All You Ever Wanted To Know About Coleytown, But Never Knew To Ask

Mary Gai is many things: an alert “06880” reader. A realtor. A lover of Westport history.

Those 3 elements come together in her fascinating story about the Coleytown neighborhood:

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw 277 North Avenue in the early 1980s. But I immediately knew I was looking at history.

Standing hundreds of feet from any road, the dramatic lines of the 1740s saltbox — constructed to avoid taxes the King of England imposed on 2-story houses — had not changed since it was built.

Amazingly, it still exists today — along with a carriage house, barn and surrounding acreage. The fact that it does is due to a series of little miracles. The first was that James Earle Fraser and Laura Gardin Fraser bought sizable chunks of Coleytown starting in 1914, including this property.

James Earle Fraser, at work on a bust of Theodore Roosevelt in his Westport studio.

James Earle Fraser, at work on a bust of Theodore Roosevelt in his Westport studio.

Westport would not be Westport if not for the Frasers.  They were the most famous residents of Westport ever (according to his 1953 obituary). The 1st polo games ever in Westport were held on their property. A year later they founded The Fairfield County Hunt Club.

They were also among the founders of the Westport Beach Club (now known as Longshore), and Shorehaven Country Club.

These politically active, internationally famous sculptors attracted to Westport a dizzying array of internationally famous visitors, including both Roosevelt first ladies, Edsel Ford, the Harvey Firestones, the Mayos, Averell Harriman, the George Patton family, famous poets, architects, writers, activists and philanthropists. Three-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson lived with them in Westport for 15 years.

Public records reveal that the Frasers intentionally purchased property to keep their neighborhood quiet enough for their creativity. They then sold some land to other artists, effectively founding Westport’s famous artists colony.

Former Fraser student and famous sculptor Lila Wheelock Howard and her illustrator husband Oscar bought the old mill and barn on Coleytown Road in 1919. Kerr Eby, world-famous artist and pacifist, bought the Coley homestead from the Frasers in 1923, just a few hundred feet from the Fraser studios. The property that he named “Driftway” became the inspiration for many of his etchings (still sold today). He lived in his beloved old saltbox for the rest of this life.

Water was an important part of the property, for many reasons.

Water was an important part of the property, for many reasons.

Heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune Ward Thorne and his wife Judith bought Driftway from the Eby estate in 1949. They lived there for the rest of their lives as well. To insure that the property be taken seriously by historians, they donated it to the Antiquarian & Landmarks society.

The current sellers are true heroes of preservation. They stabilized and restored the magnificent saltbox, insuring that it will “live on” with its 5 working fireplaces, chestnut beams, floors and gorgeous woodwork. A family addition echoes the saltbox form, and adds functionality for today. They also purchased the old mill and barn to reunite the property and the main building components, which now includes 3 antique homes, 2 barns and 10.5 acres of the original farm homestead.

277 North Avenue today. The original lines of the 1740s saltbox still remain.

277 North Avenue today. The original lines of the 1740s saltbox still remain.

The area is called “Coleytown” because of the Coley family. They farmed their land for 200 years, and had quite a sophisticated operation. Fresh water from the Aspetuck River helped grow grapes, flax, corn, onions and other crops.

The Coley wharf was located on the Saugatuck River just south of Gorham Island. Produce — including grain processed at the Coley mill — was transported on the Coley’s sloop “Nancy” to New York and Boston on a regular basis.

The c.1760 gristmill — replaced by steam power — became a cotton mill by 1840. Batting produced from Southern cotton was sent to manufacturers to fill the need for textiles in Northeastern cities. A piece of cotton mill apparatus still hangs from the barn rafters, and an original millstone decorates the riverfront landscape. A footbridge and waterfall create a gorgeous, unspoiled landscape.

The original mill house.

The original mill house.

The Frasers and 4 other owners of this property not only preserved the antique buildings and land along the Aspetuck River. They also preserved the largely forgotten village center, first called “Coley Ville.”

The mill and converted barn on Coleytown Road were the center of the little village. It included a small green, schoolhouse, shoemaker, blacksmith, yarn manufacturer, horse stables, 5 Coley homesteads, and probably a couple of other shops.

The original Coley homestead.

The original Coley homestead. (All photos courtesy of Mary Gai)

Today, the former village gristmill, barn and the Coley homestead are looking for new stewards. Let’s hope they preserve the character of this special neighborhood — one that has endured even longer than our nation itself.

(For much more information on the property, click here; then follow the “Driftway” links on the left.)

