There have been several notable fires in Greenwich over the years; but one of the most spectacular was the fire that started in the cellar of Ray's Carriage House on the corner of Greenwich Avenue and Lewis Street.  The 3-story, wood frame building burned to the ground while firefighters kept the flame away from adjacent buildings. 

The cause of this fire was reportedly the carelessness of a clerk, who tried to draw some gasoline by lamplight.  There was a small explosion, and the gasoline burst into flames, which threatened some adjacent wood frame buildings.  Resident George Archer ran up to the Amogerone Firehouse to alert firemen, while William Boswell rang the alarm at Box 32.  The firemen were quick to respond. Several fire companies from neighboring towns responded.  The Amogerone Department and Volunteer Fire Company were instrumental in shortening the fire and limiting damage.  Since Amogerone was well-organized and had a building right on the Avenue, the response time was very quick.  They had excellent fire apparatus and well-trained personnel.  This doesn't mean everything went like clockwork, however.  The lack of water pressure due to high demand to fight the fire and water down adjacent buildings, hindered the firemen.

Rays.jpg

RAY'S CARRIAGE

As mentioned earlier, Ray's Carriage house burned to the ground. Mr. Ray and his clerks escaped just in time to save their lives.  There was no time to grab the money and account books. Sparks flew around the borrough and started small blazes across the street.  The LaFarge Building caught fire several times;  but the efforts of individuals with garden hoses saved the building.  Finch's Grocery Store, the Talbot building, the Boston Store, News Building and Moshier's Livery Stable were all threatened.  Less lucky were St. Mary's Church, the rear of E.C. Benedicts home before he moved to Chimney Corners and the business block next to Ray's.  Fortunately, Post Office personnel rescued mail from the office, and Mr. Vanderslice - who owned the billiard room - offered temporary space.  

Flames from the fire could be seen for miles around in Darien, South Norwalk, Stamford, Post Chester, Round Hill, Stanwich, and Bankscville.  It burned all night, and was officially out by Thursday morning at 6 o'clock.  The efforts of the firemen and residents resulted in less damage from the blaze.

One ironic note:  A scheduled Special Town Meeting was held that very night to vote on the purchase of a second pumper (fire engine).  The events of the day, no doubt, underscored the need for this apparatus.


SOURCE

Greenwich Graphic, Greenwich CT ;  5/16/1900;  Pg 1, Col 6

                                           

Porricelli's Food Mart

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At one time, there were 3 family-operated Food Mart stores in Greenwich:  one in Old Greenwich,  one in Cos Cob,  and  even a store in Banksville - but this didn't last very long. A store in Trumbull opened in April of 2002 and closed in December of 2012. These small stores were a staple of their communities for many years.  People loved the convenience and personalized service.  The chain struggled in the begining, achieved a period of success,  and finally succumed to the "big box" stores of the present day.  Food Mart was considered a good corporate neighbor.  The store changed as times changed.  I think you may find its history very interesting.

Porr FM Logo.jpg

The founder of Food Mart was Jerry Porricelli, Jr.  He was born in 1918, and raised in the Bronx.  While attending college on a scholarship in 1936,  he decided to seek employment to supplement his income.  He applied to the Gristede's Grocery Store in New York City, which gave him a job delivering orders with a pushcart.  This was an oversize cart that could fit about 12 bushels of groceries.  Jerry was given the very lucrative Madison and Fifth Avenue neighborhood.  His clientele included such families as the Roosevelts and the Goulets.   As a delivery boy, he would go into the house with a pad to take orders. Items would be pulled off the shelves back at the store, and the delivery boy would bring the order back to the customer.  In those days, the customer would leave his door open, the boy would put the groceries away, and pick up money left on the table.  If necessary, he would make change.  The job proved so profitable that he decided to forego his college education.  In 1942, he was offered a manager's job in Old Greenwich.  Jerry Porricelli had to leave his job temporaily from 1942 to 1946 to serve in the military during World War II.  He returned to Gristede's in 1946. 

