Nothing I can say about this 1980s (?)-era map of Westport — sent by Jill Turner Odice, and showing the stretch of the Post Road State Street East from Playhouse Square toward the Southport line — will be as good as what readers will write in the Comments.
From still-established businesses (Organic Market! Sakura! Fortuna’s!), to legendary spots (Big Top! Boat Locker! Arnie’s Place!), on to the all-but-forgotten (Everything Personalized! Beethoven’s! Video Source!), this map evokes memories.
Click below, and let’s hear yours! (PS: Hover over or click on, to enlarge.)
Years from now, kids growing up in Westport today will look back with love on Saugatuck Sweets.
The Riverside Avenue hangout has it all: great ice cream, and plenty of other sweet treats. An inviting, we-want-you-here vibe. A plaza right on the river, with music and other entertainment. It’s a special go-to place for kids (of all ages).
Decades ago, the Ice Cream Parlor played a similar role. Pretending (in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s) to be an “old-fashioned” ice cream shop, it was known for sundaes, a “pig’s trough” (if you finished it all, you didn’t have to pay), and penny candy like dots you licked off wax paper (seriously?).
It was a family spot, somewhere to go after the movies, definitely a date destination.
The pink Ice Cream Parlor on the Post Road, painted by Gabrielle Dearborn. It’s now a non-pink office building.
The Ice Cream Parlor had 3 incarnations. It started on Main Street, on the first floor of the building The Brownstone recently vacated (next to what’s now Savvy + Grace and the former Tavern on Main restaurant — back then, Chez Pierre).
The Ice Cream Parlor moved to the north end of Compo Shopping Center (now Cohen’s Fashion Optical). The final spot was on the Post Road just east of Colonial Green; it’s now a real estate office, opposite Quality Towing & Auto Repair.
In 1955, Seventeen Magazine used the first location for a photo shoot. I’m not sure what the story was. But these images — sent along by Brenda Pool — are either very iconic, or very ironic.
Everyone remembers Woodstock. More than 50 years later, the music festival a couple of hours from here remains the poster child for peace and love (and sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll).
Who remembers the Powder Ridge Festival the next year, though?
Scheduled for 50 years ago this summer — July 31 to August 2, at the ski area of the same name just an hour away — it too promised an outstanding lineup of musicians.
Eric Burdon & War, Sly & the Family Stone, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Joe Cocker, the Allman Brothers, Little Richard, Van Morrison, Jethro Tull, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Grand Funk Railroad, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, Ten Years After — all were advertised as appearing.
And tickets were just $20.
So why haven’t you heard of the Powder Ridge Rock Festival? Think of a more recent event: The Frye Festival.
Neighbors in Middlefield — worried about the impact of such a big event on their small town — got a preventive injunction days before it began.
A crowd of 30,000 arrived anyway. They found no food, no plumbing, dozens of drug dealers — but no entertainment.
They stayed anyway. The results were predictable.
Some of the crowd at Powder Ridge.
Westporter Leigh Henry was there.
“Basically without any food or music (with the exception of Melanie and a couple of local bands playing off the generator from a Mister Softee truck), there was nothing else to do but get high,” he recalls.
“It didn’t help that dealers had brought enough drugs for 500,000 people.”
Wasted in Middlefield.
“There were a lot of bad trips, he says. “And a lot of bad vibes.” That includes hostility toward the owner of Powder Ridge, Lou Zemel.
Who just happened to be Leigh’s stepfather.
Because the promoters had skipped town — “with whatever little money was in the kitty” — Zemel was the target of festival-goers’ anger.
That was although he had risked jail himself to defy the state injunction, Leigh says. “Think 1970 — he was ‘The Man’ that everyone was ‘sticking it to.'”
An angry confrontation (though not, this time, with Lou Zemel).
The hostility and frustration eventually led to a confrontation between Zemel and a group of New Haven Black Panthers who appointed themselves spokespersons for other angry attendees.
Fortunately, Leigh — who was there with his mother and sister — says that they reached an agreement. He thinks that Zemel offered Powder Ridge to the Panthers for meetings and rallies, and gave a speech to the crowd that “defused what could have become a violent outcome.”
“Eventually people ran out of drugs, patience and whatever food and fluid they had brought,” and left Leigh says — though it took a few days to flush out the final stragglers.
He spent the next week picking up a colossal amount of trash.
“That put a little dent in my 19-year-old hippie naivete,” he notes. “I was struck by how these presumably love-they-brother festival-goers did not seem to love their planet, or respect their brothers’ property.”
Fellow Staples High School grad Peter Gambaccini — fresh off seeing The Who and Jethro Tull at Tanglewood, and Jimi Hendrix and Mountain at Randall’s Island earlier in the month — headed to Powder Ridge with classmate Scott Beasley.
They’d heard it would “probably” be canceled, but figured something would happen.
What they found was an acid — not marijuana — scene. “Without music, people seemed bleak and dazed,” Peter recalls.
“Honestly, all of them. I don’t remember seeing a smile. It seemed “grim and post-apocalyptic.”
Hanging out on top of a ski lift pole.
They found Leigh in the ski lodge. Then they headed out to watch Melanie play, plugged into that ice cream truck.
Peter could not see her face. But, he says, “on that very quiet site on a summer night, she was what everybody needed.” She was “the hero of Powder Ridge.”
He had a lot less trouble finding his car than he did at Woodstock. He was happy to head home, and sleep in his own bed.
“Powder Ridge was supposed to be historic,” Peter says. “It was, I suppose, but not in the way it was intended.
(All photos/Leigh Henry)
“Did it mark the end of a chapter of American musical history? Perhaps. But I didn’t think about it much. I was going to London in the fall, and all I could think of was what I’d be able to see and hear at Royal Albert Hall and the Marquee.
“Which turned out to be plenty, including acts I didn’t get to see at Powder Ridge.”
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.)
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.”
“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.”
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)
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”?!
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