A.E. Hotchner: Westport Till The Cows Come Home

A.E. Hotchner — the author and philanthropist who died on Saturday at 102 — was a true Westporter. He moved here in 1953, and — with fellow resident Paul Newman — helped create both Newman’s Own foundation and the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Many Westporters knew him through his other passion: tennis. 

In 1986, he wrote a piece about our town for the New York Times. “06880” reader Dick Seclow received it from a friend, and sent it along. Thirty-three years ago, Hotchner said:

WHEN I first came to Westport in the 50’s, it was referred to as ”going to the country.” I rented a primitive little cabin for $300 for the summer, and as far as I was concerned, confined as I had been for most of my young life to the unforgiving streets of St. Louis and New York, Westport was indeed ”country.”

There were shops run by stonemasons and welders and old-fashioned hardware stores with bins of nails that were sold by the scoopful. Greenberg’s on Main Street sold ”notions” (a wonderful word that has gone the way of the pterodactyl), and on Main Street, too, there was a butcher shop where sides of beef hung on hooks and the butcher wore a straw boater, and a fish store that sold fish that had been unloaded from fishing boats that very morning. There was even a blacksmith who would make a grate for you in his forge that would precisely fit your fireplace.

Main Street in 1962 — nearly a decade after A.E. Hotchner moved to Westport.

On the Post Road was Rippe’s vegetable stand, bins heaped with vegetables grown on farmland behind the stand, and crisp apples picked from Rippe’s own orchards. In fact, Rippe operated an old-fashioned cider mill in full view, and the foamy, amber juice that spilled down the trough was sold to the customers right on the spot. I once bought a wooden barrel full of Rippe’s cider, deceived by the barrel’s compact shape into severely underestimating the quantity of its contents. As Thanksgiving gave way to the wintry gusts of December, the spigot of the barrel unceasingly yielded its golden contents that imperceptibly matured, climaxing in a drunken Christmas revel.

After a few years, I forsook my cabin (with some regret) for a grand, Normandy house that I couldn’t afford and still can’t afford. It was straddled by a wheat field on one side and a meadow on the other that yielded fraises de bois if you were willing to crawl along the ground, searching for the tiny, red fruit hidden under the leaves of the plant. I did, on the conviction that whatever you had to do to obtain a bowl of freshly picked fraises de bois was well worth the crawling.

But of all the country pleasures of Westport, none for me was greater than watching the vast herd of black and white Guernsey cows grazing on the emerald pastures of the Nyala Farm, which was located in the Greens Farms section of town, adjacent to the turnpike exit, so that as I arrived on Friday, the woes of the past New York week clinging to me, the first thing I saw as I hit Westport was this Turner landscape filled with magnificent Guernsey cattle.

Nyala Farm (Robert Vickrey painting, courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

The farmhouse, constructed of old New England stone, strongly evoked an English countryside in the cows’ native Guernsey. And every morning, Mike Ferris of the Ferris Dairy delivered a couple of quarts of Guernsey milk, a thick layer of cream extending all the way down the neck and into the shoulder of the bottle. No milk ever tasted like that before or since.

I can’t tell you precisely when the country started to go out of Westport. It didn’t happen just like that, but one after the other, Greenberg’s notions, the authentic hardware stores, the shop of the stonemason, the smithy, the butcher shop and the fishmonger were replaced by Ann Taylor, Laura Ashley, Aca Joe and the Banana Republic. Rippe’s vegetable stand and the fertile, verdant fields that had grown the cauliflower, tomatoes, corn and strawberries, became a packed enclave of condominiums.

But the day I knew the country had irrevocably gone out of Westport was when I made that turn off the turnpike from New York, expecting as always to be solaced by the balming sight of that lovely Guernsey herd, but the herd had vanished – not a single Guernsey cow, a herd that had been grazing that lush, hilly meadow only a week before. Nyala Farms had been bought out by the Stouffer [sic — Stauffer] Chemical Company, and the building where once the Guernseys had been quartered and milked and calved was now occupied by people engaged in the business of dispensing chemicals, many of them, I was sure, antipathetic to the very meadows where the Guernseys once roamed. And, of course, Mike Ferris never came to our door again.

The Nyala Farm office complex. Its 2020 tenants include the Bridgewater hedge fund.

