America’s Gilded Age touched Ridgefield, leaving what had been a small Yankee farming town with the grand white mansions of wealthy New Yorkers who spent summers here, and a community of immigrants from Europe — especially Italy — who worked building and then tending the estates of the rich summer residents.
“Using local history as a window on the national stage,” students learned about their town’s experience of the Gilded Age on daylong visits to the Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center on Main Street, said Keeler Tavern Director Hildegard Grob.
Some 270 students from East Ridge Middle School social studies classes visited the Keeler Tavern April 4-6.
For glimpses of Ridgefield in the Gilded Age, the students learned about Cass Gilbert, a prominent New York architect, and his wife, Julia Gilbert, the couple who bought, enlarged and lived in the Main Street house known today as the Keeler Tavern — a name that reflects its earlier history as a roadside inn and hotel operated by generations of the Keeler family.
They also learned about some of the people who worked for the Gilberts and their high-society friends — the Italian immigrants who started arriving in Ridgefield in large numbers during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
“It’s good we show them the different levels of society as they interacted with each other,” said Catherine Prescott, assistant museum director at the Keeler Tavern. “These people are living together in the same places at the same time.”
The program was designed to enhance the eighth grade social studies curriculum.
“Students will examine Cass Gilbert’s architectural drawings, Julia Gilbert’s contribution to the war effort and Ridgefield Society, and the impact of Italian immigrants who worked building many of the mansions that line Main Street,” said social studies teacher Steve Ruland.
“The key to truly appreciating history is the development of a personal connection to the past,” he said. “Keeler Tavern created that connection and excited students about learning.”
At the Keeler Tavern, the students looked at the Gilded Age in Ridgefield through different activities.
Perhaps most fun for the kids was looking at period photographs printed from the Joseph Hartmann collection — old glass-plate negatives reflecting the life work of Hartmann, a German-born immigrant who had a photography studio in Ridgefield around the later 19th and early 20th Century.
In the Keeler Tavern’s barn, the students saw large prints of Hartmann photos, including one of the “chauffeurs ball,” another of the “Brunetti and Gasperini” grocery store, and numerous family portraits — mostly of Italian-American families, many with names still found in town, such as Rossini, Frattini, and Bedini.
It was part of their look at the roots of Ridgefield’s Italian community.
“We also know about Italian immigrants from oral histories that were recorded and then written down,” says the background material that Keeler Tavern education director Sarah Blanford provided for the volunteers who spoke to the students.
“Italians began coming to Ridgefield in the late 1880s in search of a better life for themselves and their families. They mostly came from the Italian provinces of Ancona and Pesaro.
“The jobs they found here were in building the water and sewer systems, railroads,
roads, construction, gardening, stone masonry, and in factories in the Branchville area. They were also employed by the wealthy class who came to Ridgefield for their summer homes, like the Gilberts who lived here. …
“Adults took English classes at night; children went to Ridgefield schools.
“They faced discrimination — some property was not to be sold to Italians, for instance. One day, the superintendent at school called all the Italian students into the hallway and did not have one nice thing to say about them.”
The students were asked to look at the photos, describe the people, places and activities shown, then draw conclusions about the context of the photos and make inferences about the lives they portray.
Keeler Tavern director Hildegard Grob noted the photo showing the proprietors of the Brunetti and Gasperini store.
“How can you make inferences?” she said. “How are they dressed? What are they selling? Who would shop here?” she said.
Grob also pointed out a sign, visible in the 1912 photo of the “chauffeurs ball” photo, saying: “Positively no objectionable dancing allowed.”
The photos gave eighth grader Beatrice Altopp a sense of town’s immigrant heritage.
“Everybody from Ridgefield didn’t come from the U.S.,” she said. “They came here from all over.”
Kevin Kepler saw in the images evidence that, back in the early 1900s, being photographed was a formal occasion.
“I just think it’s really cool to see the contrasts from then to now, how it’s different,” he said. “When you look at the kids, they’re all in their little sailor outfits. It might just be how photos were taken, then. No one’s smiling.”
“It was a way of saying, ‘Hey, we moved here from Ireland and we can afford to pay for this photograph,’” Beatrice added.
The Keeler Tavern hosts the 700 glass plate Hartmann negatives, and some of the prints shown to students were displayed through the collaboration of the Ridgefield Historical Society.
Of course, the students’ look into Gilded Age Ridbgefield included Cass Gilbert.
“He was probably the most notable architect of the early 20th Century,” said Grob.
Cass Gilbert designed the United States Supreme Court Building, The Woolworth Building, The New York Life Building, and the United States Customs House, among others. He also donated to the town the fountain that stand at the intersection of Route 35 and 33, not far from Keeler Tavern.
To gain an appreciation of how historians work by examining original source documents, the students saw copies of a letter Cass Gilbert wrote to local real estate and insurance agent William R. Keeler in 1926, expressing concerns about the potential paving of Main Street and talk that a gas station might be built on near his home — issues reflecting an interest in preserving Main Street’s appearance that is still prominent in Ridgefield’s public debates today.
“…I think I should say to you frankly that if the beauty of Main Street is impaired and it becomes more of a state highway than it already is at the present time, it is quite within the range of possibility that we will dispose of the ‘cannonball property’ or erect some cheap stores on a portion of the frontage to keep pace with the new condition and to recover the loss of value which would be entailed by it…
“Frankly I think it would be a great pity to turn this beautiful old street into a business street and it ought not to be done,” Gilbert wrote, “but if the people of RIdgefield so wish it, it is not for me to stand in the way and it is perhaps fortunate that I am so situated that I could find an attractive summer home elsewhere…
“I think you are aware of the fact that I have had quite a good deal of professional experience and given a great deal of study to the subject of town and city planning, and viewed from the standpoint of good town planning it is my unprejudiced opinion that it would e a great mistake to widen Main Street or change it’s character….”
The Gilded Age experiences at Keeler Tavern left an impression on the eighth graders.
“Ridgefield is a town that cares a lot about its history. There are all these buildings that were preserved,” said Mairead Lacey. “I feel this was a very important time in Ridgefield history, because it’s when they were starting to build, it’s when a lot of industry was created, a lot of people were looking for new jobs and coming here.”