Mary Gai is many things: an alert “06880” reader. A realtor. A lover of Westport history.
Those 3 elements come together in her fascinating story about the Coleytown neighborhood:
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw 277 North Avenue in the early 1980s. But I immediately knew I was looking at history.
Standing hundreds of feet from any road, the dramatic lines of the 1740s saltbox — constructed to avoid taxes the King of England imposed on 2-story houses — had not changed since it was built.
Amazingly, it still exists today — along with a carriage house, barn and surrounding acreage. The fact that it does is due to a series of little miracles. The first was that James Earle Fraser and Laura Gardin Fraser bought sizable chunks of Coleytown starting in 1914, including this property.
James Earle Fraser, at work on a bust of Theodore Roosevelt in his Westport studio.
Westport would not be Westport if not for the Frasers. They were the most famous residents of Westport ever (according to his 1953 obituary). The 1st polo games ever in Westport were held on their property. A year later they founded The Fairfield County Hunt Club.
They were also among the founders of the Westport Beach Club (now known as Longshore), and Shorehaven Country Club.
These politically active, internationally famous sculptors attracted to Westport a dizzying array of internationally famous visitors, including both Roosevelt first ladies, Edsel Ford, the Harvey Firestones, the Mayos, Averell Harriman, the George Patton family, famous poets, architects, writers, activists and philanthropists. Three-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson lived with them in Westport for 15 years.
Public records reveal that the Frasers intentionally purchased property to keep their neighborhood quiet enough for their creativity. They then sold some land to other artists, effectively founding Westport’s famous artists colony.
Former Fraser student and famous sculptor Lila Wheelock Howard and her illustrator husband Oscar bought the old mill and barn on Coleytown Road in 1919. Kerr Eby, world-famous artist and pacifist, bought the Coley homestead from the Frasers in 1923, just a few hundred feet from the Fraser studios. The property that he named “Driftway” became the inspiration for many of his etchings (still sold today). He lived in his beloved old saltbox for the rest of this life.
Water was an important part of the property, for many reasons.
Heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune Ward Thorne and his wife Judith bought Driftway from the Eby estate in 1949. They lived there for the rest of their lives as well. To insure that the property be taken seriously by historians, they donated it to the Antiquarian & Landmarks society.
The current sellers are true heroes of preservation. They stabilized and restored the magnificent saltbox, insuring that it will “live on” with its 5 working fireplaces, chestnut beams, floors and gorgeous woodwork. A family addition echoes the saltbox form, and adds functionality for today. They also purchased the old mill and barn to reunite the property and the main building components, which now includes 3 antique homes, 2 barns and 10.5 acres of the original farm homestead.
277 North Avenue today. The original lines of the 1740s saltbox still remain.
The area is called “Coleytown” because of the Coley family. They farmed their land for 200 years, and had quite a sophisticated operation. Fresh water from the Aspetuck River helped grow grapes, flax, corn, onions and other crops.
The Coley wharf was located on the Saugatuck River just south of Gorham Island. Produce — including grain processed at the Coley mill — was transported on the Coley’s sloop “Nancy” to New York and Boston on a regular basis.
The c.1760 gristmill — replaced by steam power — became a cotton mill by 1840. Batting produced from Southern cotton was sent to manufacturers to fill the need for textiles in Northeastern cities. A piece of cotton mill apparatus still hangs from the barn rafters, and an original millstone decorates the riverfront landscape. A footbridge and waterfall create a gorgeous, unspoiled landscape.
The original mill house.
The Frasers and 4 other owners of this property not only preserved the antique buildings and land along the Aspetuck River. They also preserved the largely forgotten village center, first called “Coley Ville.”
The mill and converted barn on Coleytown Road were the center of the little village. It included a small green, schoolhouse, shoemaker, blacksmith, yarn manufacturer, horse stables, 5 Coley homesteads, and probably a couple of other shops.
The original Coley homestead. (All photos courtesy of Mary Gai)
Today, the former village gristmill, barn and the Coley homestead are looking for new stewards. Let’s hope they preserve the character of this special neighborhood — one that has endured even longer than our nation itself.
(For much more information on the property, click here; then follow the “Driftway” links on the left.)