The Day – An old postcard inspires time travel

Recently a friend showed me a postcard of a group of young people enjoying a church picnic at Richards Grove in Quaker Hill. They seemed to be having such a good time that I half expected the back to say “Have fun.” I 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 in long summer dresses. (I’m sorry to say a young woman displays an unseemly calf and ankle stretch.) 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 what things used to look like. 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, text messages of their time. This one was clearly meant to be a keepsake of a happy day with friends.

Richards Grove was owned by Norman Richards, a farmer from Quaker Hill. It was one of many local recreation spots known as casinos, where people could boat, play ball, picnic, in some cases ride a carousel and dance the night away on platforms under the stars. There was no game, but the pitches, usually on rivers, creeks, or the strait, provided plenty of wholesome outdoor fun. The introduction of trolleys facilitated public access to these parks which had a golden age until changing times, fires and the hurricane of 38 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. It makes me want to know something about him and the relationship he may have had with the original owner of this memory. 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 connection between George and Walter, I did find another golden age, the age of movie palaces.

La Garde opened in 1926 to rave reviews with the silent film “The Marriage Clause.” The theater is named after Walter Garde, a Connecticut businessman who is credited with financing its construction. Silent films, new-fangled walkie-talkies, and live performances like vaudeville, acrobatics, and magic acts have all been staged here. Like other “palaces” springing up across the country, the Guard has been elaborately decorated to create an exotic setting – as much a part of the audience’s experience as the spectacle they came to see.

Walter Garde (1876–1947) and his father, William Henry Garde, owned and managed luxury hotels in New Haven and Hartford. Walter owned several investment companies and served on the boards of banks and railroad companies. He was politically active and belonged to many business and fraternal organizations.

In 1909 Walter built a house in Neptune Park near Ocean Beach where he and his family lived part of the year when not in Palm Beach or Hartford. He must have been warmly regarded by the community because when his beloved dachshund, Hans, passed away, a local newspaper reported that the whole neighborhood was mourning the loss. I like this treat because it seems to say more about Walter than his dog, and it gives a little insight into the human being behind the public facade.

Walter died in 1947 in his doctor’s office during a routine examination. His obituary paints the picture of a remarkably accomplished life.

I didn’t expect an old postcard to be a ticket to some golden ages from long ago. Of course, golden ages are fleeting; few people send postcards, and the casinos of the early 20th century are gone for good. But the Watch, Walter’s most enduring legacy, has adapted to the changing times. He 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.

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