By John White
I thank God for the blessing of growing up in Cheshire.
In 1950, when my family moved here to our home on Fernwood Lane, I was 11 years old. Cheshire had a population of 6,000, not counting the cows. My family had moved from a brand new community just south of Baltimore. It consisted of nothing but several hundred absolutely identical row houses built during the Second World War. The ground had been totally cleared and leveled for construction; there wasn’t a tree in sight except for small, newly planted ones when we moved into it in 1943.
Imagine the difference I experienced in Cheshire, with its woods and streams, its farms and fields, its colonial homes and heritage. Yet, as lovely as it was then, and still is, the move was difficult for me. I missed my friends and didn’t know anyone in town. When I began school in the sixth grade at Humiston that fall, I had a slight Southern drawl. After all, Maryland was below the Mason-Dixon line. If I was called upon by my teacher, Mrs. Katherine Foley, I always stood up beside my desk and said “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.” That was the way we did things “down South,” but the kids here thought that was pretty funny. I felt I was in a foreign culture.
After a year or so, I began to feel more “at home” in Cheshire. I formed friendships and entered adolescence thinking of myself more and more as a “Northerner.”
There were no town parks or Youth Center then, and hardly even TV! My family got its first television set in 1952—a black and white one because color TV barely existed then—just in time to watch the national elections when President Eisenhower succeeded President Truman. Young people made their own entertainment, for the most part. I rode my bike around the neighborhood with my friends, happily roamed the woods with my dog Brownie, worked my paper route from Ives Corner to Bethany Mountain Road, and swam at Mixville Pond and the canal at South Brooksvale Road. In 1953 we moved across town to Lynwood Drive, and I added Ten Mile River to my roster of swimming holes.
But by the time I got my driver’s license at 16, I felt restless and constrained by Cheshire. It seemed dull and boring—a hick town. The wide world was beckoning me to explore and experience so much which Cheshire seemed to lack. I couldn’t wait to leave for college and get out of town.
I had entered Cheshire High School in 1953, when it first opened. I graduated in 1957 as a member of the first class to go through all four years. It had already graduated the Classes of 1955 and 1956, but they came from surrounding high schools and began at Cheshire as sophomores and juniors.
In the fall of 1957 I went to Dartmouth College on an NROTC scholarship. Eight years later, after four years of college and four years as a naval officer, having been on the Cuban Blockade during the nuclear missile crisis, having been in the Gulf of Tonkin at the start of the Vietnam War, having put my life on the line in service to my country, having feared that I might be killed in combat and never again see my wife and children, having seen that the poorest American was a hundred times better off than the poor of Hong Kong, Vietnam, Jamaica and even just-across-the-border Tijuana — after all that, Cheshire looked like heaven to me. It seemed a wonderful place to settle down and raise our children. So we did.
Looking back, I nostalgically recall some things about Cheshire which I’ll now describe.
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In 1950, there were no stoplights in Cheshire. You could drive on Route 10 from the Hamden town line to the Southington town line without meeting a single one. There was only a blinker light in the center of Cheshire, at Academy Road, where Routes 68 and 70 meet Route 10. Now there are more than two dozen stoplights along Route 10.
Before Cheshire High School opened in 1953, students had to attend high school in Waterbury, Southington and Hamden. They rode the regularly scheduled commercial buses to and from school, using bus tickets provided by the Board of Education.
There were only two TV stations in all of Connecticut in 1950—New Haven and Hartford. They began broadcasting in the morning and went off the air after the late news, about 11 p.m.
Cheshire had no police force then. We had a constable and, for kids playing hooky, a truant officer named Eddie Hart, who lived on the corner of Peck Lane and West Main Street. A state trooper from the Bethany Barracks was also assigned to patrol Cheshire, but he wasn’t a resident. The jail was in the basement of the town hall; as I recall, it had all of two cells. The Cheshire Police Department began in 1954 with one officer, John McNamara. Chief McNamara also lived on Peck Lane, not far from my home on Lynwood Drive after my family moved there in 1953.
The Cheshire school system in 1950 consisted of Humiston School in the center of town, Darcey School in West Cheshire and Chapman School on Route 10 across from the Connecticut Correctional Center. Humiston is now used mostly for housing the Department of Education, but in 1950 it was filled with school children—from kindergarten to eighth grade. In fact, it was so filled that in 1951 and 1952 we had to go on double sessions. I recall getting up for the morning session while it was still dark, and getting home around noon. The second year I was in the afternoon session, and didn’t get home until around supper time. The fourth graders had their classes in a small building on Cheshire Academy grounds across from what is now the Watch Factory Mall. The mall building was then a classroom building for the Academy.
Town meetings were held in the auditorium on the top floor of the town hall, which was an old three-story structure much smaller than the present one. The town’s fire station was part of the building; the fire engines were kept in bays to the left of the present front steps. We Humiston students occasionally went into the town hall for school events, such as Christmas recitals and fire safety demonstrations. The auditorium had a stage and curtain in front and could hold several hundred people. There was no elevator; you walked upstairs to the top floor.
