Category Archives: History

Abraham Lincoln’s Westport Golf Course

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (Happy 215th, Abe!)

Once upon a time, that was a legit holiday. Now it’s been folded into the generic “Presidents Day,” lowering Lincoln to the likes of John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson’s wife.

But The Great Emancipator deserves an “06880″ shout-out. With, of course, a Westport twist.

Abe LincolnLincoln supposedly stayed at Hockanum, Morris Ketchum’s 69 Cross Highway estate near Roseville Road, during his presidency.  (Woody Klein‘s history of Westport says only that Salmon P. Chase — Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury — was a frequent guest.)  Hockanum still stands; there is a “Lincoln bedroom” upstairs, and the deed states that no changes can be made to that room.

Like the great realtor she is, alert “06880″ reader Mary Palmieri Gai has unearthed some fascinating new information about Hockanum. It doesn’t involve Lincoln directly, but it does provide a chance for me to use his name and the word “golf” in the same sentence — something that has perhaps never been done before, even though 15,000 books have been written about him. (True fact.)

Mary discovered a May 21, 1900 Norwalk Hour story that says:

Westport golfists are getting ready their clubhouse on the Morris Ketchum estate to repeat the splendid experience there of last summer.

Players from Westport, Saugatuck, the Norwalks, Greens Farms, Southport, Fairfield, Greenfield and even Bridgeport think highly of the quarters like that former old house as a place to see and to wait while others are playing. The club has completed an addition to the building. Play is indulged in every day.

Mary explains that Ketchum’s Hockanum property extended far north, long past where the Merritt Parkway is now — all the way to Lyons Plains Road. (It included homes that still stand, like the 1856 house at 499 Main Street.)

1900s golfRecently, Mary says, the owners of a house that backs up to the Unitarian Church found golf balls on their property. No one could figure out where they came from.

The answer: the Hockanum golf course.

It wasn’t there when President Lincoln (supposedly) visited. It isn’t there now.

But it sure provides a great way to look at Westport’s recreational — and presidential — past.

Back To Saugatuck

In the early- and mid-1800s, Saugatuck was the commercial and financial center of town. Then Horace Staples opened a bank upriver, built a couple of wharves and National Hall, and the area around what is now called “downtown” flourished.

In the 1950s Saugatuck — by then an Italian-American community — was ripped apart (physically and emotionally) by the construction of I-95. Main Street got its mojo; Riverside Avenue became an afterthought.

Now — with a renovation project bringing new restaurants, retail, apartments and street life to the area — Saugatuck is hot. Downtown is firing back, with a renovated Church Lane and $500,000 Main Street initiative on tap.

So this seems as good a time as any to revisit the New York Times of December 2, 1923.

“Urge That Westport Be Saugatuck Again,” the headline read.

And the subhead: “Many Citizens of Connecticut Town Think the Old Indian Name More Distinctive.”

In the 1920s, Esposito's gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it's Tarry Lodge.

In the 1920s, Esposito’s gas station and taxi company stood on Charles Street. Today it’s Tarry Lodge…

The story described a drive by “leading citizens here in another attempt to restore to this village its original name.”

The major selling point: There were 18 other Westports in the US, and 4 more around the world. That led to “confusion of the mails and the long-distance telephone calls.”

There was only 1 other Saugatuck, however — a Michigan town that took its name from ours.

With Westport, Connecticut growing — the Times called the town of nearly 5,000 “the largest and most noted art colony” in the country, home to “a dozen different industrial plants” and a brand-new, $300,000 YMCA — there was “agitation for the restoration of the town’s old name of Saugatuck.” The drive was led by John Adams Thayer, with support from state legislator Harry M. Ayres and “many other prominent citizens.”

...while a couple of miles north, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores.

…while a couple of miles north, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores.

The Times reported that the name Saugatuck came from the Indian “Sauki-tuk,” meaning “outlet from a tidal river.” The town of Saugatuck was founded in 1640, and called itself that until the incorporation of “Westport” in 1835.

That was the Times’ 1st — and only — report of the proposed name change. There is no word on when, how or why the idea sank to the bottom of the river.

