Long before Arthur Rucci ever saw the land where he would later build a development called Maplevale, the area rang to the cheers of fans as they watched standardbred trotting horses coming down the stretch.
The legend of the race track in Foxon has lingered through the years, and readers have asked where it was, and when. Most of the information about the track has been lost, but a few tantalizing facts have emerged to give us a ghostly picture of that time.
Pacers and trotters were matters of local pride and prejudice as early as Colonial times, and, shortly after the Revolution, horse breeders produced many winners in harness racing “matches” along the turnpikes of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
After the Civil War, the trotting horse industry flourished and trotting parks were built throughout Connecticut. At its zenith, there were more than 39 trotting tracks in the state and horsemen of national caliber competed regularly. Hamilton Park in New Haven and Riverside Park in East Haven were home to champion horses of the day.
Riverside Park emerged as a venue in the late 1800s. At that time, East Haven was attracting an influx of visitors flocking to for the seaside amenities and to for its scenic boating and picnics.
Someone decided to add to the attractions the area offered by creating a trotting racetrack on the flat Foxon land at the bend of the Farm River. Soon, summer weekends included the excitement of equine athletes and their drivers who hung perilously close to the horses’ tails between the spokes of the two-wheeled sulkies.
With competition, of course, came the addition of the friendly wager, and during the last two decades of the 1880s, East Haven joined much of New England in its homage to the horse.
The wagering came to a screeching halt in 1903 in New York after laws were passed prohibiting gambling at the tracks. This adversely affected the entire racing scene, and with the advent of the auto, focus passed from the horse to cars.
While harness racing continued to draw crowds in other parts of the country, it ceased to be the New England phenomenon it once was. Today, while there is still trotting racing in some parts of the country, Connecticut is no longer part of the circuit.
The land around Maplevale reverted to farming for a time in the early part of the 20th century. A Dutch immigrant named Peter Damen arrived on the scene around 1930 when he planted imported seeds and bulbs from Holland in the rich earth. He used these in his successful landscaping business in East Haven, and lived with his wife, Gertrude, on Maple Street. By the time he met young Arthur Riccio in the late 1940s, he was ready to part with his Foxon property.
Riccio, whose parents had emigrated from Italy, joined the Army out of high school with his friends and brothers. He became a navigator on a Flying Fortress bomber that was damaged on a run and had no landing gear on return to base, necessitating a belly landing. This knocked him permanently out of the war. When he returned home, he attended the University of New Haven where he studied mechanical engineering.
After graduation in 1947, he started a construction company with his brother Edward, then branched out on his own, starting the Arthur R. Riccio Construction Company. It was the company that would build the homes in the Maplevale development for the returning soldiers who were marrying and beginning families.
“My Dad built 150 houses in Maplevale,” said Arthur R. Riccio, Jr, an East Haven attorney. “In those days, no one else was doing that scale of building. He paid attention to detail on his buildings, partly because his father, Ascanio, was an Italian cabinet maker who demanded excellence. All those houses had basements; although some nearby developments don’t have them.”
Streets in the development, Arthur Road and David Drive, bear the names of two of his sons, as well the name Damen Drive, for the previous owner.
“Mr. Damen liked my Dad,” Riccio said. “Those old timers were fussy about who they sold their land to, so he had to like you to do business. He continued to take care of our lawn on Hughes Street, too, and the rhododendrens he planted at the back of our property are still blooming after 50 years.”
Riccio would go on to build other homes, apartments and office buildings in East Haven, Wallingford, North Haven and Hamden. He would also become the town building inspector.
“When my Dad was building inspector, most of the homes in Momauguin still had septic tanks. There was quite a flurry when he went in and condemned everything. It forced the hand of the town to get sewers. His friend, Federal Judge Robert Zampano, backed him up, and between them, they were responsible for bringing the sewer system to the town.”
Riccio’s contributions to the town would continue as he became a zoning commissioner, a fire commissioner and a police commissioner over the ensuing years. He was also active with the .
He and his wife, Adeline, raised their family on Hughes Street, where he built their home. Then he and his father also built other homes on Hughes for extended family members.
Riccio died in 1993. In all his excavating during his building of Maplevale, there is no record of his finding any lucky horseshoes. But the horses ruled that land for years, and then they passed into legend. For those of you who asked, now you know.