Growing Up in Roxbury, Connecticut 1946 to 1955
My family moved to Roxbury in the summer of 1946 when I was nine years old, and my sisters June and Diane were seven and five. My parents, Billie (age 34) and Elmer (age 35), rented a large, wood-sided, colonial home at 66 South Street that had two stories in the front and three-stories in the rear. We had not moved far, though—Roxbury was only four miles from the house we left in Bridgewater, and only seven miles from New Milford, where I was born and spent my first eight years living at 18 South Main Street. Elmer was also born in New Milford and lived there until we moved to Bridgewater in 1945.
My parents lived in Roxbury on South Street until 1998 when they moved to the Southbury retirement community of East Hill Woods, which today is the Watermark at East Hill. They rented the house in Roxbury until the 1970s, when they bought it from the owners who lived in Hawaii and decided to sell it. By the time my parents sold their house in 1998, the Roxbury I had known as a child was long gone.
Elmer and Billie
Although his career was in New York City, Elmer lived from birth to death in four towns along a 15-mile stretch of southwest Connecticut. Elmer had become a bank teller after graduating from New Milford high school in 1928. During World War II, the federal government gave Elmer a choice: accept a commission as a captain in the Army Finance Corps or attend Harvard Business School and then be appointed a manager at a defense plant in Bridgeport. Elmer chose Harvard. After his stint in Bridgeport, in 1945 he began work at Banker’s Trust on Wall Street in New York City, where he eventually became senior vice president and manager before he retired in 1976.
Unlike Elmer, Billie’s life in Roxbury was far from her birthplace—she was born and raised in Winter Haven, Florida. After graduating from nursing school in Florida, she was too young to become licensed so went to nursing graduate school in Philadelphia. After graduating she moved to live with her married half-sister, Mae Roberts, in New Milford. Employed as a nurse, Billie met Elmer and married him in 1934. Billie continued working until 1936 when she was pregnant with Bob. After Bob was born, she was a full-time mother, homemaker, and community volunteer.
Billie and Elmer loved Roxbury and each devoted much of their lives to volunteer work for the town.
Roxbury: An Outdoor Paradise
Roxbury, without a doubt, was the greatest place a kid like me could grow up. I became an outdoors junkie and Roxbury was an outdoors paradise. In 1946 Roxbury had a population of slightly over six hundred people, with plenty of wide-open spaces. Most residents were farmers raising dairy cattle and growing produce. Many were families who came from original settlers. Next were residents who lived in Roxbury but commuted elsewhere to work such as New Milford, Waterbury, or Danbury. Some of the commuters spent five hours a day in a car (and later a train) traveling to jobs in New York City, which was sixty-five miles one way—Elmer was one of these. We also had the creative people: people who worked as writers, artists, sculptors, actors, actresses, or TV people. Many of them commuted to New York City, while others worked in their studios at home or lived in Roxbury until doing a play on Broadway or filming in some remote location.
Roxbury consisted of 26 ½ square miles, which was mostly forests, pastures, hay fields, or crops. There was also one river (the Shepaug), numerous brooks and streams, some ponds, and swamps. As I said, an outdoors paradise.
Roxbury: The Town of My Childhood
The town had four distinct parts: Roxbury Center, Roxbury Station, Mine Hill, and Roxbury Falls. Roxbury Center was where four main roads crossed at Revolutionary War hero Colonel Seth Warner’s monument and burial site. The town center in the late 1940s had a general store, Hodge’s Market, and an automobile service station. There was no place to buy alcoholic beverages, though. Roxbury Station was a collection of storage buildings a few miles west of the town center. It used to be a station for a railroad that once paralleled the river, running north and south through Roxbury. In 1946 it had one hardware store. A short distance uphill from the station is Mine Hill. In the mid-1700s, iron ore was found, and deep mines were dug. Rumor has it that the Roxbury mines were the source of some of the iron links which crossed the Hudson River at West Point in the late 1770s to prevent British ships from moving up stream. When I lived in Roxbury, the mines were open and accessible to the brave; today they are barred. Roxbury Falls is a few miles southwest of the center where an old steel bridge crossed the Shepaug. Its claim to fame was swimming. I do not recall any great falls at all, just rushing water over rocks and some deep pools to swim in. Some of us—we thought we were brave while others called us fools—would dive off the center of the bridge, into the water. The bridge was over twenty feet above the river and the water depth was about five feet. I was never injured.
My Youth in Roxbury
I do not know if the outdoors of Roxbury molded me into the man I became or the man I was destined to become was nurtured by the outdoors of Roxbury. Whatever, maybe you can tell from my stories.
