Category Archives: Friday Flashback

Friday Flashback #323

Cell phones are great. You can watch movies; play games; find news, weather and sex partners  … you can even make phone calls*!  

What you can’t do — at least, not without a ton of work — is find out the phone number of someone you don’t know.

Back in the day, it was as easy — literally — as ABC.

“Phone books” sat by every telephone. Updated every year — thick for cities, thin for towns like Westport — they offered a complete, alphabetical and very egalitarian look at every home and business.

The other day, Suzanne Urban sent me the Westport directory for 1961-62.

I have no idea why she kept it. But it offers a fascinating look at a time before caller ID, answering machines, and “sorry, I just went through a dead zone.”

On one page you can see a bit of the commercial and governmental life of Westport (and Weston):

There’s also a peek at the people in town (and, if they were female, their marital status).

Look carefully. I did not choose this page randomly.

As for those “CA 7-” and “CL 9-” numbers: They stood for CApital and CLearwater (the latter for homes near Fairfield).

Those letter prefixes were replaced by “227” and “259” a few years later. Then came “226” and “255,” followed by “222” and “254.”

Today, prefixes mean nothing. The many years of “203” as Connecticut’s only area code are gone forever. too You can even keep your area code when you move.

The phone book made it easy to memorize phone numbers. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but I still remember friends’ numbers from the Kennedy era.

Today, we can’t imagine life without our cell phones. Back in the day, we could not have lived without phone books.

One day, kids, I’ll go back and revisit directory assistance, and the Yellow Pages.

*Provided you have service. And “minutes.’

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Friday Flashback #322

The Apple Festival has been gone now far longer than it ran.

But for 18 years — from 1982 to 1999 — it was one of the highlights of autumn in Westport.

Conceived by Staples High School PTA leader (and, later, 2nd Selectwoman) Betty Lou Cummings, it was a celebration of apples, apple cider, apple pies — and a huge fundraiser for Staples organizations.

Betty Lou Cummings and a gift basket filled with (probably) apples.

The fieldhouse was filled with up to 10,000 visitors. Booths, games, food, fun — it was all there. Any high school club or team could offer anything.

One of the most popular, year after year, was Staples Players’ Haunted House. Coming right before Halloween — and with teenage actors eager to entertain (and scare) little kids, it was a no-brainer.

The cast of Staples Players’ Haunted House.

Eventually, CLASP joined as a sponsor, and recipient of funds.

With Election Day around the corner, the Apple Festival also attracted politicians. Bob Dole showed up one year, stumping for someone I’ve long since forgotten.

Today, the Apple Festival — like the Great Race and Festival Italiano — is just a memory.

We’ve got new traditions, like the Slice of Saugatuck.

How do you like them apples?

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Friday Flashback #321

Reess Kennedy is a software engineer and tech entrepreneur.

As a sideline, the Staples High School Class of 2000 graduate studies innovation history — especially involving late 19th-century American entrepreneurs.

Think John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Plus Morris Ketchum Jesup.

Morris Jesup, and his very impressive mustache.

A September “Friday Flashback” on Jesup caught Reess’ eye. He read with interest that the founder of the Westport Library (and namesake of our town green) was also a major benefactor of the American Museum of Natural History. (He also commissioned a 5-year anthropological expedition to Alaska and Siberia, which is why the northernmost piece of Greenland is named Cape Morris Jesup).

The next month Reess was at the New York museum’s American wing, exploring its labyrinth of oil paintings.

He found a work he remembered from college art history: “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” (George Caleb Bingham, 1845). A few days later, opening an old textbook to learn more about the work, he noticed a credit line: the “Morris K. Jesup Fund, 1933.”

“Fur Traders Descending the Missouri”

Digging into the Met’s database, he learned Jesup was associated with an astonishing 313 pieces of art: paintings, sculptures, decorative boxes, you name it.

He’s returned to the Met’s American Wing since then, proud of  the impact someone from his hometown had on the space.

Reess Kennedy, at the Met.

Reess adds: “Maybe it’s just getting older and appreciating everything more. Maybe it’s that I spend so much time on my small laptop screen nstead of in these grand galleries.

“But I also think it’s the deep lesson of the pandemic: We shouldn’t take for granted that we’ll always have permission to get our eyes inches from the brush strokes of these beautiful masterpieces. It’s such a wonderful gift.”

And how few people know that the donor is a long-ago Westporter, whose name we remember only for a bust in our library, and a bit of green space nearby.

BONUS FEATURE: Reess offers more information on Morris Jesup, his fund and the Met.

He offered significant financial support to Frederic Edwin Church, a Hartford-born artist whose work is featured in the American Gallery.

