Tag Archives: Horace Staples

Friday Flashback #183

Most Westporters no longer read physical newspapers.

We get our news online. If we’ve got an actual dead-tree copy of the New York TimesWall Street Journal or Westport News, chances are we only glance at it.

There were fewer news sources 191 years ago. And newspapers looked a lot different.

Alert “06880” reader Seth Schachter found this copy of the May 13, 1829 edition of the Saugatuck Journal. Our ancestors must have had great eyesight.

The news was hard to decipher. The ads were more prominent.

They included seasoned lumber for sale by 27-year-old Horace Staples: 1,400 pieces of spruce plank, 500 pieces of white pine plank, and 300 of yellow pine plank.

There were other still-famous names, like Charles Jesup. I’m not sure what exactly he sold — would you buy “1 bale Bed Tick”? — but whatever it was, his dry goods and groceries were offered to “his friends at wholesale or retail, much lower than he has ever sold them.”

There was this sobering ad too.

Connecticut blocked the importation of slaves in 1774, and began a gradual emancipation of slaves in 1784. But slavery was not finally abolished until 1848 — nearly 2 decades after this edition of the Saugatuck Journal went to press, offering a penny reward for the return of a 12-year-old boy.

Happy 218th Birthday, Horace Staples!

Horace Staples was born on January 31, 1801.

More than 80 years later — by then the wealthiest man in Westport — he founded a high school. He had grown tired of watching pupils go off to Bridgeport or Norwalk for their educations. Staples’ High School — that was the correct punctuation — opened in 1884. The first class (consisting of just 6 girls) graduated 2 years later.

For as long as Horace Staples was alive, the quickly growing high school celebrated every January 31 as Founder’s Day. He joined in the festivities, and viewed with pride his students’ presentations and orations.

Horace Staples

A typical ceremony began with an opening hymn, scriptures, a prayer and the 112nd Psalm. There was a reading on “A Liberal Education”; a piano solo and song; a debate on the topic “Resolved: that civilized nations are justified in seizing and occupying lands inhabited by savages”; a declamation on Paul Revere’s Ride; addresses thanking Horace Staples; his response; another hymn, and final remarks.

Horace Staples attended many Founder’s Days. He died on March 6, 1897 — age 96. He had outlived all his wives and children, and was both the best-known and oldest citizen in town.

Founders Day foundered after his death. But 3 years ago, Rho Kappa — the Staples High School (current punctuation) honor society — resurrected the celebration.

There are exhibits of life in the 1880s. The library hosts a speaker.

And every year, Horace Staples — or a reasonable facsimile thereof — roams the halls, popping into classrooms to talk about “his” school, and its 135-year history.

Here are some photos of today’s Founder’s Day. If Horace bears a close resemblance to the world’s leading expert on Westport’s crown jewel — the guy who a decade ago wrote a 377-page book called Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education (and today runs a blog called “o688o”) — well, that’s just one more memorable moment in the long, illustrious history that all began with Horace Staples’ birth, 218 years ago today.

Before the opening bell, Horace Staples visited with social studies teachers. Here he chats about his high school with Drew Coyne.

Among the classes Horace Staples visited was Current Issues: American Media and Politics. It’s a new addition to the curriculum. If it was taught when Staples’ High School opened, pupils would have discussed the administration of President Chester Alan Arthur.

Horace visited himself in the library.

Horace Staples also spent time hanging with students in the cafeteria. He reminded them that until 1923, everyone had to bring their own lunch to school. And — with the temperature in single digits — he noted that for many years, all students had to walk to school. Some came from as far as Wilton.

Horace Staples’ Fantasy

Forget CTE, millionaire athletes behaving badly, and debates about kneeling during the national anthem.

The NFL is alive and well. Just ask anyone who plays fantasy football.

The pretend game draws fanatical players (mostly male). It’s as popular as Fortnite among teenage boys. But plenty of adults draft, follow and obsess over their fantasy teams too.

