Theodore Fremd, Grand Old Man of Rye: Countless people have helped make Rye a vibrant and cohesive community over many generations, yet no one has done more than Theodore Fremd, who in his later years was warmly called the “Grand Old Man of Rye.”
By Paul Hicks
Countless people have helped make Rye a vibrant and cohesive community over many generations, yet no one has done more than Theodore Fremd, who in his later years was warmly called the “Grand Old Man of Rye.” Today his name is probably known to many only by the avenue that honors him, but the community is still benefitting from his legacy in numerous ways.
He was born on January 30, 1863 at a village near Stuttgart in the south of Germany. The family was called Fremd (which means “stranger” in German) after it migrated there from France long before his birth. Theodore’s father, who owned extensive farming land, acted as a mayor of the village for a number of years, serving as a role model of public service for his son.
After the death of his parents, he came to America in 1880 at the age of 17 and put his skills in cutting and dressing meat to work at a butcher shop on Seventh Avenue near Fourteenth Street in New York City. In 1883, he returned to Germany to settle his parents’ estates, only to be drafted into the German army for three years of service.
Immediately after his discharge, he returned to the United States and resumed his work in New York City meat markets. Frequent visits to his uncle, Charles Fremd, who owned a prosperous florist and nursery business in Rye, convinced Theodore to settle there in 1886. He had sufficient savings to open his own meat market on the northeast corner of Purdy Avenue and Purchase Street on January 1, 1887.
A few months later Theodore married a fellow German immigrant, Katherine Luik, in the Rye Episcopal Church, where he later served for many years as a member of the vestry. At the time of her death in 1942, Mr. and Mrs. Fremd had been married 55 years and had raised five children.
In 1899, the Port Chester Journal reported that “Mr. Theodore Fremd, the oldest butcher in Rye, has leased the market in Mr. Baruch’s new and modern brick block [where he] will be able to make a display that his excellent stock of goods warrant and also have sufficient room to do his large and growing trade.” When he retired in 1942, he had spent 56 years as a Rye merchant, mostly at the 61 Purchase Street location. As Karen Butler recalled in an article about Rye’s earlier markets, when Fremd died, he left the business to his longtime employee, Robert Crisfield, hence the birth of Crisfield’s market.
During his long business career he assumed many leadership roles in the local community. From 1899 to 1939, he served continuously as a member of the Board of Education, and was President of the Board on several occasions. In 1910, his candidacy was strongly backed by what The New York Times called Rye’s women “suffragists,” who came to vote “in automobiles, sleighs and closed carriages, with liveried coachmen on the box.”
Fremd, whom the Times noted was “the village butcher and a bank director,” soundly defeated his opponent, a New York businessman. He had solid support from the Rye ladies, despite a challenge from a man, who identified himself as a “socialist,” questioning why “New York people who have country homes in Rye and moved to New York for the winter had a right to vote.”
However, a new law entitled all householders, both men and women, to vote. The organizing and results of the election were early evidence of what a cohesive role Theodore Fremd played within the Rye community, as well as a preview of the women’s suffrage movement to come.
In 1929, he was made the first president of the Central High School District and headed the movement that led to the purchase of land and dedication of the high school in 1931. A memorable comment of his that helped overcome the opposition was that “If Rye can afford to spend $750,000 on roads, it can certainly afford to spend a million dollars on its children.”
He was elected a trustee of the village in 1909 and became president of the village board in 1913. Among the board’s many accomplishments under his leadership was the adoption of zoning rules that preserved Rye’s residential character. In 1925, a new political ticket, called the Village Welfare Party, ran reform candidates against two incumbent trustees but endorsed Theodore Fremd.
Upon his retirement from the board in 1926, a testimonial dinner was held in Rye, attended by over 400 friends and admirers. A letter from President Calvin Coolidge congratulating him for his long service was read as were a telegram from Governor Al Smith and a cablegram from the Lord Mayor of Rye, England.
One of the early chiefs of the Rye Fire Department, he was also an organizer of the Police Patrol, serving as captain from 1905 until his death. In addition, he was instrumental in reactivating the Rye YMCA in the early 20s, and when the Y building was dedicated in 1924, it included a special room in his honor as well as a portrait of him.
According to one story, his love of adventure led him to take two flights as a passenger in an early hydroplane that took off from Rye Beach. A trim, active man when he was 63 and still village president, he won a silver cup for his fourth consecutive victory in the senior race at the annual community field day, defeating the much younger school superintendent.
When he turned 80, prominent residents and public officials gathered at his home to honor him, in the words of former Mayor Livingston Platt, “as a man who is loved more in the community and who has done more for the community than anyone else.”
On that occasion, they formally dedicated Theodore Fremd Avenue (formerly Railroad Avenue) on which he had lived most of his life. When he died on August 8, 1947, the obituary in the Rye Chronicle said that he was “beloved by the community for his public spirit, his sense of loyalty to his friends and his honesty in his business dealings.” May he be an inspiration to all who follow in his footsteps.