When The Cold War Came To Town

Recently the New York Times ran a story on the top-secret nuclear bomb shelter built for President Kennedy near his Palm Beach home.  These days, it’s a tourist attraction.

We could have had something similar, right here in Westport.

Instead we turned our Nike Site into a school.

At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government developed a defense system.  Nikes were line-of-sight anti-aircraft missiles that would destroy incoming bombers.

In the 1950s Bridgeport — an important manufacturing city, with military production places like General Dynamics, Remington and Sikorsky — was presumed to be high on the Russians’ target list.  Nike missiles would defend it.

They had to be launched from a high elevation, not far from the city.  Westport seemed a perfect spot.

Nike missiles on display.

The town was rattled.  RTM member Ralph Sheffer was appointed chairman of the Nike Site Committee.

Meanwhile, Ralph recalled in a Westport Historical Society oral history, the Army sent in “their best PR people — handsome young captains” to calm things down.

Ralph visited Nike sites around the country.  He even called a former classmate — President Eisenhower’s press secretary — to ask for help.  He offered to set up a meeting with Ike.

“I decided it would be too presumptuous,” Ralph said.

The missiles were placed in silos on North Avenue.  They were to be set off from another point in Westport — one with direct sighting to the Nikes.  The tower had to be built on a higher elevation:  the Sheffer family’s 32-acre property on Cross Highway, from Bayberry to Sturges Highway.

Ralph’s father-in-law — “a loyal American citizen” — donated the property to the Army for $1.  He stipulated that if the Nike site was no longer used, it would revert to the town.

The Army built barracks on Bayberry Lane.  Ralph said he spent mornings “throwing beer cans back onto Army property.”  Other military personnel — those with families — lived on Wassell Lane.

A typical Nike site -- much like the North Avenue one. Missiles were usually buried underground.

Westport writer Max Shulman wrote about the Nike Site  — the town’s reaction, and how it dealt with frisky GIs — in Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!

In 1958, the book became a movie.  Paul Newman played the Ralph Sheffer character; Joanne Woodward was Ralph’s wife Betty.  The film introduced the Newmans to Westport.  They soon moved here — and never left.

“Of course,” Ralph said in his oral history, “by the time the Nike site was built and in place, it was outdated by new technology.”

In 1960, control was transferred from the U.S. Army to the National Guard.  Westport’s Nike Site closed 3 years later.

Rolnick Observatory -- the former Nike Site on Bayberry Lane -- in 1975.

The Bayberry Lane barracks became Westport/Weston Health District headquarters.  The control tower was turned into the Rolnick Observatory.

The North Avenue site has a more intriguing history.

For a decade, it lay abandoned.  Area children — including, ahem, me — have vivid memories of cavorting on the property.  The silos were open — well, we found a way to open them — and believe me, nothing beats the Cold War memory of clambering inside a missile silo.

In 1973 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare — which apparently had taken control — transferred the North Avenue land to the town.

According to the Norwalk Hour of October 1 that year, a ceremony was held.  Paul Newman called it “a great day for Westport.”  The Staples band played a couple of tunes, including — inexplicably — “On Wisconsin” and Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.”

First Selectman John Kemish said, “The land once needed for war will now be dedicated to the pursuit of peace.  The property will now be redeveloped by our Board of Education as a facility for our children.”

Well — not quite.

Though envisioned as a possible location for the Town School Office, a curriculum center, a maintenance garage and/or a repair area for Staples’ automotive classes, it languished.

In 1977-78, industrial arts teacher Ed Ljostad created a “Woodshop to Nike” class.  Eleven junior and senior boys began a planned 5-year renovation project there.

Their goal was to build bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, storage space, dorm rooms and a dining hall — a living environment that any Staples group could use.

They began removing walls, radiators, pipes and debris; the next step was plumbing and electrical work, a septic system, new windows and doors.

Project Adventure — a one-quarter gym option — installed a ropes course, high wire and 30-foot balance beam, to develop group cooperation.

But both projects petered out.  Generations of Stapleites recall the Nike Site as an abandoned, overgrown, unpatrolled area — the ideal spot for drinking, drugs and sex.  (“Hey, wanna see my silo?”)

You wouldn’t know any of that today.  The missiles are gone; so is any trace of the military.

Instead of Cold War civil preparedness — or teenage wasteland — the North Avenue Nike Site is pristine.

Few — if any — of the people there today know the history behind the property.

The property that today is Bedford Middle School.

The North Avenue Nike site today.

16 responses to “When The Cold War Came To Town

  1. “The Bayberry Lane barracks became Westport/Weston Health District headquarters. ”

    Actually……..it became the “Bayberry Kindergarten School” first.

    Just Sayin’……………………..

