Tag Archives: Elwood Betts

Westport’s Oral Histories: A True Hidden Treasure

It’s easy to overlook the tab at the top of the Westport Historical Society website.

“Oral History,” it says. You probably figure it provides a bit of info about whatever oral histories the WHS has collected.

But clicking it reveals nearly a dozen videos — all on YouTube, all waiting to provide 10-minute-to-an-hour chunks of intriguing Westport history. (Another 300 oral histories are on audiotape only.)

On camera, Jo Fox Brosious remembers the (thankfully successful) 1960′s fight to save Cockenoe Island from becoming a nuclear power plant. Close-to-centenarians Lee Greenberg and Elwood Betts recall the Westport of even longer ago.

(Click here if Katie Chase’s interview with Elwood Betts does not load directly from YouTube.)

Former police chief Ron Malone and former fire chief Harry Audley share stories. Shirley Mellor sits in Max’s Art Supplies, describing the importance of the store to Westport’s artists’ colony.

Other oral histories explore our literary heritage, community garden, oystering and more.

Each year, the Historical Society runs a tour of Westport’s hidden gardens. Visitors to Wheeler House — the WHS’ historic home across from Town Hall — constantly revel in the surprises they find there.

These oral histories are one more treasure — hidden in plain sight, at the top of their site.

(Click here to go directly to the Westport Historical Society’s Oral History page. Videos are also available for puchase, at $10 each.)

(Click here if Allen Raymond’s interview of Ron Malone does not load directly from YouTube.)

 

Happy 100th, Sherwood Island!

Next year, Sherwood Island celebrates 100 years as a state park. (At least, 1914 was the year Connecticut acquired the initial parcels for what — 23 years later — eventually became our 1st state park.)

In anticipation of the centennial celebration, the Friends of Sherwood Island will install educational panels on the history of the Sherwood family. Daniel Sherwood and his wife Catherine Burr settled the area in 1761. They farmed onions and potatoes, and harvested oysters.

An aerial view of Sherwood Island State Park.

An aerial view of Sherwood Island State Park.

But before the signs can be installed for a historical walking tour, an archaeological survey must verify the locations of houses and barns.

Next Wednesday (May 22, 10 a.m.), Connecticut state archaeologist Nick Bellantoni will make a presentation and inspection visit. The public is invited to attend his free lecture and walk-about tour. Entrance to the park is also free.

Elwood Betts will be there. The 87-year-old Westporter remembers where the Sherwood house was; he visited the farm complex as a 6-year-old. (Just as notably, he’s a Sherwood descendant.)

In preparation for Wednesday's event, Elwood Betts (left) shows archaeologist Ernie Wiegand where the 1787 Sherwood house stood.

In preparation for Wednesday’s event, Elwood Betts (left) shows archaeologist Ernie Wiegand where the 1787 Sherwood house stood.

Archaeology professor Ernie Wiegand will exhibit Native American artifacts from Sherwood Island and nearby Green’s Farms. He’ll also help identify arrowheads, stone axe heads or other artifacts residents have picked up over the years.

Sherwood Island is an enormously popular state park — and a spot many Westporters have never set foot in. You may not be able to make it to next Wednesday’s event — but don’t wait another 100 years to go.

Elwood Betts Remembers The Hindenburg

Westport has no direct living links to the Titanic tragedy, 100 years ago last month.

But 86-year-old Elwood Betts remembers another disaster well.  75 years ago today the Hindenburg burned in a hellish fireball, as it attempted to dock with its mooring mast in New Jersey.

Just a few hours earlier, it had flown gracefully over Westport. Here is Elwood’s story.

May 6, 1937 was just another routine day. I was probably daydreaming about the last day of school. I would leave Westport for rustic Norwich, Vermont, to spend the summer on my grandfather’s farm. I’d drive the cows to pasture, feed the horse, and take him to the blacksmith shop. I’d carry a couple of bags of last year’s potatoes to pay the smith. Good potatoes would be a treat this time of year.

Elwood Betts today. The Evergreen Cemetery restoration is one of his many civic projects.

