Forestville Boys’ Club
Several generations of village youths and adults were blessed with an institution that afforded personal, social and athletic growth experiences that have had lasting influences within their lives. Established in the late 1940’s as a branch of its Bristol counterpart, the Forestville Boys’ Club functioned until 1987 at which time its doors were closed despite heroic and unrecognized efforts of its loyal supporters.
Headquarters for the boys’ club were initially located on Church Avenue on the second floor, Firemen’s Hall, of the Welch Fire Company. Carleton J. Bircher was the part-time director. Functioning five nights weekly and on Saturday there was an overall membership of two hundred. Weeknight attendance ranged from 45-60, while the Saturday Movie Night increased attendance to over one hundred participants. Throughout the winter a well-rounded program of activities was provided with outdoor activities promoted during the summer. Each year the club sponsored a baseball team in the City Junior League sponsored by the Bristol Park Department. Membership demands locally and at the parent club on Laurel Street began stretching the ability of each facility to provide adequate and sufficient programming.
The Sessions Clock Company, through its President William K. Sessions, had donated a large piece of land in December, 1948 to be used when necessary as a permanent site of the Forestville Boys’ Club. This land on Central Street was located north of the railroad tracks and west of the Forestville Cemetery. Mr. Sessions had also donated land to the City of Bristol on the corner of Circle and Central Streets to be used for the erection of a Forestville Library. When Arthur N. Manross gifted the Manross home on the corner of Garden and Central Streets as a permanent home of the Forestville Library, the Board of Library Directors returned the land to The Sessions Clock Company. Mr. Sessions in turn deeded the additional parcel of land to Mr. Joseph A. Corotola, Chairperson of the Forestville Boys’ Club. The timing of this contribution coincided with the need for expansion. The additional land would afford the opportunity for construction of a building near the corner of Circle and Central Streets with a large outdoor play area to its south.
The Bristol Board of Directors and the Forestville Board of Managers met for a planning dinner at the exclusive Town Club, now the Dupont Funeral Home, and initiated plans for the construction of a new facility. Robert A. Corotola was re-elected Chairperson of the Board of Managers. He would be assisted by Vice Chairperson L. Rodney Burghoff, Secretary John Gienty, and Treasurer Melvin E. White. Re-elected to the board were W. Kenneth Sessions, Earl D. Brightman, Leslie Julian, Clyde LaRocque, Edwin P. Gustafson, Augustus Young, Harry N. Law, Judge William L. Cafferty, City Councilman Dimitry Komanetsky, Russell Ward and Bernard Downs. Five newly elected members joined the group: Werner J. Melinder, E. Bartlett Barnes, S. Russell Mink, George Grant Lynch, and Lewis C. Conzelman.
Carleton J. Bircher of Washington Street was appointed full-time unit director of the Forestville branch. He was a native of Watertown, New York and graduated from Springfield College with a B.S. in Y.M.C.A. Administration. Prior to coming to Forestville in 1940 he was employed for ten years in youth and adult recreation in Rochester, New York.
Mr. Bircher, as President of the Sarah E. Reynolds School Parent and Teachers Association, launched a drive to provide for more adequate community recreational facilities for boys. The result was the formation of the F.B.C. at Firemen’s Hall.
Mr. Corotola, President of the Board of Managers, stated that: “the community was cognizant of the unusually fine program for boys carried out with limited facilities at Firemen’s Hall headquarters of the Forestville branch under the direction of Mr. Bircher. Now with the new boys’ club building expected to be ready for occupancy in September, it is only natural that Forestville would want to see Mr. Bircher as the unit director. Speaking for the Forestville Board of Managers, we are highly pleased at the action of the Board of Directors of the Bristol Club in their appointment of Mr. Bircher.”
Mr. Sessions headed the building committee and with a delegation of board members visited the New York Headquarters for the Boys’ Club of America. This group was seeking advice from the national consultants regarding the style and structure of the facility. The Boys’ Club of America subsequently replied in an official report presenting a construction sketch and usage design. They suggested the building of a two story structure with a gymnasium, basketball court, dressing rooms, game and craft rooms, library and office section. The estimated cost was placed at two hundred and twenty five thousand dollars.
Joseph A. Corotola would serve as Chairperson of the Building Committee. He stressed the speed was of the essence both to meet the growing program needs and to assure that materials would be available when required. The federal government after WWII had initiated a national preparedness effort to preserve materials necessary for our defense. Major building projects such as the planned construction had to seek government approval in order to assure that adequate materials such as structural steel would be available. Corotola was joined on the committee by Fuller Barnes, L. Rodney Burghoff, Lewis C. Conzelman, Larry C. Humason, Edward Ingraham, Leslie Julian, Paul B. Sessions and Seth Stoner. If funding could be secured it was hoped that construction could begin within a year. The land would meanwhile be utilized by the boys’ club for outside activities, as well as, serving as a community playground. Having served as headquarters and storage depot for several months for The North Haven Construction Company it was quickly put in readiness for its intended use.