(Hat tip to Fred Cantor for unearthing this New York Times story.)

MLK

This story ran last year. Several readers asked me to republish it today. Here it is.

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Artist Roe Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

When Lenny And Isaac Played Westport

Because the my baby boom generation is so obnoxiously self-important — and because we still cling to control of much of the media — throughout this decade we will insist on foisting 50-year anniversary stories about a mind-numbing number of 1960s events on the rest of the country.

We’ve remembered John Glenn’s orbit of the earth and John Kennedy’s assassination. Next month is the Beatles’ 1st trip to America. On the horizon: the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Soupy Sales’ “The Mouse.”

So — as Martin Luther King Day nears — this is a good time to remember another 50th anniversary: the night Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern played together for the 1st time in public.

It was half a century ago this August. It was a benefit for the Student Nonviolent  Coordinating Committee. And it happened in the Staples High School auditorium.

Leonard Bernstein, back in the day...

Leonard Bernstein, back in the day…

According to the New York Times of August 31, 1964, the concert’s genesis came from Tracy Sugarman. The Westport artist and civil rights activist — who died a year ago, the day before Martin Luther King Day — described his recent “Mississippi Summer” work in Ruleville, Mississippi to Frank Brieff, conductor of the New Haven Symphony.

Brieff called Bernstein, who called Stern. The 2 had played piano and violin together for pleasure, but had never performed in public together.

They were joined by 4 other Fairfield county musicians. The concert sold out, at prices from $3 to $35. That raised $8,250 bringing Westport’s 1964 contributions to the Mississippi Project to $29,000. Previous fundraisers for the NAACP and National Council of Churches included a townwide solicitation, and a small gathering at the home of attorney Alan Nevas. He had just returned from Mississippi where, the Times said, he provided “legal counsel to Negroes.”

Nevas’ son Bernard — age 20 — was one of 6 “freedom workers” honored at the Bernstein/Stern concert. Five were from Westport: Nevas; John Friedland, 22; Martha Honey, 19; Deborah Rand, 20, and John Suter, 19.

...and Isaac Stern.

…and Isaac Stern.

Another guest introduced at the concert was Charles McLaurin. Just a few days earlier, he was a member of the controversial Mississippi Freedom Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Also at the concert, Sugarman displayed 43 pen-and-ink drawings of Mississippi, and 6 photos used by SNCC. He called the involvement of youths like the ones from Westport courageous.

“They went there afraid, lived there afraid and worked there afraid,” Sugarman said.

But, the Times noted, “the experience has affected some so deeply…they are torn between resuming their college careers and going back to Mississippi.”

(Hat tip to Fred Cantor for research.)

What Do Evelene Parsell, Swinburne Hale, The Westport Sanatorium And Kewpie Dolls Have In Common?

Read the story below to find out.

The other day, alert “06880″ reader/amateur historian/all-around awesome woman Wendy Crowther was researching Alan Parsell’s connection with the Geiger barn.

Alan Parsell

Alan Parsell

(Important digression: Native Westporter Alan Parsell was the stereotypical crusty old New England Yankee. He served Westport in many capacities over many years, and despite throwing pennies around like they were manhole covers, he always had the town’s best interest in mind. For decades, his family owned Parsell’s Garden Mart, where Geiger’s is now.)

On the internet, Wendy found a record of Alan’s wife (Evelene) having mortgage transactions in Westport with a man named Swinburne Hale. Evelene was descended from one of Westport’s oldest families (the Couches). Intrigued, Wendy wanted to learn more about this fellow with the unusual name (Swinburne Hale, not Couch).

Swinburne Hale

Swinburne Hale

She found that he is connected not only to some of America’s most prominent professors, writers and artists — but that his life intersected with Westport a couple of times.

Hale published his only book in 1923: The Demon’s Notebook — Verse and Perverse. The frontispiece is by Rose O’Neill, an artist and writer who is far better known for creating Kewpie dolls. In 1922 she bought a 10-acre estate on the Saugatuck River.

In 1925 Hale was committed to an “insane asylum”: the Westport Sanatorium. He died there 12 years later, age 53.

