Easing into a New Century – Easton & Redding in the Early 1900’s

The first years of twentieth century saw massive and rapid changes in technologies that made American life easier by reducing the time and effort needed to do many ordinary tasks, as well as introducing new creations that vastly increased the speed of travel and communication. While many of these life improvements caught on rapidly in the cities, some took much longer to reach much of the population in rural America.

Basic Infrastructure

Most cities already had wide, relatively flat boulevards that were accommodating trolleys, horse drawn carriages and commercial delivery wagons by the time the first automobile came along. However, virtually none of Connecticut’s rural communities could claim the same. Many city streets were paved with cobblestone, and more than a few had some system of snow management in place – be it hand shoveling by teams of men to help clear the trolley tracks and railroad crossings or street rolling with horse-drawn equipment that could compress the snow enough for sleighs to easily traverse. A few electric powered trolley cars were equipped with snowplows that kept the tracks clear, while in turn, depositing much of the snow onto the surfaces where the rest of the traffic traveled – not the most efficient or effective means of snow removal. Snowplows mounted on trucks wouldn’t arrive until 1913 in New York City, and it was the early 1920’s in Chicago when snow-loaders began scooping snow onto conveyor belts that deposited it into waiting dump trucks. Rural snow removal wouldn’t arrive in towns such as Easton and Redding until sometime in the mid-1920’s.

Rivers flowing through the cities were generally spanned by bridges wide enough for opposing traffic to safely pass, but there were very few rural bridges where the same feat could be accomplished. Many of local river-crossings dated back nearly 100 years and were of the early Kings-Post Truss variety. Besides being narrow, as traffic increased in the early 1900’s, many of these structures were also in need of structural repair or complete replacement. Early drivers needed to approach bridges with caution and be willing and able to yield to opposing traffic when two vehicles reached a narrow bridge at about the same time.

A Kings-Post Truss bridge spanning the Aspetuck on Silver Hill Road looking east c.1910’s

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Easton’s population had reached a post-Revolutionary War nadir, bottoming out at 960 men, women, and children in 1900. A town that had been shrinking in size for the past fifty years certainly hadn’t been spending any more than what had been absolutely necessary to maintain its roads and bridges. Redding was faring a bit better, especially during the first ten years of the twentieth century when wealthy New Yorkers were scooping up property and creating luxurious summer homes.

At the turn of the century, road maintenance was done mostly by the folks who used them. The selectmen would reimburse men who laid out money for bridge timbers or who hauled wagon loads of gravel to fill and smooth the worst ruts of the town’s muddiest sections of roads, but prior to about 1910, maintaining the town byways was not a heavily budgeted expense. As automobile traffic began to increase, the State of Connecticut took control over some of the local roads, made significant improvements to parts of them, and then appropriated funds for the towns to maintain them.

With only the major thoroughfares such as Black Rock Turnpike and Sport Hill Road being covered with the relatively hard surface that macadam provided, the rest of Easton’s roads became virtual quagmires during the spring when the frozen ground below prevented melting snow and early spring rains from penetrating the surface. As late as the mid-1920’s, newspaper accounts of buses bound from Bridgeport to the end of the Easton route at post office told of drivers abandoning the route on Center Road when the mud became too deep for vehicles to maintain momentum. As the State slowly improved area roads, it brought in its own rock crushers to produce the gravel needed to build a solid enough base to withstand the changes that the seasons ushered in.

Center Road would have looked very much like this during the Spring Thaw. Note: The driver of this 1911 Packard is prepared, with 3 spare tires and a full canvas set to keep the weather out!!!

Redding’s state controlled roads became entangled in a seemingly endless discussions between town officials and the then State Highway Commissioner James H. MacDonald who made a practice of promising one thing and then delivering something entirely different. Much to the consternation of Redding’s selectmen, in 1912 the State of Connecticut allocated no money to complete repairs on Lonetown Road and Putnam Park Road. However, in early 1913, MacDonald’s department awarded a contract to build a new road from Redding Center to Georgetown at a cost of nearly $30,000. Meanwhile, the upper section of Lonetown near the Bethel town line had become virtually impassable. Redding argued that the State had already approved the Lonetown and Putnam Park Road projects some two years earlier and because those roads carried ten times the traffic that the Georgetown Road would, they should be completed first. It didn’t matter, it took until June of that year for the Lonetown Road project to even resume. The Putnam Park project would need to wait another year.

