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Two Sides of William "Boss" Tweed

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One of the most interesting - and corrupt characters - to ever live in Greenwich was no doubt William "Boss" Tweed.  While he was well-known as a corrupt politician in New York City, some may consider him a model citizen here in Greenwich!   Tweed was responsible for opening Greenwich up as a vacation spot, and implemented some useful services here in town.  And from everything I've read, the residents had a "love-hate" relationship with him!

William M. Tweed was born on April 12, 1823, in New York City.  He grew up on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His father was third-generation Scotch-Irish, and worked as a chair maker.  William quit school at age 11 to train in the craft.  Unfortunately, he failed and his father arranged an apprenticeship for him with a saddle maker.  He trained as a bookkeeper (which would aid him with embezzlement later in his life!).  At one point, he became a brush maker;  but politics became his chief interest in the 1840s.

Tweed took an interest in several fraternal organizations including the Odd Fellows, the Masons and a volunteer fire company. His association with the fire company actually enhanced his reputation.  In 1848, he helped organize a new fire company known as the Americus Fire Company, better known as the"Big Six" Fire Company.  Competition was stiff amongst the fire companies in New York City, and violence was commonplace as many were staffed by street gangs.  On several occasions, buildings burned to the ground as firefighters engaged in violent fights!  Tweed - who was the Foreman at the time - was known for literally carrying (and using) a big stick!  His underlings started calling him "Boss".


The Democratic Party in New York heard about Tweed's exploits.  Democrats made up the majority of the membership of the Tammany Society  - a secret association of politicians out for personal gain.  Their headquarters was built in 1868 and was called Tammany Hall. Through recent years, they had been responsible for electing their choice for Mayor through fraud, intimidation and violence.  In 1850, Tammany Hall arranged for Tweed to be elected Alderman, and in 1852 had him elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  His term was unremarkable, and he decided he wasn't cut out for national office, so he returned to New York and became Public School Commissioner and later State Senator.  Tweed also had himself elected to a new Board of Suprevisors, which had great power over budgets. Fraud became rampant, and Tweed was able to pad his, as well as his friends, pockets. 

At one point he was serving as a State Senator, President of the Board of Supervisors and Deputy Street Commissioner. He was able to appoint over 1,000 office holders who did nothing but work for him, while they double-dipped form public funds.  Tweed also recieved kickbacks from contractors for public works projects.  He bought a stationery company, which held the contract for printing government forms, documents, etc.  One of the most outrageous frauds involved the remodelling of the County Court House.  Although the original estimate was quoted at $250,000, when all was said and done, the project cost the taxpayers $8-million!


As legend has it, three of Tweed's "cronies" hired a sailboat out of City Island to sail Long island Sound around 1861.  Once they passed Execution Light, the weather changed dramatically, and they sought refuge near Round Island. (Execution Light is a lighthouse near New Rochelle.  Legend has it that the British would tie people to the rocks during the Revolutionary War so that they would be drown by rising tides.) A tender took them ashore, where they pitched tents for the night.  The following day, they were taken back by the beauty of Greenwich.  At this point the area was still pristine.  The next day, they returned to the city.

As "Boss" Tweed sat around the Americus Fire House on the Bowery, he began to hear stories of the beauty in Greenwich.  Finally, he decided to check it out himself.  This time,  he took a wood-burning train from 27th Street to Greenwich.  He got permission from Oliver Mead to camp out on Round island.  Tweed and friends spent time there bathing, fishing and sailing.  They spent a lot of time on Rocky Neck (Steamboat Road area) at the local tavern, exchanging sea tales, discussing boats and befriending local sailors. 


In 1862, Tweed arranged to have the "Americus Club of New York" built in Indian Harbor.  It was named after his fire company in New York. The two-story building was 100-feet wide and contained a spacious reception hall, dining room and kitchen on the first floor.  It was located near the present location of E.C. Benedict's current home.   (The Morton House and the Indian Harbor Hotel were eventually opened there.)  It was later removed to Chimney Corner where Benedict used it as a boathouse for a while, then as servant's quarters until it was demolished in 1892.

A new club house was built in 1871.  It was 3 stories high with mansard roof, tall tower and 2 wings. ( Rumor has it that the architect filed a lawsuit to collect fees he was owed for the building's design). The building was painted white and served as a prominent landmark for sailors.  Tweed had it furnished with expensive pieces.  The carpet had been woven abroad in one piece one-hundred feet long.  A tiger's head served as the Club's symbol and was placed on the carpet and all pieces of furniture.

