March 2014 Archives

Since March is Women's History Month, I wanted to write about a woman who was important to the history of Greenwich.  I decided to research Ms. Ruth Sims, who I call the "First Lady of Greenwich". 

Ms. Sims was a First Lady for several reasons:

 1.  She was the top political figure in Town government as First Selectman,

 2.  She was the first woman in 72 years to actually hold the position, and

 3.  She was the first full-time First Selectman

You could also say she holds another distinction:  Sims was a Democrat who was elected in a prominently Republican town!


Ruth Sims was elected in 1977 after two recounts and a second general election.  In the first election, she led by 6 votes.  A recount gave Mr. Vernon a 1 vote advantage. After challenging the recount due to discrepancies in the count of absentee ballots, a new election was held. Sims defeated Republican incumbent Rupert Vernon by a wide margin of 13,962 to 9,361 votes.  In 1979, she defeated Albert F. Varner, Jr. by fewer than 200 votes.

Ms. Sims was born Ruth Bodman Leiserson in Rochester on March 4, 1920, in Rochester NY.   She was the fourth of seven children.  Ruth attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where she studied English.  After graduating, she worked for Senator Harold H. Burton in Washington DC. Sims worked in the Division of Defense Housing, a part of the Federal Works Agency.  In 1941, she married Albert G. Sims.  Ruth joined the League of Women Voters in 1953, and even became a local and state president.  Later she became a member of the National League of Women Voters.  In 1954, she and her husband moved to Riverside, and she worked as a director of the Southern New England Telephone Company

Active in community affairs, she served on the Riverside, Eastern Junior High School and Greenwich High School PTA.  Ms. Sims also served on the Community Council and Community Chest.  From 1975 to 1976, she served as the Vice Chairman of the United Way.  She was the chairman of the Commision on Compensation of Elected State Officials and Judges, served on the Committee to Reorganize State Government, and the Regional Planning Association and the 1983/1984 Charter Commission.  Nationally, Ms. Sims  served on the United States-South African leadership Exchange Program. 

ruth sims535.jpg

COURTEOUSY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES


Ms. Sims developed an interest in politics when she was a national director of the League of Women Voters.  She served 2 terms on the Board.  Having served on the national and state level, she eventually decided she wanted to serve on the local level.   Ms. Sims decided to run for the First Selectman position in 1977 to effect real change.  The first hurdle was securing the Democratic nomination by winning a primary.  She was opposed by favorite William Morris and Sheila Arnaboldi.  This brought much needed attention to her campaign in the Republican stronghold.  In this first election, she challenged Rupert Vernon.  Initially, it was reported that she had won by six votes.  Then there were subsequent recounts, and the results gave the election to the Republicans.  While the voting machines showed no evidence of tampering, there were some discrepancies with the absentee ballots, which were easily accessible.  After a two-week hearing with a judge, a tie was declared, setting the way for a new election.  In the followup election on Decmber 29th - three days before the new person was to start as First Selectman - she won by about 3500 votes.

As a peace offering, Ms. Sims asked Republican Everett Fisher, Chairman of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, to swear her in.  He agreed, but cooperation between the two parties was still strained.  She decided to make her inauguartion a public affair by having it on the Town Hall front stairs.  To improve communications, she established weekly meetings of department heads to share information.  Ms. Sims had a new centralized phone system installed to reduce costs, and centralized all office functions ( word processing, duplicating, microfilming) under an Administrative Services department.   A Labor Relations Officer was added to handle grievances in a timely manner.

Her most noteworthy accomplishments as First Selectman include converting the Cos Cob Power Plant from coal to oil to reduce pollution, establishing subsidized housing for the elderly, initiating traffic calming, and preserving the residential nature of the community.   Perhaps the most important accomplishment was demonstrating that a full-time Selectman was more efficient and productive than a part-time Selectman.   Ms. Sims also made a case for women being able to perform the same work as men, and doing that work efficiently and professionally. 

She would not be the last woman to serve as First Selectman.   Ms. Rebecca Breed followed Ms. Sims from 1981 to 1983, and  Lolly Prince served from 1999 to 2001.  Still, others served on the Board, although not as First Selectman.  These included Lin Lavery (2007-2009), Penny Monahan (2001-2007), Stephanie Sanchez (1997-1999) and Cindy Rubicam (1985-1987).  Hopefully, these won't be the last women to serve on the Board of Selectmen.  There are many talented women also serving on the many commissions and Boards of the town, as well as the Representative Town Meeting.   Greenwich is indeed fortunate to have such dedicated women (and men) willing to serve the community. 


SOURCE

Ruth Sims at Town HallAn Oral History Interview; Oral History Project, Friends of the Greenwich Library, 1984.



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Historical Happenings

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Intermediate Genealogy Research
Saturday - March 29 - 10:30 AM
Cos Cob Library

Genealogist Anthony Lauriano will present
a program on researching your family tree.
Great for beginners, too!  Free and open
to all.


