Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Mill on Mad River

I am privileged to be one of the two co-historians of the Pierpont Family Association. Recently, my distant cousin and co-historian gave me an author-signed copy of the book “The Mill on Mad River,” a historical fiction that takes place in Waterbury, CT and which centers around the beginnings of what later became Scovill Mfg. Co., the company for which my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather worked for a combined 100+ years (*1). It has been fascinating reading, especially knowing that many of the facts in the book are true.

In the back of the book was inserted a few pages from the Scovill Bulletin (an employee publication) from September 1948 showing the author signing a copy of the book for the then Scovill president, Leavenworth Porter Sperry. It noted that President Sperry and his brother, Vice-president Mark Leavenworth Sperry are descendants of Dr. Fred Leavenworth, of the original firm of Leavenworth, Hayden & Scovill Company. I have previously documented how Mr. Sperry and I are related (*2), but I thought that I’d see if the other individuals in the original Scovill history are also related to me. Here is what I found.

The original company was called Abel Porter’s button shop and was started around 1802. Abel’s grandmother was Mary [Hooker] Hart and she was the grand-daughter of Samuel Hooker from Farmington. But Mary’s aunt, also named Mary, was married to Rev. James Pierpont, the progenitor of the Pierpont family and the founder of Yale University. This means that Abel Porter is my 3rd cousin (6 times removed) as Ezra Pierpont, who was living in Waterbury at the time this book takes place, was Abel’s 3rd cousin.

Abel’s button company was bought out by Dr. Frederick Leavenworth, Daniel Hayden, and James Mitchell Lamson Scovill (called Lampson Scovill in the book). I’ve already documented my relationship to the Leavenworth/Sperry family. And I have not found any connection to Daniel Hayden, who had come to the area from Attleboro, MA and who left Waterbury not too many years later. But is there a connection to Lampson Scovill?

During the period that the book covers, Lampson was not married and he ran the general store in Waterbury. But he did eventually marry a woman named Sarah Ann Merriman. The Merriman family had been in the Waterbury area for several generations, in fact when my wife and I were first married we lived on Merriman Lane in the nearby town of Prospect. Sarah Ann’s great*3 grandfather was Caleb Merriman. But through a series of females beginning with Caleb’s daughter, Lydia, another of Caleb’s great*3 granddaughters was Sally Beecher. Sally married Austin Pierpont, making Austin Lampson’s 4th cousin. As a descendant of Austin, that means that Lampson Scovill is my 4th cousin (5 times removed).

There are other relatives of mine mentioned in this book. When the primary (fictional) character in the book travels to Litchfield to get strips of brass annealed, the preacher in the Litchfield church is Lyman Beecher and his daughter Harriet is also mentioned in the story. But I’ve already told the story of how Lyman and Harriet are distant cousins of Sally Beecher and thus they are distant cousins of mine as well (*3). In Litchfield, the book also mentions Judge [James] Gould who ran the Litchfield Law School as well as Sally Pierce who ran the Litchfield Female Academy. These were both real people. Judge Gould took over running the Litchfield Law School after the death of Tapping Reeve who founded it. I’ve written about my relationship to him earlier (*4).

Many of the other family names mentioned in the book are real families from Waterbury history (Hotchkiss, Payne, Farrell, etc.), but the specific individuals who have parts in this book are fictional. However, Captain [Samuel] Judd, who is in his 90s when he appears in the book, is a real individual. I am related to the Judd family through my Upson ancestors who were some of the earliest settlers in Wolcott (*5).

While this book is fictional, the basis of it is in the real history of Waterbury and particularly the founding of Scovill.

Because it contains so many references to real individuals who are my ancestors, I really enjoyed reading it. You can find copies of the book through places like You can also read many of the details about this history of Waterbury in the book at Mr. Clark used as a basis for his (*6).


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Leaving a Legacy

Each of us has a finite life – one that may last but a few years or may last for a century or a little beyond. But what will be left behind after that life is finished? A century after we have passed on, how will we be remembered?

I’d like to consider those questions from the perspective of the Pierpont Family Association, of which I am a member and the current co-historian. As we look at the several thousand individuals in our collective family descendant tree, what is the legacy of all those people?

I think that there are three levels of legacy. I’ll touch on the first two briefly, but I want to concentrate on the last one with as many examples as I’ve been able to find with a few hours of research.

