THOMAS R. WAGNERTranscript of a taped interview
Narrator: Thomas Wagner
Date:September 30, 1982
Place of interview: Mr. Wagner’s home , Lakeville, Ct.
Mr. Wagner is a lawyer and a co-founder of the Wagner McNeil Insurance Co. He grew up in Lakeville and lived there throughout his adult life. He served the town in many capacities and was appointed to the boards of local educational, financial and health-related institutions.
Property of the Oral History ProgramSalisbury Association and Scoville Memorial LibrarySalisbury, Connecticut 06068
LN: This is an interview on September 30, 1982 My name is Lila Nash and I’m interviewing Thomas R. Wagner who has been a resident of here for many years. He probably has served on more commissions and more boards and elected offices than anybody else in the town. We’ll begin, Tom. I would like to ask you when you came here and where you were born.
TW: I was born in Goshen, Indiana, and my name was Thomas Richard Miller. My mother had died when I was three or four years old, and I was adopted by my mother’s sister, Frances M. Wagner, and her husband, Dennis A. Wagner, who lived here in Lakeville. I came to live with them and I’ve sort of been, I have lived here ever since.
LN: Now, you went to school here?
TO: Yes. We had quite a good time at school. When I first came here, I had a governess, a Miss Stuart. LN: Was that Miss Anna Stuart?
TW: That was Miss Anna Stuart. She was very nice to me and my sister, Helen, who was adopted with me. We gave her so much trouble that she decided she could handle a lot more children and started a private school which thrived and was very successful and many, many of the local people who have served the town were graduates of her school. Then I went to Berkshire School at the age of about 13, I think, and got influenza and lost a year. Then I went to the President’s School in West Haven, Massachusetts. Then, after I’d been there a year, they told my parents they’d be glad to send me back, but I’d have to be in the 7th grade instead of the 8th, where I had been before. So, I went to the high school here in Lakeville which was then where the post office now is and, after a year there, I won my way into Hotchkiss and graduated from Hotchkiss four years later.
LN: What year was that? 1928?
TW: 1928. Then I graduated from Princeton in 1932.
LN: You graduated from Princeton with a B.A. degree, right?
LN: Did you specialize in anything there?
LN: When did you first start your general insurance company here? TO: When my wife, Fran, and I were married, June 24, 1933, shortly after my adopted mother died. She had just….Fran had just graduated from Vassar. No two people ever took a bigger chance than we did. We were both destitute, and I had no job and no money and it was in the heart of the Depression. But we chanced it and the town of Salisbury has been very good to us.
LN: What other school or what other universities or schools did you attend? You are an attorney now, aren’t you?
TW: Yes, I am. In 1938, Howard Landon retired as Salisbury’s Judge of Probate because of his age and a new one had to be elected. Through the kindness of three or four of my friends, working very hard for me, I was elected Judge of Probate and Howard Landon insisted that a judge of probate ought to be a lawyer. So, he wangled me into entering the University of Connecticut Law School in Hartford to which I drove four nights a week for four years, a hundred miles a night, to get a law degree. I passed the Connecticut…. I graduated there magna cum laude and passed my bar exams in June of 1932. July of 1932.
LN: You did quite a bit of lecturing too, did you not?
TW: After that, the year I graduated, the University of Connecticut Law School asked me if I’d stay on and teach a course in the evening division, which I did for twelve years, and was a most enjoyable part of my life.
LN: You had….I know that you have been town counsel for over forty years, is that right?
TW: No. That’s nearly right. I think I became town counsel right after I became an attorney, so it’s probably thirty eight or thirty-nine years.
LN: Then you were Probate Judge for how long?
TW: I was Probate Judge for a long time. I don’t really recall how long, and it was just chance because that both Sharon and Canaan were without people that they wanted as Judge of Probate and I was Acting Judge of Probate for both those towns for a considerable period of time.
LN: Now, you were not only Judge of Probate and an attorney and Town Counsel and you were also in the insurance business, a general insurance business, agency, for some time, but you were in a lot of activities as chairman of the board of trustees. Can you name a few of those?