Maxx Reiner

Maxx Reiner’s league has been together for a decade. It began at Staples High School, with members of the classes of 2009 and ’10. They’ve kept playing — and kept it alumni-only.

Despite being all over the country — for example, Maxx lives in San Francisco, works at a software startup and sells vintage watches on the sides; Alec Abed works in sales n New York and moonlights as a New York Yankees promoter — they’ve forged bonds that may last a lifetime.

Their fantasy football league lacked only one thing: a trophy.

Jason Shapiro — who lives in California, works in marketing and is an Instagram influencer — stepped up to help. But he did not want a generic, old-school stiff-armed running back atop the award.

Jason wanted to commemorate the man who brought the league together.

We’re talking Horace Staples.

The high school founder died in 1897 — 8 years before Teddy Roosevelt proposed a ban on football (too many players were dying).

Jason found a photo online (probably from “06880”). Fantasy football participant Alec contacted a vendor. But the Staples alums were appalled at the Pez dispenser-like version of the trophy that the company proposed.

So Jason spent even more time researching manufacturers than he did moving players around. He found a firm in California. They took months to get it right.

Now, finally, Horace Staples’ fantasy football league has a trophy worthy of its namesake.

The Horace trophy. A portrait of the Staples High School founder hangs on the wall.

The trophy —  called “The Horace” — will be inscribed with the name of each year’s winner.

It will be shipped every year to the champ. There is just 1 league rule: It must be the first item a visitor sees when they enter that home or apartment.

“We consider Horace Staples an icon,” Maxx says. “We wanted to honor a man of such character and integrity. And we wanted to rep Staples: the greatest high school in the USA.”

The Life And Loves of Horace Staples

Jeanne Stevens is an amateur genealogist. Before retiring this year, she was also an AP US History teacher at Staples High School.

So it was natural that when she learned about the condition of school founder Horace Staples’ grave — it, and those of his wife Charrey Crouch, son Capt. William Cowper Staples and daughter Mary were cracked, broken, knocked over, and overgrown with weeds and brush in Greens Farms Congregational Church’s cemetery — she vowed to help.

The grave of the founder of Staples High School, before restoration.

The cost for restoration was $10,000. (By comparison, Wilbur Cross — Horace Staples’ 2nd principal — was paid $700 for the year. Of course, that year was 1885.)

With the help of graduating classes and fellow teachers, she raised some of the funds. In August, Horace and Charrey’s stones were reinstalled.

Horace and Charrey Staples’ graves today. (Photo/Jeanne Stevens)

Meanwhile, in retirement, Stevens headed to the Connecticut State Library in Hartford. She had found a reference to the diary of Eliza Ann Hull Staples — Horace’s first wife — and wanted to see it.

Eliza began writing when she was 14. The last entry was on May 5, 1832, 2 days before William was born and a few weeks before her own death.

Horace Staples’ entry in his wife Eliza’s diary, after she died.

Stevens calls Horace’s entry underneath Eliza’s final one “heartbreaking.” He wrote: “Thus ends the diary of her whose worth was counted more than all this world by her unworthy partner. [She lived] 28 years, 3 months & 3 days.”

On the next page he added:

3 ½ OClock [sic] A.M. 10 June 1832 an hour never to be forgotten by me being an hour which brought upon me an irretrievable loss in the death of my beloved and affectionate wife. Although she was resigned to her fate & felt sure of entering the gates of Heaven until her last breath yet it seems more than I can bear to say Oh, Father thy will be done. Her disease was of that nature that brot [sic] death gradually upon her in the space of 5 weeks – she has left me 2 small children the eldest 3 years & 7 days old youngest 5 weeks whom I consider as dear pledges of pure and life lasting affection and may God bless them.

A few years later, Horace Staples married Charrey. They enjoyed another half century together.

Horace Staples

He became Westport’s wealthiest citizen, running a lumber and hardware business, and general store. He bought sailing vessels, a silk factory, and part of an axe factory. He owned a farm, a thriving pier on the Saugatuck River and helped found a bank.

