Southern Cotton, Westport Twine

While many Westporters have been deeply moved by Steven Spielberg’s epic “Lincoln” movie, the 16th president wasn’t always the most popular guy in town.

In 1860 , not the most popular guy in town.

In 1860 , not the most popular guy in town.

In 1860, he got only 48 percent of the vote in Westport. Lees’ twine manufacturing company — which relied on Southern cotton, and at the time one of Westport’s major manufacturers — apparently was more important to local voters than any abolitionist fervor or save-the-nation ideals.

That fascinating tidbit comes from Brian O’Leary. A historian who loves poring over old newspaper clippings, he’ll talk tomorrow (Sunday, April 28, 7 p.m., Unitarian Church) about Westport and that 1860 election, held just before the Civil War. He’ll also discuss the 60 Westport men who volunteered to fight in Fairfield’s 17th Regiment.

O’Leary’s talk is just part of tomorrow’s event. Baritone Jose Andrade will perform Civil War songs, including “Aura Lee” (the melody Elvis Presley used 100 years later for “Love Me Tender”), “Dixie,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and more.

The concert and talk is co-sponsored by the Unitarian Church and Westport Historical Society. One of the beneficiaries is the church’s Steinway piano. It’s gotten a lot of use over the years, and must be restrung.

Though presumably not with twine made in Westport, from Southern cotton.

(Tickets are $15, at the door. For more information click here, or call 203-227-7205.)

Battle Hymn

18 responses to “Southern Cotton, Westport Twine

  1. My parents both works for Mr. Lees making twine in the early 1930s when they came to Westport from Italy. I was surprised to learn not long ago that the last name is Lees not Lee . That whole area of Richmondville Ave was built around the mill which must have been owned by someone else before Lees because my parents remembered him and his daughter who lived a very long life. My cousins own the original Lees mansion (small by today’s standards) where my parents and later my grandparents rented apartments from my uncle. One of my brothers was actually born in that house and my Grandma, who refused to learn one word of English, lived there until she died in 1969. Saugatuck wasn’t the only Italian enclave in Westport. The entire road and surrounding roads on and off main street were all my paisans and I venture to guess most worked for Mr. Lees at one time. Brian, I can’t make it..would love to talk…such fascinating stuff! You obviously rock.

    • Fascinating info, Mary — thanks! Where was the Lees mansion, exactly?

      • There are two Victorians right in a row around 42 and 44 or 46 Richmondville Ave. Both have long driveways and were owned by the Lees family which at one time was a pretty large family compound. My Grandmother lived at the first one at 42 Richmondville, the yellow Victorian with wraparound porch. (the numbers may be different now because they divided the land and built a couple of houses on the land) Lees Lane used to be part of the Compound as well as Oak Street and Izzo Lane. One thing I was told that a lot of those houses on Richmondville were employee housing. When Mr. Lees got older, he had the foremen of the mill living at the victorians and moved to Main Street in Westport with his daughter. One of those houses is very early, it looks like a 1700s house or early 1800s so the Mill was very active in Colonial times as well. The Saugatuck River moves very fast right there so I am sure the Mill was a wood mill first, and maybe Grist? I would love to know that info. Always wondered. We need to get that old Westport Map online showing the old houses.

  2. Jack Whittle

    Mary –

    The Lees ran the cotton mill operation (powered by a millrace diversion of the Saugatuck that ran from the dam down along the side of where Richmondville Ave now extends past the Lees buildings) since perhaps the founding of Lees Manufacturing Company in 1814. The F.W. Beers 1867 atlas of Westport (the downtown Westport page) shows the home of Thomas R. Lees located on the East side of Richmondville just before it begins to veer to the right and run alongside the mill buildings.

    There was another cotton mill operation just down river, Phoenix Mills, located off of Canal Street between Bridge and Main, served by the long gone Phoenix Ave. Also shown on the F.W. Beers atlas of 1867.

    • Thanks, Jack. That’s the map I was talking about. Is it online anywhere? I just need to buy myself a replacement copy at the Westport Historical Society. Although, I may be dreaming that I bought one there once several years ago. I have never heard of Phoenix Mills or Phoenix Ave. (I wonder if it rose up and then sank?) There had to have been another Lees generation if my parents remember him around 1935. The Mr. Lees my parents remembered must have been the founders’ son or grandson. The old D’Amico House, next to “grandma’s house” at 42 Richmondville, could have been the original dwelling in 1814. That’s how old it looks to me. There’s another house, which may have been a carriage house for the estate, that has a zero lot line fronting on Richmondville just around the corner closer to Main Street, that looks like it’s 200 years old. Fascinating stuff looking at Westport History!! At some point, we should talk about all of the manufacturing along the Saugatuck River and tributaries in Westport.