By 1949, he was ready to go out on his own.  In 1950, he opened a little 1,800 square foot store on Arcadia Road next to the Post Office. Competition was fierce in those days.  Old Greenwich was home to the First National, Stewart's Market, Stevenson's, the A&P, Gristede's, and Safeway

Porricelli's Food Mart offered full counter service. Customers would come in and ask for certains items, and clerks would get the items from "the back" - behind the counter.  In those days, the store maintained a total inventory of 800 to 900 items.  By 1987, the stored had an inventory of 15,000 items. 

Customers could also call up for delivery.  Some of the biggest customers included the schools, the Shoreham Boat Club and Innis Arden Golf Club.  Two-thirds of the business at one time was the phone and delivery customer base.  Unfortunately, wholesale distributors shifted from a 60- to 90- day billing cycle to a weekly system.  This meant Food Mart could no longer offer credit to its customers, and telephone delivery service was discontinued.  Not surprisingly, Food Mart lost a lot of business, and it took years to build up its clientele again.

Just like any other business, Porricelli had to deal with constant changes in the  industry.  In the early 1950s, the modern supermarket was introduced.  Customers could go into large stores and have personal access to all products.  The traditional counter service was now outdated and obsolete.  Many small stores went out of business - especially those that couldn't adapt.  The A&P, which only had 2,000 square feet, moved to the Riverside Shopping Center to expand.  Safeway bought the property on the corner of East Putnam Avenue and Sound Beach Avenue extension, where Caldor's eventually opened; but  the new Safeway store never opened.  Food Mart decided to stay in the same location, but remove the counter service.  Porricelli also decided to focus on unique personalized service,  After all, most stores sold the same products.  What made a store unique was the superb customer service.  if you couldn't find a particular item, grocers would go out of their way to get it.  This became the model for Porricelli's.

As business improved, Porricelli decided to open a store in Banksville in 1959. A large subdvision was planned in the area, which would have created one-acre zoning. The potential for business was very promising.  However, the subdivision languished for years, and the store lost a lot of money.   Poricelli was forced to sell the store in 1963.  It took five years to pay off the debt incurred by the Banksville operation.  The large increase in population in this area never materialized. Ironically, it was necessary to expand the Old Greenwich store twice to accomodate the business.  Location is everything!

foodmart.gif

Then, in 1974, Porricelli had an opportunity to establish a store in Cos Cob.  Bruno's Greenwich Food Center was closing, leaving a void in this important market.  Cos Cob was a large population area, with rental and residential housing in the center, and mansions in the back country.  There was an established clientele left over from the previous food store.  It was located right in the center of town.  This proved to be a very shrewd move on Porricelli's part. 

Just like the Old Greenwich store, it became a mainstay of the community. Business was so good that Porricelli undertook a $1-million remodeling project at the Cos Cob store in the early 1980s.  Unfortunately, the insurance had not been upgraded when a fire broke out in the basement of the store on one Saturday morning in 1983. Thick smoke could be seen from the Turnpike.  Fortunately, the workers, customers and tenants were all evacuated safely, and no one was hurt. No definitive answer was found for the cause of the fire.  It would take several years to reopen the store (1987), which created an inconvenience for local shoppers.

By 1987, many independent grocers had been pushed out by the major chains such as Shop and Stop and ShopRite.  Eventually, COSTCO and other "big box" stores presented more competition.  Changes in the product makeup also presented some challenges.  Frozen foods began to take off, as well as other non-meat items.  People became more health conscience and started reading labels.  Microwavable foods were introduced to take the place of meals traditionally cooked from scratch;  but the need for women to work to make ends meet meant fewer women stayed at home. More and more health regulations were also added.  Since the world was becoming a smaller place,  diseases became "transportable" - spread easily across the globe.  Grocery stores had to utilize different appartaus and implement stricter controls to meet health codes and protect their customers.  Consumer protection laws changed, and unit pricing was adopted.  Computers were added to improve checkout and monitor product sales.  Customers could check how much and what they bought.  Eventually, self-service checkout would be installed in larger stores.  It was a full-time job keeping up with technology in the changing food industry.

One trend that Porricelli bucked was opening on Sundays.  He was opposed to it because he would have to spread his staff over too many days, and this would hurt service.  It wasn't necessarily because he felt his staff should be off on Sundays to attend church. He liked the idea of workers resting over the weekend.  It made them more productive.

