Birchwood Country Club: Local Jewel, Hidden In Plain Sight

I’ve spent most of my life in Westport. Yet until a few years ago — when I went to an awards dinner there — I had never set foot in Birchwood Country Club.

Nor had I even thought about it.

I’ve been inside 3 times since then: for 2 A Better Chance “Dream Events,” and last November’s Catch a Lift fundraiser.

For me — as with many Westporters — the 80-acre club that lies, barely noticed, on prime land between between Riverside Avenue and the Post Road — might have been in another galaxy. It was out of sight, out of mind.

Birchwood’s current board of directors want to change that. They’d like everyone  to know about the only private country club in Westport.

And they want everyone to feel welcome there.

The Birchwood Country Club main building.

Before World War II, the “Westport Country Club” boasted an 18-hole golf course. It was private or semi-private — details are hazy.

During the war, it lay fallow. Weeds replaced well-trimmed grass.

In 1946, returning veterans bought the land, and opened their own club — renamed Birchwood. The reason they didn’t join any existing club in the area: They couldn’t.

They were Jewish.

A redesigned 9-hole golf course became the #6 of its kind in the US, according to Golf Digest. The club added tennis and paddle courts, and a pool.

The Birchwood golf course.

But — beyond the fact that it was located in Westport, and many members lived here — it had nothing to do with the community.

Over the past decade, directors say, Birchwood has grown much more inclusive. Club members still gather to break the fast on Yom Kippur — but there’s a gingerbread house at Christmas.

Children — once supposed to be neither heard nor seen — are now welcome in the restaurant.

Marco Spadacenta — the first non-Jewish president in the club’s 72 years — exemplifies those changes.

He moved to Westport 20 years ago. For 14 years, he played golf at Longshore. He’d never heard of Birchwood. But he wanted more flexibility in tee times, and found the club.

Since joining, he says, “I’ve met the most wonderful people. This is such a great place.”

Birchwood Country Club president Marco Spadacenta and board member Thomas Freydl, in the dining room.

Board member Thomas Freydl echoes Spadacenta. “I grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Country clubs there were” — he searches for the right words — “less approachable.”

At  Birchwood, Freydl says, “kids can run around. Everyone is relaxed, and has fun.”

As part of their community outreach, Birchwood is figuring out how to serve Westport’s police officers and firefighters. The club welcomes local businesses for corporate meetings and golf outings.

They also plan Memorial Day fireworks. They’ll be shot off on club grounds — yet visible all over town.

Which is exactly the point. “We’re 10 minutes from any place in Westport,” Freydl says. “But when I get here, I feel like I’m out of town. There’s great views off the balcony — green grass, nature and beauty. I spend every summer weekend here.”

New chef Quint Smith has re-energized the restaurant. He’s introduced cooking lessons for kids and adults, and organized tasting sessions. The dining room is a warm, welcoming place.

Birchwood is a hidden wonder. Now, the club hopes more Westporters will find it.

Pic Of The Day #276

Nyala Farm (Photo/Scott Smith)

The Puzzle Of Alan Southworth

Westporters have a special relationship with the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Every year, puzzle editor Will Shortz hosts a competition at the library. (The upcoming 19th annual event is February 3.)

When library director Maxine Bleiweis retired in 2015, Shortz showed up — and presented her with a specially created, “MB”-themed puzzle.

Two months ago, “Westport” was even the answer to a clue — “Affluent Connecticut town” — in a Times crossword puzzle.

But our special relationship goes only so far. To be published by the paper, a puzzle must be good. Very good.

Alan Southworth’s is. Which is why — ta-da! — the 2010 Staples High School graduate makes his debut today as a New York Times puzzle constructor.

Alan Southworth (left) and Will Shortz, at last year’s Westport Library crossword puzzle contest.

The best constructors know a lot, about a lot of things. They have varied interests. Southworth definitely does.

At Staples he sang with the Orphenians, joined the jazz band, competed on the math team, and played freshman basketball.

