Tile Mural: History, Revisited And Re-Explained

When the Westport Library asked the Westport History for Museum & Culture for advice on the “River of Names” mural, the Museum cited a number of what they called “historical inaccuracies, inaccurate representations, and perhaps most importantly glaring omissions of fact based on idealized Euro-centric views of the past.”

Dorothy Curran disagrees.

She wrote and helped publish an art historical catalogue that accompanied the tile mural, and upon which the Museum based much of its criticism. Offering a fascinating (though of course incomplete) tour of local history, Dorothy writes:

In October 2021, the Westport Library, seeking not to return the “River of Names” historical bas-relief ceramic donor tile mural to the Library interior, asked Ramin Ganeshram, executive director of the Westport Museum for History & Culture, for a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion opinion on the mural’s content.

Ramin, along with WMHC colleague Cheryl Bliss, focused not on the mural itself, but on “River of Names: An Historical Tile Mural at the Westport Public Library” — my accompanying art historical catalogue. As a then RTM-appointed Library trustee, I donated my time writing it and raising another $25,000 to pay for photography, graphic design, printing, binding and shipping of 5,000 copies.

The aim was for a portable “art docent tour” of the mural, and a long-term book sale revenue stream for the Library. (If you need last-minute holiday gifts, the beautifully printed and bound volumes still sell, for $5 or less, at the Westport Book Shop. All proceeds benefit the Westport Library.)

Here are my reactions to the DEI report:

Tile #1, 1637 Puritans & Pequots end Swamp War; Puritans plan settlement

The Westport Museum of History & Culture says that

The Pequot War of 1636-1638 began as a colonial Puritan response to the alleged murders of English colonists by Pequots. Rival tribes joined the Puritan initiative, but were horrified by English tactics. Puritans attacked and burned the Pequot village in Mystic, massacring most of the tribe’s women, children and elderly. Surviving Pequots sought to migrate west, but the English followed. The final battle — the Fairfield Swamp Fight in 1637, near what today is I-95 Exit 19 — was devastating. But thanks to intervention by Thomas Stanton, who spoke Algonquian, a massacre was avoided. For a very brief overview of a very complex series of events, here is a link with footnotes and bibliography for deeper study: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pequot_War

Why was this event included in the River of Names? Because following the Pequots across Connecticut was how Roger Ludlowe discovered Fairfield’s lovely salt meadows and decided to move his settlers from Windsor’s flood-prone Connecticut River banks to Fairfield. Westport later formed from parts of Fairfield and Norwalk. Neither the caption nor the catalogue’s summary provide the full story, but together they certainly inspire curiosity.

Tile #2, 1648 Pequannock Tribe agrees to sell “Machamux” to the five “Bankside” farmers

Yes, the concept of “selling” land to the English colonists was alien to migratory Native American tribes, but colonial records do document acceptance of the English purchase offer and remuneration. As for the Native Americans’ skin color, it is darker than the English, but not as deep as exhibit model photographs provided by the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. When I first saw this tile, I remarked to artist Marion Grebow; “They look like ghosts.” She smiled, knowingly. Very aware of how local Native Americans were ravaged by European diseases and warfare, she was making an artistic statement.

Tile #7, 1705 John Cable builds tidal mill, produces corn flour for emerging West Indies trade and Tile # 10, 1775 E. (Ebenezer) Coley builds saltbox home, shop and wharf; Tile #13,  1790 E. (Ebenezer) Jesup Builds Wharf on Saugatuck’s east Bank

Under British colonial rule, trade by its American colonies was restricted to England, and exports, to raw materials like lumber, in exchange for English finished goods. But thanks to lax enforcement, many locals became maritime commerce entrepreneurs (aka black-market bootleggers), trading products like corn meal for Caribbean molasses and rum. After 1763, increased enforcement helped precipitate the American Revolution. Yes, there were slaves in Puritan Connecticut, including enslaved Pequot survivors, but what now is Westport never was a hub for the larger transatlantic “triangular trade,” involving larger ships, sailing to Africa.