In what I can only think of now as a gesture of angry defiance, I plowed under my wheat field and built a tennis court on the meadow that had nurtured the shy fraises de bois. It was all over, wasn’t it, so why not the coup de grace? The hell with it. Westport had become an extension of New York. Main Street was riddled with Madison Avenue shops. Burger King, Beefsteak Charlie’s, Shoe Town, Waldenbooks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Hallmark Cards, Sam Goody – name it, it was here or on the way. Real-estate developers outnumbered the gypsy moths.

I never again referred to Westport as ”going to the country.”

Never, that is, until Murray McMurray came into my life. I don’t know who suggested that he get in touch with me, but I am forever indebted to my anonymous benefactor. Murray McMurray sent me a letter and a brochure from his hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. On the cover of the brochure were two of the most exotic chickens I had ever laid eyes on, identified as Dark Brahmas, and on the inside cover was a picture of Murray himself, with a Black Giant hen sitting on his shoulder.

Until that moment, apart from a restaurant menu, I had never thought much about chickens, one way or another. But as I marveled over the grace and beauty of what Murray called his Rarest of Rare Breeds -huge, plump Cochins with thick feathers all the way down their legs and feet to the ground, Crevecoeurs native to Normandy, Silver Gray Dorkings bred by the Romans and brought by them to Britain, Phoenix and Yokohamas, ancient breeds that roam Japan’s Imperial Gardens, graceful, long-tailed Sumatras indigenous to the island of Sumatra, cinnamon-colored Cubalayas from Cuba, a very rare breed, La Fleche, from France, Chanteclers, natives of Quebec – page after page of beauties that I’m sure Frank Perdue wouldn’t recognize.

A Westport chicken coop — though not A.E. Hotchner’s.

A local carpenter built a little henhouse for me and I sent away for the Sears Farm Catalogue, from which I ordered a cluster of nest units in which my rarest of rare could lay their eggs, a feeder, a waterer, buckets, scoops and all the other wonderful paraphernalia that a chicken fancier needs. I sent my order to Murray McMurray and awaited the arrival of my day-old chicks.

Murray McMurray has indeed put the country back into Westport for me. Those baby chicks have grown into the most wondrous creatures you can imagine. What do I care if Roy Rogers is building a wretched, fast-food outlet on the nearby Post Road, when I can go out in the henhouse in the morning and take a couple of warm eggs from under an obliging Lakenvelder or Dominique for my breakfast? Last Easter, my son didn’t have to dye any eggs because the Araucanas lay turquoise, blue and green eggs. And for the information of misguided jokers, the Polish hens are not dumb clucks but very austere ladies who wear large round bonnets of feathers.

I wake in the morning now to the muted sound of a Cochin rooster’s strutful cry. I know I’m in the country. No mistaking it.

(Click here for the link to the story in the Times‘ archives.)

25 responses to “A.E. Hotchner: Westport Till The Cows Come Home

  1. And all the stores and restaurants he mentioned, as well as Stauffer Chemical, are gone.

  2. Mary Cookman Schmerker

    What a trip down memory lane. I also remember all the places he mentioned.
    In fact, gracing our fireplace is a pair of andirons that were repaired for my Grandmother and my sister has a pair that were repaired for our mother.
    A.E. Hotchner captured my childhood and young adult life perfectly.

  3. Virginia McCleary

    The irony of it all is that most of the sell out of Westport has come from its own residents. Look at ‘Bedford Square’…jammed right into beautiful downtown like a mall dropped from the sky!

    • I disagree, Virginia. The architecture of Bedford Square mirrors the original Y. It replaces the really gross concrete “Weeks Pavilion” part of the Y that was built in 1978, and displaced some nice buildings there. Bedford Square has brought life and energy to that stretch of Church Lane, I think.

  4. Judith Marks-White

    Dan,

    Such a marvelous trip down Memory Lane served up to us by way of you, Dick Seclow and A.E. Hotchner. Thanks for brightening my morning, as I pour store-bought milk over my cereal, and think fondly of the good old Westport days.

    Judith Marks-White

    Sent from my iPhone

    >>

  5. Well that brought tears to my eyes – what a great walk down memory lane.
    The diner, Ships Lantern, great bakery and kind policeman in the center of town…

  6. Linda Pomerantz Novis

    Beautiful writing,
    RIP,Hotch…

  7. Arline Gertzoff

    As a kid the Sunday treat was drive over to Nyala farm with a few old 🥕 The beautiful cows would come over to the fence and munch the carrot Our rallying cry was Eu a Moo Moo.We too thought we were out in the country.Does anybody remember Lanco Farm on Main Street?Sign had a picture of a sheep.My favorites were the 5 cent coke at BenFranklin’s lunch counter and every Friday night a chocolate cake from Marvel’s bakery.Those were the days to savor and remember.

