob Samuelson Recalls Manchester's Early Days
By Fred D'Angelo, September 2006

The early years

Bob Samuelson was born in 1918 and has lived in Manchester his entire life. He has seen the changes that the decades have wrought on this town and agreed to share some of his recollections and observations for this interview.

How many of today's Manchester residents can recall the centennial celebration of 1923? Bob Samuelson does. Apparently, the town's residents expressed the wealth and optimism of the 1920s in the extensive festivities that continued for a week. The celebration featured a parade that included a Cheney Brothers caterpillar silkworm float, oxen teams, Native Americans, horses, firefighters and schoolchildren. According to an article in the August 9, 1923 edition of the "Manchester Daily News," $15,000, a large amount for those times, was appropriated to the town's Centennial Committee to pay for this celebration. Another article dated August 13, 1923 described how committee representatives contracted with the Passamaquoddy tribe in Eastport, Maine to provide a group of 40 "Indians" composed of "braves, squaws, maidens and papooses" for one week beginning on October 1, 1923. The Indians set up an encampment on an open lot on Main Street where the armory now stands. Samuelson remembers them selling handmade toy bows and arrows to local children whose parents were permissive enough to allow them, but his father and the father of a friend believed the bows and toys were dangerous and forbid the boys from buying them.

Construction of the new South Methodist Church

If you had been born in 1980, 1955 or even 1930, the current South Methodist Church would already have been standing solidly on the corner of Main Street and Hartford Road, looking as permanent and ancient as the very stone of which it is built. Bob Samuelson remembers a time before this building existed and can discuss its construction. A "Manchester Daily News" article dated June 1, 1923 described a fundraising meeting at which A. Willard Case pledged to donate $30,000 for the new building if $100,000 were raised by July 1, 1923. According to later articles, the actual amount raised, including the Case donation, was $159,000. Construction began in 1923, and the new church was dedicated in 1925. Samuelson recalls that a master builder named Bill Knofla oversaw its construction. Mr. Knofla was also responsible for building a number of local schools, and other landmarks including the Masonic Temple with its fortress-like 18-inch thick walls.

According to Samuelson, the stone for the church's walls were cut from a quarry in the Highland Park section of town. The Case family, a prominent Manchester family for decades, owned the quarry as well as the paper mill for which they were well known. They donated the stone to South Methodist Church. Horse-drawn wagons hauled the stone from the quarry to the construction site. Contrary to what we may expect, trucks powered by internal combustion engines had not yet completely replaced horses by 1925.

In addition to once having had a quarry, Highland Park also had a copper mine that had fallen into disuse before Samuelson's childhood. He remembers a slit in the ground through which kids would crawl to enter a small underground chamber. The mine was located near the quarry and to the west of the former paper mill building which still stands on Spring Street.

Mud Heaven

Samuelson remembers a time when many of Manchester's thoroughfares were still dirt. Most of Manchester's current residents must find it difficult to imagine the era before roads, but Samuelson's own street near the hospital was not paved until the 1930s, a decade during which many improvements were made to Manchester's infrastructure. Samuelson says that the spring was like "mud heaven." They resembled "back roads in Vermont." To clear these roads of snow during the winter, a ploughman rode a rowboat-like contraption towed by horses. The boat's prow cut a path through the snow by pushing it towards the sides of the road. Weights held the boat down and kept it from riding along the snow's surface.

During the 1930s, work continued on the city's water and sewer system. Engineer Jay Giles struggled to maintain a balanced water pressure throughout the system. Differences in elevation among various areas in the system made this difficult. With assistance from other engineers and consultants, Giles figured out how to manipulate a number of valves to obtain equalized pressure.

Public recreation in the 1930s

During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a government program initiated by the Roosevelt administration, provided jobs when the private sector could not generate them. In Manchester, the WPA cleared Center Springs Park of its underbrush, making the park accessible for recreational activities including skiing. Learn more about the WPA at FDR Library: Harry Hopkins Papers.

Webmaster's Note: The original web address used in the above paragraph, www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/od2ndnd.htm, is no longer functional. The address now being used, from the papers of close FDR advisor Harry Hopkins, should provide a good reference / starting point for information on the Works Progress Administration.

Samuelson remembers the 1930s as an era when winter recreation thrived in Manchester. The damming of Bigelow Brook in 1921 flooded the swamp in Center Springs Park, creating a pond on which people boated in the warm months and skated in the winter. You can still see the "1921" embossed above the door on the dam's gatehouse, on the west side of the pond.

Skating carnivals were popular in the 1930s. Samuelson recalls world-class skaters traveling from a wide area that included the distant, for those times, Lake Placid, New York to participate in these carnivals, which featured such events as barrel jumping, figure skating and speed skating. The carnival's organizers scheduled outstanding performers months in advance.

