A Grave Tale

It was Saturday morning, October 27, 1951. With clipboards listing the names and addresses of all of Easton’s middle and high school students, a group of women began shuttling children to the Gilbertown Cemetery. No, this was not a case of the Sanderson Sisters of Easton.  These were the ladies of the Garden Club, and they were gathering all of the students from upper grades on a Saturday when they were at home. You must remember that this was several years before Barlow opened in 1959 and many of our town’s high schoolers would be in Bridgeport, Newtown or Fairfield during the week.  On this particular Saturday morning, over 100 youngsters were in the hands of the Garden Club.

Why did these women want the students at the cemetery?  Why October 27th? Ostensibly, it was for an event to honor Samuel Staples, the 18th century charter member of the North Fairfield parish who famously set aside a portion of his estate to establish a school of higher learning free to those who could not afford to attend. Though the intention of this assembly was a tribute, the event was also a rather clever attempt at influencing the behavior of mischievous children.  

Apart from the war years, Halloween night has always been a time filled with numerous pranks.  By 1947, tricksters dressed like ghosts, witches and hobgoblins were once again reigning throughout Fairfield County.  Fueled with the renewed abundance of candy after the war rationing of sugar had ended, the most common child prank was writing on windows in soap.  Sometimes wax was used, and this was particularly hard to clean-up the next morning, but all-in-all, it was relatively benign. 

Children soaping windows as a Halloween Trick.

In Easton, as in many cities and towns across the country, traditional window soaping wasn’t as troubling as vandalism. It was so concerning that by 1950 Police Chief Oscar Svihra had to increase patrols with auxiliary officers throughout Halloween week.  On residential streets, porch pumpkins were damaged, apples were thrown breaking windows and lights, mailboxes were filled with firecrackers and even flagpoles were broken.  Incidents of trespassing into empty houses and stealing street signs were a worrisome trend for the authorities considering the potential for accidents.  In one instance, five boys were found on Center Road rearranging the chairs of a house-on its roof!  And we thought the recent “devious licks” Tiktok trend was bad?  Even more unsettling, in 1949 a group of boys dragged a log across Banks Road leading unsuspecting drivers to think they hit a body.  Miraculously, no one and no car was seriously injured in that prank.

Police called upon everyone in town to keep watch and to alert them of suspicious activity, but most of all, they encouraged parents to caution their children that the destruction of property and injuries could have serious consequences including juvenile court records.  They stressed that not only was it a hardship for many to repair the damage, but there was also a sense, as described by Chief Svihra, of a “moral loss” for the whole community as these crimes transgressed our shared ethical values.

It is not a coincidence that at this same time the principal and faculty of Samuel Staples School felt the need to add elements of “Citizen Education” to the curriculum in the hope of helping students understand the principles of democracy and to develop a better sense of moral behavior. Both the police and the Red Cross visited classrooms to emphasize aspects of safety and they stressed the importance of parental involvement.  

Halloween Birthday Party, 1950’s. (Special thanks to Glenn Govertsen.)

As a result, families hosted parties where they could supervise the children and volunteer organizations sponsored a Halloween Block Party on the green across from Halzack’s and what is now the Easton EMS building. There were costume contests with cash prizes and wholesome games along with special food and music intended to keep the young focused on acceptable activities much like our current Trunk-or-Treat. The year 1951 was particularly significant as the first year Trick-or-Treating was given a nationwide humanitarian purpose with UNICEF’s collection boxes distributed throughout schools.

Children proudly displaying their UNICEF Trick or Treat change boxes.

Begun in Philadelphia just the year before, many children in our town joined in to collect change to feed hungry children around the world.  

Halloween Party in 1950’s Easton. (Special thanks to Glenn Govertsen.)

Undoubtably, the majority of Easton’s kids were simply enjoying good holiday fun, but troublesome behavior seems to have continued among some of the older teenagers in town. As such, the mothers and grandmothers of the Easton Garden Club decided to take initiative and craft a civics lesson just for this demographic. They took it upon themselves to lobby Easton’s Town Hall for a Samuel Staples Day to be held on October 27th.  Now, if you are wondering, that date does not really seem to have any significance for this historic figure. No October date stands out in his life, death, or philanthropic legacy.  There are two features however, that made him a relevant figure for our town’s Halloween week: he embodied the moral character Eastonites hoped to cultivate in their children, and quite obviously, he was dead.  

Samuel Staples tombstone as photographed in 1951.

When all the young people were assembled that morning in the cemetery, town officials commenced an impressive graveside ceremony honoring Samuel Staples as a founding father. Acknowledging his dedication and community service that continued long after his passing in 1787, they dubbed the date Samuel Staples Day for perpetuity.  The Selectmen were joined by the board members of the Staples Free School Fund along with many of the past recipients of its scholarships.  Their presence was important as they were living witnesses not much older than the students in attendance, and they were there to pay respect to a man whose generosity allowed them to attend college.  It was a superbly crafted message as to the potential awards for good behavior as well as the positive legacy one can leave behind for centuries.

Anyone at this event who might have had some antics in mind for that Halloween week were not only surrounded by distinguished adults praising the deceased for his beneficence, but they were standing in a literal example of how civic mindedness can have a transformative effect on our world. From a neglected graveyard, the ladies of the Garden Club turned Gilbertown Cemetery into a dignified sanctuary.  

Mrs. Franklin Hubbell and Mrs. Charles Rauschkolb planting one of eight white dogwood trees along the stone wall of Gilbertown Cemetery, 1951.

This ceremony was the culmination of a three-year beautification program begun by the group in 1949 with the women raising money to level headstones and to clear overgrown weeds.  Working with volunteers from the Easton 4-H Club and the local Boy Scout troops, they planted ornamental trees along the stone walls and had hand-hewn logs installed as stairs along the steep roadside for safe access. A sundial was placed within a park-like setting of flower beds and a metal enclosure was installed around the grave of Samuel Staples.  This last feature can still be seen today.

Mrs. Frank Stevens with her son Frank Jr. at the grave of Samuel Staples, 1951.

For the ladies of the club, Staples was more than a famous figure.  His life conveyed a message of duty that really resonated with them. They were not long removed from the hardships of the war years and many members served in the Civil Defense League, the Red Cross and the League of Women Voters. After the war, they channeled their energies into the betterment of our town.  Through their initiatives, they highlighted local history and the need for preservation decades before we had our own historical society or cemetery committee.  

By establishing a Samuel Staples Day and arranging this field trip, they clearly wanted to impress upon Easton’s future generations the importance of charity and responsibility.  For a time, it seemed that they succeeded. Despite years of increasing reports of trouble around Halloween, for 1951 at least, Chief Svihra and his staff enjoyed a week of remarkably quiet evenings.

Are you still waiting for the scary part of this tale? Wait, more frightening than teenagers having to wake up early for an assembly on a Saturday morning? Yes, well, there is a rumor whispered amongst the old timers in town that after that long day, the women of the Easton Garden Club had to drive all those teenagers back home again.  They most certainly had some magic after all!

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