This is file 86. This is jean McMillen I am interviewing Peter Oliver on many things, building Inspector, town selectman, his house at #1 Millerton Road and some good stories about whatever he feels like. Today is November 21, 2014. We’ll start with the genealogical and family information.
My family information
JM:What sir is your name?
PO:My name is Peter Kemble MacGregor Oliver.
JM:Your birth date?
JM:Your birth place?
PO:Plainfield, New Jersey
JM:Your parents’ names?
PO:Wadsworth Terry Oliver and Katharine Brown Oliver
JM:Do you have siblings?
PO:I have one sister, Katharine Terry Oliver.
JM:Your educational background?
PO:My educational background is public school system of Plainfield, NJ- Hubbard School up to the 3rd grade, then Stark School in Glenbrook. Ct. which is a little village near Stamford. Then I went to the King School which is now a huge conglomerate school called the King-Lowe- Hayward-Thomas School which were three separate private schools that all merged. From there I went to Trinity-Pawling, from there I went into the United States Marine Corps which was the school of practical reality. Then from the Marine Corps I went to Boston University, then the University of Denver. Now I am just a student of the world.
JM:I am going to ask you about your grandfather Leslie Allen Oliver. He was in Sharon.
PO:Yes, he bought a house in 1911 I believe. I may be off by a year. He was an architect. He was with the firm of Ford, Butler, and Oliver which had a practice on Madison Avenue in New York City. He was the principal partner. He did a lot of work with libraries, public buildings, but he had his home, his second home in Sharon, Ct. on Old Sharon Road #3 in a house that was, he always called it the “Wintrip House”. My father always called it the “Wintrip House”. I do not know what the antecedent is there. My father and his elder sister and brother started living there in 1912. My uncle was born in 1908 and
my aunt was born in 1909. My father was born in 1911 or 12. It has always been in dispute, I think he tried to be older than he was. They were very happy to be in Sharon.
JM:Your grandfather worked on the Admiral Harte house.
PO:It is interesting. I think that if someone were to contact Mr. Prindle in Sharon, he probably knows as much as anything because the house he was living in I know was redesigned by my grandfather back in the 1920’s. Prior to the Depression he was a very busy man helping people to modify their homes. Unfortunately his book of renderings which I always prided and loved to refer to, I had taken in to show to someone Reed Gillette from Sharon. It was sitting in the Town Hall they day the Town Hall burned down.
JM:That segues right into please tell me something about the Town Hall fire from your perspective, your office.
PO:I think that for those who never knew the old town hall, it was a great old building that had redesigned from its colonial antecedents into something vaguely Victorian and then back again. The town hall worked. There was a large meeting hall on the second floor that had a lovely painting that was the backdrop for the screen that crossed the stage and there were dozens and dozens of wooden benches with fabulous iron cast sides that folded so that they could be put off to the side. It was a place where more angry words and positive thoughts were expressed on an absolutely regular basis whenever we had a town meeting.
JM:That mural, wasn’t that of Twin Lakes?
PO:It was, it was of Twin Lakes, but it was huge. It was 15 feet tall and probably 24 feet wide. On the back of the stage was a very large square Steinway piano. I always remember the piano because the Building Official who trained me was Francis Henry Sand Rossire. His granddaughter was taking piano lessons and he would bring her down from her home to the town hall and then take her to Salisbury Central. It was a very odd day when Jennifer didn’t get up on that stage and play the piano. It was just a wonderful thing to have happen. That building was my home. I spent so much time in it; it was inconvenient, non-code compliant. As far as access the tax collector was on the second floor; her office being right next to mine.
JM:Who was Tax Collector at the time?
PO:That was Denise Rice. It was non-compliant because if someone was disabled, they couldn’t get up to see her. So we installed a doorbell that if someone wanted the tax collector to come down, they would press the button and down Denise would go to take care of the needs of citizen. Then back in those days Joe Pinkham was the Sanitarian. Janet Maus was the bookkeeper (See #149A Maus) Doretta
Belter was the selectman’s secretary. That made up the congregation of people who lived on the second floor.
JM:These were all on the second floor.
OP:All on the second floor.
JM:Who was on the first floor?
