Moving Forward, Looking Back / The history lesson I live in
Published 8:02 am, Wednesday, October 10, 2012
In the fall of 1977, we made the first home purchase of our lives -- an appealingly unusual house on Stillson Road. Fresh from Arizona, we were drawn to its southwest-style sprawling layout, but also to its quirky origins; the bedroom wing was a transformed stable. Too naïve to see the warning lights flashing, we took the plunge.
On a purely objective basis, we have paid dearly for that decision. But 35 years down the road, we are grateful for our lack of savvy back then. We would probably have shied away from the house that has played a central role in our family history. We also would have missed out on the very compelling story it had to tell.
In 1896, Bernhard Setzer, a successful New York City purveyor of meat to hotels and steamships, moved his business and his new wife to Bridgeport and took up residence in the Stratfield Hotel on Main Street. In 1929, at age 63, he purchased a parcel of farmland in Fairfield, "seven and a half acres, more or less," as the deed read, that sloped down to Greenfield Road (within a few years to be renamed Stillson Road), still grazed by cows and dotted with dogwood and apple trees.
On it he built a secluded weekend cabin and garage made of American chestnut logs. He built a house for his married son, Louis, on Greenfield Road. And just up the hill from that house, he put up a stable with six stalls. The caretaker for the property lived above the garage. It is said that he was a freed slave.
Only a few years later, tragedy struck the idyllic family compound. On the evening of Nov. 7, 1934, Louis and his wife, Catherine, were up at the cabin playing bridge when their 7-year-old son, Bernhard, came running barefoot, yelling that their house was on fire. His brother, Henry, age 10, was still inside.
The panicked couple ran to the house and found it engulfed in flames. They charged inside in a heroic attempt to save Henry, but all three perished. The Nov. 9, 1934 Fairfield News described it as "Fairfield's most terrible fire tragedy," the result of a poorly-installed oil burner. The house was completely destroyed, but the stable, 100 feet up the hill, was spared. About 20 years later, that stable became our house.
By chance, in the very year of the Stillson Road fire, the entire state of Connecticut was photographed from the air. A clever UConn Libraries website makes it possible to compare any current address in Connecticut with that location as it looked in 1934.
I found myself transfixed by the grainy aerial photograph of Stillson Road and Mr. Setzer's seven-acre parcel, enclosed entirely by stone walls that still stand today. It appears that snow had fallen. I cannot clearly make out the log cabin, which might have been obscured by trees, but the stable's rectangular form is unmistakable. Nearby, set back from Stillson Road, is the doomed Louis Setzer house, seen as a dark, shapeless form. It's a sobering likelihood that the two Setzer boys would have played in the stable that years later became our family home.
The relatively poor resolution of the photograph leaves open the question of whether it is showing us the house before the fire, its young family unaware of the horror ahead, or the deathly smear of its ruins. Either way, it is an eerie voyage back in time, peering down at the precise location of a ghastly tragedy 78 years ago.
Mr. Setzer's property has more stories to tell. In the spring of 1935, only months after the fire, one Arthur Flegenheimer took rooms at the Stratfield Hotel, Mr. Setzer's longtime main residence. Mr. Flegenheimer relocated to Connecticut while certain New York legal matters were resolved. Flegenheimer shared Mr. Setzer's love of horses, and he regularly rode his horse, Sun Tan, out of Dudley Brothwell's stables on Stillson Road and Mill Plain Road, a quarter mile from the Setzer compound. Brothwell's legacy remains as Dudley Drive and Brothwell Street.
It's not hard to imagine, therefore, that Setzer and Flegenheimer would have made an acquaintance. In fact, the story goes that Mr. Flegenheimer, aka Dutch Schultz, and his bodyguard, Louis "Lulu" Rosencrantz, visited Mr. Setzer on Stillson Road. If he did, I'd like to think he visited the stable, my future home.
Dutch and Lulu returned to New York in September of 1935, perhaps a bit prematurely. They were gunned down in a Newark, N.J., steakhouse one month later. Dudley Brothwell returned Sun Tan to the authorities.
The elderly Mr. Setzer sold the property in 1946 to a gentleman who owned it for only a year, until his wife discovered he was keeping a mistress there. The next owners have had the property for three generations. The parcel with the stable was sold off in 1952, and the stable became a home. That parcel was further subdivided to create two lots on Stillson Road, where Louis Setzer's house once stood, now gone without a trace.
Things have been pretty quiet around here lately. Every so often, though, I think I hear footsteps in the attic, where the hayloft doors are still in place.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com.