The Family Tressler

Easton Front Porch

The idea that you’re free if you buy everything that’s marketed to you is absurd. You’ve become free only when you begin to choose. Take it – or leave it. That’s our freedom, that’s real freedom. — Wendell Berry

I first found out about the Tressler family after hearing Dan play at Greiser’s Coffee and Market. Like the rest of the crowd, I was impressed by Dan’s musical ability. Whichever song he played, whether on mandolin, guitar, banjo or fiddle, Dan transitioned between instruments and songs with such confidence and ease. My husband and I knew we were in the presence of an extraordinarily talented individual.

After hearing Dan perform several times and listening to bits and pieces about his upbringing in Easton and his father Will’s legacy, I decided to pursue a story about the Tressler family. Once I began talking with Dan, the many layers of music, exploration and adventure began to unfold faster than I could keep up, leaving me with the task of how to shape my story. There are certain individuals who are able to weave such extraordinary lives through ordinary work and tasks, which best describes the Tressler family.

Music, along with a strong work ethic, has been a part of the Tressler family for several generations. Wilfred Tressler (Dan’s Father), son of Donald and Ella Tressler, was born in Gloucester, Mass, where Will’s father was the head of the Birdseye laboratory. When Will was four years old, his parents moved to Geneva, N.Y., where Will’s father was offered the position of Head of the Chemistry Department at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station. In Geneva, Will’s father cofounded the Institute of Food Technologies, which later became an international organization. At an early age, Will joined the church choir and took piano lessons.

Donald Tressler later went on to work for GE, moving his family to Westport Conn., where he eventually created his own business “Donald K Tressler and Associates, Consulting Food Technologists.” Will described moving to Westport from Geneva as a “culture shock.” He joined a young person’s fellowship group in order to make friends and attended his first square dance with the group in Weston. From that point on, he was hooked on folk music.

Will graduated from Staples High School in Westport in 1948. During high school, he learned to play sousaphone and squeeze box. Following high school, he received a bachelors degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1952, where he also created magnificent drawings and sculptures, learned to play the banjo and started a square dance club. After college, Will joined the Coast Guard and met his first wife Barbara. They lived in Westport, Denmark and moved back to Westport again, when Will accepted a position as a Professor of Industrial Design at University of Bridgeport and became president of AVI Publishing in Westport, his father Donald’s publishing company.

In search of a larger home, Will purchased a three acre farm in Easton in 1961, which included a 150-year-old historic farm house and barn that he restored to its original character. Will still made time for music and square dances and joined The Jackson Pike Skifflers, named after the Jackson Pike, the main road that ran through Easton, currently known as Sport Hill Road.

The following year, Will attended the Easton Memorial Day parade where he first heard the Easton Banjo Society playing on a float that was pulled by a tractor. When the parade was over, he inquired about becoming a member. They gladly accepted Will, especially since he played a five string banjo, which wasn’t that common.

After separating from Barbara, and having been single for several years, Will met Katie McCann at one of his Barn concerts. She played guitar and had a singing voice that, “touched his soul.” Upon his return from a sabbatical from his teaching position at University of Bridgeport and traveling around Europe, Will and Katie were married in 1972. Katie, was born into a musical family as well. Her father was the choir director at St. James Catholic Church in Stratford, Conn. where Katie was also a member of the choir. Katie’s brother, Peter McCann, was a songwriter in Nashville receiving two Gold Records in his lifetime.

The same year Will met Katie (1969), and as a permanent member of both the Easton Banjo Society and the Jackson Pike Skifflers, Will approached the town of Easton with a proposal to build a gazebo to house musical bands for outdoor concerts. The request reflected Will’s love of music, which he wanted to share with members of the community. The gazebo was rejected, but was finally accepted and built in 2009 and sits on the lawn at the Easton Community Center.

Will and Katie were married in 1972, and Katie joined the Jackson Pike Skifflers playing stand up bass. They both became very involved in volunteering their time to the town. As a registered nurse, Katie became a member of the Easton Commission on Aging, and Will was involved in the formation of the Easton Agricultural Commission and the Morehouse Road Farming Initiative on municipal land. He also served as the architectural preservation adviser for the Historical Society of Easton and restored many barns and houses around town. Bill Tustian, former owner of the Easton Village Store, asked Will to redesign the Easton Village Store, which was rejected by the town Zoning and Planning Commission. Will also served as president for Citizens for Easton, a group formed to preserve Easton’s farms, open space and rural charm.