In 1884 — well into his 80s — he established Staples High School. He lived another 13 years. He died in 1897 in his Riverside Avenue home — age 96 — of pneumonia.

His house still stands. Now — restored once again — so does his grave.

Happy 216th Birthday, Horace Staples!

From the opening of Staples High School in 1884, to a few years after he died 13 years later at age 96, students and faculty celebrated January 31 — Horace Staples’ birthday — as “Founder’s Day.”

That tradition — dormant for over a century — gained new life today. The Staples chapter of Rho Kappa — the national high school honor society — brought Founder’s Day back..

Exhibits outside the auditorium, created by nearly every academic department, portrayed life in the late 19th century. The culinary classes dedicated one to onions. After all, when Staples’ High School (as it was punctuated then) was dedicated, the Westporter newspaper proclaimed, “A good high school will increase the value of property, and raise the price of onions.”

1880’s music played between classes.

And “Horace Staples” — the founder who was a businessman, merchant, factory owner, bank president and farmer — roamed the halls again today. He wandered into classrooms, discussing the differences between his school in 1884 and the 2017 one that sits, a few miles from his original Riverside Avenue building, on North Avenue.

"Horace Staples" posed with students in Barbara Robbins' English class this morning.

“Horace Staples” (center) posed with students in Barbara Robbins’ English class this morning.

Students asked questions. Mr. Staples answered everything from what Westport was like back then (“there were not as many very large houses”) to what he thought of the school today (“you have so many wonderful teachers; be sure to listen to them, read, think, and make your mark on the world”).

And who was “Horace Staples”?

Why, the guy who wrote the book — Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education — about his own alma mater.

"Horace Staples," with his portrait near the front entrance to Staples High School. He hasn't aged a bit.

“Horace Staples,” with his portrait near the front entrance to Staples High School. He hasn’t aged a bit.

Staples’ 129th Graduation Is Nothing Like Its 50th. Or 1st.

Tomorrow afternoon, 483 Staples seniors graduate. For them, the high school’s 129th commencement ceremony is a time to look ahead.

The other day, Mary Schmerker looked back. She thought about her own graduation, in 1958. That was the first one held in the auditorium of the brand new North Avenue campus.

But Mary was thinking much further back. She found a graduation program from 1937. Her mother, Ramona Otis, was in that class — and her grandmother, Mrs. Arthur Otis, was the musical accompanist.

That long-ago event — when President Roosevelt was just beginning his 2nd term, the Golden Gate Bridge opened and the Hindenburg crashed — took place at Bedford Junior High School (now Kings Highway Elementary). Staples (the current Saugatuck El) had no auditorium of its own.

SHS 50th grad - cover

The graduating class of 88 students was divided into 3 groups: college course, general course and commercial course.

There were just 14 teachers. Among them: Staples legends Eli Berton, Gladys Mansir,  Rhoda Merritt (later Rhoda Harvey), Walter Stevenson and Roland Wachob.

The graduation ceremony included several awards. The PTA gave one for highest 4-year average in English. The honoree (not listed) received $5.

The printed program was highlighted by a letter from Connecticut governor Wilbur Cross. It was more than a formality.

Governor Cross wrote:

I shall never forget the pleasant year I spent in Westport as the second principal of Staples High School. It was the academic year 1885-86. During that time I was very closely associated with Mr. Horace Staples who was then 85 years old.

Cross was not just the 22-year-old principal. He also taught Latin, Greek, English literature and geometry. One student memorized the entire first book of “Paradise Lost.”

“I still have a warm heart for the Staples High School,” Governor Cross concluded.

Governor Wilbur Cross' letter in the commencement program -- with a photo of Staples High School.

Governor Wilbur Cross’ letter in the commencement program — with a photo of Staples High School.

Cross did not preside over a graduation ceremony. That was still a year away. The school had opened a year earlier, so the 1st 4-year graduates did not receive diplomas until 1887.

