The Rich History Of Westport’s Poorhouse

Did every old structure in Westport start somewhere else?

Saugatuck Congregational Church, the Birchwood Country Club clubhouse and Bedford Hall at the Westport Woman’s Club are 3 examples.

This coming Monday (May 1, 3 p.m.), Project Return takes the spotlight.

The North Compo Road home — a converted 8-bed farmhouse that since 1983 has housed scores of girls and young women from Westport and surrounding towns — will receive a historic significance plaque.

Project Return, on North Compo Road.

Turns out the building — sitting handsomely but unobtrusively between Little League fields and the Town Farm tennis courts — has quite a history.

It started out in what is now Playhouse Square, nearly 200 years ago.

In 1901 it became the town “poor house.”

More than a century later, it still serves folks in need.

Bob Weingarten — WHS house history chair — says the structure was built in 1824. A decade after that, it became part of the Kemper tannery. In 1930, that land became the Westport Country Playhouse.

In 1864, Charles Kemper Sr. moved it to property he bought from Samuel Gorham on North Compo.

The town of Westport purchased it in 1901, for use as an almshouse. At that point, by renting space in individual homes, we were spending more money on indigents than surrounding towns. Buying the entire farm, including the house of 13 rooms, for $2,750 could save us at least $1,000 a year.

“Town Poor House,” circled on a 1911 map.

In 1927, a man named Alfred Violet — the same person who gave his name to the road off Myrtle Avenue? — found sanitary conditions there “absolutely unbelievable.” Chimneys were crumbling; windows furnished “practically no protection at all against the weather … and the grounds have been used for the past years as a garbage dump.” Approximately 15 children lived there.

It’s uncertain how long the “town farm” operated as a poorhouse. The site was considered for a town garage. From 1975-83 it was rented to James Drought, a noted writer.

After he died, the house deteriorated. Kate McGraw — assistant superintendent of special education for the Westport school system — had the idea to use it as a residence for girls whose parents could not keep them at home.

Renovation $100,000. Many local organizations and individuals contributed funds, labor, materials and furniture.

1st Selectman Bill Seiden championed Project Return. 2nd Selectman Barbara Butler — later named town human services director — helped negotiate a $1-a-year lease.

That contract is still in effect. Project Return pays for all interior and exterior maintenance, and utilities. The town pays for tuition of each girl, while parents pay residential costs.

The safe, nurturing home has helped over 160 girls rebuild their lives. Project Return has evolved with the times — most recently last year, when the state stopped funding group homes for youth. Homes With Hope merged with the organization, ensuring a seamless transition.

Monday’s plaque presentation will include representatives of the town of Westport, Project Return and Homes With Hope, plus Kate McGraw’s daughter Sarah and 2 of James Drought’s children, Hank and Sarah.

It will be a fitting tribute to an important town structure — one that, like so many others, has ended up in a very different place than it began.

Literally.

Pic Of The Day #10

National Hall (Photo copyright Lynn U. Miller)

[UPDATE] Bus Strike Appears Off

Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer just sent this message to Westport families:

  • At midnight tonight the current contract extension of Dattco with its drivers expires, and the drivers have the option of striking without penalty tomorrow.
  • With urging from the District and Dattco, the federal mediator working with this labor issue reached out to the drivers’ union to ask the union leadership to encourage its members to come to work tomorrow.  We have been informed that this did occur and that the union leadership is not promoting a strike.
  • Negotiations are set to continue next Monday, May 1.
  • We will not know the status of the drivers who plan to work tomorrow until shortly after 6 a.m. when they begin to report for work.
  • All schools will be open, no matter how many drivers come to work.  Schools have sent out specific information to their respective families today and will be ready to receive students upon arrival starting 15 minutes earlier than usual.
  • CHANGE OF PLAN FOR BEFORE AND AFTER SCHOOL PROGRAMS – the District will operate all before and after school programs tomorrow as normally scheduled.

Thank you to all of our families for your creativity and resourcefulness in making contingency plans for tomorrow.  I will remain optimistic that the message from the federal mediator has a positive impact on continuity of service, but we have all of our plans in place in the event that we do not have a significant percentage of the driver workforce show up for work tomorrow.

Since there are no negotiations now set for this evening, my next communication to you will be approximately 6:30 a.m. tomorrow morning to update you on the status of our transportation plan for the day.

Colleen Palmer
Superintendent of Schools

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Meanwhile, Post Road drivers were surprised to see more than the usual number of buses turning into Dattco’s parking lot opposite Playhouse Square this afternoon.

Stay tuned.

(Photo/Joyce Joiner)

We Have A Very High Bar For Entitled Parking Photos. This Person Surpassed It.

Alert “06880” reader — and downtown employee — Susan Shuldman parked in the Baldwin lot today.

When she returned to her car, she saw this:

Her car is the dark blue one in the center, parked in the yellow spot, facing a similarly legally parked silver vehicle.

And there — 4 inches from Susan’s rear bumper — is another car.