Level 1 – Our Name

I suppose that there is a level zero – where a person leaves behind nothing and no one remembers them after a few years. But in these days of computerized records and family trees that is highly unlikely. So we can expect that our name will be left behind in various records and in the memories of those whose lives we have touched. But after those who knew us personally, we will be reduced to a name, our date of birth and death, and a few other facts about us. For those who chose to be buried, there may also be a tombstone that marks our final resting place, but the only thing on the stone will be our name and that beginning and ending date of our lives. As other types of records are increasingly computerized and distributed, our names will be found in other places – perhaps in city property records with the address we once occupied or the few acres where we lived, perhaps in social media accounts of Facebook postings or Twitter feeds or whatever the next type of technology will be. But these are not the stuff of a legacy.

Level 2 – Writing by/about Us

For those who are slightly more important there may be books which we have written and which can be purchased on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or perhaps others have written about us and our name will appear in the title instead of just the name of the author. These written works will capture more about us than just our name and a few random facts. They may sit on a shelf and be passed along to future generations (assuming that physical books continue to exist beyond the new technology of e-readers). I have written my own autobiography and so fall into this level, and there are other of my ancestors who have had much more written by/about them. I think of the famous sermon of Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, that was written in 1741 and is still used as an example of a Puritan sermon now approaching three centuries later.

Sometimes the “writing” is not in the form of words, but in the form of music or other forms of art. James Lord Pierpont is remembered a century and a half after he composed “One Horse Open Sleigh”, now known as “Jingle Bells”. This is also mentioned on two plaques – one in Medford, MA and one in Savannah, GA. But these too are little more than glorified tombstones. Certainly, we know more about people who leave a legacy at this level. Perhaps they even rate their own page in Wikipedia. But there is no much physical about these written words, as important as they may be and as many people may thus know the person’s name.

Level 3 – Physical Items

The final level is one that I’d like to explore in more detail with a few examples and that is places that may bear our names so that passers by will encounter us on a regular basis even if just to say as they go by, “who was that person?” While books/songs/paintings can also be lasting, places are legacies that one encounters beyond the index of a bookstore or library. All these examples are those within the United States. There are certainly others, often far older, in the Pierpont/Pierrepont family history in Europe. Most of us know about Holme Pierrepont, the family home outside of Nottingham, England that dates back to the 1200s ( But I’d like to concentrate on the US, where the Pierpont descendants have been making their mark for nearly 400 years since the PFA ancestor John Pierpont came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s. I have not been able to always find the exact person in our genealogy tree after whom these places are named, so I welcome the addition of facts if anyone else knows them.

Towns and Villages

There are three towns/villages that I know of named Pierpont – one each in Ohio, Missouri, and South Dakota. There is also a portion of Ventura, CA, which carries the Pierpont name.

Pierpont Township, OH is named after Pierpont Edwards, the youngest son of Jonathan Edwards ( He was a delegate to the Continental Congress and part owner of the Connecticut Land Company, who bought the land from Connecticut in 1795.  At the time this part of Ohio was a part of the Western Reserve of Connecticut ( The township was named in 1818. (,_Ashtabula_County,_Ohio).

Pierpont, SD is a small village in Day County. According to a book on South Dakota place names, it was named in honor of a Milwaukee railroad official (whose exact name I have not been able to discover). It was settled in 1883. (;view=1up;seq=145).

Pierpont, MO was in the news in 2004 when the small village of less than 100 inhabitants incorporated in order to avoid being taken over by the growing community of Columbia next door. The most significant feature of the town is the Pierpont Store which claims a history going back 185 years ( But even those who now run the store are not sure of its exact history (

Pierpont Village and Beach is a community along the ocean in Ventura, CA. The road running parallel to the ocean is Pierpont Blvd. and all the roads to the west of it are just a block long and end at the beach. Pierpont elementary school is also located here. (

Universities and Schools

Yale University – those of us in the Pierpont family are very acquainted with the fact that our common ancestor, Rev James Pierpont, was the principal founder of Yale. And there is a gate with his name above it to commemorate that. But what about other Pierpont family members. In this walking tour guide from Yale (, look at the following other references:
·       1 – the Yale Visitor Center is the former John Pierpont House that was built for a grandson of Rev. James Pierpont.
·       7 – statue of Theodore Dwight Woolsey, another Pierpont descendant
·       8 – Dwight Hall, there were two Dwights in the Pierpont family who served as presidents of Yale
·       23 – Jonathan Edwards College, he being a son-in-law of James Pierpont
·       24 – Pierson and Davenport Colleges, Abraham Pierson was the uncle of the first wife of James Pierpont, John Davenport was the grandfather of  James’ first wife
·       30 – Timothy Dwight College, see #8 above
·       46 – Woolsey Hall, see #7 above

Pierpont College is located in Morgantown, WV, and is named for Francis Harrison Pierpont of the VA/MD branch of the Pierpont family (

Princeton University was founded by, among others, Aaron Burr (Sr.), who became its second president. Burr married the daughter of Jonathan and Sarah [Pierpont] Edwards. Jonathan Edwards took over as the president upon the death of his son-in-law. There is a building named for Aaron Burr on the Princeton campus.

