Remembering the Valley’s Spring of 1953

(originally published in the Spring 2003 Derby Historical Society newsletter)

One of the unifying themes fifty years ago was rain! The Ansonia Water Company labeled March of 1953 its wettest March since 1923, with 12.81” of rain. By May 8, it had rained 68 out of the 128 days of the year so far in 1953, with a total of 30.58”.

The historic “Greystone” mansion on Elizabeth and Caroline Streets became the property of the City of Derby on March 24, 1953. Constructed by Edward N. Shelton in 1836, the 3.3-acre property remained in his family until sold to Mrs. Waldo S. Kellogg in 1941. Mr. Shelton was president of the Shelton Tack Company and chairman of the Ousatonic Water Company. The City of Shelton is named after him.

Demolition of Greystone began April 1. In the meantime, there was some controversy on what to call the new school that was to arise there. Among the ideas was naming it “New Irving School”, after the school it was replacing, as well as nods to the property’s past, including “Shelton School” and “Greystone School”.

            The Valley witnessed a number of other prominent real estate transactions. Among the properties changing hands were Derby’s Commodore Hull theater, the Hotel Clark, and the Nathan’s Hall/Gould Armory building on 204-224 Main Street. Ansonia’s IOOF hall on 54-62 Main Street was sold to the Ansonia Brass Workers Building Fund.

While some old structures were being destroyed or sold, new ones being built. Housatonic Printing and Dyeing completed a new boiler house on Roosevelt Drive April. Construction began on a new Drive-In theater upon Pioneer Field, located on Derby Meadows off Division Street near the Naugatuck River, on April 9. The  same day, across the river, a tall, rusting steel smokestack stack at the former brewery on Derby Avenue developed a bad kink about ten feet from its top and city officials huddled to solve the problem.

A prominent son of Derby passed away in late March. Brother Adelphus Patrick was born James McKenzie on March 19, 1893 on Bank Street, and attended Franklin School. He was president of Manhattan College 1932-1938. It is interesting to note a fellow Franklin School alumni who passed away a few years before, Rev. George Dillon, was a past president of Providence College.

A major redecoration of St. Michael’s Church was completed on April 8, just as a renovation of the Seymour Congregational Church was about to begin. The same day, the Derby Historical Society held our Annual Meeting down the street at the First Congregational Church. Bertrand DeForest was reelected President, a post he had served for all but one year since the Society’s founding. Among the highlights were the donation of a history of liberty poles on Derby Green by former mayor James Atwater, along with a newel post from Greystone and two oil paintings from the Blakeman family. The meeting concluded with President DeForest giving a talk on Native Americans and the region’s early settlement.

St. Michael’s would be struck by tragedy ten days later when their pastor of 15 years, Father Joseph Swaltek, passed away. A native of Poland, Father Swaltek had been ill since January, and the tolling of the church bells at 3:00 PM to announce his death was greeted with sadness and regret. His funeral, presided by Hartford Bishop Henry O’Brien at St. Michael’s two days later, was heavily attended.

One of the biggest non-events to occur was the Carnegie Cup Regatta, hosted by Yale University on the Housatonic River. In years past university students, became so unruly that the annual Derby Day festival which coincided with the regatta was cancelled. This year, with the notable exception of one incident in Shelton, a much smaller, orderly crowd of about 2,500 watched Cornell’s scull beat Yale and Princeton.            May concluded with interesting events in Ansonia. About a dozen residents of Wooster and Clifton Avenue were about to become homeless, as their apartments were in the way of the new Ansonia-Derby expressway (Route 8). Two of them, along with Mayor Sheasby, appeared on behalf of the group on the television show “Strike-It-Rich”, hosted by Warren Hull. The group won $550. Meanwhile, downtown, the new N.M. Landau store opened in the former Boston Store on Main and Bridge Streets, with much fanfare. The store, composed of 50 departments on three floors, was mobbed on its opening day of May 28.