As some one who grew up in an old industrial town of the Northeast, I was not made aware of all of the history that surrounded me during my childhood. It took over fifty years and a move away from my home town for me to even begin to appreciate what I could not see beyond the old buildings and run-down factories. So allow me to set forth my impressions of where I grew up and lived for the first quarter century of my life. Note to historians: my observations may not be wholly accurate so please don’t fault me for that. They are merely my own observations with a bit of knowledge thrown in from what I learned in my later years.
For those of you who have never been to New England or are unfamiliar with Connecticut I would like to tell you about the Lower Naugatuck Valley, or simply The Valley to those of us who grew up there. First off, The Valley is comprised of several towns – Ansonia, Derby, Shelton are at its core along with Seymour/Oxford. These towns are located along the lower or southern end of the Naugatuck River that begins in the northern part of the state and joins the Housatonic River at the lower end of Derby.
During the 1800s, The Valley was home to many growing industries that capitalized initially on the knowledge and drive of descendants who made their way southward from Massachusetts and settled along the river valley. At the end of that century businessmen from New York and elsewhere also found that The Valley was home to immigrants from Poland, Ireland, Germany, and many other places – all of whom had a solid work ethic. My parents were first-generation Americans of Polish descent. That meant that their parents – my grandparents – were born in Poland and eventually settled in America.
My parents were both from Derby and our first family home was there. It was a second floor apartment in a three-story house that was across the street from the river. The street was, in fact, called Water Street. When I was two we moved from there to a house in Shelton that we called home for the next fourteen years. I remember my dad working two jobs and my mom going back to work when I was around six or seven. I was what we called a latch-key child – a youngster who comes home from school to an empty home and stays home alone until the parents come home from work.
From my earliest years I remember driving through two towns to get to church. Our parish church, St. Michael’s, was located in East Derby along the river. From our house in Shelton we drove through town, across the Commodore Hull Bridge into Derby, along Main Street and then crossed another bridge to reach the church. We passed the old Farrell’s Foundry along lower Main Street in Derby and I recall it being a huge, hulking building where you could hear the noises of the mill through the open windows set high in the factory. The windows were open in all seasons as the work in the mill was hot and dirty. My mom used to tell me stories of when my grandfather – her dad – used to work in another foundry that was located in Shelton during the early part of the 1900s.
During the 1940s and 1950s there were still plenty of factories in The Valley and most of our dads had steady work. There were plenty of opportunities to work overtime and in our house at least that was a normal occurrence. As an only child it fell to me when I became a latch-key kid to make sure my homework was done, supper was prepped and in some cases in the oven, and that the table was set so that when my parents came home (dad would pick up mom from where she worked at a commercial laundry) dinner would be almost ready. While I was too young to legally work, my job was getting things ready at home and doing what I could to lighten the load for my mom. The three of us kept the household running and if we all put in long hours we didn’t mind. It was simply what had to be done.
I have no recollection of my maternal grandparents other than through pictures and stories that my mom would tell me. My grandfather died a couple of years after I was born and my grandmother passed when I was two, I think. I have some pictures of her with me as a baby that I cherish. I wish I could have known them. Grandma Karolyna looked like a kind, gentle woman. Grandpa Staislawa also had a merry twinkle in his eye but he seems like he had no trouble doling out discipline.
So, there you have the first installment of my memories of The Valley. I’ll be adding to this as we go forward. Let me know your thoughts about these reminiscences. I’d love to hear them.