In addition to the above-mentioned Pierpont School in Ventura, CA, there are other examples of elementary schools bearing the Pierpont or related names. A few examples are:
·       Pierrepont School is a private school in Westport, CT ( It is only 18 years old
·       Pierrepont school in Rutherford, NJ is one of many elementary schools in that city ( It serves grades 4-6 and has existed since 1906.
·       I’ve also written previously about how all the schools in Wolcott, CT are named for individuals who are relatives of my grandfather, Harold Pierpont (


There are a number of restaurants that bear the Pierpont name. Here are a few that I have found:
·       Pierpont Restaurant, Kansas City, MO -
·       Pierpont Commons, Univ of Michigan -
·       Pierpoint Restaurant, Baltimore MD -


Most of us have heard of J. P[ierpont] Morgan, the famous banker ( But there are countless other businesses bearing variations of the Pierpont name. Here are a few: Pierpont Communications (, Pierpont Group (, Pierpoint Technical Recruiters (, Pierpont Mechanical Corp (, Amherst Pierpont (, Oxford Pierpont Consultants (, Pierpont Management (, and Pierpont Productions (  


Besides the above-mentioned Pierpont Blvd in Ventura, CA, there are many streets bearing our family name or named in memory of members of our extended family. Here are a few – both large and small:
·       Pierrepont Street and Pierrepont Plaza, Brooklyn, NY – named for Hezekiah Pierrepont, grandson of Rev. James. You can read about him here - The building at One Pierrepont Plaza was the headquarters of Hilary Clinton during the most recent presidential election.
·       Pierpont Road, Waterbury, CT – ran past the Maple Hill Dairy (now the home of Crosby HS) which was owned by the Morton Pierpont family.
·       Barclare Lane, Wolcott, CT – my aunt and uncle (parents of Rob Pierpont) had the privilege of naming the road in front of their house as they owned the first house on that road. Since their names were Barbara and Clarence, they combined their names in the name of the road.
·       There are other Pierpont streets/roads/avenues in a number of states such as PA, NY, NJ, VA, WV, SC, CT, GA, and UT just to name a few.

Parks and Preserves

My final category are portions of land that have been preserved for use by future generations and which bear the names of important individuals in the town in which the land is preserved, or for donors of the land for public purposes. Here are a few examples:

Seth Low Pierrepont State Park – located in Ridgefield, CT, this property of over 300 acres was purchased by Seth Low Pierrepont in 1930 and donated to the state upon his death in 1956. (

Russell Preserve – located in Wolcott, CT, this 8 acre parcel and small pond were donated to the Wolcott Land Conservation Trust in 1998 by Sylvia [Pierpont] Russell (my mother). (


With the Pierpont family being in the US for now approaching 400 years and many thousands of individuals in the official Pierpont family tree, we have had ample opportunity to make our influence on the history of the US. While all of us will be remembered and our names found in written records and possibly a marker on our grave, some will have written books/songs that will be found in various libraries in the years after we are no longer walking on the earth. And there are also going to be countless examples, only a few of which are detailed above, where our names will appear on buildings, street signs, park entrances, businesses, or other such places such that those seeing those signs will ask, “who was that person?” Thus, our legacy will take a number of different forms. But I’m not terribly concerned about the future, that’s not under my control. I’d much rather know each of you in person!

Finally, I'd like to include here a picture of the Pierpont window from the Mill Plain church in Waterbury which was paid for by the PFA and where the family reunion was held for many years.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Is Jingle Bells Racist?

In December of 2017 there were a flurry of articles in various publications about a research paper published by Kyna Hamill, a theater history professor from Boston University. This paper claimed that “Jingle Bells is rooted in racism” (*1, *2, *3). What is the story behind these articles? And is this it true?

The Article

Dr. Hamill started researching the history of the famous Christmas carol after a so-called “Jingle Bells War” – a dispute between two towns, Medford, Massachusetts, and Savannah, Georgia, that both claimed to be the birthplace of the song written by James Pierpont. Some of her quotes are:

“Its origins emerged from the economic needs of a perpetually unsuccessful man, the racial politics of antebellum Boston, the city’s climate, and the intertheatrical repertoire of commercial blackface moving between Boston and New York.”

