Category Archives: Friday Flashback

Friday Flashback #199

Today was supposed to be the 4th of July fireworks (which Westport traditionally celebrates before Independence Day — we’re always ahead of the crowd).

Here is some of what we’ll miss:

(Photo/John Kantor)

(Photo/Ted Horowitz)

(Photo/David Squires)

Here is what we won’t miss:

Friday Flashback #198

Had it not been for COVID-19, tomorrow would have been jUNe Day here. Dozens of United Nations guests would have enjoyed a day in Westport — including an impressive display of flags from their native countries on the Post Road bridge.

jUNe Day 2015, on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge. (Photo/Jeff Simon)

That’s the same bridge where, earlier this month, hundreds of people massed in support of Black Lives Matter, and to protest the death of George Floyd. 

The 2 events are related. The Post Road bridge — with both its flags, and its role as the cherished spot for political demonstrations — is named in honor of Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. A remarkable Westporter (and former secretary to Eleanor Roosevelt), she dedicated her life to social justice, world peace — and music. 

The scene on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge, several years ago.

With jUNe Day canceled, and political protests fresh in our minds, it’s time to learn a bit more about Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. Staples High School Class of 1981 graduate Laurie Cameron writes:

Back in the day I met a true Westport treasure: my piano teacher, Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen. She would have been 100 on June 8. She was also the grandmother of my friend and classmate Adam Weisman.

Ruth was a generous, warm person who made music and kindness. Learning piano from her was a great education; she made sure I knew Hadyn, Chopin, Brahms and Vivaldi in addition to Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. I learned about Vienna and the Music festival from her.

My brother Byl was the musician in our family. I had no gift for music, but I returned each week for almost 9 years. I was so fascinated by her travels, her art, her bookcase, her antique harpsichord, and hearing about the many jobs she had when she was not being a piano teacher.

My favorite time of the week was the hour that I waited for my brother Andy to finish his piano lesson, when I could stare at the paintings, books and sculptures in Mrs. Cohen’s living room.

Her colorful holiday parties were also our piano recitals. After each student performed, Ruth and her husband Herbert played a duet: she on the piano, he on violin. Their music was rich and melodious, but the joy on their faces was the true lesson for us.

Sometimes when Ruth could see me growing restless at the piano, she took me for a walk in her garden. It had a brick path that looked like the yellow brick road through the woods behind her house. It was so thrilling to me that I sometimes snuck out while waiting for Andy’s lesson to end, and ran down its wooden steps.

Ruth Steinkraus Cohen (center) joins famed singer Marian Anderson (2nd from left) at a concert by young Suzanne Sherman, at Bedford Elementary School.

During her time running the UN Hospitality Committee, Ruth placed over 50,000 people into American homes for cultural exchanges. My family learned about habits and traditions of people from other cultures from those we hosted, thanks to Ruth. She was a great humanitarian with a desire to bring the world together, and bridge gaps between cultures.

When I came back to Westport after being away for over 15 years, visiting Ruth was an important stop for me. Even in her late 70s she was warm, joyful and busy making the world better for those who needed it.

I feel privileged to have known Ruth and to have learned so much from her. Her knowledge, openness, love of music, energy and patience were great sources of inspiration to me. She would be so proud to know that a bridge bearing her name is used to support people fighting for peace, civil rights and equal justice.

(To learn more about Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, click here for her New York Times obituary.)

Friday Flashback #197

June is Gay Pride Month. Which means it’s a great time to look back — with pride — on the decades when our little suburb was home to a gay bar.

And not just any gay bar. But the oldest continually operating gay bar in the country.

Today the Brook Cafe has been replaced Patio.com. Almost exactly 10 years ago — on June 10, 2010 — I wrote this:


Once upon a time, Westport had both a gay bar and a strip club.

Right next to each other.

The gay bar was The Brook. It sat on the Post Road near the Exit 18 connector — directly across from the state police barracks.

The strip club — Krazy Vin’s — was next door, directly across Cedar Road.

Today the state police barracks is Walgreens. Krazy Vin’s is Starbucks [and now, Earth Animal].

The Brook — now called the Cedar Brook — is still there. The gay bar outlasted them all.

But it won’t last much longer. A closing party is set for June 26.

The building has been sold. The new rent is out of bar owner Clem Bellairs’ reach.

