The Gates Brothers
| Frank Gates
The Gates family, like many other early settlers to the Naugatuck Valley, arrived in Derby by way of other Connecticut towns. The first family members were English settlers who made their way from Hartford via East Haddam in the 1780s. Derby, an agricultural community at the intersection of the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers, was a port where ships could be stocked with provisions for the voyage south. As commercial activity in the town increased, residents built mills to make use of the rivers.
The Gates family opened a dry goods store and soon added several ships to bring their goods to nearby ports. By the 1870s when Letitia Fletcher Hegeman Gates had given birth to her sons Frank and Ross, the family was a member of Derby’s well-established gentry. Her husband, Robert Owen Gates, was a Derby native who had been a Derby selectman and county High Sheriff, and was active in promoting business-friendly programs in the Derby-Shelton area. They had two sons and two daughters. The boys attended a local private school and then New Haven’s Hillhouse, the region’s leading academic high school. As students at a New Haven high school, the brothers had the opportunity to see the region in new ways and to share New Haven’s connections to the Valley.
After graduation Frank spent a year out West and then returned to Derby to join the Ansonia Brass and Copper Company, while Ross joined a New York brokerage firm. Frank, the local brother, championed Derby and because of his generosity Derby citizens affectionately called him the Earl of Derby. When he decided the Housatonic was the perfect spot for boat races, Frank Gates pursued Yale University athletics officials until they agreed to build the first boathouse there in 1918.
In addition to the support he gave to his hometown, he also began his own sister city relationship with Derby, England. When he learned that Derby had no ambulances during World War II, he gave the city a vehicle, and then another when a bomb destroyed the first.
In 1938 the brothers created trusts in the family name at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, with whom The Valley Community Foundation is affiliated. Their stipulation required that, “due consideration be given to programs that benefit the inhabitants of the Derby area.” Ross died in 1952 and Frank in 1954; grants from the Gates fund were used to help establish the Valley Community Foundation and are continuing to be used to support the Valley Neighborhood Grants program and many nonprofits in the Valley.