“The traces of blackface minstrel origins can be found in the music and lyrics, as well as the elements of ‘male display’, boasting, and the unbridled behavior of the male body onstage.”

“Words such a ‘thro’, ‘tho’t’, and ‘upsot’ suggest a racialized performance that attempted to sound ‘southern’ to a northern audience.”

“The first documented performance of the song is in a blackface minstrel hall in Boston in 1857, the same year it was copyrighted. Much research has been done on the problematic history of this nineteenth-century entertainment.”

Timeline of James Lord Pierpont’s Life

James Lord Pierpont was born in 1822 in Boston, Massachusetts (*4). His father, the Reverend John Pierpont, was a pastor of the Hollis Street Unitarian Church in Boston, an abolitionist and a poet. At the age of 14 James ran away to sea aboard a whaling ship. He then served in the US Navy until the age of 21.

By 1845 he had returned to New England where he married and settled in the late 1840s in Medford, Massachusetts. In 1849 he left his wife and children with his father and went to San Francisco to open a business during the California Gold Rush. His business failed.

In 1852, James’ brother, John Jr., accepted a post with the Savannah, Georgia, Unitarian congregation. James followed him there a few years later, taking a post as the organist and music director of the church. 

In 1852, James published his first song, “The Returned Californian” which described his experiences in California. The first lines were, “Oh! I’m going far away from my Creditors just now, I ain’t the tin to pay ‘em and they’re kicking up a row.” He published many more songs during the following decade, including polkas, ballads, and minstrel songs.

His first wife died in 1856 and the children of that marriage remained in Massachusetts with their grandfather. James remarried in 1857 to the daughter of the mayor of Savannah. In 1859 the church in Savannah closed due its abolitionist position and his brother returned to the north. James stayed in Savannah.

During the Civil War, James served in the Confederacy as a company clerk and he wrote music for the Confederacy. Since his father served as a military chaplain for the Union Army, James and his father were on opposite sides during the war.

After the war, James and his family moved to Valdosta, Georgia, then a few years later to Quitman, Georgia. He and his second wife eventually had four children. He spent his final days in Winter Haven, Florida, where he died in 1893. At his request he was buried in Savannah.

Prior Controversies

This is not the first controversy about Jingle Bells. Because it was not until many years later that the song became popular, the authorship of it was sometimes attributed to James’ brother, John Jr., or even to his father, John. It has also occasionally been attributed to J. S. Pierpont instead of J. L. Pierpont. This is somewhat understandable as the original score is simply marked “J. Pierpont.”

In addition, there is a claim that the song had been written in a tavern in Medford during 1850. This is also quite obviously incorrect since James was in California at that time. But the plaque in Medford has that date on it (*5).

[Note that the plaque says, “’Jingle Bells’ composed here. On this site stood the Simpson Tavern, where in 1850 James Pierpont (1822-1893) write the song ‘Jingle Bells’ in the presence of Mrs. Otis Waterman, who later verified that the song was written here. Pierpont had the song copyrighted in 1857 while living in Georgia. ‘Jingle Bells’ tells of the sleigh races held on Salem Street in the early 1800’s. Medford Historical Society”]

A Timeline of the Controversy

Medford lay claim to the carol without challenge until 1969 when a Savannah Unitarian, Milton Rahn, noticed that the song his daughter was playing on a piano had the composer of J. Pierpont (*6). He had earlier found letters written by John Pierpont, Jr. the church’s former pastor, and further research found that James had married in Savannah in 1857, several weeks before he copyrighted “Jingle Bells.” “I saw this as something to help us get publicity for the church,” he said.

After Savannah erected a “Jingle Bells” marker across from the church in 1985, then-Mayor John Rousakis declared the tune a Savannah song. A series of not-so-jolly exchanges followed. The mayor of Medford wrote in 1989, “We unequivocally state that ‘Jingle Bells’ was composed … in the town of Medford during the year 1850!”

Later, in 2001, Ace Collins, author of the book “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas”, said that he found a New England newspaper from the early 1840s that mentioned “One Horse Open Sleigh” (the original name of the song) debuting in Medford at a Thanksgiving church service. The song proved so popular, he said, that Pierpont gave a repeat performance at Christmas.

Most recently, Dr. Hamill found a playbill from the Harvard Theater Collection that shows the song was first performed at Ordway Hall on Sept. 15, 1857, in blackface, during a minstrel show.