Reading and Drawing
One of my childhood passions was reading. Roxbury in the 1940s and 50s had a small stone library at the center of town where I would spend hours before arriving home with many books. My favorites were Zane Grey western novels and books on the outdoors, covering topics like how to survive in the wilderness. Grey’s novels ingrained visions of the west with log cabins on a mountain stream, Colt 1873 Peacemaker .45 single-action revolvers, and Winchester lever-action rifles. By age 60, my Zane Grey dreams had come true. I had built a log-sided cabin on a small cattle ranch beside a trout stream in the Sacramento Mountains in southern New Mexico. I had also acquired a dozen of the Colt revolvers and several lever-action Winchesters. Today I have a single bookcase, containing all Grey’s western novels.
Another childhood passion was drawing. I wanted to become a cartoonist drawing comics in the style of Chester Gould, who created Dick Tracy, or Al Capp, who created Li’l Abner. My teachers chastised me for drawing instead of doing classwork, but that never stopped me. In the eighth grade I won a regional art award that provided a year of formal art classes. In high school, I apprenticed in the studio of Denver Gillen, co-creator of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I continued drawing at Dartmouth College as a staff cartoonist for the college humor magazine and ended up majoring in art.
School and Friends
I attended Booth Free School from fourth grade through eighth grade. Our school had three rooms, one each for grades first through third, fourth through sixth, and seventh and eighth. Friendships among the boys were based on whether we were in the same classroom and how close we lived to each other, since our only mode of transportation was our bikes. If a boy lived away from the center of town, we never got together after school. The three guys in my class all lived far away from town so I did not do much with them outside of school. Two guys who were younger lived near me and they were my hunting and fishing buddies until I went to high school, they remained at Booth Free School.
The 1951 eighth grade class consisted of Phyllis Hodge (her parents owned the Roxbury general store), Barbara Uihlein, Barbara Allen, Gene Baslow, Peter Izzard, John Jaeger, and me. Most of us moved on to Washington High School, a regional high school in Washington Depot, serving several small towns. Peter went to a private prep school and John went to Woodbury as an ag student. Gene dropped out of high school to enlist in the military when he turned seventeen. Thus, I became the only boy in my high school class from Roxbury.
During high school, parties were a frequent pastime many of us enjoyed. Often, several of my classmates and girls in my sister June’s class would meet at someone’s home on a Saturday evening mostly for dancing. Alcohol and cigarettes were never present.
Hunting and Shooting
My love of firearms perhaps began because of Zane Grey. I persuaded my parents to get me a Daisey Red Ryder BB gun around age 10. I read everything I could on shooting and with constant practice, became an expert shot. At 11, I received a model 37 Winchester single-shot 20-gauge shotgun. A year later I received a Remington model 514 bolt-action single shot .22 rifle. I would hunt pheasants and grouse as well as woodchucks (groundhogs). Single shot firearms meant that, to be successful, one had to hit what they aimed at—no second chance. I became exceptionally good. Because my father was not a hunter, he did not know firearms. Artist Bob Kuhn and dog trainer Chet Cummings, both of whom were hunters and lived in Roxbury, became my mentors and instructors. By the time I was a high school senior, my firearms collection included three shotguns, an old Remington revolver, several rifles from .22s to .30 calibers, and a Marlin lever action .45-70 rifle.
As pre-teens, in the late 1940s and early fifties, my Roxbury friends and I roamed the streets of Roxbury, shouldering our .22s, eyeing the fields for woodchucks. Neighbors seeing us knew exactly what we were doing and left us alone. After all, woodchucks dug holes in pastures where cattle roamed. Broken legs required killing a cow. That was expensive so, as hunters, we were encouraged to do away with the ground hogs. Because they ate good grasses, they were very flavorful and tasty if cooked properly. When I got older, I would bake them in a mushroom casserole and serve them to my dates (without saying what they were).
In my early to mid-teens, girls and cars held no interest for me. I loved the outdoors—camping, fishing, hunting, shooting, and hiking became my world. While my friends were chomping at the bit at 15 and 16 to get their driver’s licenses and start dating, I did not know girls existed until I was a junior in high school. My high school friends’ parents prohibited their owning firearms (too dangerous) but allowed them old cars from the 1920s and 30s. I had rifles and shotguns but no car. This worked out, though, because I would take them shooting and they provided my transportation.