Enjoying the Country Life:  Greenwich's Great Estates
Ongoing Exhibit - April 9 to August
Bush Holley Historical Site

This exhibit of clothing, photographs and objects is representative of
1880 to 1930 -  the golden age of estate building in Greenwich. 

Call 869-6899 for more details.

Palmer Brothers Engines

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Several years ago, I received a call from the Oral History Project office telling me there was a man who wanted to give the library some information on the Palmer Brother's Engine Company in Cos Cob.  I'd heard that at one time there was a  marine engine shop in Cos Cob where the Palmer Point condominiums were built. I'd also seen photos of the operation they once had on Valley Road near Dumpling Pond and Palmer Hill Road. The man handed me some manila folders with papers, diagrams and photos. I placed these in our vertical files for future reference. Well, now is as good a time as any to document this enterprise.

Frank T. and Ralph L. Palmer opened a machine shop on the banks of the Mianus River along Valley Road in North Mianus in 1888.  The river provided water power. This was called the "Upper Works".  Initially, they manufactured electric telephone equipment.  Several years later (1894), when gasoline became available to power automobiles and boats, the Palmers abandoned the telephone business, and started building boat engines. 

Palmer Bros Upper519.jpg

PHOTO OF PALMER BROTHERS "UPPER WORKS" IN NORTH MIANUS

     PHOTO BY RAY PALMER (No Date)

GIVEN TO GREENWICH LIBRARY BY WINFRED MILLS

             Frank Palmer handled the business end while Ray was the engineer.  The company was known for their quality engines.  Their engines were hand-made and lasted for years.  They were shipped all over the world.  Palmer produced a 2-cycle, 2-horsepower engine in six different sizes.  They required no spark plugs. Initially, the company employed 40 to 50 employees.  The business was so successful that it outgrew its old plant, and the company moved down to Palmer's Point in Cos Cob in 1905.

The Palmers had a 200-foot by 60-foot steel frame building erected on River Road located on what is now partially covered by the New England Turnpike (I-95).  This building contained the machine shop, an assembly line and an office.  Later a 150-foot by 60-foot building was built for the assembly and shipping operations.  Finally, a wooden building was constructed near River Road to house the business office. 

An old steam engine was used to operate the machinery.  It turned a long shaft which ran the entire length of the building.  Large belts were wrapped around the shaft, which in turn powered the machines.  A low-voltage generator also ran off the steam engine to provide lighting.  However, in the dark winter, employees had to use candles to provide enough light to work.  Although heat was provided by an exhaust fan from the old steam engine, it was still very cold in the building.  Workers had to wear multiple layers of clothing to stay warm. 

Around 1909, Palmer Brothers was one of the first marine engine companies to mix oil with gasoline as a means of lubricating the engine.  They began advocating this procedure throughout the industry, and before long most companies were also mixing in the oil.  It's still being done today.  This may be one of the reasons that Palmer's engines last so long!  It's interesting to note that some European automobiles (ex. Saab) imitate this practice.  (Oil is mixed in with the gasoline.)

Frank and Ray Palmer were very benevolent to their workers.  They bought 50 to 60 houses in Cos Cob near the shop and had them renovated for the workers.  A maintenance crew re-roofed the buildings, and they were rented to the workers for a very low rent.  This may account for the loyalty of the men, who stayed for life - well into their senior years.

Not all of the workers were model employees, however!  Some tried to cheat on their piece work by moving pieces manufactured in the morning to the count for the afternoon - in effect getting double credit for the same piece!  Some even threw damaged pieces out the window into Cos Cob Harbor.  Most workers were honest though, and worked very hard.  The accuracy they were able to maintain when manufacturing parts with the crude technology available was uncanny.  The engines lasted anywhere from 10 to 18 years - even in a saltwater environment.

The Palmers developed a new 4-cycle engine.  Eventually, they made 1-,2-,3-,4- and 6-cylinder engines.  The 50- to 60- pound engines powered small rowboats, tenders, fishing boats, and commercial fishing vessels.  When Julius Ulrich took over for Ray as engineer around 1934, he introduced bigger engines primarily for charter boats and big fishing vessels.  The company catered to all kinds of sailors - including bootleggers!  These men had the engine company add an oil container so that they could escape Coast Guard pursuers by ejecting black smoke!  The engines were also tuned up so they could outrun the law!  By this time, the company also started their own boat shop, and started manufcaturing 18- and 20- foot open launches. 

Catalog520.jpg

REPRODUCTION OF A PALMER MARINE ENGINE CATALOG CIRCA 1907

The marine engine field was not very big, but there was stiff competition from other small companies.  Fortunately, ingenuity and product quality kept the Palmer Brothers in the forefront.  Forward planning also helped.  The company had 3000 bins of surplus parts they could sell to customers.  Furthermore, they could manufacture a part if they ran out.  This was great customer service.