TW: Well, I can name a few. Of course, the most important one was the Salisbury Cemetery. I helped organize and was president of what is now the Housatonic Psychiatric Center. I was, for many years, a trustee of the Sharon Hospital and secretary of the Board there and on the Executive Committee. I served as a trustee of Hotchkiss School longer than any other person, thirty-three years to be exact, and was also, for about thirty-one of those years, secretary of the Board of Trustees and the Governing Board and then later I became a trustee of the Salisbury School and served for, I think, fourteen years on the Executive Committee.
LN: What other offices did you hold in the town? Did you serve on any town boards?
TW: The first town job I had was chairman of the Board of Tax Review which used to meet about three hours a year, but it got me started in local affairs. Later, I became a member of and chairman of the Board of Education. And I have been a Justice of the Peace for years. I was president of the National Iron Bank in Falls Village for a long time and then vice-president, later, of the Salisbury Bank and Trust Company, and remained a director of that bank until I got to be 12 years of age and had to leave.
LN: You were a member of several other orders in town. How about your church affiliations?
TW: Oh, yes. I was chairman of the Society Committee in the old days of the Salisbury Congregational Church before it became actually incorporated. I was treasurer for two long sessions of time. Actually, for one year was superintendent of the Sunday school, which was ridiculous because I never cared anything for children, and was not in any way fitted for the job, but those were the days when you turned your hand to anything you were asked to do.
LN: I remember you being superintendent of the Sunday school. Didn’t I succeed you in that position?
TW: Yes, you did, Lila. And you did a better job than I did.
LN: And you were very cooperative when we gave the Christmas Pageant. I remember that I always had you be Joseph.
TW: I loved the Christmas Pageant. That was, I think, one reason why I stayed by the church. My theory is that the way to keep members in any organization interested is to give them something to do. If you just expect them to come to meetings and give money, you will have a hard time keeping their interest. The church pageant to me was a high point of every year, and people like you that made it possible, who did all the work, and we had a lot of fun.
LN: Yes, we did. It was very enjoyable. I know I liked to do it.
TW: The church used to be just jammed, as you know. People came from all over to it.
LN: We had about….we had all the members, about fifty, in the cast. I remember we got everybody out to Christmas Eve.
TW: One funny episode I remember was when I was Joseph again and Harold Erickson was the innkeeper and Harold’s mother, Ma Erickson, was sitting in the front pew of the church. I came up with my bride and my child and knocked on the door of the inn and Harold stuck his head out, told me there was no room for me, and his mother burst into tears.
LN: His mother burst into tears? (Laughs)
TW: Burst into tears.
LN: It was so impressive.
TW: No, she couldn’t bear to have Harold tell Tom Wagner that there wasn’t any room at the inn.
LN: That sounds just like Ma Erickson. How about under the welfare programs and all the organizations that had the dealings with that….
TW: Well, that was quite some time ago, and I’m a little foggy about it, but I helped Mrs. Bauer at the time that she started what is now the Housatonic Psychiatric Center and was for some years president of that, and I think I was president of
the Salisbury Welfare Association for some years. Being a lawyer in a small town, there are a lot of things you can do to help, and people don’t hesitate to ask you.
LN: I remember that you were also president of the William Bissell Fund, Dr. William Bissell Fund.
TW: Twenty-five years, I was president of that.
LN: About the…you not only served in the town, but in the county. Are you a member of the Litchfield County Bar Association?
TW: Yes. Every lawyer is a member of that if he lives in Litchfield County, and I was treasurer of that at one time and one of my secretaries kept the books. For a short while, I was chairman of the Grievance Committee of the Litchfield County Bar. That was a committee to which people went when they felt they had been mistreated by a lawyer. It was quite interesting.
LN: Of course, you probably belonged to the Litchfield University Club?
TW: I’ve been a member of that forever and a day, but I never go. At first, it was kind of fun because it was started by a Mr. Stoeckel of Norfolk and the banquets were held in his mansion over there. I remember that at each plate, as we sat down to dinner, there was a red rose and a box of chocolates, to take home to your wife, and they had interesting speakers. But I have not been much of a joiner in my life and had enough business-connected meetings so that I never took much part in that type of activity.
LN: Now, can you tell us a little bit about the insurance business that you have been in and how you come to become involved in the general insurance company in the town?
