Edith Wheeler: Scholar, Businesswoman, Gardener ...

Nancy Zorena talks about Edith Wheeler, the philanthropist whose trust helps the library, and shares photos and stories of Monroe's history.

Nancy Zorena talks about Edith Wheeler during a presentation at the library.
Nancy Zorena talks about Edith Wheeler during a presentation at the library.
Monroe's library bears the name of the late Edith Wheeler in honor of the generous donation from her trust. Bill Ehlers, chairman of the Library Commission, said $750,000 of it went toward construction of the library's new $6.5 million building on Monroe Turnpike. Investors built it back up, and the trust now defrays costs of some of the library's equipment and programs.

Beyond that, most Monroe residents know little about Edith Wheeler. In celebration of Wheeler's birthday earlier this month, former Monroe Historical Society president, Nancy Zorena, made a presentation in the library one night.

She told her audience gathered inside the Ehlers Meeting Room a little bit about Wheeler's life and shared photographs and stories of Monroe's history.

Edith Wheeler was born to parents Noah and Sophie in 1914 and she and her sister, Ruby, grew up in Stratford. Their family had accumulated wealth from Moses Wheeler's ferry business linking Stratford to Milford.

Moses Wheeler emigrated to America from England in 1639 and lived to be 100-years-old, according to Zorena. 

In 1926, Edith Wheeler's mother, who used to be a maid in Switzerland, took her to visit family there. Zorena said a photo from the trip of 12-year-old Edith hangs in the children's room of the library.

Wheeler graduated from the University of Bridgeport as class valedictorian and later donated millions to her alma matter.

She went on to be a physical education teacher in Bridgeport and within three years she was supervisor of health and physical education for the entire city, according to Zorena. 

She retired in 1977, after 40 years in education.

Wheeler's sister, who also pursued a career in education, was a high school biology teacher in Stratford, Zorena said.

Edith Comes to Town

In 1962, Wheeler moved to Monroe at age 48. Zorena showed a photo of the house she bought on Wheeler Road.

"She bought 30 lots too," Zorena said. "She was a smart woman."

Wheeler had also invested in properties in Milford and surrounding towns and had horses and a greenhouse. "She loved gardening and was a gourmet cook," Zorena said.

Zorena said Wheeler also collected antique cars.

An old real estate ad from a newspaper in the 1960's showed a house on Twin Brook Terrace listed for $15,990. One of the businesses involved in the construction was Radcliffe.

Wheeler had married Raymond Radcliffe, a widower, in the '60's and kept her own last name, Zorena said.

During her time in town, Wheeler had become a member of the Monroe Historical Society.

Though Wheeler did not leave a direct donation to the historical society, Zorena said it benefited by having a room in Edith Wheeler Memorial Library.

The Monroe Historical Society's room has Civil War letters, the Burr sisters' diaries and letters, large paintings, a photo collection and registers with the names of all the children who enrolled in Monroe's schools, among its archives. 

Monroe's History in Photos

Zorena showed old black & white photos of Monroe. Among them was a Stepney fire truck bought used from Bridgeport in 1916, farmers with cows and Stepney Railroad Station where it cost 30 cents to take a ride on the rails.

While showing a picture Center Schoolhouse at Old Tannery and Wheeler roads in the 1930s, Zorena explained how Monroe had several one-room schoolhouses until the Monroe Elementary School building opened in 1935.

In 1982, Monroe Elementary School burned down and students went to Sunnyside School in Shelton while their school was being rebuilt.

In 1958, Masuk High School was built. Semyon Masuk, a Russian immigrant, donated 32 acres for the high school. When the building was finished, town officials thanked him profusely during a ceremony. Zorena said Masuk told them, "The thanks is mine, because this country gave me so much."

Photos of other notable town buildings included the stand-alone red brick building serving as the original Monroe Library and the white building that served as the second town hall from 1898 to 1972.

Zorena said the solid oak building initially resisted the wrecking ball when it was being demolished. 

'Hicks from the Sticks'

Photos of historical scenes in town included the Monroe racetrack in 1933 where St. John's Cemetery is today. At that time, Zorena said Route 111 was being paved.

The same property had become an airport owned by Ben Hurd from the 1940's to the 60's, according to Zorena.

Another photo showed eighth graders from Monroe Elementary and some high school students — students from Monroe went to Bassick High in Bridgeport until Masuk was built in the late 50’s — standing in front of Chura's Stand in the 1940's. Bill's Drive-In currently occupies the property.

"The Bridgeport kids announced that the kids from the sticks are here when their Monroe School bus pulled up to Bassick," Zorena said.

One of the photos showed a Stepney barn raising at Burr-Hawley General Store in 1910, which had attracted a large crowd. Zorena said residents dressed up for those kinds of events.

"That was big doings in Monroe," she said with a smile.


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