OP:Well, let’s see. We had Lila Nash.
JM:She was town clerk?
PO:She was town clerk; her assistance was Pat Gomez. The assessor was William H. Silta and then you had Charlotte Reid’s office which was the First Selectman’s office. That was it because the rest of the first floor was meeting area. It was a lovely building; it was post and beam built with hammered trusses; it was built in the 1700’s. It was just a marvelous bit of the home of the town.
JM:We were speaking earlier about…
OP:Oops, I forgot the basement! We had in the basement the Judge of Probate.
JM:That was Dick Fitzgerald?
PO:Oh no, it was someone long before Dick. I am showing my age because I can’t remember who the Judge of Probate was. (It was Richard Fitzgerald Ed.) I will wake up screaming in the middle of the night!
JM:We were mentioning earlier about the damage that was done. Would speak a little bit about that? I know a lot of things were saved.
PO:A lot of things were saved but a lot of things were destroyed. The fire actually started in Bill Silta’s office which had an open door to the First Selectman’s office. There were vast indications of an accelerant being put on the floor after the fire, but at that time it was obvious once the fire had been put out that they had been in Bill Silta’s office. It had burned directly from Bill Silta’s office into Charlotte’s office. Charlotte’s office was just cremated. It being post and beam, and there not being…
JM:It was balloon construction?
PO:Oh no it was post and beam. It just meant that there cavities in the walls that were large enough that they acted like chimneys so that the fire burned up in the walls across into Denise Rice’s office. From Denise Rice’s office to the north was the meeting room and it swept through the meeting room with wood that had been dry for 100s of years. From Denise’s office it also spread into the building inspector’s office which was my office and unfortunately we had non fire-retardant drapes and things at the windows. It literally swept all the way around in a U shape and destroyed all of the blueprints that
were on file, all of the permits that were in file cabinets, but unfortunately the file cabinets were open. There was devastation there and then into the selectman’s secretary’s office and across into Janet Maus’s office. The town hall, the heart of the town, was truly damaged that night because we lost so many things including paintings. There was one of the “Fox in the Season” painting (by Job Spencer Ed.) that went up. Then there were paintings in the town clerk’s office that were also destroyed-tragic.
JM:That was 1985, August of ’85. The vault wasn’t damaged as far as the records in there or were they smoke and water damaged?
PO:If you look at the new town hall, you have to remember that the new town hall is about 20 feet longer going towards the north- what now is Peter Beck’s store (formerly J. Stack, and before that Shagroy’s). The access to the vault was down a step and as a result when they were drained the water tank on the top of the hill, they literally flooded the vault so the majority of the damage to the materials that were in the vault was water damage. There was a company that was retained to take all of the records and to dry them and to treat them appropriately so that they could be saved. But we went from being able to peruse the original records to only being able to peruse photocopies that had been made afterwards, in order to prevent them from ever happening again. It was really very tragic. I worked for Bill Silta in the Assessor’s office, I could turn around and I would see the gravestone marker of Deacon Nathaniel Buel which is still there, but of course the building because its functions have been moved down a bit, it is now something that you would look at outside of the back of the building. There are no direct offices there because of our “grand staircase”.
JM:When did you start in training with Mr. Silta?
PO:In November of 1979 I had moved from Fairfield county to Lakeville to get back together again with my childhood sweetheart. It was neutral area for us as neither one of us was being dragged apart by friends who thought they knew better than we did. I looked in the newspaper to see if I could bring my vast experience in corporate America to Lakeville and Salisbury only to find that there were no jobs. So I interviewed for anything, even if the job really wasn’t something I wanted. I was offered the job as the assistant to Bill Silta who was the Assessor, Conservation Commissioner Administrator, and Planning & Zoning Enforcement Officer. I think that was it for Bill’s functions. The job also was to be the assistant to Henry Rossire who was the Building Inspector. They took two totally disparate functions and made one job out of it. I started working for the town for the munificent fund of $12,000 a year which at the time…
JM:It was still good money, compared to a school teacher?
PO:David Bayersdorfer and I used to have the conversation because we are friends and we were making within $500 of each other.
JM:But you are both men.
PO:I had never noticed that.
