In New England, this time of year, it has become a time-honored tradition for folks to venture out into the cool, crisp, autumn air and pay a family visit to their local orchard to buy apples, cider, pumpkins, pies, donuts, and perhaps enjoy an old-fashioned hayride. In Bethel, when people think of all those things, one name comes to mind - Blue Jay Orchards. Yet despite the level of familiarity and popularity the orchard has possessed for so long, many are probably unfamiliar with the man who started it all - Robert Josephy.
Robert Josephy was not a local native. He was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York on July 11, 1903, at the summer home of his maternal grandfather. On his paternal side, he was the grandson of a German Jewish immigrant, Hugo Josephy, who came to America in 1861. His parents were Edward and Clarice Spero Josephy, and his father was employed in the poultry and produce business. The Josephy family lived at various locations in New York City and for a time spent summers in Far Rockaway, Long Island. They later moved to Flushing, New York. Robert attended the Hamilton Institute for Boys in New York City for a year and then was enrolled in the New Jersey Military Academy in Freehold, beginning at the age of ten. He attended Flushing High School for a short time but due to his poor performance, his parents once again enrolled him in a military school, this time the Bordentown Military Institute in New Jersey, from which he graduated in 1920.
Rather than pursuing a college education, Josephy chose to pursue a career in writing. However, when his dreams of becoming an author failed to materialize, he instead turned to work in publishing. He found his niche as a book designer and worked for the next five years for Alfred A. Knopf. Even at the age of nineteen he was already demonstrating a variety of remarkable skills. He would later write: “I was responsible for typesetting, printing, and binding schedules; for handling proofs; for the reproductions of illustrations, when there were any; for commissioning binding designs; and sometimes jacket designs; and for buying paper and other materials.” At the age of twenty-two, Josephy left his position with Knopf, set sail on a whirlwind tour of Europe, and then returned home to embark on a career as a free-lance book designer. During the course of a career that spanned the 1920s through the 1950s, he would become one of the most successful book designers in the country, and along the way, came to know a veritable “Who’s Who” in the literary and art world. Among others that he mentions in his memoirs are H.L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather, photographer Alfred Steiglitz, and his wife, famed painter, Georgia O'Keeffe. Two of his most important friendships would be with the sculptor, Alexander Calder (whom Josephy always called “Sandy”), and writer, Arthur Miller with whom he shared a sometimes tempestuous friendship that lasted sixty years
In 1930 he married an actress, Henrietta Enck, whose stage name was Jane Alden. They had one daughter named Maria, born in 1934, but the couple divorced in 1937. They lived in New York City but spent the summer months in a farmhouse in Weston, Connecticut. When their landlord found a buyer for the property, Josephy and his wife were forced to find new lodgings. In seeking a more permanent home Josephy had certain requirements. He had been dissatisfied with the way in which Weston’s identity seemed to be overshadowed by that of its trendier neighbor, Westport. He later remembered, “I wanted to be in a town with an economic life of its own. The Fairfield County town of Bethel, twenty miles north, seemed to be such a place.” In the spring of 1934, Josephy and wife purchased from Mrs. Elizabeth Weed what he described as a “run-down farm in Bethel with about fifty acres of what looked to me like good soil and a small shack of a house that kept the price down. It was on a gravel road, and there still was no electric power service in that part of town.” Some of the money to buy the farm had been loaned to him by his friend, “Sandy” Calder.
Decades later, Josephy would explain how he came to be the owner of an apple orchard: “I had to decide then on what to grow and finally decided upon fruit. There were about twenty-five old apple trees on the farm, trees past their prime which I soon cut down but which gave me the idea. Having to be away working on books, I could not undertake anything that would need daily care; that meant no livestock, no vegetables. I learned that I could start an orchard with very little knowledge and that it would not need much attention for the first years, so I planted my first orchard in the spring of 1935, and I was in business.” He chose to cultivate both peaches and apples as the peaches would mature faster and produce his initial crop. Ten years later, Josephy could boast of planting two more orchards and of more than doubling his original acreage. In 1955, he bought up land from an adjoining farm and expanded once more. The farm would eventually encompass a total of 140 acres. Today, it is known as “Blue Jay Orchards” but originally he called it “Blue ‘J’ Orchards” with the “J” standing for Josephy. For many years, hand-painted, wooden, arrow-shaped signs at all of the area’s important crossroads pointed the way to the orchard. They featured a large “J” in the center of the sign that was painted light blue. Today, the orchard is the last working farm in Bethel.