Local recreational skaters and amateur hockey leagues also enjoyed the pond. During the winters of that decade, the pond's ice often reached a thickness of sixteen inches; it easily supported all of the skaters involved in these activities.

Volunteers from the local skating club made significant contributions to both the carnivals and the recreational skating. They strung the lights, which illuminated the pond for a range of nighttime activities. They also installed the sound system, which William Krah, a local figure skater and proprietor of a radio and communications shop on Main Street, donated. Krah built a large wooden horn through which sound was projected. This system was used to announce carnival and hockey league events and to broadcast music for recreational skaters.

Samuelson remembers the winters of the 1930s as a time when children enjoyed sledding on town streets with their Flexible Flyers, a brand known for decades. To provide areas where they could do this safely, the town closed Summit, Garden, Glenwood and Hemlock streets to traffic. Groups of up to six people glided along the streets in large sleds called "rips." These heavy-duty sleds consisted of a platform of planks sitting atop two sets of steel runners. The front runners were movable and could turn; the rear runners were fixed. The front-most rider steered the rip by pulling ropes that turned the front runners.

Skiers skimmed over the snow-covered streets as well. They would ski down Garden Street into Seaman's coal yard.

The citizenry's interest in winter sports led the town to develop ski slopes at a number of local sites. The first slope ran from the Town Hall's parking lot down the hill into Center Springs Park. A second one was added at Mt. Nebo and another, Northview, at Garden Grove. The Kurtz brothers, two local ski enthusiasts, provided a portable rope tow for the slopes. Vandals' repeatedly cutting the ropes ended the tow. Then the diminishing snowfall over the years made operating local ski areas impossible; none of them remain. Visit www.nelsap.org/ct/nebo.html and www.nelsap.org/ct/northview.html for more information on Mt. Nebo and Northview respectively.

Manchester residents who enjoy skiing can still join its active ski club, but its members now go to its lodge in Ludlow, Vermont. The ski club was founded by a group of friends, Samuelson among them, during the early 1940s. It started as a carpooling arrangement to share World War II-era gas-ration coupons to obtain enough fuel for a round trip to Vermont's ski slopes.

At one time the area between the Parkade and Benton Street was heavily forested. Samuelson described it as "nature's playground for all the kids who grew up in the center of town." The construction of Manchester High School in the mid-1950s significantly altered this landscape. An entire hill was cut down to create a level area for the school, and a large excavation project was initiated to make room for the culverts that would redirect Bigelow Brook underground beneath what became the football field.

The Depression

The 1930s were not entirely a time of carefree recreation and entertainment in Manchester or anywhere else. The worldwide economic depression destroyed the market for the silk and velvet goods produced by the community's main employer, Cheney Brothers. As sales fell, the company reduced production. Employees worked reduced hours to distribute the decreased workload among as many people as possible. Samuelson's own father, a Cheney velvet weaver, worked a partial week as part of this scheme.

Manchester had long relied on the Cheney Brothers not only for employment, but also for acts of charity and benevolence such as building schools and donating the land for Center Springs Park. Samuelson said that the company's decline led to "very dark times for most common folk."

When the Cheneys could no longer employ a significant portion of the local citizenry, there were few employment alternatives. Jobs with public services such as the post office, municipal government, and the electric and telephone companies became the mainstays of local employment. According to Samuelson, people did whatever was necessary to survive financially. They took part-time jobs. While a young teenager during these years, Samuelson contributed to his family's income by delivering newspapers.

New construction plummeted along with the demand for new houses. On one particularly sobering day, Samuelson observed pieces of construction equipment being loaded onto Florida-bound train cars. The equipment could not be productively or profitably used in Manchester so its owner decided to move it south where it could be employed to dig canals.

The beginning of World War II in Europe in 1939 helped the local economy. Britain and France needed engines for aircraft. Pratt & Whitney increased its workforce to build the engines. Local people could once again look to a major prospering business for employment opportunities.

Samuelson went to work for Pratt & Whitney in 1936. He recalls that when World War II got into full swing, Pratt employees had grueling schedules to meet production quotas. They worked 13 consecutive days with one day off.

Memorable Individuals

Throughout Manchester's history, there have been noteworthy individuals who have contributed to the quality of life in this community and shaped its course. Samuelson recalls some of them. He personally knew Fred Verplanck (1860-1957) who served as the superintendent of the Ninth District (South Manchester) schools from 1895 to 1932. The town honored Verplanck by naming the elementary school on Olcott Street after him. Samuelson notes that Verplanck, a dedicated and respected educator in Manchester, also served as Grand Master of Connecticut's Masons for a two-year term that began in 1910. Through this affiliation, he became involved in helping to guide the development of the Masonic Home and Hospital in Wallingford. Samuelson describes Verplanck as a forward-thinking planner, who saw the need for this hospital. According to Samuelson, Verplanck would ride the trolleys and trains through Hartford to Wallingford after a full day of work to participate in making plans for this hospital.

