Oral Histories and Memoirs
STAMFORD 350 (APRIL ’91)
A Childhood on Shippan
Philip V. Kleinert
Later reflection on a discussion of Stamford’s 350th anniversary in a recent session of our Senior Writers’ Workshop in Darien triggered a recollection of what it had been like to live at Shippan Point from circa 1910 through February, 1937.
I never inquired what prompted my parents’ decision to move to Stamford from my grandparents’ home in Kew Gardens, Long Island, aside from the fact that we occasionally visited friends—the Kirkhams of Kirkham Place, Glenbrook.
From about 1910 we rented various houses at Shippan awaiting completion of the house we were building at 243 Stamford Avenue, just opposite the NW corner of the Low-Heywood School property.
First we sublet a place on Hobson Street owned by Fred and Frank Gurley, friends of the family, until the original lessee returned from Europe; then we moved first into the smaller then the larger of two waterfront houses on the same plot, (third and fourth houses south of the Stamford Yacht Club) on Ocean Drive West.
There were two or three houses occupied by [Gillespies] south of us, and my first friend was Billy Gillespie, oldest son of “W.F.” whom we called affectionately “SMOKEY BILL”.
Unlike today’s hectic pace life then was placid and pleasant. As I recall, Billy and I seldom left our yards, the beach in front of our houses being an ideal play area for our sand toys. A little excitement each day was a short game we played. A side–(or stern)–wheel freighter, THE SHADYSIDE, made a daily trip to New York City and return, sending large “Roller” waves ashore, and we would see who could chase the receding part of the wave farthest from shore and get back before the following wave soaked us. (I doubt if this would amuse today’s youngsters very long).
Every afternoon shutters were drawn on the windows of a bedroom of our houses, and we had to take a nap. Then clad in bathing suits or clean outer garments we were ready for the afternoon activities. Every clear day we splashed around in the water at high tide under the watchful eye of our mothers, and miraculously we learned to swim. People were neighborly in those days. The women visited or swapped stories over the clothes lines so they could keep their husbands well informed on anything that was new.
Some of the men worked locally; my father commuted to New York. A good neighbor picked up nearby commuters in his car, drove them to the train in the morning and brought them back at night. Fortunately they all seemed to use the same trains.
It is difficult to believe there ever was a time when many families did not own an automobile in a place like Shippan. This was the case, however, and ours was such a family. The only other part of “The Point” I had seen was that which was visible from windows of the trolley cars. This was soon remedied when my aunt, uncle and cousin visited us, and we rented a horse and carriage from Leonard’s Livery Stable located just off Shippan Avenue on the Stamford end of Ocean Drive East. We covered all of Shippan, including Halloween Park.
Most Friday evenings were a special treat… My father was an excellent pianist, and he had a fine lyric tenor voice. He would plan and present a musical program lasting an hour or so, and some of the neighbors would attend—among them Valina Gillespie on whom I had a pre-schoolage crush, and either Edna or Elsie. Mother would serve ice tea and a fruit punch, and everyone seemed to enjoy the get-together.
We lived in two more houses before our home was ready for occupancy—the Martin house still farther out on Ocean Drive West, and the Oppa house on Verplank Avenue. My one memory of the latter is that many rats inhabited a shed on the back property line. I occasionally maintained a vigil by a slightly open window, and called my mother when a rat appeared. One shot from our .22 caliber Winchester was all she needed to kill it.
At last the new house was ready and we moved in. It was comfortable and roomy—and it served us well through the years.
Located essentially in the middle of Shippan, there were many more children my age for playmates, and my toys became more sophisticated. My tricycle was replaced by a bicycle, my antique sled by a new Flexible Flyer which could be steered, and my pop gun by an air rifle.
Several memorable events transpired. I remember the night the Yacht Club burned down, (probably circa 1913), shooting burning embers into the air to be blown across easily ignited roofs. Next day we learned that many families, like ourselves, had organized a fire watch, and had gotten up bucket lines to the roofs in case embers landed on them. There were however, no reported roof fires. The fire did however, destroy many of the Club class of small RED WING* racing sailboats stored for the winter near the club house.
*so named for their red sails.