Will and Katie had two children, Sally and Dan, who also joined the Skifflers at a young age. Sally played flute, while Dan played fiddle. Both Sally and Dan became successful musicians as a result and have played with many bands and area musicians. Sally, became interested in traditional Irish music as an undergraduate student at Brown University. She met her husband while living in Ireland in 1999 on an independent research grant, and they later married in 2003. Damien is an All-Ireland button accordionist and fiddler, with many original compositions, two albums, and an accordion tutor book under his belt.

Sally and Damien have been performing more frequently in the Fairfield County area with their children: Colman on piano keyboard, Tiernan on tin whistle and bodhran (Irish drum), Clara on tin whistle (also studying the Irish harp), and Tristan on button accordion. The month of March is packed with performances ranging from libraries and private parties to pubs and ceili dances. When they are not performing on-stage, Sally works as a speech pathologist and physician liaison for Family Care Visiting Nurse. Damien has been at Lauralton Hall in Milford for over 16 years and is currently the chair of the Religion Department, theology teacher and interim campus minister.

Colman and Tiernan have placed first in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic Fleadh competition with their respective Pearl River Ceili Bands, and Colman went on to win third place in the Accompaniment competition at the 2016 All-Ireland in Ennis, County Clare. Colman also loves singing as well as laying down bass, guitar, and drum tracks in his new basement recording studio. Tiernan is a kit drummer in the Tomlinson Middle School Jazz Band and is looking forward to playing the lead of Evan Goldman in the TMS Drama Club production of 13: The Musical from April 3-5th.

And then there’s Dan. What’s most notable to me as I’ve gotten to know Dan is that he possesses his father’s conviction to only pursue things that “touch his soul.” First, there’s music, which seems to be Dan’s true love. Dan learned to play fiddle at age seven. He always played in the family’s various bands enjoying music throughout his childhood, particularly the large barn concerts at his Easton home, which included folk legend Pete Seeger. He continues to play with many musicians, including his bands String Fingers and Amber Anchor and plays private party venues on his own. On occasion, he keeps up the tradition of the Tressler barn concert, but on a much smaller scale.

Another love that Dan developed early on and shared with his dad is dry stone wall building and preservation, a skill that he learned from his father at about the same age he learned to play fiddle. He and his dad built walls, a patio and other structures around their yard. Preserving historical stone walls, Dan’s daytime business, encompasses his childhood dreams combining sculpture, functional art and archeology. When talking about wall restoration, Dan explained that there’s a story to each wall in the way it’s built and how the stones are placed.

He added, “You never know what you are going to find inside these walls.” Dan builds new walls and restores old ones, sometimes over 200 years old. He works throughout Connecticut, and is able to restore a wall to its original beauty just as his father Will was able to restore historical barns and houses to their original form. In 1992, Dan helped his father dismantle the historic Tammany’s feed store piece by piece, when they heard it was going to be torn down and rebuilt it on their Easton property. Dan also has a keen artistic eye that comes through in his panoramic photographs of natural landscapes.

“So what do building stone walls and playing folk music have in common?” I asked. “They are all about preservation of culture, history, family and community,” he replied. Through Dan’s words, it is quite obvious that Will’s love for family, community, historic preservation and music has been passed down intact and embraced by his children and grandchildren.

As an ethnographer, I feel fortunate to have had a glimpse into the Tressler family through my conversations with Dan and by reading Will’s memoir Start-Ups, Setbacks, Surprises. Strategies, Solutions & Success, housed at the Easton Library. The Tressler family has surely been and continues to be an important piece of the fabric that has made Easton what it is today.

The many musical venues that Will has played include the White House, Lincoln Center, the Great Hudson River Revival concerts with Pete Seeger, the Bridgeport Rescue Mission as part of a gospel music ministry, Christ Church of Easton for the annual Christmas concert/fundraiser, and the Tressler Barn in Easton, home to many concerts and hootenannies. Katie and Will were married for 38 years at the time of Will’s passing in 2012 (RIP). Katie and Dan still reside in their Easton home.

For more information on Dan Tressler’s Stone Wall Restoration or to hire Dan to play for a private event you may contact him at providesound@gmail.com, or text him at 2032587399.

I would like to thank Dan, Sally and Katie for their time and Will for his memoir and pictures.

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