At Princeton he majored in geosciences (and was certified in sustainable energy and environmental studies). He works now as an energy market consultant, in a Manhattan firm run by 2001 Staples grads Gabe Phillips and Jonathan Spivak. In his spare time, he plays singer-songwriter gigs around the city.

Southworth always loved words. He grew up playing Scrabble and Boggle with his mom, and relaxed before bed with Sudoku and KenKen.

In college, he discovered crosswords. He and his friends challenged themselves with the Times puzzle in the dining hall.

After graduation, he commuted nearly 2 hours each way. Vowing to be as productive as possible, he spent his train rides writing song lyrics. That soon morphed into crossword theme ideas.

His college friend Ryan McCarty had a couple of puzzles accepted by the Times. He wanted to collaborate. So Southworth devised themes. McCarty did most of the grid construction. Together they wrote clues.

They’ve kept a Google Doc of puzzle ideas ever since.

Their first 2 puzzles were rejected. This one was accepted, Southworth thinks, because the theme answers were a  bit “cleaner,” and the grid more open (fewer black squares in the middle).

Having a crossword accepted is quite an accomplishment. Having your first one run on a Thursday is remarkable. That’s the toughest day for a themed puzzle. (Monday is the easiest; Tuesday and Wednesday are a bit harder. Friday and Saturday are reserved for themeless — but more difficult — puzzles.)

Southworth has a digital subscription to the Times. But today he’ll buy a dead-tree copy of the paper — and make copies for his co-workers.

Here in Westport, his parents have promised to save their copy for him too.

Pics Of The Day #275

Ice on Gray’s Creek … (Photo/Michelle Cardello)

… and the Saugatuck River, by the Saugatuck Rowing Club. (Photo/Diana Kuen)

Unsung Hero #31

Mitchell Lester has worn glasses for 58 years.

For several months, he knew it was time to get his eyes re-checked. (Not being able to see anything was a clue.)

The day before New Year’s Eve, his (very old) glasses slid off his face, onto the floor.

Mitchell called Specs. Owner Chris Cannella was all set to close his Post Road East shop for the day. But he said “come on over”; he’d see what he could do.

Specs is on Post Road East, a few doors down from Patagonia.

No surprise: The frames needed soldering. They’d have to be sent out. By the time they were ready Mitchell would be away, enjoying a tropical vacation. (If he could see what he was doing.)

Oh well.

But the next morning — Sunday, December 31 — Mitchell’s phone rang. Chris called — Mitchell thinks he tracked him down through that long-ago purchase —  and said, “Come on down.”

Chris thought he had frames he could fit the still-usable lenses into. Mitchell headed over.

But the frames were too big for the lenses.

So Chris found some smaller frames. He spent an hour cutting the lenses down to size. Then he told Mitchell to keep them until he got his eyes re-checked.

Mitchell Lester’s new specs.

At that point, Chris will pick out new frames.

At Specs, of course.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Liz Hannah’s USA Today “Post”

Last March, “06880” reported that Liz Hannah’s screenplay about the Pentagon Papers was being made into a major motion picture.

Very major. Steven Spielberg directed “The Post.” Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee. Meryl Streep is Katherine Graham.

Hannah is not a boldface name like those three.

At least, not yet.

But good things are happening to the 2003 Staples High School graduate.

Liz Hannah (Photo/Martim Vian for USA Today)

“The Post” was named best film of 2017 by the National Board of Review, and in  the Top 10 by Time and the American Film Institute. It earned 6 Golden Globe nominations, including Best Screenplay. (It didn’t win. But Hannah was there, at a table with Hanks and Streep.)

The writer has gotten some pretty good ink herself.

USA Today headlined its story: “‘The Post’ Writer Liz Hannah Shows What’s Possible When Women Occupy Powerful Roles in Hollywood.”

In it, the Westport native talks about her female mentors, and the inspiration of Katherine Graham herself.