I’m sure whoever owns it will tear it down. It’s a ramshackle old building — scary, almost — and whatever is erected there will be much more profitable than a gay bar. (I don’t pray often, but please God, don’t let it be a bank.)

Before it goes, let’s pay our respects to a bit of Westport lore — and, believe it or not, a nationally historic place.

At 71 years old, the Cedar Brook has been called the oldest continually operating gay bar in the United States. (The former record holder, it’s said, was in New Orleans — and demolished by Katrina.)

For 7 decades, every gay boy growing up in Westport has told the same story.  Knowing there was a gay bar right down the street created both tremendous excitement (there are people like me!) and abject fear (what if someone sees me looking at it?). Wondering who — and what — lurked behind those ramshackle walls consumed gay teenagers. (Straight kids wondered too.)

One summer in the 1970s, a college friend visited. To show off my town, I decided to take her to every bar from the Norwalk line to Fairfield.

(Note to young readers: Yes, Westport had many bars. Still, don’t try this today. The world was a different place then.)

These trees — at the intersection of aptly named Cedar Road and the Post Road — were cut down to make way for Patio.com.

By the time we made it to the Brook, it was 1 a.m. The place was packed. The music was loud; the dance floor looked amazing. This was my chance to finally get inside!

A bouncer blocked the way.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re fine” — he pointed at me — “but the lady can’t enter.”

What?

“The lady cannot come in,” he replied. “This is a gay bar.”

So we went next door, to Krazy Vin’s.

The view from what is now Earth Animal.

Like an aging drag queen, the Cedar Brook is now past its prime. Crowds are down; even the traditionally huge Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving party — when newly out college guys discovered with glee who else had recently come out — lost its luster in recent years.

The crowd became mixed — lesbians “integrated” the Cedar Brook in the ’80s, and a few straight people (drawn by the powerful sound system and large dance floor) followed.

But it was hard to sustain a gay club in suburban Fairfield County in the 2000s.

Times change. Westport no longer has a police barracks — or a strip club.

Soon it will no longer have a gay bar, either.

The disco ball will spin for the last time.

The bartenders will put on their shirts.

And some other place, somewhere, will say with pride: “We’re the oldest continually operating gay bar in America.”

Friday Flashback #196

Town arts curator and historian Kathleen Motes Bennewitz reminds us that next Wednesday — June 17 — is the 110th anniversary of the unveiling of the Minute Man monument.

In an essay for ConnecticutHistory.org, she describes “Bunker Hill Day,” which drew over 1,000 state residents.

Temporarily concealed by canvas and a bunting-clad dais was a life-sized bronze of a farmer-turned-soldier — with his powder horn and musket at the ready — kneeling atop a grassy pedestal that rose some 6 feet above the roadway. The monument was erected to honor the heroism of patriots who defended the country when the British invaded Connecticut at Compo Beach on April 25, 1777, and in the ensuing two days of conflict at Danbury and Ridgefield.

Created by Westport artist H. Daniel Webster (1880-1912), The Minute Man is sited in the center of the intersection at Compo Road South and Compo Beach Road, said to be the exact spot of the fiercest engagement between British and Continental militias that April evening. After accepting the statue and turning it over to the town’s care, Lewis B. Curtis, president of the Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution, declared that “Westport should always cherish among their brightest possessions, this spot and the monument, which we have erected to commemorate the noble deeds enacted here.”

The Minute Man statue, around the time of his 1910 dedication.

Surprisingly, our Minute Man is one of only 4 honoring those Revolutionary War civilian patriots. The most famous, Bennewitz says, is at Concord, Massachusetts near “the shot heard ’round the world.” The other 2 are also in the Bay State (Lexington and Framingham).

Bennewitz notes that the 1910 unveiling capped an 8-year campaign for a monument. It began in 1902, when the town “secured title to Compo Beach as a public resort.”

As for the sculptor, Webster was just 29 years old when he received the commission in 1909. Three years earlier, he had moved from New York to Westport’s “nascent artist community.”

After modeling the figure at his Westport studio, he had it cast by Tiffany & Co. at Roman Bronze Works, the country’s preeminent art foundry. To complete the monument, he asked nearby residents to donate fieldstone for the foundation wall and large, asymmetrical boulders for the earthen mound and to house the bronze plaques. The finished cost was $2,900.