Finally, Wikipedia (*1) notes that “The song was copyrighted on September 16, 1857. The song was originally performed in a Sunday school concert on Thanksgiving in Savannah, Georgia.”

Resolving the Timeline Problems

First, it’s pretty obvious that despite the plaque in Medford seemingly quoting factual information, the date of composition in 1850 is incorrect as James was in California at the time. The mayor of Medford relied on that incorrect plaque in his letter to the mayor of Savannah in 1989. [It’s also worth noting that in the 1850’s the “Simpson Tavern” quoted on the plaque did not yet exist. Mrs. Otis Waterman at the time ran a boarding house called the “Seccomb House” which did own a piano at the time, but the building did not become a tavern until some years later.]

Next, despite the claim of the newspaper article quoted by Ace Collins, it is highly unlikely that the first performance of the song was in the early 1840s. James was in the Navy until 1843, and all of his other known songs were written between 1852 and 1863, so this claim is off by at least 10 years.

However, Wikipedia is correct on the date of the copyright. Their copy, which is in the Library of Congress contains a hand-written inscription which states that the document was “deposited” on that date and also gives a notation where the copyright itself is stored (*7).

As Constance Turner, a great-granddaughter of James, wrote in 2003 (*6), “No one really knows where he was when he wrote it – that’s the rub. Evidently, James was quite the free spirit and he published some bad songs and one, at least, we know of that’s a very good song.”  [Note that Constance passed away in 2016, but I am in contact with one of her children so that we can properly add her and her family to the official Pierpont Family Tree.]

But Was Jingle Bells Racist?

Having addressed all the issues with where and when the song was written, we need to get back to the initial question on whether the song is racist. And to do that, we really need to consider the culture and history of when it was written rather than the standards of today.

First, let’s look at James, the author. He came from a family that was staunchly against slavery. His father has been called a “leading antebellum antislavery poet” (*8). Research by the Medford Historical Society in 1903 (*9), noted that he “was a man of such positive convictions concerning slavery and temperance.” James’ brother, John Jr., also had those types of convictions, so much so that the Unitarian Church in Savannah was well known for its abolitionist position.

But does that mean that James himself felt the same way? It is likely not the case as he can be seen so often distancing himself from the views of his father – in running away at sea, in leaving his family and going to California, and in serving in the Confederacy.

During the period that James most likely wrote the song he had not yet been in the South, so his primary influence was in the culture of Boston. He was also known to have written other minstrel songs. The original score of the song (*7) has the words “to John P. Ordway” above the song title on the cover sheet. John Ordway was a music entrepreneur in Boston who had established a blackface minstrel troupe in 1845 (*10). James’ first song, “The Returned Californian”, was written specifically for Ordway. And thus it is quite apparent from the cover sheet of “One Horse Open Sleigh” that this was also written for Ordway (and the fact that the first documented performance was in Ordway Hall (owned by the same individual) is not a coincidence). So James wrote the song intending that it be performed by Ordway’s blackface minstrel troupe.

Thus, I believe that a Wikipedia article (*4) got it right when it says,

“Minstrel songs were popular in the 1850s. … The lyrics to all minstrel songs reflect and mirror the endemic racism and racial stereotypes inherent in American society and culture. Minstrel songs and the minstrel genre exploited racial stereotypes and racially stereotypical language. The minstrel genre, however, was only a representation of the wider societal racism in the United States.”

The bottom line of my research is that I believe that the quotes by Dr. Hamill given earlier in this blog are correct.

In 21st century America, we have long since forgotten, and can no longer appreciate, the attitudes toward racism that existed 150 years ago. And so, while we can still sing this popular song written by one of our Pierpont ancestors and enjoy it, we still need to acknowledge the history of the times that were behind it.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Wolcott Remembrance – Learning to Drive

Most high schools these days have dropped their Driver’s Ed programs due to liability concerns. But back in 1964 when I turned 16 Wolcott High School still offered it. First, we had the classroom portion – learning all the traffic regulations, knowing all the various signs, etc. Because I was a good student and had a strong memory, that part was pretty easy. But the next part was the on-the-road part and that was a bit more difficult.

I’ve never been a terribly coordinated person, so having to use both hands and both feet for various things while keeping track of the various dials and indicators as well being aware of what was going on in front of you, behind you, and on both sides of you all at the same time was quite challenging. The school-owned car was equipped with an automatic transmission – an extra-cost feature at the time, but one that most people were willing to pay, so at least I didn’t have to manage the clutch as well (more of that below). So the only thing for my left foot to do was use the floor-mounted headlight dimmer switch – I laugh when I see one of those in a Facebook quiz asking people what it is. But I still had multiple things to do with each hand and both a gas pedal and brake pedal for my right foot.