Food Mart was recognized as a great corporate citizen.  The store employed many special needs people as employees. Porricelli found them to be dedicated, punctual and regular in attendance.  He even treated them to a summer picnic and December Holiday Party to show his appreciation. Due to his efforts, Porricelli's Food Mart was recognized by the GARC - the forerunner of Abilis - as Company of the Year in 1987.  He also donated surplus food to the Food Bank for needy families. The store sponsored an "Angel Tree" to provide gifts for the less fortunate in the community.  Once a year, he sponsored a Food Mart Celebrity Golf Tournament to raise funds for such needy groups as Senior Services and ARC. Jerry Porricelli was active in many other social activities, and was an ideal citizen.

Jerry Porricelli passed away in July 1999.  His sons continued to operate the stores for a short time.  CVS made a strong bid to rent the space in Cos Cob, which opened in 2009.  Kings Market - an upscale grocery store headquartered in New Jersey - took over the Old Greenwich store in 2012.  The small, friendly family-operated stores could no longer compete with the prices and variety offered by the larger chains.  Yet, Porricelli's played an important role in the history of Greenwich.  It was a place where residents ran into each other and got caught up on family and community news.  It was a place where special needs people could find meaningful employment.  And it was a place that helped define Greenwich. 


SOURCES 

Porricelli, J; The Food Mart; Oral History Project, Greenwich Library: 1987

"Porricelli's Market Closes in Trumbull";  Connecticut Post, Dec 29, 2012;  Accessed Dec 18, 2015.



The Island With the Tower

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Anyone who has sailed on Long Island Sound has probably noticed, at one time or another, a small island near Byram with a tower rising above the forest canopy.  This is Shell Island.  It's had many names including Little Calves Island, Huss Island, Eimer's Island and Tower Island.  Local author Arlene Mark even wrote a book titled "To The Tower: A Greenwich Adventure" (2002) based on the island and  tower.  The tower was modeled after the Summerfield Methodist Church in Port Chester.  It's had a very storied history, and I thought I'd pass along some information I was able to find.

The island is located a quarter-of-a-mile off the Byram Shore.  At low tide, a sandbar connects it to the larger Calves Island.  While Calves Island measures roughly 31.5 acres, Little Captain's Island is only 5.23 acres.  Legend has it that farmers used to lead cows over the sandbar at low tide to graze on the smaller island - hence the name "Little Calves Island".  (Another story going around claims that a pirate by the name of "Calves" buried a treasure there, but I find this questionable!)

The earliest mention of the island indicates that a successful chemist, August Otto Eimer, purchased the island from the widow of a Civil War veteran named Colonel Huss - thus the name Huss Island.  He paid $40,000 in 1910, and the Eimer family owned it until about 1961.  Eimer had gone into business with  a man named Amend.  They built a prominent pharmaceutical company, and had glassblowers brought over from Germany to make bottles. It's reputed that Eimer ended up providing Thomas Edison with blown glass that was used for his light bulbs. August also stated that he helped Edison with some of his experiments.


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VIEW OF SHELL ISLAND FROM SOUND

COURTESY OF THE GREENWICH LAND TRUST

The Eimers lived in New York City - in the same building as Babe Ruth - and came out to Byram around June.  They had a bungalow built on shore, which angered the neighbors.  It was a pre-fab from Sears and Roebuck, which clashed with other houses in the area.   When it was warm enough, a captain would take them out to the island in a rowboat.  They stayed on the island until September, then moved back to the bungalow until Thanksgiving, when they moved back to the city.

The island was a natural preserve for birds and animals.  It was even reported that minks lived on the island.  Island residents also loved the beautiful wildflowers that bloomed there.  Several species of trees were planted by the residents.  Crab apples, pears and plums were available, and Concord grapes grew on trellises.  Horseshoe crabs, fish and shellfish were plentiful.  Since there was an abundance of beautiful pink and gold shells on the shore, it was named Shell Island - its most common name today.