Our Minute Man (Photo/Tim Woodruff)

Four years after its unveiling, the Minute Man was a destination for owners of newfangled automobiles, who followed George Washington’s route from Philadelphia to Cambridge to assume command of the Continental army.

In 1935 the monument was the emblem for the town centennial; in 1986, the centerpiece of Miggs Burroughs’ town flag.

In 1957, it was even featured on “I Love Lucy.” You can’t get more American than that.

(For Kathleen Motes Bennewitz’s full WestportHistory.org story, click here. For an “06880” account of the Battle of Compo Hill, click here.)

The Minute Man is beloved by Westporters. He’s decorated with Santa Claus caps at Christmas, bunny ears on Easter, even a COVID-19 mask. Some people think it’s sacrilege. Many more think it’s a tribute to our favorite son. (Photo/Topsy Siderowf)

Friday Flashback #195

In the first weekend of June 1982 — during a full moon — up to 8 inches of rain pounded the area. Across the state, rivers and lakes flooded. Dams broke; 38,000 customers lost power. Seven people died. More than 1,300 others were evacuated from their homes.

It was the worst flooding here since 1955.

Downtown — where water runs underneath the Post Road, from Sconset Square to near Bay Street — a drama unfolded.

According to the New York Times: 

Christa Lawrence, 13, of Westport, tried to cross a narrow, rushing stream called Dead Man’s Creek and was swept downstream and into a low, 150-foot-long underground tunnel.

Deadman Brook at Sconset Square, near where Christa Lawrence was swept away…

”I thought I was going to die any second,” she said. ”The current was pulling me under, and I lost track of up or down. I couldn’t breathe. Every time I tried to go up for air, I hit my head on the top of the tunnel.”

One of her friends, Steve Treadway, 14, ran to the opposite end of the tunnel and, holding onto a tree with one hand, grabbed her as she swept out and pulled her to safety. Covered with sand and dirt, she was taken to Norwalk Hospital and treated for shock, cuts and bruises.

”Now I know why it’s called Dead Man’s Creek,” Miss Lawrence said.

… and the area near Bay Street, behind 180 Post Road East, where she was pulled out.

I remember that well. It was a scary weekend, and Christa nearly did not make it.

But I have two questions: Isn’t it a brook — not a creek?

And isn’t it “Deadman” — named for the Deadman family — and not “Dead Man’s”?!

(Hat tip: Elaine Marino)

Friday Flashback #194

One day — sooner rather than later, hopefully — the Compo Beach snack bar will open.

A new concessionaire replaces Joey’s by the Shore. After 31 years, there will be a new look and feel to the familiar brick building.

It seems like it’s always been there, smack in the middle of the boardwalk. But for most of its existence, that was actually part of the bathhouses.

The concession stand was located a few yards north — where the volleyball courts are now. Low-slung and wooden, it had even more of a “beach shack” feel than the current one.

And because there were a few parking spaces in front — just before the drop-off area where the Soundview exit road begins — anyone could drive up and walk in. You didn’t need a beach sticker.

(Photo courtesy of Liz Doyle Boyd)

Working at Chubby’s was a coveted job. I was hired the summer after 10th grade. Despite the dorky uniform (blue button-down shirt, dark blue shorts, high socks), I had a blast.

I loved my co-workers. I got free food. I was at the beach. Life did not get better than that.

PS: A few years earlier, Chubby pioneered “delivery.” Employees wandered up and down the sand. They called in orders by walkie-talkie, and tied a ribbon on the customer’s chair. Someone else then brought the order.

That service was gone by the time I worked there. Maybe the new concessionaire can bring it back?

BONUS FEATURE: Chubby’s beach success led to a year-round restaurant on Post Road East. It’s now the site of Willows Pediatrics, next to the Westport Inn.

Chubby Lane’s featured the first $1 hamburger in town — with meat from Charpentier’s butcher across the street (now Border Grille) — and killer onion rings. I worked there also, wearing that same ridiculous outfit.

I had a blast there too.

This is actually the Bantam Restaurant, a predecessor of Chubby Lane’s. But when he owned it, it looked the same.

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.