Tile #11, 1756, 1775, 1780, 1789 George Washington’s diaries record four trips through town, including an overnight stay at Marvin’s Tavern

You complain that in 1789, when Washington stayed overnight at Marvin’s Tavern: “The wall features other details of historical inaccuracy such as… Washington’s visit to Marvin Tavern in 1789… As a point of fact, Washington only rode white horses, however he would have been travelling by carriage during this presidential tour. Further, in 1789 he was President and made a point of wearing civilian clothing—not his Continental Army uniform as portrayed on the tile.”

In my catalogue discussion of Tile #11, I wrote: “By November, 1789, in reality, Washington was the first President of the 13 United States, a national icon, weary of war and no longer in military attire. Literal reality, however, is not Grebow’s primary concern. Instead, by returning Trumbull’s image of Washington, the Yorktown victor, the archetypal American Revolutionary War hero, to Marvin’s Inn in 1789, Grebow expresses completion of a cycle. Among the people who welcomed him back in 1789 were some who first greeted him in 1775, before the war began, some who suffered loss of life and property in 1777 when the war arrived here, and some who witnessed his 1780 meeting here with the French to end the war. While few if any were present at Yorktown when the fulfillment of this vision was realized, his victory there validated the personal and political dreams and values he epitomized and they shared. Grebow’s Washington, by extending a greeting with the same hand he refused to a British general, offers both a politically powerful and profoundly human statement. Grebow’s Washington, like the one we all revere, transcends the limits of space and time.”

P.S. Washington notes in his diary that he was less than pleased with his stay at Marvin’s Inn, which makes his gesture even more gracious.

Tile #17, 1810 Catherine Burr Sherwood, farm wife & mother of ten, including triplet sea captains

Commemorating the birth of the Sherwood triplets during a heavy snowstorm, this tile illuminates the vital, often overlooked impact of women in local colonial history, including building and maintaining families with very little medical assistance. In fact, at about the same time that Catherine Burr Sherwood gave birth to her eighth, ninth and tenth children (the triplets), her sister-in-law died in childbirth, so the family then had 11 to raise. The later maritime careers of the 3 triplets are a topic for separate study.

Tile #19, 1832 Saugatuck Congregational Church and Saugatuck Fire Co. established

Well into the 19th century, Puritan governance practices persisted in Connecticut. For example, new towns first needed a new seat of government: a Congregational church, with selectmen presiding. Only after the Saugatuck Church’s 1832 completion could Westport petition the state for a town charter. Likewise, forming the Saugatuck Fire Co. ended emergency dependence on Norwalk and Fairfield. The scope, limits and flaws of the 1818 Connecticut Constitution are topics for separate study.

Tile #18, 1814 Saugatuck Manufacturing Co. makes cotton yarn at Richmondville Ave. site and Tile #20, 1835 R.H. Haight’s tannery, later Kemper Tannery, makes leather hat bands 

British rule forbade American colonial manufacturing, forcing Americans to buy British finished goods, at Britain’s prices. After American manufacturing began, the British War of 1812 coastal shipping blockade caused such severe economic hardship that Connecticut briefly considered secession from the new union. Happily, the war ended.

That era’s Connecticut manufacturers (and families, for supplemental income) relied on labor by children, immigrants, apprentices and indentured servants for success. Most children, like their parents, attained only an elementary education, but received training in other skills needed for farm and household management.

Neither tile can begin to probe the era’s labor practices, but each can inspire curiosity to learn more.

Tile #24, 1852 First Bank

You are correct that: “Descriptions of the building of the Westport Bank by Horace Staples and later refurbishment of the property at large (National Hall) on tile #24 (Curran) fails to indicate that the National Hall portion of the building referred to the 2nd floor where a theater was located. Minstrel shows, caricaturizing African Americans, were a popular attraction at this theater.”

That’s asking a lot of an already crowded 6″x4″ tile.

Tile #25, 1840’s, 1850’s & 1860’s Emerging diversity of religious worship

Though this tile depicts a “diversity of religions,” groups assessing the River of Names say that it presents a very Christian-centric view of Westport’s history. There are no tiles for other religions.