In those days, the Connecticut Correctional Center was called the Cheshire Reformatory. Only young men (from ages 16 to 26) were incarcerated there. Occasionally there was an escape, and when that happened, a siren at the reformatory was sounded; you could hear it all over town. On Friday nights, the reformatory invited townspeople to come into the auditorium to watch the movies shown to inmates. We’d gather, kids and adults, in the lobby until all inmates were seated; then we were escorted to the front rows. When the movie was over, the inmates had to remain seated until we left; then they got up and returned to their cells. As I recall, the movies weren’t exactly first-run films, but they were fairly recent and, of course, free.
The old Cheshire Theater on South Main Street—now the site of a large medical building under construction—had terrific Saturday afternoon showings which drew a large audience of young people. We were dropped off and picked up by our parents. Traffic was a problem in front of the theater at those times.
But otherwise, traffic wasn’t a problem, as I recall. Most families had only one car, and of course the number of families was very small. Sounds which were common then, such as the noon bell from the Congregational Church, could be heard way up on the ridge between Peck Lane and Moss Farms Road. I heard it while hiking those woods with Brownie.
In the 1950s, a railroad ran along the canal where the linear park is now. Trains went through town twice a day—in the morning and evening. We kids had fun putting pennies on the railroad tracks and watching the train run over them. After the train had passed, the copper penny was stretched out about twice as long as it had been.
In 1952, a hurricane passed through Connecticut, hitting Cheshire especially hard. Power was off for several days. I remember driving with my father to Hine Hardware to buy a kerosene lamp and kerosene, so we had some light at night. I think Hine’s sold every lamp it had.
Speaking of Hine’s, I bought my very first gun—a single-shot .22 rifle—there in 1953. I just went in and paid for it and the ammunition with money I’d earned by delivering newspapers and mowing lawns. I picked it out of a rack of guns for sale. No questions were asked, no fears or suspicions were raised. My father, who’d been on the Columbia University rifle team, had taught me to shoot, safely and properly, the way most fathers did then. I carried my rifle with me openly around town when I rode my bike to shoot targets at the old quarry by the Notch in West Cheshire or to shoot squirrels in the woods along Peck Lane. Nobody worried about it. That’s the way it was.
Many kids had guns then. We even had a shooting club and there was a shooting gallery in the basement of Chapman School. It’s still there, boarded up. My friend Bill Neff, his sister and his father/medical doctor, old Doc Neff, were avid target shooters who went annually to compete in the national meets at Camp Perry, Ohio. They practiced in the basement of Chapman School. So did I occasionally.
Rock ‘n roll began in the 1950s, just as I entered my teens. We kids used to listen to it at night on the Waterbury, New Haven and Hartford radio stations. There was a teen hangout in town called The Willows, which was a restaurant on South Main Street where Ricci’s Construction is now located. The Willows was a juke joint. It had a jukebox and a few pinball machines. I think both of them cost a nickel to play and later went up to a dime. The Willows served what was a brand-new food for us then—french fries. Can you imagine a world without french fries? On Friday nights, The Willows had a three-piece rock ‘n roll band. Kids bought sodas and hot dogs and french fries, and hung around listening to the music. Another teen hangout was Lux’s Drive-in on Highland Avenue in the north end of town, about where the bowling alleys are now. Still another was the soda counter at Carrington’s Pharmacy in the center of town where Town One building now stands. Sometimes after school we’d hit the soda counter at Carrington’s. You could get a terrific cherry coke there, made directly from syrups and soda water.
Cheshire had a second post office back then. It was in West Cheshire at the corner of West Main Street and Mountain Road. Today that building is gone; the lot holds several businesses.
One of the big events for young boys in town was the Boy Scout townwide paper drives. It was probably Cheshire’s earliest recycling program. My troop met in the basement of Chapman School. Several times a year we Boy Scouts would be driven in large open-back trucks—about half a dozen Scouts per truck—over the main roads of Cheshire. Residents had their papers bagged or tied up for us, or at least neatly stacked in the house. We’d haul large stacks of paper out to the truck, and after half a day or so, the filled truck would go to the drop-off point, where we’d transfer the paper to a larger truck. The paper was worth money, so much per ton, and the Boy Scout troops got the proceeds, which were used to underwrite Scouting programs.
Thriftiness was encouraged in the elementary schools through a banking program. Kids were expected to save money each week—maybe a quarter, maybe only a few cents if that was all they could afford. The teacher collected our money and then took us from Humiston School to a bank in the center of town, where we deposited our savings each week. Each school kid had his own savings passbook. We “saved our pennies and watched our dollars grow.”
I have many other memories of Cheshire in the 1950s which I could share—the Flood of ’55 is an especially vivid one—but I simply want to give you a sense of how life was then. The many facilities and services we have now and the quality of life we enjoy did not just magically appear. That was created through the concern and hard effort of people in town who wanted to do something for Cheshire—for their family, their neighbors, their friends, their community.
Cheshire is no longer the small town it was when I moved here, but it still is a nice town. And it can remain that way, even while it continues to grow, if we’ll contribute to it by being good citizens and good neighbors. To young people I say: Treat the town with respect. Participate in the life of the town. Help keep our town a place where you can look back in later years and say, “I’m glad I grew up in Cheshire and I’d be glad to raise my own children there.”