Jennings Trail Hits A Dead End

When I was in 2nd grade — just days after dinosaurs roamed the Post Road — my Burr Farms Elementary School class took the Jennings Trail tour of Westport.

We hit all the historical sites: Green’s Farms, where the 5 Bankside farmers first settled. Church cemeteries, where all the cool bodies are buried. Tiny Machamux Park, named by a young Sachem called “Chickens.”

The tour was led by Bessie Jennings, the 9th-generation Westporter who created it. To my 2nd-grade eye, she seemed at least 110 years old. She was probably 40.

The Jennings Trail guide, available at the Westport Historical Society.

The Jennings Trail guide, available at the Westport Historical Society.

Generations of elementary school children have since taken the Jennings Trail tour. Most recently, it was 3rd graders. (2nd grade is now devoted to learning calculus, and compiling genome sequencing data.)

I say “most recently” because a while ago the tour morphed into a field trip to Wheeler House, the Westport Historical Society‘s very historic home. Each May, over a span of 2 weeks, 500 3rd graders toured the parlor, dining room, bedroom, kitchen and barn. Specially trained parent docent volunteers (wearing white-collared shirts, long black skirts and black shawls), and Staples High School senior interns (dressed normally), helped out.

At the end of the tour each child got an authentic piece of pound cake, freshly made by a volunteer parent. (That gift ended a couple of years ago; a couple of kids with allergies could not eat pound cake.)

This year though, the WHS field trip has been dropped too.

Long Lots Elementary School prinicpal Rex Jones explains that the social studies curriculum is being revised. Educators are still deciding which grade — K through 5 — is the best place to teach the history of Westport.

I hope a place is found for the WHS field trip. The parent volunteers were trained to not simply give answers, but to get children thinking about a different time, in a place still standing.

Third graders and parent docent volunteers stand happily outside the Wheeler barn.

Third graders and parent docent volunteers stand happily outside the Wheeler barn.

Ideally, the Jennings Trail tour will return too. There is so much to see and learn in Westport — tiny Adams Academy schoolhouse on North Morningside; stately Green’s Farms Church, a major meetinghouse in colonial days; the bridges that connected two sides of an important river.

Teaching kids modern-day skills is very important. But so is teaching them skills so they can examine the past.

Otherwise, they can never move forward.

25 responses to “Jennings Trail Hits A Dead End

  1. I’m with you, Dan. I hope the whole tour gets restored. I still haven’t had the tour myself, and will do it next time there’s an opportunity! Catherine Onyemelukwe,

  2. Great piece, Dan. Westport has such a great history. I paid attention during that field trip too. Kids are only going to care about history if they understand that History is simply stories about us. How much more “us” can you get than what happened here in Westport? There’s so much more colorful local history to discover..but for goodness sakes, let’s let the kids discover what we already know that happened to “us” even if they just got here.

  3. Thanks for that good PR about Jennings Trail, Wheeler House visit, etc. Let’s hope our educators get their act together soon so our kids can have some first-hand experiences with Westport history. The brochure that Dan mentions is for sale at the Historical Society gift shop. Families can do a drive-around tour on their own–at least to see from the outside the places mentioned. And WHS offers certain walking tours of Westport areas. Check the website––for information.

  4. Joyce Barnhart

    Katie and I were in the WYWL at the same time and I was a Jennings Trail docent when they were recruited from the League many years ago. It was lots of fun to ride around town with a busload of 2nd Graders, but it was even more fun to learn some of Westport’s history. For example – The British landed at Compo during the Revolutionary War. So why is the Minute Man facing away from the beach? I think Westport realtors could do a real service to the town and offer the tour once or twice a year. I know I’d enjoy taking it again, and newcomers could really enjoy it,

    • Joyce.. what a great idea.. I volunteer!! Let me see what I can do!

      • The 1st Annual “Westport’s Magical History Tour” is being born as we speak. I think it should start with a beach tour.. including Longshore and Old Mill, and include some of the historic house stories. It will probably be a walking tour for those capable and perhaps a van for those who can’t walk distances. Coincidentally, I have a lot of beach research done already! (but I literally know almost nothing about the 1777 Raid on Danbury that landed at Compo) Some “Longshore Stories” can be found on my website already. Joyce,.. sounds like it will be fun, no??

    • THANKS, Joyce. The answer (as I remember it) is that the statue commemorates the colonists’ ambush/fight against the British as they marched BACK from Danbury, headed to their ships offshore. The battle was at what we now call Minuteman Hill. Right?

  5. Wonderful column, Dan.

    Sent from my iPhone

  6. Rindy Higgins

    Also, since it is the centennial year for our state parks, an archaeological study is going at Sherwood Island State Park with plans to develop a history trail. I was imaging guided tours with costumed leaders. I was recently considering a discussion with officials about adding this on to the 3rd grade local field trip; so there goes that idea, at least until it gets re-instated. Though a driving tour is educationally better than only reading about history in books, there is no replacement for taking part in a hands-on re-enactment experience to bring the past alive. That’s probably why several of you including Dan remember it so well. Time will tell. Hopefully the experiential field trip will be transferred to a particular grade level and not become something of the past.

