Just this past month I raised my right hand at Town Hall and swore I would faithfully and impartially discharge my duties as a member of the Library Board of Trustees. I agreed that to the best of my abilities, skills, and judgement, I will serve the town of Easton in this capacity. There really is no pomp to this ceremony. I was alone with the clerk in her office. But, standing there, next to the vault of old tomes and town documents that go back for centuries, you do feel the weight of history no matter how small or large your role. I am just one of many Easton residents who have answered the call for civic service over generations.
Much has been discussed in the past weeks regarding Easton’s Ethics Ordinance and I understand that concerns have been raised as to its limitations and to whom we can trust to serve our community. Ultimately, we hope for individuals who will behave with integrity. From my perspective, which tends to be on a very long timeline, the issue of misplaced trust and its consequences have been a reoccurring concern for Easton since its earliest days when it was the North Fairfield Parish in the 18th century. No story illustrates this point more than the saga of Samuel Staples and the school he founded.
Most in town recognize Samuel Staples as a wealthy benefactor from our colonial past whose ancestors settled Fairfield in the 17th century. If you have heard of him, you probably already have in mind the local lore of his thrifty habits like walking to church barefoot to avoid wearing out his shoes. Despite the persistence of this tale, there are no contemporary accounts describing this behavior. There are however, surviving documents from his life that can help us understand a bit about his personality and his life experience.
Preserved in our state library are the original records of our Congregational Church going back to the founding of the North Fairfield Parish in 1762. In the earliest entries, we see Samuel Staples listed as the clerk for the parish and the first pages of the volume are written in his own hand. Essentially, he was our town’s very first civil servant and for eight years he kept the records for this fledgling community.
Staples’ position gave him a unique perspective on the needs of the people in his parish and his actions suggest that he noticed there were financial hardships that were preventing families from affording school for their children. Since 1717, every parish in the Connecticut colony was required to have at least one common grammar school. The organization and maintenance of these schools was the responsibility of the churches. The North Fairfield Parish initially divided their lands into five districts, each served by a school supported by taxes levied on inhabitants with children. As clerk, Staples would have been aware of any families having difficulty paying these fees.
After falling gravely ill in 1781, he decided to compose a deed establishing a free school in his parish. He called to his home three advisors to serve as trustees. All were men of the clergy. There was James Johnson of North Fairfield, Samuel Sherwood of Norfield, and Robert Ross of Stratfield. He chose these ministers because they were servants of God and in them, he believed he could place “the most unbounded confidence.” Along with the prominent Fairfield solicitor, Andrew Rowland, Staples committed to the founding of his school saying that he had:
“…taken into consideration the great importance and benefit of a public free school to be kept in the town of Fairfield aforesaid, to promote in children, youth and mankind virtue and religion; And to instruct them in useful knowledge and learning, especially sober, studious youth who have not estate sufficient to defray the expenses of education. And I have a mind to create, establish, maintain and support a free school for that purpose in said Fairfield and I am willing to give and grant part of my estate therefore the principal to be kept entire and the yearly incomes thereof to be so applied.”
It is noted in the founding records of the Academy that as soon as attorney Rowland drew up this document, Staples was displeased. Saying it was not particular enough, he requested another deed be drawn up that would expressly mention the school was to be built on or near the lands by the North Fairfield Meeting House in the Parish of North Fairfield. Rowland is said to have replied that the day was too far spent, the writing was lengthy, and he did not have the time to draw up another deed as his business elsewhere prevented him from staying longer. Staples then requested that Rowland interline at the end of “Fairfield” these words: “and in the Parish of North Fairfield on or near to the lands I give for that purpose near the Meeting House.” Rowland objected saying such interlining would in law totally spoil a deed of such importance.
Refusing to sign, Staples was cautioned by Rowland and Reverend Ross. They stressed that he might not survive the night and that he seemed to be at his end. They suggested that if he did not sign the current document, he might never have another opportunity to realize his noble intentions. Assuring him that his chosen trustees would carry out his wishes as he envisioned, they were able to convince Staples to sign the deed.
Did Rowland simply write “Fairfield” instead of “North Fairfield” out of error or haste? It is possible, but if we look at the historical figure of Andrew Rowland, we see an experienced and wealthy lawyer. A graduate of Yale College, he served as an attorney for Fairfield in the General Court in Hartford. It seems unlikely that someone with his legal experience would have overlooked any part of his client’s expressed wishes. He would also have known that the interlineation that Staples requested was not uncommon at the time and frequently appeared in contracts. Further, since Staples was unmarried, had no children or siblings, there was no one with an interest to dispute the deed.
Ironically, Rowland’s insistence on leaving the document “as is” was precisely what spoiled it. The lack of clarity created a controversy that lasted for more than a decade. Each of the trustees considered their own “Fairfield” parish as a suitable location for the school. The Reverend Johnson quickly resigned his post on the board, seeing that the donor’s original intention was not being served. His replacement was the famous Brigadier General, Gold Selleck Silliman, who was also an experienced state’s attorney and resident of Fairfield.
