Dwight Martin finds joy in community theatre
Martin Family Impacts Hebron History
People have fond memories of the various Martin generations. “Oh, Marjorie Martin was our librarian for years and years, and her mother before her,” said one. “Dwight Martin was a RHAM teacher for a long time, and he raised his family down at the lake,” said another. “Of course I remember the Martin family,” said yet another. “Dwight was the local Driver’s Education teacher, and he taught most of the kids in Hebron how to drive back in the 1960’s and 1970’s.”
Spending a morning with Dwight Martin, who easily recalls his memories of growing up in Hebron, is like taking a step back in time. It’s an experience everyone should have.
The history of the Martin family started in 1919, when The Reverend Theodore Dwight Martin became Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. He and his wife, Etta Josephine, initially lived in the parish rectory on Church Street, but eventually bought the red farmhouse on what is now known as “Marjorie Circle.” The Martins’ two children, Horace and Marjorie, had already left the roost. Horace, a college English professor, taught in Georgia and later Louisiana, and Marjorie had just returned from World War I, having enlisted in the Army as a librarian
Rev. Martin was known for his gentle sermons and beautiful voice. He probably inherited musical talent from his grand-uncle, The Reverend Samuel F. Smith, who wrote the unforgettable and patriotic America, to the tune of God Save the King, in 1832. According to St. Peters History, Rev. Martin was also “a well-known composer of hymns who had sung in some of the first American performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas.”
His wife, called Josie by her family, was a well-known woodcraftsman and cabinet maker, an uncommon talent in women at the turn of the century. “She was a character,” laughs Dwight. “She was also an amazing painter and took cabinet-making classes to learn more about the craft.” Today her granddaughter, Kathleen Martin Fill, still has Josie’s handcrafted chest, featuring a burned-in oak leaf design.
Rev. Martin’s life was tragically cut short right after his retirement from St. Peter’s Church. One foggy night, when he was walking up Church Street toward his home, he was struck by a car and killed. Josie, who in 1928 had begun her career as Hebron Librarian the year before, continued living at the Marjorie Circle farmhouse, although her sisters were frequent long-term guests.
Horace, who had married Nell Plummer in 1920, saw the birth of three children, Dwight in 1921, Sylvia in 1923, and Kathleen in 1926. The family was living in Natchitoches, LA in 1934 when Horace suddenly died of pneumonia at the young age of 47. Nell had been seriously ill since the birth of Kathleen, and it was decided that the three young children should be raised by their grandmother Josie in Connecticut. Dwight clearly remembers the long trip back to Connecticut with his siblings and his father’s casket (Horace Martin is buried at St. Peters).
Dwight, Sylvia and Kathleen were soon enrolled in Hebron Center School where one of their classmates, Marie Smith (later Billard), clearly remembers the Martin children’s first days at school. “They all had such southern accents; it was noticeable because it was so different from anything we knew,” she said.
“We had Mrs. Walsh for a teacher. What a crackerjack she was!” laughed Dwight. Like all the other children, the Martins were soon assigned their daily chores. “I had to walk up to Sheddy (Sherwood) Griffin’s house and get water, and then haul it back to the school.” Kathleen pipes in, “Well, at least you didn’t have to clean the toilets!”
Both Dwight and Kathleen have fond memories of sliding on the hills of the Martin land and the famous “Double Ripper” sled which could hold up to 12 kids and could make it all the way past numerous stone walls all the way to Porter’s Grist Mill. Kathleen especially remembers the Amston Lake Company putting up metal signs advertising lots for sale at the lake. “We’d take down their signs, roll up the ends, and go sledding on it… a few days later, they’d just put up another sign. After a while, they gave up,” she said.
“Our place was the sledding center for all of Hebron,” said Kathleen. “In fact, grandmother refused to take down the old 3-seater outhouse. That was where all the visitors had to go because she certainly wouldn’t let them tramp their wet feet through her house!” Much of that old sledding path is now covered in brush, and the outhouse is gone.
