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One American Town: An Interview with Author Donald Connery

By Bob Deakin

 

(The bend in the road over the canal just south of the Bull's Bridge Inn in Kent)

It has been 30 years since Kent resident Donald Connery wrote One American Town, the story of a nameless small town, its virtues, its characters and how it deals with the prospect of change. The 222-page book never mentions Kent by name, but most quickly recognize the setting. The author deliberately avoided the name so the town would symbolize other such treasured communities. The stories and anecdotes are true, and could have happened to anyone in any American town.

The book is separated into four sections-Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter-and features many un-attributed quotes taken from Kent residents in 1972.

“I believe that my intention was to make it more symbolic of a very special, very attractive American community, which had retained all the old values that we treasure,” Mr. Connery said last week. “Not naming the place was hardly protective, it was mostly to symbolize a type of community in the country, which I do believe is the best way of life there is, anywhere.”

His first source of information was the late town historian, Emily Hopson. From there, he visited with others in town, as they went about their business, and sat in on town meetings.

“I would just find occasions to call on them and get their ideas about Kent,” he said of the many interviews in the book. “It’s more of a kind of scrapbook, not a narrative … I tried to give a portrait, sort of an impressionistic sense of the town and its history. Rather than taking the approach of a day in the life of a town or getting too terribly serious. It’s almost like a bunch of snapshots.”

Mr. Connery, born in New York City in 1926, was a soldier who saw combat in the South Pacific and the Philippines during World War II. He entered Harvard after the war. From there, he worked as a foreign correspondent for Armed Forces Radio Service, United Press International, Time and Life magazines and NBC. His work took him around the globe and even got him ousted from the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Blessed with a booming voice appropriate for radio, much of his work was nevertheless as a print journalist until he returned to the United States in 1968 as a freelance writer with two published books under his arm. He and his wife, Leslie, bought and settled into a farm on Skiff Mountain Road shortly after their return.

“What’s the best place to live in America?” he remembered asking at the time. “Small town New England, we decided.”

He could have the best of both worlds-living in rural New England while remaining close enough to New York and other large cities he knew he would frequent in future years as part of his work. Soon after the Connerys moved to the farm, during the winter of 1968, a fire broke out and the Kent Volunteer Fire Department managed to get to their home in time to save it. The new residents were impressed by the efficiency of the firefighters and their willingness to keep watch over the house through the night. For the next couple of days, they were overwhelmed at the hospitality shown by their neighbors. Some offered food, others offered shelter and others just offered help.

“I was so compelled by all the contrasts; the neighborliness, the rural life, everything that we prize in small town America,” said the author in an interview at his farm near the top of the mountain, which epitomizes the flavor of the country town he describes in the book.

One American Town quotes a number of legendary figures, including Thornton Wilder, Henry David Thoreau, Eric Sloan, E.B. White and Ogden Nash. Local legends abound as well, though they aren’t named. Anyone with an inkling that it might be Paul Dooley, Art Seabury, Bill or Jerry Tobin or Suzi Williams behind some brief quotes on the pages wouldn’t be far off base.

What has not changed since the book was written?

“The answer that leaps to mind,” Mr. Connery replied, “is that in the important things, the essentials, we haven’t changed. I said in the book, and I believe it still, that if the people who had been here in the 19th century could come back, they could find their way around on the same roads and see the same scenery and many of the same houses and barns. They would be really amazed at how much it is as they remember it, if not better. Basically, once you leave the middle of town, which has changed considerably, and go around, there isn’t much [different].”

The population has increased from about 1,800 to 3,000 since 1972, but Mr. Connery feels the increase is reasonable and the fact that many new homes are hidden from the road veils much of the increase. He sees the preservation of the landscape as a great triumph.

“What has changed,” he began, “is, in socioeconomic terms: it’s obviously a town where land values have gone up and it’s more difficult, by far, for young people or people with limited incomes, to continue to live in Kent. That’s not a good thing. Fortunately we’ve sort of faced up to this with affordable housing efforts, as we speak.”

He uses the term ‘heroes’ to describe people in town who have dedicated their time and effort to stand up for what they believe is best for the town, including Lisl Standen for the elderly housing and Bill Bacharach for affordable housing. He completed his sentiment by naming the numerous volunteers in town as the real heroes.

“Whenever I go to the Planning and Zoning Boards or the other commissions, I’m astonished by the willingness of people to put in all the hours they do on these issues,” he said. “I’m quite willing to use the term heroic, not in a sense of courage so much as dedication. The people who have served on the town boards have seen to it that the changes in Kent are agreeable in terms of our history.”