The first few times we only had to drive around the parking lot, pull up to the curb along the building (without scraping the tires against it), back into a parking spot (with no cars on either side to damage if we were less than adept), and finally master the dreaded parallel parking with a few judiciously placed traffic cones. After the instructor felt we were good enough, we were finally ready for the ultimate test – going out on the public roads where there would be other cars.

The road test was done with three students in the vehicle along with the instructor. Each student got to take the wheel for a half-hour of driving – going wherever the instructor told you. He would not give other instructions unless you forgot, so you had to remember to use the proper signals when turning, stay sufficiently back from the vehicle in front of you, stay centered in the proper lane, remain under the speed limit, etc. Violations of these were usually just a quiet reminder. And having two other students in the car meant that you also got to learn from the mistakes of others when you weren’t in the driver’s seat. But it also meant a bit of peer pressure knowing that the occupants of the back seat got to see all your mistakes!

The entire time on the road passed uneventfully, with the exception of one incident that sticks in mind to this day. We had driven through Cheshire and were heading north through Meriden and up toward Berlin. I’m not sure the name of the road, but it was a moderate-sized, two-lane road. Part of the road was over a series of small rolling hills – a little like driving on a roller coaster. Because of the terrain, that entire section of the road had no passing markings as you could not see over the crest of the next hill and there was not sufficient space between hills for a safe pass. I was driving up the first or second hill when a car came up behind us, going well over the speed limit (I was a few miles under it) and it proceeded to pass us going up that blind hill. I just kept to my lane and the instructor remarked to all of us, “don’t let me ever catch you doing that!” The three of us all nodded our heads and added it to our memory banks of an example of unsafe driving. Meanwhile the speeding car had disappeared over the next hill and out of sight.

Two or three hills later, we came upon that same car. He had attempted to pass another car just like he had passed us. But as he crested the hill, just about to overtake the slower car that was impeding his travels, he spotted another vehicle coming up the other side! In order to avoid what would have been a deadly head-on collision, he quickly pulled back into the right-hand lane. But as he was going much quicker that the car he was about to pass, he smashed into the rear of that car. But at least that collision was only at a speed difference of perhaps 20-25 mph instead of a head-on collision of 60+ mph. As we passed the two cars, by then both pulled off to the side of the road, the thing that still sticks into my mind over 50 years later is the sight of the rear window of the front car sitting on the road completely intact. The collision had enough force to pop that rear window out of its seals and it managed to land on the road without breaking. The instructor really didn’t need to say anything else to impress on our minds what we had witnessed, but he said anyway, “See what happens when you do what I told you not to do!” A better lesson could not have been staged.

Unfortunately for me, completing the Driver’s Ed class at WHS was not the end of my driver’s training. My mother would not let me take my driver’s test at the DMV over on Thomaston Ave. until I had met HER requirements. This included being able to drive the family VW Beetle which had a manual transmission. The Beetle was a fairly nice car to drive, so I was able to learn how to use the stick shift without too much difficulty. The shift pattern was simple, so the only real issue was making use of my previously ignored left foot to manage the appropriate coordination with letting up on the gas with my right foot while pulling/pushing the shift lever into the next gear. “Piece of cake,” I thought. But then I learned my mother’s next requirement – stopping on a hill and getting going again without any rolling backwards.

This was in the days before the nice “hill holder” clutches that have since become standard. So starting on a hill meant very close coordination between using the clutch to put the car in gear while very quickly releasing the foot brake with your right foot and immediately pushing on the gas pedal with that same foot. It was like learning to dance (which I was also not very good at). I struggled for several weeks to get it right. In those days I was taking flute lessons from an instructor who lived in Cheshire on Timber Lane. The road back was via Mountain Road which comes out on the Waterbury-Cheshire Road right where Route 68 and 70 come together. Mountain Road intersects in a manner where you are sitting on an uphill waiting for the light to change. That uphill position was the bane of my existence for several weeks. Each Saturday I would get “one more chance” to get it right, i.e. ZERO rolling backward before I got the Beetle moving up the hill and turning left into the intersection as the light changed.

With only one chance a week to try again, it seemed like forever before I got my mother’s approval to go and get my driver’s license. The actual test at the DMV was trivial after having endured my mother’s oversight – just back out of a parking space, turn right out of the parking lot and drive a couple of blocks up Thomaston Ave., go around the block and back to the start. No hills, no parallel parking, no sweat!

