The Rich History Of Westport’s Poorhouse

Did every old structure in Westport start somewhere else?

Saugatuck Congregational Church, the Birchwood Country Club clubhouse and Bedford Hall at the Westport Woman’s Club are 3 examples.

This coming Monday (May 1, 3 p.m.), Project Return takes the spotlight.

The North Compo Road home — a converted 8-bed farmhouse that since 1983 has housed scores of girls and young women from Westport and surrounding towns — will receive a historic significance plaque.

Project Return, on North Compo Road.

Turns out the building — sitting handsomely but unobtrusively between Little League fields and the Town Farm tennis courts — has quite a history.

It started out in what is now Playhouse Square, nearly 200 years ago.

In 1901 it became the town “poor house.”

More than a century later, it still serves folks in need.

Bob Weingarten — WHS house history chair — says the structure was built in 1824. A decade after that, it became part of the Kemper tannery. In 1930, that land became the Westport Country Playhouse.

In 1864, Charles Kemper Sr. moved it to property he bought from Samuel Gorham on North Compo.

The town of Westport purchased it in 1901, for use as an almshouse. At that point, by renting space in individual homes, we were spending more money on indigents than surrounding towns. Buying the entire farm, including the house of 13 rooms, for $2,750 could save us at least $1,000 a year.

“Town Poor House,” circled on a 1911 map.

In 1927, a man named Alfred Violet — the same person who gave his name to the road off Myrtle Avenue? — found sanitary conditions there “absolutely unbelievable.” Chimneys were crumbling; windows furnished “practically no protection at all against the weather … and the grounds have been used for the past years as a garbage dump.” Approximately 15 children lived there.

It’s uncertain how long the “town farm” operated as a poorhouse. The site was considered for a town garage. From 1975-83 it was rented to James Drought, a noted writer.

After he died, the house deteriorated. Kate McGraw — assistant superintendent of special education for the Westport school system — had the idea to use it as a residence for girls whose parents could not keep them at home.

Renovation $100,000. Many local organizations and individuals contributed funds, labor, materials and furniture.

1st Selectman Bill Seiden championed Project Return. 2nd Selectman Barbara Butler — later named town human services director — helped negotiate a $1-a-year lease.

That contract is still in effect. Project Return pays for all interior and exterior maintenance, and utilities. The town pays for tuition of each girl, while parents pay residential costs.

The safe, nurturing home has helped over 160 girls rebuild their lives. Project Return has evolved with the times — most recently last year, when the state stopped funding group homes for youth. Homes With Hope merged with the organization, ensuring a seamless transition.

Monday’s plaque presentation will include representatives of the town of Westport, Project Return and Homes With Hope, plus Kate McGraw’s daughter Sarah and 2 of James Drought’s children, Hank and Sarah.

It will be a fitting tribute to an important town structure — one that, like so many others, has ended up in a very different place than it began.

Literally.

16 responses to “The Rich History Of Westport’s Poorhouse

  1. Bob Weingarten

    I would like to thank Dan for publishing this article about a building and organization that keeps on giving to the town. We should also be proud that the town is able to provide buildings that can be used for such honorable purposes. I would also like to thank Wendy Crowther for her assistance in research and finding article related to this house.

  2. Tessa Gilmore-Barnes

    Beautiful article! Thank you Dan! And thank you Bob for all your time and dedication to researching the rich history of this house and honoring it’s significance with a plaque!

  3. Linda Gramatky Smith

    Thanks, Bob, for all the research you always do on Westport houses. One additional bit of info: Mabel Batterson Summers, who died on Roseville Road at age 102 (in 2002), always told us that Roseville Road (shown on right in map) was called “Poortown Road” back years ago. Do you know anything about that? It might have been the local name and not on any maps, so that’s why oral history is so important. Linda Gramatky Smith (gone to NJ but still interested in my hometown of 70 years)

  4. I’ve looked into the naming of Roseville Road in the past and here is what I found. Morris Ketchum raised roses at his estate on Cross Highway. if the roses were not perfect he asked his staff to destroy them. But his staff mostly lived on single land dirt road now called Roseville Road. So the name originated from the roses that were planted along its side. When the town enlarged the road to two lane most of the rose plants were destroyed. I was told that there is still a few rose plants still living. I’ve looked for them for years but have not yet been able to find them. So if anyone has seen wild rose plants, please let me know. .

    • when we moved to Roseville Road in 1949 there were a lot of wild roses
      growing along the stone wall by the road and around the well by the dogwood tree. and if you looked up to the left, you could see Oscar
      Levant’s house way up on the hill across the road.

    • Bob, I have loved your story of the naming of Roseville Road. Do you have any dates when it was planted with roses? I presume if Lincoln visited Hockanum, it must have been grand in the mid-1800s. I believe that Mabel Summers heard the story about Poortown Road (it was a dirt road then) from her Brotherton and Batterson relatives, who fought in the Revolutionary War. One Batterson was a smitty with his shop near where McDonald’s is now.

      • An August 1884 New York Sun article describes how a “junkman” was making his rounds through Westport, and purchased bones gathered by “two Batterson boys” who resided in Westport’s “poor-town district.” According to the story, the junkman could identify the origin of the bones (e.g., swine, ox, cow, goat, etc) and was surprised to find a human thigh bone and skull in the pile of bones he bought from the Batterson boys. The skull had a hole between the eyes “as thought it had been made with a bullet.” The boys explained how they collected the bones in the doorways of houses in their neighborhood, but could not recall where they collected the skull and thigh bone. The junkman stopped at Ephraim Osborn’s market, which was on the “west side of the bridge in Westport,” on his way to Norwalk, and recounted the story. The article states that Mr. Osborn explained how his market had been a liquor store at one time, and that – 30 years earlier – shoemaker Robert Raymond of Westport – was last seen in the liquor store and was never heard from again. Mr. Raymond had just received a large sum of money from Mr. Dikeman, a shoe manufacturer from Norwalk. The article surmised that Mr. Raymond was was shot in the liquor store, robbed, and his body was disposed of in “poor-town.” His wife had given birth just three weeks earlier.