The sanatorium was the 2nd use for the majestic building on the corner of the Post Road and North Compo. Built in 1853 for Richard and Mary Fitch Winslow, its original name was Compo House.

Today, of course, nothing remains of Compo House or the Sanatorium — except asphalt paths. You can see them as part of the 32-acre property, which today we call Winslow Park.

Compo House, back in the day.

Compo House, back in the day.

So what does it all mean? I have no idea — except that the “06880″ tagline (“Where Westport meets the world”) is proven true every day, in sometimes crazy, but always interesting, ways.

(To read more than you ever wanted to know about Swinburne Hale, click here.)

J.D. Tippit, And Jack

For years growing up here, I knew Westport had a special connection to the assassination of John F. Kennedy: J.D. Tippit and Jack Tippit were brothers.

J.D. was the Dallas police officer killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, less than an hour after JFK was shot.

Jack Tippit, cartoonist.

Jack Tippit, cartoonist.

Jack Tippit was an award-winning cartoonist (“Amy”), co-founder of the Museum of Cartoon Art, and the editorial cartoonist for the Westport News. He lived here, but was born in Lubbock, Texas — and still spoke with a twang.

My 1st job after college was as sports editor of the News. I knew Jack Tippit, but I never mentioned the connection. What would I say — “Hey, sorry about your brother”?

He died in 1994. His obituary ran in the New York Times.

I had forgotten about Jack Tippit — and J.D. — until the recent run-up to the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. Then, the other day, a Westporter posted on Facebook: “I went to school in Westport with J.D. Tippit’s niece.”

Curious to learn more, I did the obvious thing. I googled “J.D. Tippit Jack Tippit.”

Officer J.D. Tippit

Officer J.D. Tippit

Up popped several books and newspaper articles. They described an “unknown, but clearly frightened, woman” who, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, called “a distant relative of Officer Tippit” in Connecticut. The woman claimed to have known Oswald’s father and uncle — who’d lived in Manhattan — and that they had been Hungarian communists.

But there was also a link to With Malice: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Murder of Officer J.D. Tippit. There, author Dale K. Myers writes:

There is no connection between Jack D. Tippit of Westport, CT (a self-employed cartoonist for several national magazines in 1963), and J.D. Tippit of Dallas, TX.

Mrs. Jack D. Tippit got a crank call on Nov. 30, 1963 (her husband listened in on the call), after an article appeared in the Norwalk Hour, a local newspaper, on Nov. 25, stating that Jack was a “distant relative” of Officer Tippit.

Genealogy research shows no direct relation between Jack and JD….

Author John Armstrong (“Harvey & Lee”) seized on an FBI report detailing the anonymous crank call, changed the date of the reported call to Nov.23, and used it to support his theory that two Lee Harvey Oswalds were used in an elaborate CIA plot to kill JFK.

My own book, “With Malice” explores many conspiracy allegations made over the past 50 years while focusing on the true facts of Tippit’s life and death. The obscure FBI report regarding the crank call to the Jack D. Tippit household in 1963 was not one worthy of print.

I checked out the genealogy on the J.D. Tippit home page (!). It shows that J.D. Tippit had 6 brothers and sisters. One, named John, was born in 1936. Jack Tippit was born in 1923.

So the urban myth — well, suburban myth — that Jack Tippit was J.D.’s brother is untrue.

Now, about that magic bullet theory…

November 22, 1963: The Police Log

I can’t imagine national headlines intrude much on the Westport Police Department desk log.

Then again, the headlines on November 22, 1963 were unlike any other in history.

Here’s what the book looked like 50 years ago today:

WPD Desk Log_112263 (1)

There — sandwiched between a 1:05 p.m. arrest by Officer Chapo for an unregistered motor vehicle, and a 2:45 p.m. arrest of a 26-year-old by Detective Finch — are these 2 entries by R. Skinner:

1:55 pm Reports that Pres. Kennedy was shot in the neck while riding in a car in the streets of Dallas Texas

2:30 pm It was confirmed that Pres. Kennedy was dead.