There were only 6.

So — as Staples prepares for its 129th commencement ceremony — let’s give a shout-out to its 1st-ever class of graduates: Nellie Elwood, Florence Fyfe, Hope Lewis, Bessie Marvin, Lena Morehouse and Josephine West.

Yes, that 1st graduating class was all girls. The boys had left school, to work on Westport’s farms.

A mere 33 years later, those 6 graduates won the right to vote.

Ten years after that, they might have voted for their former principal, in his race for governor of Connecticut.

An Old-Time Compo-Staples Connection

Around Westport, “Staples” means one thing: our high school.

Everyone knows the name. Some folks (though not enough) know that the namesake is Horace Staples. In 1884, at the age of 80 — after making a fortune in lumber, shipping, farming, banking, and a silk and axe factory — he “put up” a school.

Horace Staples. However, this story is not about him.

Horace Staples. However, this story is not about him.

But this isn’t a story about Horace Staples. It’s about what the rest of the world thinks of when they hear “staples”: the tiny wire thingies that fasten sheets of paper together.

The other day, Mark Kramer was cleaning out his late father’s Minuteman Hill house. Sid died in December, a month short of his 100th birthday. A noted publisher and literary agent, he’d lived in Westport for much of his adult life. There was a lot of stuff around.

Mark spotted an old stapler — one he’d used at Staples, before graduating in 1961. Curious, he went online to learn more about it.

He did not find that device. But he stumbled on a whole web world of stapler aficionados.

Including this, from Tom Crandall on the Antique Outings website:

OK I will admit it. I just love staplers from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  There is something special about them that just warms my heart. The Compo Stapler was manufactured by the Compo Manufacturing Company located in Westport Connecticut. The patent  dates back to 1923 and was invented by Richard J. Holt-Hausen….

The Compo Stapler.

The Compo Stapler.

The patent was for a Staple Machine, which at the time, was what some staplers were referred to as. I couldn’t find much information on how long the Compo Manufacturing Company existed for or how long the Compo stapler was produced.

The Compo Stapler was sold as a non clogging paper stapler. It accepted No 1 staples, but they suggested using the Combo No 1 staples to increase sales no doubt. It was touted as a stapler that could also unbend staples. They even made a rubber cushion that would fit on top of the plunger. They had a motto “It Never Foils In the Clinches.”

There you have it. Everything you never even knew you needed to know about Westport’s connection to staples.

But if you know more — like where the Compo Manufacturing Company was located — hit “comments.” Westport — and stapler fans everywhere — want to know.

Unearthing Time Capsules, Wherever They Are

Different things keep different people up at night.

Dave Kokoszka recently wrote:

Something has puzzled me for a long time. When I was in 1st grade, a capsule was buried at Greens Farms Elementary School. We all made drawings that were buried in a ceremony on the front lawn. Might have been 1976. It seems that the whole grounds in the front of the school have changed.

Yes and yes. It was 1976, and the front of the school has indeed changed. State laws now mandate separate different loops for buses and cars. And you thought government just didn’t care!

The bicentennial time capsule seems to have gone the way of most others: buried with great fanfare, then forgotten half an hour later.

The Green’s Farms Elementary School time capsule could be buried anywhere.

Artifacts buried in cornerstones fare a bit better.

One of the most famous cornerstones in Westport was laid on April 22, 1884. It was the dedication of “Horace Staples’ High School” on Riverside Avenue. A crowd of 2,500 showed up; even Connecticut Governor Thomas Waller was there.

Among the contents deposited in a copper box: the names of all Westport public and private school teachers; a Bible; an 1884 silver dollar; newspapers and almanacs; a list of Westport fire companies; information from the 17th Regiment, which had gathered in Fairfield the year before to recollect their Civil War engagements; the names of the architects and workmen involved in the construction of the high school; an 1860 dollar bill from Horace Staples’ bank, and a biographical sketch of the school’s founding.