    😉

  2. When the Nike sites were dedicated in the 50’s, we were invited to a reception by the Army as members of the Wassell family because of the Wassell Lane housing that was named after the four brothers who served in WWII. I was two or three years old and have vague memories of a tour through the silos and a buffet in the open area outside. Years later I rented summer houses on Fairfield Beach and realized they had their own Nike site off of Reef Rd. Vestiges of the Cold War.
    I also remember my late mother telling me that during WWII the Navy wanted to annex Longshore because it was perfect for a seaplane base to be located so as to patrol against German submarines that lurked on both sides of Long Island. Obviously never happened because of concerns that the planes would approach directly over Compo Parkway and be a threat to life. Thanks Dan for reminding us of recent history that will probably be otherwise lost.

  3. Richard Lawrence Stein

    I got My parents 73 Plymouth station wagon (total boat) stuck in the mud up there… Cost me $$$$ to get that behemoth towed…

  4. In 1972 I lived at the end of High Point Road, a stones throw through the woods to the Nike Site. Around then, there were any number of WWII vintage Jeeps, half tracks, ambulances and other vehicles parked behind the fences there. My older brother and I snuck in under one of the numerous holes in the fence to sneak around the buildings, checking out the silos and eventually we sat in one of the Jeeps.

    It quickly became apparent that if you pressed a button over the cluthand turned a switch on the dash that we could start these Jeeps up. I guess requiring keys would have been a bad idea for obvious reasons.

    We soon found ourselves enjoying learning how to drive stick shifts in the parking lot (I was 12 at the time).

  5. Dennis Jackson

    One of the early uses (1973) for the triangular tower that was in front of what is now the Rolnick Observatory at the Bayberry Lane Nike Site was to support the pole that held the antenna for the new WWPT(FM). At the zoning hearings, a commuter who appeared to have spent a bit too much time in the bar car showed up and complained that it would be an attractive nuisance that kids might try to shinny up and thus hurt themselves. First Selectman Jacqueline Heneage, noting his demeanor, suggested we grease the pole. Needless to say, the Board chuckled and approved it.

  6. Great story Dan. One missing bit — when plans were being drawn up for building the new Bedford MS in the late 1990s inspectors discovered that the site had been used for dumping asphalt millings, which created an environmental hazard. Had to be ameliorated at considerable expense.

  7. The Dude Abides

    Excellent article and good summation of the dreaded Nike base amongst the vast playlands of nearby Wakeman farm. I was surprised at the closing date of ’63??? I certainly can remember the guard, in full uniform and polished helmet, in his little office-hut at the entrance to where BMS is now. But I thought he was there during my high school stint (where passerbys would yell all sorts of commands to “attenhuh” to “asshole”) but I must be mistaken. Also, I believe the Nike site became a compost dump site for a time being in the 80’s?? Residents became so distraught with the odor that another protest was manned.

    • In the early 70’s I think they used the site by Staples as a National Guard/Reserve parking lot. The vehicles sat silent most of the time, but on occassion there would be activity and these units would be gone for a day or two.

    • Yup, remember taking sticks, leaves, etc there in the 70s

  8. Thanks for the memories! Having Paul Newman play him in Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys was one of my father’s favorite claims to fame — though I always wondered on whom the Joan Collins PTA president role was based…the other ‘six-degrees’ connection is that my grandfather was represented by Leo Nevas, who became Paul Newman’s attorney, and assisted both of them in their philanthropy. Also, what my father failed to mention in his oral history (or perhaps didn’t know) was that my brothers made a lot of money collecting those beer and soda cans that were tossed over the fence from the Army barracks to our property, and turning them in for the deposit. And probably ran around with Dan in the silos…

  9. I second Dennis Jackson’s story about the WWPT tower at the Bayberry Lane Nike site–I was part of the crew that put it up, working so late one night that we had to illuminate things with the headlights from our parked cars.

    WWPT’s ancient, hulking FM transmitter–donated by a commercial station, as I recall–sat in the building next door, and was controlled via a dedicated phone line from the studios at Staples. We turned it on and off by dialing a phone dial, believe it or not (which had nothing to do with the phone line, but with the antiquated piece of equipment that remote-controlled the transmitter).

    I also happen to have been one of the Staples bandmembers who serenaded Paul Newman, John Kemish & Co. the day of the transfer of the North Avenue Nike site back to the town. I don’t remember that setlist–but it sounds about right!

    When we got back to school (it was a midday ceremony), I was sternly admonished by a teacher for showing up late for class. But knowing that she was a huge movie fan, I told her I’d been at the Nike site with Paul Newman. Shut her right up.

  10. Larry Perlstein

    I remember the day we finally got the WWPT tower up — it was basically a long pole held to the Nike tower by u-bolts. We had it up at its full height and then it just slipped through the u-bolts back down to the ground — does that sound familiar Dennis and Mark? Those were the days.

  11. In 1975, I joined Westport’s Vol FD, & we used to use the Nike site for training.