The Story of Old Home Day at East Killingly, Connecticut
August 14th, 1943
The Old Home Day in East Killingly is an annual event that dates back for quite a long time. There have been periods when the observance of the day has lapsed. The present continuous observance goes back to the year 1927. That year the Prudential Board of the Church went ahead with the plans and it was held on the fourth of July.
The origin of Old Home Day is wrapped up with the fact that East Killingly was once a thriving center of textile industry. Seven mills were in operation in this place at one time. One may see the ruins of some of these mills today. From these busy mills went the young men of East Killingly to take positions in textile manufacturing concerns all over New England. Some who gained their experience in East Killingly became overseers and superintendents in mills elsewhere. These men had much in common, having shared boyhood days in the beautiful natural surroundings East Killingly affords. They had gone to school together, worked together and gone to church together. Some attended the Baptist Church on the Hill, others the Free Will Baptist Church on the valley road and some went to both. No doubt there was rivalry between the “hard shell Baptists,” as the church folks on the hill were called, and the “Free Will Baptists” in the church under the hill. How much was due to differences of doctrinal position and how much could be traced to family rivalry, who can say? Surely it is reason for thanksgiving that the churches are now united in a happy union.
To return to the mill men who started the Old Home Day. As we have said, these men went out to make their way in the growing textile industries of New England. But the village of their youth had a large place intheir hearts. They conceived the idea of returning to East Killingly for an Old Home Day and reunion. On this occasion they had the pleasure of meeting old friends and neighbors and swapping their experiences. Of course, an important part of any great occasion is good food; thus, it was natural that a bounteous feast be prepared. Being New England, it is not strange that the feast became a clambake.
The meal was served in a beautiful grove in the valley district. No doubt, it was more than the absence of a suitable building that made Old Home Day essentially an out-of-doors day. Very likely it came about through a desire to return to the simple, homespun days of long ago. In later years the Old Home Day has been held on the grounds of the Union Baptist Church on Chestnut Hill, where it is held to this day.
This account of the beginnings of Old Home Day is very sketchy, the writer must confess. However, it is hoped that to some of the younger folks it will provide a little background to better enable them to understand how Old Home Day came into being. It will also serve to bring out the fact that Old Home Day is one of those traditional observances which go to make up the life of our village. It is for such things that we are fighting today. We believe it is our duty to keep up the old customs and preserve them intact until our boys come home.
Perhaps it will be easily understood that the carrying out of Old Home Day plans this year (1943) presented unusual difficulties. The fact of rationing both of foodstuffs and gasoline was a major handicap. Added to that was the scarcity of some items of food needed for a clam bake. The problem of locating enough workers was a difficult one owing to the employment of so many people, and the wide variety of hours at which they work. In consequence of these difficulties, some thought it wise to abandon the idea of carrying on the Old Home Day this year.
For some years now, the Baptist Brotherhood has taken the initiative in the Old Home Day planning. That society has sponsored the event and carried it through with the help of the Ladies Aid and workers recruited from the community at large. At a meeting of the Baptist Brotherhood the question of the Old Home Day was discussed. At first, opinion seemed to lean toward some sort of modified event. However, there were those who believed that Old Home Day could be successfully carried through, in spite of obstacles. With the spirit of “Never say die” it was voted to hold Old Home Day as usual. The date was set for August 14th, and the executive committee was charged with the task of appointing the various committees. A general chairman was elected that very night, thus setting things in motion for Old Home Day 1943.
It would be a long tale to recount the preparations that had to be made and the problems that had to be faced and overcome. No doubt, some of the housewives would like to know how the chairman succeeded in collecting fourteen pounds of butter in such a day and age. But, however interesting such a story might prove, I must forbear to tell it. Suffice it to say that, through the cooperation of local merchants, and the use of valuable connections, all the necessary materials were procured.
When the necessary foods had been secured, the problem of workers was still a formidable one. Some of the women who had helped in other years were unable, for various reasons, to undertake their tasks this year. The absence from our community of over forty boys who are in the service of our country was keenly felt. The fact that every able-bodied man is employed further complicated matters. Yet, because of their loyalty, many managed to arrange their affairs so that they could serve on Old Home Day. After many discouragements, the chairman was finally assured of a sufficient corps of workers to fill the ranks on Old Home Day.
