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The gristmill has been replaced by the house on the right.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)

20 responses to “Sherwood Island And The Mill Pond: The Prequel

  1. What a great report! Thank you, Dan for filling in all that backround. My next walk at Sherwood Island will be more interesting just for having learned its history.

  2. How wonderful to hear it all from someone who lived it. When I was doing research for “Westport…a special place” I found that at one point the state proposed putting an airport on the property. Think what a travesty that would have been!

  3. Having been in the RE business for many years, I have a few stories I tell my clients as I am driving them around…. most of them are on my web site.

    Here’s an old newspaper snippet…

    In 1810, when Catherine Burr Sherwood was 52, she gave birth to healthy identical triplet boys Francis, Franklin and Frederick on what is now called Sherwood Island State Park. They all became sea captains and grew to old age. They celebrated their 70th birthdays in Westport CT in 1880. They made national news for another reason. When they were young men travelling around the country, they were in Charleston, SC together and all sported beards. One went into a barber in the morning.. one at noon, one in the afternoon all claiming to be the same man. The barber said he’d never seen a man grow a beard so fast.

    I’d like to think, when I tell it… it’s a little funnier.

  4. The best article of 2012! Thank you, Dan!

  5. Great story.
    Even better writing!
    U da best, Dan. 🙂

  6. Ann Bacharach

    Great work, Dan. Thanks for pursuing the details.

  7. Westporter4ever

    i Like to think of myself as a Westport History Buff…I know alot…and have to admit i have heard snippits of the above inf before…Dan you should seriously consider writing a book on History of Westport, you style is really fantastic. Also I am absolutely astonished that I did NOT KNOW that Sherwood island was the first state park in CT! out of everything I’ve read about history in CT and Westport, I can’t believe i never read that before!!

  8. Thanks for all the props, but I owe it all to Elwood Betts. He’s the man!

  9. Marilyn Bakker sends this along:

    Any story about Sherwood Island history should mention William H. Burr, the Westport farmer and public citizen who acquired land for the state and led the battle against the influential landowners who did not want a park in their backyards. The whole story of the 23-year war for the park on the website of the Friends of Sherwood Island State Park (www.friendsofsherwoodisland.org) is based on a collection of Burr’s papers at the Fairfield Historical Society. The collection includes the blue map included in your post, as well as the housing development plans that were filed in Westport Town Hall in the 1920s.

    In a 1932 article recounting the saga up to then, the Bridgeport Telegram wrote: “… The State park program ran along smoothly until the heavy hand of wealth and influence interfered in Westport. Then Mr. Burr began to strike snags. They ostracized him socially. They jeered and hooted him down in town meetings. The beat him politically (for the other side had the political machine.) They boycotted his farm. They threatened him covertly. They called him names. They tried to bribe him, buy him, frighten him, beat him, and everything but bury him. But they found that William H. Burr had just one price and that was the opening of Sherwood’s Island to the public.”

  10. The history of this part of our country is what lured me here from Sunny California over 20 years ago. My husband still questions that move, climate-wise sometimes, but as another history buff, he agrees that it’s the backbone of our lives as Americans: how we got here and why. We, ourselves, live in a circa 1730 former tavern owned and operated by the Banks Family for 80 years, so we practically breathe the air of our “ancestors.” Elevating this one of Westport’s many attractive attributes, that’s is- it’s history, is most fascinating and pertinent, really, to our legacy and for those who will follow us.

    Bravo!

  11. A number of years ago, Joanna Foster wrote a series of delightful articles about the history of Westport. I remember one story about the Sherwood triplets. They were at a family gathering, and the little granddaughter of one of them ran to her mother crying — “Mama, there are three grandpas!”

  12. Wendy Crowther

    Being a Westport history buff myself, I’m happy to see that there are so many others who enjoy hearing about Westport’s past. Hey Dan, just an FYI – the photo of the Sherwood Mill Pond at the bottom of your story, and to which you credit WestportCT.gov, was actually taken by me as part of my work to help create and publicize the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve. The photo appears on the WestportCT.gov website on the page that describes the Preserve (photo credits at the bottom).

    Westport history buffs should head down to the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve (former location of Allen’s Clam House restaurant) to not only enjoy a beautiful view of the pond, but also to learn more about the history of the pond, the pond’s three gristmills, and the history of the Allen family. Info and photos are posted on a historical sign at the site.

    To find out more about the Preserve, interested readers can go to:
    http://www.westportct.gov/index.aspx?page=99

    • Dan, want to change the credit line to “Wendy Crowther” as the westportct.gov site does? 🙂

    • Sorry about the photo credit — I missed it the first time. My bad — I’ve added it to the photo.

      And yes, the historical sign at the Mill Pond Preserve is fantastic, and very informative. I should know: I copy-edited it!

  13. I remember Ruth Adams, former Westport librarian and owner of the Adams Homestead on the corner of North Avenue & Long Lots renovated by Martha Stewart … and a lovely lady who died in 2003 at age 89, telling about her Sherwood cousins and how they would go out to Sherwood Island to visit. She told about the triplets too, although they would have been in their 104th year when she was born, so perhaps she described what her parents knew!

    I love these stories you share with us, Dan and Mr. Betts.

  14. Richard Lawrence Stein

    Very interesting stuff….and very interesting insight to Westport Town…. Amazing that we complain of the changes of Westport and how things have changed in so many ways….. But look or consider Mr Butts or the late Mr Belta, both great life long Westporters…. Now they can tell us about change and how this town was and maybe how or the direction it should go… Just a thought…

  15. Any Sherwoods offsprings still living in Westport?

  16. Not sure about Sherwood’s in Westport…would love to know… And I was blown away recently finding out the same Sherwood family owns Sherwood Farm on Sport Hill Road in Easton since the very beginning …..as in settlers and grants from the king. I would love to know if any one family has maintained ownership of any property in westport since the beginning. Maybe some Gaults or Nashes?

  17. Gwen Dwyer Lechnar

    This was very interesting to me. My paternal grandfather was a gardener on “the estate”, as we grew up hearing it called, before I was actually on the scene, i.e., when the world began. The other coincidence from my point of view that when our family first came to Westport we lived on Imperial Ave.(My grandparents were then in Rye N.Y., my mother came from Brooklyn.)Unfortunately they were kind of vague about the actual dates he was there and they’re all beyond checking with now.But I like this little connection to Westport’s history, a nugget to put up against my Saugatuck friends’ greater claims!