Another prominent person Samuelson knew was his attorney, Jay Rubinow. After practicing law in Manchester for more than twenty years, Rubinow was appointed a judge of the Connecticut Circuit Court. He served as chief judge of this body from 1961 to 1967. Later, as Superior Court judge in a 1974 trial, he ruled that Connecticut's system of funding public education was unconstitutional. This ruling was upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Horton v. Meskill in 1978. Connecticut Magazine and the Connecticut Bar Association named Rubinow the best trial judge in Connecticut in 1976. [For additional information, see 2005 Alumni Bulletin: Summer Memoriam and www.cslib.org/cts4ch.htm.]

Nearly seventy years after graduating from high school, Samuelson still remembers a number of teachers: Economics teacher Alton Johngren conveyed course material so clearly and in such an interesting manner, that most students enjoyed his class, and even those with little aptitude for the subject seemed to develop a basic proficiency in it.

Samuelson recalls that science teacher Joseph Spang, upon realizing that his student Stanley Melesko had an amateur radio operator's license, asked him to teach the radio and electronics section of the course. Spang did not have a problem acknowledging that a student's expertise in this area exceeded his own. Providing the best level of instruction to the class was more important to him than maintaining an image in the classroom. By Samuelson's account, Melesko did a competent job presenting the material, and he went on to become a communications expert at Pratt & Whitney.

Samuelson remembers physical education teacher Wilfred Clarke as someone who had no trouble maintaining discipline in his classes. This seems to have been a talent common to "phys ed" teachers of previous eras, and people of a certain age should have no difficulty remembering their drill sergeant demeanor.

Bygone landmarks

Manchester's natural landscape and manmade structures have changed many times throughout its history. A number of the once prominent buildings that shaped the town's character are now gone. Samuelson, having lived in this town for nearly nine decades, has observed many of these changes. He discussed some of his recollections for this article.

The Hotel Sheridan, a three-story structure, once stood on the corner of Main and Pearl Streets. The era of downtown hotels seems quaint today when most of them are built on the outskirts of towns near highways, airports or malls. During the 1930s, this hotel was the scene of local excitement when an anonymous daredevil climbed its side in the style of Spiderman. Other daredevils, both from that time and more recently, have attempted more dangerous climbs on far taller buildings, but for Manchester, this was an event.

Some current residents may remember that Manchester once had a trolley system. Even those who never saw a trolley car in operation may have vague memories of the idle tracks, which ran along Main Street from a terminus in the south end to one in the north end. Other tracks ran eastward to Manchester Green where Middle Turnpike and East Center Street converge. Manchester's tracks belonged to a larger system that ran to out-of-town locations such as Crystal Lake, Hartford, Rockville, and even Wallingford.

Samuelson recalls that the trolleys played a role in the town's social life. They enabled churches to organize daylong picnics in interesting locations like Hartford's Elizabeth Park or Crystal Lake in Ellington. They were important to the local pigeon population as well. The barns behind the town hall, which housed the trolley cars, provided a home for multitudes of pigeons.

A larger proportion of Manchester's current residents may remember the Odd Fellows Hall with its unique rounded corner facing the junction of Main Street and East Center Street. A large curved window looked out from the ground floor of this corner. This building was demolished in the early 1980s. Why would anyone tear down such an architecturally interesting building? According to Samuelson, its design made it impossible to install an elevator, and no parking area was close to it. These problems limited the building's usefulness and led to its destruction.

Samuelson remembers that a fire station once stood immediately behind the Lincoln School on Main Street near Center. From time to time fire engines would race out of it and cross the school's playground in response to alarms. Occasionally this happened while children were at recess on the playground. Samuelson declares that no child was ever harmed by the trucks because two teachers, Miss Crampton and Miss Brown, exercised such control over their students that they could clear the playground in an instant. The children quickly responded to these teachers' directions by lining up close to the building away from the trucks' path. Can anyone picture this happening today?

For years, Mary Cheney maintained extensive flower gardens on land south of Hartford Road. The gardens would have been behind current numbers 20 and 48 Hartford Road, across from South Methodist Church. Samuelson recalls that these gardens had walkways and water fountains set within large walls. Unfortunately, this land was needed for the construction of I-384 in the 1960s, and these gardens were lost for future generations.