But in the back of my 11-year-old mind, there was the excitement of seeing photographs in Life magazine. Soldiers in Italy strutted in their stiff lockstep, and thousands of German youths gathered in the stadium saluting the Nazi swastika.

If my mind wandered as I sat in Mrs. Caswell’s 6th grade homeroom at Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall), it was jolted by the PA. Word came to go quickly into the playground, in the back of the school.

As we burst outdoors we saw the massive circle of the nose of the monstrous airship Hindenburg. It loomed directly toward us. Its altitude was so low, and the path so close to the edge of our playground, that we actually saw passengers lean out the gondola windows. We all waved frantically.

Above the roar of the engines, we were mesmerized by the huge swastika emblazoned on the tail fins.

The Hindenburg. It carried the only swastika ever to fly over the United States.

We soon were dismissed from school. We left exhilarated, having seen another great technological advance that was becoming the hallmark of the new Nazi Germany.

The next morning I rose very early. I biked downtown to Lamson’s Newsy Corner on Taylor Place (across from the Y), to pick up the morning newspapers to deliver on my regular route.

To my complete amazement, there were the now-famous pictures of the Hindenburg burning explosively as it docked at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. The scene of horror, as people jumped from the windows we had seen only the afternoon before, and running among sheets of flaming debris falling all around, will never leave me.

The New York Daily News sent a bundle of extra copies. They were distributed to each of us, to sell for 3 cents apiece. I went directly to Smitty’s Diner, next to the then-new post office.

I was a shy boy. But I surprised myself by bursting into the diner, shouting like I had seen in the movie newsreels, “Extra, extra! Hindenburg burns!

I sold all the papers immediately. Most people gave me a nickel — a 2-cent tip. I was rich.

On reflecting that 36 people died — in just 37 seconds — I was humbled thinking of my previous day’s exaltation at the mastery of Germany technology.

The disaster, as reported in the Westporter-Herald the following day.

The next fall, we had the privilege of having Al Scully — future first selectman of Westport — and Frank Kaeser as our social studies teachers at Bedford Junior High School. These gentlemen took pleasure in holding after-class arguments with us boys about the headlong fall of the rest of the world into the chaos of aggression and local wars.

One believe that the American continents should be isolated from the turmoil of the world, as Teddy Roosevelt had championed in another era. This was the position taken by most of this country at that time.

The other side felt we must prepare with urgency to meet the rapidly mounting aggressive advances of the militant regimes of Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia. Thrown out was the challenge that we, the United States of America, should step in and eliminate the “plague” before it could completely overwhelm the world — perhaps including even ourselves — if we were not prepared.

To this day, the Hindenburg disaster of May 6, 1937, is held in my mind as the inflection point when my attention was diverted from dreaming of a future life as a country farmer, to the events leading to that day on July 4th, 1943, when I boarded a train to leave home.

I did not return for 3 1/2 years, after service in the United States Navy.

On that day in May, my view for the future was changed in entirely new directions.

God bless America.

(Click below for remarkable footage of the tragedy, with commentary by radio newsman Herbert Morrison.)

When Postmen Really Carried The Mail

Last month the Westport Post Office moved to newer, smaller quarters. The old Post Road building seems like the perfect PO — and it seems to have been around forever.

Really, though, it was built “only” in 1935 (as a WPA project, for all you anti-socialists.)

Before that, mail delivery in Westport was a different affair. 86-year-old Elwood Betts, an amateur historian, recalls the life and times of rural mail carrier Harry Brown Fairchild — Elwood’s “Uncle Harry.”

Harry graduated from Staples High School in 1897. There were only 4 others in his senior class.

Harry Brown Fairchild, as a young man.

He inherited a large farm from his father, but he had neither the interest nor training to continue.

In 1901, 21-year-old Harry began his career as a rural mail carrier. For the first 3 years he traveled his 26-mile route in different ways: horse and buggy, bicycle, even walking (in winter).

In 1904 he acquired a car. He was paid a mileage allowance to use it.

His first route had 90 families. Later, it grew to 1,300 customers.

Harry was more than a mail deliverer, Elwood says. He was also a “town crier,” bringing news of the day. And he took grocery orders, delivering food to shut-ins.