Friday Flashback #191

Over 100 years ago, the world was embroiled in war. Still — like us, 4 months ago in December — no one had any idea what lay ahead.

Seth VanBeever is a 4th-generation Westporter. In 1916 and ’17, his great-grandfather was diligently making payments to his Christmas Club account.

What’s a Christmas Club? It’s an account customers pay into weekly, to have enough money in December for presents. They’re still around, amazingly.)

Also in 1916, Seth’s great-grandfather plunked down $5 for a summer bathhouse at Compo Beach.

If all you know about those bathhouses are the current wooden ones by the pavilion, think again.

Here’s a photo shared on Facebook by Maureen Driscoll of her relatives, circa 1931. The bathhouse — in the background — looks pretty grand.

Here are other views, from other years:

 

The 2020 bathhouses cost a lot more than they did in 1916. Hey — you should put your money in a Bathhouse Club!

Friday Flashback #189

The news that the Westport Country Playhouse will postpone its entire 2020 season is one more sobering reminder that the coronavirus affects every aspect of life.

First opened in 1931, the one-time tannery and cider mill earned national renown as a launching pad for Broadway plays. It was one of America’s most prestigious summer stock theaters, when they were in their heyday. This year, the Playhouse looked forward to celebrating its 90th season.

Instead it will be dark. That’s happened only once before: from 1942 to 1945, during World War II. (In the early 2000s, during its renovation into a state-of-the-art theater, shows were produced elsewhere.)

As ads from its early programs show, the Westport Country Playhouse has been supported by the community for nearly a century.

1935

1935

1936

1941

1947

Some of those advertisers are long gone. Others lasted decades more. Taylor’s, Achorn’s and Kowalsky are still around.

With our help, in 2021 the Westport Country Playhouse will be too. (Hat tip: Pat Blaufuss)

Friday Flashback #188

For years, I heard about a long-ago song: “I caught her in the kitchen playing Westport.” 

Pearl Bailey sang about Westport.

Pearl Bailey sang about Westport.

I still haven’t found it. But several years ago, after I mentioned it, an alert “06880” reader sent me a website called “Folk and Traditional Song Lyrics.” They contained the words to a song called, simply, “Westport.”

Inspired, I searched for a YouTube video of the song. I couldn’t find one.

But here — from “Take Five, A Julius Monk Review, ca 1952-1954,” are the lyrics.

According to the website, they come from an original cast record by Pearl Bailey and Will Holt. The version is “somewhat doctored” by R. Greenhaus.

There’s a little ranch house in the vale,
Pretty little ranch house up for sale;
All the shutters drawn,
Tenants all gone
And thereby hangs a long, unhappy tale.

‘Cause he caught her in the kitchen playing Westport,
A game indigenous to suburban life,
Where you take a wife of whom you’re not the husband,
While someone else’s husband takes your wife.

Some people may claim that the name of the game is Scarsdale,
Or Beverly Hills, or even Shaker Heights,
But commuters from Manhattan call it Westport.
And it’s the game that some of our local leading lights play
To while away those cold Connecticut nights.

Now in that little ranch house used to dwell
An advertising feller and his Nell.
Two kids and a pup, living it up,
And everything was sounder than a bell —
‘Til he caught her in the kitchen playing Westport
Between the washing machine and thermostat.

This is not the Westport kitchen the song refers to.

This is not the Westport kitchen the song refers to.

The husband thought it really was an outrage.
Said he, “You might at least remove your hat!”
Well, they may play it that way in Great Neck,
While in Levittown they’d never think it odd.
But there is not an architect in Westport
Who’ll ever forgive the cad that said, “My God! Sir.
I must have got the wrong cape cod!”

Since they are no longer groom and bride,
Quoting from the Sunday classified:
“Are there any takers
For three lovely acres
Of peaceful old New England countryside?”
‘Cause he caught her in the kitchen playing Westport
Which would ordinarily be a cause for gloom;
But though the sanctity of wedlock’s on the downgrade,
Currently housing is enjoying quite a boom!

And while they defame the name of the game in Boston,
Where naturally they think it’s a dirty shame,
In the green and fertile pastures of suburbia
The local dealers in real estate acclaim
It the best thing since the FHA, hey,

Westport is a grand old …
‘Midst pleasures and palaces …
Westport is a grand old game.