  8. Thanks…

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  9. A true ode to simpler times!

  10. What a great article. Thanks for posting that, Dan. Simpler times, slower pace, and more appreciation for quality of life. Indeed, chickens are beautiful animals, and it made for even more of a feel good story to read of Mr. Hotchner’s admiration for them. Unfortunately, we raise and slaughter 9 billion of them every year in America alone, that’s almost 17.5 million a week, so it was refreshing to read of someone extolling their virtues as living sentient beings, and not as BBQ fare.

  11. A tip of the hat to Mike Ferris of Ferris Dairy! Great guy and a pleasure knowing him. RIP

  12. Thanks Dan for the

    terrific story. Ed was such a great writer. My family’s story parallels Ed’s though not as eloquently told. My parents rented a small home in Westport in 1947 and moved to Westport permanently in 1948. Westport was our home town. My father passed in 1981 and my mother in 2007. I live in California now but Westport, especially the Westport of 50+ years ago is hard in my memories.

  13. This Essay should be cherished for all that is gone out of Westport but at least we can still have the glimpse of how Westport once was ……

  14. That was fun to read. Thanks so much Dan..

  15. Tom Duquette, SHS '75

    For those of us of a certain age this piece hits home. The town was a very special place back then to grow up in. Sadly nothing stays the same. Thanks Dan for sharing this with your readers.

  16. Reading/savoring every word of this piece is the heart balm I needed this morning. Thank you, Dan.

  17. Michael Calise

    Great Piece. Left out was that A E Hotchner had a spectacular flock of beautiful Peacocks in addition to his flock of chickens. The Westport we all knew growing up is gone forever and it can never be replaced except in the heart or mind. There isn’t a person in this world who can convince me we are in a better place except for the many wonderful people who have relocated here.

  18. Connie Bentley

    This piece reawakened so many wonderful memories. That milk from Ferris Dairy really resonated with me. Such an eloquent piece about such an extraordinary time in our town.

    • I still have a Ferris Dairy insulated milk box which they provided for customers. Ferris delivered the milk to your doorstep and put it in the box to stay cool. A bottle of milk had cream on top which we poured off and used for coffee. I still have a Ferris Dairy box which I keep in the trunk of my car as a cooler.

      • Oops! The box was from Wade’s Dairy, one of two competitors of Ferris, the other was Clover farms (later to be Stew Leonard’s).

  19. What a great piece of writing and glimpse into Westport’s past. Thank you, Dan and to Dick Seclow for passing along.

    Although I did not arrive in town until 1973, some to the places Mr. Hotchner described were still in their last years of existence. Nyala Farms, however, was no longer a farm having already been taken over by Stouffer. So I missed experiencing cows grazing along Greens Farms Road.

    Which brings me to the only flaw in this otherwise wonderful piece. Guernsey cows are not black and white. Holstein’s are black and white.
    Guernseys are a muted red and white. I feel I can say this with some authority as I grew up on my grandfather’s dairy farm where he had both breeds. In fact, as a kid, when I still had pigment in my hair, a neighbor farmer once remarked to me that my hair looked just like one of his Guernseys. The milk that Mr. Hotchner relished from Ferris Dairy, however, certainly sounds like Guernsey milk….rich in cream and butterfat…..almost sweet.

    Needless to say, I feel like a nit picker bringing this up, particularly at this time. But reading the warm comments about Mr. Hotchner which emphasize his kind nature and fondness for a laugh, I would like to think that he is somewhere reading this now with a smile on his face saying…..”You know, he’s right, they were not black and white.”

    Or maybe he is saying (as are other readers)….”Doesn’t this hick have anything better to do?”

  20. Dr. John Maurer

    Enjoyed that time of life…..as a boy I worked the summer’s on Mike’s milk truck…..he always had a way of making me laugh……thanks for the old wonderful thoughts …Dr. John Maurer

  21. Priscilla Hawk

    This and many of your wonderful columns are why I read your posts so avidly. Thank you!

  22. Beautiful essay. My Irish friend Jack used to play tennis with Hotchner, who was incredibly gracious to all. Since AE mentioned Greenberg’s here, it brought to my mind that other 102-year-old Westporter, Lee Greenberg, who not that long ago used to play tennis on her court on Duck Pond (back when the street looked as rural as something named “Duck Pond” should look). Bless our older Westporters!