TW: When I got out of Princeton, as I said, I had no job and there were no jobs to be found anywhere. The insurance business is about….Either the insurance business or the real estate business seemed to be about the only things to which a middling person could turn a hand. So I did start an insurance agency and starved on it for some years until we finally got it started. It has burgeoned and grown.
LN: It was originally the what insurance company?
TW: Thomas R. Wagner. Then, later a friend of mine bought the
N. A. McNeil Company and we put the two together and it’s now called the Wagner McNeil Insurance Company. I’m still chairman of the board, for whatever that means.
LN: Well, we’ve gone over all your activities of the past year. Now, do you remember any interesting episodes in your life regarding the townspeople, and I know that a lawyer doesn’t talk too much about their clients and their associations, but do you recall any funny incidents in the town and about the townspeople. You must have been very close to all the natives and the townspeople in all these activities.
TW: Well, I have a few amusing anecdotes. I must admit that I wasn’t personally involved in all of them, or maybe any of them, but I think that if anything is worth keeping is to set the humor of small Connecticut communities. My favorite story is the one about, reputedly about, Tom Norton who lived up on the road to Hotchkiss, the top of Montgomery Street. In the early days, that’s where the home for the imbeciles who lived in the Knight’s Institute. There were a large number of handicapped children; I think they were all boys in those days. One morning Tom Norton was walking to town to go to the bank where he was employed, I think he was president at the time. And there in the Knight’s Institute was a pull train and sitting on the edge of the pull train was a little boy and he had a fishing rod and a line and he was very intent on fishing in the pull train and every once in a while he’d give a pull or a little jerk as though he were getting a bite, and Tom Norton stopped to watch him getting more and more amused by the antics of this little boy. Finally, Mr. Norton couldn’t stand it any longer and he said “Sonny, how many have you caught?” The little boy gave the pole another jerk and looked up and said, “Sir, you make three.”
LN: I remember Tom Norton; he was Uncle Tom. He was superintendent of the Congregational Sunday School for many years. They called him Uncle Tom.
TW: I knew a lot of Nortons, but I can’t keep some of these families straight in my mind any more. Another story that I really love is about Bruce Ostrander who lived over east
of the railroad in Salisbury, in a little shack there. I think he was a little younger than I. Anyway, he lived there by himself and made a living with a horse and wagon drawing manure and things like that. They tell about one morning, when he was sitting in the kitchen and a friend dropped in to chat, and the friend was horrified to see that in a frying pan with fried potatoes up on the stove, a wood stove, there was a chicken scratching. So the friend said, “Bruce, Bruce, there is a chicken in the fried potatoes.” And Bruce said, “Well, that’s a damn fool bird for you.”
LN: I remember Bruce Ostrander very well. Bruce, and Douglas and Henry. The story of poor Bruce, he died, I remember the circumstances of his death. He…. Hannah…. He had a housekeeper at the time. The old lady that was there with him. One day somebody went in and she sat in the rocking chair knitting and Bruce was on the floor beside her and he said, “What is wrong with Bruce?” and she said, “I don’t know, he’s been there since morning.” And he was dead.
TW: That, of course, reminds me of Annie McCue and her husband. What was his name?
LN: Annie McCue and Joe Wisocki.
TW: They say that their sink stopped up and Joe Wisocki called the plumber to come and check it, and the plumber noticed, when he went to check the sink, that the dog was lying under it and he had to go and get a part to repair the trap in the sink. He came back two or three days later and the dog was still lying in the same position under the sink. And he said to Joe, “Does your dog only lie there?” and Joe said, “Damned if I know.” He hauled off and kicked the dog and it was dead as a stone.
LN: That’s a typical story of all these natives and the earlier people.
TW: Do you remember the man who broke his back in the mine, he walked around bent over almost double?
LN: Wasn’t his name Tompkins?
TW: I really don’t recall. I only heard that when he died, they strapped him down flat so they could bury him because in the position he was after his back broke there was no way of
getting him in a coffin. So he was lying in his house strapped to a board and a couple of friends wanted to spend the night with him and while away the time drinking. Sometime in the middle of the night, the ropes holding the man down on the board gave way and he sat up and his two friends went through the window without opening it.
LN: Speaking of that, did you ever hear the story about Frank Ostrom, the cabinet maker? Frank, he constructed his own coffin.
