At the final meeting of the current Board of Selectmen, Monday, Nov. 2, 2009, Selectman Callie Sullivan presented First Selectman Evonne Klein with a parting gift: the illustrated history of the town she served for the past six years.
The Story of Darien, Connecticut, by Darien antiquarian and former Historical Society president, Kenneth M. Reiss, will soon be available to the public at the Darien Historical Society.
The book is not a conventional town history. It is not dense with family trees. It is not a compendium of minutiae of civic accomplishments by long-forgotten town figures, doomed to gather dust in the library‘s reference section. Rather, it is a collection of lively short chapters filled with sweet vignettes drawn from Darien’s past, interwoven with piquant historical and economic analysis.
“We deliberately chose not to call it the ‘history’ of the town, because it makes no pretense at being a comprehensive record of the town’s people and events,” said Reiss. “Rather, it tells the story of how we got where we are from where we began.”
Darien’s beginnings as a seafaring town and port are examined in a chapter on pre-1775 history. The chapter also discusses the history of slavery in Darien, during a time when the town’s economy was farm-centered.
“No town the size of Darien (or any size, really) determines its own fate to any real degree, but is carried along, like it or not, by formative events that almost invariably happen somewhere else,” said Reiss.
In a chapter titled “The Hometown War (1775-1783),” for example, Reiss writes of the “Tories, Loyalists, Scoundrels and Fence-Straddlers” who fought both sides of the American Revolution, on the dusty streets of Darien.
“Even though it is one of the smallest towns in one of the smallest states, Darien is uniquely positioned in an area that is extraordinarily rich in history,” according to the Historical Society’s description of the book.
“Darien Discovered” covers the period 1851-1917 when Darien was “turned about” by a population explosion following the Civil War: a phenomenon that shuttered the one-room schoolhouses and brought a trolley to town to ease transportation.
“The book is about what was happening in Darien, of course, but we wanted to emphasize the ‘how’ and ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ and ‘when’ that dominate most local histories.”
The project was partly inspired by Reiss’ serendipitous purchase in the 1990s at auction of a suitcase full of 1700s documents from “Middlesex, Connecticut.” Middlesex was Darien’s historical name.
Reiss quickly realized the find was of singular significance. It included the pre-Revolutionary hand-drawn accounts of the merchants who did business at the Landing. The collection, The Gorham Family Papers, now belongs to the Historical Society.
Since Reiss first bought that suitcase, he has labored over the story. His book took six years to write.
“Research is impossible to describe or summarize in less than the years it took to do it,” Reiss relates. “It’s like asking how someone knows how to cook.”
The Story of Darien, Connecticut will be available in late November at the Darien Historical Society. The book retails for $75 and all proceeds will be donated to the Darien Historical Society. The hardcover book is 280 pages and includes illustrations and photographs.