Jesup’s generosity helped Church produce his masterwork “The Parthenon.” It was bequeathed to the museum by Jesup’s wife.

Thanks too to Reess, for uncovering this great photo of Morris Jesup, and his dog:

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Morris Jesup at the Met

Friday Flashback #320

What were you doing 10 years ago today?

If you lived in Westport — or anywhere in the Northeast — you were probably cleaning up from Sandy.

The superstorm — not even a hurricane when it landed here — roared in on October 29, 2012.

Here are some scenes from those days:

Hillspoint Road, at what was then Elvira’s and Positano. (Photo/Matt Murray)

Old Mill Beach (Photo/Matt Murray)

Burying Hill Beach.

Saugatuck Shores. (Photos/Inklings staff)

Underneath this garage was a 1960 Mercedes. (Photo by Kathie Bennewitz)

North Avenue.

The Westport YMCA childcare center (then on Church Lane).

The sign on the garage says “Welcome to the Beach.” (Photo/Betsy Phillips)

Public Works took care of a section of boardwalk that ended up far from home.

The view from the Longshore golf course parking lot. The Parks and Rec office is in the background.

Grove Point Road.

Soundview Drive was “sandy” indeed.

Every grill on Compo’s South Beach was knocked over.

Colony Road. (Photo/Drew Angus)

Playhouse Square.

The corner of Highwood Lane and Calvary Road. (Photo/Larry Perlstein)

North Compo Road.

Cob Drive.

North Turkey Hill Road.

Hillspoint Road, near Schlaet’s Point. (Photo/Betsy Phillips)

Main Street.

Soundview Drive. (Photo/Mary Hoffman)

The Wakeman Field port-o-potties.

This satellite image of then-Hurricane Sandy,

Where were you when Sandy struck?

What lessons have we learned (or already forgotten) since then?

Click “Comments” below to share!

(From Superstorm Sandy — and through Hurricanes Irma and Isaias, blizzards, and through gorgeous weather too — “06880” is here for you. Please click here to support your hyper-local blog.)

Friday Flashback #319

Just in time for Halloween … it’s the Mary Staples story!

In 1651, Goody Knapp of Stratford was accused of witchcraft. She quickly implicated another witch: Mary Staples.

That was Big News. She was the wife of Thomas Staples, who along with Roger Ludlow (later spelled “Ludlowe”) had helped found the community of Fairfield.

Thomas Staples sued Ludlow in New Haven court, for defamation. He won, and in 1654 was awarded 10 pounds in damages.

A tile depicting Mary Staples — donated by Linda Fraxer, and created by Marian Grebow — is part of the Westport Library’s River of Names.

In an era when women were burned or drowned as witches, Mary Staples survived.

In 1884 — more than 2 centuries later, and 49 years after Westport became a separate town from Fairfield — a family descendant named-Horace Staples founded his town’s Staples High School.

And today, 138 years after that, one of Fairfield’s 2 high schools — Fairfield Ludlowe — is named for Thomas and Mary Staples’ nemesis, Roger Ludlow.

After nearly 4 centuries, the rivalry lives on.

Friday Flashback #318

With a 6-part HBO Max series and a newly published memoir, Paul Newman has been back in the spotlight lately.

Both include plenty of details about his half century in Westport.

It’s well known that Newman and his wife, fellow actor Joanne Woodward, found our town thanks to the Nike Sites.

Proposed at the height of the Cold War as missile defense systems to protect electronics manufacturing facilities in Bridgeport — with the missiles housed underground on North Avenue, and a launch center on Bayberry Lane — they were highly controversial. (Click here for the full back story.) 

Westport writer Max Shulman wrote about the Nike Sites — the town’s reaction, and how it dealt with frisky GIs — in his novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys!

In 1958, the book became a movie. Newman and Woodward played characters based on town official Ralph  Sheffer and his wife Betty. They soon moved here — and never left.

The defense system was outdated from the moment it opened. In 1960, control was transferred from the US Army to the National Guard. The Nike Sites were closed 3 years later.

The Bayberry Lane barracks are now the Aspetuck Health District office; behind it is the Westport Astronomical Society’s observatory. (Now it makes sense why those structures are there, right?)

A typical Nike site — much like the North Avenue one. Missiles were buried underground.

For years the North Avenue site — just north of Staples High School — was abandoned. In 1973, the US government transferred control of the land to the town.

Neither CNN nor Newman’s memoir mention what happened next.

The Westport Astronomical Observatory — the former Nike Site launch center on Bayberry Lane — in 1975.

