The Spinning Wheel Inn – The Tottle Years, 1925-1972

Exactly when the original building that houses the Spinning Wheel Inn on the Black Rock Turnpike in Redding was constructed is a mystery that will never be solved with any degree of certainty. The 1748 date quoted by founder Elaine D. Tottle is likely a bit early but given that the structure we see there today is a reconstruction with multiple alterations, 1748 is likely close enough.

Legend has it that the building’s owner in the middle of the nineteenth century was a congenial chap named Bradley Burr. During Burr’s tenure, the building served as a stop for the thrice weekly stagecoach run between Norwalk and Danbury. Described in a 1941 account from the Redding Historical Society’s Landmarks File as a colorfully dressed man known for wearing a white stovepipe hat, Burr could have hosted passengers while the teamsters switched out the four-horse team for fresher steeds to continue the journey. Whether he served food and drink or also worked as a driver of the stagecoach has long been a subject of conjecture. The legends are many, the facts are few.

Upon his death in 1868, the property went to Bradley’s son, William Henry Burr. William lived there until he sold the property to children’s author Amy Ella Blanchard and her life-partner, artist and illustrator Ida Waugh, in the early 1900’s. Blanchard didn’t commit herself to full-time writing until she was 34. She had written verses for Waugh’s picture books earlier and in the early 1890’s decided to try her hand at authoring her own works. Once she began, she worked non-stop, writing over 70 books for girls from age six to eighteen, many illustrated by Waugh. The pair split their time between their residences in New York City, Redding, and two side-by-side summer cottages on Bailey’s Island, Maine. The Ridge was somewhat of an enclave for women authors during the first twenty years of the 20th century, so Blanchard and Waugh fit right in. They owned the Redding house for over a dozen years. Blanchard sold the property to Doctor Alfred Cohn sometime in the mid to late 19-teens. Doctor Cohn liked the house, but not the noise from the Black Rock Turnpike as vehicular traffic increased during the early 1920’s.

Elaine Gore married Morton P. Tottle in 1905 in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1909, their only son, William Alexander Tottle was born. Morton worked as the vice president of his family’s business, William A. Tottle & Company, Inc, a manufacturer of brushes in Baltimore. Upon the death of his father in 1916, he assumed the office of president. In 1924, Elaine and Morton divorced.

The following year, Elaine visited her sister, Jessie S. Frost, who maintained a summer home on the Ridge with her husband Aaron V. Frost, a successful 5th Avenue jeweler in New York City. Elaine quickly decided that Redding would be an ideal place to live. She came upon the old Burr property while searching for an old home on a busy thoroughfare that could be converted into a country teahouse and inn. After purchasing it from Doctor Cohn, she added a kitchen at the southwest corner of the house. The main level consisted of four rooms surrounding a large center chimney. Tottle would make the two larger rooms at the front of the house into the dining rooms for her new venture.

Her plan was to operate the inn only during the months of summer – just like the Ridgewold Inn about a mile north on the highway that occupied the Sanford School during those months when classes were not in session. In 1925, there were two other seasonal operations on the Ridge that also served food to travelers making the journey between Fairfield and Danbury. One was a tearoom just to the north of the Ridgewold and the other about a half-mile further north just beyond the five-corners, aptly named “A Bend in the Road.”

Postal card showing the interior of the original main dining room of the Spinning Wheel Inn circa 1936.

On opening day in the spring of 1925, Tottle served a total of 28 guests. Although a complete novice in the restaurant business, her reputation for having only “the finest American cooking,” was soon established. The business grew and thrived throughout the latter half of the decade when Prohibition made serving alcohol a crime. While many dining establishments served bootlegged liquor in defiance of the law, Elaine Tottle did not. As a Christian Scientist, she would refrain from selling alcohol as long as she maintained control of her inn, even advertising “No Liquor Served” in all of the inn’s promotional material. Mrs. Tottle felt the restaurant maintained a better atmosphere by maintaining its “dry” status. Those who preferred to drink could have a cocktail at home and save a little money before having dinner at the Spinning Wheel.

William Alexander Tottle in 1928

In 1927, Mrs. Tottle authorized the construction the first of two residences that sit to the south of the house. The first one was for her and her son who was set to graduate in June of 1928 from the Manlius School, a military prep school in upstate New York. William had made the decision to forgo attending college to take a position in finance but soon decided to join his mother in managing the restaurant. The second residence built about a year later was initially occupied by some of the live-in help.