The box was lowered. A “colored workman” from Easton spread cement. A minister proclaimed: “I lay the cornerstone of an edifice to be erected by the name of ‘Staples High School,’ to be devoted to the promotion of sound learning and Christian education.”

And there the stone lay, for 83 years.

The original Staples High School. The cornerstone was in there somewhere.

In the fall of 1967, Staples Hall – the original brick building, by then decrepit, rat-infested and overshadowed by the “modern” Bedford Junior High School (now Saugatuck Elementary) — was slated for demolition.

The occasion drew a small crowd — including Frank Osborne, a graduate of Staples’ Class of 1894 (and still a Westport resident).

During the wrecking operation, the cornerstone was recovered. The old copper box and its contents of 30 items were given to First Selectman Herbert E. Baldwin.

The lintel from the original Staples High School building — and the cornerstone — were among the few items salvaged during the 1967 demolition on Riverside Avenue.

Plans were to eventually hand the box to trustees of the Horace Staples estate. “There is hope that it can be opened publicly with some trace of the ceremony with which it was laid in the corner almost 100 years ago,” the Town Crier reported.

That did not happen. Instead, the cornerstone was stuffed into the back of Staples’ main office safe on North Avenue. In 1976, a Staples class used it during their study of the American bicentennial.

Yes, the same bicentennial celebration during which a group of Green’s Farms Elementary School students buried a time capsule. Unlike Staples, it is now lost to history.

Postscript: The Westport Historical Society gained possession of the Staples box (minus a few items) in the late 1970s. That cornerstone – along with the lintel now on display at the North Avenue entrance, some souvenir bricks, a clock in Sherman Betts’ home, and fading memories of longtime Westporters – are all that remain of the building that, for over eight decades, was Staples High School.

“A Good High School Will Raise The Price Of Onions”

Last Friday’s post on the portrait of Horace Staples spurred one reader to ask who the founder of Westport’s high school was, anyway. Here — direct from my book Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education — is the answer.

In 1866, Horace Staples was perhaps the wealthiest man in Westport. A direct descendant of Thomas Staples, one of 5 settlers who founded Fairfield — and of Mary Staples, accused but acquitted of witchcraft during the fever of 1692 — he had worked since he was 8 years old.

At age 27 he started a lumber and hardware business in Saugatuck. It soon grew into a general store carrying grain, groceries, household furnishings and medicines. He bought sailing vessels, a silk factory, and an axe factory. He owned a thriving pier off the west bank of the Saugatuck River. In 1852 he helped establish a bank. In addition to everything else, he ran a farm.

Now Horace Staples was 65. Every morning he watched Westport boys and girls board the Post Road trolley. Some headed west to Norwalk; others east to Bridgeport – the 2 nearest towns with high schools. It was time, he thought, for Westport to “get up” a high school of its own.

Horace Staples

He offered to give the town a lot for a building. But no one did anything. He offered again; again the town refused to act. Year after year, young Westporters left town for education. Others, at age 14, began to work.

In 1880 Horace Staples’ only daughter died. His sole remaining heir was a grandson. He decided that the fortune he intended to leave his daughter should benefit all young people in town. Nearly 80 years old – and so hard of hearing he carried a yard-long ear trumpet – Horace Staples embarked on a final project that, more than a century later, would dwarf every other endeavor of his long, successful life.

In 1882 he redrew his will, directing some of his money toward a new high school. The following year he planned a red-brick building just up the street from his West (now Riverside) Avenue colonial home.

Though over 80 years old he was in good health, and came from a long line of long-living people. “I might as well see my name up in bricks while I am still around,” he said.

Though the Staples High School seal says “1885,” the school opened in 1884.

“A suitable building for a school house” would be erected on vacant land he donated. His builders assured him the school would be finished by July.

On April 22, 1884, whistles and sirens blew; church bells rang. Businesses closed. A procession formed in front of National Hall, turned left onto West Avenue, and made the short walk to the site of the ceremony. The crowd was estimated at 2,500.

