Walter Smith: The man who built Wilton


The town of Wilton lost one of its oldest friends two weeks ago, when Walter Smith died at the age of 92.
A 70-year resident of Wilton, Mr. Smith was the first champion of the Wilton Historical Society, and the town’s foremost authority on historical carpentry and construction of any kind.
It will not come as a surprise to longtime residents that one theme was common among those who spoke to The Bulletin this week about Mr. Smith: his never-ending game of guess-the-tool.
A lifelong collector of history, whether it was a door from the Bald Hill Methodist Church torn down in the 1930s or an 18th-Century shipbuilding gadget, Mr. Smith’s collection of antique tools supplied him and those around him with imagination and intrigue.
“After we became good friends, we would have coffee at the Village Luncheonette with Walt and three or four other old-timers,” remembered Bob Russell, a former first selectman. “And every Wednesday morning he would bring in a tool only he knew the identity of. So there were the rest of us trying to identify it.”
Of course, he didn’t save such a game for just the “old-timers,” as a story from Wilton Historical Society’s Katherine Demo illustrates.
“When the second and fourth graders came into the historical society, he just loved it,” she said. “He loved passing on what he knew to these kids and showing them how it was done.”
“Last year during the second grade program, he came in the morning with this big pole that was at least eight feet high. And at the very end of the program, he asked, ‘Does anyone know what this is?’
“No one had any idea, not even the adults. ‘Well, this a ladder,’ he said, and he unlatched it and out of nowhere a ladder pops open from this single piece of wood that looked like a big stick. From the grin on his face, you could tell he was soaking it in, seeing all these kids’ eyes get wide.’”
Perhaps, though, his magic wasn’t so much in the games he played as the way he played them.
“He just wanted to pass his knowledge on to anyone who was interested,” Ms. Demo said. “Even if you were never interested in tools, you’d be interested after you talked to him. I will always, always, always remember that.”
More than just a tool expert, Mr. Smith was also influential in the renovation or relocation of a number of Wilton’s historical properties, including those that make up today’s Wilton Historical Society.
By Bob and Carol Russell’s count, Mr. Smith had worked on at least 500 homes and barns in Wilton and the surrounding communities, including the construction of Highstead Arboretum in Redding and two homes in New Canaan designed by Alan Gelbin, a Frank Lloyd Wright associate.
Even when the topic of Mr. Smith came up Monday inside the Wilton Garden Club greenhouse, more than half the women working there remembered a story or two about him, whether he had welcomed them for dinner 50 years ago or had inspected a home before they bought it.
Many of those who work in the engineering and construction fields will feel the same loss as Carl Yoder, a longtime friend of Mr. Smith and an architect, who said he doesn’t know anyone else with the master builder’s depth of knowledge.
“We’ve lost a tremendous resource on the history of the town, the history of old buildings and how they were put together,” Mr. Yoder said. “He could date a building by the very nails that were used, or how many panes there were in a window. And he knew how that window frame was put together, too. He not only collected the tools, he knew how to use them.
“We’ve lost a history of construction by his passing.”