Earl Colter: A True Branford Legend

Doug Colter PhotoThere are few people in town – of a certain age – who have escaped the camera of Earl Colter.

Chip Stakes Viel PhotoDuring the summer between their junior and senior years, students from Branford, and Guilford as well, fussed over frizzy hair, ties and jackets, and sat for his camera. Brides and grooms posed for their wedding albums, business people representing all professions had their portraits taken, and even Branford’s Main Street came into Earl Colter’s viewfinder.

It was a remarkable life that came to an end Easter Sunday, April 5, when Colter died at the age of 101, just short of his 102nd birthday, which would have been May 21.

Doug Colter PhotoThose photographs were part of the Colter many people knew. But at his 100th birthday celebration May 19, 2013 at the Blackstone Library, people were introduced to another aspect of his remarkable career. 

Colter began his career as a photographer shortly after graduating from UConn in 1936; his father built him his first dark room in a converted chicken coop. He opened his first studio in East Haven in 1939.

Bill O'Brien PhotoHe enlisted in the Navy as a photographers mate during World War II and became the personal photographer of Captain Hyman Rickover, known as the father of the nuclear Navy.

Chip Stakes Viel PhotoIt wasn’t the dramatic combat scenes he photographed, but rather the everyday life of people in Okinawa, Japan, while serving in the Navy.

Post-war, Colter married Joyce Little, who accompanied him at his 100th birthday celebration. She died at the end of last year.

Bill O'Brien PhotoThe Colter family gathers at the birthday celebration.

Bill O'Brien PhotoAlthough his first photo studio in Branford was on the third floor above Castellon’s Bakery on Main Street, most people would probably remember his studio on Montowese Street. Even without a signature stamp, you could identify a Colter portrait, especially the engagement and wedding photos that appeared in the Branford Review.

Chip Stakes Viel PhotoIn addition to those photos on display throughout the auditorium, there was a slide show of scenes from around Branford. The photos were shown in a continuous loop and people were mesmerized, occasionally commenting, “Oh, I remember that!” “Gee, I’d forgotten about that!”

Chip Stakes Viel PhotoThere were shots of Main Street before parallel parking was instituted, including “Fourth Ward;” a hamburger stand that pre-dated Starbuck’s by many years; the Oasis restaurant now the site of the Methodist Church; MAC Rambler, the current location of Premier Subaru; Holly’s Barn, which morphed into Bill Miller’s Castle and many more scenes that long-time Branford residents would remember.

But there was another side to Earl Colter and that was his involvement in town politics, one that had a personal side.

Colter’s father, Earl B. Colter died of emphysema in 1963. As a charter member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) and later chairman, he instituted a smoking ban at public meetings – including Dan Cosgrove’s well-known cigars.

Colter also served two terms on the board of selectmen. His civic involvement also included the Chamber of Commerce and the Exchange Club; he was president of both organizations and took part in many others. In addition, he was active at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green.

Bill O'Brien PhotoEven though Colter retired in 2008 at the age of 95, he could still be seen walking back and forth along Montowese Street and shopping in Caron’s Corner, and at various events in town.  Here he is at the 2011 Branford Festival, getting his piece of strawberry cake. He was tall and lanky and easily recognizable. Some people commented that he photographed four generations of their family.

Colter’s survivors include his sons Doug, who provided much of the information for this story from a timeline created for the 100th birthday celebration; David and Jeffrey; and granddaughter, Lauren Joyce.

Bill O'Brien PhotoWith the help of Jane Bouley, town historian, and the Branford Historical Society, those memories and more are preserved. Police and fire related photos were donated to the Branford Fire Department’s historian, Dorrance Johnson.

Chip Stakes Viel and Bill O’Brien took the photographs of the display of Colter photos used for this story.

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posted by: M. LaBrie on April 9, 2015  12:24pm

I grew up in Branford during the 1950’s and remember Earl Colter so very well.  I have many photos he took of our St. Mary’s CYO basketball and social events. He always was generous in giving us copies.  An exceptional individual.  Thank you for writing this story on him, he is most deserving of being remembered for all he did for Branford.

Mickey LaBrie
Strathroy, Ontario