Dan Dwyer Interview:
This is File #76. Today’s date is August 5, 2014. This is Jean McMillen interviewing Dan Dwyer about his life and times in Salisbury and the history of the Housatonic Bookshop through Loin’s Head Books through Johnny Cake Books and anything else that takes his fancy. We’ll start with…
JM:What is your name?
DD:My name is Dan Dwyer.
JM:When were you born?
DD:I was born on Aug. 24, 1952, in New Bedford, Mass.
JM:Your parents’ names?
DD:My mother’s name is Annette Lilliane Charest, my father’s name was Daniel Francis Dwyer, I being a junior but I never use it since he died.
JM:Do you have siblings?
DD:Yes, I have a sister Louise and a sister Anne.
DD:I graduated from Georgetown University in 1974.
JM:Now I know that you came to the area looking for a second home to get away from Manhattan. Tell me about Bunker Hill and the Ericksons, please.
DD:When my partner, now my husband, Jim Montanari and I were living in New York, we searched in the 2 hour radius of Manhattan for a weekend place. We both being natives of New England, we ended up looking in Salisbury because it was the most affordable, the most accessible and the best and prettiest place from Manhattan. We ended up buying a small parcel of land on Bunker Hill Road that had resulted in two small house subdivisions and a water tower. The land was basically a ten acre parcel just at the foot of Bunker Hill where it forks from the road to Mt. Riga as you head up on the right. It was a nice meadow with a woodland patch in the back of it. The woodland patch became the water tower for the Bridgeport Hydraulic Co. (now Aquarian Water Co. Ed.) The upper parcel was already developed with a house by the Lamsons, Reggie who had grown up right there just below Bunker Hill. We bought what was the meadow part, the lower meadow part of this parcel, about 2-3 acre parcel. All of this land was owned by the Ericksons who famously owned the farm at the top of Bunker Hill before it takes the hook up to Lion’s Head and for years ran the town dump. The Erickson had this parcel of land and they sold some of it to the Bridgeport Hydraulic Co. and some of it to Dan Dwyer and Jim Montanari, native New Englanders but from Manhattan. We built a little Trelleborg house tucked back in the meadow.
JM:Tell me about Harold Erickson and the dousing.
DD:Trelleborgs dotted the landscape around here in the mid 1980’s. Skip McMillan who grew up in town was a very resourceful and practical researcher of all kinds of things. He had discovered this housing system which was a very efficient system developed by the Danes during the energy crisis in the 1970’s. He built the first Trelleborg house here in Salisbury. He was a great advocate of it. It was a very affordable way to build a house. So Jim and I did, too. Also the Gallups built one at the same time. Who is the former funeral director- Gomez built one. There were about ten others, maybe about 8 others, maybe a dozen around the area. Ours was the 2nd or 3rd to be constructed. Dick Fitzgerald built one as well.
We had Mike Minnich who grew up in town as well and graduated from Salisbury School. He was a friend of Skip’s. Mike was our general contractor on site who managed everything for us. He knew the Ericksons very well. He and his wife Mary at the time were renting one of the small houses that Harold Erickson owned up near Loin’s Head. Mike would confer with not Harold, but Walter who is the white collar brother. Mike rented from Walter, but would consult matters with Harold that had to do with the land, getting things done locally. When we needed a well, Mike called Harold to come down and douse. Harold came down; I think he insisted that it had to be a cherry fork. We observed him and things started twanging around some part of the ground. Then we called Walter. Allyn has drilled most of the wells in these here parts. He came over and drilled a well, and it was a real well. That was kind of interesting to see for these 2 kids who came out of New York to see how things really get doused, and how things really get dug and things go forth.
The other Harold Story that was really great. It was in the cold of winter. I think when they had put in the foundation and buried all the lines to service the house, they forgot the cable. We needed to get the cable TV in. It was so cold that somebody was bringing a sledge hammer by to break the soil to dig up the line. This was an occasion when Harold came down to confer with Mike. He had an upper palate that was missing a couple of teeth; he was a real salt of the earth kind of guy. He had these big gnarly hands. One of his hands, I guess his right hand was completely slashed in the fleshy part of the thumb. When you looked at the incision or the cut that was made, it was all sewn up. I said, “Harold, what happened to your hand?” “I cut it.” “Did you go to the hospital?” “No.” He showed me and I looked carefully. He had really stitched up his hand with twine, not nylon, not fishing line, but kitchen twine! There it was.
JM:New Englanders are tough, aren’t they?
DD:They were. Those are my two stories of building a modern Danish ever tasteful house in the back of a meadow in the foot hills of Mt. Riga.
JM:How long did you live in that house?
DD:We lived there from 1985 through 1989.