JM:Women’s scale is not necessarily the same rate as men.5.
PO:Aren’t you glad that times have improved?
JM:Too bad I retired 24 years ago.
PO:So I started working with Bill Silta; he had me hand write, it was the last hand written Grand List, in 1979. It would have been better if I hadn’t by state decree been forced to fill in a form which was predicated on computer ideas. In the old Grand Lists which were intended to be written by hand they would have the Lot, Lot size, Number of Buildings, Accessory Structures, etc. They were just written out in columns. In the new one there was a space that was about ¾ of an inch by perhaps the same into which you had to write the computer code, and then write in the numbers that were reflected by the assessment. It was a laborious task. When all was said and done, it was a good way of learning about the town.
JM:Yes, it would be because you had to write everybody’s name.
PO:I had to write everybody’s name and their address. At that point I was also working for Henry Rossire going out and doing inspections so it was all very well thought out educational plan to teach someone A. what the values were, and then B. where they were.
JM:So it was “on the job training”.
PO:Absolutely and there is nothing better than on the job training from people who know what they are doing. Henry Rossire having been an engineer who had worked with Bosch & Lomb at one point had numerous patents in his own name. A brilliant man, although slightly curmudgeonous, he was a tremendous teacher. I always wished he had a little more sense of humor.
JM:How can one get through life without a sense of humor, I really don’t know.
PO:I have often wondered why anyone would hide behind the door when they were passing out senses of humor.
JM:When did you actually become Building Inspector?
JM:You were Building Inspector for how long?
PO: Actually not all that long, I was in the office for about 13 years, so that would mean that I was Building Inspector only for 7 or 8 years.
JM:You trained Mike fitting?
PO:I trained the current Building Inspector Mike Fitting. (See Fitting File 40/51) Mike had been working with the fire Marshall’s office as an assistant fire Marshall. He was a contractor and he really wanted to get out of contracting. He asked if he could become as assistant building inspector. I said
that it would be a good idea. However, there wasn’t a whole lot in the budget to support his position so I started to relinquish portions of my pay check so that he could get the training and make a living and be able to do the job, and to really learn the job.
JM:That was very gracious of you.
PO:Well my situation in life is not, if I had had to depend upon the salary that was being paid to do the building Inspector and associated jobs, I couldn’t have taken the job, nor could anyone who in fact had any sense of pride. My situation was such that I was able to help and it was fine. Mike has a great sense of humor when you can get at it. I was very pleased that he was able to take over. I resigned from the office of the building official in 1993. If Bud Trotta and I ever saw eye to eye with anything it was because he was standing on the 3rd step.
JM:You started the Fitness Center back in 1990.
PO:Right, my wife Sally, the love of my life, had Lou Gehrig’s disease and was diagnosed in 1985. She was bedridden the last 2 ½ years of her life, but she died in 1990. I recognized at the time that I would most likely end up either a drunk or a suicide if I didn’t stay extremely busy. So I started the Fitness Center as a way…
JM:It was very perceptive of you.
PO:I have 2 daughters, and I recognized that I had to stick around to try to do what I could do as a parent for them. My thought was that it would also be very nice to watch people getting stronger and better physically, after having the enormity of watching my wife melt. So I started that. Zenas Block once came to me, he was a member of P & Z, and said, “What kind of a survey did you do to determine that this would be a success?” I said, “Well, Zenas, it was as simple as looking around and finding out that there wasn’t one in the center here, and maybe we could use one.”
JM:Market research! Where was your first Fitness Center located?
PO:It was located at 346 Main Street which was the back 2 spaces at what is now the Boat House Restaurant.
JM:It used to be the First National.
PO:Yes, I started there and after 3 years when I had my blow-out with Buddy Trotta and I tended my resignation, I then bought the old Keuffel & Esser factory building from Fredrick Leubuscher. I moved the Fitness Center in there.
JM:You were there for 10 years?
PO:No 14 years. Government always scares me, an integral part of government in this town at various points during the last 30 years. It scares me because it always seems to be a tremendous lack of
logic when large decisions are being made. The town was offered the K & E building for $100,000 which was about $300,000 less than the asking price by Mr. Leubuscher? It was going to be the potential site for the nurses, and the day care and any other function what would seem to be positive. An architect was hired, this is also indicative of my love of architects, who walked through the building and said, “Oh no this building couldn’t be used for anything for less than one half million dollars because of the way it was laid out.