Throughout my teens, I would load a knapsack with food and sleeping equipment, grab a rifle, head out for the woods, and spend a day or two by myself (my parents trusted my judgement and let me go). If I did not shoot a small animal for food, I could always fire a round into a small pool of water in a stream, concussing trout, to be plucked for a meal. I never went hungry. A favorite time to camp was winter. I really liked to hike to the Roxbury Falls where the banks were lined with evergreen trees. In a foot or two of snow, I would construct a lean-to of pine boughs, line the bottom with more pine boughs to sleep on and set up a fire in the front. In the winter I packed all my food, as many animals and birds would also be bedded down during the snowfall. At an early age I learned how to survive in the wilderness, which proved useful later when I was a combat infantryman and then a pilot.
But as I approached seventeen, a funny thing happened: I discovered girls. I fell in love with a 15-year-old brunette, Cal Adams, from New Milford. Dating required cars so I quickly obtained my license. Cal’s parents were Ivy Leaguers and her father graduated from Dartmouth College. He convinced me to consider Dartmouth. After spending a weekend at Dartmouth with Cal’s father’s nephew, I applied (and was accepted). We dated until the end of the summer of 1954 when she went away to a girl’s prep school near Boston. She looked forward to her new life and I was devastated. For a couple of weeks, I moped and cried. My life had been snatched away, and I did not know how to cope.
As a senior, I met and dated a good looking blonde, Barbara Meinig, who was a high school sophomore in my sister June’s class. Later in my senior year I met another pretty blonde from Litchfield, Mary Virtue. We dated until I left for college in the fall of 1955, and she went away to an all-girl’s prep school.
In the fall of 1955, I matriculated in Dartmouth College (Cal’s father had convinced me that Dartmouth was an outdoorsman’s school). In February 1957, I dropped out of Dartmouth, enlisted in the Marines, and met Anita Elliott from Washington, DC. Discharged from the Marines in 1959, I re-entered Dartmouth, got married, graduated, and was commissioned in the Army. From there on my life is told in my books: Under Fire with ARVN Infantry (2018), Fighting Viet Cong in the Rung Sat (2021), The Making of an Army Psychologist (2022), and Forty Years in the Sky: A Pilots Guide to General Aviation (to be published in late 2023).
After I left Roxbury, I frequently returned to visit my parents. It was easy since I could land my plane at the Waterbury-Oxford Airport, next to Southbury. During my Vietnam tours, our daughters (Susan, Julie, and Karen) lived part-time in Roxbury. Throughout their young lives, they visited their grandparents often. So, my daughters also share my love of Roxbury, but it is nothing like my growing up there.
Roxbury Then and Now
Roxbury of today is, in many ways, no longer the Roxbury I knew 70-odd years ago. My last visit to Roxbury was in the fall of 2012, when my mother died. The town I visited then was no longer the Roxbury of my boyhood.
For example, in the late 1940s and early 1950s the town dump was open to all residents who just drove in and tossed their refuse. My friends and I used to frequent the dump to shoot rats. After my first Vietnam tour, I returned to the dump, arriving with friends but in my Georgia licensed car. None of us had been there in over a decade. We pulled up, alighted with our rifles, and were met by a guard. Noting the Georgia car and four scruffy-looking men in their late twenties, he challenged us.
One of us spoke up, stating that we were going to shoot rats. The guard began to lecture us on the dangers of firearms, it appeared that he thought we were out-of-state city guys who knew nothing about firearms. He continued to describe the effect of bullets and treated us like we knew nothing about firearms or shooting. One friend began to laugh and suggested we leave. The guard, incensed, wanted to know why my friend was laughing. We told him that we all grew up in Roxbury and used to shoot rats at the dump. My friend pointed out I used to be a professional competitive shooter and had just returned from a combat tour in Vietnam. We understood firearms and the guard’s lecture was funny. We returned home but I never fired another weapon in Roxbury.
The fields and pastures along lower South Street where I camped and hunted in the 40s and 50s disappeared by the 21st century, becoming forests with 40+ feet tall hardwood trees. Farmlands I hunted have become manicured yards of mansions. Most of the small farms I used to work on are gone. Woody growth and developers have transformed the land. What I enjoyed several decades ago is no longer possible. The way of life I knew is gone.
In the 1940s and 50s, most residents were into farming or were blue-collar employees. Today the town has 2,260 residents, earning an average of $109,000 annually, with 89% white-collar workers. When I lived in Roxbury everyone was white; today 6% are not.
But that is progress. I sense from talking to people and perusing social media that the spirit of Roxbury that I was part of is still there. At this stage of my life, looking back covers much more territory than does my future. So let me share with you my stories of growing up in Roxbury that I hope you find interesting, charming, delightful, entertaining, or funny. As I said in the beginning, I know that I could never have lived in a better place than Roxbury. Here are some of my remembrances of living in Roxbury.
And thanks to my daughter Karen, for taking my mangled original story and editing it to improve my work.