JM:Then you went down to Salmon Kill Farm?
DD:No, Salmon Kill Road, Salmon Kill Farm is the big farm that is noted for the brick house across the bridge.
JM:I do want the history of that.
DD:The house that we bought had been owned by Jeannie Chester; she was beloved by many people in the town. She died in 1988 or 1989 so her house became available. The house as the story goes was a tenant house. It is a real old farm house; it was built between 1795 and 1805. It is a classic center chimney, post and beam plain vanilla New England farm house. She bought it in the late 1940’s. The Tilts, Albert and Mary Tilt, Mary was Jeannie Chester’s sister, their father was the chairman of General Foods during most of the 1920-30’s. The family lived in this grand old estate in Greenwich, but when Mr. Chester died they broke up that estate which was the reason for Mary and Bert to come looking for a big estate – like farm in New England. They found Salmon Kill Farm. Jeannie Chester had polio and she came up and discovered this little farm house. She went to them and said” I am so glad that you are going to buy the farm, but there is a little farm house up the road that I would like to buy. I would like to live in that and buy that from you. They took that farmhouse and split it off along with a couple of acres and sold it to her. She was the only in the late 1940-50’s who restored it. It had been a working farm house through most of the 19th century. For most of the 20th century it was the other forgotten houses owned by Salmon Kill Farm. It was lived in by tenants and also rented during the summer to family members.
Before the Tilts owned Salmon Kill Farm it was owned by the Piels. The Piels have two claims to fame. One being Piels beer on one side and that fortune also resulted in the founding of the Scientific American Magazine. I hear in Johnny Cake books in the village of Salisbury and one day Jonathan Piels came in and we started talking about one thing and another. I didn’t know who he was. He asked where I lived and I said salmon Kill Road. “Oh I know that, what house?” I described the house. He said, “My grandparents used to own Salmon Kill Farm.” Oh yes I knew that” “But my parents rented the house that you live in when I was a youth. We used to summer there.” I said, “You have got to come and visit.” A couple of months later he and his wife Madeline who both live in New York and have a summer or weekend place in the Hudson Valley came to visit. They were keenly interested, particularly he, in the house. He walked around and sort of became very contemplative and was remembering everything. He looked at the big fireplace, it being a central chimney house, which was originally the kitchen. “Oh yes I remember this room, but we used to have a potbellied stove in the fireplace.” He looked out a window and said,” but this window wasn’t here; this was a doorway. We used to use this as a front door. People used to just come up the little gravel driveway and park their cars here.” Now we have a lawn and stone wall. We use formally the front door and the kitchen door in the back. He looked across the land which is a small piece of land; there is a patch of meadow and then it gets densely wooded. From the house you can see a small pond, and he said<” there is another pond down there.” “Yes, there is.” It was a stream fed pond, a typical hillside stream, densely shaded with hemlocks and all the rest. “When we rented this place it was in the 1940’s, and I couldn’t have been more than 5-8 years old. This was all just plain open fields.” It had been as we all know most of the trees had been felled by the 19th century, and then farmed so a lot of the growth that we regard is new growth. A lot of it just wasn’t there in the 19 30-40’s. He said, “This was all open, but there is a stream down there.” “Let’s go see it.” So we started walking across the lawn, across the meadow and we began walking into the woods a little bit. He fell into a trance and started reciting Shakespeare. At this point I like to respect people’s memories so I dropped my distance from him and let him take the lead. He found his way to a rock, a large rock in the stream that feds into the pond. He was continuing in and out of this Shakespeare soliloquy all the while. He said” That’s the rock that my mother sat on and read me Hamlet.” He had been reciting the soliloquy from Hamlet. I just stood there mesmerized and let him just to float in this reverie. It was a magical moment clearly for him. I had never been time transported by virtue of somebody else’s memory like that in my life. I can’t imagine what was going through his mind. Probably of all the charm and the joys and the other things I have learned about the history of that house and the valley, I think that moment observing somebody else who could recreate such a real and vivid way for me is my most vivid memory and will remain my most vivid memory of living in that house.
JM:It would be; it was such an unusual experience that few people have opportunity, absolutely incredible.
DD:It is a reminder of a lot of things- how all of these places and structures have memories that went before and will hopefully continue after us.
JM:That is the point of doing the oral histories.
DD:That is one of my favorite stories, certainly my favorite story of the house on Salmon Kill Road. It is also one of my favorite stories of living in Salisbury.
JM:It is a wonderful story and thank you for sharing it. Now let’s do some work on the bookshop. I am going to ask you to give a little information on Maurice Firuski (See tape 73 the Housatonic Bookshop) and his bookshop and then bring it forward to your bookshop, please.
