A Canterbury Story
By Sheila Mason Gale
In 1916 Hendrik and Florine Verkade, came to America from Holland. They arrived at Ellis Island and eventually settled in New London, Connecticut. Hendrik had a nursery in Holland and wanted to start one in Connecticut. He would take his wheelbarrow and trim trees in the neighborhood and gather seeds and eventually created Verkades nursery.
In the 1940’s Lew Gray came home from the service and worked for Hendrik. During winter months the nursery workers would work in the greenhouse and do plant cuttings.
One day Lew was brought into the greenhouse and happened to be seated next to Hendrik’s daughter Lillian. Lou was amazed at Lillian’s speed, but it was easy for her because she had been doing this job since she was 11 years old. Lew and Lillian hit it off, married and eventually had four children: Patricia, Lew, Michael and Tom.
Hendrik decided to expand his successful nursery business and asked Lew and Lillian if they would start a location in Canterbury. It was a good opportunity and they moved to Canterbury in 1955 when there were only 6 or 7 houses on Brooklyn Road. Lillian (a city girl) thought she was going to the end of the world, but she was happy to do it for Lew. Lew liked the location because the land was flat and he saw good potential for planting. For a brief time he even used a horse to till the fields.
When asking individuals if they knew anyone who worked for Lou they said “Almost every teenager in Canterbury worked at Verkades Nursery”. I talked to several of his former workers. Their job was to plant trees, weed, load trees into trucks, unload peat moss from Canada, hoe rows, etc. They remember working with supervisors, Ronald St. Onge and Russell Cook. One said Lew would sometimes gather the workers around and say: ”Time for a lecture” and proceed to give them life lessons such as “put your money away for a rainy day”.
One of the Gray’s neighbors was Charles Lawson. He played the violin and harmonica and told the Grays that there used to be square dances held in their original farmhouse before the Gray’s moved in. Interestingly enough, Mr. Lawson was the driver for Dr. Helen Baldwin when she made house calls around town.
One day Lew took his 6-year old daughter, Pat, to school and discovered there was just a flimsy Venetian blind between the grades and it was difficult for the children to hear the teacher. This is when Lew started his interest in serving the community. Lew joined the Republican Party and joined the campaign to vote for construction of a better school building and provide all the children with a better learning situation.
Lew and Lillian’s daughter, Pat, wanted to join 4-H so Lillian became a leader for her daughter’s group. When the boys wanted to join 4-H there weren’t any in this area so Lew started a 4-H group and over time about 25-30 boys joined the group. He formed a farm and garden club and they would meet at the Gray’s barn and do projects such as making wreaths at Christmas time. Many years later, Ken Beauchene sent Lillian a letter telling her how much that 4-H group meant to him when he was a boy. It made such an impression on him that all of his children joined a 4-H group near where they lived.
The original Canterbury Firehouse was where Creative Interiors is today. Lew became a member of the Canterbury Fire Department and was a life member. He always helped with the Fire Department barbeques and horse shows. In the 1960’s the Fire Department sponsored a horse show that was held where Ed’s Garage gravel bank is today.
Approximately 800 – 900 horses entered every year and the event was held over a ten year period. Lew was involved in building the new firehouse on Route 14 and was on the committee to acquire Canterbury’s first ambulance.
Lew was elected as First Selectman from 1971 to 1977. One thing it still true today in the First Selectman’s office - he got calls that water was running over the roads because the beavers dammed a pond. He enlisted the help of Alton Orlomoski to trap and get rid of the beavers.
Does anyone remember Lew participating in the dunking booth on 4th of July? He had an outgoing personality and I remember him teasing the crowd and daring them to dunk him. He was often heard to say he could not have done the First Selectman’s job without Marguerite Simpson (Town Clerk 1966 – 1985). Many years later, Lew served the Town again on the Board of Finance 1997 to 2005.
Lew assisted the Recreation Commission when they created Manship Park. He was glad to get involved because when his children were young they were all into sports and he believed in making a place where children could play and enjoy being outdoors.
He was the Vice President of the Cemetery Association Board of Directors and was a sexton. He was a Lions Club charter member and a member of the VFW. Lew served in World War II and even after he got married he was called back to serve in the Korean War.
As a nurseryman, Lew was President of the Connecticut Nurseryman’s Association, the Eastern Region Nurseryman’s Association, was a member of the International Plant Propagators Society, the New England Nurseryman’s Association and, as a prominent businessman, he was on the Board of Directors for the Brooklyn Savings Bank.
Lew had a pulley collection that started when a friend gave him three different pulleys. Lew and the collection were featured in the January 1986 Yankee Magazine. According to the article, half of his 2,000 pulleys were displayed on the walls of his basement.
Lew worked very hard at everything he did and he had the natural ability to be a great leader. He loved Canterbury and loved devoting his time to help not only children, but everyone. One former worker said Lew Gray is fondly remembered as a good neighbor, a good friend and a good man to work for.