Unfortunately, the Great Hurricane of 1938 caused a great deal of damage to the Cos Cob operation.  Although the winds were only 70- to 80- miles per hour, the storm surge forced water into the narrow western end of Long Island Sound, creating a tide 8-feet above normal.  Water rose to 3-feet in the assembly building, damaging 150 engines and thousands of parts.  This meant the engines had to be taken apart and cleaned.  Surprisingly, the operation was up and running in a short period of time due to the diligence of the workforce.

Despite the hurricane, the year 1938 turned out to be very profitable for the Palmer Engine Company.  First of all, a British company - the Russell Newberry Engine Company - contracted Palmer to sell it's new diesel engine.  The engine could save up to 50% of fuel consumption as borne out by a survey.  Frank Palmer started traveling up the northeast coast as far as Nova Scotia to extoll the new engine's benefits.  When Frank Palmer passed away, his son-in-law, Carl Hatheway, took over the marketing of the diesel, and expanded sales routes along the east coast to Florida and west to Texas.  One group was impressed when Hatheway sent for  engine parts and assembled an engine on the spot!  Hatheway was diverted to Nassau in the Bahamas, where his boat sunk.  Once again, Hatheway impressed buyers when he raised the boat and rebuilt the engine.  A trip to Guantanamo was not so successful since the boat was seized and used as a boarding boat due to its speed and power! 

During World War II, Palmer was contracted to manufacture 200 engines for PT boats.  They started out making 1 or 2 per week, but soon speeded up to 1 or 2 per day.  They also made engines for lifeboats on the Liberty ships.   Known as the "Little Huskie" (yes, it was "ie" instead of "y" on the end), it was a powerful 20-horsepower engine that could be started by hand.  The Russians bought engines from Palmer that actually burned wood!  (Gases from the combustion ran the engines.)  The company ran 24-hours per day during this period.  The windows were blacked our for air raid purposes.  Inventories were monitored very closely by the government to ensure efficiency and prevent fraud.

After the war, Palmer returned to manufacturing commercial engines.  The company had been operating for almost 50 years, and the remaining principles were getting closer to retirement.  Hatheway decided to put the company up for sale.  A New Jersey Company - The Columbia Aircraft Products Company - decided to diversify and bought the company.  They installed their own management team.  Everything was revamped and machinery was electrified.  This in itself was good;  but they made a critical mistake with the inventory.  They failed to monitor the parts inventory, and they ended up ordering too many types of one part, and not enough of some others.  It wasn't long before they ran out of storage space and were in debt for $1.5 million. 

The company was sold at auction in 1952 to a group composed of previous personnel and Frank Hekma, a large investor.  The company reopened with a smaller staff of 25 men.  It took about 4-years to get up to speed.  Meanwhile, creditors were constantly looking for payment of past bills.  Something had to be done to secure a quick infusion of money.  In 1958, the International Harvester Company decided to enter the marine engine market.  They contracted Palmer to build engines for commercial fishing vessels and yachts.  This was at least a stop gap measure.  Hatheway saw an even bigger opportuniy.  He started lobbying the IH Board of Directors to buy Palmer outright.  The Board agreed in principle and all seemed rosey.  However, a new Board seized power and wasn't aware of the proposed deal.   The deal "fizzled out".

Although the marine engine market was small and very specialized, there were a few powerful competitors who entered the field.  Among them were the Packard Motor Company and the Chrysler Motor Division.  Not only did they have a vast manufacturing operation, but they also had a strong marketing network already in place.  Servicing was also no problem.  This meant the companies could sell the engines at lower cost than Palmer.  This was the final straw.  The Palmer Marine Engine Company was forced out of business and closed its doors in 1972.  Surplus engines were sold to a company in Detroit, and the land was sold to a developer who built the Palmer Point condominiums.  A Mr. Richard Day was able to salvage some of the equipment for a Heritage Engine Museum in Severna, Maryland. 

In 1974, the old Palmer plant was demolished to make room for new housing.  The familiar building complex on the shores of Cos Cob Harbor was no longer there.  Early commercial vessels were replaced by pleasure craft as marinas sprung up along the Mianus River.  An important part of Greenwich's marine history ceased to exist.  Yet, there is no doubting the importance of Palmer Brother's Marine Engine Company to the history of our town. 


SOURCES:

The Palmer Engine Company;  Bolling, R; Oral History Project, 1990.




 




 

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Historical Happenings

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Crafting Life Stories
Thursday - March 27 - 6:30 PM
Greenwich Library

This 7-week workshop will teach you how to document your life stories.  Journalist and author Joan Motyka will lead the group. 

Call (203) 625-6533 to pre-register.  Free.

 


Intermediate Genealogy Research
Saturday - March 29 - 10:30 AM
Cos Cob Library

Genealogist Anthony Lauriano returns to talk about obtaining records to research ancestors. Great for beginners as well as seasoned sleuths. Free.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from March 2014 listed from newest to oldest.

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April 2014 is the next archive.

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