For the next several years classes were held in various locations. At first, the school opened at Hull’s Farm in Greenfield Hill, where, coincidently enough, Attorney Rowland’s son, Samuel, attended as a “Charity Scholar.” In 1782, it moved briefly to the home of Abel Gold in North Fairfield and then in 1783 it moved to Stratfield near the military parade grounds. (Today, the remains of this field are at Clinton Park in Bridgeport.)
Throughout these years, the struggle over location intensified. Sides were taken and alliances were formed as additional men were added as trustees. The more developed and central parishes of Stratfield and Greenfield Hill argued against the more remote North Fairfield and Norfield.
Complicating matters further, Staples did not die in 1781 as he expected and perhaps, as some of his trustees may have hoped. He lived for another six years, and he was disheartened that those he trusted proved to be so unworthy. On their part, the trustees were focused on the administrative tasks associated with running the school, and they funded scholarships with fees from paying families and the rents and interest from Staples’ original grant. By 1782, Staples intercepted these monies by putting “advertisements” up revoking their authority and by forbidding anyone in his debt to make payments to them. In this way, he must have thought he could force the trustees through financial pressure to build the school where he wanted.
His actions only seemed to harden their resolve and the school continued moving between Fairfield parishes. Frustrated at their refusal to do right by their promise, Staples presented his case before the General Assembly in Hartford in 1785. When he drew up his will two years later, he was still waiting on a verdict. For their part, the members of the Staples Free School board wrote vehemently against him, particularly Reverend Ross of Stratfield. The only member of the original three trustees that had not resigned, Ross wrote letters to Staples accusing him of “embarrassing” behavior and he repeatedly objected to Staples’ requests. It is significant to note that when Staples did die on February 21st, 1787, there is not a single mention of his passing or prayer of gratitude in his honor recorded in their archive.
Through his will, Staples did what he could to right the course of his previous endowment. He gave all his remaining wealth in land and investments to the North Fairfield Parish, and he outlined his hopes for a favorable ruling from the General Assembly that would finally allow for his school to be built in his own community.
It ended up taking another six years of litigation to resolve this dispute. During this time the North Fairfield and Norfield Parishes were joined to create the new town of Weston in 1787. This added another issue for the Staples’ bequest; the trustees now argued that they could not build a school in the town of Weston because the original deed specifically dictated Fairfield!
But the North Fairfield Parish did not relent, and its members voted to continue fighting for their benefactor’s request even after his death. They sent agents to Hartford petitioning the Assembly consistently from 1790 to 1793. Finally, in 1794, representatives of the State Assembly travelled to North Fairfield and drove stakes in the ground to delineate exactly where the building should be constructed. The board of trustees that had long ignored Staples’ wishes was finally compelled. Designs for the structure were ordered and the framing was erected in 1794 with the windows installed the following year. Perhaps it is not too surprising that the Reverend Ross shortly thereafter resigned.
Amazingly, at the same time the North Fairfield Parish was advocating for Staples at the capital, the executor of his will, Lloyd Wakeman, was embezzling funds from his estate. Described by Staples as a “well beloved and trusty friend,” Wakeman had been selling lands and pocketing the proceeds while also charging exorbitant fees for his administrative services. Alarmed, the church was able to intervene, preserve the endowment and legally removed Wakeman from his role as executor in 1794.
By 1795, students began attending the newly built Staples Free School. Though the finishing touches would not be completed until 1798, it quickly developed a reputation for excellence in education. Prominently situated at the heart of the parish, this two-story Greek Revival building must have stood out as a point of local pride. Even today, it commands attention at the busy intersection of Westport and Center Roads.
Dubbed the Academy in local newspapers, it was advertised as a “quiet place, very well adapted to study and free of immoral influences.” The school thrived for more than a century and visiting students from across Connecticut boarded with neighboring families. They joined their local classmates, many of whom were charity scholars, in the Academy Hall for recitations. This was a large room with a raised dais installed in 1800 on the second floor of the building. It provided the earliest known public performance space in our community for lectures, dramatics, music, and song. Literary societies and youth groups had a place to convene and host exhibitions and gatherings. This was particularly important as the churches prohibited such activities under their roofs.
The Academy also became an integral part of our town’s governance and economy. Civic gatherings were often held in its hall and in 1845 it was the location of the first Easton town meeting after Weston was divided. Not only did the school provide a place for assembly but it also benefited our town’s economy. Boarding students and teachers supplied additional income for local families and the trustees managed the Staples Fund much like a banking institution. They maintained the principle but used the dividends wisely. They granted loans to local farmers and businesses for capital improvements, and they oversaw a wide portfolio of investments. With one notable setback in 1825 when New Haven’s Eagle Bank failed, the trustees were able to successfully manage their charge for a hundred years.
Towards the close of the 19th century enrollment diminished. This was likely a reflection of several factors: state-run high schools in larger cities were drawing students away from smaller, rural schools and the population of Easton had dwindled. The governing board also diminished as members passed away and were not replaced. The trustees in 1895 were Bennett Seeley and Joseph W. Johnson of Easton along with Redding resident, the Reverend W. J. Jennings. None of these men were young. Jennings passed away in 1895 followed by Johnson the next year. Bennett Seeley, the last survivor, did not see to his own successor even though he was in his seventies. The financial ledgers, which had been in Seeley’s hand and certified by his signature in previous years abruptly stop in July of 1895. Dying in 1899, the gap between his last entry and his death suggests he may have been unwell and unable to tend to the bookkeeping.