Smack in the middle of the parking lot.

Susan called the police. When the officer arrived, he noticed that the illegally parked car was unlocked. The keys were in the console.

The cop moved the car into a vacant spot. Susan — finally — was on her way.

So this was not somebody who dashed into Serena & Lily to pick up a quick bedroom set or whatever. He (or she) was there for quite a while.

“I guess the driver thought they were being considerate by leaving the keys!” Susan says magnanimously.

I would add something here.

But there are no words.

Happy GreenDay!

Looking for a way to welcome spring, honor the environment, and do cool, important things with family and friends?

You’re in luck!

GreenDay is this Saturday (April 29). In just 5 years, the event — created by Staples High School’s Club Green — has become a low-key but very fun Westport-wide celebration.

You can choose from:

8:30-10 a.m. Clean-up Greens Farms train station and Riverside Park. Both events are sponsored by the Westport Beautification Committee.

10 a.m. Family Trail Run at Earthplace. Trail run/walk options for all ages and abilities, from a 100-yard dash to 2 miles. Cost: $25 per adult, $15 per child, $75 maximum. Proceeds benefit Earthplace’s community education programs.

10 a.m. Tour Westport’s wastewater treatment plantSee how sewage turns into clean water. Location: 4 Elaine Road, off Compo Road South, between I-95 and the railroad tracks.

11 a.m.-3 p.m. Fun and learning with nature at EarthplaceEarthplace naturalists, Wakeman Town Farm animals, Westport Library storytellers and the new Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum join forces. Experience and explore the natural world through hands-on science activities, and nature arts and crafts. Cost: $5/person.

12-3 p.m. Westport Tree Board gives away native saplings at Earthplace. Members will also direct visitors on tours of the Arboretum, and conduct a free raffle. The winner receives a wooden bench, handmade from black locust wood harvested on the property by Tree Board member Dick Stein.

2 p.m. Rally for the environment at Earthplace. Bring or make your own signs (materials provided), to celebrate science and nature.

3 p.m. Hydroponics at the Westport Library. Watch a hydroponic system being built. Learn how it helps grow a healthy food system.

Get your green on!

(For more GreenDay information, click here.)

Sugar & Olives & Co-Working

One side of Sugar & Olives — Jennifer Balin’s fun, funky space just over the Norwalk line, across from Bowtie Royale 6 — is a restaurant. The other side is an event space, for receptions, celebrations, and bar and bat mitzvahs.

People don’t celebrate on weekday mornings or afternoons. They work then.

Of course, they work differently than they used to. They work at home — surrounded by kids, dogs, house cleaners and leaf blowers. Or they work at Starbucks — surrounded by conversations, constant movement, and baristas calling out wrong names.

Now there’s another option.

Balin — a longtime Westporter who raised 4 kids while also running Sugar & Olives — has turned her event area into a co-working space.

With big tables, high-speed internet, lots of fast table-top charging stations and floor outlets, a laser printer, desk lamps, a tall standing desk, free coffee and tea — plus discounts at the restaurant  — it offers the kind of quiet yet creative atmosphere you can’t get at home.

Or Starbucks.

The co-working space at Sugar & Olives.

Westport author Jane Green is a strong advocate. She encouraged Balin to post the idea on Facebook. Dozens of residents responded.

They’re writers, financial folks, marketers, non-profit workers and more. They pay $300 for a monthly pass, or $200 for a 10-pack. (Special plans are available for Westport Arts Center and Westport Historical Society members. And, Balin says, some companies pick up the co-working tab for employees. She’s got an invoice you can use for reimbursement.)

The vibe, Balin says, is “relaxing, inspirational and chill.” Phone calls are fine — just go to the restaurant side. (That’s called the “conference room,” for meetings and Skyping.)

The co-working space is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — though Balin can be flexible.

Oh, yeah: There’s a free social networking breakfasting every Wednesday.

Beat that, Starbucks!

(For more information on Sugar & Olives’ co-working program, click here.)

Pic Of The Day #9

Compo Beach cannons at night (Photo copyright Dave Dellinger)

Schools Superintendent: Bus Strike Possible Thursday

Westport Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer sent this message to all students and parents a few minutes ago:

I wish to advise you of the potential for a strike by the school bus drivers employed by our bus service company, Dattco.  If, in fact, collective bargaining between the bus company and the driver’s Union fails to reach resolution by midnight Wednesday, April 26, THERE WILL NOT BE REGULAR BUS SERVICE to transport your children to and from school beginning Thursday morning, April 27.  The only exception will be those special education students currently accessing specialized transportation, for whom the district will continue to provide transportation during the strike.

Should the strike take place, school will still be open on Thursday.  I ask you to arrange transportation to get your children to and from school, if at all possible. I urge you to consider forming car pools during this critical period.  While it may be tempting to have your students exit your car in proximity of the school campus, please continue to ensure the safe drop-off of your children by waiting in line to pull up to access the official drop-off area.  I also ask that any students who do not normally walk to or from school refrain from doing so during this time period.