One of the most onerous tasks that has to be performed on Old Home Day is the frying of clam cakes. Under the best conditions it is a hardship to stand over a kettle of boiling fat for hours. The hardship was increased by the fact that for some years it has been the custom to use the kitchen range with a red-hot coal fire for this work. In the heat of summer a coal range going at full blast generates an insufferable amount of heat. How the women have stood the heat in the past is a matter for conjecture. It was in an effort to ease the discomfort of this task that the chairman first planned to use electric plates for frying clam cakes. However, a good deal of doubt was expressed as to the ability of electric plates to heat the fat sufficiently. Therefore, it appeared that a happy solution was found in the loan of a couple of camp style gasoline stoves. These were placed on the top of the coal range in the kitchen and it was soon evident that they would give ample heat for frying without unduly heating the room.
A happy and energetic company gathered at the Church on the evening before Old Home Day. The men were busy outside getting ready for the bake. Holes were dug for the barrels in which the clams were to be baked. The chowder kettles were set up and their smoke stacks fastened in place. A great pile of wood and stone was built in which the stones would be heated for the bake. Wood was cut for the fires under the chowder kettles. Tables and settees were set up on the lawn. Inside, the watermelons were packed in ice in the furnace room. A splendid group of workers turned out to pare potatoes and onions and to get the dishes ready for next day. At an early hour the task was done and the workers went home with a hope that the Lord would grant that the morrow would be a good, fair day.
Restless sleepers had reason for apprehension in the early hours of Old Home Day morning. A torrential rain descended for hours, giving no sign of abating. At seven o’clock rain was still coming down, but consolation was found in the old adage “rain before seven, clear before eleven.” No one has ever said whether the adage would hold true according to daylight saving time. Perhaps a more reliable source of comfort was the fact that the wind was shifting into the west. It was indeed a beautiful sight to behold when the sun burst through the clouds for a few minutes between seven-thirty and eight o’clock. The rain ceased, and though it threatened several times to return, it did not do so until the evening.
All went well on the morning of Old Home Day until about eleven-thirty. People worked like beavers grinding onions and pork for the chowder, mixing and frying clam cakes to build up a reserve against the noon rush, getting tables set and everything in readiness. At about nine o’clock the clams and quahaugs arrived. While the women ground quahaugs in the kitchen, the men picked over clams and husked corn for the bake. Another task was the cleaning and cutting up of the fish that was sent out to neighboring homes to be baked. Cucumbers had to be cut up and iced, crackers put out, potatoes boiled, butter melted and a number of small chores attended to. One who chanced to come onto the grounds or into the Church would certainly conclude it was a hive of activity.
It was at the height of the period of preparation that disaster struck a swift, unexpected blow. The gasoline stoves had been burning beautifully for about two hours. Being very much concerned about them, the chairman had made frequent check-ups upon their performance. The last inspection was made about fifteen minutes before the accident took place. To this day it is not absolutely certain just what took place. The evidence seems to point to a leak that somehow developed in the gasoline stove, causing a fire down in the bottom of the metal base of the stove. When the fire was discovered efforts were made by the women to extinguish it. The valves were closed. Mrs. Laura Carroll put salt on the flames, but to no avail. Someone ran and called to Anthony Shippee to come. He and Walter Burton came on the run to the kitchen. Mr. Shippee started to remove the pan of boiling fat from the gasoline stove. The handles were blistering hot, so Mr. Burton got some potholders. He was just handing them to Mr. Shippee when the stove exploded. Standing, as they were, immediately in front of the stove, both men were splashed with the boiling fat. Without indulging in morbid description it may be said that the faces of Anthony Shippee and Walter Burton were enough to strike horror in the minds of those who saw them. Not only were they badly burned by the fat, but also the gasoline fumes filled the room with a flash of fire, which singed their hair. The force of the blast caused shock not only to those in the kitchen but to several who were in the vestry. Walter Burton, whose burns seemed slightly worse than those of Anthony Shippee, was immediately taken to a doctor and thence to the hospital by Henry Hill. Anthony Shippee, with a coolness and courage rarely duplicated, stayed upon the scene and could not be induced to leave the kitchen until every bit of flame was extinguished. In fact, it was Mr. Shippee who brushed the fire from Mr. Burton’s clothes. As soon as the chairman reached the scene, he urged Mr. Shippee to go and receive medical attention. Anthony replied that he still had something to do and returned to the kitchen to put out a small fire that was burning in a pile of clam cakes on the stove. The chairman put out the fire and endeavored to lead Mr. Shippee away but did not succeed until he had gone down to the bake and left instructions for the seasoning of the chowder. When Mr. Shippee was ready to leave it was found that Mrs. Lois Smith, who was in the vestry at the time of the explosion was burned on the face and arm. Consequently Mrs. Claire Turner drove both patients to the Day Kimball Hospital in Putnam, where Walter Burton also was sent.