Like others who lived in 1930’s and 1940’s Hebron, life for the Martin children centered on the Hebron Green. “We played a lot of football there,” said Kathleen, although the Green also saw many picnics, baseball games and even horseback riding.
Particularly significant are Dwight’s memories of the Hurricane of 1938. “It had been raining buckets for about three days. After awhile, I had to get out. I was riding my bike on the Green when the storm hit, and I still remember the wind picking up the front wheel of my bike. Believe it or not, I saw seagulls flying backwards. I knew I better take shelter quick, so I ran into the Hewitt Store (now the location of McCorrison Realty). There was a porch on the building back then, and the chimney came crashing through the porch roof, inches from my feet.”
“I waited the storm out, and then started trying to make my way home. There was so much damage everywhere; the wind had peeled back the metal roof of St. Peter’s like a roll-up bar. But what I really remember were all the downed trees. All of the trees in front of the Congregational Church were down, and all the way up Church Street the maple trees were down. I even had to chop my way into my own home, because our poplar trees all were down,” said Dwight. “The ground was just so saturated,” said Kathleen. “Most trees really didn’t stand a chance in that wind.”
When it got dark, the impact of the storm really hit home for the Martin children. “I remember seeing the fire trucks desperately trying to make their way down Hope Valley Road because of all the fires, but they just couldn’t because of the downed trees.” Kathleen added, “I remember seeing a glow in the southern skies; we later learned it was the New London Harbor area burning down.”
Like other Hebron children, the girls soon went to Windham High School, but Dwight was sent to Mt. Herman Preparatory School in Greenfield, Ma. “I was a handful in a house full of women,” admits Dwight. But he eventually returned to Hebron and attended Windham, where he met Doris Charron, a woman whose beauty was comparable to Rita Hayworth’s. Doris and Dwight were married on February 17, 1942. Shortly thereafter, First Selectman Winthrop Porter held a going away party at Old Town Hall for Dwight, Carleton Jones and Rafael Kassman, all of whom were soon shipping out to Europe to serve in the U. S. Army during World War II.
Interestingly, Dwight’s Aunt Marjorie had also enlisted, this time serving with the U. S. Navy as a hospital librarian in the Brooklyn Naval Yard. It’s one of those interesting facets of Marjorie Martin’s past that few know about: she served in both world wars!
“I served in France as a procurement specialist, primarily because I was the only one in my unit who was completely fluent in French,” said Dwight. “I was just a private, but I had a jeep with a driver. It was always amusing when men saluted me as I passed by.” When Hitler surrendered, “I was in the woods of Germany, and we all thought we’d be heading to Japan next.” Dwight especially remembers the time he was fishing off a bridge in Germany, with shiny Jeeps coming toward him, ordering him to clear the path. “I wasn’t about to jump off that bridge!” he laughed, “but then I saw the big Dusseldorf coming after the Jeeps, and inside was General Patton. The Dusseldorf stopped, and all I could think was, ‘Oh, no, now I’ll never get home!’”
Dwight finally arrived back Christmas of 1945. In 1947, when Grandmother Josie passed away, Aunt Marjorie returned to Hebron and took over both the red farmhouse and the Librarian position. Like her mother, Marjorie also served almost two decades as the town’s librarian until 1966. The farmhouse continued as a focal point for the entire Martin family.
Between going to school and working at the Amston Silver Company, Dwight led a busy life with Doris, raising their two sons, Zach and Bradley, ultimately becoming an Industrial Arts teacher. Both Kathleen and Sylvia graduated from the Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London in nursing, with Kathleen serving as a school nurse in numerous districts, including RHAM, throughout her career.
Dwight ultimately felt the full impact of his genetic heritage, and became dedicated to singing and acting in community theatre. His first major performance? Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M. S. Pinafore – right in his grandfather Theodore’s footsteps. Dwight even studied for a year at the Julius Hartt School of Music and Frederick School of Metropolitan Opera. Recognized by almost every Connecticut newspaper for his talent, Dwight’s resume includes well over 100 acting credits, and over 30 directing credits. But his theatre career is a story in and of itself, and best saved for another day.