The Tweed family became regular visitors to Greenwich.  They were very recognizable.  Some loathed them, some were in awe and some became friends.  Oldest son, William M. Tweed Jr, married a Greenwich girl, whom he had met in Manhattan.  She was the daughter of Silas Davis, a wealthy partner of Davis & Benson, a company which primarily manufactured flour.  William Jr. died unexpectedly in 1901.  Younger brother Richard, known for racing horses from Maple Avenue to Put's Hill, travelled to Europe and died there in 1879.  Two daughters (who's names are not available) married the wealthy McGuinness brothers and moved to New Orleans.  Younger daughter Josephine was known for handling horses.  She married a wealthy business man named Frederick Douglas of New York. Three other children died very young - Jennie, Charlie and George. 


"Boss" Tweed - for all his other faults - was a very generous man.  Most of the money he embezzled through city contracts was passed along to his friends.  These were the same friends who eventually turned against him after he was charged with fraud!

When the econony turned in the 1870s, Tweed bought several mortgages when foreclosure by the banks threatened.  He then sold them back to the owners, taking whatever interest they could afford to pay - in many instances this turned out to be nothing.  When people couldn't sell land, he would buy it.  Starting in 1868, he used to invite orphans from the city to come out to his Linwood estate on Milbank Avenue to stay for the weekend.  Tweed gave loans to oyster men and mechanics, but never collected on the promissory notes.  He was approached by Solomon Mead from the Board of Burgesses to sell a small triangle of land to straighten Milbank Avenue to eliminate a safety hazard. He refused to sell it, but donated it to the Town! 

In 1870, when Frederick Mead refused to sell 18-acres to Tweed, the "Boss" offered to pay the "Tweed Price".  This was usually an outrageous price (well above a reasonable price) that Tweed would offer to pay to help someone out.

More and more people from the city started coming out to Greenwich on the weekends.  Tweed came up with the idea of setting up steamboat service from New York to Greenwich.  In 1861, his corporation bought the steamboat "John Romer" and started passenger service between the two towns.  Unfortunately, it wasn't profitable, and the service was discontinued the next year.

Tweed was also responsible for setting up telegraph service between Greenwich and New York City.  This way he could monitor business affairs from his Linwood estate on Milbank Avenue.  He employed several stone masons to build a gateway and wall around his estate.  The work was greatly appreciated during hard times. 


It wasn't long before word of Tweed's role in the corruption of New York City government was uncovered.  Artist Thomas Nast began publishing political cartoons depicting Tweed as a crook in Harper's Bazaar.  This caught the attention of local law officials.


In June 1870, a Miss Lydia G. McMullen bought 24-acres and a farm house north of Cos Cob.  She was said to be "Boss" Tweed's niece. Tweed decided to have the building remodeled.  It was reported that Andrew J. Garvey, a NY City plasterer and member of The Americus Club would travel to Greenwich to give the family money to pay for repairs.   In a later corruption trial of Tweed cronies in the New York Supreme Court, it was reported that the work done at the farmhouse was paid for with city funds!  Tweed was indicted by a Grand Jury and then convicted of 50 of 55 charges.  He tried to have the judge removed from the case since he was not one of Tweed's "appointees", but this backfired.  Tweed was sentenced to 12 years.  He could have been sentenced to 60 years, but the judge determined Tweed's share was very small compared to the total amount embezzled (only about 20%).  So the judge reduced his sentence to a smaller sentence.

Tweed was sent to Blackwell's Island on the Brooklyn side of the East River. This was anything but inconvenient.  He had a luxuriously furnished double room, and he was waited on hand-and-foot by officers he helped get appointed!

Tweed appealed his conviction to an appellate court.  The first time the appeal was turned down, but later another court ruled it was unlawful to tack multiple terms together.  Although released, he was quickly re-arrested to await trial for a civil suit filed by the City to recover an estimated 6-million dollars in damages.  Tweed was then incarcerated in the Ludlow Street Jail.  Once again his accomodations were
anything but wanting.  He had a large reception room, a dining room and a large kitchen!  It wasn't long before one of his appointees took him out for a carriage ride (not normal procedure for a prisoner), and left him alone to escape! 