President Werner J. Melinder of the Bristol Boys’ Club and Corotola from Forestville jointly announced that fund raising activities would commence within a short time. Walter R. Sonstroem, a Forestville resident living on Garden Street, would direct this effort. Sonstroem’s corporate and boys’ club experiences made him an excellent choice for the position. Within a short period of time he laid out the plan to be utilized. A combination of corporation gifting, civic contributions and individual pledges would be used to raise the required funding. Carleton Bircher would spearhead a House- to- House campaign encompassing every resident of Forestville, East Bristol and the Farmington Avenue section of The Village. Harry C. Barnes would direct the corporate portion of the drive. The fundraising period would be very short and intensive beginning on May 23 and ending June 26. Although efforts would be concentrated in the Forestville area donations would be sought on a citywide basis.
Bircher orchestrated the development of a committee with eleven team captains with volunteers assigned to each team. The captains would train and direct the local solicitors on methods of canvassing for donations. Each captain would be responsible for their neighborhood and surrounding streets. A goal of one hundred twenty five thousand dollars was set. The captains, who met often, were held accountable for reporting back the progress made by their workers. The captains designated by street were: Francis Hamernik (Brook), Percy G. Porter (Lancaster), Alvin Barnes (Morris), Carl D. Munson (Garden), William W. Thompson Jr. (Garfield), Arthur Farrar (Vernon), Russell Ward (Central), Arthur Pipke (New), Maurice McLaughlin (Pershing), Chester Roberts (Pine), and Irving Abbott (Church Ave.).
The fund raising efforts were bolstered before the campaign was officially initiated with three significant contributions. Fuller F. and Harry C. Barnes gave fifty thousand dollars as a memorial gift for their mother, Mrs. Carlyle Forbes Barnes, and donated an additional twenty five thousand dollars on behalf of The Associated Spring Corporation. Mrs. Barnes lived on Stafford Avenue prior to her marriage and served as first president of the Bristol Boys’ Club when it was founded in 1907. She remained very active with the club until her death in 1942. The E. Ingraham Company also provided a grant of twenty five thousand. These donations were given with the contingency that the total funds needed would be raised and that the building phase would quickly commence.
The fund raising campaign received another boast when the National Production Authority Branch of the Department of Commerce authorized the construction project at a cost of nearly two hundred thousand dollars. Having received this endorsement, one of only thirty three approved projects in New England, the assurance that materials would be available at construction time was guaranteed. What was just an idea could now become reality if the needed finances were secured. The additional twenty five thousand dollars being solicited would be used for outdoor improvements and for the purchase of necessary equipment.
The fund raising efforts were well received throughout the community. A nightly pledge card appeared in the Bristol Press for those not receiving direct contact. This technique proved highly successful. The distinct need for this type of organization within Forestville was recognized and supported by the entire community. This might be best exemplified by the following letter authored by Augustus Young, Principal of Greene-Hills and Sarah E. Reynolds Schools:
Dear Mr. Corotola:
The teachers of Greene-Hills and Sarah E. Reynolds Schools, believing in the value of a Forestville Boys Club, are sending herewith their contribution to the Forestville Boys Club Building Fund in the amount of $350; kindly accept it with our sincere wishes for a successful campaign.
To me, the ever never ending job of guidance starting in the home, church, school and free time activities is paramount in my thoughts. The home, church and school can play a great part in the formulation and molding of the lives and character of youth, but they need such an organization as the Boys Clubs of America to aid them in rounding out the program. The boy may learn the moral aspects of life, the difference between right and wrong, equality and freedom of mankind, in fact all the theories that go toward the making of a good citizen. The Boys Club gives him an opportunity to test these theories, to prove for himself the value of those precepts learned from his parents, pastor and teacher. The Boys Club is a proving ground, where each boy is tested by the group and soon learns that cooperation, sportsmanship, equality and the right to think and believe as his ideals dictate, pays the greatest dividends.
Leisure time activities, guided by competent, well-trained leaders is an outstanding task confronting all of us. We can do this by helping our youth to practice what they are taught. Someday these boys will become the leaders in our local, state and national government. Their treatment of the trust of public office placed upon them will be better because they had the opportunity in their leisure time activities to test those precepts of right and wrong.