In mid-19th century Westport, where the 1832 Saugatuck Congregational Church was the seat of government, one way to observe emerging diversity was construction of churches by other denominations: Episcopalian, Methodist and Catholic. Yes, other religious congregations existed then, but were not in construction mode. A 6″x8″tile can only prompt curiosity to learn more.

Tile #35, 1899 First autos on Post Road

Your complaint: “The tile #35 (Curran) referring to the first automobiles in the town misses the opportunity to talk about the Toquet Motor Company here in Westport which produce a motor car earlier than Ford.”

As my catalogue states, #35 depicts an eyewitness account by local historian Edward Coley Birge, astonished at being passed on the Post Road by a “self-propelled open buggy,” likely a Stanley Steamer. Discussing Toquet Motor Company was not a fit for this tile. That does not make it historically inaccurate, Euro-centric or exclusive.

Tile #49, 1947 Lucille Lortel founds the White Barn Theatre

Yes, Lucille (not “Louise”) Lortel protected, nurtured and paid talented actors, writers, composers and designers. Agreed that not much can be said on a 6″x8″ tile about the “the opportunity she gave to the Black performers in the era of segregation.” Likewise, not much could be said here about her equally important role in continuing to employ “unemployable” McCarthy-era black-listed writers and actors. But naming her and the White Barn on a tile is a start.

Tile #68, 1980 Westport Historical Society, established 1889, acquires its home, Wheeler House, built 1795

Your complaint: “The information about Westport Museum (Westport Historical Society) on tiles #68 (Curran) is inaccurate. The original building on this site was a 2nd period colonial style, like the building currently across the street. The ocular windows in the current structure are not unique as stated—two other Italianate houses on Main Street feature them.”

In fact, the 12″x12″ River of Names tile #79 makes no such statement. My catalogue does refer to the original structure (still inside the Bradley-Wheeler house) as probably a saltbox. Agreed that ocular windows per se are not a unique feature of Italianate architecture.

P.S. What does this discussion of architectural detail have to do with diversity, equity and inclusion?

Tile #79, 1996 Bradley-Wheeler Museum restored

You complain that: “The tile referring to the Bradley Wheeler barn refers to the statues on our property as sculptures—they are, in fact, miniature golf statues, made for use on a private miniature golf course. They are not sculptures.”

Tile #79 makes no such statement. My catalogue does call them sculptures, mostly because they are free-standing folk art created by famous, fun-loving Westport artists, whose major commissions included work at Disney World. The Einsel valentines to each other were remarkable.

Re: your comment that “The description refers to the towns “diverse cultural heritage” although there is virtually no representation of non-Europeans on the picture tiles of the River of Names Wall.”

The mural’s 84 picture tiles, ranging in size from 6″x4″ to 12″x12,” and covering over 350 years, offer only a glimpse of our history. My catalogue merely enriches that glimpse. In no way does that mean that this peek at our history is, in your language, “whitewashed.”

Diverse cultural heritage means many things. New England’s Puritan colonists were British subjects. Many River of Names tiles depict no people at all; instead, they show architecture and boats extending British tradition. Collectively, that makes our depiction of New England colonial history not so much “Euro-centric” as Anglo-centric. Over time, our town, state and country have grown and evolved. Today, looking back at the long, imperfect arc of our dynamic cumulative history, warts and all, I think most Westporters simply would call it “American.”

23 responses to “Tile Mural: History, Revisited And Re-Explained

  1. Everlasting thanks to Dorothy for her well researched and erudite explanations. Our community owes Dorothy a huge debt of gratitude for her longstanding devotion to our history and for the thousands of totally volunteer hours she has spent sharing her knowledge of Westport with our community. Thank you, Dorothy.

    • Eve, I second that emotion.

      And I had not realized that Dorothy had donated her time to the writing of the catalogue and to leading the efforts to raise the money for the production of the book.

      Back in the day, I recall having paid a lot more than the “$5 or less” price for the remaining copies that are currently being sold at the Westport Book Shop. So I imagine that the catalogue too was a successful fundraiser for the Library back then.

      I was a bit surprised though to see that the Westport Book Shop is currently selling the catalogue to benefit the Library when Bill Harmer has stated: “The bottom line is, the mural is no longer appropriate. It is exclusive, obsolete and offensive, in ways no one could conceive of in the 1990s. It does not represent the inclusive Westport of 2022.”

