Wilton’s Adrian Offinger: 100 years young on Chestnut Hill
WILTON — In 1929 when Adrian Offinger first came to his family’s summer home on Chestnut Hill, the road was nothing but gravel.
Last week it was filled with the flashing lights of police cruisers, fire trucks and an ambulance as well as a motorcade of well-wishers bringing birthday greetings to Offinger on the occasion of his 100th birthday on April 21. It was a tribute that thrilled him, one he said will provide many happy memories.
Although he was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1920 and grew up next door in Pelham, graduating from Pelham Memorial High School, Offinger found his lifelong home in Wilton. Adrian was the youngest son of Martin Henry and Clara Johanna Offinger. He had an older brother, Martin William, and a sister, Marguerite.
His parents bought a farm on Chestnut Hill in 1929 as a summer place and it was there young Adrian developed his love of gardening. Their neighbors were Harry and Theresa Jackson who owned a dairy and farming operation nearby.
“From Mr. Jackson my dad learned all sorts of things regarding raising vegetable and fruit crops,” Don Offinger said of his father. “Many of those early pursuits continue to this day, in some cases using implements used by Harry Jackson.”
Adrian Offinger graduated from Yale University in 1942 with an engineering degree in metallurgy and went to work at Bridgeport Brass Co. Because his work was in support of the war effort, he did not serve in the armed forces.
By 1945, Offinger embarked on his own, establishing the Beehive Heat Treating Service in South Norwalk. It was aptly named, his son said, because the roar of the gas-fired furnaces sounded like the hum of a very active beehive.
“My brother, who was eight and a half years older than me, suggested the name and I took it,” Offinger said.
The business, which involved hardening steel, was a good one. “It endured for nearly 75 years, but then due to manufacturing leaving this country it really slowed down,” Offinger said. He retired at 65 and handed it over to “a wonderful young fellow but he had to give it up in that manufacturing had diminished to the point it wasn’t worth it anymore.”
The company’s name was appropriate, not only for the sound of the furnaces but because Offinger was a beekeeper for many years. It apparently ran in the family since his father kept bees in Mount Vernon before Adrian was born.
“Since I was a teenager I have kept bees,” he said. “I’d take a ton of honey in one year at the height of it.”
Offinger at one time kept as many as 25 hives in two locations in Wilton as well as at home on Chestnut Hill.
“Then colony collapse syndrome came around and I got hit,” he said, losing his hives in 2006. “I don’t know how bees survive,” he mused.
Offinger moved to Wilton permanently with his parents shortly after his graduation from Yale in 1942. His mother died in 1949.
“I was here alone with my father,” he said. “Keep in mind I had my own business then. I was busy, busy, busy. Then I guess I figured after my mother died there was something missing.”
He went to a social event at a Norwalk church “and that’s where I met my beloved.”
That was his wife Mary, who he married a year later in 1950. They were together for 63 years until her death in 2013.
“Before we were married Mary worked in the First National Bank in South Norwalk. She was in charge of the ‘back room’ where the statements were written by hand,” he said. “I said to her, ‘you don’t need to work anymore.’” She stayed for two weeks to help figure out the interest on peoples’ savings account and then she left. “She took care of me and my father,” Offinger said.
Mary did more than that. She raised her children. She volunteered at the Wilton Congregational Church, working on the committee that formed Ogden House. She also was the tomato sorter at the family farm, wiping, cleaning and sorting the tomatoes after they were picked, getting them ready for retail and wholesale. She also did all the freezing of vegetables.
“Mary worked so hard,” Offinger recalled. He said he asked Dr. Norman Boas “what can I do for Mary?” He suggested traveling and that led to years of globe-trotting that took them to all seven continents.
Of their trip to Antarctica, he recalled they left from the tip of South America, taking a Russian vessel across the Drake Passage. “We left around bedtime and it was calm in the river. But then we woke up and boy, we were in the Drake Passage with 20-foot waves. We got pitched around. Soon as we got over that area, it calmed down and we had a good time. … We’d go ashore and walk amongst the penguins.”
Another trip found them riding elephants from India to Tibet, as well as journeys to Egypt and Australia.
Closer to home, Offinger enjoyed sailing his catboat on Long Island Sound. Asked what he fished for, he said, “we had flounders, plenty of them in the Sound. Today, people go out and get one or two.” He also had 12 lobster traps.
“My brother started the farm,” Offinger explained. “He was like a father to me. He kept a garden but then after I got a little older, my brother located an old Model T Ford. There were a lot around at the time and people were graduating them. I had a garden and I had this one Ford that I made into a little pickup. I would go down with produce I’d raised to pick up a little change.”
Today, the farm continues with five of 18 acres under cultivation focusing on corn and small vegetables including tomatoes, string beans, broccoli, kale, lettuce, cabbage, spinach and rhubarb as well as cut flowers — peonies and zinnias.
Offinger, who still walks almost a mile every day, remains actively involved with gardening by starting all the seed in the house and preparing peony stems for sale when they are in bloom in late May and early June.
He said he wasn’t going to say which tomato variety is his favorite, but then he relented and said “it’s called Jet Star. It’s thin-skinned, very flavorful, but you can’t get it in stores because you can’t ship it.”
In addition to helping out at the farm, Offinger is an active reader of The New York Times and The Economist, and made sure to schedule his newspaper interview after his Sunday news shows.
Asked for the secret of his longevity, Offinger did not hesitate. “No alcohol, no smoking and have a wonderful, wonderful marriage.”