Recently a friend showed me a postcard featuring a group of young people enjoying a church picnic at Richards Grove in Quaker Hill. They seemed to be having such a lovely time that I half expected the back to read “Having fun. Wish you were here.” But being there would require time travel because the year was 1906.
The scene shows men in suits and bowler hats, and women gussied up in long summer frocks. (I’m sorry to say one young lady is displaying an unseemly expanse of calf and ankle.) They’re near two canoes, apparently about to take a spin around Smith Cove.
I love vintage postcards because they’re little time capsules of how things used to look. The advent of Rural Free Delivery in the late 19th century and the growing popularity of photography ushered in their golden age. Postcards were ubiquitous, the text messages of their age. This one was clearly intended to be a memento of a happy day with friends.
Richards Grove belonged to Norman Richards, a Quaker Hill farmer. It was one of many local recreation venues known as casinos, where people could boat, play ball, picnic, in some cases ride carrousels, and dance the night away on platforms under the stars. There was no gambling, but the locations, typically on rivers, coves, or the Sound, offered lots of wholesome outdoor fun. The introduction of trolleys gave the public easy access to these parks, which enjoyed a golden age until changing times, fires, and the ’38 hurricane sealed their fate.
A handwritten note on the back of this postcard identifies George Gard as one of the picnickers. No one else is singled out. That makes me wish I knew something about him and the relationship he may have had with the original owner of this souvenir. It occurred to me that Gard and Garde are probably variations of the same surname, and that thought led me to Walter Garde and the Garde Arts Center in New London. Although I couldn’t find any linkage between George and Walter, I did find another golden age, the age of movie palaces.
The Garde opened its doors in 1926 to rave reviews with the silent film “The Marriage Clause.” The theater was named for Walter Garde, a Connecticut businessman who’s credited with financing its construction. Silent movies, new-fangled talkies, and live performances like vaudeville, acrobatics, and magic acts were all staged there. Like other “palaces” popping up all over the country, the Garde was elaborately decorated to create an exotic setting — as much a part of the audience experience as the show they’d come to see.
Walter Garde (1876–1947) and his father, William Henry Garde, owned and managed luxury hotels in New Haven and Hartford. Walter had several investment companies and served on the boards of banks and railroad companies. He was active politically, and belonged to numerous business and fraternal organizations.
In 1909 Walter built a home in Neptune Park near Ocean Beach where he and his family lived part of the year when they weren’t in Palm Beach or Hartford. He must have been warmly regarded by the community because when his beloved dachshund, Hans, died, a local newspaper reported that the whole neighborhood mourned the loss. I like this tidbit because it seems to say more about Walter than it does about his dog, and it gives a tiny glimpse oi the human being behind the public facade.
Walter died in 1947 in his doctor’s office during a routine checkup. His obituary painted a picture of a remarkably accomplished life.
I never expected that an old postcard would be a ticket to some golden ages of long ago. Of course, golden ages are fleeting; not many people send postcards anymore, and early 20th century-style casinos are gone for good. But the Garde, Walter’s most enduring legacy, has adapted to changing times. It continues to entertain us and make us happy.
Many thanks to Mary Beth Baker of New London Landmarks for generously sharing her research on Walter Garde.