Now, when Tweed decided to remodel his niece's farmhouse, he had befriended the Cos Cob Station Agent.  The agent handled the freight deliveries for the McMullens. Being courteous and prompt, he was rewarded generously by Tweed.  He quickly became a family favorite.  This would turn out to be very fortuitous for Tweed in his escape.

In the early winter of 1875 when Tweed made his escape, a strange thing happened.  The 9:15 pm train from New York stopped short of Cos Cob station.
One of the conductors had a habit of stopping the train to getting off and grab a drink from a local tavern.  He had been caught once before by the agent. So, quite annoyed, the Station Agent grabbed a lamp to investigate.  As he was walking along the side of the train, the side door to the baggage car suddenly opened
just in front of him.  A woman snuck up behind him and broke his lantern.  Groping in the dark, the Agent grabbed for a man he recognized as Tweed!  It's later reported that Tweed, a man and woman leaped over a ditch along the tracks, and jumped into a horse and wagon waiting for them.  They were transported to the McMullen's for a final meal.  Afterwards, Tweed was driven to Tarrytown, where he boarded a tug.  The tug took him to lower New York Bay, where he boarded a freighter bound for Cuba.  He is then transferred to another steamer bound for Spain.  The Station Agent could have turned Tweed in for a handsome reward, but didn't!  Perhaps he felt loyalty to the family.

I don't know how or why (maybe it was the $50,000 reward) but Tweed was captured in Vigo, Spain, and transported back to the Ludlow Street Jail. This is where he finally died on April 12, 1878, at the age of 55 years.

It should be remembered that news from the City didn't travel as fast as it does today.  There were no Internet or cellphones.  Newspapers travelled by train to the suburbs, but it took a while for details of "Boss" Tweed's crimes to come out in trials at a later date.  You could say there was a "news gap".  Residents could only judge Tweed by their personal interactions with the man.  Regardless, no one can dispute that William "Boss" Tweed left his mark on the Burrough of Greenwich.


Other Days in Greenwich; Hubbard, F.; Taply, NY.  1913.


Historical Happenings

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Art in Connecticut and the Connecticut Art Trail
Thursday - September 4 - 7 PM
Greenwich Library

Danielle Ogden and Pam Ruggio from the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield will
speak on the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and on how to obtain passes
to visit museums on the Connecticut Art Trail.

Free and open to patrons of all ages!

Greenwich's Civil Rights March

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The 1960s decade was probably the most dynamic period in terms of Civil Rights.  States such as Alabama and Mississippi refused to enforce Federal laws preventing segregation.  Freedom riders from the north began riding buses down south to protest.  Sometime between June 21 and 22, 1964, three such riders - James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael "Mickey" Schwerner - were shot to death at close range.  A subsequent trial found members of the Mississippi White Knights of the KKK, the County Sherriff and local police force guilty of the crime.  They received a slap on the wrist, and most escaped prison time.  This tragedy helped to garner support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Acts of 1965.

A lesser-known  incident was the murder of Reverend James J. Reeb of Boston on March 9, 1965. Reeb was an American Unitarian Universalist minister and a Civil Rights activist in Washington DC. He and his family lived in poor Black communities where he felt he could do the most good.  Reeb travelled to Selma, Alabama, to help with the Civil Rights movement.  After leaving a "Negro" diner that he was helping to integrate, he was beaten to death by four white men. Reeb was not immediately admitted to a hospital, and two days later he died.  Martin Luther King Jr. condemned the murder as a cowardly act.  Several days earlier, African-American Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot to death by Selma police during a racial disturbance. Although marchers attempted to go to the County Courthouse for a memorial service, they were stopped by local authorities. 

In response to the violence in Selma, the Fellowship of Greenwich Clergy organized a march from the Second Congregational Church on East Putnam Avenue to the Lutheran Church on Field Point Road on March 13, 1965.  Seven hundred residents joined Reverend Ralph G. Morris of Diamond Hill Church, Reverend John J. Hawkins of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and Reverend C. Gordon Beale of the Second Congregational Church in a peaceful and orderly march.  Demonstrators included blacks and white alike. 




