OHP Blog – Cos Cob in the 1920s’ and 1930’s

Cos Cob School graduation, 1933. Gertrude O’Donnell, center, fourth row from front. Courtesy of the Oral History Project.

By Mary A. Jacobson

Cos Cob is a close-knit, self-sufficient community within Greenwich with its own identity. With Long Island Sound to its south and the Mianus River to its east, it resonates with water views and a rich, nautical history that dates to the eighteenth century. It was also home to the Cos Cob Art Colony, the first impressionist art colony in Connecticut, which flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This hamlet includes the sixty-one-acre Montgomery Pinetum, its own neighborhood library, restaurants, and shops. Many of these enterprises are in “the Hub,” the commercial area at the intersection of Strickland Road and East Putnam Avenue.

Gertrude O’Donnell Riska, born in 1920, has vivid memories of growing up in Cos Cob in the 20s and 30s. She shared her reminiscences with Marcella Raphael of the Oral History Project in 1993. In her interview, she chose to take the reader on a walk describing the sights and sounds that she experienced approximately one hundred years ago.

The Cos Cob neighborhood she described had no traffic lights on Post Road with “few cars… I would say if there were twenty cars in an hour on the Post Road, that would be a good amount.” Policemen stood in two sentry boxes to help residents cross the street and walked the street each evening “to make sure that the businesspeople had secured their door for the night.” She observed, “There weren’t too many wealthy people in Cos Cob. It was more a working-class town.”

As a child, Gertrude remembered shopping for food “just about every day because you didn’t have freezers or refrigerators. You had the old-fashioned ice box where the ice man brought your block of ice if you put a sign in the window and told him to stop with it.” McKinley’s Meat Market was a frequent destination. “He had a huge, giant icebox and every time you wanted a pork chop or something . . . he’d disappear, and the door would slam shut, and then in a minute he would come out with a whole big piece of meat and cut the pork chops or whatever… He’d have to return it right away back to this refrigerator. . . they had huge hooks that they hung (meat) on.”

Down the adjacent driveway, was a “tiny-weeny store” operated by Gussie Feldman. Gussie had a large number of children and no employees. “When you entered the store, you’d hear a little bell go ding-ding… Pretty soon she’d look through the upstairs window and say, ‘All right, I’ll be right down’. . . Today we’d leave someone in the store with the cash register. But, those days, you didn’t.” Gussie “sold everything from thread to sneakers to odds and ends… She did a good business on the Fourth of July. We all went over there and got rockets.”

Gertrude O’Donnell Riska. Photo by Janet Klion. Courtesy of the Oral History Project.

Gertrude remembered the first A&P housed near the old Cos Cob School in a block of stores built by “a very well-known builder, Mr. Schubert.” Unlike today’s supermarkets, it was a very small store with a counter on one side and, on the far side, canned goods on shelves. “You dared not take anything off the shelves.” Instead, you would wait your turn and ask for each item. “The salesman would walk around the counter, go to the far side and get the can of what you wanted, go back… He would write the price of each on a brown paper bag. It was very time consuming.”

A favorite spot, Gertrude stated, was The Clam Box. “Everybody knows The Clam Box… It was almost across from about where the car wash is” on Post Road. “It was really a little square kind of a shack” run by the Gross family in the 30s. “Even people from New York would come up to the Clam Box… the food was really good, and the price was good.” Originally, they “had maybe two stools . . .but later they added on. They made it much, much bigger.” Eventually, it closed and was torn down.

Where the Mill Pond Shopping Center exists now, Gertrude states, “That was just all wetlands. It was just an empty swampland with the tide coming in and out almost up to the Post Road.” At the end of Mead Avenue, there was one roadway “that had been filled in with rocks and extended out into the channel.” Gertrude and her friends would walk out there to an area known as Lockwood’s Dock and swim. “Then you came out in your wet bathing suit and back down across Post Road… It was just a normal thing to do, and that was the only place that you could swim.” Between Mead Avenue and Relay Place was a little white building called White Castle Hamburgers. “They were five cents each… For a quarter you got five, and they were delicious.”

Of course, school was the center of activity in Gertrude Riska’s life. “… the Cos Cob Library (was) contained in it, to the left of the front door.” The school was also the setting for country fairs and annual Halloween parties. The fireman’s carnival was held in the school to make money to maintain the firehouse. “It was one of the two events that the whole town waited for. They had the usual booths with spinning wheels and prizes. But the real exciting thing was the dance floor and the Fireman’s Ball.” Gertrude’s father was chief of the Cos Cob Fire Department. “We waited practically breathless all year for that Fireman’s Ball… The jitterbugging hadn’t come in, but they were doing the waltzes. It was just nice.”

Gertrude was particularly proud of her father, Lewis O’Donnell, and his involvement with the nascent Cos Cob Fire Department, founded in 1922, in addition to his work as chief electrical engineer at the Cos Cob Power Plant. Gertrude’s dad and some of his friends worked tirelessly to convert a donated touring car into a pumper for the fire department as “they didn’t have the funds to go out and buy the proper engines.” When their task was accomplished, “it was a great, wonderful thing for the fire department to have this unique automobile or pumper.”

Meetings were originally held in the second floor of the Taylor barn. However, soon after, letters were written to potentially wealthy donors to help construct a proper firehouse. Eventually, a temporary firehouse was built in 1924 (next to where the present firehouse is now).
Gertrude Riska continued to live in Cos Cob until her death, at the age of 96, in 2016. She taught piano to hundreds of students in her home on Orchard Street and played the organ in churches until the age of 92. She and her family’s legacy contributed much to her community in Cos Cob as well as to the town of Greenwich.

The interview entitled “A Walk-Through Cos Cob in the 1920s and 30s” may be read in its entirety at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The OHP is sponsored by Friends of Greenwich Library. Visit the website at glohistory.org. Our narrator’s recollections are personal and have not been subject to factual scrutiny. Mary Jacobson serves as blog editor.

The Cos Cob firehouse pumper fashioned from a donated touring car, circa 1920s. Courtesy of the Oral History Project.
The Clam Box, 1939. Courtesy of the Oral History Project.
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