We may think of a club such as the Boys Club as being for worthy boys. A parent may give his boy every luxury in life; buy him every bit of play equipment possible and grant his every wish. But unless that boy has the opportunity to share and test his knowledge, skills and character with other boys of all walks of life, of every faith, creed, and color, he is indeed the most underprivileged one.
I believe the Boys Club of America are fulfilling the task of rounding out the gap in a boy’s life, left there by leisure time. It is with this belief and my desire to aid youth in every way, that I accepted membership on the Forestville Board of Managers several years ago; and like each and every member of the Board; shall continue to assist in the guidance of our youth through Boys Club activities. The Forestville Boys Club will answer a great need in our community.
With the assurance of needed materials and with two hundred thousand dollars already pledged for the facility, the construction firm of P. Allaire and Sons Inc. was awarded the building contract. Forestville resident, Raymond J. Percival, was selected as architect. Allaire had submitted the lowest of three bids at $182,549. The plan would follow the design presented by national headquarters with the exception that the second floor would temporarily remain unfinished. Construction would start immediately.
The first major tasks were to lower, cover and change the direction of a brook that ran through the property. It was decided to utilize four hundred feet of sixty inch tile pipes to divert this natural obstacle. The pipes can be seen today beginning at the Fletcher’s Plumbing and Heating Inc. on Circle Street and exiting —- near Nuchie’s Restaurant. The author has been told that neighborhood youths and club members enjoyed the challenge of circumnavigating this structure during their leisure time. This was certainly not a safe or healthy activity but over the years there were no apparent difficulties.
The dedication and public inspection of the new Forestville Boys’ Club were held on Sunday September 21, 1952. David Armstrong, Executive Director for the Boys’ Clubs of America was the principle speaker and stated that he had never seen such a large turnout for a dedication of a boys’ club building. New England Regional Director Thomas R. Craighead was also in attendance. E. Bartlett Barnes served as Master of Ceremonies while Mayor Daniel J. Donavan extended city greetings. Other speakers included President Werner J. Melinder of the Bristol Boys’ Club and Board of Manager President Robert Corotola. The key emblematic of the opening of the new edifice was presented to Carleton Bircher. A ribbon cutting ceremony was conducted with W. Penfield Gordon from The Community Chest providing the honors. This organization under the name of The United Way would provide yearly financial support to the club.
Even prior to the opening of the club, it was decided to organize a Senior Members Association modeled after the Older Members in Bristol. This association would serve as a system of support for club members and would raise funds for projects not included in the regular operating budget. Russell Ward and L. Rodney Burghoff were in charge of formulating plans for this group. The first fund raising project to raise money for needed furniture was held prior to their official start of this group. A benefit doubleheader baseball game was held at Muzzy Field on Tuesday September 9, 1952. The Forestville Eagles challenged the Plainville Blues in the opener with the second game featuring the Forestville-Bristol Old Timers hosting the All World Old Timers. This endeavor, which was highly successful netting several hundred dollars, was organized by Frank Owsianko, Russ Ward and Bob Lindvall.
The first regular meeting of the Senior Members Association was held on November 25, 1952 with temporary President Robert Lindvall opening the meeting. Installation of officers was then conducted by the Older Members from Bristol with President Walter Sonstroem presenting the gavel to the first President of the Senior Members, Russell Ward. Thirty four charter members were inducted that evening.
The Senior Members Association would become a vital part of the Forestville Club. They held their first Christmas tree and wreath sale that December on the outdoor athletic field and realized a profit of over five hundred dollars. Residents will recall this annual endeavor with its roaring “barrel fire” used to keep workers warm. This yearly project continued until the Forestville Club was closed. Another important event sponsored jointly by the Older and Senior Members was the administration of the Annual Recognition Dinner which alternated yearly between the two clubs until it was permanently move to the local club which could accommodate the growing numbers. . An adult sponsor would sit with each youth in attendance and present him with a boys’ club tee shirt in recognition of his involvement during that year. The Annual Boy of the Year Award was the highlight of the evening. This award would be given to one individual from each club for his merits at home, school, and church as well as for his contribution to his respective boys’ club. The following is a list of the boys receiving this honor: starting with Robert Sahno in 1952 and continuing,
1953 Fred Sellberg
1954 Richard Nye
1955 John Czertak
1956 Gerald Daley
1957 Peter Neville
1958 Thomas Greenleaf
1959 Michael Donahue
1960 Norman Swanson
1961 John Anderson
1962 Geoffrey Kinch
1963 Thomas Dickau
1964 Michael Flamang
1965 James Papapietro
1966 Robert Riemer
1967 William McCabe
1968 Robert McCabe
1969 Douglas Holden
1970 Robert Maghini
1971 Frank Grechko
1972 Thomas Euley
1973 Michael Chapdelaine
1974 Gregory Massicotte
1975 Dennis Sirianni
1976 Michael Maghini
1977 Mark Dudzinski
1978 Jay Schrager
1979 John Burke
1980 Neil Daley
1981 Cliff Miller
1982 Anthony Ziotas
1983 Tim Burns
1984 Brian Valentine
1985 Michael Alvarez
1986 Steve Pikiell
1987 David Romans
Another organization formed in 1952 for adult contribution was the Women’s Auxiliary of the Forestville Boys’ Club. This group like its male counterpart contributed both physical and financial support until the club ceased to exist.