At the end of the march, a memorial service was held at the Lutheran Church on Field Point Road for Reverend Reeb.  Attendees were urged to support civil rights legislation and work to eliminate inequality in Greenwich.  Senator Thomas Dodd sent a telegram sympathizing with the cause of the marchers.  Reverend Stivers from Old Greenwich likened the movement to a revolution rooted in the religious traditions of brotherhood.  He also condemned the violence in Selma.  Although voting wasn't an issue in Greenwich, Reverend Stivers talked of inequality in housing and employment.  Reverend Leon Burnham of Bethel A.M.E. Church urged residents to fight for adequate housing and education for all.  Rabbi Moshe Davidowitz from Temple Sholom asked the congregation to fight for legislation to end discrimination.  Although policemen were present to direct traffic, there were no incidents of violence and the activities ended peaceably.

This was not true of the march in Selma.  Sherriff James C. Clark barred 500 black and white marchers from participating in a memorial service for Reverend Reeb.  State Troopers were staged several blocks away as backup.  KKK members were also in attendance, and several got rowdy and had to be carted away. Clark claimed the marchers would disrupt voter registration at the Courthouse.  He said the marchers were offered a municipal stadium, but had turned down the offer.  Marches and memorial services were being held all over the country.  In response, prayer vigils were held in the streets of Selma.   A federal judge intervened and filed an injunction to let the marchers proceed.

It seems only natural that clergy of all faiths would be at the forefront of the fight for Civil Rights.  They led peaceful demonstrations, and called for treating all people (regardless of color) with dignity.  Blacks should have equal rights when it came to employment, housing, education and health services.  Discrimination should no longer be tolerated.  People should be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by their individual character.  These brave men were also victims of violence;  but they stayed committed to their cause.  It's because of their efforts that conditions improved.  There is still a lot to be done, and there is no doubt people like these will be at the forefront.


The Greenwich Time

Historical Happenings

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Greenwich History
Tuesday - August 5th - 5 PM
Darby and Friends - WGCH Radio

Local History Librarian Carl White will talk about the history of
Glenville on WGCH 1490 AM radio.  Follows last month's
discussion on Byram.  The interviewer is Darby Cartun.

Cult Film - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"
Thursday - August 14th - 6 PM
Meeting Room - Greenwich Library

Librarian Ed Morrissey continues his unique and entertaining
program on historic films.  This James Bond film stars
George Lazenby, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas.  Keep posted
for future viewings!  Free program.  No registration needed.


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Although it's easier to determine the origin of the names of some parts of Town (ex. Round Hill, Stanwich and Pemberwick), this is not the case with that section of town between Belle Haven and Byram known as Chickahominy.  This is the area bounded roughly by the Post Road (West Putnam Avenue) to the north, Prospect Street to the east, the railroad to the south and the Transfer Station to the west.   If you drive down Hamilton Avenue toward Byram Shore, you run right through it.  Its landmarks include Castiglione's Funeral Home, Hamilton Avenue Deli, Express Pizza, Garden Catering, the Two Door Saloon, Hamilton Avenue School, St. Roch's Church, Armstrong Court and Bimbo Bakery.  The most widely accepted explanation for the origin of the name is that veterans of the Civil War, who fought in the famous Battle of Chickahominy, returned to the area and nicknamed the community.  



The Chickahominy River was a tributary to the famous James River in Virginia.  It runs 25-miles from northwest of Richmond to Cheseapeake Bay.  There's no town or area by this name.  Some believe Chickahominy refers to an Indian tribe that populated the area.  It's translation is "coarse ground corn people".  Both the Union and Confederate armies devised plans to use the river to surprise their enemy during the Civil War, but they were faced with many obstacles and several expeditions had little affect on the outcome. 

During the 1800s, Italian stonemasons, tailors, shoemakers came to Greenwich.  They helped build churches, schools, homes, worked on estates and tilled the soil.  Yet, they were ostracized for their differences.  Italians couldn't afford to live in other, more expensive parts of town, and settled in Chickahominy. They were preceded by the Germans and the Irish. By the 1900s, many more Italians immigrated to Greenwich, and worked in Cos Cob, North Mianus and Stamford.  Many people from Chickahominy also worked in the manufacturing factories in Port Chester.