JM:He didn’t have much imagination, did he?
PO:No and I don’t know who it was. If I did know I have put it out of my head so as to protect the guilt. So I ended up buying the building for $240,000 after Fred had…There had been a broken pipe in the fire system and Fred had hired Perotti’s Plumbing to come in and to repair the pipe. The first door from Holley Street was where this break had taken place; they had had to dig up the floor. Fred towards the evening when everybody had left decided that he would go and take a look at it. As he opened the door and took a step in, he fell down into an 8 foot trench. At this time we had been negotiating for the price of the building, and we could not reach an accommodation. He was stuck there for 14 hours. That afternoon he called me and he said, “Peter, about the building.” If you knew Fred, that was literally his voice. So we reached an accommodation. I bought the building. I liked Fred.
JM:He was extremely kind to me. He owned the former Salisbury Bank & Trust building. I was teaching 6th grade and my children had written a bank robbery story. He loaned us the use of the building so we could film our story.
PO:Fred and his wife George was just a wonderful couple. The one thing I learn and I learned it very quickly was if you were dealing trying to track down the land records, if you came across Leubuscher you knew you were screwed because he owned so much. He would trade and he would do all sorts of things. He was a wheeler dealer. I enjoyed Fred. I was sorry that he had to fall into a pit to motivate him to sell the property but it worked. He was one of the real characters in this town. This town has had its fair share of good old-fashioned New England characters-people who were just unique as Lila Nash being one of them.
JM:You had a Nancy Bushnell story in relation to the Fitness Center that you told me.
PO:No, not Nancy Bushnell, Nancy Belcher. Nancy Belcher was absolutely one of the most uniquely wonderful people you would ever have a chance to meet. I don’t think sugar would have melted in her mouth. She was just someone who was very much a grandmotherly type of person. One of the most wonderful moments for me was that she would come walking in taking little tiny steps when she came into the Fitness Center. She would meet up with whoever was on desk at the time, and she would go around and she would start to exercise. She would end up her exercise program by walking on a tread mill. After she had done her workout which was at least 4 times a week, she was in her late 80’s at that point she would stride out of the Fitness Center as though she had been reborn. Dick Taber could probably tell you the story better, but he had been to the hospital to see her the night before she
passed away. Nancy said to Dick, and mind you this was related at her memorial service afterwards, “Well, you know I got to get out of here because I have to get back to my young friends at the Lakeville Fitness Center.” That was the only time I had ever been at a memorial service where someone was gratuitously granting me an endorsement.
JM:I hope you taped it! You also told me a little bit about John Harney being in the Marines, and his connection with Anita Kuhn.
PO:As a former Marine myself I have been very pleased to participate in what we call the “birthday” which is Nov. 10, usually one day before Veteran’s Day or Armistice Day. John was always very much of proud member of the U.S. Marine Corps. Wherever he went he was always wearing at least a necktie or a rosette as a reminder of his participation. I got to Know John very well, and of course Anita Kuhn as well as she was one of the lady Marines back in the big war. John was ever so embracing of anybody who had been in the Marine Corps. I know that because I was in it, but I also have observed him totally embracing just about anybody on the face of the planet. It was just his nature. John and Elyse have been a very much part of this town and the energy dates back to their running the White Hart Inn. This was long before Harney Tea became a worldwide reality. John was very proud of his service. He always earned my respect.
JM:When did you become a selectman?
PO:I ran for the office of First Selectman in 1999 at the request of the Republican Town Committee which was interesting considering that I was an unaffiliated voter who had resigned from the Democratic Party when Bud Trotta was the First Selectman. He was (in my opinion) being combination king and pontiff. Bob Longley asked me if I would be interested in running for the office. I said, “Well, who would I be running with.” He said,” We really don’t care, as long as that person is a Republican.” I was running against Val Bernadoni who I consider one of my closest allies in life. He is a brilliant man, best First Selectman this town has ever had. He got more out of people by simply asking them if they would be willing to participate. He would ask someone if they would be willing to participate in a study and once the study was completed, he would take their advice.