According to the Eimer's granddaughter, there were five different structures on the island.  The largest mansion was called The White House.  There was a Red House, Yellow House and a Spray house.  Several boathouses were built over time. The Eimer's also installed a rope and pulley system to haul small vessels on shore.  This was important because the Eimers invited many people to their summer home.

At one point, the Red house on stilts became The Shell Shore Clubhouse.  Mr. Eimer and his classmates from Columbia University founded a Shell Shore Club, which consisted of approximately 150 members.  Membership was $5 per year.  It was simply a special place where friends could congregate.


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ANNUAL KAYAK TOUR OF CALVES AND SHELL ISLANDS

COURTESY OF THE GREENWICH LAND TRUST

The Shell island Tower was built in 1925,  built to be a family museum.  Granite for the 60-foot tower was taken out of a local Byram Quarry. A bell was placed at the top, and a long rope hung down to the first floor.  Its primary purpose was to serve as a fire alarm. There were four floors, and each one had a theme. The first floor contained a bust of the son, and sailing trophies. His daughter, who was an artist, had her own floor.  Another floor had travel memorabilia from all over the world.  Mr. Eimer had a collection of letters and paraphernalia from Thomas Edison on the top floor.    His wife and son also had their own floors.  The tower was listed on a Registry of Connecticut  Historic Buildings.

Croquet and tennis were favorite pasttimes on the island.  The residents also loved to swim and sail.  Some of the local boat and yacht clubs invited the small boat owners to join in some of the local races.  On Saturday nights, guests would be invited to come over to the island to hear music coming over from a club on the larger Calves Island.  The proximity to Rye Playland also gave them an unobstructed view of the fireworks.  

A mysterious houseboat was moored between Calves Island and Shell Island during the 1920s.  Although no one ever interacted with the owner, it was believed the owner was a "bootlegger", who ran liquor up the coast from New York.  At any rate, there was never any disturbance around the area


.  

TOP OF SHELL ISLAND TOWER

COURTESY OF THE GREENWICH LAND TRUST

By 1961, many of the Eimers had passed away or moved away.  The last relative sold the island to a Julius Silver for $50,000.  He wanted the island to ensure his view of the Sound wouldn't be impeded.  As time went along, fewer people traveled to the island.  Vandals began trashing the island, and defacing the beautiful Tower.  They even broke a door off.  Many of the valuable items disappeared.

Mr. Silver decided that he didn't want to pay taxes on buildings he wasn't using.  He burned some down.  Silver had hoped his daughter might move out there, but this never happened. The island was eventually overgrown with poison ivy and brush,  so he decided to sell the Island to the Greenwich Land Trust in 1990. The Trust had been established in 1976 to protect and preserve natural land tracts in town. They could marshall the resources to repair the structures and make a natural preserve.

In 2012, the Land Trust had to repair the island Tower to ensure preservation.  They spent $70,000 to repair the roof and stabilize the structure.  Today, the Greenwich Land Trust sponsors kayak trips out to the island so that residents can enjoy its rustic nature.


SOURCES

Jewell, Karen: A History of the Greenwich Waterfront, Tod's Point, Great Captain Island and the Greenwich Shoreline; The History Press, Charleston  

Kristoff, Alberta; The Eimer Family and Shell Island; Greenwich Library Oral History Project, Greenwich, 1989.

Leinbach, Mary; Shell Island; Greenwich Oral History Project, Greenwich, 1992.

    

Historical Happenings

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GHS Digital Archives
Online
http://digital.greenwichhistory.org/

The Greenwich Historical Society has 40,000 images in its
digital archive.  Access a representative sample through the
link above.


Greenwich Library Digital Collections
Online
http://cpro.greenwichlibrary.org/iii/cpro/app

Greenwich Library has uploaded 1000 images, which can be
accessed through our Digital Collections.  Return frequently
to see new images.

Town Historian William E. Finch, Jr.

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Frequently people ask me if I'm the Town Historian.  I politely inform them that I am the Local History and Genealogy Librarian at Greenwich Library.  My job is to help people find sources to help them with their research.  By assimilation, I've learned a lot about Greenwich local history, but  I am by no means an expert historian.  That honor goes to Mr. William E. Finch, Jr., who devoted a good portion of his life to researching the history of the Town.

