Helen Binney Kitchel in a 1970s newspaper clipping
Connecticut Woodlands magazine, Summer 2015
Champion of nature
A few years ago, Greenwich local history librarian Carl White called Helen Binney Kitchel “the Rachel Carson of Greenwich, Connecticut.” The two women were very different but similar in a basic sense. Both were New England natives who feared that civilization was damaging the natural world.
Ms. Carson was a marine biologist who wrote lyrical books about the sea. Her magnum opus, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin), appeared in 1962. She changed public attitudes about chemicals. The opening of that book starts with an ideal town, before pesticides’ effects had poisoned birds and animals: “Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty. . . . ”
Mrs. Kitchel became a politician and writer in middle age. She also thought “roadsides were places of beauty.” Her greatest political fight was against billboards. It sounds like a small thing, but it symbolized much more. She scrawled, in pencil for one of her many speeches, the reason why. “Connecticut is in reality a huge garden—not awe-inspiring, like the Canadian Rockies or Yellowstone Park or the Grand Canyon—but comfortable and intimate and restful.” She then recited images she’d listed on the page, almost like poem. “Sheen of sea across the sand or marsh, beauty of snow and ice in winter, glory of autumn foliage, shadow of meadows and farming—this is our heritage. This is what we are fighting to preserve.”
“Billboards along rural roads are an affront,” she went on. “Not only do they obscure the view—they destroy the effect of relaxation and recreation which are induced by communion with nature. Even though this effect is often entirely subconscious.”
Crayola Crayon Family
Mrs. Kitchel was born September 9, 1890. The family lived in Old Greenwich, which then was called Sound View. Her parents were Edwin Binney and Alice Stead Binney. Her grandfather Joseph manufactured charcoal in upstate New York. Her father Edwin expanded the business as Binney and Smith with his cousin C. Harold Smith. The company manufactured marking pencils, school slates, and chalk and perfected the modern crayon. Mrs. Kitchel’s mother Alice coined the name Crayola, which combines (the Binney and Smith history relates) the French word for chalk, craie, with “ola,” meaning oily (derived from the word oleaginous).
Mrs. Kitchel’s mother, a former teacher, wrote and published songs reflecting her lighthearted love of nature and children—such as one called “Bobolink,” and a piano piece inspired by her daughter, “Helen’s Caprice.” Mrs. Binney also was a published poet.
The Binneys were the first family to live on the shore in Old Greenwich. On a carriage ride early in their marriage, they spotted the land where they would build their fieldstone house, “Rocklyn,” in 1895. Their old albums are filled with photos of the family enjoying the beach and the outdoors. Helen had a brother, Edwin “June” Binney Jr., and two sisters, Dorothy and Mary.
Mrs. Kitchel attended Catherine Aiken School in Stamford and married Allan Farrand Kitchel in summer 1909, when she was 18 and he had just graduated from Yale University. Her parents gave them a house on Binney Lane, “Oaklyn,” as a wedding present. Allan Kitchel joined his father-in-law’s company and later was its president. He also was active on town committees.
The Kitchels had four children, Allan F. Kitchel Jr. (called Tim), Douglas, Barbara (called Bobbie), and Happy. “I should not say politics or a career and domesticity were incompatible,” Mrs. Kitchel said in a 1934 interview with the Bridgeport Sunday Post, “but for me they were.” But she got involved, deeply, in politics when her children were in college. Originally, this involvement came through the Garden Club of Old Greenwich, which was part of the greater Federated Garden Clubs.
Campaign Against Billboards
In 1931, she was elected to the first of four terms in the Connecticut House of Representatives, 1931 to 1939. Almost right away, she began an intense campaign against billboards on the side of roads. She was the first woman in Connecticut ever to have a bill named after her, the Kitchel bill. She introduced anti-billboard bills several times, and although the core of her argument never became part of the eventual state law covering billboards (Connecticut General Statutes, 21–58), she instilled an attitude that changed how people viewed roadsides. Cities, towns, and policy bodies such as the Merritt Parkway Advisory Commission exercised control over billboards that Mrs. Kitchel surely influenced in her early fight.
Her ability to write and her natural affinity for a good campaign, plus her parents’ love of nature instilled in her from birth, came together in that campaign against billboards. In 1927, the state had passed a regulation requiring permits for billboards in its law concerning outdoor advertising. The permits ranged from $3 to $9 for 900 square feet. And the billboards could not stand within 100 feet of parks, forests, playgrounds, or cemeteries. But Mrs. Kitchel and her garden club friends felt that this was not far enough away.
