Jack Hamilton, interviewer
Crosby Wells, subject
Crosby Wells home, 4 Undermountain Road, Salisbury, Conn.
Summary: Wells family origins; history of Mt. Riga Corporation, Wells family connection with Mt. Riga, reminiscences of Mt. Riga; experience in Tenth Mountain Division during World War II; post-war career;
Wells/Warner connections; retirement to Salisbury in 1990.
Interview date 5/20/1996 (according to card; interviewer says 5/17/1996)
Property of the Oral History Project
The Salisbury Association at the Scoville Memorial Library
Salisbury, Conn. 06068
Jack Hamilton: This is May 17, 1996. This interview is with Crosby Wells at his home at 4 Undermountain Road in Salisbury.
Let’s begin with biographical information: Where you were born, and when, and into your parents, and where they were born
Crosby Wells: Well, I was born in White Plains, N.Y., in 1922, two years later my family moved to Brewster, N.Y. My father wanted to be with his mother and they did over an old playhouse across the street from my
grandmother and turned that into a residence.
JH: This was in Brewster?
CW: Brewster, yeah. Originally it had two bowling alleys in it, a billiard room, and a ballroom. Our living room was a great big room, and my father was henry Hubbard Wells, he was born in Brewster, his father settled there after the Civil War, and his brother arranged for him to be the bookkeeper in the Borden’s condensed milk factory there, which was being run by a son of Gail Borden, and my grandfather ended up starting, being cofounder with this son of Gail Borden of the First National Bank of Brewster.
My mother was from Chappaqua, and she was a Quaker, and I remember going to Quaker meeting with her in Chappaqua, and Purchase, and Mt. Kisco.
JH: Was she born in New York as well?
CW: She was born in Chappaqua, she had an unusual happening as a child — a twister, a tornado came through and moved her house down a whole field and she was pinned under the house with her sister, and mother and grandmother, and her grandmother died, my mother had to watch her die [inaudible] while she was singing a Quaker hymn. It was quite an experience.
My sister, her sister and her mother were so upset they were really out of it; my mother had to end up taking this coffin back to Easton, Pa. to bury her (inaudible) her grandmother.
As for Mt. Riga Corporation, that land up there was purchased by the great-grandfather of Donald T. Warner, who died last year. The great-grandfather was getting on in years, and he bought it at a tax sale, it was all owned by this mine smelting company up there.
JH: When was that, that he did this?
CW: Well, the mine company went out of business in 1840, 1848.1 just don’t know. It’s a matter of checking the land records to find out when this tax sale was held, but I would guess around the 1880s. It really was a large tract of land and it was only useful for fishing and hunting, and there was a road up there, that was really — even in the 30s, when I went up there, there were no culverts under the road, they had a ditch across the road in various parts that they called “Thank You Ma’am’s,” because you (inaudible) like that —
CW: — and the water came across those things and it was really a very narrow road, there were few places to pass, and now it’s much better.
So he bought that because I guess he had a cabin up there, I don’t know exactly. Anyway, he bought it because I guess he liked the fishing, and he was getting on in years, and he wanted to unload some of this holding, although, really, by today’s terms it was practically a very small price he bought it at the tax sale.
So my father’s sister was very friendly with the grandchildren of this Donald Judson Warner, and she’d stayed there a great deal, and so it came up that my father’s sister just loved it up there, and I guess she was approached on whether she’d like to buy a third of this Mt. Riga, and so my grandmother ended up buying a third of Mt. Riga so that her daughter could have a camp and the camp that she had is I think the best location on Mt. Riga, it’s called “Wish Come True,” and it has these islands out there with trees on it, spectacular view of Monument Mountain. It’s really out of this world.
JH: This was before you were in this area—
CW: Oh yeah, this would be probably around 1903, something like that.
Then they sold another third to a family in Sharon whose name I do not recall but the descendants were the Schwab family, the name might have been Wheeler, I can find that out.
So each family had a third, undivided ownership, but that got to be very complicated, people died off, this that and the other thing, so in 1922 they incorporated, and each of the three families had a third interest.
