Wealthy P.D. Wagoner lived in Ridgefield caretaker’s cottage

Broken-hearted after his wife died, Philip Wagoner, (pictured), head of Underwood Typewriters, lived mostly in the caretaker’s cottage of the Ridgefield mansion he’d built for her.

Broken-hearted after his wife died, Philip Wagoner, (pictured), head of Underwood Typewriters, lived mostly in the caretaker’s cottage of the Ridgefield mansion he’d built for her.

Contributed photo

Philip Wagoner may have built one of the largest mansions in town, but the man who produced millions of typewriters and was a pioneer in making digital computers, spent most of his Ridgefield years living in his own caretaker’s cottage.

Wagoner came to Ridgefield around 1932 when he was head of a group of companies that included Underwood Typewriter. He built a mansion on West Mountain on the shore of Round Pond — its stone facing and entrance gates were imported from France. He called the estate “Oreneca,” after one of the American Indians who sold Ridgefield to the first settlers.

In 1940, about seven years after Philip and Effie Wagoner moved into their new house, Effie died at age 64. “Although he recovered from the shock of this loss, it broke his spirit, which had led him to erect his great home here, and thereafter he spent the major part of his Ridgefield days in the seven-room foreman’s house on the property, which was a replica of the larger 27-room mansion,” wrote Karl S. Nash, former editor and publisher of The Press.

Born in 1876 in Somerville, N.J., Philip Dakin Wagoner first worked for GE and then the Underwood Corporation, whose model No. 5 had become the top-selling typewriter in the world in the early 1900s. (Underwoods were still used in the Press newsroom in the 1990s.)

Nash, who himself used a No. 5, recalled that Wagoner “made himself known in the town hall, particularly in the assessors’ and selectmen’s offices. On one occasion he presented several new Underwood typewriters for use in town offices. It pained him somewhat to see other brands in use officially in his home town.”

Under Wagoner, Underwood operated the largest typewriter factory in the world, located in Hartford, turning out a typewriter a minute. During World War II, he led the factory’s conversion into one that produced M1 military carbines.

Early on, Wagoner saw the need for computing machines to help businesses with accounting and payroll. He established the Underwood Computing Machine Company in the late 1920s, making mechanical calculators. By the early 1950s, Underwood had acquired Electronic Computer Corporation, and began manufacturing digital computers under the name, Elecom. In 1952 Elecom’s “low-cost digital computer” weighed 750 pounds, had 160 vacuum tubes, required two kilowatts of power, and cost $17,000 ($153,000 today). Its “average error free running period” was six hours.

Underwood eventually lost out to IBM and others, whose personal computers also helped spell the end of the typewriter. The last Underwoods were made in the 1980s, after the company merged with Olivetti.

Wagoner retired in 1956 after 60 years in the business world and died in 1962 at the age of 86.

—Jack Sanders