      On the other hand, perhaps this reflects the possibility that the manager of the Westport Book Shop has a different point of view and is allowed to exercise his or her independent judgment—which would be a good thing.

  2. Barbara Kellerman

    The “Tile Mural” debate has become an unusually rich conversation about the history of Westport. I’m not certain there is a right or wrong in these exchanges. I am certain that Dan Woog has done us all a favor by publishing at least parts of these exchanges. I’m equally certain they should be assembled in one place, in a publication of some sort, ideally both in hard copy and on line. The Westport Public Library has a dog in this hunt. Still, it might usefully take the lead in a collective project such as this one. The conversation is itself Westport history.

  3. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70 (this never happens at Pequot Library)

    Dan, I don’t know you but I think it’s a little undeserved charity to let the library’s leadership off the hook. This is an “unholy Trinity” between Darcy Hicks, her two hired guns and the clowns running the circus that overlooks Jesup Green. They ALL need to go. I can’t help thinking of dear Eleanor Street who always managed to get the job done with never a scintilla of difficulty.

    • A plug for Pequot: always a gem, it has emerged in recent years as The Little Library That Could. I marvel at the collection—both what is acquired and what is retained. No, you can’t borrow a kayak there, or buy socks. But if it’s a book you seek and the Westport Library doesn’t have it (one example: Ralph Ellison’s selected letters, deemed “essential” by The New York Times and featured on the front page of its book review in 2019), try Pequot.

      • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

        My experience as a Westport student (1958-1970) directly mirrors your fond description. But in Westport there was the lovely kind lady Eleanor Street and at Pequot the very essence of an educated gentleman Stanley Crane. Never saw an axe to grind. When I needed a kayak, canoe or appreciation of my Native American forebears, I went to Camp Mahackeno.

  4. Thank you Dorothy – and Dan – for reminding us of the Catalogue and its role in providing additional historic information and context to the Mural. I remember reading it with considerable interest as a copy was located near the Mural for all to enjoy. After being reacqainted with this thoughtful and carefully worded document, I’m left to wonder, now more than ever, what our friends at the Museum of Truth and Cancelation were thinking. It certainly appears that an apology would be an appropriate – and healing – gesture.

    • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

      Morley, I don’t know you, either, but based on observed performance factoring in their “history” (how ironic use of that word in this situation) I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for any apologies. That’s all it would take though, we ARE after all (mostly) Judeo-Christians and it is holiday time in Westport. Probably all you’ll get from “The Wrecking Crew” is a limp “This is all a misunderstanding” (meaning on our part, not theirs because they never misunderstand anything).

      • Unfortunately, you are likely correct, Eric. However, despite all the damage that has been done, I feel it’s not too late for the Museum find some grace.

        • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

          That’s what I’m praying for too Morley. BTW, are you related to the wonderful John Boyd family? I knew a bunch of them back when Westport was a little more “special” than it has become of late. Merry Christmas.

          • I knew of John Boyd as someone who was well liked and highly regarded in our community. My recollection is that our families are not directly related. Merry Christmas to you as well!

  5. Diane L Lowman

    Dorothy: thank you so much for your thorough and thoughtful initial research and response.

  6. As an example — Tile #25, 1840’s, 1850’s & 1860’s — Diversity of Religion — were there any houses of worship in Westport at the time other than “Christian-centric?” The fact that there are now four synagogues shows the evolution of the Town. And the dates on the tile were not 1999 (or 2022).

  7. Wendy Crowther

    Thank you, Dorothy, for all you’ve done to initially conceive, research and then deliver the River of Names mural and its accompanying book to our town. I also thank you for all you continue to do to save it from extinction.

    Thanks also to Dan who has enabled this conversation/debate to continue over several days via new blog posts. Each post has provided additional insight and cogent arguments for saving the mural.

    As a result, newcomers to Westport who likely had no awareness of the mural once it was mothballed by the Library, have now learned a lot about Westport’s history via this conversation/debate.

