The Historical Society of Easton presents – Ed Knight & Oscar Svihra – The First 40 Years.
When we first published a post about the Easton Police Department celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, some folks asked me what means of law enforcement existed in Easton prior to 1937. Depending on exactly when in the town’s history we are talking about, it amounted to a combination of local elected constables, County sheriffs and their deputies, the Connecticut State Police, and even private investigative firms such as the Pinkertons.
The first municipality in the United States to establish its own paid police force was New York City back in 1844. Prior to that, law enforcement was carried out by volunteer watchmen who were neither paid, nor possessed any real powers to arrest people and charge them with crimes.
Prior to the adoption of uniforms, members of the newly formed police force were issued copper badges to be displayed on their outer clothing identifying them as law enforcement officers. Those badges led to the slang term for police as being “coppers,” and then “cops.”
Other highly populated cities soon followed New York’s lead and established their own police force. As cities grew, ethnic groups clashed, poverty became more prevalent, and crime began to become a major issue that affected the quality of life of urban dwellers.
While the need for law enforcement in rural Connecticut was much more limited, some method of keeping the peace was required. The first mention of constables as agents of law enforcement dates to the colonial legislature in 1650. The statutes gave early constables powers similar to that of sheriffs who were responsible for much larger territories.
Constables were either elected by the populace or appointed by the selectmen. They were also volunteers who were not paid. Depending on the town, and the county in which it was located, constables were given varying degrees of power when it came to enforcing the laws of the community and detaining those who violated those laws.
When Weston – which includes today’s Easton – was incorporated in 1787, the town only elected two constables, Josiah Leavitt and Benjamin Dean, to regulate both the Norfield and North Fairfield parishes. By the time the two towns split in 1845, at its first town meeting, the new community of Easton elected six men to serve as constables. They were Moses Burr, Burr Bennett, George Knapp, John Rowland, Elihu Taylor, and Samuel W. Banks. Those constables were tasked with serving the town without rewards or fees, receiving “only the sincere thanks of the town” in exchange for their service.
Throughout the late nineteenth century, the town was able to enforce the law using only those elected, but unpaid men. But the new century would pose different problems that would require different solutions.
Today, we live in a world where each of the municipal, state, and federal governments have found a way to seemingly tax just about everything except the air we breathe. At the turn of the last century, generating revenue through taxation was in its infancy. The Federal government received nearly 95% of its revenue through tariffs prior to the 1913 ratification of the 16th Amendment that established an individual income tax. The state of Connecticut had a two-dollar per head tax on men between the ages of 21 and 60. After women were granted the right to vote in 1919, they were included in that taxation the very next year. The state wouldn’t introduce a sales and use tax until 1947, so there were only a few other sources of revenue to support a state government that was paying for a militia, aiding the towns with education, and also maintaining an ever-growing system of roads as the automobile gained in popularity. One of those taxes was on distilled spirits.
Even prior to the enactment of the Volstaed Act of 1919, liquor had long been considered an evil by a good deal of New England’s puritanical based churches. So, if it remained legal, most folks were fine with taxing it. “Most,” not including those who regularly imbibed. It didn’t take long before those who sold it and those who drank it found a way to beat the system by either making it themselves or bootlegging it into the state from areas where it wasn’t subject to taxation.
In order to enforce the laws that required all distilled liquors be properly taxed, on May, 29, 1903, Connecticut Governor Chamberlain signed the bill that created the Connecticut State Police. The organization’s primary duties were to enforce laws pertaining to the sale of liquor and illegal gaming. Perhaps a great step in the right direction, but the funding appropriated only allowed for the hiring of five men that first year; all paid a whopping $3.00 per diem. Ironically, the state police commission contained five commissioners – one for each officer!
Five men were obviously not enough to make much of a dent in the widespread practice of moonshining or bootlegging, so the state told each municipality that it would require at least one constable from each to assist in the discovery of illegal stills and aid the state police in destroying them. This was not a particularly popular idea with many of the local constables for many reasons, not the least being that many of them were regular customers of the moonshiners they were now being tasked with putting out of business.