As noted at the top of the page, the weather at 12 noon was 58 degrees, and clear.

The Westport Police Department’s handwritten log books go back to 1924. But few entries may be as poignant as these.

November 22, 1963

If you were alive on November 22, 1963 — and over, say, 5 years old — you understand how dramatically, and traumatically, America shifted that day.

If you weren’t, there is no way you can comprehend it.

The murder of President Kennedy was a horrific, galvanizing moment in time. It happened 50 years ago today, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

JFKI was in 5th grade. Since September my friends and I had walked to and from school. We gathered on High Point Road, cut through the Staples High School athletic fields and parking lot, sauntered down North Avenue, walked across open farmland, and arrived at Burr Farms Elementary. We were like the “Stand By Me” boys: talking about kid stuff, reveling in our independence, figuring out each other and the world in a world that would soon mightily change.

Minutes before school ended that beautiful Friday, the teacher from next door burst into our room. “Kennedy got killed!” she yelled. A girl broke into spontaneous applause. Her father was a leading Republican in town.

Our teacher slapped her face.

Usually, our teacher wished us a happy weekend. That day the bell rang, and we just left. No one knew how to interpret her reaction. We’d never seen a teacher hit a student before.

Then again, we’d never heard of our president being murdered.

JFK NYT

As my friends and I gathered for our ritual walk home, we suddenly had Something Big to talk about. For the first time in our lives, we discussed news. We had no details, but already we sensed that the world we knew would never be the same.

That vague feeling was confirmed the moment we walked down the exit road, into the Staples parking lot. School had been out for an hour, but clots of students huddled around cars, listening to radios. Girls sobbed — boys, too. Their arms were wrapped around each other, literally clinging together for support. I’d never seen one teenager cry. Now there were dozens.

Walter Cronkite on CBS, announcing the death of President Kennedy.

Walter Cronkite on CBS, announcing the death of President Kennedy.

At home, I turned on the television. Black-and-white images mirrored the scene at Staples a few minutes earlier. Newscasters struggled to contain their emotions; men and women interviewed in the street could not.

The president was dead. Now it was true. I saw it on TV.

My best friend, Glenn, slept over that night. The television was on constantly. The longer I watched, the more devastated I became.

John F. Kennedy was the first president I knew. My father had taken me to a campaign rally in Bridgeport 3 years earlier. I could not articulate it then, but I admired his energy, was inspired by his youthfulness, and vowed to grow up and (like him) make a difference.

Now he was dead.

Bill Mauldin captured the grief of a nation.

Bill Mauldin captured the grief of a nation.

Saturday was rainy and blustery. I watched more TV. Like most Americans, I was obsessed by this unfolding tragedy. Like them too I had no idea that the impact of that weekend would remain, seared in my brain and heart, 5 decades later.

Sunday was the first day I cried. The raw emotions of all the adults around — in the streets of Westport, and on the television screen — finally overwhelmed me. I cried for the dead president, my fallen hero; for his widow and children; for everyone else who looked so sad and vulnerable.

Then — right after noon — Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Once again I sat transfixed by the TV. I was stunned, and scared.

Monday was a brilliant fall day. President Kennedy was laid to rest under a crisp, cloudless sky. The unforgettably moving ceremony was watched by virtually everyone in the world with access to a television.

To my everlasting regret, I did not see it live. Glenn said we could not sit inside on a day off from school. Rather than risk being called a nerd (or whatever word we used in 1963), I chose playing touch football at Staples over watching history. I was in 5th grade. What did I know?

The coffin, at Arlington National Cemetery.

The coffin, at Arlington National Cemetery.

The next day we went back to school. The Staples parking lot looked exactly as it had before that fateful Friday. Our teacher never said a word about slapping the girl who cheered President Kennedy’s assassination.

Thanksgiving arrived on schedule 2 days later. At our dinner — like every other table in America — the adults tried to steer the conversation away from the awful events that had consumed us for nearly a week.

Life Magazine coverIn the days and months to come — as the country slowly, painfully, pulled itself out of its collective, overwhelming grief — I devoured everything about President Kennedy I could find. I saved Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post. I ordered the Warren Commission report. Like so many others I still have it all, somewhere.