It’s easy to understand why it took rural communities such as Easton and Redding almost two full decades to fully embrace the automobile. Besides the horrible roads, the automobile was considered too expensive for many of the community’s farmers to purchase. Additionally, the automobile wasn’t yet considered a reliable year-round mode of transportation. Add to that the unavailability of local gasoline prior to WWI and one can easily see why the horse and wagon remained the mainstay of local transportation well into the 1920’s.

Telephones

The telephone was one of the earliest miracles of the modern world to show up in many Easton and Redding homes. Redding’s lines were barely strung when there were complaints from early subscribers who had relied on company promises that service to Danbury and Georgetown would be included in their monthly bills. When service began, it was discovered that any call to a Danbury number would incur a ten-cent surcharge and that Georgetown had been placed on the Ridgefield exchange. In addition, Southern New England Telephone was slow to rectify the frequent interruptions in service. In July of 1912, the company purchased a cottage from Milo Osborn on Cross Highway and then gave Redding its own exchange. It was still costly to call neighboring towns, but at least the service was improved. Unlike Redding next door, Easton never got its own telephone exchange, but rather it shared telephone services with nearby neighbors such as Trumbull and Monroe. The first lines were strung sometime in the early 1900’s with crews from Southern New England coming to town to install poles and wires while rooming in various homes nearby. Many homes in both towns had telephone service a full twenty years before they were electrified.

Typical SNET pole and line installation crew in 1902. I get the dog, but I’m not so sure about that goat

Electricity

Thomas Edison may have come up with a viable incandescent light bulb in 1879, and many cities in the United States were stringing electrical transmission lines to provide both commercial and residential buildings with power throughout the last decade of the nineteenth century, but rural America was still decades away from reaping the rewards of the electric age.

Most early power plants weren’t connected to a distribution system that could maitain a constant level of voltage for much more than four or five miles from its source. The standard 2300-volt distribution systems used in most cities needed to be increased to over 7000 volts if the power was to remain constant for delivery up to thirty or forty miles from its origination point. The cost of doing this was high enough that many early power companies didn’t even make the effort to sign up customers more than a few miles from their generation plants.

The Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority wasn’t established until 1911. Prior to that, utility companies were free to do as they pleased. But as the century’s second decade progressed, the demand for electric power outside the larger cities grew. The first power lines into Easton arrived sometime late in the decade but only supplied electricity along the main roads. Residents living on side roads could receive power, but only if there were enough customers to make it profitable for the provider, or if the ones who wanted electricity were willing to pay for the installation of the poles to get power to their homes. With the exception of the Georgetown district, most of Redding was still without electrical service well into the early 1920’s or beyond.

Few homes or farms in the remotest sections of both towns would see electric power before sometime in the 1930’s after the Roosevelt administration had persuaded Congress to pass the Rural Electrification Act. That legislation provided relief to the power companies that allowed them to install poles and string lines to most of the rural areas that had gone unserved.

But the lack of electric power didn’t completely deter those who wanted some of the modern conveniences that electric lines could bring to life.

Lighting

Acetylene generators could provide an abundant source of gas to illuminate the largest of homes. In 1908, Samuel Clemens installed an acetylene system at his Stormfield Estate in Redding that could power one-hundred lights. In Georgetown, the Gilbert Memorial Church had its own generator and a photograph of the building appeared in national advertisements by the generator’s manufacturer.

The J.B. Colt Company featured the Gilbert Memorial Church in Georgetown in a 1902 advertisement for their acetylene gas generator.

While these generators varied in size depending upon the requirements of the home, the most commonly used setups were about the size of an electric water heater that we would see in a home of today. One of the most popular machines was produced by the J.B. Colt Company, and it was not unusual to find an early 1900’s unit still in use as late as the 1950’s in some rural homes. The main generator looked eerily similar to the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz.

The Costume designer on the Wizard of Oz must have had one of these in his childhood home. Can someone please give the poor Tin Man a squirt of oil?

While sometimes placed in the basement, most acetylene generators were usually located outside the home, often in a small shed, since gas leaks and possible explosions were constant hazards. Calcium Carbide pellets were placed in a container on top of the machine. Water was piped into the container and then allowed to drip onto the pellets, which then produced an acetylene gas.  This gas was first piped into a storage tank and then distributed to the lighting fixtures inside the home, where it burned, creating a bright light. This process proved inexpensive and provided just as much light as any electrified home could produce.