TW: Yes, I remember that.
LN: You remember that? Then he dressed up, after he had the coffin the way he wanted it, he dressed up in his Sunday suit and got in and had Johnny Jordan come over and take his picRure so he could see how he would look when he was laid out. These were all original people with their ideas.
TW: Do you remember the round house?
LN: Oh yes, very much.
TW: Do you remember when somebody asked the man why he built the round house? Do you remember what he said? He said it was so the cat couldn’t go in the corners.
LN: Right. I also heard it was so that his wife could sweep out the place and wouldn’t leave dust in the corners. Well, there’s a lot of stories like that. Well, is there anything else you would like to say? You have some children, do you not, three daughters, and could you tell me a little bit about them?
TW: Well, I could tell you everything about them, but only one of them still lives in Lakeville and I don’t think that their lives are really pertinent to this area and its history.
LN: Except that it is part of your family, the three daughters, so we’ll leave it at that. But you did have a family.
TW: Actually, I should say something about my wife, too, because she’s had a very remarkable career. She graduated from Dana Hall and from Vassar College. In Vassar, she was president of the Vassar Church and became very active in some welfare programs in Poughkeepsie, including a thing called Lincoln Center. I remember once her father gave her money to buy an evening dress to go to a party at Princeton with me and she
took the money to take a little girl from Poughkeepsie, who had bad ears, to New York.
LN: And didn’t buy the dress. TW: Never bought the dress. This was typical of her life.
She’s devoted to other people. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about her was that after her daughters grew up, she started to take an interest in the national Congregational Church, which later became the United Church of Christ, and in that church in the United States of America, a church with millions of people, and she went up to that position like a sky rocket. LN: Yes, I know. TW: She has spoken all over the country and she has been sent to Hawaii by the church and she would still be, I think, one of the top people of that organization except for her conviction that younger people ought to take over these things. Of course, she is really the cause for there being Noble Horizons here in Salisbury. I was one of the trustees of the foundation from which the money had come, but she’s the one who visualized and envisioned it and she’s the one who had .gotten it really established and going. She still is head of the auxiliary.
Another interesting thing about her is that, I don’t know how many years it is now, that she has volunteered to help teach the first grade at the Salisbury public school how to read. Five mornings a week she was at the public school helping with the first grade simply because of her love for children and a devotion to the ideal that when people have been fortunate, they should share their fortune with others. So she’s at the school five mornings a week and she’s at Noble Horizons four or five afternoons a week. She is a trustee of Church Homes, Inc., which has four or five of these homes for the elderly, like Church Homes, and she is a trustee at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford. I just don’t know anyone who has done more for people, not only officially, but behind the scenes.
LN: I certainly realize that, because I have known her for a
a long time, and I am so glad that you have brought this up. I was going to ask about Noble Horizons, but you have already answered that.
TW: Noble Horizons is a part of my life, I guess. It was just my good fortune that John Horace Noble took a shine to me and selected me for the person whom he trusted… (end of Side A)
(Side B)…and a beautiful place in Palm Beach, and he died fairly soon after I became tied with him and I did become sort of a son to Mrs. Noble. She had no family of her own. Fran and I used to go to visit her at Palm Beach and play bridge by this beautiful salt water pool. She had the most magnificent flowers that you have ever heard of. She was a very interesting woman. She always made me remember the cartoons of the Little King. She was like a little queen, she just buzzed around. She never really made many friends. She was shy and sensitive. One of the interesting things that she and her husband established was called the Blue Horizon Health and Welfare Trust, the income from which was to pay hospital and doctor bills for poor people. I became co-trustee with her on that and I always had a tough time with her because she had no patience with poor people. She couldn’t understand why they didn’t get to work and try to get rich the way she was.
LN: I know that she is quite a lady and Noble Horizons certainly is quite a tribute to her. So many people up there and they all say they enjoy it so much.
Now, we can continue, Tom, and I would like to ask you what was the town like when you first came here?
