The Day – A vintage postcard that inspires time travel

    A friend recently showed me a postcard showing a group of young men enjoying a picnic in the church at Richards Grove in Quaker Hill. They seem to be having such a great time that I expected half back to read “Enjoy. I wish you were here.” But being there would require time travel because the year was 1906.

    The scene shows men in suits and hats, and women in long summer dresses. (I’m sorry to say that a young lady displays inappropriate space for her calf and ankle.) They are near two boats, apparently about to circle Smith Cove.

    I love old postcards because they are little time capsules of how things turned out. The advent of free rural delivery in the late 19th century and the growing popularity of photography led to their golden age. Postcards were everywhere, text messages were in their era. This is clearly intended as a souvenir of a happy day with friends.

    Richards Grove belongs to Norman Richards, a farmer from Quaker Hill. It was one of the many local entertainment venues known as casinos, where people could boat, play ball, picnic and in some cases ride the carousels and dance the night away on platforms under the stars. There was no gambling, but the sites, usually on rivers, bays or sound, provide plenty of outdoor fun. The introduction of carriages gave the public easy access to these parks, which enjoyed a golden age until changing times, fires and a hurricane of ’38 sealed their fate.

    A handwritten note on the back of this postcard indicates that George Gard is a hiker. No one else was identified. It makes me wish I knew something about him and the connection he might have had with the original owner of this souvenir. It occurred to me that Gard and Gard might be variations of the same surname, and this thought led me to Walter Gard and the Gard Center for the Arts in New London. Although I found no connection between George and Walter, I did find another golden age, the age of cinema palaces.

    The Garde opened its doors in 1926 to impress viewers with the silent film “The Wedding Clause”. The theater is named after Walter Garde, a Connecticut businessman who is credited with financing its construction. Silent films, new talkies and live shows such as vaudeville, acrobatics and magic were shown. Like other “mansions” that have popped up across the country, the Garde is elaborately decorated to create an exotic setting – as much of an audience experience as the show they’ll come to watch.

    Walter Gard (1876-1947) and his father, William Henry Gard, owned and operated luxury hotels in New Haven and Hartford. Walter had several investment firms and served on the boards of banks and railroad companies. He was politically active, and belonged to many commercial 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 they were not in Palm Beach or Hartford. He must have been so highly regarded by the community because when his beloved dachshund, Hans, died, a local newspaper reported that the entire neighborhood mourned the loss. I like this kind because it seems to talk more about Walter than his dog, and it gives a small glimpse of the human behind the public facade.

    Walter died in 1947 in his doctor’s office during a routine examination. His obituary painted a picture of a life of great achievement.

    I never expected an old postcard to be a reminder of some golden age 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 Gard, Walter’s most enduring legacy, has adapted to changing times. He continues to entertain and make us happy.

    Many thanks to New London Landmark Mary Beth Baker for generously sharing her research on Walter Gard.