Category Archives: Friday Flashback

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.

Friday Flashback #187

COVID-19 has given many of us time to clean attics, basements, garages — all those places we haven’t organized in years.

Alert “06880” reader and native Westporter Nikki Zeoli did just that in her parents’ basement. She found this “Townopoloy Game”:

“I imagine it was from some fundraiser years ago,” she says.

“It denotes some cool old Westport establishments, like the Remarkable Book Shop, Quigley Electric, Bambi Lynn’s Dance Academy, Soup’s On, Silver’s, Daybreak Nurseries and CameraArts. Do you know anything more?”

I don’t. I’m guessing it’s from the late 1970s or early ’80s — my reference is point is Masters Sports Cafe, which occupied a cavernous space near the present Michaels Arts & Crafts around that time.

If anyone remembers this game — or any of its now-gone businesses — click “Comments” below.

Friday Flashback #186

This week — much to some Westporters’ dismay — the New York Times shined a spotlight on our town’s role in, and reaction to, the coronavirus crisis.

On September 8, 1832, the Springfield Journal took note of a cholera epidemic here.

Of course, there was no “Westport” yet — it would be 3 years before we broke away from Fairfield, Norwalk and Wilton.

I have no idea why a newspaper in Illinois would take note of what was happening here. But here’s how they reported it.

Worth noting, nearly 190 years later:

  • Then, as now, people who were able to left New York for the suburbs
  • Quarantines worked
  • Newspaper writing was a lot different then, but …
  • Just like today, mistakes crept in. “Newark” in the last sentence should be “Norwalk.” The river referred to is the Saugatuck.

I have no idea how very alert “06880” reader Mary Gai found this. But it’s important proof that we are not the first generation to face a crisis like this.

In 1832, New York’s population was 250,000. The cholera epidemic killed 3,515. In today’s city of 8 million, the equivalent death toll would pass 100,000. For more on that long-forgotten epidemic, click here.

PS: The Norwalk Gazette is long gone. But the Springfield Journal  — now the State Journal-Register — is still around. It calls itself “the oldest newspaper in Illinois.”

PPS: Did Abraham Lincoln read this story? Probably not. He moved to Springfield in 1837.

Friday Flashback #185

July 4th fireworks, 2019 and earlier. Before “social distancing” entered our vocabulary.

Those were the days!

(Photo/John Kantor)

(Photo/Dan Woog)

(Photo/Dan Woog)

(Photo/Rick Benson)

(Photo/Dan Woog)

(Photo/Rick Benson)

Friday Flashback #184

The debate over tolls on Connecticut highways is far from over.

If we ever get them — for all vehicles, trucks only, whatever — they will be the modern, E-ZPass transponder type.

They won’t look anything like the old toll booths that jammed up traffic every few miles on I-95. There was one on the Westport-Norwalk line, just west of Exit 17.

The West Haven tolls, near Exit 43.

They certainly won’t look anything like the rustic toll booths on the Merritt Parkway.

The Greenwich tollbooth, on the Merritt Parkway.

And they definitely will look nothing like the tollbooth that once stood on the east side of the Post Road bridge, in downtown Westport.

Yes, that really was a thing. The tollbooth was no longer operative, in this 1930s postcard from the collection of Jack Whittle. But at one point — decades (centuries?) earlier — people ponied up to cross the bridge.