But my mother’s training actually got put to good use a few years later. I worked for two summers, earning money to pay for college, at Service Tire on the corner of Meriden Road and Store Ave. in Waterbury. One of my jobs the first year was driving the business “trash truck” to the Waterbury dump. This truck should have been in the trash itself! We loaded it up all week with the rubber dust from tire recapping. On Saturday morning, I would take one of the dealer plates from another truck in the yard and borrow a set of jumper cables to get it started (the battery was dead). With no battery that meant that the turn signals and brake light didn’t work, so I had to use the appropriate hand signals out the window to inform other drivers what I was going to do. The clutch was also totally shot, so shifting meaning double clutching, i.e. pushing in the clutch, shifting into neutral, letting up on the clutch so the various gears could get moderately synced up, then pushing in the clutch again in order to shift into another gear. With sufficient practice, you could do it reasonably smoothly without any gear grinding! At the dump I would shovel all the trash out of the back, taking care not to let the engine stall as with a dead battery you would have trouble getting it started again.

As a result of my driver’s training, I have now had 50+ years of accident-free driving. Only three minor speeding tickets and one parking tickets in that entire time. Thanks to WHS, and kudos to my mother for giving me a good start. And I never, ever pass anyone on a blind hill!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Wolcott Remembrance

My friend and distant cousin, Robert Perry, writes very elegantly. Since I’m an engineer by training, my writing style tends to be much more terse than his. But perhaps I make up for the lack of elegance and eloquence by the volume of writing I do for my blog where I often write genealogy stories or ones of Wolcott history.

Robert’s most recent posting was about the impact that Wolcott had on his life – although that name only appeared as the last word of the thousand or so that he wrote. But his words were an inspiration to me as well as to many others who have responded to his posting. Thus, here is my own feeble attempt to capture some of the remembrances that I have of that wonderful place where I spent so many enjoyable hours of my youth.

My parents had moved to Wolcott when they got married, although there were many connections to the town in their ancestry – especially on my mother’s side. I came into the world less than two years later, the first of what would be five children born into that family. With only one car, and that used by my father to commute to work in Waterbury (a long seven miles away), that meant that my life was only the small part of the town in my immediate neighborhood. But it was a lively neighborhood, with my uncle and aunt just three houses away with their equally large family of eventually five children. There were also a few other families around, but for the first few years my cousin Dave was the one closest in age to me and so the two of us were often found together wandering through the woods behind our house. Later on, as school began, I had other friends in the north end of town and my wanderings went to other streets and my horizons continued to expand. Those were carefree days, when our feet were the primary means of locomotion and as long as we were home before dark or when meals were being served, we had the freedom to roam, to learn from our environment, to make mistakes – which led to further learnings, and to participate in our own small way in the life of the town.

We were raised somewhat collectively by the many mothers of the families around us – and by the fathers as well after they had returned from their commute to their jobs either to Waterbury or to Bristol or to other small towns around us. If a small group of us was in a particular yard, then we were sure to be noticed by the parents of the houses nearby and could expect intervention if it was ever needed – which was not too often. It didn’t matter if our friends and their parents were well established New England families or recent immigrants, or whether they had a firm grasp of English or it was a second language to them – we were all residents of the same small town, with similar reasons for living there, and with shared values as a result. The homes and yards that were off limits or where we were soundly scolded if were trespassed were not that many and we always quickly learned about them after a new family moved into that house.

Later as I added a bicycle as my preferred mode of transportation, my horizons expanded to the entire town and I was able to travel to the homes of my growing circle of school friends. I didn’t know all the homes in town, and I didn’t know which homes/yards were off limits, so I had to confine myself to the streets or the places of people I knew. And the town was growing, with new streets or homes being added on an accelerating basis. That meant that I always had new things to discover, but a little of the closeness of those early years was beginning to fade.

In high school I then became acquainted with everyone my age in the entire town and my circle of friends greatly expanded. There were over 150 of us, and while that number is much smaller than the class size has become in the decades since, for someone whose class at Alcott was only a few dozen, it was a wonderful experience to begin to share life lessons with all these new friends. The years we spent together at WHS were meaningful to all of us. We had new classmates every year as the town continued to grow – but not too many departures as the benefits of small town living in that wonderful place called Wolcott were so attractive to so many families.

After graduation, I left town for the Midwest as my chosen course for further education was in Michigan. But my legal address was still in Wolcott for the next few years and my parents continued living there until their eventual departure from this world many decades later. My childhood home was sold a few years ago after my mother’s passing and a new family is now living there. The same is true for the homes of other relatives who lived in Wolcott. But I still have one cousin there, living just a stones’ throw from where I grew up and he keeps me abreast of the goings on in town.