1936. The original building with only the kitchen and dining porches added.

In 1927, a small gift shop was added, using a portion of one of the rooms on the main level. It was so successful that Mrs. Tottle built an addition to the main structure c.1938 that would be a dedicated space for the shop. Entrance to the main dining area was then through the gift shop, a move that no doubt increased that part of the operation’s revenue. At the same time, a larger addition was added to the north end of the main building that was designed to accommodate enough guests so that weddings, award dinners, and other large events could be held at the Spinning Wheel without interrupting the inn’s routine lunch and dinner service.

1938 Postal Card showing the banquet room to the north and the new gift shop to the south.

The outbreak of WWII saw a dramatic decline in business at the Spinning Wheel. With gasoline being rationed, getting to the restaurant became a burden that most of the inn’s customers couldn’t overcome. A good portion of those customers came from points south – Bridgeport, Fairfield, and Westport. The thirty-mile round trip would require more than a gallon of gasoline in even the most efficient machines of the day. With most people limited to about four gallons per week, dining out in the country was no longer an option. Additionally, most of the inn’s seasonal employees lived outside of Redding and it had been Mrs, Tottle’s practice to have someone drive north to Bethel to pick up many of the teen-aged girls who worked as waitresses and transport them to and from work.

It was time to alter the business plan for the duration of the war. It began with the Elaine leasing the old Tide Mill at 95 Harbor Road in Southport. There, a new Spinning Wheel Inn would emerge. It was close enough for most of their established customers to make the trip either by automobile or by public transportation that was only a block away to the north. Like the inn in Redding, the Southport venue did not serve alcohol and was in operation six days a week, closed only on Mondays. Elaine would run the new venture while her son William was off serving his country. The Redding restaurant was shuttered, not to be reopened until after the war.

1948. The Southport Spinning Wheel Inn at 95 Harbor Road, the Tide MIll dates back to 1712 and is still used today as an office building

The Southport location thrived and after the war when William was discharged from the Army, the Tottle’s reopened the Redding inn, making the decision to operate both. Somehow it worked and keeping the Southport operation proved to be a wise decision.

On Monday, September 27, 1948, the Redding inn burned to the ground. All that was left standing were the two chimneys, the south wall and part of the new gift shop. The main structure – the original part of the building – and the newer wing on the northern end of the inn were leveled by the flames.

The fire had been reported around 11PM by Mrs. Marcus Burr who resided across the road. A total of five fire companies from Redding, Easton, Georgetown, Bethel and Danbury all responded, but with a lack of water, once their trucks were empty, they were in no position to save the restaurant. Damage was estimated at between $75,000 and $100,000, amounts that were only partially covered by insurance. The Tottle’s vowed to rebuild.

Bridgeport Post photo taken on Tuesday September 28, 1948 after the fire. Photo looking north to south.

The building was painstaking rebuilt the following year using timbers and lumber reclaimed from several old barns that contractor George Banks had located in Vermont. The chimneys were repointed, and the original six-foot stone lintel was salvaged. The rebuilt structure looked similar to the one it had replaced but gone were the front dormers and the new façade featured the look of a story and a half colonial house with shorter windows on the second floor. Inside, a stranger to the building would have thought it to be two hundred years old. Elaine Tottle, with the help of her lifelong friend and gift shop manager Edith Hiss, had restored the magic that her clientele was accustomed to.

Outside, new gardens were planted. The few sweeping old maples that had managed to survive the fire were trimmed, while the ones that had been too badly burned to thrive were removed. A new cutting garden was available to provide the fresh floral arrangements that guests of the inn had come to expect. The caretaker and his young family lived into one of the houses by the parking lot. His name was Lloyd Burritt. In addition to his job of maintaining the property and its grounds, he was tasked with staffing the establishment with valet attendants to park the patrons’ automobiles.

Cover of 1951 menu showing the rebuilt inn

Marion Zuzalock was just sixteen years old in the spring of 1951. Her very first job would be working for Elaine and Bill Tottle at the Spinning Wheel in Redding when it opened for the summer season in early May. Marion lived in Bethel and recalls her father driving her to the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Route 58 where fellow waitress Joy Standish would pick up her and three other high school aged teenagers for the trip to the Spinning Wheel. Young women like Marion could work as waitresses at the Spinning Wheel because it didn’t serve alcohol.

In 1951 Marion Zuzalock worked at the inn as a waitress at the age of only 16.

Marion recalls Mrs. Tottle as a large well-dressed woman of an imposing nature who allowed her hostesses to manage the waitstaff. The young women wore pinafore dresses and white blouses. While waiting to be summoned to the main floor for table duty, they gathered in a large room in the lower-level walkout basement where they would play “set back.” They received a meal as part of their compensation, and while Marion couldn’t recall what their hourly pay was, she does remember it as being quite meager, most of what she earned was through tips. In 1951, waitresses at the inn also bussed their own tables, so they were kept rather busy during dinner service. According to Marion, the two busiest nights were Thursday’s Country Supper and Friday’s Mariner’s Supper. On both nights, the specials sold for $2.25 – an all-inclusive meal that included appetizers and a dessert!

