(Front page feature of Fairfield Sun 2/10)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – She literally traveled around the world before realizing that Fairfield and its history were her true calling.
In a recent sit-down at her historic Old Post Road home, Fairfield’s Honorary Town Historian Marcia Miner, 81, spoke about her ancestral connection to the area, her unique upbringing as the daughter of a newsreel sound man, adventures in places near and far and unexpected interest in town lore.
Benson House Roots
It seems appropriate that a historian should live in a historic home. Miner’s 232-year-old residence, known as “Benson House”, certainly qualifies. More than that, the home and Miner have an ancestral connection and she was proud to relate the background.
The house was named after Abraham Benson, though he was not its first resident. Born in 1779 in Hackensack, NY, Benson was one of twelve children. When his father was shot by a British sniper, Abraham’s mother moved him and his siblings to lower Manhattan. Benson grew up living along the waterfront and became a seaman.
One port of call was Fairfield where he fell in love with and married a local girl in 1802. Sadly, she died in labor nine months later. Benson then became acquainted with General Elijah Abel, who built Benson House, married his caretaker Giselle Burr in 1804 and bought into the house. When the general passed on, Benson assumed ownership.
Benson raised 12 children with Burr. She died in childbirth with the 13th. Benson remarried a third time, to Finette Edwards, in 1831. He became a steamship captain and Fairfield’s fifth postmaster. He and Finette had one child, also named Finette, who married John Nichols, a local church deacon. They had five children, including Finette Benson Nichols. She ultimately willed Benson House to Miner’s mother, Gertrude, her cousin, in 1948.
Father’s Unique Occupation
Gertrude was born and raised in Cornwall Bridge, CT and, as a pre-teen, came to live at Benson House when her mom passed and her father settled in Freeport, Long Island. Gertrude ultimately joined her father there and met Miner’s father, Charles “Chic” Peden.
Peden’s first significant job was as a sound man for Fox Movietone News. When sound came on film in 1929, Fox was first to use it. Peden was sent to London to teach the Brits the new technology. Gertrude learned she was pregnant as they prepared to travel there and Miner was subsequently born in London on June 21, 1929. Later that year, the family returned to the U.S., to Manhattan, where Peden joined Hearst Metrotone News, which became his lifelong employer.
The family relocated to Jackson Heights, Queens, where Miner had her early schooling. During those years, Peden covered news events all over the eastern part of the U.S. including the Hindenburg explosion, the trial of the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh’s son and the sinking of the Normandy in New York harbor.
“I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Where’s daddy?’ and my mother would say, ‘Oh, he’s gone to cover the floods along the Mississippi,” Miner recalled. “It was exciting to hear about his travels and news adventures. At dinner, he would tell us what he’d done, whether he was with Roosevelt that day or covering a convention.”
Every winter, the family went to Miami. “We’d attend horse races and I went to school part of the year there,” said Miner. “We stayed in a luxurious suite of rooms at the Miami Biltmore Hotel. The lifeguard there was ‘Buster’ Crabbe. He taught me to swim and later became a movie star.”
Peden volunteered for the Air Corps in 1942 and was sent to the Aleutian Islands, then to Saipan. He was a cameraman doing reconnaissance in B-29s over Asia. While home on leave in 1945, the A-Bomb was dropped and the war ended. “That night, my dad took me to Times Square for the celebration,” said Miner.
Peden went back to work for Hearst while Miner finished high school. Peden was then sent to Washington, D.C. as a White House correspondent. “I went down there one summer and dad had me meet him at the White House,” said Miner. “President Truman made the announcement that he was firing General Douglas MacArthur. I was right there and as Truman left the office, he patted me.”
When Finette Nichols became ill and passed and Benson House came into the family’s possession in Nov. 1948, the family relocated from Queens. “We moved in on the night Truman won re-election against Dewey.”
Miner initially pursued acting. “I would love to have been a camerawoman or newspaper reporter as my father had all the connections, but they wouldn’t let women in the union.” She went to the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where Grace Kelly and Helen Hayes’ daughter were fellow students.
English and History Unite
Miner decided acting was not for her, majored in English at the University of Bridgeport and worked for a time as an assistant research editor at Faucett magazine. Among its writers was Ernest Hemingway.
In 1959, Miner was engaged to be married. It didn’t work out and she moved to Hawaii to soothe her wounds and teach at a Navy base. “I got there on a freighter from New Orleans – nine days of travel.” She then moved to Honolulu, teaching kids from Pearl Harbor, and married a naval officer from Massachusetts.
The couple returned to the U.S., to West Hartford, in the early 60s, where she taught at a high school and achieved a Masters in English Literature. They moved back overseas to Frankfurt, Germany, but split in 1965. She continued on to England, teaching American Literature at the University of Sheffield.
In 1967, she moved to Berkeley, CA. “What a place to be at that time with the anti-war movement -- a bone of contention between my father and me.”
In 1970, she moved to Bolinas, CA, “a wonderful community and as hippie a town as you can imagine”, continuing to teach. When her father died in 1974 and her mother became ill in the early 80s, Miner returned to Benson House in late 1987. Her mother passed in 1988.
“I had no intentions of staying. I didn’t like the weather or the town initially, but got hooked on the house,” said Miner. “I also began to revisit some pieces my father had written in the early 60s about 20 historical houses on the Old Post Road. I updated them and they were published as a column in the Fairfield Citizen called “Then and Now.”
By the time the series ended, Miner had gotten very turned on by town history and started another series called “Fairfield Revisited”, covering town history and other topics. The series won several awards and, in June 2004, First Selectman Ken Flatto bestowed the honorary town historian title on Miner.
“It’s ironic that I find myself so fascinated with Fairfield as I’d been so anxious to get out of this town. And I don’t regret my travels. But I’m glad to be making a contribution to the town. The history of Fairfield is fascinating, as well as its residents -- both famous and infamous.”
Newsreel Man “Chic” Peden
In the 1920s through the 1960s, before the widespread popularity of television, newsreels were the everyday capture of the news of the day. Charles “Chic” Peden, father of Fairfield Honorary Town Historian Marcia Miner, spent his life recording history on sound and film in the newsreel format. He was among the leading men of the era in this industry.
Peden wrote a book about his early experiences titled “Newsreel Man”, which was published in the 1930s. It related his exploits and adventures covering some of the most important news stories of the time. These included a range of content from dramatic to mundane, like the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, kidnapper of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, and John D. Rockefeller Sr. cutting his cake on the occasion of this 90th birthday.
“In the very early days, there were few news crews in major cities, so my dad and his cameraman often drove up and down the east coast to reach stories,” said Miner. “They even went as far away as the Fiji Islands one time,” said Miner, “to cover the firewalkers there.”
These men were more than reporters. They were documenters, and the process was quite involved. Reels had to be shipped, processed and edited with voiceovers. “Typically, they turned these around in three days and played them in the theaters before a movie showing,” said Miner.
“For many years, my dad had a company car, a Dodge that was specially built with a roof platform upon which the camera could be secured,” related Miner. “The equipment was very heavy and a challenge to move around. Imagine carrying this gear up mountains.”