Adding to the increasing amount of time the local constables were putting in ferreting out those tax evading moonshiners was the increasing population of automobiles. Their owners, who in addition to being inexperienced drivers, somehow seemed mysteriously unaware that alcohol consumption impaired their judgement when navigating roads that had been meant for horses. The ensuing injuries and property damage meant assessing blame and delivering court documents – both part of a constable’s duties.
By 1913, the state had only increased the size of its police force to 15, and by 1920, they numbered only 80. With 169 municipalities to cover, that number was still nowhere near enough. County Sheriff’s and their deputies were stretched thin, and one-by-one even the smaller communities began to establish their own paid police departments. In many cases, those departments were overseen by state troopers who were better versed in the mechanics of applying the law.
It wasn’t until 1935 that the Town of Fairfield established their police department, so two years later when Easton decided to hire a full-time officer, it was neither late to the game nor alone in its desire to hold costs to a minimum. After Gustav Pfeiffer and Judge John McClane had graciously donated almost the entire amount of money the town needed to build its very first Town Hall, perhaps it was time to hire someone who could “round up the usual suspects” to fill the two holding cells that had been installed behind the library in the basement.
Ed Knight was well known in Easton and equally well-liked. He had been a Boy Scout leader and had served as one of the town’s seven constables for several years. Married with two children, he lived on Adams Road just east of the corner of Sport Hill. Ed had worked as a farmhand, a groom for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and a milk man. As one of the unpaid town constables, he had been assigned the added job of being the dog warden. However, unlike an ordinary constable, that position paid him about $60 per year. Evidently handling wayward dogs was worth more to the town than handling wayward people as a constable. The $875 salary he would receive the first year didn’t adequately reflect his position as the chief of police for Easton’s new department, but he was also the chief of only one full-time officer – himself! Ironically, that one-man position was overseen by a three-man police commission made up of Harold Bechtel, Franklin Hubbell, and Clarence Logan.
The town purchased a two-way radio, a spotlight, and a siren to be installed on Ed’s personal car. A town provided police car wouldn’t be purchased until sometime during the 1939-1940 fiscal year. That new car cost the town $819.54. By then Ed was raking in $1,200 a year and he had a part-time officer, Martin Ohradan – known then as a supernumerary – who would fill in for Ed whenever he took a well-deserved day off. Ed’s office was in his home and his wife would take calls when he was on the job. If there was an emergency, she would then call the Bridgeport Police dispatcher who could get in touch with Ed by two-way radio – providing of course that he wasn’t out of range!
Ed Knight was soon given an additional supernumerary officer. Arthur “Turb” Bush, was appointed to the force on August 13, 1941. Throughout World War II, Easton was protected by Chief Knight, officers Ohradan and Bush along with the town’s other four elected constables. Ohradan and Bush were employees of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, Ohradan at the Aspetuck Reservoir and Bush as superintendent at Easton Lake. Bush was also the fire chief at the EVFD. Both men were paid a stipend of $66.13 per year. Chief Knight was then up to $1,800 – what amounted to only $5.00 per day!
In the fall of 1945, Ed Knight became seriously ill. He was only 58 years of age, but his health caused him to retire on October 5th of that year. He died only 4 days later at Bridgeport Hospital.
Oscar Edward Svihra was born on September 4, 1910. The son of Czechoslovakian immigrants Michael and Mary Svihra, Oscar attended Central High School in Bridgeport, and later joined his father as a cement finisher in the family construction business. The company specialized in building gas stations and installing sidewalks. With war on the horizon, Oscar took a job working as a security guard at Bullard Machine in Bridgeport. They were the largest machine tool manufacturer in the United States during that war, so being in security would have earned Oscar an exemption from the draft during WWII. By war’s end in 1945, Oscar had risen to the rank of sergeant and supervised all 135 guards at the plant.
Michael Svihra had built a home on Staples Road shortly prior to the start of WWII. He became active in Easton politics and soon was on the board of assessors and the Staples building committee. Later, he would become a state representative representing Easton in the General Assembly. Oscar built a house next door for himself and his wife Millie in 1941. When Ed Knight suddenly retired in the late fall of 1945, Michael suggested that his son apply for the position as chief.