In the years that followed my admiration for the young, slain president grew, then ebbed. But it never died. He remained my political hero: the first president I ever knew, cared about, was mesmerized by, and mourned.

When President Kennedy was killed, journalist Mary McGrory said, “We’ll never laugh again.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan — who worked for JFK — replied, “Mary, we will laugh again. But we will never be young again.”

Fifty years ago this morning, I was a young 5th grader without a care in the world.

Walking home that afternoon, I could never not care again.

(CBS.com will stream the original news broadcasts minute-by-minute in real time, just as they were originally delivered, beginning at 1:40 p.m. this afternoon. For more information, click here.)

Julia Child, Manny Margolis And Joe McCarthy…

The Westport Library has selected the book for January’s “WestportReads” townwide program.

My Life in FranceIt’s My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. As usual, there will be creative tie-ins beyond “book talks.” Things like cooking demonstrations, recipe sharing, and Westporters’ recollections of Child’s impact on their lives.

There will also be a discussion of the McCarthy-era blacklist.

The reason is that Child’s husband, Paul, was investigated for “anti-American activity.” None was found, and he was allowed to keep his job.

Manny Margolis was not so lucky.

In 1947, he was a World War II veteran studying at the all-white, all-male University of North Carolina. A group of black students working on a voter registration drive needed a place to sleep. Manny got a nearby church to donate their basement. Then he organized a group of veterans — in uniform — to stay up all night. They made sure the Ku Klux Klan did not attack the group.

Four years later, Margolis was a Ph.D. student in international law at Harvard. He wanted to work for the State Department. But his mentor told him there were no Jews there. So Margolis got a job teaching international law at the University of Connecticut. He quickly became a very popular, and highly respected, instructor.

But the House Un-American Activities Committee sent representatives to the UConn president. They handed him a list with 4 names. “Fire them,” they said.

He did.

Margolis decided to become a lawyer. He called Yale, and asked where he could take the LSATs. The man on the phone recognized his now-notorious name. “You’re Manny Margolis?” he asked. “You’re in!”

Manny Margolis

Manny Margolis

Margolis graduated from law school in 1956. He dedicated his life to defending the 1st Amendment, civil liberties and civil rights. In 1971 — while living in Westport — he argued (and won) a Supreme Court case on behalf of Timothy Breen, a Staples High School graduate who had lost his student deferment after protesting the Vietnam War.

Estelle Margolis — Manny’s widow — plans to tell his blacklisting story in January, as part of WestportReads.

The library hopes other Westporters will too. If you’ve got a tale to tell like Margolis’ — or Julia Child’s husband — email mparmelee@westportlibrary.org.

It’s a “recipe” for a fascinating — and important — discussion.

Stevan Dohanos Put His Stamp On JFK

As the 50th anniversary of November 22, 1963 draws near, America will be awash in memories of the assassination of President Kennedy.

The date will be poignant for many. It’s already being recalled by Anthony Dohanos.

Stevan Dohanos at work.

Stevan Dohanos at work.

He hasn’t lived in Westport for 40 years — he’s been far away, on Hawaii’s Big Island — but his father, Stevan Dohanos, spent several decades as one of our town’s most famous illustrators.

He was well known for his Saturday Evening Post covers. But he had a side gig: stamp designing.Working with 7 presidents — starting with FDR — and 9 postmasters general, Dohanos created 46 US stamps.

In the 1960s he was named chairman of the National Stamp Advisory Committee. He had a big office in Washington, Anthony recalls, with a chauffeured limo decorated with the US Post Office logo.

A few months before JFK was killed, Anthony accompanied his father to the State Department. The president spoke. “I was 13 years old,” Anthony says. “I don’t remember much, but he seemed larger than life.”

Dohanos JFK stampFour years after Dallas, Dohanos designed a stamp honoring the late president. In the weeks ahead, it will surface often as a favored illustration.

Dohanos lived far longer than Kennedy. In 1984, the Postal Service’s Hall of Stamps was dedicated in his name. Dohanos died in 1994, age 87, of pneumonia.