    The mural, and any additional clarifying materials, could continue to educate generations of Westporters if it is re-mounted in the Library or elsewhere in Town. It would also preserve its artwork and the honorable intent with which it was originally conceived and paid for by its creators and donors.

  8. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70 (just having fun there’s no principal’s office big enough to hold me)

    I agree wholeheartedly with you person having self-identified as Elaine (gotta be careful this is Nouveau Westport in the year of our Lord 1984) She/he/they/it have got to go. But someone hired her/he/it. At the very least, he/she/that/it needs to explain and maybe lead the other subject pronoun out the door, making sure it does not him they/them/that on the way out. Oh! Almost forgot!!! My preferred pronoun is “the person identifying as Nauseated.

  9. Dorothy, thank you for taking the time to write this reply. What an embarrassingly shameful circumstance created by those who should know better…and probably do, but likely have ulterior motives. Otherwise a heartfelt apology would have come days ago. Now a resignation seems more appropriate.

    Like others have stated, I too always enjoyed seeing that artistic shimmering River upon entering the old library. It was special – special meaning that it had a unique value to ALL Westporters beyond its artistic craft, and one transcending the donors.

    It seems to me that despite being its intended home, the library no longer deserves to showcase this unique “Westportacana”.

    Given its relevance to Westport related history, the hypocrisy of those who from the outset decided to eliminate it and now threaten its destruction, and the library’s apparent architectural constraints, in my opinion it is better suited prominently displayed in Town Hall for all who enter to see and explore. Our 3 selectwomen should at least explore that.

    Alternatively, I would think that any developer of the newly proposed “Hamlet” at Saugatuck would have significant interest in showcasing this unique piece of Westport in a prominent and artistically illuminated location by the river…and as Westport was historically first known as Saugatuck, that location is equally fitting.

    And, unlike each and every individual who was involved in making or giving credence and support to the library’s misguided decisions that brought it to this juncture, I image that its value would finally be appropriately appreciated.

    Dr J

  10. Laurie Goldberg

    I will probably regret jumping in on this. But, since this entire debacle started (with the wall removal in the first place) I have had the distinct impression that our library management has shown a dismissive and contemptuous attitude about the tiles. This precedes the current kerfluffle. It’s nice that they have managed to put someone else in the cross-hairs, and deflect a lot of the animosity onto the people who are not responsible for the original decision, nor the decision to destroy the tiles if no one steps up to provide additional funds to maintain them in storage.

  11. Patrice Schramm

    I lived in Westport for many years. It seems disrespectful to criticize the excellent work Dorothy Curran did. What a treasure is now hidden away!

  12. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70 (almost suspended in 1969 - Mr. Calkins was a softie. 🤡

    Of course, before we can approve the tile wall for Harold, Ramin, Bill, Darcy and Jeremy at the South Beach, we need to get the endorsement of the current custodial staff at both the Museum of History and Culture and the new, improved and now sanitized Westport Library. That shouldn’t be a problem,

  13. Ellen Dale Naftalin

    Thank you Dorothy. Your response was eloquent and enlightening. Also I would like to add an aside. The original letter I read in an earlier post talked about the Saugatuck Manufactuing Company and the horrors of the child labor that was used. My grandmother, Carrie Chappa was 12 when she worked there after school. She used to talk about it as a wonderful opportunity to make some extra money and unbenounced to the people running the place she stuffed her pockets with ivory nut buttons and one ivory nut whenever she would leave for the day and walk to her home on Saugauck Ave. I still have these hundreds of buttons and that nut. Just an aside, no need to start a debate about child labor.

  14. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Troubled individuals are ubiquitous today, even in hallowed places like the Museum of History and Culture. Hall Brooke was founded to address needs such as this and may even be mentioned in long overlooked archival material at the museum. Perhaps the monthly tile wall storage fees could be repurposed to provide counseling and succor to those in pain. Charity must begin at home.

  15. Thanks so much, Chris.
    Your contribution makes clear the suspicion that Ms Ganeshram is a professional as a museum director but a hack as a historian.

  16. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Just add a few tiles with selected recipes from the Ganeshram Institute of Stomach Distress and watch the impasse resolve itself just in time for the holidays.