Meanwhile chaos and confusion reigned. The kitchen was covered with grease and everything was topsy-turvy. It was discovered that Mrs. Nettie Carroll had also suffered burns about the face and that her hair was badly singed. As her burns were less serious, she was given first aid at the home of Mrs. Peake and Russell Hammond drove her home. Everyone on the ground was severely shocked at this unhappy turn of events and for many the joy went completely out of the day.
It is marvelous how the human spirit can rise above disaster and triumph over adverse circumstances. Although the accident occurred at about eleven-thirty, it was possible through the earnest efforts of many willing helpers to serve dinner shortly after twelve o’clock. In a few minutes the ladies had decided upon a course of action. Mrs. Laura Carroll, Mrs. Harry Grover and Mrs. Ethel Chase were soon frying clam cakes in the kitchen of Mrs. Chase’s home. Another group comprising Mrs. Daisy Chase, Mrs. Lucina Hammond and Mrs. Hannah Hammond were soon engaged in the same task at Mrs. Hannah Hammond’s home. Out at the bake a similar adjustment was made. Mr. Ernest Burton, father of Walter Burton, seasoned the chowder and proceeded to help prepare the bake. Mr. C. Mortimer Burrill of East Putnam volunteered to fix the bake. With the help of Mr. Harrison Smith, an old hand at clambakes, and other willing workers, Mr. Burrill proceeded to rake out the hot stones and prepare the barrels of clams. In the opinion of many Mr. Burrill did a most creditable job. Thus the forces were rallied and the work was carried through. No account of these events would be complete without mention of the fact that Mrs. Anthony Shippee, in spite of her anxiety for her husband, stayed at her post supplying the waiters with crackers, brown bread, and cucumbers. Nor should I fail to say that a hundred and one deeds of courage and loyalty were performed that space does not permit me to mention in detail.
It will be readily understood that the Church vestry suffered considerable damage from the blast and fire. It will be necessary to put a new ceiling on the entire vestry; so much plaster was blown off or weakened. The back wall of the Church will have to be put back into place where it bulged a few inches. Windows were broken and the ceiling joists in the kitchen were loosened. It is reason for thankfulness that a large part of the loss was covered by insurance. Many have expressed gratitude that the Church was not burned to the ground. Considering the force of the explosion we must thank God no one was killed.
The elimination of several workers through the accident necessitated a great deal of filling in. Such was the spirit manifested by the people that many did not wait to be asked but set to work to do whatever they could to help.
A fine program was presented in the afternoon. Dinner music was supplied by an orchestra of high school students led by Wallace Peabody. Mr. Philip Lewis acted as master of ceremonies for the afternoon program. With the help of a public address system loaned and operated by Mr. Chester Knox, the program was given out-of-doors. A group of musicians from Pine Crest Ranch brought music. Rev. Chester Armstrong brought the afternoon message. Miss Dorothy Smith gave some selections on the guitar
and harmonica. Some of the members of the audience were encouraged to sing and a fine spirit prevailed.
It is said that “All’s well that ends well.” Surely the trouble that came to us on Old Home Day in 1943 brought in its wake a great deal of good. The generosity and kindness and thoughtfulness which has been shown is enough to restore one’s faith in humanity. At their 37th Old Home Day the people of Chepachet took an offering for the burned men of East Killingly amounting to $27.00. This unsolicited gesture of Christian brotherhood is heart warming indeed. People are quick to sense need as is evidenced by the fact that before any plan had been formed to meet the expenses of the men who were in the hospital, men and women began to offer their gifts. As a result Mr. Claude Moran, treasurer of the brotherhood started a solicitation of the friends in the Acme Cotton Products Co., where the men both were employed, and also in the community. Such was the response that it has been possible to pay the hospital bills and it seems likely that a substantial amount will be left to reimburse the men for their loss of time at work.
It is with real joy that I report that both Anthony Shippee and Walter Burton are home from the hospital. They are by no means all healed, but their progress has exceeded our most optimistic expectations. All indications point to the hope that these men will recover fully from their injuries in the near future and that their scars will not be conspicuous. It should be said that they were ideal patients at the hospital and no one has heard a word of complaint from their lips.
In closing this very brief account of the Old Home Day the chairman wishes to express heartfelt thanks and appreciation to all those whose loyalty, kindness and thoughtfulness has cheered his heart and made it possible for what seemed to be a defeat to be turned into a victory. Surely a community that is able to rally around and help one another has something in its life that is good and true and is worth preserving and encouraging in the days to come.