JM:Yes, that was unusual wasn’t it?
PO:Even to this day it is impossible. He was just a wonderful man. The person I ran with for an even better Salisbury was Sandra Gomez, whom I had known as a neighbor, wasn’t particularly close. I knew her mother Pat Gomez much better than I did Sandy. We ran for office; in those days if you ran for first selectman and were the third greatest vote getter you would become a member of the board of selectmen. That has recently been changed. I became a selectman by a margin of 4 votes over Sandy. It is a good thing that we weren’t both elected because we got married a year later.
JM:Were there any special projects during the administration that you were involved in that you remember?
PO:Absolutely. Val and I got together and spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what was going to be happening municipal solid waste. There was a program and it was just starting around the state called “Pay as you throw”. Val and I probably spent 7 months going around to other transfer stations, talking with selectmen, managers, mayors and citizens and others to try and find out about this new system, totally equitable system in the determination of what it would cost to dispose of the municipal solid waste. We never got to a point of making the decision because Peggy Bottge who was running a little restaurant called “Auntie Em’s” down in Lakeville. She lives in Lime Rock on Rt. 112. She came up with the most brilliant anti-ad campaign slogan that I have ever heard in my life. She called “Pay as you throw” a bag tax! With the creation of that phrase this bag tax, Val and I looked at each other and tried to figure out who should shoot the gun first to each other because we knew we were defeated. We then just said ok fine! The anti-intellectual atmosphere that was prevalent at the time was” We know better even though we know nothing about what it is you are proposing” We figured out that this is going to be costing us more and it is going to be an additional charge and an additional tax therefore… So Val and I did the only thing that we could reasonably do which was to say” great”. What we are going to do is appoint a committee; we need to know where we are going to moving the transfer station because when we first came into office (when Val and I first came into office) we were still on the property of Hotchkiss as we are at the moment. We had been without a lease for 10 years and we went back to the process of creating a new lease and creating a date by which we would be out. Thus began the never ending circle of Where are we going to put the transfer station? That of course was determined by Curtis Rand as to where it was going to be and monies were expended from the town treasurer in contrast and in conflict with statutes of the state of Connecticut.
JM:Who was the third person in you and Val and?
JM:Before we get to the Conservation Commission, tell me about when did #31 Millerton Road come into your life? Give me some background.
PO:I had been living on Wells Hill on Old Asylum Road since I moved to town in 1979. When my wife passed away, when Sally died, I was very aware of the fact that 10 years later when I got together with Sandy, it would be unfair to ask her to move into a home that was populated by my family ghosts. I wanted to be on neutral ground and thus we started looking around for property. At the time a family named Kessler was living at #31 Millerton Road. We looked at that house and we thought here is this wonderful house built in 1862 by the then former governor of state of Connecticut Alexander Hamilton Holley. That was as much as we knew. I bought the house and did a 2 year renovation on it.
JM:When did you buy it?
PO:At the end of 2000. One day I ran into John Krom Rudd who was one of those sparkling wonderful characters in the town. He started to relate the fact that when his grandfather had built the house, he had built it for his son. His son went out to California and died. As a result when the house had been finished, using virtually the same left over materials from the creation of Holleywood which was where the governor was living back in the 1850’s and 1860’s. He gave the house to his daughter Maria when she decided that she was going to be married to William B. Rudd. Thus the name of the house really became the Holley-Rudd house. In the 2 year renovation that I did, I could never open a wall or remove something without finding some endorsement of in charcoals saying something like “Ship to A. H. Holley, Lakeville, Ct.” so I have the same marble fireplace, fire surrounds, that the governor had in his own house down the road. John, being interested and caring, Sandy and I loved him, invited us to come over to dinner, and as I remember it we ended up bringing dinner. He had laid out a bunch of the photographic albums that he had from his family going back to the 1860’s. He had culled out three separate picked photographs and he said, “I’d like you to be able to copy these and return the originals” which we did. There is a photograph taken about 1863-64 that shows William B. Rudd standing on the porch, speaking to Miss Coffing who is astride her horse and there are 4 or 5 other people including Mr. Jones who is heading into the back house. Then he gave me a photograph of the house that was taken in 1913 when they had changed the steps on the front of the house. Then another photograph that he had had which showed Wononsco House or the Gateway House depending upon where you tune in on the history, which was right next door. John told us, and I am getting older and forgetting the genealogy but there was a period of time when after speaking with John I could quote his genealogy.