DD:Maurice Firuski is legendary, not only in terms of the time that he spent living in Salisbury, married to one of the Scoville women (See Temby Argall & Ollie Tape 71A) and running Housatonuc Bookshop which is now the site of Elyse Harney’s Real Estate (8 East Main Street) right across from the side entrance to the Tap Room at the White Hart Inn. He is also legendary in the history of rare books in the United States. He operated in Cambridge, Mass. Dunster House; the stories are varied about why he had to leave Cambridge. He set up shop here in the 1930’s. If you wanted to write a movie screenplay of the old fashioned book seller with the fireplace and the antique house and the antique books sitting ruminating about all things philosophical, historical and then also having a colorful personality that spawned all kinds of speculation about his private life and his history, it would be he.
JM:He was a natural.
DD:His bookshop was renown to anyone in the rare book business and also the English people who would come and hunt for books in the United States. He was one of the first publishers of T.S.Elliott and
he would have been…There is the famous story about how he could have been, would have been except for the one day drop in the U.S. mail system across the Atlantic, the first publisher of T.S.Elliott in the United States. He published some much of his stuff anyway. He was a very close associate of Robert Frost. He was really a go-to books dealer for buying Robert Frost long before he became popular and the icon that he now is. He operated the Housatonic Bookshop beginning in 1932.
Apprenticing for him in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s was Mike McCabe. Mike is from a very prominent family in Salisbury. Michael essentially apprenticed for him. He went off eventually and started his own book shop in the early 1970’s which was called Lion’s Head Books. The structure, in which we sit now recording this interview as Johnnycake Books, was formally known as Lion’s Head Books.
The structure used to sit, as we sit and look across the window to LaBonne’s, where LaBonne’s now is. The town elders principally lead by Curtis Rand’s father, Jake Rand who was head of Planning & Zoning at the time along with the Gus Pope’s and the Ellsworths, the Harrises too I think. I am not sure about the Ellsworths. They put together the Marketplace Association which essentially owes the patch of land on which LaBonne’s now sits, the parking lot and some of the attendant property to it. The original plan for LaBonne’s was to put it where Lion’s Head condominiums are. The town elders in its wisdom said no. They put it in back of Main Street instead of having a satellite shopping district outside of town which really did change the nature of the town. It prevented it from becoming that semi-suburban appearance of so many other places. The structure in which Johnnycake exists was an old cottage, an old house that sat where LaBonne’s is. Jake Rand took it up, moved it here, and plopped it down. Mike McCabe was the first renter of it. In it he set up Lion’s Head Books. We went from Housatonuc Books in the 1930’s to Lion’s Head books in 1970’s. Mike McCabe operated it through 2000.
In the spring of 2000 I had heard a rumor through town that Mike wanted to give up Lion’s Head Books. Susan Rand owns the building, having been basically given the house and the property by her father-in-law Jake Rand as a wedding gift. I called up Susan and said,” I heard Mike is leaving and I said I’ll take it!” I took the rent over from Mike. I bought some of his inventory; he sold the rest of it off. Then I reconfigured the shop. I opened in August 7th, 2000. We are now August 5th. It has been 14 years since I have had the shop.
Salisbury has had an on-going rare book shop in its village since 1930 which for its size, which is something few places in the United States can say, I don’t know of any other town with a population of 3-5 thousand that has had an on-going rare bookshop for almost 80 years.
JM:This is quite an accolade.
DD:I think it is historic. The line of succession is quite clear.
JM:The quality has been maintained superb all the way through.
JM:I mean that sincerely. 6.
DD:So that is the story about Johnnycake Books.
JM:But you haven’t told about why you chose the name Johnnycake Books.
DD:Oh Johnnycake Books -that is a little bit of historic relevance, too. Now oddly enough this is a very esoteric connection between me, Johnnycake books and Maurice Firuski and the Housatonuc bookshop. If you go in to Elyse Harney Real Estate Office and into the main office or in the main room in back of the front which are now her offices, there was a big fireplace. Over the fireplace still sits, not a mural but a wall relief of a whale that I think Maurice Firuski put there. That is a clue to the connection as to why I call I call Johnnycake Books, Johnnycake Books. I am a native of New Bedford, Mass. which is historically is best known as the Whaling Capital of America, the richest per capita city in the world through the mid- 19th century. All those whaling ships owned by all the good Quakers went out and got all this blubber that provided the lamp oil for hundreds of thousands of households in the United States until oil and electricity and all the rest of it came along. Johnny Cake Hill is the historic center of New Bedford and it is a little mound of a hilltop, sort of resembling a piece of Johnny cake which is really a plop of cornmeal. Atop Johnny Cake Hill sits the Whaling Museum, otherwise known as the Old Dartmouth Historical Society. It was the whaling museum to which my parents would send me every rainy Saturday afternoon of my youth when I couldn’t go to the park or outside to play. “Because goddamn it, it is going to be good for you,”
JM:At some point it will be.
