“Legendary Locals of Middletown,” a new book by Robert Hubbard, Kathleen Hubbard, and The Middlesex County Historical Society, goes forward with the belief that the best way to understand a town’s history is by examining its citizens. Here, Middletown’s history is documented from its inception through today; by highlighting military heroes, athletes, scholars, and beloved townspeople, the authors present a thorough representation of Middletown and the people who influenced and perpetuated its progress through the generations.
In 1650, a faction of residents from Hartford decided to settle at a new location along the Connecticut River. They chose the largest bend in the river and christened their new home Middletown. Due to the production and industrial trade around the river, the town grew steadily over the next few hundred years and was established as a United States customs port in 1795.
Middletown’s first settlers farmed the fertile soil of the Connecticut River. The river, in turn, attracted shipbuilders and created expansive marine commerce; as the Industrial Revolution progressed, changing the landscape with the introduction of mills and factories, Middletown became one of the most economically successful cities in Connecticut.
The Hubbards wrote a previous book, “Images of America: Middletown,” in 2009, but they were restricted to using photographs from 1970 and forward. For this new project, part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Legendary Locals” series, the husband-wife team collaborated with Debby Shapiro, executive director of the town’s historical society, who gave them access to photos from the past few centuries.
“She not only came up with many great candidates, but she personally knows (or has known) most of Middletown’s sports, business and government leaders of the past 40 years,” Robert Hubbard wrote in an email to The Argus.
“Legendary Locals of Middletown” took a considerable amount of time to write and assemble because it featured more figures than the previous book people from many different walks of life.
“Some highlights for us were a three-hour interview with 80-year-old Willard McRae, the legendary African-American community leader, [and] meetings with business legend Richard Wrubel in which he told us stories of his uncle, a Wesleyan University graduate who wrote the Disney song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” as well as many more hits from the golden age of Hollywood,” Hubbard wrote.
Each chapter of the book is devoted to people within a certain field of work. From hardworking businesspeople to athletes and from artists of all genres to military heroes, it provides a detailed cross-section of the diversity of life in Middletown. Exploring prominent government leaders and teachers, the book also shows how individuals can start off in humble local jobs and move on to become legislators, professionals, and decision-makers at the national level.
As someone who loves learning of people’s origins and how history affects the present, I found that the book really hit home for me. Even though the gender ratio of those featured is skewed male, I loved learning about individuals who affected all aspects of the town’s social sphere.
Overall, “Legendary Locals of Middletown” is an excellent pastiche of local history.
“We might add that the history of Middletown is but the biography of men and women, both great and small,” the book says.
From “Legendary Locals,” the Features section hand-picked its Top 10 Most Notable Middletown Residents You’ve Never Heard Of (in no particular order):
1. Benjamin Douglas: This local shop owner was a member of the Middletown Anti-Slavery Society and refused to abide by the tenets of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Douglas was believed to have helped slaves escape via the Underground Railroad.
2. Helen “Babe” Carson: This spunky athlete was a star member of the Speed Girls of Middletown, a semi-professional women’s basketball team that emerged during the Great Depression. Carson went on to pitch for men’s hardball teams in New Hampshire and Florida.
3. Allie Wrubel: This Wesleyan alumnus moved to Hollywood to pursue music shortly after graduating. Wrubel was under contract with Warner Brothers, and in 1948 his song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” won the Best Song Oscar at the Academy Awards. In 1970, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
4. Dean Acheson: Born in Middletown in 1893, Ascheson was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to Undersecretary of the Treasury in 1933, jumpstarting his 20-year career. Acheson became Assistant Secretary of State for economic affairs, through which he helped create NATO in 1949. He served as Secretary of State throughout the Korean War and advised President Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
5. Maria Madsen Holzberg: Middletown’s first female mayor, who was elected in 1995. Madsen legislated the renovation of local schools and the creation of a new police station.
6. Max Corvo: A decorated war veteran, Corvo moved from Sicily to Middletown when he was nine years old. In World War II, he directed intelligence operations in Italy for the United States Office of Strategic Services (the CIA’s predecessor) and was able to land hundreds of agents behind enemy lines. Back at home, he co-founded and published The Middletown Bulletin, a local newspaper.
7. Vivian McRae Wesley: Wesley was the first African-American woman hired by the city. The schoolteacher helped dozens of students improve their reading comprehension and instilled in them a passion for learning. Vivian McRae Wesley Elementary School was built in 1972 in her honor.
8. Chief Sowheag: This Native American leader was in charge of the Mattabesett and Wangunk tribes, based on land that is now part of Middletown. When the Hartford and European settlers came, Sowheag was forced to sell most of his tribes’ land. By the end of the 17th century, the tribes only controlled 300 acres of land.
9. Bernie O’Rourke: O’Rourke was the city’s parks and recreation director for many years. He also edited the sports section of The Middletown Press. With his help, Little League Baseball was brought to Connecticut. He is also the namesake of O’Rourke’s Diner, a campus favorite and local hotspot.
10. Jessie Fisher: One of the premier female pathologists, Fisher practiced at the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane in the early 1900s.
Additional reporting by Assistant Features Editor Rebecca Brill and Features Editor Gabe Rosenberg.