TW: Well, I was adopted by my aunt and her husband. I assume I was living in some place like Chicago or maybe Baltimore at the time and I can recall so well being picked up by the Wagners in New York City and taking the train on the Harlem Division from the Grand Central Terminal to Millerton, New York. In those days, there was a special car on the train for people who were going to transfer to the Central New England Railroad, so when we got to Millerton, this car was
shoved off onto a siding and then a train, Central New England, picked us up and we rode that from Millerton to Lakeville to the old railroad station which is now the town’s welfare building, and this was really before there were any…. I guess there might have been three or four cars in town.
But we were met at the stationby one of my family’s employees.
We would go ina buckboard with two horses and we drove up Route 44 to the place where
– in part of which I still live.
I can remember, the road wasn’t paved and the mud…
It must have been March or something. The mud was two or three feet deep. That road (unintelligible) and it was just a mess. We used to go to church on Sundays with these two horses and a big black carriage with brass lamps on the sides. When we did finally first get a car, no one in the family could drive so we had to have a chauffeur and there was almost no place you could drive because there weren’t any roads. We used to call it motoring. We used to like to go out motoring.
LN: How fast did the cars go?
TW: Oh, I don’t know. Fifteen or twenty miles an hour, I guess. LN: The speed limit was…
TW: 1 don’t think they had any speed limit. They hadn’t even given any thought to it yet. The Undermountain Road was one of the first roads, I think, to be paved at all and we used to like to ride out there. And then, once a year, we always drove over to Hartford to Elizabeth Park to see the roses and the car…. Two or three times, I remember our car catching on fire going up Avon Mountain and even Smith Hill. We sometimes had to get out and push. The tires were no good. We couldn’t go anywhere without having two or three flat tires and it was really quite an experience. Most of the cars were upon touring cars in those days. Dr. Bissell had one of the original Model T Fords, I guess, that he used to buzz around in when he was on calls.
I think we were the first people in town to have electricity because there was a gas company which was some kind of a monopoly on providing lights to the town and. Then the electricity did get to our house, the lines and pole had to
go around the outside of the (unintelligible) in order to get to our house. Everyone in those days said electricity was no good because it flickered so, you couldn’t read by it. Which turned out not to be true.
LN: That’s interesting and I think that we would be interested in how the town was in the early days. I certainly remember the trains, the CNE and I remember the cars. Mr. Peabody who had the Wononsco House had a car that he used to drive and then the Barnums in Lime Rock and the Greenwoods that lived up the Undermountain Road and the Scovilles also had a car, one of the first cars.
Well, is there anything else that you would like to relate? TW: I remember the first automobile accident in which I was involved. I guess I was probably seven or eight years old. We were out touring and riding for the fun of it. It was on the back road from Fisher’s Pond to Taconic. It was just a dirt road full of ridges of stone and whatnot and as we came puffing through that road, we came up behind a horse and wagon with a gypsy woman in it and her horse took fright from the car. He tried to run and tipped the wagon over. We were .involved in a lawsuit. Well, automobile insurance had just been invented really. Suits in millions of dollars, as we know them today, were absolutely unknown. I remember being coached by the lawyer as to what I should and should not say when I got into court. I think we were insured with the Travelers and they settled the case for two hundred dollars.
LN: Interesting. Now, you are still connected with your law firm of Reid and Riege?
TW: Well, yes. That’s really not my law firm. When I decided that it was time for me to give up full time, I sought out a firm in Hartford or maybe Boston to simply take over my practice which was good. I’m not a member of the, let’s say, legal corporation. The new idea of businesses incorporating professional doctors and lawyers and architects and engineers, but that’s what they are. I didn’t want to buy any stock and become a member of the corporation, so I’m simply called counsel. I still think I do more work in the Lakeville office than all the rest of them put together.
Of course, I can stay home any time I want to.
LN: That’s very nice. I’m sure you do more work than any lawyer in town with your reputation. I know as Town Clerk I remember when deeds came from your office and you drew up a deed, it was done very well. It was in good form and was very good.
TW: Well, I learned my lesson about that from Howard Landon. To this day I have not discovered a mistake that he made.
LN: I know. He was very thorough and very strict.
I think our tape has nearly run out and it has really been quite a pleasure to talk and visit with you.
TW: I wish sometime we could do it without the intervention of a tape. It would be a lot more fun.
LN: It has been very interesting and I’m very sure that they will appreciate this and what you have told us about the town and your jobs and everything and I would like to thank you.