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Friday, February 11, 2011

Fairfield Historian Marcia Miner’s Amazing Roundtrip

Fairfield Historian Marcia Miner’s 
Amazing Roundtrip
(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.”

A Shopper’s Guide to Valentine’s Day Retail Resources

A Shopper’s Guide to Valentine’s Day Retail Resources:
Flowers, jewelry, cards, spas 
and chocolate
(Posted to 2/11)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – That special day is just around the corner, Valentine’s Day. Like many people, you’re probably scrambling last minute for a thoughtful gift that shows you care. But where to go and what to buy?

Patch takes some of the stress out of the decision making process with a helpful list of a few local retailers and their wares in the flowers, jewelry, greeting card, day spa and chocolate categories. We’ve also taken a moment to check in with a retailer in each segment to see who’s buying, what they’re buying and how business is going.

Hansen’s Flower Shop, 1040 Post Road, 203-255-0461
An unusual selection of cut flowers from all over the world.

Fairfield Florist, 1998 Post Road, 203-256-9342
Wide selection of flowers, arrangements and plants.

Sullivan’s Heritage Florist, 25 South Benson Road, 203-259-1629
Large selection of cut flowers, including Ecuadorian roses and Dutch flowers, and custom-made arrangements for every order.

Dailey’s Flower Shop, 2151 Black Rock Tpke., 203-336-1895
Custom bouquets, floral arrangements and gift baskets. Same-day delivery available.

Colonial Gardens, 1174 Bronson Road, 203-259-2722
Full-service flower shop, greenhouse plants and roses.

Spotlight: Hansen’s Flower Shop
Patch pulled aside General Manager Gary Lucas, who reported that business was speeding along. “If business doesn’t spike for any flower shop on Valentine’s Day, they’re in trouble. Our business has been expanding and is very good this year and for this holiday.”

Lucas said his customers have been male for the most part. “Ninety-percent of our traffic is men, mostly looking for roses. They make very simple, traditional selections.”

As to special items, Lucas said, “We are offering chocolate, stuffed animals, balloons, an array of flowers from all over the world and, of course, arrangements of roses – any amount from one dozen to three dozen.”

Fairfield Center Jewelers, 1498 Post Road, 203-259-5693
Precious gems in all the colors of spring in the middle of winter

J. Albert Johnson Jewelers, 1957 Black Rock Tpke., 203-334-4680
Quality diamonds and elegant jewelry at fair pricing.

Shaw Jewelers, 525 Tunxis Hill Cutoff, 203-367-0777
Designer and affordable semi-precious and precious stones and sterling silver.

HC Reid Jewelers, 1591 Post Road, 203-255-0447
Affordable designer jewelry in gold and silver with diamonds, as well as colored stones. A selection of cultured pearls is also offered.

Lenox Jewelers, 2379 Black Rock Tpke., 203-374-6157
Diamonds, gemstones, giftware and engraving.

Spotlight: Fairfield Center Jewelers
Partner Howard Diamond took a moment to comment, “Every Valentine’s Day is different in terms of traffic and business. The economy especially forces people to prioritize their expense. Valentine’s Day is kind of a polite dutiful holiday. It’s not as important as birthdays and anniversaries, so people are more careful with their spending. People are also looking at their December holiday credit card bills and at tax time, which affects the dynamic. It’s still a significant day for us.”

As to shoppers, Diamond said, “A lot of women have been coming in and making wish lists, looking at white gold and platinum pendants, as well as pearl jewelry.”

About business, Diamond added, “Business has been better than last year, despite the weather. People are more positive and our sales are up.”

Greeting Cards
Party Party, 14 Sanford Street, 203-292-9277
Fine stationery, gifts and event planning services.

Cardsmart, 2075 Black Rock Tpke., 203-334-1657
Discount cards and quality gifts.

Miller’s Hallmark, 2255 Black Rock Tpke., 203-368-1778
Candy, plush toys, wide selection of greeting cards, single roses and pre-wrapped items.

700 Post Road, 203-255-1089
1968 Black Rock Tpke., 203-366-8070
Wide array of greeting cards, candy, balloons, flowers and plush toys.

Spotlight: Party Party
Owner Mary Thornton’s shop opened at the end of September, offering “paper, presents and parties”, as she put it. “For Valentine’s Day, we have great greeting cards and gifts such as personalized notepads and frames,” she said. “We’re having a special in February called “All You Need Is Love” offering 10% off anything wedding related, from invites to Save The Date notes.”

About shoppers, she said, “People have been looking for gifts for that special someone, and cards. Our walk-ins are primarily women, thought we get some men, too.”

Day Spas
The Spa, 1139 Post Road, 203-259-8757
Deluxe facials, massage therapy, body and foot treatments, waxing, hair care, bath and body products and gift certificates.

Total Look Salons, 2193 Black Rock Tpke., 203-367-4247
Complete hair care, facials, waxing, manicures, pedicures, medi-spa services, gift packages and baskets.

Ocean Skin Care Spa and Massage, 1700 Post Road, 203-292-8188
Massage therapy, facials, body waxing, body treatments and skin care products.

Turquoise Medical Spa, 1305 Post Road, 203-319-1900
Facials, cosmetic procedures, a variety of massages and waxing.

Spotlight: The Spa
Patch spoke with Business Manager Al Dee about the holiday. “This is probably the third largest volume day we have after Christmas and Mother’s Day. This year it’s kind of early to size up traffic as most purchases will be made Saturday, a couple days before the holiday.”

Thus far, though, Dee said, “Our traffic has been mostly men, for their wives and mothers. Some of it is online or by phone, in addition to the walk-ins.”

Summing up, Dee added, “Spa services are a good gift as they are personal. Gift requests are usually massages and facials.”

Sweet Rexies, 1552 Post Road, 203-254-3254
Chocolates, classic candies, apparel, plush toys, gift baskets and ice cream.

Spotlight: Sweet Rexies
Owner Nanci Lewis said about Valentine’s Day, “It’s a unique holiday. People tend to shop just a few days before. The weather has affected us, but we’re pretty much on track with last year. We’ll see how this weekend goes.”

About her customers, Lewis said, “We get moms coming in to buy for kids and husbands but, really, whoever likes candy and gourmet chocolate.”

Lewis has a wide variety of products to offer for the holiday. “For Valentine’s Day, we have different sized heart containers, with zebra stripes and XO’s. Anyone can fill those with their own candy – a custom make-your-own Valentine’s heart.
Other items include ready-made boxes of Godiva chocolates, gift baskets, tall canisters of chocolate drizzled popcorn, champagne bottles of milk chocolate, Love Me To Pieces bars and even nut-free candies.”