Governor Thomas Waller arrived. Pastors offered prayers and addresses. A choir sang a hymn composed for the occasion. The cornerstone was laid.

Governor Waller finally stepped forward. The Westporter did not print his address. It did note, however, that “A good high school will increase the value of property, and raise the price of onions.”

Before it was Fairfield Furniture (and later the Inn at National Hall), the “National Hall” building housed the very first Staples High School. Classes were held on the top floor.

Despite his builders’ assurances, the building was not ready when the first term began in September. For a few weeks classes were conducted on the 3rd floor of National Hall (Horace Staples’ First National Bank of Westport occupied the first floor). Sixty students enrolled, from Westport, Norwalk, Southport and Weston.

The red-brick and stone building on West (Riverside) Avenue opened officially on October 31, 1884. The 1st floor contained 2 classrooms, a cloakroom, a laboratory and a 250-volume library.

The 2nd floor contained 2 more classrooms, another cloakroom, and a 350-seat “Assembly Hall” that doubled as a gymnasium. The entire school assembled there once a day, for devotional exercises.

During the first year of operation, there was no running water. The next year water pipes were fitted in the building, and wash bowls placed in the cloakrooms.

The original Staples High School. The building sat on what is now the site of the Saugatuck Elementary School auditorium.

Classes were held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The curriculum included the usual courses of the day — advanced arithmetic, algebra, English grammar, physical geography, botany, geometry, trigonometry, English history, physics, chemistry, French, German, ancient history and the United States Constitution – plus 4 courses not generally offered in high school: Greek, Latin, physiology and genealogy.

The latter was a particular favorite of Horace Staples. It is “not enough to know where you’re going,” he said. You “also have to know where you’re coming from.”

The inclusion of those 4 courses is noteworthy. From its inception, and all the way through to today, Staples has done things other schools do not do.

But in other ways, the Staples of 1884 was very different from the modern Staples High. The first graduating class to enter the halls of Westport’s new school consisted of just 6 students.

And all were girls.

(My book on the history of Staples High School is available at the Westport Historical Society. Click here to order.)

Saving Mr. Staples

For a 208-year-old guy, Horace Staples looks pretty good.

Some say he’s never looked better.

For years his portrait — painted in 1934 by Samuel Brown, as a WPA project — hung in a deserted corner of the school he founded.

When the new building — a gazillion square feet larger than the one he donated in 1884 — opened a few years ago, Horace Staples was placed in a prominent spot. He smiled enigmatically — a philanthropic version of the Mona Lisa — right outside the main office.

Earlier this year, principal John Dodig — who loves the school as much as Horace did — noticed the founder was flaking. In fact, his paint had begun deteriorating in his “youth.” Previous conservation treatments failed.

Horace Staples, before undergoing treatment…

Dodig notified Carole Erger Fass, co-chair of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection. She and co-chair Kathie Bennewitz called Peggy Van Witt, an art conservator in Kansas City.

Peggy, a former Westporter, had recently conserved the damaged portrait of another, equally famous school namesake: Edward T. Bedford. She was happy to help. Off Horace Staples went, to the Midwest.

Peggy unpacked him, and was not pleased.

“I just removed Mr. Staples from the box, and examined him closely,” she wrote to the WSPAC. “He is severely delaminating.”

Doesn’t it suck to delaminate?

“In a previous restoration the tacking edges were trimmed,” she explained. “He was glued to a panel which was then nailed to a stretcher bar. This makes it more complicated.”

Peggy had 2 choices: “inject him with an adhesive from the front, or remove him from the panel and put him on the vacuum table.” She ran a battery of tests, then treated him.

…and Horace Staples today.

Soon — all spiffed up — Mr. Staples was back in Westport. Once again, he hangs proudly outside the main office.

And — just like Horace Staples 128 years ago — Peggy Van Witt is a very generous soul.

She waived her $1,247 conservation treatment fee.

All of Westport — and the no longer delaminating or flaking Horace Staples — thank her.