In the event that you have no means to provide transportation for your student(s) during this period, the District will have very limited resources with a handful of drivers to pick up students individually. These ad hoc runs may not be able to get students to school on time, and may, in some instances run an hour or two after start time.  Individuals seeking support for transportation should contact their respective school administration as soon as possible on Wednesday.

The Westport Police Department has arranged to provide additional traffic officers to direct traffic at high volume locations to ease the strain of traffic on our local roads and at each of our school sites.

I urge you to make every effort to have your children arrive at school approximately 30 minutes prior to their normal school start times so that all of your children’s school activities may take place in accordance with their regular school schedules. To accommodate the increased automobile traffic that is anticipated with parent drop-offs you may use both the parent drop-off area and the bus loop at each school in the morning during this period.

Staff members will be in each of our schools to accommodate and handle the arrival of students who may arrive earlier than their usual arrival times.  Also, if our community does need to deal with a bus driver strike, we understand that some students may be upset if they arrive late to school with traffic delays, etc.  Please assure your student(s) that they will not be penalized in any way for arriving late during this time period.

If a strike does take place, all before and after school activities at the elementary schools will be canceled.

Specifics as to the arrangements surrounding drop-offs and pick-ups and other pertinent information will be emailed to you by your building principals on Wednesday, April 26.

Should we learn before 12:01 a.m. on Thursday that a strike has been averted, we will notify all families via email and will place a message on our SNO-LINE, (203) 341-1766.

Should there not be a settlement by 6 a.m. on Thursday morning, April 27, we will notify you through a telephone message, email, and text that you will need to make alternative arrangements to get your students to school and to pick them up at the end of the day, as described above.

Again, I urge you to do your best to form car pools in the event this potential strike actually occurs.  Individual principals will follow-up tomorrow with more specific plans regarding arrival and dismissal at each school.

In the event the strike occurs and extends more than one day, we will assess the viability of continuing to have our schools open based on the feedback from operations of Thursday, and the number of students for whom the lack of transportation resulted in them not attending school.  No matter what, the safety of your students is first and foremost.  If you cannot find a safe way to arrange for your student to attend school, please contact the school administration.  In those circumstances, your student’s absence from school will not count against him/her.

Our students will follow our lead in how we handle this possible challenge.  If we communicate that we have to be flexible and adaptable in our problem-solving, and our students know that they will be not held accountable for any disruption to their day caused by this situation, perhaps they will learn from this how to strategize for success instead of stress over obstacles.

(Photo/Robert Jacobs)

“A Taste Of Westport”: A Testament To CLASP

Tracy Flood grew up on South Compo Road — just down the street from CLASP’s Pine Drive house.

The raised ranch is home to 6 women — members of the long-time, low key organization that provides family environments for people with autism and intellectual disabilities.

CLASP’s Pine Drive home.

As a grad student in 1984, Tracy began working weekends at Pine Street. What started as a short-term job turned into a passion — and her calling.

Like many CLASP folks, she found an extended family among colleagues and residents.

Shortly after Tracy began her Pine Street job, her mother died. The residents swarmed her with hugs, and told her how beautiful she was. Their support helped her through a very tough time.

Tracy realized that being part of the CLASP family meant not only giving love, but receiving it back in volumes.

CLASP residents on a baseball outing.

More than 30 years later, Tracy is president of CLASP. The organization has grown to include 13 group homes. Four are in Westport: Pine Drive, Weston Road, Kings Highway and Sturges Highway. Residents — some of whom have lived there for decades — are deeply rooted in the community. They work, shop and play here, leading full, productive lives.

CLASP is one of those local organizations most Westporters are only vaguely aware of. Many don’t even know that the big spring event they always see signs for — A Taste of Westport — is CLASP’s major fundraiser.

It’s one you can really dig your teeth into.

Many of Westport’s finest restaurants offer specialty dishes. You can sample wine, beer and specialty cocktails — and end with dessert from Le Rouge Chocolates.

There’s music too, plus a silent auction.

All money raised goes directly to the residents. So they can continue to thrive — and give back the love they receive, to CLASP staffers and the entire community.

(A Taste of Westport is set for Thursday, May 4, 6 to 9:30 p.m. at the Westport Inn. Participating restaurants and vendors include Amis, Black Bear Wines & Spirits, Bobby Q’s Cue & Co., Da Pietro’s, Dough & Co., El Segundo, Garelick & Herbs, Geronimo, Greens Farms Spirit Shop, Harvest, Hummock Island Oysters, Le Rouge Chocolates by Aarti, Little Pub, Matsu Sushi, Mionetto Prosecco, Pane e Bene, Pearl at Longshore, Rive Bistro, Tacos Mexico, Tarantino Restaurant, The Spread and Washington Prime. Click here for tickets and more information. 

Pic Of The Day #8

Main Street near Brooks Corner. (Photo copyright Larry Untermeyer)