In the early 1920s, Edward Langer came home with a surprise for his young wife: he'd just purchased a house in Fairfield, right near the corner of Black Rock Turnpike and Stillson Road. Ruth was devastated, complaining that she had no interest in living out in the country.
These days, a mention of Black Rock Turnpike - at least, the section running from Samp Mortar Drive up to where it meets Tunxis Hill - tends to evoke a different response. A few may remember how the road used to pass through woods and farmland; but most of us probably think of the noise, the chaotic traffic, and how difficult it can be to park. In a brutally honest moment, a colleague recently referred to it as "the hell mouth of Fairfield."
There's no debate - in this town, the Post Road gets the glory. Black Rock Turnpike has no parade, no colonial cemeteries, no historical markers. But for many of us growing up on the "Warde" side of town, the Post Road was remote and alien. A high-school classmate of mine put it best when she commented that, for us, the Post Road was just something you had to cross to get to the beach. It's for this reason that Black Rock Turnpike deserves a little more consideration.
Ruth Langer, my great-grandmother, had to wait more than 20 years for some kind of commercial property to bloom in her neighborhood. There were, of course, a few gas stations and the Rock-Powhatan spring water company (located about where Old Navy is today). But it wasn't until the bulldozers came and knocked down Grandma Stillson's house - making way for the iconic Dolan's Corner - that there was real change.
Within a few short years, Black Rock Turnpike was peppered with family-owned businesses, such as Szost's bowling lanes and Julius Rosenwald's grocery. My grandfather tried his hand at the Black Rock commercial scene, opening a garden center next to the bowling alley, near where Primo Pizza is today. While it failed to thrive, it wasn't a total loss: during her shifts at my grandpa's store, my mother started to wonder about one particular boy who seemed to spend all his time bowling.
My grammy spent nearly half a century at her Stillson Road home; and by the time she died in 1975, Black Rock Turnpike had ceased to be a country lane. Much of the area that is developed today was built up by that point, though with a significantly different mix of businesses. Today there seems to be a bank every hundred yards; in the 70s, the strip was loaded with food stores. For staples, there were several choices, such as Grand Union (near the intersection with Fairfield Woods), Fairway Beef (with its cow-shaped window), and a store I still call Big Buy, but which is now expected to change from Shaw's to a Shop-Rite.
For meat, Fairway had a nearby competitor in Leopold's, which once stood on Cinzano's lot. Local produce was just one driveway down at Miro Farms, and fresh fish could be found at Swanson's original location in Dolan's Corner. And while my parents stopped at Moishe's Delicatessen (in what's now A&S) for a fresh loaf of rye nearly every Sunday morning after church, I only had eyes for their massive chocolate-chip cookies.
Black Rock Turnpike was also a hotbed of fine dining, though perhaps not of the "cuisine" type. While Jimmy's (on the Duchess lot) and the Pike Diner (now Penny's) served up fine comfort food, the king of the area was Kuhn's, situated at the summit of Tunxis Hill. Until the 1980s, Kuhn's stand served up fantastic hot dogs, while the adjoining restaurant provided my mother with a large number of hot roast beef sandwiches through the years. Today, a Bank of America drive-up ATM serves as its only memorial.
Most of the stores of my youth are gone now. Fair-Mart has been replaced by Trader Joe's, Howland's has become Old Navy, and Miro Farms is now Citibank. Fire has occasionally been the motivator, as in the case of the bowling alley, which I have heard went up either as a "fireball" or in an "explosion."
In late August 1989, some friends and I were enjoying a last night together before heading back to college. We called out for a pizza - the place might have been Leno's at that time, right next to Lee's News Stop - and heard that they weren't taking any orders because Fairway Beef was burning down. There was only one thing to do: we called everyone we knew, then jumped in our cars and drove down there.
By the time we arrived, the building was engulfed in flames, and it was clear that the fire department had little choice but to let it burn. Hundreds of people were in the crowd and more were arriving every minute. I was struck by the strange sort of festival atmosphere to it, so much so that, if I meet a new person who grew up here, I still occasionally ask them, "Where were you the night Fairway Beef burned down?"
It was the end, at least for me, of Black Rock Turnpike as an extension of my home neighborhood. They cleaned up the debris and rebuilt, putting in a CVS with possibly the worst parking lot of any store in Fairfield. These days, as I drive the strip, I see a lot of big, national names - Starbuck's, McDonald's, even, yes, Trader Joe's - and I spend more time thinking about what used to be rather than what is. It probably just means I'm getting old and crotchety.
Today's Fairfielders seem much more mobile than my parents were, much more willing to drive all the way downtown to pick up something at the Brick Walk or drop their kids at a Wakeman class. And while it's practically heresy to admit it, I must now confess publicly that I prefer the Post Road Duchess to the upstart location on Black Rock that serviced hundreds of cravings during my formative years. Perhaps Black Rock Turnpike has ceased to be part of anyone's "neighborhood," and maybe it's become the commercial strip you have to drive over on the way to the Post Road.
But on reflection, I'm not so sure. A few days ago, I did something I hadn't done for probably 25 years: I parked my car and walked up and down Black Rock Turnpike. There's no denying that it's largely a sea of asphalt, but tucked away are some real treasures. I asked myself, what stores will the writer of a similar article muse about in 20 or 30 years' time? Perhaps Poster's Hardware, Cinzano's, Pizza Palace, or Lupe's. The Country Cow will certainly make the cut. Every generation will have its favorites; every generation will imbue that area with new meaning.
Every once in a while, it's useful for a community to take stock of what it's gained and what it's lost, of what's at risk and what may yet be saved. As for me, I'm still sad that mom-and-pop stores are going the way of barbershops, bowling alleys, and backyard clotheslines. But there are signs that we may be turning another corner. I like the smaller places, like Billy's Bakery and Yellow Moon, and I'm crossing my fingers that, after its own fire, Swanson's opens its doors again soon.
Fairfield is wealthy in things that can't be measured by the Grand List; and while some may snicker at the suggestion, I think that Black Rock Turnpike is right up there.