Oscar Svihra would become Easton’s second chief of police. Amazingly he would serve in that capacity for the next 33 years – a record that will likely stand the test of time. His salary in 1946 was $2,500, the same starting pay as a Connecticut State Trooper.
In 1947, the town traded in their original police car and purchased a new Ford patrol car. The total price was $1,321.68. Martin Ohradan would remain employed as a supernumerary to fill in for Oscar should he take a rare day off. Also in 1947, the town purchased its first ambulance, a new Cadillac. It was Oscar Svihra who was charged with driving it to Bridgeport whenever a town resident required emergency treatment. While the 1950 Census shows Oscar working 60 hours each week, it is far more likely that number would have easily exceeded 80. There was no additional pay for all those overtime hours.
In 1950, Oscar initiated an auxiliary police force in Easton as part of the Civil Defense program. It would include 44 members – all volunteers. The men would undergo Red Cross training and learn the local laws. The town budget that year allowed $96 to cover the cost of their badges. The men purchased their own uniforms and Oscar trained them on his own time. The privilege of serving one’s town was all the pay they would receive.
Oscar’s office remained in the home he built next to his parents on Staples Road. Millie would act as his dispatcher, taking calls and relaying them to the Bridgeport Police so that they could reach Oscar on the two-way radio. Within a few years, the town finally appropriated enough money to install radio communication equipment at the fire house so that the police and fire department could talk to each other, making it easier for Millie to relay a message to her husband. Millie continued to provide her services to the town until 1968, never once receiving an ounce of pay.
It was 1953 when Easton decided to add a second full-service police officer to its force. That individual was Anthony Csanadi, then a lieutenant in Easton’s auxiliary police force. He would work only 24 hours a week and earn $720 his first year on the job. It was also 1953 when Easton purchased its second police cruiser, this time the cost had risen to $3,358 with the addition of the two-way radio, lights, and siren. Oscar’s salary was upped to $3,690.
An interesting side note regarding Easton’s early police cars. First, they were all two-door sedans. It’s hard to imagine the difficulty a lone police officer would have corralling a suspect and then stuffing him into the back of a car with no rear doors. Second, there were several Bridgeport car dealer principals who resided in Easton during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. While the town’s cruisers were always put out to bid, those local dealers almost without exception bid the lowest prices. A testament to men like John Rehl, Maple Road (Pontiac), Charles McGill, Sunset Road (Chrysler-Plymouth), Clinton Keating, Silver Hill Road (Ford), and J. Parker Taylor, Redding Road (Dodge) who made certain the town where they lived paid as little as possible for their police cars.
It was 1956 when Joseph Slady replaced Anthony Csanadi as a full-time police officer, Csandi would still serve the town, but on a more limited basis. A third officer was added in 1964 when Joseph Silhavy transferred from the fire department to the police department.
But it was always Oscar who was the face of the Easton PD. He was everywhere – even when he wasn’t. He could have issued ten times the amount of summons he did but, when possible, he would much rather convince people to obey the law going forward than punish them for past transgressions. He was there to protect and serve and that is exactly what he did.
As young drivers, we were more fearful of him showing up at our parent’s house to talk with our folks than we were of him handing us a speeding ticket. Cutting us a break and giving us a lecture was far more effective than having us pay a fine and go on our merry way. He was the epitome of what every good police officer should strive to be.
By the time that Oscar Svihra retired in 1978, the force had grown to a total of ten. He had become a legend in his own time and there were very few people in Easton who were pleased to see him retire. The PD finally had an office in the town hall, and they were well on their way to becoming the modern police force we have today. The first uniformed woman officer, Winifred Kent, had been appointed under his watch in November of 1964. More followed while Oscar was still in charge.
Had it not been for Chief Oscar Svihra’s wise and prudent use of his policing powers, it is doubtful that the Easton PD would be what it is today.
Congratulations on the 85th year of the department’s founding, and thanks for the service that the EPD has provided for all of these many years!