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The gristmill has been replaced by the house on the right.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

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