On October 1 of that year, a ceremony was held.  Paul Newman took part.

He called it “a great day for Westport.”  The Staples band played a couple of tunes, including — inexplicably — “On Wisconsin” and Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.”

Paul Newman (far left) at the Nike Site ceremony on October 1, 1973. From left: 2 unidentified men; 1st Selectman John Kemish. (Photo courtesy of Jim Kemish)

First Selectman John Kemish said, “The land once needed for war will now be dedicated to the pursuit of peace.  The property will now be redeveloped by our Board of Education as a facility for our children.”

It took a while for that to happen.

A plan to create a “Workshop to Nike” for Staples students — with bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, storage space, dorm rooms and a dining hall for any school group to use — was never completed.

Project Adventure — a one-quarter physical education option — installed a ropes course, high wire and 30-foot balance beam there. It too was abandoned.

Generations of Staples graduates recall the Nike Site as an overgrown, unpatrolled area — perfect for teenage mischief, tantalizingly close to the school.

Finally, the town found good use for the land. Today — shorn of any trace of both the military and its then-derelict state — it is the site of Bedford Middle School.

Few people remember those days. Fewer still remember the Paul Newman connection.

The North Avenue Nike site today.

Friday Flashback #317

Most old Westport Country Playhouse photos show the famed “summer theater” during that season. Trees obscure the handsome one-time tannery.

The Playhouse season now begins earlier, and ends later. As they prepare for “From the Mississippi Delta” — their final production of 2022 — here’s a fascinating look, with the trees bare.

The photo is undated. But the Westport Country Playhouse is timeless. If you’ve got a Playhouse memory, click “Comments” below.

(Photo courtesy of Bill Stanton)

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Friday Flashback #316

The other day, Eve Potts called.

The longtime Westporter and noted historian had some home movies, from the 1930s. They were taken by the Kelly family at Compo Beach, and had been converted to DVD. Was I interested?

The 17-minute show was intriguing — though like any home movie of any time, it would be of far more interest if I actually knew who was in it. (It would have been better with a tripod too, and not shot directly into the sun. But hey …)

Compo Beach and Soundview look very familiar. Except for fewer rocks, it’s the same scenery as today.

Except for this screenshot.

It shows Schlaet’s Point at the northern end of the beach, where Soundview meets Hillspoint/South Compo.

But what do you notice that’s different, nearly 100 years ago? (I’m not talking about bathing suit styles.)

If you know, click “Comments” below.


Friday Flashback #315

Alert “06880” reader — and 1970 Staples High School graduate Scott Brodie — writes:

These days, if you glance at the back of your flat-panel TV or computer monitor you may see a label like this:

It is a reference to the time decades ago, when TV sets were mysterious boxes filled with dozens of warm, glowing vacuum tubes. Here’s an RCA console model from 1958:

Here’s the back view:

When the tubes burned out (inevitably on a Sunday afternoon just before the start of the football game), my dad and I would gingerly remove the back cover, carefully avoiding touching the main picture tube (allegedly a serious shock hazard), and remove the various tubes within reach.

We would take them to Calise’s — the only store open on the Post Road — where it still stands. They stocked a remarkably complete assortment of groceries, but on these Sunday afternoons we headed to the self-service “tube tester,” similar to this:

One by one, the meter would declare if the tube was defective or performing as intended. Once we found the defective tube we summoned the cashier. He opened the locked cabinet at the bottom of the kiosk. With luck we would find a suitable replacement tube, or its equivalent, and buy it.

At home we would install the new tube, replace all the others (hopefully) in the right places, and — if the TV gods favored us — enjoy the rest of the game.

Why did this matter on a Sunday? The NFL forbade broadcasting home games in a team’s market area, to ensure ticket sales. But Dad had invested in the  biggest TV antenna he could find. He mounted it on our chimney with a rotor, so it could be aimed at the New Haven TV station just outside the blackout region, and pull in a (barely) serviceable TV signal:

It’s a different world today — both for TVs, and the NFL.


Friday Flashback #314

A new school year has begun. Middle school students have plenty of opportunities to learn and grow.

But shop class is not one of them.

For many years, Westport boys took wood shop, metal shop and mechanical drawing. Girls studied home economics (cooking and sewing).

Classes went coed in the 1970s. Ninth graders moved to Staples High School in 1983; middle schools replaced junior highs, and shop and home ec fell out of favor.

This Saturday Evening Post cover — drawn by Stevan Dohanos — is one reminder of those days.

The Westport artist used local boys — and Bedford Junior High (now Saugatuck Elementary School) — as models.

(Illustration courtesy of Anthony Dohanos)