Family was the most important thing in their lives, and many strived to earn enough money to buy homes. The Italian stonemasons built St. Roch's Church themselves around 1920. Each August they celebrate the Feast of St. Roch's with ethnic food, carnival rides and music. It's a great opportunity to celebrate their culture.  The Church is the center of their social life.

st roch033.jpg


Chickahominy is one of many diverse neighborhoods that give Greenwich its identity.  Many of its residents have contributed much in the way of public service to the Town.  Ms. Josephine Evaristo served on the RTM for many years, and constantly advocated for her community.  Our current First Selectman, Peter Tesei, grew up in Chickahominy.

It's a proud community.  The residents helped to build this Town.  Many attended Hamilton Avenue School.  Most are members of St. Roch's Church.  There is no doubt that future generations will continue to contribute to this important neighborhood as well as the rest of Greenwich.


Greenwich Magazine; Moffly Publications, Greenwich CT.

Greenwich TimeTime-Warner Corp, Greenwich CT

Ye Historie of Ye Town of Greenwich: Mead, S.; Knickerbocher Press NY, 1913

Maestro Quinto Maganini

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Greenwich was home to one of the world's most brilliant composers - Quinto Maganini.  Mr. Manganini lived in town for more than 40 years.  He was a composer, conductor, teacher, editor , and music patron.

His family immigrated from Genoa, Italy, to California during the Gold Rush of 1850.  He was born on November 30, 1897, to Joseph F. and Mary Maganini in Fairfield CA.  After attending the local elementary, middle and high schools, he attended The University of California, where he studied music.  Maganini was a gifted flute and piccollo player.  In 1916 at the age of 19, while playing in John Phillip Sousa's Band in San Francisco, he was "discovered" and accepted a position as flautist with the New York Symphony.  From 1919 to 1928, he played with the San Francisco Symphony, the New York Symphonic Orchestra and the Russian Symphony Orchestra.  He was sent to Europe from 1920 to 1929 to study music.  Quinto spent 2 years at the prestigious  Conservatoire Americain in Fontainebleau .  He also studied in Italy, Germany and England. 

In 1927, Quinto Maganini received a Pulitzer Prize in muisc for his opera titled "The Argonauts".  It was about the California Gold Rush, which his ancestors experienced when they first arrived in this country.  His work covered almost every musical field including ballet, orchestral work, choral work, symphonic band scores, solo and ensemble pieces.  He even composed music for "Romeo and Juliet".  In 1928 and 1929, he received two Guggenheim Fellowships, which allowed him to continue his studies.


Eventually, he became a guest conductor, appearing with leading orchestras in New York, Paris and San Francisco.  He also conducted the New York Sinfonietta, and founded the Maganini Chamber Symphony Orchestra.  Maganini made a nationwide tour with the latter group.  In the summer of 1938, he was alternating with two conductors in leading the New York Philharmonic in a series at Silvermine.  From 1940 to 1967, he was the conductor for the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra. 

Maganini recruited young musicians from Greenwich to play in a Youth Symphony.  He worked with such greats as Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Pearlman and Emanuel Ax.  At Columbia University in New York, he taught harmony and counterpoint in the Teacher's College.  He was also a commentator on music programs. To promote fellow composers, he played their works and published them in Edidion Musicus - a publication he founded.

One of his hobbies was the collection and restoration of paintings.  Maganini acquired a remarkable collection of old masters.  Over time he donated a number of them to museums and universities. He found some priceless Chinese murals in his 18th century Newport RI home, which he restored.   

On a personal note, Quinto married Margaretta Mason Kingsbury on May 28, 1927.  They had one child named Margaretta after the mother. According to his obituary in the Greenwich Time (3-11-1974), he had two grandchildren.  He was also president of Kingsbury, Inc. a hydroelectric machine factory.

Quinto Maganini contributed a great deal to the field of music during his lifetime.  He was not afraid to promote the work of his fellow musicians.  His willingness to work with young people was admirable.  This unselfishness shall remain his greatest legacy.


Greenwich Time

Celebrity Wedding

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If you look at the front page of the December 12, 1940 Greenwich Time (on microfilm), you'll see a photo of Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz. The famous couple came to Greenwich to get married!  Many celebrities took advantage of the fact that Connecticut had a shorter waiting time to get a marriage license compared to New York.

Lucille Ball was born in Jamestown NY in 1911.  Her family moved to Montana and Michigan due to his job.  Unfortunately, he died in 1915. Her mother remarried, but her stepfather had no use for children.  She was taken in by her mother's family.  At age 15, she enrolled in the New York Drama School.  Her teacher thought she was too shy and lacked ambition, so she left school.  By 1927, she had become a model, posing for a fashion designer and making commercials for Chesterfield cigarettes. 