One current local landmark nearly passed into the realm of the bygone in the late 1960s. The town government planned to demolish Lincoln School, put a parking lot in its place and build a new school in Center Springs Park. Samuelson joined the effort to save the school. As he says, "There is no reason to demolish something that is built like a battleship." Sometimes citizens working together can make a difference. The fact that the deed for the Park prohibited non-recreational use of its land helped this cause.

Some personal history

Bob Samuelson worked at Pratt and Whitney ("P&W") from 1936 to 1973. During this time, the company offered stable employment to the local workforce; these were the glory years of the American worker. Samuelson became a highly skilled technician in the research department where he worked on prototypes for new engines. He recalls the Pratt and Whitney of that era as a team-oriented environment in which engineers with PhDs and technicians with high school diplomas collaborated in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

During World War II, Samuelson worked on the project to develop the Wasp Major engine. It had a unique design in which four rows of cylinders twisted in a spiral pattern along the engine block. According to Samuelson, this was the last and most powerful propeller engine. Its size and power made it suitable only for heavy bombers, not single-engine fighter planes. According to the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, this advanced 28-cylinder engine produced 3500 horsepower, and it was used to power 25 models of aircraft.

The main challenges at P&W involved adapting to new technologies and managing costs. The first major technological transition occurred after World War II, when jet engines began to replace propeller-driven engines. Another major change occurred in the late 1950s when lasers were introduced to cut turbine blades and do welding. According to Samuelson, Pratt was a major innovator in using lasers in industrial processes.

Samuelson enjoyed the camaraderie and challenges of working in this stimulating environment.

Samuelson has not been a passive member of the Manchester community; he has actively contributed to it. Decades ago, he was a founding member of the Manchester Ski Club. He served on the town's building and schools committees from 1980 to 1990. These are voluntary committees whose members share their business and professional expertise with the town government in order to help it better manage the public's resources.

Samuelson has belonged to the Masons for over 60 years. There was a time, he recalls, when the Masons were a significant source of support to the community. The men who initiated projects and organized events all seemed to be Masons. A membership roster of Masons from 1951 includes many of the key people in Manchester.

That era of prominence for the Masons began to fade in the early 1960s, Samuelson recalls. To some extent, town government began to assume more responsibility for public projects. Nevertheless, the Masonic tradition of public service continues. Samuelson himself has served on numerous public service projects including CT CHIP. This recent project, whose acronym stands for Child Identification Program, involves collecting identifying information dental imprints, DNA, fingerprints, video and voice samples -- from elementary school children. In the event a child goes missing, this information could be used for the Amber Alert System and given to police. Students voluntarily participate in this program. All of the information is organized in a packet and given to a participant's parents for them to use in the event of an emergency. Neither the Masons nor any other organization retains this material.

Samuelson's role in CT CHIP is to work with Matt Heinrich, the current Worshipful Master of Manchester's Masonic Lodge, to obtain the use of school facilities and find volunteer dental technicians, videographers, photographers, etc. CT CHIP sessions always run on Saturday mornings in a school gymnasium, and require much planning and preparation. As of mid-year 2006, the opportunity to participate in this program was presented to 3500 elementary school students in Manchester. So far 1000 have taken advantage of it.

CT CHIP was only the most recent of Samuelson's many public service projects. He has performed work for his church and the town. The Connecticut Masons recognized his efforts in 1984 when they honored him with the Pierpont Edwards Award.

Samuelson has a special commitment to Center Springs Park. Living near the park for his entire life has imbued him with an appreciation for the beauty of its natural features its rock formations, waterfalls and brook. He also enjoyed its manmade lake and trails and the recreational experiences they afford. His memories include images of the boating, skating and winter carnivals that the lake made possible.

Samuelson is an ardent protector of Center Springs Park. He believes that the terms of the deed by which the Cheney family transferred the land for the park to the town must be recognized and enforced. According to him, the land reverts to the Cheney family heirs if its use is converted from its original purpose, which is public recreation. He fiercely opposes any attempts to put this treasure to other uses.

What does Samuelson hope for Manchester's future? Responsible town government that exercises care in handling the public's resources and has a vision for the future that goes beyond unrestrained commercial development.

A concluding comment on local history

The bits of local history in residents' memories are not always captured by history books and newspaper articles. Even when these sources document events, they often lack the personal perspective of those who experienced them. Nor do they give current readers a "feel" for what it was like to have the experience first hand and to have lived in an earlier time. People, like Samuelson, who share their memories help the community remain in touch with its past by giving a hint of what preceded them. Listening to Bob Samuelson I pictured the rip sleds sliding along snow-choked streets and saw scenes from a winter carnival: figure skaters moving gracefully and barrel jumpers flying through the air above the illuminated pond in Center Springs Park. People in that era may have suffered more economic privations and had far fewer consumer goods than people today have, but Samuelson makes it sound like they really enjoyed life in a more carefree way than we today will ever know.


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