Woog’s World / Happy founder’s day
Published 12:00 am, Friday, February 9, 2018
What? You missed it? Horace Staples would roll over in his grave. (It’s in Colonial Cemetery near Green’s Farms Congregational Church. More on that later.)
From 1884 through the early 1900s, Founder’s Day was an important date on the Staples High School calendar. Every January 31, it commemorated the 1802 birthday of the school’s namesake, Horace Staples.
A direct descendant of Thomas Staples, one of five settlers who founded Fairfield in 1639 - and of Mary Staples, acquitted of witchcraft during the fever of 1692 - he began working at 8 years old.
At 27 he started a lumber and hardware business in Saugatuck. It grew into a general store carrying grain, groceries, household furnishings and medicines. He bought sailing vessels, a silk factory and an axe factory. He owned a thriving pier off the west back of the Saugatuck River, near the State Street (Post Road) bridge. In 1852 he established a bank. Along with everything else, he ran a farm.
Every morning for years, Staples watched Westport boys and girls board the trolley. Some headed west to Norwalk, others east to Bridgeport - the nearest towns with high schools. He wanted Westport to “get up” a high school of its own.
Twice, he offered to give the town a lot for a building. Twice, the town refused to act.
In 1880 his only daughter, Mary Elizabeth, died. His sole remaining heir was a grandson. Staples decided that the fortune he intended to leave his daughter should benefit all young people in town. Nearly 80 years old - and so hard of hearing he carried a yard-long ear trumpet - Staples embarked on a final project.
He was no stranger to education. Early in his career, he worked part-time as a teacher. In 1781 a relative, Samuel Staples, had established a free school in Easton. It evolved into Staples Academy, called “the second academy in the United States” after Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire. (Poor management by trustees, embezzlement and the collapse of a bank holding its funds led to the closing of Staples Academy in 1895. Two years later it reopened as a public school. It’s still there: Samuel Staples School.)
In 1882 Horace Staples directedome of his money toward a new high school. The following year he planned red-brick building just up the street from his West (now Riverside) Avenue home. It would be on the “horse railroad” line, midway between the population centers of Westport and Saugatuck. Students going o and from school on the horse cars would be charged three cents a ride (the regular fare was eight cents).
Though over 80 years old, Staples was in good health, and came from a long line of long-living people. “I might as well see my name up in bricks while I am still around,” he said.
The school was built on vacant land he donated near his house. The cornerstone was laid on April 22, 1884. The momentous occasion drew a crowd of 2,500. Businesses closed. Sirens blew; church bells rang. A procession marched from National Hall to the new school (the site today of Saugatuck Elementary School.) Pastors prayed. Choirs sang.
Even Connecticut Governor Thomas M. Waller was there. The Westporter newspaper did not print his address. It did note, however, that “a good high school will increase the value of property, and raise the price of onions.”
Staples’ High School - the apostrophe was soon dropped - opened officially on West (Riverside) Avenue on October 31, 1884. (The first few weeks of classes had been held on the third floor of National Hall. Staples’ First National Bank of Westport occupied the ground floor.)
Horace Staples lived another 13 years. He died of pneumonia at home on March 6, 1897. He had outlived all of his wives and children, and was the oldest and best-known citizen in town.
He had always visited the school on his birthday. After his death however, the Founder’s Day festivities disappeared.
Last year - thanks to the efforts of Staples High School social studies teacher Jeanne Stevens - they were resurrected. She and her Staples chapter of the Rho Kappa national social studies honor society encouraged classes throughout the school to contribute to an 1880s-themed display.
The result was fascinating: everything from how math was taught 130 years ago, to what we ate (from the culinary department). Yours truly dressed up as Horace Staples, and visited classrooms to talk about “my life” back then.
Rho Kappa reprised the celebration last week. They’re working, meanwhile, on restoring Horace Staples’ grave. Over the past century, it fell victim to neglect and vandalism.
Staples High School’s founder has been dead for 121 years. It’s nice to know that his memory - even more than his name - lives on.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.