Proficiency in riding the bicycle won me a longer tether; like all of us kids I was allowed to go anywhere on Shippan Point with the proviso that I return home at lunch time and by sunset. As I became more familiar with the bike my father taught me how to dissemble it, and I was allowed to take apart things needing repair, like a punctured tire. More serious items like a bent peddle or handlebars, etc. had to be taken on the bus to “OLD SAM” at G. R. Faucett Harness shop on Park Row (you couldn’t miss the shop—it had a huge white plaster horse mounted over the sidewalk). Seemed like Sam could make any bike like new.
With my new freedom I was able on three consecutive days to pack a lunch and cycle to Manor Beach on the east side of Shippan. Frank Gurley, knowing my interest in mechanical things, phoned mother to say his brother Fred had arranged to have a Curtiss flying boat from Long Island come to Manor Beach to take several men interested in buying property for airplane rides over Shippan. This was the first time I had even been near an airplane and a chosen friend of mine and I got a big kick out of wading waist deep into the water ready to “walk” the flying boat safely to shore after the pilot shut off the engine. My friend and I, each at the end of a lower wing, were careful to avoid the rocks which would have scarred the polished mahogany hull.
After changing passengers, at his direction we would turn the plane around, hold it firmly while the pilot started the engine, then carefully “walk” it out again to water safe for take-off. This was a big deal for us!
Back to those times. Things other than cars were in short supply or non-existent. In place of today’s convenient refrigerator, the “ICEMAN” delivered a properly sized chunk of ice he had just chopped off a bigger block in his large covered wagon, into a compartment of your “ICEBOX”. In addition to keeping our food from spoiling, some of the ice got chipped off to make ice tea, ice coffee, or sometimes ice cream on a Sunday—and some melted away into a collecting pan which had to be emptied—or the water ran all over the kitchen floor.
The “MILKMAN” came early in the morning, delivering your usual order from a horse-drawn wagon.
Homogenizing was as yet unknown, and “Cream” collected at the top of the bottle. Some could be poured off for tea, coffee, etc., then the bottle shaken before each use for a uniform mixture. In freezing weather, if you didn’t bring in the milk very soon after delivery, a round chunk of cream rose from the bottle—with the cap on top! Milk trucks replaced the wagons—and a new
supplier, SKY MEADOW FARM appeared on the scene, using cream colored STANLEY STEAMER milk trucks instead of the gasoline powered ones. These operated very smoothly and were whisper-quiet.
Radios were as yet unheard of, and of course we amused ourselves with such street games as tag, kick the can, and cops and robbers, since there was no TV either.
I had developed an interest in wireless communication like the ships use. (The predecessor of
radio.) As luck would have it mother and I had taken a trolley-train jaunt to visit her sister-in-law, and we arrived just as my older cousin was, in complete disgust, dissembling what he said was a wireless set he never got to work and intended to throw away. Noting my interest he put the parts in a box with a rough sketch showing how it should go together, and he gave it to me.
Many hours later I managed to get it working, but the transmissions were in MORSE code which I had not yet learned to use. One Sunday afternoon, after greeting the company who had arrived, I sneaked back upstairs and tirelessly tried different dial settings, hoping to get code, when to my surprise I heard a piano, crystal clear, in the headset, followed by a voice transmission, then more music. I ran downstairs, interrupted the conversation, and dragged an unbelieving father up to the set. Luckily he too was a pianist. I had put together a very crude device capable of receiving both voice and music, but of greater importance, father now was willing to buy me the new components I had been reading about, to match the wire coils I would now wind on Quaker Oats boxes, and we were launched in radio! Soon we were staying up late at night (after the local stations signed off) to listen to Havana, Cuba and other far away places. (DX—for distance, it was called.)
About two months later a neighbor bought one of the first commercially built radios, and invited us to listen to the latest marvel. There were no loudspeakers—only two separated earphones, so we had to take turns listening—and the radio boom was on.
Another nicety we lacked was temperature control. There was no such thing as air conditioning in the summer, and no oil heating with convenient thermostat control for the winter. Most furnaces used hard coal for fuel. Grates in most instances had to be hand-shaken to clear the fireboxes of ashes which then had to be shovelled into ash cans for disposal; coal sometimes had to be hand-carried in canvas bags from the delivery truck and dumped into a storage bin. (We were lucky: by lowering the top sash of a ground-level cellar window and using two lengths of a metal chute which the truck carried, the coal could be “chuted” directly into the storage bin), but in either case the coal had to be manually shovelled from the bin onto the furnace fire as
required, and a system consisting of at least one flue damper, a draft slide and a check-draft slide manipulated by hand to keep the dangerous coal gas from going up into the house.
