Wolcott Historical Society News - January 2021
By Florence Goodman
The year 2020 will go down in the history books for many reasons; our lives and ways of living were changed in so many ways. Things that we had taken for granted were no longer recommended or allowed and we had to adapt to new ways of living, which was not an easy task. As the holiday season approached so many of those holiday rituals were not held or were virtual as was our tree lighting on the town Green. As I watched the ceremony on my TV I couldn't help but think this was the last year for another one of our trees on the Green. The original tree lasted fifty-one years, but this one, which was struck by lightening, only made it five years. Thus, this article will revisit the beginnings of the Historical Society, the tree on the Green and how the town Christmas tree lighting began.
In 2007 and 2012, I discussed the formation of the Wolcott Historical Society, the acquisition of the stone schoolhouse, and the first Christmas tree lighting ceremony held on the Town Green. These events, which took place over sixty years ago have helped to shape some of our town's traditions.
It was April 23, 1958 when fifteen historically minded Wolcott citizens met at the Town Hall to discuss forming of a historical society in our town. Mr. John Washburne served as the chairman of the meeting and suggested the following residents as committee members: Rose Wakelee Badger, Eva Tyrrell, Isabelle Way, Mr. Clifford Herbst, and Mrs. Margaret Hall. Upon request by Eva Tyrrell it was agreed that her daughter, Mrs. William Dumschatt, would be appointed in her place because as Wolcott correspondent for the Waterbury newspaper Mrs. Tyrrell did not have the time to serve on the committee. Town Clerk, Minnie Bergin, motioned that these people be appointed as an acting committee and it was so voted. John Washburne was chosen as acting president and Mrs. Hall as acting secretary. The group met several times each month to work out the details of incorporation, by-laws, membership, fundraising, and transferring ownership of the stone schoolhouse museum from the Mattatuck Historical Society to our Society. These early members of the Society worked tirelessly to keep our local history alive for future generations of our town.
On September 30, 1958 a public meeting of the Society was held at Frisbie School auditorium. A proposed constitution and by-laws were read and approved and the original committee voted to incorporate. The incorporation papers were recorded in the Town Clerk's office on April 29, 1959. The next task at hand was to work with the Mattatuck Historical Society of Waterbury on the proper documentation necessary to deed ownership of the stone schoolhouse on Nichols Road over to the Wolcott Historical Society. It took some time, but on July 3, 1962 the stone school became the property of the Wolcott Historical Society.
Now onto to the last, but not least of the events that I want to "enlighten" you about; that's the Tree Lighting on the Green. During the spring and summer months you may not pay much attention to that old spruce that adorns our Green, but an interesting story and yearly ritual is hidden amongst those branches.
The first town Christmas tree lighting on the Green was sponsored by the Wolcott Historical Society and held on December 18, 1961. The Society furnished a 25-foot Norway spruce complete with ornaments and lights. The members of the Wolcott Congregational Church hosted a carol sing and coffee was served at Beecher Memorial. The Connecticut Light and Power Company erected the tree and installed the lights free of charge as a donation to the Society.
The following year, in November of 1962, Mr. Clifford Herbst found a beautifully shaped 22-foot blue spruce tree on his farm on 245 Wolcott Road and donated it to the town to ensure that there would be a permanent Christmas tree on the Green. The tree had been growing on his property for many years (where the Lion's Club is today) and was dug up by his son David Herbst. It was then transported to the town center and planted on the Green. The Society supplied the decorations, which were placed on the tree by the Wolcott Civil Defense. This tree lighting took place on December 15, 1962 and Mrs. Eva Tyrrell was given the privilege of turning on the lights. Thus began a tradition that is still in existence today.
In 2012 that original tree celebrated a milestone, 50 years of adorning our Town Green. Although the Herbst family and the Wolcott Historical Society played a major role in placing the tree on our Green other people and organizations carried on this tradition over those years. An organization that has played a major role in this yearly event is the Junior Women's Club. They took over the Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony in 1972. At that time Fran Culver was the president of the organization. Today they continue to organize this wonderful event and supply hot chocolate, candy canes and a visit from Santa. The Wolcott Congregational Church has also been faithful in their support of the ceremony. They have been opening the Beecher Memorial doors for refreshments for all of these years and will continue to do so.
When Mayor Dunn worked for the Department of public works one of his jobs was to decorate the tree for the Annual Tree Lighting Service so he had a special place in his heart for that first tree. After he became Mayor, he continued to do this job for several years because he enjoyed it so much.
Not too long after that fifty year celebration there was concern about the condition of the original tree and the possibility of replacing it with a new one; sadly, in 2014 the tree had to be cut down. Again the Herbst family came to the rescue and donated the money to plant a new Norway spruce on the Green that was similar to the original tree. They also had a beautiful bench made from the tree and it is now part of the seating in the Council Chambers at Town Hall.
Now our second tree needs to be taken down as well after being struck by lightening some time ago. Christmas 2020 was the last year that this tree will stand beautifully decorated on our Green during our holiday season. In the future it will be replaced, but funds are not available to do so at this time. Maybe some of our local organizations might think about ways that we can help to get a new tree on our Green. A new year brings new hope for all of us and 2021 will be another special year for our town since we will be celebrating 225 years since our incorporation!
(Information for this article was taken from early Historical Society minutes; Sunday Republican, January 4, 2015; Wolcott News article by Flo Goodman October 2012; and conversations with Lee Jenson and Eleanor Herbst.)
The "Christmas Tree Bench" is located in the Council Chambers in the Wolcott Town Hall. Mike Schmaltz built the bench in 2014 from the original tree on the Green.
Charter members of the Wolcott Historical Society on April 27, 1958 are from left to right: Mrs. Douglas Way, Maurice Goodson, town treasurer, Clifford Herbst, Mrs. Maurice Goodson, John Dumschatt, Mrs. Grace Webber, Mrs. Alfred Blanchard, Mrs. Eva M. Tyrrell, Mrs. Betty Coe, Mrs. Rae Brennan, Mrs. Mildred Frisbie, Mrs. Minnie Bergen, town clerk, Mrs. Margaret Hall, Mrs. Ruth Archambault, John Brouker, second selectman, John Washburne, Mr. and Mrs. Claude V. Badger and Robert S. Wakelee, first selectman
Wolcott Congregational Church behind the tree on the green December 22, 1972
Church and tree on the green October 28, 2012
Last year for our Tree on the Green, 2020
This photo taken by Steven Valenti was published in the Sunday Republican on January 4, 2015. From left, Cynthia Herbst, her daughter Eleanor Herbst and Eleanor's grandson on her lap. Mike Schmaltz and Mayor Dunn are behind the bench. Mike made the bench from the original Christmas tree on the green, which was taken down in 2014.
To view past installments of the Historical Society News, click here.