DD:Here I am 50 years later selling antique books so goddamn it they were right!
JM:Isn’t that distressing?
DD:Yeah, that was a personal allusion to Johnny Cake Hill, but the other allusion is literary. Since I opened my place Johnnycake Books only one person out of hundreds has guessed it. The literary allusion is when you talk about whaling and whales would be Moby Dick. Johnny Cake Hill is actually the setting which Melville uses for his opening chapter where Ishmael comes to town, finds vittles, finds lodging, gets up, worships at Seamen’s Bethel on the Sunday morning which is on the Sabbath which is right across still the old entrance of the whale museum right at the crest of Johnny Cake Hill, from whence he goes to whaling. It is a personal and a literary allusion.
JM:That is what makes it so special.
DD:Well, it is one of the reasons.
JM:Truly, it does make it special. I am going on now to ask you about some the other things that you have done of a civic nature.
DD:Growing up in New Bedford, my parents were always civically involved in terms of my father was the Irish Catholic funeral director so he had a very prominent role in the community. They were very involved in church affairs. My mother was very involved in civic clubs. Being involved with public stuff has always been the way I was brought up. As a kid, a product of the 1960’s, I came to maturity in the 60’s I got involved politically. My first job after graduating from Georgetown, I worked on Capitol Hill, and I met up with a group of young people; we all went off to work for Jimmy Carter in 1976. I ended up doing press advance work for the Carter White House. Then I took a job with CBS which brought me to New York; then that brought me and my husband Jim to come up here and to settle here.
JM:Politically what have you done in this town?
DD:When I came up here, I sold real estate for a while; I was with Albert Borden Real Estate. I wanted to get involved in politics again so I got involved in Bob Kerry’s campaign in 1992. That led me to become the candidate up here for the state senate. That was the year that Clinton ran and I was running as a Democrat in a basically Republican district. I was running against the Republican leader of the Senate; I lost very narrowly. I ran again in 1994 because I had come so close that I had to do it again. 1994 was the Gingrich era and no challenging Democrats to any sitting Republican anywhere in the country won. After that I got involved in a lot of non-profit organizations at different times as the Northwest Connecticut Aids Project, that is now part of a larger regionally based group in Danbury, I served on the board of Housatonic Valley Commission, Region #1 environmental concerns, I was on the board for a while for the Women’s Support Services, early on when it was in a little one room office over on the Main Street in Falls village. Most notably I have been involved in Salisbury Family Services for many years; I was on the board for maybe 4-6 years as Chairman of it and along with Susan Knight we staged their bi annual fund raiser for the last 12 years. More recently I have also been on the board of the Community Foundation of Northwest Connecticut which is Torrington based, but is the umbrella for philanthropic nonprofit organizations for all the towns that we would recognize in these parts of Litchfield County. I also served for 6 years, one full term and then half of the second term to which I was elected on Planning and Zoning. So that is a pretty good summary.
JM:It certainly is. Is there anything you would like to add to this interview before we close?
DDI am a New Englander so I was biased to enjoy a place like Salisbury. I can’t imagine a better place to live. The land is beautiful. The people are incredibly interesting. It really does have its share of characters which makes it a marvelous place to be. It has a great history. We have always had a tradition here of part time residents because of the presence of the private schools, people come and go. It was, people forget, a vacation spot much less heralded than the Berkshires, but it was in the 1890’s and the turn of the century that it was written up in the social pages of the New York newspapers. We have always had that kind of tradition of being a refuge for New Yorkers. After World War 2 it did become a retirement destination for many of the people who were retired from the academic community, from the military, from intelligent services especially. It has always been a place for part timers and weekenders.
I would like everyone who comes to town to have some appreciation of what went before them because it does really reflect on how they perceive other people and how they interact with people who live here full time and who make investments into the community. It is very possible for part timers to make investments in the community that are welcomed. Mostly it informs land use and there is a real pattern to how the land was developed and that reflects, not only the Congregationalist history of the town. but also how the town’s lands were originally subdivided. There is a sense of New England feng shui where houses should be built so as to naturally accommodate light and the different seasons of the year and access to water. In some of the new developments this has been completely ignored and it is changing the face of the landscape in ways that I think offend the history. I am troubled by that, and I would encourage people to be appreciative and understand the land in which they now want to become a part.
JM:Thank you so very much.
DD:You are welcome.
JM:It has been fun.
DD:It has been.