JM:Fortunately he did it on tape before I took over (See tape #15 John Rudd) the oral history.
PO:That is wonderful.
JM:Then I did Louise Hannegan who is also a Rudd (See file #15-16/24-25 Hannegan). We got to laughing because well, is it with an”e” or without an “e”. The names were absolutely fabulous. Now you are no longer living at #31 Millerton Road at this point?
PO:I am not; I own it. What we are doing now is about a 7 or 8 years ago my bride and I realized that having a 7 bedroom house was not necessarily the most economical way of living. We talked about the possibility of renting the building. We ended up renting the house to Hotchkiss for one of their IT persons. They loved it and we loved them; they were great tenants. They moved out about 3 months ago when he was offered the job of IT at Princeton day School in Princeton, N.J. So they moved out, and we moved in to try to refurbish because after 7 years of occupancy; it needed work.
JM:Mine was rented for 18 years.
PO:That’s a record; I like that. I loved #31 Millerton Road; it is a wonderful house with 9 foot ceilings and all touches of mid Victorian construction. I would move back there in a shot. It is
interesting because although it is mid Victorian considering Victoria assumed the stage in 1837, the house is post and beam unlike the transitional framing that was normally being used in the mid 1860’s, early 1860’s.
JM:Briefly explain post and beam construction because I am not …
PO:Oh I am sorry. Post and beam is very simple it is just that. It is posts into which are set with mortise and tendon. They are built in in what they call “bents” which means that you build four, five or six identical units ;then you tilt them up and you put other beams in which are going to cross connect the next bent. So instead of having individual pieces of wood, as you have today in what they call ”stick building” you have larger timbers which are being held together not by nails or screws, but just by mortise and tendon and pins. It is a great old house. Every time that I get involved with any kind of a construction project involving my wife, I know I am going to have a lot to do. It keeps me out of mischief.
JM:Tell me about the Conservation Committee that you are on.
PO:The Conservation Commission was founded by statute in 1972. It was vested with the responsibility of overseeing and protecting wetlands, water courses, ponds, and vernal ponds. It is a commission, of all the commissions and committees groups that I have dealt with, that has always been the most practical group of neighbors who get together and who are willing to listen to an applicant to make a presentation. We do not have prohibited areas: what we have are regulated areas. The difference being that if it is prohibited and says “You may not do anything 100 feet of…” that is a prohibition which has to be followed. In a regulated sense if someone says, “I want to build a gazebo” which is going to have no plumbing, no electrical or nothing and it is not going pose any injurious threat to the wetlands. We will be able to achieve that on a logic and rational basis. It has been a great group of people. Doris Walker, Audrey Whitbeck, I am going back in time now obviously, Martha Briscoe. I don’t know if you even knew Martha Briscoe, Martha was the world’s most pragmatic and marvelous human being. This is a story about Curtis Rand. Curtis will, if you watch him in any meeting, he still does this to this day, I just laugh ever time every time he does this because I think of Martha Briscoe. Curtis will say, “Well, you know I feel…” I can remember Martha Briscoe slapping the table so hard that it almost came off the ground, and said ,” For the love of all that is holy, stop feeling and start thinking!” but he still does it. I know that he thinks the 2 are interchangeable, but they are not.
JM:What is the term of office or isn’t there a term of office?
PO:There is a term of office which is four years, but for the most part once one goes on, one stays as long as one wants to. It is a great group of people. Curtis was the chairman of it for 18 years.
JM:How many members are there now?
PO:There are 9 members.
JM:I think I have come to the end of my questions, but is there something that you would like to add to this before we close?
PO:Just to remind you that those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them so I think that being able to learn to listen is the greatest gift that these tapes can feed into.
JM:Thank you very much for your time, knowledge and your sense of humor.