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Mary Allen’s Historic Mill Pond Bench

Alert “06880” reader — and amateur historian — Wendy Crowther writes:

Mary Riordan Allen grew up on Hillspoint Road, a few houses away from the iconic Allen’s Clam House.

In the early 1900s, Walter “Cap” Allen opened his clam and oyster shack on the banks of Sherwood Mill Pond. The oysters came from beds in the pond and nearby cove. Cap often hand-shucked them himself. Over time he grew Allen’s into a rustic family eatery.

Recently, Mary returned to the property — now the site of the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve. It was a special occasion: to meet her bench.

A year ago, she asked Sherry Jagerson — chair of the preserve committee – how she and her family could contribute to the spot that meant so much to them. (A photo on the plaque — and below — shows Cap Allen holding a baby: Mary’s husband, Walter Allen.)

Captain Walter Allen (far right) with his wife Lida, daughter Beulah, holding his son Walter Ethan Allen (Mary’s future husband). The photo was taken at Allen’s Clam House around 1911.

Several months later, Mary came to Westport from her home in Maine. Sherry, I and other committee members walked the site with her, to pick out the best spot for the Allen family bench.

Mary Allen, at Sherwood Mill Pond.

After returning home, Mary sent me old photos. One showed her son Chris sitting on what may have been the same boulder from decades earlier.

Mary said that Chris loved feeding the swans close to shore. In early spring, they came to the marsh, rebuilt their nest, laid their eggs and raised their cygnets.

Mary Allen’s son Chris, with Sherwood Mill Pond swans.

In high school, Mary clammed at low tide on the mud flats, and sold them to Cap. She also sold horseshoe crabs. He put them in floats where he kept his fresh clams; they kept the water clean.

Cap Allen and his wife Lida, in front of the clam house.

The Clam House and Mill Pond were Mary’s summer playground. She and her friends rented Cap’s handmade rowboats, to catch blue claw crabs and have adventures. They swam at the gates at high tide — a “challenging and dangerous activity” that today she would not allow.

In winter, the pond froze over. The ice skating was wonderful.

Years later — after she married — Mary’s own children enjoyed similar activities. They also ate quite well at Allen’s. After all, she was family.

Cap’s son, Walter Ethan Allen, had a 35-foot ketch-rigged oyster boat. With a shallow draft and long, shallow centerboard and rudders, it was perfect for oystering. For better ballast, Walt asked neighborhood kids to sail with him.

When Walt returned from World War II, he asked Mary — a Staples High School student — to help. Eventually, ballast turned to romance. They married when she was 18. He was 30.

Walt and Mary Allen had 5 children. This photo shows Abigail, their oldest (Cap’s grandchild), in front of the barn that once stood tight against Hillspoint Road on the edge of the Clam House property. The barn was rustic inside, but furnished with a full kitchen and a 2nd-floor loft. Cap used it as a popular summer rental property.

Cap owned a 1934 Ford Phaeton convertible. He drove it to the bank every Monday morning, to deposit the week’s proceeds.

Mary enjoyed hanging out at the clam house. Cap was “quiet but friendly and affable, and had a nice sense of humor.” A cigar smoker, he recovered from throat cancer. In 1954, age 75, he died of arterial sclerosis.

His sons — David and Mary’s husband Walt — tried to keep the business going, hiring help while they held their own jobs. Finally, they decided to run the restaurant only. The Uccellinis — 2 generations of their own family — did a magnificent job too.

Allen’s Clam House was a hugely popular summer place. Over time though, the building wore down. Environmental restrictions made it financially impossible to continue.

The restaurant closed in the mid-1990s. The land was ripe for sale. Developers — hoping to build 3 houses — made lucrative offers. Westporters mourned the loss of what had always been a favorite view. They urged the town to buy the land.

Mary worked closely with First Selectman Diane Farrell, and negotiated a special deal. Though it took many years, the site was eventually rehabilitated by volunteers. It officially opened as a preserve in 2010.

The Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve is one of the most tranquil spots in Westport. (Photo/Katherine Hooper)

For the dedication, Mary’s daughter Bonnie Allen wrote:

A special acknowledgment is due to my mother, Mary Riordan Allen, the last remaining owner of the Allen’s Clam House property. 11 years ago, in the spirit of Captain Allen’s concern for the Mill Pond and its meadows, she turned down high purchase offers from developers in favor of selling the property to the town at a price it could afford.

With generous matching contributions from like-minded Westporters (Paul Newman, Harvey Weinstein and Martha Stewart among them) the town of Westport bought the property, and honored my mother’s wishes that it be preserved in its natural state, dedicated to my grandfather, Captain Walter Dewitt Allen.

Last week, Mary and Bonnie returned to Westport to meet their bench — a gift from Mary and her children. The plaque honors Mary’s husband Walt, who died in 1982, and Bonnie’s son, Sebastian Katz, who died in 2000 at age 20.

Mary and Bonnie Allen, on the family’s bench.

The plaque on the Allen family bench.

Mary’s bench is the one that Sherwood Mill Pond visitors gravitate to most. I suspect that’s because it provides the same views and sense of peace that first drew Cap to this special piece of the Mill Pond, and inspired him to raise a family and a business on its shores.

Thanks to Mary and her family, this site is a wonderful place, where both nature and history are preserved.

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