Historian explores early 20th-Century Wilton

In the early 1900s, Wilton was a small farming town with “not much going on,” according to Wilton historian, author and former First Selectman Bob Russell.

“Wilton was a pretty quiet place — no real industry to speak of and not many new houses being built,” said Mr. Russell, who has been interested in Wilton history for more than 40 years and even wrote a book about it — Wilton, Connecticut: Three Centuries of People, Places, and Progress, which was published in 2004.

On Tuesday, Oct. 21, Mr. Russell will explore Wilton at the turn of the 20th Century during a presentation in the Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room. The program, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., is part of the Wilton Reads 2014 Ragtime program.

Although areas like Norwalk, Bridgeport, Stamford, and Danbury had more industry at the time, Mr. Russell said, many Fairfield County towns were small farming towns just like Wilton in 1910-1918.

“After the Civil War, Wilton people tended to move out west on railroads, which were built right after the war, and moved somewhere else to get better land and more money, or else they moved to the cities where there were industrial jobs available,” said Mr. Russell.

“They didn’t have any of that in Wilton, except in Georgetown, where the Gilbert & Bennett [wire mill] site was pretty prosperous.”

Mr. Russell said his Wilton Reads presentation will show people that Wilton was a much quieter place than New Rochelle, N.Y., the setting of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, which is the focus of this year’s Wilton Reads program.

“New York was a livelier place at the time, whereas Wilton had a lot of open space back in 1900,” he said.

“E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime is an interesting book because it is totally fictional but he brings in a lot of real names and real characters and mentions real events that took place during that time period.”

According to Mr. Russell, great escape artist and magician Harry Houdini, noted architect Stanford White, and Harry Thaw, the man who killed Mr. White, are three real-life individuals incorporated into the novel.

“Those three characters enter into the book and interact with the fictional family — the basics for the theme of the book,” said Mr. Russell.

“There’s another totally fictional character named Coalhouse Walker, a black musician who plays the blues on the piano, and he also interacts with the family.”

Although Mr. Walker is a “totally fictional character,” said Mr. Russell, he represents the many black musicians of the time.

“We had a black musician in Wilton — not that early in the century, but in 1935, there was a black man named Lead Belly, who was a master of the 12-string guitar,” said Mr. Russell.

“Lead Belly was an original musician of black folk music, so that’s a little bit of a tie Wilton has to the book.”

Mr. Russell’s Wilton Reads presentation will include a PowerPoint slide show of approximately 25 images of early 20th-Century Wilton, which, he said, was “very rural.”

“The slide show shows mainly how quiet Wilton was and how we had a lot of old houses that have since disappeared and, like I said, not much industry,” said Mr. Russell.

“I’ll also talk a little bit about Lead Belly, who lived here for a while, and crimes, just because they’re interesting stories.”

Lambert murder

Although it pre-dates the 1900-1918 time frame of the Wilton Reads program, Mr. Russell said, a “pretty spectacular murder” took place at the Lambert House in Wilton in 1897.

“The schoolteacher who lived there, Mr. David Lambert — a very quiet, unassuming man who was the last of the four-generation family that originally built the house in 1726 — was murdered by two former students of his private school,” explained Mr. Russell.

“The former students thought they would rob the house and take the money and take the silver, but there wasn’t any money or silver. Poor Mr. Lambert was there with his wife, and there was nothing to steal, but they killed him anyhow.”

The two men chloroformed Mr. Lambert’s wife, who managed to get a good look at them before passing out, said Mr. Russell, and was able to provide police with the men’s descriptions afterward.

“There was a big chase to find where these guys went, and this was before the days of automobiles, so they had horse and buggies and they went down to Norwalk, caught a train, went out West, and caught them,” said Mr. Russell.

“They eventually brought them back and tried them and executed them. It was a big deal because the Lambert family was well known and prominent for many years.”

Mr. Russell said he has been doing presentations for many years and hopes for a good turnout on Oct. 21.

“If we get a good crowd, they’ll be engaged. If we get three or four people, it’ll be dull,” said Mr. Russell.

“I hope that people enjoy it and tell a lot of people what they don’t already know about early Wilton.”

There is no charge for Mr. Russell’s “Wilton at the Turn of the Century” program, but registration is encouraged.

Information and registration: wiltonlibrary.org, 203-762-3950, ext. 213.