Once upon a time, 100 years ago, Norwich had its greatest anniversary celebration. It was a time in Norwich history when there were more millionaires in Norwich than any other town in all New England, including Boston. We were an industrial hub, a transportation hub and, for that matter, a population hub.
In the parade held for the 250th anniversary, the cadets from West Point and Annapolis marched. The president of the United States, William Howard Taft, spent two days in Norwich with his friend Winslow Williams at his mansion in Yantic.
The first flying ship performed an air show at the old fairgrounds in East Great Plain, and it flew for several minutes. Every building downtown was decorated with red, white and blue buntings, and it was said to be, by those who lived there, the most spectacular celebration in Norwich history.
Yesterday was the start of the 350th anniversary, and how different times are. The harbor that used to be so vital is not the hub of commercial shipping as it was in 1909 when Norwich was the harbor for Worcester. Both people and cargo would come to Norwich by boat and then take the Norwich Worcester Railroad. It was actually two days shorter than going around Cape Cod to Boston and then Worcester.
Worcester was then, and still is today, the second largest city in New England. That explains why Norwich Harbor was second only to Boston.
Fifty years ago, Norwich, by today’s standards, was a boom town. Downtown Norwich was alive and vital. There weren’t as many cars as there are today, and the suburbs had not yet developed. There seemed to be a closer knit among the people of Norwich, the merchants and the industrialists.
For the 200th anniversary, the men wore beards and Abe Lincoln stove-pipe hats. The women, for the 10 days we celebrated the anniversary, wore Colonial garb — long skirts with aprons and bonnets.
The ball was the high point of the affair. It was so formal and well attended. Every man wore a tuxedo, and the women wore gowns. That doesn’t happen anymore. In fact, after the 300th anniversary, which was known as the tercentenary, Norwich’s Bill O’Neil spearheaded a drive to mimic the anniversary with what he called The Rose Arts Festival.
The Rose Arts Festival was such a success, at least for a few years, and then, little by little, the events were poorly attended. The annual ball found men coming in T-shirts and dungarees, and then The Rose Arts Festival died a slow, painful death.
Paved with Gold
This morning’s picture is one I have run before, but, oh, how I remember that event. It was my brother’s idea. Jimmy was a great ideaman. He said, “Why don’t we have a street of gold in Norwich?”
He got the Whittaker brothers, who ran a roofing company, to provide barrels of hot tar. He convinced a linoleum manufacturer to give us six or eight barrels of gold flake. One hot summer night, the men and women, in their period dress, assembled at Chelsea Parade, and the little street that connects Broadway to Williams Street was to be Norwich’s street of gold.
During the years of immigration, many of the Italian, Iris, Polish, Jewish and Greek migrants were told our streets were paved in gold. Yet, we could find no evidence any street was paved in gold, and so Norwich was the first street of gold in America. People came from everywhere to take pictures of the street, which was paved over with asphalt on the final day of celebration.
Wrote To President
We had trouble getting publicity. Phillip Johnson was chairman. Ed Leonard of WICH, Jimmy Pedace of The Norwich Bulletin, and for some reason, myself, made up the publicity committee. In a desperate move to get attention, we wrote a letter, tongue-in-cheek, to Dwight Eisenhower, who was president.
In it we said, “With your military background, general, we request that you reopen the court martial of Benedict Arnold with an eye toward exoneration.” It was a joke. We only meant to bring attention to Norwich. And did we ever! The next several days, Norwich was on the front page of “The London Times,” “The New York Times,” “Time” magazine, and the nation’s most popular commentator, John Cameron Swayze, brought the “Camel Caravan” to Norwich, the hometown of Benedict Arnold. It was all done in fun, and it did get Norwich more recognition internationally and nationally than any other event.
In those days, neighborhoods were close to downtown because that’s where most people worked, and they walked to work. Today, planning the events must be harder because Norwich is so spread out, but the committee seems to have done and outstanding job, as the list of activities is overwhelming.
When our celebration is over, the Forgotten Founders, on July 12, will present the annual presidential wreath at the tomb of Samuel Huntington, a Norwich resident who signed the Declaration of Independence, was a president of the Continental Congress.
We became a nation in 1781. Under the Articles of Confederation, it stated whoever is president of the Continental Congress shall serve as president of the United States in Congress Assembled. That is to say, as long as Congress was in session, the president of the Congress was president of the United States. All during the Revolutionary War, Congress never adjourned.
On the day that we became a nation for the first time, with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, Huntington was president of the Congress and automatically became first president of the United States under our first form of government. Of course, the world knows George Washington was the first elected president under the Constitution.
But for some reason, that I still haven’t figured out, this wonderful, historic town of Norwich — birthplace of Benedict Arnold, home of Samuel Huntington, burial place of the Great Sachem Uncas — does little to promote tourism, nor do we celebrate the giants who were born and lived here and actually played a major part in the birth of this nation.
My congratulations to the committee that has arranged all the events that started yesterday and will end with a great big parade July 6, which will be the official holiday for the Fourth, as July 4, this year, falls on a Saturday. We are today but a shadow of what we once were, but we do have so much to celebrate and so much to be grateful for.
So, this next month, let us all participate and make the celebration of our 350th anniversary an overwhelming success.
Bill Stanley’s prize-winning, latest book, “ The 9-Mile Square,” is available at Lawrence & Memorial and Backus Hospital gift shops, all branches of the Dime Bank, Chelsea Groton, Eastern Federal, People’s Bank, Johnson’s Flowers & Gift Shop in Norwich, Wonderland Books in Putnam, or credit card by calling 1-800-950-0331