USA Today notes:

A few years into writing pilots that languished in development and feature spec scripts that didn’t sell, a burned-out Hannah made one last-ditch effort before planning to leave the grind of writing to focus on something like teaching. At the encouragement of her husband, Hannah decided it was time to write something about Graham, and focus it on her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Like Graham, “I had been in those rooms where I’m the only woman, and men turn their back on me pretend I’m not there,” Hannah says. The writer’s journey to express her voice, and use “guts (to) ignore the fear and stand on our own two feet,” paralleled her protagonist’s.

Eventually, Hannah’s screenplay reached former Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal. She said:

I would’ve wanted to make this movie no matter who wrote it. But of course working with and supporting women has always been important to me, and I was thrilled to help get it made.

For months, the media has been talking about men — in Hollywood and Washington — taking advantage of women.

Now — with “The Post” — they can talk about the power of women to do great things on their own.

Including Westport’s own Liz Hannah.

(Click here for the full USA Today story. Hat tip: Jeff Kapec)

Pic Of The Day #274

Semi-frozen Sherwood Mill Pond (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Daybreak Hearing Postponed; New Application Submitted

The Planning & Zoning Commission’s public hearing scheduled for this Thursday (January 18) has been postponed.

The application for 500 Main Street — the Daybreak property — has been withdrawn. That application included 5 two-family dwellings, and 2 one-family homes, with at least 60% age-restricted units.

A new application — by the same Mel Barr, Barr Associates, LLC — has been received. This one includes the same number and size of dwellings, but is for 100% age-restricted units.

The new public hearing date is Thursday, February 1.

Front and rear views of an attached duplex planned for the Daybreak property.

Remembering Jim McManus

In the 1970s and ’80s, Westport was known as “the marketing capital of the world.” An inordinate number of marketing companies was headquartered here.

Perhaps the best known was Marketing Corporation of America. Founded by Jim McManus in 1971, it was a behemoth. It also served as an incubator for other creative marketers, who went on to create their own companies, right here in town.

McManus died last week at his home in Fairfield. He was 84.

Jim McManus

Like many Westport marketers, McManus began his career with Procter & Gamble. He went on to build the first integrated marketing services firm to serve Fortune 50 consumer companies. Between 1971 and 1997 — when it was sold to the Interpublic Group — MCA grew into a $500 million enterprise. Clients included Frito-Lay, IBM, Quaker Oats, Lipton, Procter & Gamble, Lorillard, FedEx, Saab and Dunkin’ Donuts.

McManus’ firm provided strategic consulting, market research, advertising, sales promotion programs and venture capital. It was the model for many marketing companies that followed — in Westport, and around the world.

In 1985, MCA gave the town a gift for our 150th anniversary: a 30-minute video. “Westport’s Got it All” includes cameos by famous local residents: Harry Reasoner. Joanne Woodward. Rodney Dangerfield.

And “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” host Jim McKay — whose real name was also James McManus.

(Services for MCA’s McManus were private. Donations in his name can be made by clicking here. Specify “McManus Center, Kellogg Student Programs.”)

Peter Dickstein’s Solful Startup

Ever since moving to the Bay Area nearly 35 years ago, Peter Dickstein has been immersed in that torrid startup scene.

The 1973 Staples High School graduate — and former University of Pennsylvania soccer captain — founded and operated a variety of companies. For the last 10 years he’s advised CEOs and boards on corporate and financial strategy.

Peter Dickstein

“I enjoy the process of building businesses, and doing deep dives. And I love helping younger entrepreneurs,” Dickstein says.

Now he’s building a new business. He’s doing it with a young co-founder. And he’s helping shape one of the fastest-growing industries around: legal cannabis.

In 2015, when Eli Melrod — son of longtime friends — took a pause from Wesleyan University, he sought Dickstein’s entrepreneurial experience. With California headed toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use, they looked at multiple opportunities: intellectual property acquisition and licensing, testing lab, cultivation, you name it.

