OLD SAYBROOK — If you’re in a small New England town and want to get a cup of coffee, mail a letter, window shop, find a church, butcher or baker, or maybe take in some local entertainment, it’s likely you’ll head for Main Street.
Old Saybrook’s Main Street is such a place and has been for most of the town’s 400 some years. Each generation formed a layer, adding to the town’s rich foundation. Businesses and people have come and gone while many of the streets, buildings and houses they inhabited over the centuries remain.
Old Saybrook resident, former history teacher, local historian and writer, Tedd Levy, got to wondering about Old Saybrook’s Main Street and embarked on a history-seeking stroll down the road that has evolved from the days of the first fort in the 1600s to the present, ever-adapting to the people’s needs.
His findings are captured for present and future generations in his new book, “Old Saybrook, A Main Street History,” (The History Press, 2020).
“Main Street is such a significant part of Old Saybrook, and it has some pretty good history in terms of its variety and its development over time,” Levy said. “I wanted to draw people’s attention to it, get them to really look at their surroundings and their history.
“History is about human experiences, how people lived their lives. There is a huge amount to learn from people from other times,” Levy said.
Levy was also inspired by “the famous Norman Rockwell painting of Main Street in Stockbridge, Mass. The painting is a sort of Rockwell-quirky insightful representation of a main street.
“I started thinking that we may not have a perfect Norman Rockwell Main Street, but we do have a very lively and interesting place, that maybe there were some stories to find. I started putting things together, one thing led to another, and it became a book,” Levy said.
After reading “Old Saybrook, A Main Street History,” this reader became curious about what stories were told in Stokes General Store where the Village Barber Shop and Old Colony Package Store are now; and what it was like when the Seabury Institute south of the town center was full of Cuban students during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Or what the first bicycles, zipping around ringing their bells did to the quiet town in the 19th century, and the part the two-wheeled machines played in setting women free.
The book also provides glimpses of how people pulled together in times of crisis, worked together in the war efforts of WWI and WWII, and that school building disputes are not new, as there was one in 1891 that had to do with taxes and property values.
It takes just a bit of imagination to picture the long-gone folks who walked the old wooden floors, shopped for goods familiar and curious to modern folks, hollowed the center of the stair treads with their boots, buried their loved ones in the Upper Cemetery, or looked out the paned windows of a church at the trees and sky just as you do. One can imagine excited townspeople in the early 1800s awaiting the Post Road mail delivery, listening for the bells every Friday in hopes of a package or a letter. Readers will also learn about the grand old houses lining Main Street, and as they drive by, they may be able to picture these earlier residents walking along the once elm-lined roadway, imagining the hard and good times they experienced.
A frequent contributor to the ShoreLine Times, Levy wrote many columns about Old Saybrook’s history in recent years. He gathered and tweaked those stories, added a bit of new content and old photographs and put it together in book format to preserve the tales.
“I was very happy that Barbara Maynard put down her memories for the foreword. She and her husband George, now in their 90s, ran the hardware store, she was the first selectman, and their memories go way back. They have both been a major part of the town for many years,” Levy said adding that “some of our old-timers remember many things about the town, but they carry them around in their heads and the stories get lost unless someone decides to write them down.”
Levy said through this process and other writing he has done he sees that “there are lots of engaging, insightful stories about people doing interesting things that are waiting to be told.
“The stories running through this book are mainly about good people doing good things in and for their community.”
The current pandemic has brought tough times to Main Streets across the country.
“Main Street merchants have adjusted as well as they probably can. Annual town activities have been cancelled including the Historical Society’s spring programs and summer Coast Guard concert, the Chamber of Commerce’s Summer Arts and Crafts show, and likely the Torchlight Parade. Church services and town government have gone virtual. But restaurants set up tables outside, exercise groups gather on the town green, drive-through and curbside pick-up transactions are increasing, and so on. Main Street, like everywhere else, is going through some tough times but is adapting as we all are,” Levy said.
“I don’t think Old Saybrook’s Main Street would work at all If it wasn’t for the involvement and the interest of residents and visitors in taking pride in the places where they buy their goods and go to church and pay their tax bills and go to the theater. It’s a place where over the years they have participated in activities that enrich their lives,” Levy said, adding, “it will return changed, but much like it has always been — the gathering place for residents and visitors. Main Street draws people in.”
“Old Saybrook, a Main Street History” is available at local bookstores and online through the Old Saybrook Historical Society website, saybrookhistory.org .