Mr. Finch was born on May 28, 1912 in Greenwich.  He was eleveneth in descent from Abraham Finch (1585 - 1638), who migrated from Massachusetts in 1634 to help found Wethersfield.  His son, John Finch, helped found Stamford, who's son, Joseph, purchased meadowland in Mianus Neck in 1664.  Later, he became one of the "27 Proprietors of Greenwich"  .  Joseph's son was William Edwin Finch.  He was the largest independent druggist in the state.  Finch owned 3 stores at one time - one on Greenwich Avenue, one on West Putnam Avenue and one in Glenville. (He also had ties to Finch's Country Store in Banksville.)  William was active in civic affairs and was a naturalist.  He was nicknamed "The First Citizen of Greenwich".  William E. Finch, Jr. was named after his father.


bILL fINCH012.jpgHISTORIAN WILLIAM E FINCH JR

COURTESY OF THE NUTMEGGER


The Finch family has a storied history.  The family could trace its ancestors back to seven signers of the Mayflower Compact.  Four were original settlers of Greenwich in 1640, and seven were settlers of Horseneck. Captain John Finch was a member of George Washington's staff.  Grandfather Jared Finch was the first to volunteer from Greenwich during the Civil War.  They intermarried with many important families of Greenwich:  Close, Ferris, Knapp, Lockwood, Lyon, Mead, Palmer, Peck and Todd.  The name was derived from the occupation to train and sell Bullfinches. 

When William Jr. was 10 or 11, he began researching his family lineage by visiting the Greenwich Library.  In 1932, he graduated from Brunswick School.  Then he spent the next 20 years working in his father's drugstore.  He never gave up his interest in family history, and continued to research it at Greenwich Library as well as the New York Public Library.  William firmly believed we could all benefit from reading about the past.  He was a Charter Member of the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich when it was founded in 1931 (at age 19), and became a Board member (1934) and served as President (1947).

The family sold the drugstore in 1947.  This freed William up to pursue history full-time.  In 1956, he became the first curator/historian.  He lived on the second floor of the Bush-Holley House on Strickland Road.  In 1978, the Board of Selectmen named Bill Finch the official Town Historian in honor of his dedication to preserving Greenwich history.  He retired in 1980, and became Curator Emeritus.  When the HSTG opened their records building in 1982, it was named the William E. Finch Jr. Archives. In 1990, a bust of William was unveiled at the Bush-Holley Historic site as a tribute.  He brought honor to his family, which became known as "The First Family of Greenwich".


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BUST OF WILLIAM E FINCH JR AT BUSH-HOLLEY HISTORICAL SITE

COURTESY OF GREENWICH FREE PRESS


William E. Finch Jr. was also very active in other historical and civic groups.  He was a founding member of the Captain Matthews Mead Branch #11 of the Connecticut Sons of the American revolution.  He was awarded the Patriot Medal by the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich - it's highest honor.  William was a member of the North Castle Historical Society, and Greenwich Rotary Club, which awarded him the Paul Harrish Fellowship.  He served 64 years on the Board of Directors of the Middle Patent Rural cemetery Association in Banksville, twenty-five years as President.  if that wasn't enough, he was a lifelong member of Christ Church, and served on the Vestry (Board of Deacons).

A funeral was held for William on September 27, 2000, at Christ Church in Greenwich.  Hundreds turned out to honor the resident history expert.  His body was laid to rest during a private ceremony at the Middle Patent Rural Cemetery. 

William E. Finch, Jr. was truly a Town Treasure.  His efforts helped preserve Greenwich history, and his passion is an example for us all. 

If you're looking for two knowledgable historians in town, then I suggest you talk to Davidde Strackbein or Susan Larkin at the Greenwich Historical Society. 


SOURCES

Greenwich Time; Time Warner Company, Southwestern Connecticut Newspapers, Stamford CT;  

Greenwich Magazine,: Moffly Publications, Inc., [1990-], Greenwich CT

Nutmegger: the Magazine of Greenwich: Tucker Communications, Greenwich, 1989

 






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