In the 1930s, she headed to Hollywood, where she landed a job as one of the "12 Goldwyn Girls".  Lucy started landing various roles in such movies as "The Three Musketeers" and "Stage Door".  She would appear in 72 movies during her career.  It was on the set of the movie "Dance, Girl, Dance" that she first met her husband-to-be Desi Arnaz.




Desi Arnaz was born in 1917 to a wealthy family in Santiago, Cuba.  After a revolution, his family fled to Miami in 1933.  Desi worked for Xavier Cougart in New York City, then returned to Miami to start his own band.  It became so popular, that he returned to New York City.  Due to his new found celebrity, he was offered a role in the Broadway musical "Too Many Girls".  The musical was turned into a screenplay for RKO.  This is where Desi met Lucy.

The couple dated for six months. They were separated for a month when Desi was in New York and Lucy was in Chicago.  This must have been the turning point because they suddenly decided to get married.  Greenwich was the first town over the stateline, so they headed to Connecticut.  A Connecticut Probate Judge waived the 5-day waiting period, and they enlisted the help of Judge O'Brien to marry them. Being sentimental, the Judge insisted on taking them to the Byram River Beagle Club to get married since it was more romantic than O'Brien's house.

The Beagle Club was located at 100 Riversville Road at the intesection with Pecksland Road.  It was built in the 18th century, and bought by James McEntee Bowman in 1918.  He was the president of Bowman-Biltmore Hotels.  He remodeled the site, adding horse stables and a great restaurant.  Since foxhunting was popular at the time, he had kennels built for the hounds (beagles), and horses could be housed in the stables.  Hunters very often had lunch at the club.  From 1919 to 1933, it  was a "Speakeasy", serving illegal liquor.  Cockfighting was also held on Sundays. 

The Club was very exclusive.  Only the well-to-do were invited.  Of course, this was no problem for Desi and Lucy.   The only problem turned out to be the ring.  All the jewelry stores were closed on the weekend, so they had to buy a cheap ring at Woolworth's to use in the ceremony.  It was made of copper.  Lucy later had it coated (electroplated) with platinum.  A small reception followed.  Only an agent and manager attended the wedding.  The couple would be remarried in California in 1949 with family members present.

Desi worked to develop the television series "I Love Lucy", which ran for six years from 1951 to 1957.  It never fell below third place in the ratings.  Desi was known for being a Lothario, and the couple divorced in 1960.  Both remarried. They each pursued  their own careers, and continued to be successful.  Desi died of cancer in 1986, while Lucy died in 1989. 

Historical Happenings

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Virtual Walking Tour of Byram
Monday - June 23 - 10 AM
St. Paul Lutheran Church - Delevan Avenue - Byram

Patricia Baiardi Kantorski will speak on how Byram developed from a farming area in the 1600's to the community it is today. The slide show will start at 10 am on Monday June 23rd in the Meeting Room at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Delevan Ave., Byram. Sponsored by the Byram Shubert Library.  Parking is available in the back of the church or at the library.

Historical Happenings

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There's no shortage of historical information in Greenwich!  Today's technology provides new ways to reach out to the public.  You might want to take a look at these:

Greenwich Historical Society Newsletter

This informative newsletter provides information on interesting programs and
tidbits of historical events, prominent people, etc.  Access the website and
select the newlsetter link, or enter: as a URL.

Oral History Project Webpage

OHP maintains a website with an index of their transcripts and red books.  You can also read past blogs and e-mail the office.  Select it on our main webpage, enter the URL:

Greenwich Library Historically Speaking Blog

Take a look at this interesting local history blog.  You're bound to find some interesting article on something new.  You can also comment and add background information.  Access it through the Local History Link, under Blogs or enter this URL:

Greenwich Lawn Bowls Club

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If you've ever driven through Bruce Park, you've probably noticed a well-manicured grass plot surrounded by a white pickett fence.  On some afternoons, you might even see a group of people dressed in white clothes and straw hats congregating inside the fenced-in court.  These are members of the Greenwich Lawn Bowls Club, who have beeen engaged in this sport since 1940.

