By Dan Shine
Pfaff’s Family Market
There are times when many of us navigate the Sea of Life in the manner of a rudderless ship, drifting at the whim of the wind and the tides. But this was not the way with Xavier Pfaff: He came to America with a plan and he followed it faithfully. Even as he was managing and growing his business, he was buying land, building homes and making sure that there was a place for every family member to call home. Upon his death, it was revealed that he had left property to each of his eight children.
As time went by, the ever-growing Pfaff family worked together at the store and spent their off-work hours together as well, in accordance with Xavier’s plan. As it happened, they also played together, at a special place in the woods named Pfaffville. The place was chosen by Xavier Pfaff, for he had acquired land in Oxford, just downstream from Stevenson Dam and built a number of riverside cottages forming a special little family community.
The family referred to their summer trips to Pfaffville as going “Up the River.” The encampment was placed atop a rock ledge which looked out over the Housatonic River, just south of Stevenson Dam. The ledge was half a mile long, elevated two hundred feet above the river, and upon it were five cottages, one for each of the Pfaff families. A switchback staircase led down to the river, where there were boats, docks, a sandbar, and plenty of opportunities for building happy memories.
In the words of Mike Kiernan, Xavier’s great-grandson, “It was idyllic for a boy, the woods and water. On weekends it would be packed with family and friends arriving from town. The parties were huge and moved between cottages. The grownups would be laughing, yelling and arguing until late in the evening. Meanwhile, the many, many kid cousins–it was the Baby Boom after all–ran wild in a pack catching fireflies and playing all manner of games in the dark.
“During the day, the crowds would gather at the sandbar across the river. As folks arrived and came down to the rocks, they would be shuttled across in a rowboat. Josephine Pfaff, West Haven High School gym teacher of some 35 years, gave swimming lessons and water safety training to two generations, and her system worked well: Once a child could swim across the Housatonic River without a life jacket, they could ride in the rowboat without wearing one. It was a rite of passage, and I dog paddled across at age four.
“In August of 1955, Connecticut suffered one of the worst floods in its history; the statewide flood came on the heels of back to back hurricanes that thoroughly saturated the ground. Meanwhile, as this flood was taking place, the men of the Pfaff family were at work in town, unaware of the looming danger. As the waters of the Housatonic rose dramatically, those at Pfaffville became concerned about the dam being able to survive the storm. It was just a mile above us! The mothers packed up the kids into Aunt Jo’s huge Chrysler Imperial and we evacuated. Unable to proceed down river because of road flooding, Aunt Jo drove over the dam and did a wide loop through Waterbury to West Haven. Four-year old me remembers being scared the dam would collapse while we were going across; we could feel it shaking!
“The water rose almost to our cottage, which was the lowest, closest to the water.
I vividly remember all the trees, logs, broken boats, and trash rushing down in the torrent. When it was all over, our worst losses were boats washed away from our landing and a couple of small outboard motors gone. My folks found ours along the riverbank down river and unharmed a week later.
“That September I was put in Miss Phelps nursery school in the old mansion. Given paper and crayons, I depicted the flood over and over. Whenever asked what I had drawn, I always answered ‘The Flood!’.”
Xavier Pfaff died in 1955, at age 88. He had come to America with nothing but a dream and a strong will. Along the road of life, his dreams had been achieved most abundantly: he was known, loved and revered by his community in West Haven, and we can be confident that he died a happy man.
We wish to thank Shannon Pfaff, Dennis May, Dan Kiernan and Mike Kiernan, without whose help this story would not have been possible.