1951 Spinning Wheel luncheon menu
1951 Spinning Wheel dinner menu

Lloyd Cutsumpas had just graduated from Danbury High School when he was hired to park cars at the Spinning Wheel for the summer of 1951. His required attire consisted of neatly pressed slacks, a white shirt, and a chauffeur’s cap. He was also picked up and driven to Redding by a member of the inn’s waitstaff. According to Lloyd, his driver was, “an old woman – probably in her 20’s.” Age is relative when you are 18.

“I essentially worked for tips…quarters and half dollars…rarely folding money,

Thursday was a big dinner night…one regular guest always tipped me one dime.

“My work-station was in a small, shed type building on the left corner of the parking lot. I had a chair and small radio to listen to music as I waited for guests to arrive. I would greet the guests and park their cars in the gravel parking lot to the left of the main building.”

1951 Lloyd Cutsumpas worked at the inn as a valet parking attendant

Lloyd remembrance of Mrs. Tottle: “I best remember Elaine Tottle by a line from the My Fair Lady song, ‘I’m an Ordinary Man.’ Her persona matched that of ‘a large Wagnerian mother.’

“She was an elegantly dressed woman who was quietly successful…no sign of a husband. Her son Bill was also large in stature… a handsome man with a comely wife.”

Not all of the Spinning Wheel’s help was imported from area towns. Many of young Redding residents also had their first work experience courtesy of the Tottle’s. Shirley Gardner had just completed her freshman year at Danbury State Teachers College in the spring of 1951 when she waited tables at the Spinning Wheel alongside Marion Zuzalock . Shirley lived less than a half mile north of the inn on Black Rock Turnpike and could easily walk to work.

Shirley Gardner, future Redding educator, worked at the Spinning Wheel during the 1951 season.

Shirley Gardner would graduate with a degree in Elementary Education in 1954 and then begin a long career as a teacher in the Redding School system. She married Edward Peknik and today, she lives in the same house that she grew up in. Lloyd Cutsumpas would enter UConn that fall and after graduating in 1955, he would attend law school before returning to Danbury to practice law. Today, the 88-year-old jurist is still active, serving as a Judge Trail Referee for the Superior Court. Marion Zuzalock would go on to study at UConn two years later and then marry Ronald Smith before becoming a successful real estate agent.

After wrapping up the 1951 season at Thanksgiving with the inn’s signature display of Della Robbia garlands of laurel and fruits, the Tottle’s shuttered the Spinning Wheel and headed for Florida. That year they would begin a new venture, also naming it the Spinning Wheel. In an uncharacteristically mid-century building on the Tamiami Trail in southern Sarasota, the mother and son duo opened another restaurant, growing their little empire to three. Also devoid of potent potables, they managed to attract an older crowd that appreciated good old fashioned American cooking. Just as she had been doing since the 1930’s, Elaine’s close friend Edith Hiss would manage the gift shop operation.

The Spinning Wheel Inn in Sarasota in 1954

As the 1950’s wore on, Bill and his wife Arlene would take on more of the management duties as Elaine, who had been born in 1883, grew older. The Southport location closed in the mid-1950’s as the family directed more of their efforts to the split operations in Redding and Sarasota. The inn in Redding would also remain open longer each season; service would begin the second week in March and run through New Year’s Eve. In August of 1959, Bill’s insistence that they needed a liquor license to survive won out and the inn began serving cocktails after thirty-four years of getting by without it.

As Edith Hiss approached the age of 80, she gave up her duties at the gift shop. She passed away in 1963.

In September of 1967, just two months before Elaine would pass at the age of 84, Bill and Arlene closed the restaurant one evening and headed back to their residence at the southern end of the inn’s parking lot. Bill stopped to check on his aging mother while Arlene continued on. Upon opening the door and switching the lights on, Arlene encountered an armed intruder. A scuffle ensued and when Bill arrived a few minutes later, he saw the masked man with the gun. Bill grabbed his rifle and pursed the would-be thief. The man fired a single shot towards Bill and Bill returned fire, hitting his wife’s assailant twice, once in the wrist and once in the leg. While the wounded man escaped that evening, police in Westchester, NY apprehended him the following day. The suspect was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison.

By 1972, Bill and Arlene were ready to retire. They sold the Spinning Wheel to Beatrice and Bayard Waring. Mrs. Waring was the former Miss America, BeBe Shopp, from 1948. They would run the venture for the next seven years, but the old guard was gone after a very successful 47-year run.

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