  5. Arline Gertzoff

    In the middle fifties perhaps to the early 60’s a family in need lived in the house.Iknow this as the girl was in my class at Bedford Elementary and. Bedford Jr High.There were lots of stories and issues so I will leave out names. One year I went to her birthday party and found her picture in an old yearbook.

  6. John F. (J-period) Wandres

    This piece brought back images from the early 1950s, after I had got my driving license and could explore Westport. I recall the dwellings of the “poor farm” as being white and kinda rundown, and seeing the “poor people” sitting in chairs on the front porch, but not wondering how they got there and why they needed to be there. I guess a lot of folks back in the day also wondered…or maybe they didn’t. How different today — the recognition of the gulf between the have-nots and those who have, and the willingness of those who HAVE, to DO something to help the dis-fortunate people of today get down off whatever ” front porch” that holds them back. Thanks Bob, and Dan.

  7. This story has special meaning to me for several reasons. One is that Kate McGraw was a dear acquaintance of mine. Her instinct to serve this special population, and to do it in this way was brilliant. Additionally, as a Westport history buff and a preservationist, I commend Project Return for the great job they’ve done to preserve this house. It further proves that the best way to preserve a historic structure is to find uses for it. Old houses can provide new life in many ways. They are much like the poor and the young women described in this story; they just need to be given a chance.

  8. I was Treasurer of Project Return for the first eleven years and was very involved in the renovation. It seems like we were always short of funds, but somehow money arrived when it was desperately needed.
    For that — Thank you Westport. I particularly remember the bedroom design up stairs. For safety reasons we had to provide two ways to exit and we had to provide the needed bathrooms for teenage girls. The house is small, but somehow we made it work for seven girls. And we even provided study areas up in the attic.
    The basement was a problem as the entire area was filled with a boulder so large we called it Plymouth Rock. It required a lot of work with a jack hammer to remove that monster. Once it was open you could see the large beams marked with roman numerals. That was how they made sure the beams were properly connected when they moved a house.
    It was nice to know that the results were great. It was a “magic house, where a loving staff, common sense
    rules, and the girls’ own peer pressures turned around so many teen aged lives.
    It was the best thing I have ever done.

  9. Thank you Wally for all you have done for our town!

  10. Bill Boyd (Staples 1966)

    Thanks Dan! A.other great bit of town history.

  11. John F. (J-period) Wandres

    To Wendy and Wally, and others: has anyone tracked the whereabouts of the former residents of the house, and what has become of them? Does anyone know if there have been any “Pay-it-Forward” stories?

  12. Yes, Thanks for the blog post, Dan, and thank you for your research and article in Minuteman, Bob.

    Here is more information on my late father, author James Drought, a resident of the house with our family from 1975 – 1983.

    1) James Drought, American Author – resided at 124 North Compo Road from 1975 – 1983. He died in June 1983.

    2) Here is a link to the James Drought obituary in the New York Times published June 14, 1983: http://www.nytimes.com/1983/06/14/obituaries/james-w-drought-52-writer-ran-own-publishing-comany.html.

    3) In 1969, MGM made our father’s skydiving novel, The Gypsy Moths, into a major motion picture directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman and Deborah Kerr, which opened and broke first week attendance records at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. (In the DVD commentary, director Frankenheimer blamed the movie not achieving greater acclaim at the time due to a management change at MGM during the film’s subsequent nationwide release, although, today, the film is regarded as a classic.) https://www.amazon.com/Gypsy-Moths-Bonnie-Bedelia/dp/B00PVRQF6K/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1493229433&sr=1-1&keywords=the+gypsy+moths+dvd

    4) The James Drought Collection is kept at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University – http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/collection?id=121895.

    5) Some James Drought novels are accessible for FREE in digital versions at: http://www.Drought.com.

    6) Correction: Our father wrote press releases and speeches for the Office of Public Relations for the U.S. Army (not New York City) when he was an 82nd Airborne paratrooper stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

    7) We were allowed to live at the 124 North Compo Road house by the Town of Westport because our family was facing extreme financial difficulties at the time.

    8) In an email to my sister, Sara, Bob Weingarten, architectural historian, mentions that Westporter and friend of ours, Duke Saltus, told him our father may have been “blacklisted” in the McCarthy era: Yes, our father often wondered — and others often claimed — that he was “blacklisted.” However, our father never knew exactly why it was difficult to get his books published and make a living as an author. The books received positive critical reviews. And many may find it strange if he had been “blacklisted,” since, at one time or another, his books were enjoyed by as wide a political spectrum as Senator Bobby and Ted Kennedy and Senator Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr.. It was often difficult for people to pigeonhole my father’s views.

    9) Our father and mother, Lorna Carlson Drought (who died in January 2015), began Skylight Press in 1963 for the purpose of publishing the books themselves, after the books had been rejected by publishers. After the books received positive reviews, and achieved success, selling out on college campus bookstores, Avon paid $30,000 in 1965 for paperback reprint rights to his novel The Secret and later published a paperback version of Mover. Fawcett/Crest published paperback versions of The Gypsy Moths, The Enemy and ii:A Duo. However, there was always some speculation on problems with the distribution of the books and publishing contracts dried up afterward. Regardless, our father continued to write until his death in Westport at the 124 North Compo Road house in 1983, writing and publishing a total of over 15 novels.

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