Writers M. Earl Smith and J. Huguenin may live thousands of miles apart, but when they talk about the people and the town of Stonington — and their new book of the same name — all distance disappears.
Earlier this week, Smith — who lives in Kentucky — and Huguenin — who lives in Idaho — connected on a conference call to talk about their book, “Stonington,” released just weeks ago by Arcadia Publishing, and how their collaboration came to be. Their easy banter and mutual respect made it clear why their book is so compelling and such fun to read and leaf through.
“We are both history nerds,” Huguenin said with a laugh.
They are also excellent writers who learned how to perfect not only the art of collaborative caption writing but also the skill of long-distance communication when Huguenin moved from Connecticut to Idaho.
In a way, Smith said, the co-authors were well prepared for the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, since they were so used to the Zoom and conference call mode of communication.
“We also use FaceTime and Google Documents,” Huguenin said. “We would write live on Google docs.”
Smith and Huguenin, who are both 36, met years ago at a writers conference and struck up a friendship. Their first collaboration, in 2016, was “Mystic,” part of Arcadia’s “Postcard History” series. They were both living in Connecticut at the time.
“Stonington,” the second book the two have written together, is part of Arcadia Publishing Company’s “Images of America” series.
Arcadia, a South Carolina-based company, has “reconnected people to their community, their neighbors, and their past by offering a curbside view of hometown history and often forgotten aspects of American life” since 1993. Arcadia publishes books that are “composed in a unique pictorial format with over two hundred vintage images and accompanying captions” aimed to “animate the cherished memories, people, places, and events that define a community.”
It was while working on the Mystic book, they said, that they realized there was no Arcadia book about Stonington.
“Stonington is kind of hidden in plain sight,” said Smith, who teaches at Somerset Community College in Somerset, Kentucky, and has written a total of 10 books.
“Stonington is not my hometown,” he writes in the introduction. “Its people, places, ideas, and history do not belong to me, at least in the traditional sense of belonging that one derives from their hometown. Yet as I have spent the last 13 months shacked up with the history of a place where I am a stranger, I can see why the people of Stonington love their town so.”
Huguenin, who grew up in Ledyard and studied at the University of Connecticut and Smith College, called the people of Stonington “incredibly gracious.”
“The most gracious, hospitable people I’ve ever met,” she said, praising local residents Corey Bynum and Chelsea Mitchell for the time and assistance they “so generously” offered.
“Stonington has this incredible global reach yet it’s a humble town,” Huguenin added. “Stonington really has global influence … a profound global reach.”
“First settled in 1649, Stonington predates the nation,” Smith writes, “and the idea that the United States was home to anyone save for the native tribes.”
“Stonington’s history, good and bad, is America,” Smith writes, “the role it played in native genocide and relocation; its hand in the infancy of Connecticut; its participation in the War of 1812; the countless Irish, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, and especially Portuguese immigrants who have called it home and a place to work for 300 years; the history of its religious convictions, which outdate America by over 100 years; its role in education, business, manufacturing, industry, commerce, trade, hunting, fishing, farming, and environmentalism; the destruction that it has faced from New England’s worst hurricanes; and countless other tales of pride, woe, and anguish have all left their mark — and their scars — on the landscape of a town that is approaching 400 years old.”
Separately and together, the authors said, they pored over thousands of photographs — at the Stonington Historical Society’s Richard W. Woolworth Library & Research Center among other places — selected hundreds for the book, then went to work on writing captions, with each telling a short story about its subject.
There are captions for photos of boats and trains and houses and people populating the pages of “Stonington,” a book whose chapters include “Go Your Own Way: Transpiration in Stonington”; “A King and His Castle: Landmarks and Homes of Stonington”; “Rugged Individualism: Business and Capitalism in Stonington”; “To Each His Own: Culture and Fun in Stonington”; “The Chosen One(s): The People of Stonington”; and “That’s a Weird One: The Quirky Side of Stonington.”
In the caption under the photo of a lithograph depicting “one of the worst maritime tragedies in the history of Stonington: the collision between the SS Narragansett and the SS Stonington, two paddle steamers that operated along the Stonington Line, a combined rail and river line that ran as a part of the greater New York–Providence–Boston railroad,” we learn, “While the Stonington only suffered superficial damage, the Narragansett sank, killing 50 people. One of the survivors was Charles Guiteau, who would gain infamy a year later after assassinating Pres. James A. Garfield.”
In the caption under the poet Stephen Vincent Benet, we learn that he was “one of the many literary transplants to Stonington,” and was “once the owner of the famous Amos Palmer House.”
There are artfully written captions under photos of Peter Benchley and Sergio Franchi, Ruth Buzzi and “one of Stonington’s more colorful current residents is the soft-spoken Greg ‘Fossilman’ Raymer, who purchased property in the area after winning the 2004 World Series of Poker main event.”
There are captions under the photo of Capt. Alexander Smith Palmer, a descendant of Stonington founder Walter Palmer, beside the photo of former Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, and under a photo of Camelo La Grua outside of his shoe repair business at 111 Water St.
Huguenin, the mother of an infant son named Nolan, said one of her favorite historical Stonington characters, has to be Zebulon Hancox.
“He was this grizzly-looking weathered old man,” she said, “but it turns out he had amassed a fortune.”
“He had fallen in love with a young woman who rejected him because he was poor,” she added. “He was like a ‘Great Gatsby’ figure and built a fortune on real estate and fishing.”
“Some of the homes he built in the mid to late 1800s still stand on Hancox Street (which is named after him), including the historic Rose Cottage,” reads the caption underneath the photo of an old, disheveled man. “He died single at 91 with a fortune to his name.”
Smith, the father of two teenagers, Nicholas, 16, and Leah, 14, said one of his favorite characters is Dorothy Comingore, the Hollywood starlet who was first discovered by Charlie Chaplin.
Cast as Susan Alexander in the 1941 masterpiece “Citizen Kane,” Comingore gained rave reviews from both critics and the public. Unfortunately, the film, based loosely on media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, would be her downfall — Hearst used his influence to have her put on an FBI watchlist. She refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In retaliation, she lost custody of her children and was falsely arrested for prostitution. She later moved to Stonington, where, in 1971, she died of a respiratory infection.
“The funny thing is that we still haven’t seen a hard copy of the book,” Smith said with a chuckle. “Another COVID-related delay.”
There are plenty of copies at local bookstores, however.
“For many years, customers have asked about a local history book about Stonington,” said Annie Philbrick, who owns Savoy Bookshop and Café in Westerly and Bank Square Books in Mystic.
“Now from Arcadia Publishing we have an ‘Images of America’ book about Stonington, and our bookstores couldn’t be more thrilled to stock it and sell it like crazy,” she said.
The book, she said, “is full of iconic black and white photographs and anecdotes on the town’s local history. This book is well worth the wait. What a perfect gift for the holiday season. We will sell tons!”