In July of 1946, Josephy married Martha Ann Davenport. The couple had two daughters, Christina and Ellen. Mr. and Mrs. Josephy would later separate in 1976. To better accommodate his new wife and two young children, Josephy set about expanding and modernizing the old farmhouse he had purchased a decade and a half before. He also decided to open a farm market to serve the general public. Around this time, Martha Josephy became very involved in the Center School Parent-Teacher Association. In 1950 and 1951 she and her husband held parties at the farm during bloom time, exclusively for family friends. In her position as president of the Center School PTA , Martha Josephy proposed the idea of opening the annual party to the public and using the proceeds to help support the school’s hot lunch program.Thus began the “Apple Blossom Festival”, a tradition that continued for the next twenty-eight years. The event became so popular that it later required organizing a town-wide association to run it. Josephy proudly recalled: “We had hayrides around the farm, a variety of games played with homemade apparatus, lots of food, and a place for people of all ages to meet their friends.” During its most popular years the festival attracted between four to five thousand people in a single afternoon and raised several thousand dollars for a wide variety of public health and recreation projects. At one point, a school bus was purchased, painted red, and christened “The Apple Blossom Bus”. It was made available to groups that needed transportation to various recreational and cultural events. Anyone old enough to remember the Apple Blossom Festival will tell you that it was traditionally seen as the highlight of every year.
According to a story that was told to the author by a local resident, on one warm summer day in the late 1950s, a small, red, British convertible sports car rolled up to the front of the Josephy residence and out of it climbed a tall, thin, bespectacled man, accompanied by a young, extremely captivating woman with blonde hair. The couple were both immediately welcomed into the house. A short while later, the woman emerged wearing a bathing suit, with a beach towel draped over one shoulder. She took a leisurely stroll through the orchard and down a hill to a good-sized pond located in the northwest section of the property that the Josephy family used as a swimming hole. After a time, the woman was glimpsed walking back to the main house. Later in the day, the lively woman was seen leaving by the front entrance, once again fully-clothed, joined by her male companion. The couple said their goodbyes to Mr. and Mrs. Josephy, fired up the sports car, and then sped off in an easterly direction along Plumtrees Road. This tale, in and of itself, might seem rather unremarkable - until you learn that the driver of the sports car was Arthur Miller, the playwright responsible for such great American classics as Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and All My Sons, and that his female passenger was his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe, whose status as a Hollywood icon requires no clarification. The couple was married from 1956 to 1961 and at the time owned a home in Roxbury, Connecticut. I guess it was just another typical day at the Josephy farm.
Along with his remarkable accomplishments in both the world of publishing and horticulture, Josephy took an active role in politics as well. During his time in Bethel, he served as Chairman of the Democratic Town Committee, member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, Vice Chairman of the Connecticut People’s Party, member of the Connecticut Board of Agriculture, and twice ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature, once in 1944 and once in 1986. Given his livelihood, he took an active interest in preserving Connecticut’s ever-dwindling number of farms. In 1974, he agreed to serve on the State of Connecticut Farm Preservation Commission. As a result of its work, in 1978 Connecticut began a program in which the state allocates funds to buy up surviving farmland rather than allowing it to be sold to developers in areas where there is heavy development pressure, where land is scarce, and where prices are rising. In 1983, Josephy utilized this same law to preserve his own land. The restrictions imposed by the state require that no structure may ever be built on the Blue Jay Orchards property other than a farm building. Josephy was paid $6,000 an acre for his development rights.
In 1985, Josephy sold everything but his house, barn, and two acres to the present owner, Paul Patterson. On his eighty-eighth birthday in 1991, Josephy sold his home and moved to Hamden, Connecticut after having lived in Bethel for fifty-seven years. He wrote a farewell letter that was published in both the Danbury News-Times and the Bethel Home News. In the letter he acknowledged that he had often been outspoken and controversial in the political views he expressed over the years. He wrote: “I hope I will be remembered kindly. I know I have irritated some people, but the Bible says, ‘Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you.’ I am not going very far away, but leaving the town that has been good to me for so long is not easy. I shall miss you all.”
As he was finishing up his time in Bethel he was also in the process of completing his autobiography. It was entitled Taking Part: a Twentieth Century Life and its 225 pages of text encompass his entire life from start to finish. It makes for fascinating reading, although some parts would certainly have to be considered politically incorrect by the standards of the present day.
Robert S. Josephy died in Hamden, Connecticut at the age of 90 on September 14, 1993. The orchard he created is currently for sale and some are fearful of what its future may be, but it would be hard to imagine a Bethel without a Blue Jay Orchards. Its importance to the community cannot be overstated. Perhaps Josephy himself said it best when testifying before a state commission back in 1974: “If we do not move soon, and quickly, we may find in the twenty-first century that we have only a few farms left. Then we will hurry to make them into museum farms like Sturbridge Village, preserved to try to show our grandchildren what Connecticut used to be like.” Let us hope that Robert Josephy’s dire warning never becomes reality and that the tangible legacy he bequeathed to us will continue to thrive for years to come.