Refrigeration

No matter where a family resided, electric refrigeration was never widely used before the start of WWI. It simply wasn’t reliable. Ice houses were filled during the winter months outside many rural homes, and ice was sold and delivered on a route basis in every city. Many of Easton and Redding’s larger residences had ice houses that were filled to capacity by cutting the ice on area ponds during the late winter, providing enough ice throughout the year to keep a few perishables from spoiling before they could be consumed.

But there was another option as well. The National Electric Products Company was founded by Colonel William McCurdy in 1922. The company specialized in manufacturing refrigerators and soon changed the corporate name to “Servel” – the first six letters (four and two) taken from their two-word slogan, “Serving Electricity.” But the electric refrigerator market was limited to those urban areas where electricity was readily available. That left a good deal of America unserved.

In 1925, the company purchased the American rights to Swedish company Electrolux’s patent for a continuous absorption refrigerator that could be powered by either natural gas or kerosene. The new model was introduced to consumers in 1926. Servel quickly became the dominate player in the gas refrigeration market, and the predominant fuel of choice was the more readily available and portable kerosene in the rural markets they served.

In the 1930’s, the Servel sales representative brought the display right to the customer’s doorstep.

In contrast to their much larger competitors such as General Electric and Frigidaire, Servel products never held more than a 10 percent share of the home refrigeration market. But Servel was the only company that used the kerosene-powered ammonia absorption technology that could operate with absolutely no electricity. Additionally, it contained absolutely no moving parts, making it an extremely reliable appliance.

Refrigeration without electricity.

Many rural homes and farms also used kerosene to heat the living spaces in lieu of constantly feeding fireplaces or wood stoves with logs that made keeping the family warm much more labor intensive. By the turn of the century, many kitchens also were using kerosene to produce flames in the oven and the open burners above. Many homes had kerosene tanks that sat two to four feet above the surface of the woodshed floor that could provide a gravity feed to pipes that would deliver the flammable liquid to the appliances that used it as a fuel source.

Gasoline Powered Engines

There were several manufacturers of gasoline powered engines that many farmers relied upon as a source of power for a variety of labor-saving jobs. In Easton, Gillette Tucker & Company sold the Fairbanks-Morse brand. These single cylinder engines could provide power for water pumps, saws, electric producing generators, hay balers, an apparatus that could strip corn kernels from the cob, and they could even provide power to early mechanical washing machines. A large flywheel would have a leather strap around it that would then connect to the machine that needed powering. While fairly noisy when in operation, these engines made life much easier for those who owned one. Theses engines were generally small enough that two men could pick one up and carry it to where it was needed.

Gillette Tucker & Company sold Fairbanks-Morse gasoline engines in Easton

These engines were extremely prevalent between 1910 and 1930. A few of the larger engine manufacturers were Stover, Hercules, International Harvester (McCormick Deering), John Deere, as well as Fairbanks-Morse.

Colloquially known as “one-lungers,” these one-cylinder engines produced a distinct “pop, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, pop” sound, and were also known as “hit-or-miss.” They were controlled by a governor to keep them operating at a constant speed. The latter moniker is a result of the speed control used on these engines. They were designed to fire, or “hit,” only when operating at or below a set speed, and to cycle without firing, or “miss”, if they exceeded their pre-set speed. These engines were equipped with magnetos that produced an electric spark that ignited the gasoline.

A farmer’s best friend in 1930’s Easton.

So, by the time the 1930’s were in full swing, Easton and Redding were pretty well caught up with the rest of Fairfield County, and most of their residents were gathering around the radio in the living room listening to FDR’s fireside chats; filling up their Model-A Fords with gasoline virtually anywhere where groceries were sold; and teaching grandma how to adjust the temperature control on the Kelvinator so that the milk didn’t freeze in that new fridge in the kitchen.

Much of the information for this article was gleaned from early editions of the Newtown Bee and the Bridgeport Evening Farmer between 1900 and 1917, and the Bridgeport Telegram between 1923 and 1934.

Note: Hit or miss engines are quite collectible today, often fetching five figure prices at auction. Collectors even hold “meets” where they will bring their engines, hook them up to antique machinery, and demonstrate exactly what they could accomplish back in the day. The Connecticut Antique Machinery Association holds a three-day event in Kent on an annual basis the last full weekend in September. 2021 CAMA Fall Festival | The Connecticut Antique Machinery Association – Welcomes You! | Jim Anderson, CAMA webmaster (ctamachinery.com)

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