Fairfield 375: The business of shopping in Fairfield over the years
Published 8:23 am, Thursday, September 18, 2014
EDITOR'S NOTE: Fairfield, established in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest communities. From its settlement 375 years ago by English colonists on "four squares" of land that Native Americans called Uncoway to the vibrant town of 60,000 residents that it is today, Fairfield's history is a chronicle of compelling events and colorful characters.
The Fairfield Citizen will highlight vignettes from that rich history throughout this 375th anniversary year on a regular basis.
Fairfield currently has two major shopping districts: along the Post Road at the center of town and Black Rock Turnpike, as well as smaller, neighborhood shopping areas, such as Southport Village.
But in the 1800s and early 1900s other locations -- the historic Old Post Road, known then as Main Street, and Southport in particular -- served as the business hubs of Fairfield.
The introduction of the trolley to Fairfield changed the pattern of business in town in the early 20th century. A trolley running from the Stratfield section of town to Bridgeport in the early 1900s along Stratfield Road encouraged development in that area. But in Southport, the opposite happened. With the arrival of a trolley running down Main Street (or Old Post Road), Fairfielders, who often shopped in Southport began taking their business to what is now Fairfield Center more often.
Grocers were among the first merchants to ply their trade in town, and through the years, many grocers ran their stores for decades. Some, like Dom Mercurio, started the family business by selling goods door to door, while E.W.S. Pickett began his grocery business by bringing food in his wagon to "Little Danbury," a cluster of beach cottages at the end of Reef Road settled by residents of Danbury involved in the manufacturing of hats.
Pickett is also credited by historian Thomas Farnham with instigating a movement to establish local a law-enforcement agency to Fairfield. In 1907, Pickett's store was robbed by not just one but four thieves. Without a police force, Pickett had to defend himself. He shot at the robbers, and they returned his fire, resulting in a battle that underscored the need for police protection in town. A second robbery of a private home shortly after got residents working to get police protection in Fairfield, and eventually a deputy sheriff was hired.
Pharmacists were also among the early retailers in Fairfield. Knud. J. Damtoft, operated the Damtoft Pharmacy in Southport before moving to New York City in 1895. He sold his business, originally on the Southport waterfront, to Luin Switzer. Clampett's Drug Store, on the corner of Post and Reef roads downtown, was in business in the 1930s through the 1970s.
General stores were also popular at the time. Moses G. Betts opened his dry goods store in 1844 at Flint's Corner, the corner of Oldfield and Old Post roads. After his store burned down in 1884, he opened a new store that was run by his son, Benjamin Betts.
Other more significant retail businesses included the Fairfield Store, an anchor store in Fairfield Center owned by the Manasevit family for decades, and Henry's, which sold clothing for men and boys. However, like many locally owned department stores, they were eclipsed by retailing trends in the 1990s and shut down.
The site of the Fairfield Store -- corner of Post and Reef roads -- remains a downtown retailing hub, however. Today, a multi-store complex, including the Fairfield University Bookstore, has been developed in its place.