To help in these chores a FURNACEMAN, Mr. Hagan, made a morning and night round of his
customers’ houses, bicycling in good weather, but often clumping along in heavy rubber boots when it stormed. Some people were rugged in those days.
I attended the Stamford public schools—William Street-Rogers, then Stamford High on Forest Street, with transportation by trolley at first (we always tried to be the first passengers to ride on the front seat of the first open car each summer), later by bus—and always the need to go to the “car-barn” at the railroad station to buy our books of tickets.
I was in Rogers School when WWI carne to an end. They dismissed school on a premature report of an armistice—but they would not let us out early when the real armistice was announced, two days later. Incidentally, to aid in the war effort some people dug up parts of their lawns to plant “VICTORY” vegetable gardens. The men formed a uniformed HOME GUARD complete with SPRINGFIELD rifles; the ladies rolled bandages for RED CROSS; and we all, including the school children, bought Savings Stamps and Liberty Bonds to “do our bit”.
After the war two momentous events occurred. First, father bought our first automobile—a used
1916 Hupmobile five passenger touring car with an icebox which could be strapped onto the running board to keep picnic food cool, and this changed our lifestyle considerably, with trips through New England, to Philadelphia, Washington, to visit mother’s relatives in parts of Jersey, and Larchmont; picnics (in season) to DEVIL’S DEN, Lake Waramaug and Kent Falls.
Second, father joined the Yacht Club. This expanded our social contacts, and it provided additional opportunities for pleasure. Swimming was no longer limited to about two hours either side of high tide, correctly maintained tennis courts and a wider choice of opponents improved my game to a “junior” tournament level, and the Club facilities opened sailing up to me.
A new “class” of small sailboats became available—the sixteen foot, Marconi rigged (Jib-headed instead of the old gaff and boom) FLAPPER catboats. This was the first club-class boat suitable for beginners since the RED WINGS were destroyed in the Yacht Club fire. Billy Gillespie’s father bought him one, and he invited me to be his “crew” for that season. That started my interest in sailing, which has stayed with me all these years.
Billy, like all the Gillespies, became a very good sailor, and we had a very successful season. The following season we “graduated” to the larger Stamford One-design, gaff and boom racing sloops, and I sailed aboard the good ship HAWK which carried the designation ST-3. The skipper, Harry Sturges, Jr., a high school classmate of mine, took racing very seriously, and we spent part of about three days each week on the Sound, practicing setting and taking down extra sails under racing conditions, for the Saturday races. This really paid off, and we enjoyed successful seasons as long as the skipper owned the boat.
During all these years we enjoyed the friendship and the assistance of a dedicated pair of yachtsmen, Schuyler and Kingsley Gillespie who with their good ship, the motor boat THOR, went to all the regattas of the Long Island Yacht Racing Association, and if the course was a sizable distance away or the wind unfavorable, (we were not allowed to have an engine—even a small outboard—aboard), they would tow the cat-boats and the One-Designs to the location—and round us all up and tow us all back to Stamford at the end of the race.
Some boats of the larger INTERNATIONAL SIX METER class often competed in these regattas, their crews striving to have their boats chosen to represent America in the International series of races. The Gillespies, I believe, were part of a syndicate from the yacht club which commissioned John G. ALDEN to design such a craft for them, to be named SYCE (Stamford Yacht Club Entry). This was circa 1922. She failed to qualify for the team, and I lost rack of her. Curious as to her fate, last summer I called my life-long friend Bill Luders, who bought a similar boat, the International Six Meter “HAWK” and sailed her to unbelievable success in local Waters.
Bill remarked it was odd that I should ask at this particular time. Seems that CYCE was dismasted in the team tryouts during Larchmont Race Week and could not be refitted in time to compete further in the trials; therefore she failed to qualify for the team. She was sold, and after sailing many years in Canadian waters she has just “COME HOME” and will again sail in local
waters under the Stamford Yacht Club colors. Bill sent me a magazine article detailing this effort, and his contribution to its success.
Stamford was a great place to “Grow up”.
© R. Kleinert
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History of Shippan, 1985
Fun at the Beach - Postcards from Shippan
Oral Histories & Memoirs