31 responses to “All You Ever Wanted To Know About Coleytown, But Never Knew To Ask

  1. Thanks for this, Dan. I moved to Westport in 1949. We only moved away 8 years ago, but these articles you post are one important link to the town we grew up in and raised our two kids in, sent them to fine Westport schools and got them a very good start in life. There are oh so many stories to tell about our years in Westport. You are doing your part to find them, tell them, and keep them alive. Again, thanks.

  2. Clark Ruff '68

    This is fascinating history that makes me appreciate what was here before us. I did know that James Earle Fraser had lived here but I wasn’t aware of his impact on The Hunt Club, Longshore, and Shorehaven. I only knew of his accomplishments as a sculptor including the Buffalo/Indian Head nickel that went in to circulation in 1913, and the sculpture “End of the Trail” of a slumping Indian on a tired horse.

    • He and his wife Laura Gardin Fraser were very prolific. JE has monumental sculptures all over the world. Laura was a horsewoman and bought some fine horses to ride but mostly to use as models for her sculptures. As the story goes, Averell Harriman gave her a polo stick as a gift and she started knocking a ball around just for fun. They started to have matches just for fun.. and then it got more serious with lots of people coming to watch the first polo matches ever played in Westport on the North Avenue property…. and a year later, 1924, the three couples (the Ebys, Howards and Frasers) did some fund raising and the land was bought for the Hunt Club.

  3. I piece of history about our former neighborhood

    >

  4. Mary, do you know how much acreage the Coley family owned and how far it extended? Dan had written an 06880 story about Jeff Wilkins’ grandfather, who bought 24 acres in 1912: http://06880danwoog.com/2012/04/16/domenico-castiglia-frank-costello-and-sundial-farm-photos-tk/

    The Castiglia/Wilkins property went all the way down to Lyons Plains Road. I have fond memories of playing with Jeff in the enormous open field and also of the beauty of the woods and stream. It is indeed a beautiful section of town.

    • Coley Road off of Lyons Plains is an indicator. It’s was pretty vast originally. It could have gone all the way to Weston Road where the Weston Coley Homestead was. It’s the same family.

    • And I am not positive but I saw the Castiglias and the Frasers on the same transaction but it could have been for granting electricity to come to that area of town.

  5. linda (pomerantz) novis

    Having grown up near North Ave-Lyons Plain Rd.,Weston area,early 1960’s,I do
    remember Henry Coley’s North Ave.house (he a mailman-I think?-for Weston-Easton back then?; his son,Billy Coley -grade-school friend of my brother,(Jeff Pomerantz) growing up in Weston.I remember going to their house in the woods off the twisting curves of North Ave.; on their property there- an old desolate stone foundation & chimney of an older house once there-this had since burned down there years before,my mom always told us…(& this probably a Mc Mansion,there,these days,but growing up back then it was interesting to me!!)
    This all interesting to read-thanks!!

    • Wow, great info. There was a Henry W. Coley who had the “Honey House” where he kept Bees on Coleytown Road. Across from him was The Mary Coley House is where the large barn and stables were for the original homestead. The Coley family extended way into Weston. The area of North Ave and Coleytown Road was Weston and before that both the Westport and Weston areas were all Fairfield. The Coley family who lived in the house at 277 North attended Norfield Church and that area was considered part of Norfield Parish. There’s another Mill that the Coley’s owned which is still there on River Road in Weston. And they may have owned Cobb’s Mill back in the day also. I bet some of the Coley’s who still live in the area.. I think there are some.. have more old photos of Mill on Coleytown Road. Next time you’re out walking in the area.. stop by the Jennings trail sign next to the bridge. It talks about Fraser and Eby and Mill and mentions the 5 Coley Homesteads. 277 is the original (oldest) one.

      • I am a Coley who still lives in the area. It is great to read this history of my ancestors. There might be some old photos around the house somewhere. My grandparents, John and Ethel Coley,
        owned the house at 1 Evergreen Avenue. Unfortunately it is no longer owned by my family.

        • Debbieeeeeee!! You might have old photos around the house somewhere?? I am just a little excited about that!! Please feel free to scan what you’ve got and send them to me. I knew this would happen. Where do you live now? Are there other Coley’s with photos of the old homestead and the mill and other stuff?? Those would be a real treasure. Feel free to contact me anytime!

          • jennysherman68

            It might take a long time to find them, if there are any. My dad was a pack rat, and so am I. Most of the elder Coleys have passed away.

            • Don’t be shy.. when you find them, please contact me. It’s a huge piece of Westport History that’s waiting to be augmented. The Coleys were one of the very first settlers in this area. We’re talking 1600s!! Fascinating stuff! Just imagine how they were dressed.. Like Puritans!