JH: The Warners still retained some of it?
CW: Yeah, they had a third, and the Wells had a third, and this family in Sharon, which is now the Schwab family, had a third.
And Gustav Schwab, who’s still alive, he lived in Sharon for quite a while, as did his sister.
So that’s just about it, and the— at that time there were still buildings left there from the smelting days, the iron master’s lodge, and the corporation rented that out for income, and then there was one as you — you know Mt. Riga at all?
JH: Mm-hmm, I’ve been up there.
CW: You go up the hill, there’s so-called Wentworth, and that was rented out, and then there’s what they called the Frink place, past the cemetery that was rented out. And then I think that other properties had
been rented to tenants and that’s how the corporation existed, although they were always in precarious financial condition until the last, oh, ten or 15 years ago they sold the sold the land around the Appalachian Trail, which runs right through the Mt. Riga property, and that was a great help.
Why don’t you shut off for a second? What else would you like to know?
Unknown female: (enters) How are you?
CW: Hi. I could tell about what my family, went up there – well, my aunt first, but my father and mother started going up there in 1913, and renting a cabin that had been built by one of the cousins of the Warners, the Harrison family. And at that time there were still Raggies left up there. I don’t know how they existed after the mine smelting went out of business because there was nothing up there except farming.
And it was a terrible place for farming, you had a very limited season and that’s one reason why the trees haven’t grown up. Of course it was all clear cut, all that, the whole mountain, everything was clear cut to make charcoal, but there were still people up there. Across the lake there was a house where the guest beach is now, the Ostrander family lived there. They used to sell fish to my family. And then there was another family down what we called the Ore Hill road, it’s the Reservoir road now. The Rank [sic] and Nat Taylor, and they used to do odd jobs for people, and I know that my grandfather was missing a crowbar once, and he came up to ask one of them about it, and he said “Major Wells, I didn’t take your crowbar, I got ten to home!”
And my grandfather asked him, when their father died, they had this house I never saw but apparently it had tin cans patching the roof, just a terrible place, and when grandfather — my father was a major in the Civil War — asked them whether they settled the estate, and [inaudible] told my father, he said that “I took the
watch and Nat took the gun.” That was how the estate was settled.
And then there were — other people would appear out of the woods. There was a man named Tom Malley who was a Raggie, I don’t know where he lived, but he looked like Abraham Lincoln after a drunk — all unshaven, and he’d come into our camp every summer, very scary — everybody was, well, the women in particular, was scared of him — and he would be selling blueberries. He would walk way up Monument Mountain and come back with these blueberries and somehow he’d exist on that, and I think my father occasionally got him to chop split wood, something to help him out.
JH: These were descendants of the mining and the charcoal?
CW: Yup, yup. And I remember he used to chop wood, he had a little tin box, and he’d take these pills out. He’d slow down, and take a pill, and then he would speed up, and I think it was laudanum.
And at that time the road was so terrible — this is in the 20s and 30s — well, this is before my time — it was so terrible that their food was all brought up to these tenants and owners up there.
The original families each took a camp site and the Warners took theirs, and the Wells took theirs, which became McCabe property on the Upper Lake, and my grandfather took his, which is that big house at the top of the hill when you turn left at the top of the dam.
And my family finally got their camp site because the corporation owed my grandmother a lot of money, she’d been subsidizing it, so they gave her a camp site. But everybody else is a tenant up there, except for the Blackburns, who acquired an oddball piece of property on this Ore Hill road that Frank McCabe’s mother- in-law had owned.
JH: How many people are in the area now?
CW: Well, I think there are 36 what they call camps now.
JH: And many of those people are simply leasing?
CW: They’re leasing but starting about 10-f2 years ago people wanted to unload the Mt. Riga stock, it got to be so, $740 a share, and not paying a dividend, and some people were very happy to unload this stock and that’s how the tenants — most of the tenants now own stock, maybe one or two shares.
JH: When did you start going up there?
CW: Well, I was born in 1922, I’m sure I went up there in 1922 (laughs). And I spent every summer there except when I was at war, and I was a general counsel of the Greek state power company for four years, from ’51 to ’55, and I was away at that time.