The most compelling prospect, they believed, was creating a branded destination dispensary, focused on a great customer experience grounded in cannabis education. They would use healthful, locally grown products, sold in a warm, welcoming environment.

On January 1, Solful became one of 88 dispensaries across all of California licensed to sell to adults 21 and over. It’s in Sebastapol, nestled in Sonoma County.

Dickstein (the first person interviewed in the video clip above) is executive chairman. Melrod — who his mentor calls “diligent, thoughtful, curious and hard-working” — is CEO. With a team of marketing and retail experts, they’re building a brand and experience they hope to roll out in multiple locations.

“We didn’t want to be a head shop,” Dickstein emphasizes. “We want to be an important part of the communities we serve. We cater to mainstream consumers who want to improve their physical and mental health.”

That’s not, he says, what most dispensaries in California are like. Many are small “mom and pop” shops.

Opening a dispensary in California is not easy. Numerous state and local regulations demand diligent record-keeping and compliance. In the absence of normal business banking options, there are tough financial management challenges.

Obtaining a local permit is arduous too. Proposition 64 allows each jurisdiction to make its own rules. Marin County, for example, rejected a dozen or so applications, for reasons ranging from proposed locations to the backgrounds of applicants.

Publicly traded companies– including big drug, food and tobacco enterprises — are prohibited from investing in and selling cannabis. So most investors so far have been private entities and individuals, Dickstein says.

“We’re bringing a professional business approach, applying best business practices to what has, until now, been a black market, under-the-radar industry,” Dickstein says.

Solful is designed to bring light to the formerly underground sale of cannabis. The store is open, bright and natural-looking. It’s a happy, upbeat place, with a well-trained, friendly staff.

A few members of Solful’s large, well-trained and happy staff.

Products are well-organized, and clearly displayed. Thoughtful signage helps customers understand each product, along with how to ingest and the body’s reaction to it.

A 30-page “Solful Field Guide” (hard copy and online) provides even more information.

Staff members ask questions: “What are you trying to achieve with cannabis? Do you have any ailments? Have you used cannabis before? If so, did you smoke? Vape? Use edibles, topicals or tinctures? Most importantly, how did it affect you?”

There’s no hard sell. As with a store like Patagonia — one of the founders’ inspirational brands — the emphasis is on education and information. Farmers, health professionals and manufacturers are invited in, to give and see live demonstrations.

The shelves in Solful’s Sebastapol store.

The dispensary opened in early October, when only medicinal marijuana was legal in California. Almost immediately, wildfires devastated the region.

Solful’s staff headed into the community, helping residents and volunteering with the Red Cross. They fundraised for victims.

The store partnered with a major edible and vape pen manufacturer to supply medicine and devices to medically dependent people, becoming one of Sonoma’s 4 free distribution centers.

Since January 1, sales have been robust. Twenty-five percent are to people 60 and over.

Some customers seek relief from cancer and its treatment, epilepsy, glaucoma and depression. One uses cannabis to ease back pain; he’s now opioid free.

Some simply seek to relax, or alter their mood.

Solful offers a wide range of products.

The West — California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Alaska — leads the country in terms of recreational marijuana legalization. In the East, only Massachusetts and Maine have passed similar legislation.

What about Connecticut?

Because federal laws prohibit the movement of cannabis products across state lines — it’s classified as a Schedule 1 drug — Dickstein says the laws of economics suggest that the industry will evolve more quickly in states with bigger populations.

“If adult use happens in Connecticut, it would probably look more like Colorado — where the plant needs to be grown indoors — than California, where there’s a deep, multi-generation outdoor tradition,” Dickstein says of his home state.

So you probably won’t see Solful stores in the Land of Steady Habits any time soon — if at all.

But, Peter Dickstein believes, his branded destination dispensary model can be replicated in communities like Sebastapol across the Golden State.

It’s hardly a pipe dream.