Lawn bowling is a sport that is closely related to the Italian game of bocce.  The Greenwich Time (5/12/2002) stated that a predecessor of the game may go back as far as 5200 BC!  It's believed to have been played in its modern form in Scotland and England in the late 1200s AD.  It was considered to be a popular distraction in Europe in the 1500s, and there's a legend that claims Sir Francis Drake was engaged in a game of lawn bowling before he sailed off to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588!  Many Kings apparently had their own private bowling greens.  It's been played in Connecticut since 1715, and 1723 in lower Manhattan - hence the name "Bowling Green".


Bocce and Lawn Bowling are slightly different.  The object is essentially the same:  to roll a large ball as close as possible to a target ball, while keeping your opponent away.  In Lawn Bowling, this white ball is called a "jack" or "kitty". Points are awarded based on position.  Bocce is played on a dirt alley.  Spherical brass balls are used, which tend to roll straight.  In Lawn Bowling, on the other hand, level, manicured grass courts are used.  These measure 120 feet by 120 feet.   Since the balls are asymmetrical with built in weights, and have flattened tops and bottoms, the balls tend to curve.  They are about the size of grapefruit and weigh 3-pounds each. The bowls are not heavy, and require little power to roll.  "Bowls" (balls) are black in color, and are fitted to the the player's hand. I understand there are about 9 sizes.  Some players carry them in monogrammed cases.  Interestingly, the grass changes while playing, making the bowl roll differently.  Players stand on special mats to play.  A measuring tape is used to determine distances.  Lawn Bowling can be played with up to as many as 4 people.  A game lasts about 10 minutes on average, and it's customary to play 3 games to determine the winner based on total points

I learned that the Lawn Bowling court was built in Greenwich in 1940 by George Stevenson, the head of Parks and Recreation. There have been as many as 100 members and as few as 15.  The season runs from May to October or November, depending on the first frost (Frost changes how the bowl rolls on the grass.)  Over the years, the competition has changed from daily to several times a week, the weekends being regular.  The competition begins at 1 pm and usually goes until 3 pm, but it can go on into early evening.  Occassionally, there is a "Fun Day" when non-members can come and participate in a picnic and receive lessons on bowling.  Greenwich has also been home to state and national tournaments.  These include an Irvington Memorial Tournament, a Southern Connecticut Lawn Bowlers Association Triples Tournament and the Connecticut State Fours Tournament. 


You may think such a sport couldn't generate much controversy, but this is not the case!  In 1988,  the Bayberry Mallet Club (a local croquet group) submitted a petition with 200 signatures claiming the lawn bowlers had used the court exclusively for their own sport.  They said the town favored the GLBC, and wanted the town to build more courts   Parks and Recreation Director Frank Keagan got the parties to agree to a compromise.  A strip 50-feet by 120-feet was reserved for lawn bowling, while the remaining 70-feet by 120-feet section would be used simultaneously by the croquet players.  The entire court would be reserved for croquet after 3pm, and the whole court could be used for lawn bowling tournaments.  Both groups contribute to the maintenance of the court.  The problem was solved, and the lawn bowlers and croquet players happily co-exist!

In 1995, there was another controversy over a sign that had been placed on the fence around the court.  It indicated that only members and guests of the GLBC could use the court.  This was to protect the grass.  Some local residents took exception, claiming the group had become an exclusive club. Opponents wanted to know why town funds were being used for maintenance that only benefited a small, tight group.  They argued the town maintained the the lawn bowling court just as much as the softball fields and tennis courts.  The croquet and lawn bowl players countered that they gave money to the town for maintenance.  The GLBC gave $250/year while the croquet club gave $500/year.  In fact, the croquet players gave $3500 for a new sprinkler system.   Members of the GLBC said they were not a closed, exclusive group, but welcomed new members and anyone who wanted to learn more about the sport.


I couldn't find a followup to this story, but I've noticed the sign is still on the fence in Bruce Park. I'm certain the players and town just want to protect the grass.  I'm keeping my eyes open for any players that may be using the court, and if I have any time, I may even stop to watch for a while.  It's a link to the past that has survived time.  The only thing that matters is rolling the "bowl".   As several players noted, it's great exercise, you get a lot of fresh air, and you meet a lot of nice people.


Photos by Carl White

Greenwich Time; Times-Warner Corporation, Hearst Corporation;  Various dates from 1983 to 2007. 

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