In terms of changes for the better, he points to the preservation of open space, especially on the Route 7 corridor. He credits the Kent Land Trust for its active and innovative approach in protecting land, the development of which would have radically changed the character of the whole area. Mr. Connery is a founding member of the Trust but credits Harmon Smith, Claire Murphy and Tony Zunino for the real work in preserving land. He views changes around Main Street as inevitable and usually positive.

“This is the kind of inevitable progress that you want in a town that shouldn’t be stagnant,” he said. “The town should be growing and thriving but the major commercial changes have all been focused in the center. Where there has been development in Kent – commercial and residential – has been very well thought out and very well located.”

As an example, he cited the current home of NewMil Bank, on Main Street, which was preserved and simply renovated on the inside in the interest of historical preservation. He also brought up the fire department’s planned move into a previously existing structure on Maple Street.

“There’s a terrific example of-if you need to expand something in the community, how do you do it in a way that it not only does the job but solves another problem,” he said. “It’d be unfortunate to have an empty building sitting there. It’s a very intelligent town. The amount of talent in this community, and the artistic component, should also be mentioned-the extent to which we’ve become noticed as an arts community and the amount of activity actually going on apart from galleries.

“That’s pretty wonderful,” he continued, contrasting the growing number of artists with the trades of the past. “When you consider, historically, that we’ve gone through these periods of farming and mining.”

Mr. Connery feels Kent is better off in many ways than it used to be. He pointed out in One American Town that the iron-mining period must have been a tough time in which to live. Most of the trees in town were cut down to fire the furnaces, which billowed black smoke 24 hours a day with run-off draining into the Housatonic River and general stores open around the clock.

“My God, you look at the photographs that the Historical Society has and these hills were just denuded,” he said. “It was awful. I can say without question that it’s a far more beautiful town today.”

The book also pokes good-natured fun at life in a small town when he wrote it. He described how a local veterinarian took out an ad in the Good Times Dispatch stating that a certain lady makes the best apple pie in the world. He also spoke of a long-time farmer in the area who celebrated his 100th birthday with his first airplane ride and came down complaining that he had been able to see only the town and not “the whole earth.”

One passage included a bit of Native American History:

The last Indian on our reservation, a slim and nobly featured man known to his tribe as Running Deer has died at age 72. He was not a full-blooded Schaghticoke, but he had spent the greater part of his life in our town, and could trace his lineage back to Eunice Mauwee, ‘The Christian Indian Princess.

Another paragraph describes a local educator whose identity one might guess is Ed Kirby.

The high school is led by an outgoing, athletic young principal who keeps a baseball glove handy in his office and likes to take youngsters on geological rambles.

“It’s been a very creative period of time since this book came out,” Mr. Connery said. “We’ve found solutions that honor individual freedom of the property owner while doing something to preserve the character of this town.

One American Town didn’t make any bestsellers list. Mr. Connery said it sold modestly but doesn’t know the figures. The book was also released in England as Small Town, a title the editors chose that still perplexes him.

“If [the book] is well received and well reviewed and read by a fair number of people, there’s a good deal of satisfaction,” he said, describing the writing of the book as a labor of love. “Instead of newspaper or magazine stories, a book has a permanence. It’s there on library shelves and it can often achieve a second life.”

The book can still be found at some of the big Internet booksellers but is otherwise out of print. The Kent Memorial Library and the New Milford Library each have copies. One American Town was Donald Connery’s third book and he has written and edited many since then, most dealing with the flaws of the justice system and its enforcers. He is currently working on another book and is busier than ever.

He has pondered the idea of writing a follow-up to One American Town but has it low on his priority list.

“What we’ve done in Kent can be a lesson to other communities,” he stated. “We preserve the best of our qualities despite the pressures of modern society.”

The following passage from the book describes the approaching spring at the Connery farm:

Now the long winter is over. Spring slipped in this evening at three minutes to eight. It is the 232nd spring in the history of our town. We can feel the earth stirring, hear creatures announcing the new season, see hope in the ripening buds of the dogwoods. The wintering birds, arguing over the sunflower seeds we have scattered on the melting sheet of snow, have been joined by a robin. We are moved by these signs of renewal and by the prospect of witnessing once again on this mountaintop the glory of the earth reborn.

Early in the book he quotes a survey from a Louis Harris poll for Life Magazine that asked what kind of life people wanted. Friendly neighbors, green grass, trees, a low crime rate and other common desires were named, as one would expect. Mr. Connery went on to write how all of those desires could be filled in Kent.

“If you go back to the American theme of the pursuit of happiness, and people striving to live the good life, I think much of what they want you find in this kind of smaller, human-sized community,” he said, echoing the sentiment expressed in the final line of One American Town.

We dare to speak the word happiness.

(Originally published in the Kent Good Times Dispatch in 2003)

Copyright 2011

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