From her first sponsored bill in 1933, the friendly, approachable Mrs. Kitchel made friends all over New England in this campaign. This was the decade when car travel had taken a firm hold on the state’s life. Outdoor advertising organizations fought her campaign, but that did not seem to faze Mrs. Kitchel, who joined forces with the Federated Garden Clubs. She spoke to the National Council for Protection of Roadside Beauty in New York City on October 8, 1934. She asked Governor Wilbur Cross to mention billboards in his inaugural address of 1934. He wrote to her, “I may find a way.” As far as we can determine, he did not find a way to mention billboards in his inaugural address.
When her billboard legislation passed in the House but failed in the Senate, Mrs. Kitchel started a movement to create the Connecticut Roadside Council. She approached the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which in 1936 invited her to speak during the Roadside Reservation division of the annual meeting. She marshaled the brother of CFPA President Goodwin B. Beach to help with the roadside council. And she wrote to the United Advertising Corporation. The following year, Dorothy Thompson, the columnist and wife of Sinclair Lewis, joined the campaign against billboards in one of her essays.
The next year, 1938, Mrs. Kitchel’s campaign continued, even though it was in between legislative sessions. She solicited comments from former Governor John H. Trumbull against billboards. By the 1939 session, her bill called again for higher permit fees, and it greatly expanded the proposed distance billboards must stand away from parks and natural areas—to 500 feet.
Mrs. Kitchel seemed to have become fearless at this point. And the pushback from advertising was strong. The Outdoor Advertising Industry published a newsletter against the bill. By the end of it all, when she left the legislature, she had fat files of letters from the many groups and individuals she’d enlisted in what for her was as philosophical as it was a practical campaign.
State Park Effort Fails
The anti-billboard quest symbolizes her commitment, but her conservation quests began and ended in her hometown. The Binneys tried and failed to stop development of a tract of land where she’d played as a girl and young adult, the Will March Farm. This 200-acre property was really a natural wooded tract, not strictly a farm. Old photos show the family putting on plays in the woods, dressed in pseudo-tribal costume. In the early 1930s, when Mrs. Kitchel had started her political career, a donor who had offered to buy the Will March Farm withdrew the offer, and the land was sold to a developer. The loss greatly upset Mrs. Kitchel who, with her sister, Mary, turned their efforts to preserving nearby land as a park for the town. The sisters persuaded their father to buy and landscape land for 10 acres. That work included creating a dam for two lakes. Later, Mrs. Kitchel’s mother bought surrounding hilly land and expanded the park to 20 acres. Mrs. Kitchel in 1934 joined again with Alice Binney and Daniel Waid in buying land that became the Helen Binney Kitchel Natural Park.
Mrs. Kitchel and members of CFPA helped plan the landscaped Merritt Parkway, and later, she wrote a multipart series about the Merritt. The connection between the easy car travel the Merritt encouraged and the negative aspects of highways became apparent soon enough. Secretary Edgar Heermance invited Mrs. Kitchel to speak at meetings about these problems. She saved the notes from her March 13, 1935, address, in which she described her second billboard bill, which in that iteration called for a 200-foot buffer between roadside and billboard, limited their sizes and certain placements, and increased fees:
- It is safe to assume that you who have travelled by rail or motor need no argument of mine to convince you of the need of this proposed legislation. Although the first robin is still to arrive—and the shad blow buds are sheathed in brown—the spring crop of billboards bursts glaringly upon our view at every turn—in every meadow. . . .
- This is 1935. We are reviewing 300 years of history of our state—and much of it fills us with pride and reverence. . . . But in the name of progress we have sometimes accepted changes which were blights rather than blessings.
Mrs. Kitchel, a longtime member of CFPA, donated most of Algonquin State Forest in Colebrook to the state starting in 1963. (Originally the land was known as the Kitchel Wilderness Preserve.) Her family had begun buying acreage in the area in 1926. She was named an honorary director of CFPA in 1968.
Mr. Heermance once described Mrs. Kitchel at a CFPA meeting just before she gave a speech. She sat quietly in the corner, scribbling, and others weren’t sure whether they ought to disturb her. When she made notes for her talks, she always reached into her personal moral well. She asked CFPA members once whether Connecticut residents should allow outdoor advertising into the countryside, as if it were uncontrollable, like a storm. “That an earthquake or hurricane spreads death and destruction seems beyond man’s power to control,” she said. “But if we sit idly by while commercialism destroys our natural heritage we are guilty of a cowardly negligence.”
In other words, she said, pay attention. Mrs. Kitchel’s legacy is unmistakable and goes way beyond roadside advertising. She said in so many words, be brave. She railed against apathy and sloppiness. She demanded that we would stand up for Connecticut’s beauty, its wildlife habitat, and its open spaces. She said that land serves functions deeper and more lasting than acting as a backdrop for clutter.
About This Article
Thanks to the Greenwich Historical Society and the Connecticut State Library, who assisted in research. This appeared in the quarterly of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association in summer 2015. Joining CFPA entitles you to a subscription to Connecticut Woodlands, which I have edited since fall 2001. See ctwoodlands.org for information