At some point in 1896, Percy Lincoln Johnson, the son of the late trustee Joseph W. Johnson, had unofficially taken over the care of the Staples Trust. (This particular Johnson family does not have a connection to that of the first minister of the North Fairfield Parish, the Reverend James Johnson.) Raised in Easton, Percy was an alumnus of the Staples School who went on to study at Wesleyan and Yale Law before joining the offices of Beers and Foster in Bridgeport.
When the record books pick-up again in 1901, we learn that there had been a terrible embezzlement scandal. Percy acted as though he were treasurer from 1896 to 1900 when he absconded with nearly all the school funds. Totaling more than 8,000 dollars, he left no record of receipts or expenditures for those years. Investigations would reveal that he also stole an additional 35,500 dollars from trusts associated with the law firm that employed him. Fleeing to Mexico when he could no longer hide his crimes, he became a wanted fugitive. Eventually, he turned himself in after living on the run. Reaching out to the Bridgeport Police to help pay for his return transportation, he booked first class passage on a steamer and travelled back to Connecticut in style.
The trial was reported on by newspapers across the country and Percy was found guilty and sentenced to six years. During the proceedings, his defense presented the extenuating circumstances of his actions. In 1896 Percy lost his wife Kate in childbirth as well as his father. As a young widow, he was left to provide for an infant son and care for his own mother. The state of his father’s finances at the time of his death added additional pressure. Though Joseph W. Johnson had been county commissioner and a deputy sheriff, his later years were marred by failed land deals out West. He even invested some of the school funds in these ventures and the losses are reflected in the Academy ledgers. To settle his father’s defaults, Percy stole from several private trusts through his employment. Since there was little to no oversight from the elderly Bennett Seeley, he was also free to transfer funds and land titles from the Staples Trust to himself. Claiming that the only motivation was to save the name of his father and his family, Percy was described as a good man who succumbed to temptation.
The judge presiding over the case seemed to have some sympathy for Percy acknowledging that “nothing the court might do would add to the humiliation of the accused.” In the end, Percy only served four years at the Wethersfield State Penitentiary. Though he was disbarred in 1901, he managed to find employment upon his release. He was hired by the Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, and in an ironic twist, he was employed in their accounting department. Living a comfortable life with his second wife Edna in their home on Alpine Avenue in Bridgeport, he died in 1942 at the age of 77.
Though Percy was able to rehabilitate his life somewhat, the effects of the scandal and the financial loss for the Staples School in Easton were disastrous. New board members were officially sworn into office and land titles taken by Percy were recovered. However, none of the cash funds were ever returned and their balance sheets were so depleted that the school could barely afford the court fees associated with the trial. Their balance on June 6, 1901, was negative $51.75!
The school was closed at the end of that June leaving its last teacher, William M. Gallup with a claim for unpaid services. Though they were able to get back in the black, they failed to raise enough tuition and donations to reopen. By 1903 the town of Easton leased the building as a school and the trustees spent several years maintaining the structure. In 1906, a state officer was invited by town officials to inspect the Academy as they were considering converting it into a high school. They were advised against it in deference to the building’s historic importance.
By 1918, the trustees renovated the structure to accommodate more local students as small schoolhouses around town were closing. By caring for the building, they felt they were keeping to the original intention of the Staples endowment by supporting local education. The foundation walls were repaired, and a new chimney was installed along with new flooring. But when the town built their new Staples School on Morehouse Road in 1931, the old Staples Academy was no longer needed. The Congregational Church took over the lease until 1937, when the trustees officially transferred ownership of the building to them. It has served as a church hall ever since.
This transition was part of a careful inventory and analysis by the Staples Board during the 1930’s when Howard L. Schaff, Frederick E. Silliman and Edward D. Gillette were trustees. Rather than maintaining a costly historic building, they decided to petition the State Superior Court to change the purpose of the trust so that the income from the remaining endowment could be used to grant college scholarships for Easton’s boys and girls. In this way, the Staples Free School Trust has awarded scholarships to Easton’s young people since 1938.
Two hundred and forty-two years after Samuel Staples signed his initial charter, he is still providing for the education of Easton students in need. And despite the greed and corruption that threatened to compromise his legacy, the people of his parish and the citizens of this town have repeatedly come together to protect his donation in the public interest. Considering all of the difficulties his foundation has faced over the centuries, his story really seems to be about more than just a school building or a scholarship fund. His tale is an emblem of integrity and resilience in the face of dishonesty. His determination to effect positive change foreshadows the vibrant activism that thrives still today in Easton when political, environmental, and societal wrongs threaten our community.
So perhaps, when you see that quirky image of Staples walking barefoot, you’ll understand that it isn’t just an illustration of New England thrift. It’s really meant to be a symbol of the long and ongoing journey we all share for truth and justice.