Published December 01. 2013 4:00AM
F. Scott Fitzgerald told us that Gatsby believed in a green-lit future - despite that whole thing about our boats being borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Take a glance, though, at "Looking Back - A Photo Retrospective of New London County," a new book presented by The Day, and you might find yourself totally immersed in the past - and happy and amazed to be there.
A half-century collection of images spanning the whole of southeastern Connecticut life from the Victorian Era through the Great Hurricane of 1938, "Looking Backward" is a photographic essay spearheaded by Day marketing coordinator Jaclyn Aldrich and assembled and published by The Pediment Group, Inc., a company in Washington state specializing in "coffee table" books.
The project was conceptualized after meetings last summer between Pediment CEO Brad Fenison and The Day's advertising department, and Aldrich was then chosen to shepherd the project in early August.
"The timing was actually ideal because I'd just been for the first time to The Day's morgue file in the basement and was completely blown away by what a huge piece of history is down there," Aldrich says.
"A morgue" in newspaper terminology refers to an archive of old issues and articles.
Once the book was a "go," Aldrich reached out to several local civic groups, museums and libraries in the search for images.
"There were two big challenges at first," Aldrich says. "One was how to identify and determine which organizations to contact. The second was, simply, how much was too much? Southeastern Connecticut is a pretty big area with a lot of towns, and it could be pretty daunting. In the end, we focused more on nearby communities and the shoreline."
She reached out first to the Mystic River Historical Society, the East Lyme Historical Society and the New London County Historical Society.
"I wanted to see what the scope would be and get an idea how it would all work. The material was amazing and we started to see how it could all work," Aldrich says.
Ultimately, the Florence Griswold Museum, the Lyme Historical Society Archives, the Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library of the New London Maritime Society, the Custom House Maritime Museum, the Groton Historical Society, the Groton Public Library, the Lyme Public Hall Association, the Public Library of New London, and the Waterford Historical Society all pitched in and provided photographs and information.
The Day also ran ads seeking contributions from private citizens and other groups, and Aldrich conducted a search of the newspaper's archives for in-house possibilities.
"We were pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming response from across the board," Aldrich says. "Groton's Jim Streeter responded to the ad and welcomed us into his home; he has thousands of images. He's sort of like the unofficial official historian of the area. He was a huge help."
With the accumulated photos, Aldrich began sorting them according to a variety of topics, and a natural organizational flow began to emerge. Along with Fenison, she created a historical timeline of the region with major events and civic developments, then cross-referenced it all against a map. They pinpointed areas they thought were underrepresented and sought out and found necessary material.
"This was my life for a couple of weeks," Aldrich laughs.
As they started scanning the photographs, she says, the structural outline just fell into place.
"We had to do a lot of fact checking, but for a lot of stuff - parades, centennials, annual events - we had comprehensive accounts," she asys.
The chapters broke down logically and include "Views and Street Scenes," "Transportation," "Maritime," "Schools and Education," "Commerce and Industry," "Community," "Public Service," "Disasters," "Recreation and Celebration" and "Business Profiles."
"It all captures time and the way life happened," Aldrich says.
There are the obvious iconic entities: Connecticut College, the U.S. Naval Submarine Base, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, the United States Coast Guard Academy, Electric Boat and Mystic Seaport.
And, then, there's life itself.
"Though I can no longer be personally involved in all the projects we do in a given year, this one was of particular interest to my wife and I as we have visited the area a number of times in the past and always wanted to do a book here," Fenison says. "We were thrilled to see such great participation in the project from private parties and institutions, and we were delighted overall with the quality of images and the fascinating stories behind them. We just kept finding these incredible treasures."
Indeed, leafing through "Looking Back," any reader might be surprised at which images are most affecting. There are the profoundly dramatic shots such as the devastation of a storm or the overwhelming crowd scene in 1896 when New London's Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated. At the same time, simple shots of families or school life or a proud family's storefront or an amateur baseball team resonate with a melancholy tug of humanity and the simple idea of The Past.
Aldrich - a Rhode Island native - also wrote the chapter introductions.
"The sheer diversity of the area surprised and overwhelmed me," she says. "There's so much industry here and the whole maritime element - and you can go a few miles away and be in farm country. There are so many cultures and traditions and stories, and each little town has its history and its people."
The finished product, Aldrich says, is "something I think will resonate with people all over the region. That was our goal."
Gary Farrugia, publisher of The Day and theday.com, says, "This project was a collaborative labor of love coordinated by The Day and curated by a dozen area museums, libraries and historical societies. The wonderful collection of photographs in this first volume depict New London's era of optimism; a time of tremendous transformation and growth."