Another incident that was quite amusing, I was at the iron master’s house, that’s called Castinook, that was rented for a while — I think it was a boarding house at one time — anyway, a man named Sedan — and apparently there was a still a name around here, Sedan — and apparently there was a Col. Sedan in the Civil War, so they called this guy Col. Sedan, and he had tenants, subtenants in there, anyway, he was running sort of a boarding house, and he — there was one tenant there that was quite difficult, didn’t pay his rent. So my grandfather— Donald Warner’s great-grandfather, that would be the son of the original owner, was riding up with a horse and wagon and talking to Col. Sedan-, and Col. Sedan wanted to get this man out. [indistinct] Judge Warner said “Why don’t you just get an axe and just get him out” and he said they’d had a revival meeting up there, evangelical, and everybody was really with it, and he said “Oh, no, Judge, I can’t do that, I can’t do that, I wish when you go down you’d go to your law office and write him a letter and ask [indistinct] that he must leave, and write a letter such as our Savior would write — and then if he don’t get out, we’ll get an axe and give him hell!” [Laughs]
JH: The law first and then after the law, something else.
Judge Warner was your —
CW: Well, Judge Warner was Donald Warner’s great-grandfather but I think at the original one there was also a judge, if I’m not mistaken.
JH: You have a long history of the law.
CW: Oh yes, and there’s a picture of Don Warner’s grandfather in the Town Hall, great picture by Emmet Rand, a famous portraitist, she did FDR’s picture, many other pictures. By the way, that’s a picture taken, that’s a painting taken from my grandmother’s camp, looking across at the iron master’s lodge. My mother painted that, she started painting at 75, that’s her grandmother there, and that’s a Quaker meeting house in Chappaqua, she did all these paintings here.
JH: Hmm. And she started painting at seventy—
CW: Seventy-five, and she painted until she was 95, and it was rather amusing, because her sister — she didn’t know she could paint but her sister painted, and she was always interested in paintings. And her sister is the mother of Katherine Chapman — do you know her, she lives on Wells Hill Road — but my mother’s sister, she — my mother got to be better in a very short time than her sister, her sister had been painting all of her life and all of a sudden she stopped painting, she said “Well, Caroline has servants, she has time to paint, I don’t.” So that was the end of her painting.
Katherine’s a very good painter, she’s had shows around here.
JH: When did you move to the Salisbury area?
CW: Well, I retired in 1990.1 was general counsel of an engineering and construction firm, they called it Basco Services Inc., about five or six thousand employees [indistinct]. And we bought this house at that time. There were — I wanted to send my son to The Gunnery where mv grandfather went, and [indistinct] we noticed that prices seemed to be going up at that time and we went to Orpha Robinson who lived up the street and this was the first house we looked at. And the Salisbury Bank, at that time, mortgage money was short, and they wouldn’t lend money unless you lived in a house, so we had to go across the street to another bank. But they were very paternalistic, but very nice.
JH: So you knew the area from early boyhood.
CW: Oh, yes, and plus the Warners, our cousins, they were on the street here. One of the Warners would be the generation of Donald Warner’s grandfather and they had the second house from the brook. There were three maiden aunts in there, and they apparently — well, it’s true that two of them didn’t speak to one of them, so they lived in the same house and everything for decades, not speaking to each other.
And then the first house is the so-called “One Acre,” and that was owned by Kent Fulton, who built the golf course up here. It was an 18-hole golf course on .Route 41, apparently one of the best in New England, and he married a Warner also, so there were at least three Warner houses right on the east side of the road..
JH: Tell me about the Tenth Mountain Division. There seem to be a number of people around here who were in that division.
CW: Well, the Tenth Mountain Division was founded by, the leading light was — I have to think of the name for a moment — anyway, I think he also started the National Ski Patrol, and he was inspired by the way the Finns held out against the Russians, on skis. And he thought there ought to be mountain troops, maybe
there’d be an attack from the west, the Rocky Mountains, so that was one thought. And plus they thought maybe they’d be needed in Europe. Mini Dole, that’s his name, C. Minot Dole, and he wrote Marshall about it, repeatedly, and finally — 1 think he wrote FDR, too — and finally Marshall thought it would be a good idea and so it was decreed that we be this mountain division.
