Dorothy E. Curran has lived in Westport since 1977. She has served on the boards of the Westport Library (trustee; co-chair, River of Names community capital campaign) and Westport Woman’s Club (past president, chair/co-chair, many Yankee Doodle Fairs).
She is also — most importantly for this story — a Westport Historical Society past president, chair or co-chair of 5 Holiday House Tours, and co-curator of multiple exhibits, including the original “Cover Story: The New Yorker in Westport.”
This morning, Dorothy reacts to the news that the Westport Museum for History & Culture — formerly the Westport Historical Society — changed the name of its main gallery. It previously honored the Sheffer Family, for their contributions of funds and time. It is now named for a new donor, Daniel Offutt. Dorothy writes:
No one needs to be a member of a historical society, pay annual dues, contribute to annual giving, volunteer to support its educational work, catalog its collections, staff its fundraisers, buy tickets to those same fundraisers, or then buy back donated auction items.
Yet in Westport for more than a century, many have done just that, and some have done even more: leaving substantial bequests to the Westport Historical Society’s modest endowment in their wills or contributing major capital to the campaigns that purchased the historic Bradley-Wheeler property, restored the rare heptagonal cobblestone barn, refurbished (what used to be) the period rooms, built the underground climate-controlled archive and constructed the exhibit gallery addition.
The Westport Historical Society was a people-friendly place with a devoted shoestring staff and intelligent, enthusiastic members and volunteers who contained the costs and raised the funds to keep it going. Most of them grew up somewhere else, but after moving here (Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman among them) were drawn to the WHS by the energy, camaraderie and front-row seats to the remarkable story of how this amazing little (population 25,000) coastal 06880 Zip Code came to be.
How was it that Westport grew from the Pre-Contact era through the Puritan Colonial era, the farming, fishing and maritime commerce eras, the American Revolution, the War of 1812 embargo, the rise of small manufacturing, the market boat (local produce to NYC) era, the 1835 formation of the town, the building of the Maine to Georgia (and, in particular, the last piece: New York to New Haven) railroad, the onion (supplying Grant’s troops during the Civil War) and apple farming eras, the 20th century arrival of the nation’s leading artists, illustrators, writers, actors and performing artists, the 20th century leadership in breaking “the gentleman’s agreement” and other discriminatory practices, the building of Westport’s link in I-95 (Maine to Florida), the welcoming of the (United Nations) world through “jUNe Day,” ground-breaking models (like Save the Children and Newman’s Own) for social entrepreneurship, and now, in the 21st century, to providing a base for everyone from hedge fund managers to a burgeoning farmer’s market, from a humongous annual Maker Faire to Interfaith Housing and Homes With Hope, from the Westport Country Playhouse to pop-up art shows, from early adopters of front-line climate change resistance technology to the vigilant volunteers who staff the Historic District Commission?
It’s an amazing saga for a small, but nationally and globally influential town, and the primary place for the public to access this story, told in “chapters,” through exhibits and programs, has long been the Sheffer Gallery of the Westport Historical Society. When the WHS membership purchased the Italianate (built over the original saltbox) Bradley-Wheeler House, it had very limited exhibit and gathering space, and the financial burden of acquiring and refurbishing the antique home for WHS use had left many wallets thin.
The Sheffer family was in a position to help with a major, restricted gift: If the WHS accepts our capital, the new construction will be named, in perpetuity, “The Sheffer Gallery.”
An action that relies on a promise is a contract.
The Westport Historical Society gratefully agreed.
The organization’s recent name change does not give it license to break faith with its past contracts, nor would that be a wise choice for an institution committed, through the benevolence of donors, to preserving the memory of how today’s Westport came to be.