From its beginning at the new facility until its closure, the Forestville Boys’ Club provided programming and activities meeting the needs of both youths and adults. All participants will remember the game room that provided hours of leisure time activity in the form of pool, ping pong and bumper soccer tables. An organized sign-up procedure using membership cards was used to assure equal access by all. Special activities such as “the penny carnivals” or annual “turkey shoot” were held in this area. Adjacent to this room was a small library/television room which provided a quieter environment. A game room was later developed on the second floor for high school age members. Woodworking classes were also held at various times on the second floor.
A favorite spot of most club members was the gymnasium within which numerous activities were conducted. Each year a variety of basketball leagues were held from the “biddy league” for young beginners to a “senior league” for those on their way down in their playing careers, who oftentimes failed to recognize this, hoping to keep their youthful approach to life active. “Open gym” when unorganized free play was available was a favorite time for many. During this time principles of organization and fairness were learned through experience. The Forestville Boys’ Club also participated in a statewide competitive league with other clubs. The trips to these locations are still vivid memories for those who took part. A variety of other physical activities was made available, as well as, the use of a small weight training room.
There is no doubt that for generations of village youth one of the most enjoyable and memorable event was the weekly Friday Night Dance. Held in the gymnasium from 7-10 pm this was the social event of the week. Couples danced to current music blaring from a jukebox on the stage and if not so inclined “cruised” the dance floor. These were happy times for the youthful Forestville residents always being well-attended with appropriate behavior being constantly demonstrated. Everyone remembers the final dance of the evening when the lyrics of “Good Night Sweetheart” were played as the lights were dimmed. Some daring participants might attempt to “steal a kiss”, but unfortunately too often a stage spotlight would soon catch these embarrassed adventurers. Saturday night movies on the second floor were also a favorite activity for the younger crowd.
Outdoor activities during the good weather were generally on an informal basis with pick-up games of football and softball providing healthy competition. Many will remember the “tether ball pole”. Two participants with paddle in hand would attempt to wrap a ball hitched to a rope around the pole from opposite directions. These matches were oftentimes quite spirited, lengthy and exhausting.
Boys were also treated to field trips on occasion. One of the favorite was an annual outing to either the Army/Navy football game at West Point or to the Yale Bowl.
Being a branch of the Bristol Boys’ Club afforded local members the opportunity to take advantage of some of the services provided at that club. Village youngsters were able to be picked up by “the blue bus” sent from Laurel Street facility and enjoy swimming sessions at the Bristol Club. Forestville boys could also experience the independence of life away from home while attending a two week session at Camp Wangum in Salisbury. Owned by the Bristol Boys’ Club this facility on the Housatonic River provided a rather inexpensive opportunity for boys to engage outdoor activities not available within the community. Screened cabins with shower facilities provided the living accommodations while archery and rifle ranges, athletic fields, swimming area and recreational lodge provided opportunities for a variety of activities. All those that attended this camp especially remember the quality and abundance of food provided.
The Forestville Boys’ Club also served as a community resource at various times serving as a bloodmobile center for the American Red Cross, as a home basketball court for St. Matthew School prior to it outfitting its own facility, and as a center for both the Lois Stanton’s Dance School and Sandy’s Baton Studio.
Carleton Bircher provided the administrative skills and compassionate understanding of youth needed for the successful operation of a full-time Forestville Boys’ Club. He was capably assisted by Program Director Fred Sellberg and his son Bill as volunteer game room supervisor. Two brothers, Bob and Bill McGinn, served for several years as coordinators for gymnasium activities. Under the mentorship of its first director the Forestville Boys’ Club thrived and membership constantly grew. One report this author has located indicates that nearly fifty thousand youngsters past through its doors each year. The needs of both village youths and the general community were always addressed in a professional manner. Mr. Bircher retired as director in 19–, and
was followed by Norm Beland, who served until 1973. Rex Hamilton succeeded Beland as the third and final administrator of the Forestville Boys’ Club.
Norm Beland and Rex Hamilton.