Friday Flashback #193

Jeff Manchester knows his onions.

The former Staples High School wrestling star — now a resident of Saugatuck Shores — writes:

When I was at the original Saugatuck Elementary School in the mid-1970s on Bridge Street, one of the field trips took us on a tour of the town.

The teachers pointed out an onion barge buried in the mud by the Cribari Bridge not far from the school. Today it is still visible. I point it out to my kids at low tide. Do your readers know anything more about this barge?

The barely visible sunken vessel.

But Jeff is not through with onions. He adds:

Interestingly enough, my back yard is on a canal that was dredged at the turn of the last century, for the purposes of a safer route for Westport’s onion farmers.

The page Jeff provides proof — and a history of how “Saugatuck Island” was formed:

t! There’s more! Jeff sends along this story by Gregg Mangan, from ConnecticutHistory.org:

Westport is a quiet beachfront town along Connecticut’s southern coast known for its pristine views of Long Island Sound, its upscale shopping, and its close proximity to New York City.

Many attributes that make Westport a desirable residential community, however, once made it home to a thriving onion farming industry. Boats and railroad cars full of onions from Westport and the surrounding area once flooded the markets of New York.

Around the time of the Civil War, the town of Westport began to commercially farm onions. In April of every year farmers drilled rows of holes 12 inches apart for sowing onions. They separated the abundant rocks from the soil by using machines and rakes or, sometimes, by hand.

Westport farmers originally fertilized the crops using local sources of manure, but the rapid expansion of the industry required the importation of commercial fertilizers along with railroad cars full of manure from horse stables in New York. Local farmers then stored harvested onions in barns where they covered them in hay and cornstalks until eventually adopting the use of heated onion houses.

Onion carriage

For the first weeding of onions, an onion carriage, patent number 247,856 by J.C. Taylor, Westport

Horse and oxen teams then carried the onions to the shipping docks. There, men like Captain John Bulkley and his brother Peter piloted their schooners full of onions, oats, butter, eggs, hats, and combs to New York from which they returned with flour, molasses, sugar, mackerel, rum and gin. During the busiest parts of the season, two boats from nearby Southport and one from Westport made weekly trips to New York, complemented by 1 or 2 boatloads of goods shipped by rail.

Southport white, yellow and red globe onions all developed around the Westport area and became staples of the local diet. In New York, yellow and red onions sold for $1.50 per barrel and higher, while white onions commanded as much as $10 per barrel. Westport onion farmers like Talcott B. and Henry B. Wakeman (who lived on opposite sides of the road from one another) helped make Westport onions some of the most popular agricultural products in the Northeast.

The most prosperous years for onion farming in Westport lasted from around 1860 until 1885. By the end of the century, however, the rising costs of fertilizers and competition from larger farming enterprises largely brought an end to the commercial industry in Westport. Farmers then grew onions primarily for the local population, which now included numerous German and Irish immigrants who came to the area to work on the onion farms.

After the decline of the industry, wealthy urbanites slowly developed the farmland for summer homes and permanent housing away from the noise and pollution of the city. This transition from farm land to residential suburb helped mold much of the town’s character into what it is today.

(Courtesy of Edible Nutmeg)

PS: If you remember Onion Alley, now you know the name did not just fall out of the sky.

19 responses to “Friday Flashback #193

  1. And I grew up on Onion Hill off of Cob Drive!

  2. I was told that the onion barge caught fire and it was docked behind The Mansion they moved it out into the river and that is where it ended up. I wish someone could verify that this is correct or not. It has always fascinated me!

  3. Onion Alley was a little gem. Delicious food and terrific prices. So was the Little Scallion which was on Westport Ave. where the Bow Tie and B, B and Beyond now stand. Both restaurants are big losses. Excellent dinners at very good prices. We don’t have many restaurants like that left in Westport.

  4. We grew onions, on the property, on the Post Road, before the Westport Golf Range was built in 1954.

  5. Has Jeff traveled down Valley Rd off of Greens Farms Rd or Hillspoint?
    You’ll see the original onion barn. It’s painted red.
    I was told by a Westport teacher now in her mid 90s. That the area from Imperial Ave to Southport was onions and potatoes

  6. Isabelle Breen

    The building that housed Bertucci’s was a restaurant prior to being Bertucci’s; didn’t that have an onion name? Green Onion, maybe?

  7. My last house in Westport was once part of an onion farm off Crescent Road. We could still smell onions when we mowed the lawn but that may have been a coincidence. Another onion farm was off Roseville Road.

    • Peter, We had same experience at the golf range when mowing the grass! It wasn’t everywhere, but at times the smell of onions was there.

  8. I definitely noticed the smell of onions at times when I cut the grass at Drumlin Road, which was once part of a farm whose name escapes me. But I just don’t recall that smell when I cut the grass at my childhood home on Easton Road, north of the Merritt, which was once part of the Silverbrook Farm. I wonder if the farms growing onions were only in certain parts of town.

  9. It’s not a barge. It’s a sailing vessel. As I vaguely recall, it originally belonged to someone in New Jersey and was brought to Westport by the Allen family. I believe it was named the Adam Remson.

  10. There are two more submerged barges in Jeff’s neighborhood that were visible on some low tides. One is in front of the small beach between the bridge and the Zaret’s house (I’m not sure if this structure was a barge, boat, or a car…but it was often visible on spring tides). The other is more obvious – the barge that the jetty was built upon at south beach (the end of Island Way, or Ostend Ave…the original name).

  11. Jacques Voris

    According to George Penfield Jennings’ book on Greens Farms:
    “Captain Ebenezer Allen ran the schooner Remsen between Southport and New York in the market trade starting about 1883. This old schooner finally was allowed to rot on the mudflats just below the Sauga tuck carriage-bridge; its hulk can still be outlined in the mud at low tide.”

    Alas, he does not offer more details about this Ebenezer Allen. The only Ebenezer Allen I have in my genealogy who was alive in the 19th century is the son of Henry “Harry” Allen and Mary Burr Nash. If this was the same person, he was born about 1840 and died 10 July 1885. In the 1860 census he is listed as a “seaman”, in 1870 as “Commander of Vessel”, and in 1880 as “Sea Captain”. This lends credence to him being the Ebenezer Allen who was the master of the Remsen. He was married to Sarah Mills, daughter of Samuel Mills and Sarah Baker. They had four children about whom I know very little.

    His father, Henry Allen, married as his second wife Sarah Batterson. Sarah’s first husband was John Mills, with whom she had three children. One of which was Charles Mills, who built the house most people now associate with “Rippe’s Farm” on North Avenue.

    Sarah had a younger sister, Elizabeth “Betsey” Ann Batterson who married William Henry Mills. They lived in the small house almost in the road on North Avenue, known as “The squatter’s house”. Their son, Henry “Hen” Mills, was the last large scale onion farmer in Westport according to his obituary from 1944. Hen’s sister, Rutha Jane, married Joseph Allen, the brother of Ebenezer Allen.

    William Henry Mills had a brother named Hezekiah Andrew Mills who had a farm over on Crescent Road.

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