Notable Ridgefielder Willie Winthrop built hundreds of houses in the Ridgefield Lakes

William 'Willie' Winthrop

William 'Willie' Winthrop

Contributed photo / Hearst Connecticut Media

William “Willie” Winthrop was one of the most influential — and colorful — characters in 20th Century Ridgefield. Responsible for the town’s largest development, he frequently clashed with town officials and even ran into problems with the law.

In 1932, Winthrop came to Ridgefield and within 10 minutes of seeing the Fox Hill Lakes, a large subdivision planned around several man-made lakes, he placed a deposit on the development which he renamed “Ridgefield Lakes.” He then spent the next four decades developing the region, involved in the building of more than 325 houses and creating lots for even more.

Many of the houses were constructed as summer cottages, but virtually all have since become year-round homes.

He envisioned the Ridgefield Lakes as “a true haven for people who wanted a home they could afford and a haven for a potential area for their retirement years.”

A native of Minneapolis, William Lawrence Winthrop was born in 1895 and served in the Marine Corps during World War I. He became an attorney, but he did not practice law in Ridgefield.

When he came to town, Ridgefield had neither zoning nor planning. He maintained that “long before the alleged planners and zoners dreamed up the open space and recreation areas of which they prate, I dedicated by use and deed more than 125 acres of lakes and another 30 acres for open spaces.”

Especially after zoning arrived in 1946, he maintained running battles with the town. He fought zoning and planning officials, complaining that their rules were keeping the little people out of Ridgefield and making it more difficult for the poor to find homes. When planning — which included the control of the design of subdivisions — was proposed in the 1950s, he said it was “an expression of extreme snobbery, and is designed to eliminate ... the men in overalls.”

He doggedly opposed most of the town’s school building projects, calling them extravagant. He also disapproved programs like kindergarten, which he called “folderol” and likened to “a glorified baby-sitting program.”

Winthrop was more liberal in his views on national and international affairs, however, and, though he was a Republican, he was an admirer of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. Among his interests were American Indians, and he once proposed a national holiday honoring them.

He died in 1971 at the age of 75.

Winthrop’s wife was Frances Ney Winthrop, a graduate of the Chicago School of Ballet, who was a dancer in several Broadway shows. They included the 1920 and 1921 versions of the revue, “George White’s Scandals,” with music by George Gershwin, as well as William B. Friedlander’s “Frivolities of 1920.” She died in 1982 at the age of 84 and is buried alongside her husband at Fairlawn Cemetery.—Jack Sanders