He had one of the first telephones in town, and was called upon to summon doctors or call in other emergencies for people with no other means to communicate.

Harry Fairchild, in his Model 10 Buick, 1914.

Harry used his own car to deliver mail through 1942, when he retired. He estimated he covered 318,000 miles, and delivered 5 million letters and packages during his 41-year career.

One of his customers was William S. Hart. The Broadway and silent movie star lived here with his mother and sister.

Harry said that another customer — E.M. Asche — was the 1st artist to make his home here. Others followed, and that (according to Harry) was the start of Westport’s fame as an artists’ colony.

Harry’s hobbies were traveling to New York on Sundays, horse racing, flower shoes and county fairs.

He died on April 17, 1954.

By then, the US Postal Service was using mail trucks. Plenty of Westporters had their own phones. Mailmen did not deliver groceries.

And the downtown post office was already nearly 2 decades old.

Harry Brown Fairchild, distinguished mail carrier.

Sherwood Island And The Mill Pond: The Prequel

Monday’s “06880″ unraveled a bit of the mystery of the house on the island in the Sherwood Mill Pond.

Now Elwood Betts adds even more details — including some history about the adjoining property, Sherwood Island State Park.

Or, as Elwood called it back in the day, Sherwood’s Island Farm.

Elwood Betts, at Evergreen Cemetery. His interest in genealogy led him to help renovate this cemetery, as well as undertake research into the history of Sherwood Island and the Mill Pond.

He should know. An 86-year-old Westport native — he was born in a house on Imperial Avenue — he is an amateur genealogist. Elwood literally knows where all the bones are buried.

And — with the help of Loly Jones — he’s written a few short histories about his ancestors, and the Westport that once was.

Growing up during the Depression, he heard stories of the great American sailing ships that dominated world commerce in the 1840s and ’50s, and the members of his family who captained them. A painting of the packet ship “The Adeline Elwood” — of which his great-grandfather Charles Elwood was captain — hangs proudly in Elwood’s Park Lane home.

He and Loly wanted to find out more. Research at the Westport Library led to the grand list of 1917. Fannie Elwood — a descendant of Capt. Elwood — was one of the top taxpayers in town, assessed $30,350 for “Sherwood’s Farm” on the island bearing the same name.

The original gristmill.

The island was not far from the site of a gristmill on what we now call the Sherwood Mill Pond. In 1705, the 1st mill had been built on what was then called Gallup Gap Creek. (Gallup Gap itself was located where the Sherwood Island connector is today.) In 1790 Daniel Sherwood bought the mill.

After his death in 1828, it was rebuilt. It thrived for years, specializing in kiln-dried corn meal shipped to the West Indies, on boats that docked right at the mill. Oysters were also grown and harvested in the Mill Pond, fetching up to $20 a barrel at the Fulton Fish Market.

The gristmill has been replaced by the house on the right. Back in the day, ships sailed right next to it to load cornmeal, oysters and other goods.

The growth of railroads cut into business, though, and after standing idle for a while, the mill was destroyed by fire in 1891.

Meanwhile, back in 1787, farmland on Fox Island had been given to Daniel Sherwood Jr. as a wedding present. It became known as Sherwood’s Island, and he and his wife Catherine Burr farmed onions and potatoes there.

The Sherwoods had 11 children. The youngest — identical triplets Franklin, Francis and Frederick — all had long and storied careers as sea captains. In 1865 Franklin retired, and became a gentleman farmer on Sherwood’s Island. Indentured servants — immigrants from Russia, Greece and Switzerland — worked the land and helped with household responsibilities.

When Franklin died in 1888, his daughter Fannie Sherwood Elwood inherited the entire 24-acre property. She was the wife of the son of Elwood Betts’ great-uncle, Captain John B. Elwood.

The productive land was surrounded on all sides by unusable marshlands. By the end of World War I, farming there wound down. In the 1920s, it became difficult to support the taxation on the large assessed valuation of the property.

Elwood remembers swimming there with his Sherwood cousins, and visiting the homestead on the island. It provided a great vista, all the way to Long Island. Traveling there — on a winding path — seemed “a journey into a distant world, set apart from the (Westport) community I was accustomed to.”