  7. Melissa Cahn

    As the mom of a fourth grader and second grader (who also happens to be a chaperone in your photo), I’m absolutely disgusted to learn that they’ve “put on hold” these amazing field trips. I was lucky to chaperone two of the three visits last year and learned just as much as the inquisitive third graders in my group. I suppose taking away recess is next on the list as they try to suss out how THAT fits into the CORE curriculum too.

  8. Joyce Barnhart

    You’re right, Dan. The British had marched to Danbury to burn the munitions stored there and the Minute Men attacked them on their way back to the ships. I think the locals were alerted by tar burned in barrels on Tar Rock Road(?), which were also used as beacons for ships on the Sound. There are burial markers in the patch of ground between the regular sidewalk and the riverside (creekside?) path behind the statue, on the right. I forget who’s buried there – Westporters or Brits. My most favorite factoid gleaned from the Trail is that the name of our beach comes from the local Native American word “compaug”, meaning “bears’ fishing ground’.

    • I think the Brits are buried in that small cemetery on Compo Beach Road (opposite Quentin Road), and the Minutemen are buried in the one on the Longshore golf course exit road. Or the other way around!

  9. Joyce Barnhart

    Mary Palmieri Gai – That would be super!

  10. I would like to suggest another addition to the curriculum with respect to local history: the documentary, “A Gathering of Glory,” about the wonderful arts legacy in Westport and Weston. I’m not sure what grade level this would be suited for but I think students would find this of interest–and they would learn a lot. (For one thing, I learned from the film that Sinclair Lewis was living in Westport when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. And the film covers an array of people in the arts: writers, actors, musicians, painters, etc, all with some connection to Westport and Weston.)

  11. You’ve hit a raw nerve with me on this one, Dan.

    Perhaps if we all appreciated this rich historical environment in which we live, really appreciate it — and look upon ourselves more like curators of the past (which is becoming more fragile as our society surges forward), we may be not only enlightened, more respectful, and less apt to make some of the mistakes we’ve made before.

  12. Sarah K. Herz

    When I taught 9th grade at Bedford Jr. High(I’m really dating myself!), we read The Hessian by Howard Fast which is a historical novel that traces the route of the Hessian soldiers from Compo Beach to Ridgefield. Annette Silverstone, chair of the English dept, interviewed Howard
    fast about the historical facts and we chartered a bus to trace the route of the Hessian soldiers from the mouth of the Saugatuck River to Ridgefield. We toured The Keeler Tavern w/a docent who shared the story of the siege between the Colonists and the British who hired the Hessian soldiers. Our ninth graders seemed to enjoy this imagined historical trip and it certainly made the novel more meaningful.

    We should not abandon any of the trails or historical buildings that enrich our students’ lives. We are so fortunate to have access to these historical markers in our community. A sense of history is more important than dovetailing into a precise curriculum…let’s emphasize an awareness of our history and its meaning in a student’s life.

    Sarah K. Herz

  13. After just a quick look, I was able to locate the 3rd Grade Social Studies “Curriculum Map” as published on the Westport Public Schools’ website.

    The Map Skills unit quite clearly states “[t]his unit lays the foundation for further investigations about Westport and other communities in the United States or the world.”

    My third grader’s teacher tells me that in their new social studies unit, the students indeed are studying Westport History, and that the Wheeler House tour would be more relevant this year than it has ever been in years past.

    Even if the curriculum is being revised it would seem that someone has acted too quickly in eliminating the Wheeler House tour this year, when it has demonstrated relevance to the curriculum that is currently in place and being taught in the third grade classrooms.

    As we back in to the new “core” approach to Social Studies, which emphasizes a thematic approach, rather than rote memorization of historical facts, it can fairly be argued that instilling children with an understanding of the historical development of their hometown provides them with a valuable bedrock for comparing, contrasting and comprehending other communities’ approach to modernization and progress, economies and economic shifts. (SEE! I was too paying attention in that 7th Grade Pod meeting today!)

    I hope that there is latitude for this decision to be reconsidered and reversed ASAP, and that this beloved and important field trip is reinstated this spring.

  14. Mary Maynard

    Perhaps if we ALL took the tour and learned to love the history of this town, we would stop tearing down 1830 houses and would preserve the buildings that charm us. Will the 10,000 square-footers ever charm anyone?

  15. I vividly remember some of the stops on the Jennings Trail field trips. I recall it was during the fall because following the field trip we studied local Indian tribes and why we celebrate Thanksgiving. Another local field trip was to an icon artist James Earle Fraser’s studio and home – very memorable experience viewing some of the sculptures.

  16. Steven McCoy

    As a fellow traveler on that bus many years ago, I have great memories of that field trip. And you are right, Bessie Jennings was AT LEAST 110!

  17. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    Interesting that the Italianate Wheeler House began as a saltbox style.
    Quite the renovation! Any surviving saltbox homes?

  18. There’s are a few saltboxes that survive. One on the corner of Kings Highway North and Woodside and one Crescent Road pop into my head… but they are rare, indeed.