But it’s interesting how much influence those growing up years had on me. I knew those 150 or so classmates at WHS for four years and am still in touch with many of them over 50 years later – in contrast, I spent five years in college with several thousand others and am only in contact with a single individual from among them, and he because he was the best man at my wedding. Similarly, I have written a number of stories about Wolcott history but even though I have now lived in the same house in Pennsylvania for over 40 years I have not written any stories about my current town. And although I am on the mailing list for the Wolcott Historical Society, I have no interest in joining the parallel organization for my current town – even though it meets just a few miles from where I have lived for several decades.

It’s definitely not a matter of convenience or a length of time living in one place that makes the most impact. I think it’s a combination of other factors. One is that it was our childhood home and our relationship to the greater world around us and the amount of growing and learning that was taking place was so critical to our development at that young age. Another is that the life we had in Wolcott was rather idyllic and we continue to long for those simpler times. But a third may be the kind of people that lived there and the collective experience that we all had growing up in that place. That shared experience still continues to resonate in our souls today and draws our minds back to both the place and the people that are part of that experience.

I would not trade my time in Wolcott for anything. Although my parents have both passed on and my siblings and I have scattered both across this country and around the globe, our hearts still call that place “home”. And I’m pleased that my parents chose to give a large piece of the woodlands where I grew up as a perpetual undeveloped area to be enjoyed by future generations as well. So while we as a family are gone, our family name will live on in the Russell Preserve that is now owned by the Wolcott Land Conservation Trust ( and

Thanks Wolcott – we remember you fondly!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Finding a Birth Mother - The Rest of the Story

Nearly a year ago I posted the story of how I found the birth family of my cousin’s husband. If you haven’t read that, please read it here ( before reading the rest of the story below.

Last week I was in Florida visiting my son’s family and took the opportunity to drive to my cousin’s house an hour or so away. I wanted to find out how things turned out and get “the rest of the story”.

Laura is my 2nd cousin, once removed. We are both descended from Walter James Russell. I am the oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son of Walter (Louis Russell). Laura is the youngest daughter of the oldest son of the youngest son of Walter (James Walter Russell). There was a 22 year difference between Louis and James and a 17 year difference between Laura and her oldest sister, so even though Laura is a 2nd cousin of my father, she is 15 years younger than me. Her husband, Alan, is the person for whom I did the research (we Alans have to stick together!)

Alan’s mother, Miriam, was born in Georgia, but she ran away from her family when she was fairly young and went to live with her older sister in Miami. Thus it was that I found her in the 1940 census in Georgia, but also in a high school yearbook from Miami Beach in 1954 when she was in 10th grade. Miriam became pregnant through her brother-in-law, her sister’s husband. After finding out that he had gotten Miriam pregnant, he suddenly died. With her sister grieving the loss of her husband, and Miriam still being a teenager, she had no choice but to give Alan up for adoption.

Miriam did later marry and went on to have three more children. The family eventually ended up in the state of Washington, where his half-siblings grew up knowing about their older brother, but never expecting to find him.

When I initially told Laura and Alan that I had found his birth family and passed along the high school yearbook picture of his mother, Alan said that he just stared at the picture for several hours, amazed that I had found it. His adoptive parents had always hidden the facts of his birth and adoption from him and it wasn’t until they were both being treated for Alzheimer’s that Alan had found the information about his adoption that his mother had been hiding from him.

The contact information that I had provided was for the children of one of Miriam’s sisters, i.e. his cousin, but when they called her it wasn’t too long before he was able to get in touch with his half-siblings in Washington. They were delighted to hear from him. Both Alan and one of his half-siblings took a DNA test which confirmed the relationship.

Laura and Alan flew to Washington a few months later where they had a family reunion. This picture is of Alan and his siblings. Do you see a family resemblance?

As you can see, this is one happy group. And the fact that the three guys have the same smooth heads and facial hair is just amazing. Alan’s mother had, unfortunately, passed away a few years ago. But she had been cared for by Alan’s sister (pictured above) for the last few years of her life and so his sister was able to share with him some of the facts about his birth that his mother had revealed at the time.

When you hear about these stories happening, it is not always a happy ending. Sometimes the revealing of the story can open up some painful wounds and cause considerable hurt, especially if the family of the birth mother did not know about the situation. But you can see from this picture, everyone is extremely pleased about the outcome.