In 1932, Aunt Fannie sold her property to the State of Connecticut. The house fell into disrepair; the farmland became overgrown. By the late 1930s, it and other open farmland throughout Westport started growing quickly back into wooded areas. Elwood calls this a “dramatic change in the landscape.”

A 1930s map showing subdivision possibilities for Sherwood Island.

Gradually, the State of Connecticut bought more and more property — eventually 234 acres. The 1st parcel — adjacent to Burying Hill Beach — had been purchased in 1914. In the decades that followed, influential landowners in the Green’s Farms area fought the state. By 1937, however, key parcels were acquired — remarkable, considering the dire straits of the Depression. The 150-year-old homestead was demolished. Sherwood Island — the 1st state park in Connecticut — opened to the public.

Had the state not prevailed, a housing development — with hundreds of homes — may well have been built on the land. Westport would look far different today.

In fact, much of the nearby Sherwood Island Mill Pond looks not greatly different from the 1930s — or decades, even centuries, earlier.

Ships no longer dock there, and the “old mill” itself is gone. But the tidal pond is there. Sherwood Island — “Sherwood’s Island — is one marshland away.

And Elwood Betts remembers it all.

Sherwood Island Mill Pond today. (Photo/Wendy Crowther for WestportCT.gov)

Where Westport Legends Lie

Perhaps Saugatuck Congregational Church members chuckled when they built a cemetery next to — of all places — Dead Man’s Brook.

Maybe they didn’t see the humor at all.

It’s hard to know what anyone was thinking back in 1836, when Evergreen Cemetery was dedicated just a few yards from downtown Westport where cattle grazed, crops grew, and ships sailed up the Saugatuck River.

But then — as now — Westporters died.  And for 175 years, they’ve been buried in the small cemetery on Evergreen Avenue.

Last week, Elwood Betts took me on a tour.  A native Westporter — born 85 years ago in a house on Imperial Avenue — he retired in 1989 after 42 years as General Electric engineer.  He’s got 6 children and plenty of grandchildren, but his “baby” is the cemetery.

As a Saugatuck Church trustee, and overseer of the cemetery, he shepherded through a lengthy restoration project from 2002 to ’04 — and, last year, another clean-up after storms walloped the graves and grass.

Elwood Betts, at the grave of a relative.

Elwood — whose great-grand-uncle, Orin Elwood, lies there — ensures that the final resting place of famous Westporters like Ebenezer Jesup, Samuel Wakeman, Hereward Wake, Herb Baldwin, Ed Mitchell and various Sherwoods, Gorhams, Bradleys, Morehouses, Coleys, Wheelers and Whitneys, remains dignified and serene.

He’s had plenty of help — Rick Benson, Boy Scouts, Kowalsky Brothers and Gault, for example — but without Elwood, Evergreen Cemetery might look the way it did a decade ago.  Dozens of stones were buried or broken.  Monuments had toppled.  Vandals did their share.

With Gene Takahashi — a Korean War hero — Elwood oversaw the removal of brush, overgrown pine trees  and poison ivy; the righting, resurrection and repair of grave markers; the cleaning of marble; repairs to the iron fence railings, and landscaping of the entire area.

He and his crew did everything, it seems, except move the dead to make them more comfortable.

A garden honoring Gene Takahashi sits on grounds the Korean War hero helped renovate.

Since then, 3 new burial grounds have been added — including a crematory area.  For a long time, there was no room for burial in the historic grounds.  Now Westporters can once again rest in peace in Evergreen Cemetery.

On September 25, Saugatuck Congregational Church will hold a commemoration ceremony at the cemetery.  This year marks the 175th anniversary of its founding, and the 150th of the start of the Civil War.  Henry Richards — a 21-year-old who died at Lookout Mountain — is buried there.

On that Sunday, speakers will honor the cemetery.  Coffee will be served.  Westporters will wander through the grounds, gazing at familiar names and thinking back to a time when this downtown cemetery served a far different town.

“We’re praying for a nice day,” Elwood Betts say.

Thanks to him, every day in Evergreen Cemetery is exactly that.