            • Debbie do you think you could email me? I have a couple of questions for you. For one question, did you ever hear about Paul Revere and the Coley family? It’s highly likely they knew each other.. David or his son Michael or both. They were going from Boston to Westport and from Westport to New York all the time. My email is MaryGai@bhhsne.com Thanks!!

  6. Juliana Sloane Fulbright

    Juliana Sloane Fulbright

  7. Juliana Sloane Fulbright

    What a fascinating history. The Sloane’s , my family, were only here since the 1920’s but my grandfather photographed many of the old houses for the WPA. My father did histories of old houses in CT. I thought I was one of the few to know that the saltbox was designed to save taxes. If a story of a house has a slanted ceiling it was considered attic. Therefore a saltbox could only be taxed on the first floor.
    Westport was heaven in the 50’s and 60’s it must have been even more so in earlier times

    • How cool Juliana!! I have seen so many of your grandfather’s photos. He was a fine photographer!! The king also taxed glass so that’s why the windows and panes were so small. If you’ll notice on the old saltbox photo, three windows are all in the same vertical line going up to very top which historians find significant. I just saw another one like that in Stratford the other day. And the Shilthuis house (originally Meeker) on 178-184 Cross Highway also has that same fenestration and is the same vintage as 277 North. North, Cross, and one on Kings Highway (probably the on the corner of Woodside) has that same configuration too and are singled out in a source I found in the library.

  8. Great story, Dan – and Mary, thanks for the beautiful and evocative historic images. This perfectly underscores the notion that, in a very real sense, dwellings become repositories for our social history. By their very presence, they lend context to our lives. At its core, that is the premise behind preservation. In this instance, we have a rich fabric of 18th, 19th and 20th century narratives that, taken together, help explain much about the people who shaped this community – beginning with their basic relationship to the land itself. That’s something I wish certain individuals on the third floor of 110 Myrtle Avenue would take to heart. While at times these days they appear to walk in the dark, one can always hope.

  9. I must share a quote I saw of James Earle Fraser. “It used to be that you could buy a whole farm in Westport for $600. Now, you’re lucky if you can get a whole acre for that” And as an aside, my parents bought a little over an acre in 1943 on North Main Street for 800 dollars. They used the proceeds from their Christmas club to buy it. HA!!

    • You can all see pictures of the main house and it’s carriage house along with the old Mill and barn, with all of their charm on http://MaryGai.com/driftway The first four pages of the site are dedicated these properties. There is more cool history there. Kerr Eby is someone who should be studied more in depth. Peace was his passion. He noted that there was nothing so fierce as the maternal instinct protecting her young and so he called on women to not let their sons go to war. And adding to the theme of peace and love, Ram Dass, one of the founders of the new age movement visited the Thornes many times in the 70s. I don’t know if I’ll ever find that Paul Revere was at 277 North Ave House which was a story that was told to me when I visited there in 1981. We know Revere was in Fairfield (which this was before it was Westport) And we know the Coley’s went back and forth by sloop from Westport to Boston and New York on a Regular basis. And I am sure they took passengers back and forth.

  10. Pardon me while I race to the store to buy some lottery tickets.

  11. Regarding so many of these important stories, photos would be enhanced by a map, if possible, for an ex-pat’s memory.

  12. Thanks for these wonderful insights into my old hometown

  13. How long before a developer comes in and divides this into three acre parcels?

  14. http://marygai.com/i_love_local_history Here’s a link very cool photo of where everything was. It’s a 1934 aerial shot.

  15. Thank you for this wonderful historical article, Dan! In the early 60’s I recall field trips from Burr Farms Elementary, and Camp Mohackeno to tour the Fraser studio, learn about the local history, and meet/greet Laura Gardin Fraser.

    • I read about the Westport School children’s field trips to his house in JE Fraser’s obituary. How nice it is that Laura continued that tradition after he was gone. I am blown away that someone remembers that and pleasantly surprised it went on past 1953 which was the year JE Fraser died. She died in 1966. I was told how unbelievable the studio was. Built to be able to withstand the weight of tons of marble and with a platform to accept the stone directly from the trucks that delivered it. That aerial shot (link above) showed the circular drive that went up to his studio for the trucks.

  16. Great story and pictures, Dan and Mary. I knew Lila Howard as a kid and up to her death – she’d been a great friend of my grandparents. In fact, we took on her dog when she passed away (a very smart mutt who learned her way from our house to the Westport Bank & Trust’s drive thru window on her own because she’d learned they they gave out dog bones from riding there with dad.) What fun memories these stories dredge up.