      • Jack Whittle

        I don’t know if the DW Beers map is online, I have an original of both the full Westport and the expanded downtown Westport pages, taken from one of their New York city and vicinity atlases. Lots of homeowners names, as you know, and the original size makes them easier to read.

        As for Richmondville, there was also a tannery on Richmondville closer to Main Street, alongside that little stream that flows past there from the cemetery.

        I also believe some workers might have lived on Oak Street (which did not connect with Richmondville until recent times but there was a path) and Maplewood, both of these streets show up on maps from the 1830s.

  3. We did a lot of partying and skinny dipping at Lees dam.

  4. Wow, Jack.. I would love to see those.. my real business depends of my knowledge of old homes in the area. In the 60s, my dad bought the oldest house on Maplewood, number 12, the only one that shows up on an earlier map and I think it was built in the 1880s. We sold that in the 80s and that’s when I did a little research on it to put it on the market. I just bet that there was inferior housing along there in the late 1800s that did not withstand wear and tear and were all replaced in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. I bet those were the first tear downs!! The map I saw did have lots but only one or two homes and maybe it was around 1910? Not sure.

    • Jack Whittle

      Mary – A good source of this sort of info (besides old maps, like the D.W. Beers maps and the D.H Hurd maps of 1893, which I also have) is the book published on the centennial of Westport’s incorporation in 1835 – “Westport in Connecicut’s History” – the book lists the 100 houses in town at that time (1935) that survived from before 1835, with each noted on a map with their original and current owner. Pictures of quite a few of these houses are included. You can find this book on eBay every so often. I could certainly lend it to you, I bet they also have it available in repro at the Historical Society.

      As for the Lees Manufacturing Co., that same book says that it was founded in 1814 by John Lees and as of 1935 John A. Lees (4th generation from the founder) was the head of the company. As for your recollection that the head Lees had moved to Main Street, that could be correct – my Westport Tax Directory from 1924 (an amazing source of info) lists individual Lees owning property on Compo Cove (Margaret), Compo Ave (John A.) and a number of buildings on Main Street (John A.) and Main Street again (that one John A. Lees Jr. et. al – a family)

  5. Jack Whittle

    Correction (Dan, can we correct posts yet?) that Tax Directory is from 1945, I transposed the date when I typed it above.

  6. The old Lees House on Main Street is the Italianate Victorian at 257 Main. It’s being restored by the owner. The last Lees in Westport, a woman who never married.. lived there until she was in her 90s.

  7. Jack Whittle

    I have only seen 257 Main St be neglected into a state of irretrievable disrepair. And the Victorian garage too. Saddest thing in all of Westport

  8. It’s being restored.. from the inside out. From what I understand.. a meticulous job.

  9. This history is fascinaing. I own the house at 6 Richmondville which was built in 1920, where the tannery once stood. According to town records, it is the Clark Miller house; I believe Miller may have been the developer who built many (or all) of the Dutch Colonial houses near Lees Mill. Years ago, when I was having a fence installed, it was discovered that there is some sort of old brick structure under the roadside edge of my yard….possibly the remaining foundation of the old tannery..

  10. There’s so much local history to learn. Westport history is very early because of Long Island sound and the Saugatuck River and shipping routes to NY. There had to have been a wood mill at the Mill. At the Cotton Mill, they would get raw cotton from the south and mill it here? Never heard of this. The Mill on Richmondville had to have been some sort of Mill also.. I wonder if they just logs and cut lumber out to Long Island sound originally. Probably, huh? Pam, that is very cool. I bet there are photographs somewhere. And why is it called Richmondville??

    • Mary, thanks for this bit of history of Richmondville Avenue. We moved there when I was 3 to a home that is still standing and not torn down yet and lived there for some years before moving to another house. Richmondville Avenue is where my first memories of life began. It was a great street to grow up on with wonderful neighbors. The family who owned Big Top lived on Short St. and we all played together for many of our early years. We had many games of kick ball and wiffle ball up in the field by Willowbrook. Do you remember the embalming fluid factory down the street on the curve? We all got pretty creeped out riding bikes in the parking lot and I will never forget that smell and the sounds of the machines as long as I live. When did that change? I remember riding bikes many times up by your homes and skating on Lees Dam.

  11. Fascinating part of Westport history — and especially to hear from so many commenters with first-hand and expert knowledge. The thread inspired us at the Y to dig into our archives for more about the history of Lees Pond and Dam. For the record, here’s a brief writeup posted on the Y blog (much of this material was composed some years ago by Allen Raymond):

    • Great info, Scott. And, for those readers who don’t click on the full link above, here’s some interesting info that answers the question “Why is that area of town called Richmondville?”

      According to the Y’s blog: “The steady flows of the Saugatuck River have been used to supply power to early industrial factories since 1815, when Lewis Raymond and David Richmond erected an eight-foot tall dam to help turn out cotton yarn. The complex of factory buildings, workers cottages and the owner’s house came to be called Richmondville.