When I entered you had to have three letters of recommendation that you were a skier or a mountaineer type, which is rather unusual for the infantry.
JH: Were you a skier?
CW: I. had skied, yes, yes. They trained first at Mount Rainier, and by the time I not there the actual division — well, they started out with the 87th Regiment, which was David-Harrelson’s [indistinct], and then they moved down to Camp Hale in Colorado, and they built a whole camp in a valley for this, at 9500 feet, so there was lots of snow there. We were skiing right through June.
JH: What drew you to the Tenth Mountain Division?
CW: Well, I liked the idea of being in the ski troops.
JH: Were you already in when this opportunity came along or was—
CW: Oh, no, I volunteered for it.
JH: I see.
CW: I’ll have to show you the recruiting poster upstairs, it’s quite dramatic.
So, apparently it was about the longest trained and heavily trained division in the United States Army, they really trained for a long while, they didn’t know what to do with us.
JH: When did you join?
CW: I went in in July 1943. It was in this valley, with the mountains all around, and they had a terrible problem with the bituminous coal that heated the barracks. Everybody had what they called “Pando hack,” I mean, it was really —
And there was this real smog, very unhealthy. We were often out for weeks at a time in the snow, camping out in these little tents and everything. One of the miserable parts was having, at 20 below zero, to get out of your little tent and stand guard for two hours, and then you’d be four hours off and two hours on, and you’d end up, just how to kill time, what I used to do was try to figure out what the first I did in my life and try to go up and try to remember everything, terribly boring and very cold.
JH: You were then – what? Twenty-one years old?…
CW: Yes. And then eventually they decided that we should go to Italy, to the Apennines, and then, there’d been one — they made their name at a place called Riva Ridge, and apparently the Americans had three times tried to take this ridge. There was an ascent of something like 1500 feet, and the Germans were on the top. It was really unassailable
And our people — we had a lot of professional — a lot of really good climbers — and they went up with pitons and ropes up the side the Germans never thought we’d go up. And they went up at night and it was a complete surprise, and they took that ridge, and then they took the next mountain, which was Mount Belvedere, and these were sort of the strong points from which the Germans could levy[?] shells on our
And then our division moved very fast. We were the first across the Po [River] and often our flanks were exposed.
There were a lot of college types in it. The first engagement I was in, the squads were 12 people, and there were only two left at the end of this first push. The others had been killed or wounded, or desertions. And so I was made a staff sergeant and I didn’t last long in that lofty rank because in one of the next pushes I was going through this peaceful apple orchard and I’d called in the two scouts, I ended up being the first one through this apple orchard and I stepped on a land mine. That was the end of me.
I was carried back by Germans, Germans carried me back, they were very glad to have safe passage back, they figured if they carried an American soldier they wouldn’t be shot at.
JH: And this was when, Mr. Wells?
CW: This was 1945, very near the end. So I spent 16 months in the hospital and then I went to law school at the University of Virginia, and went to work in a law firm in New York, which eventually sent me over to be’ general counsel at the Greek state power company, one of their clients was running and building a whole new power system for Greece as part of the Truman Plan to help Greece recover after this terrible civil war against the Communists. We managed the building of three hydro plants and a [indistinct] burning plant and transmission lines.
And then I came back to the home office and I ended up being the general counsel of one of their clients, the same client that was managing the Greek state power company.
JH: Where had you gone to undergraduate school?
CW: 1 went to Yale, and before that I went to Hotchkiss, and before that public school in Brewster — well, I went to the Harley School, which is a pre-prep school, and before that I went to public school in Brewster, N.Y.
JH: So, although you didn’t live here, you certainly spent a lot of time here.
CW: Oh, yes, and my father went to Hotchkiss, and we were very close to the Warner family, many generations.
JH: Well that’s very interesting, and I thank you very much for the interview.