Category Archives: History

110 Years Of Yankee Doodle Women

For 110 years, the Westport Woman’s Club has sponsored the Yankee Doodle Fair.

Attractions and entertainment have changed. But for 100 years, fair-goers have wondered “Who puts this on?”

When someone tells them, their next question is, “What’s the Westport Woman’s Club?”

To answer a century-plus of inquiring minds — and to honor their 110-year history — the WWC has hung a pop-up exhibit inside Bedford Hall. (That’s the wonderfully refurbished auditorium in their Imperial Avenue clubhouse, on the hill overlooking the Yankee Doodle Fair.)

Nearly 120 placards recount all those years of Westport Woman’s Club fundraising, and service to the town.

A placard honoring the organization that became the Westport Woman’s Club …

The story begins long before women could vote, and provides a fascinating window on women’s history, locally and nationally.

It also provides insight into public health and social services delivery here, before and after town government got involved.

… and one tying together 1920 and 1958…

It’s all for a great cause. Funds raised at the Fair go right back into the community, as grants and scholarships.

Just as they have for the past 110 years.

… and a very intriguing third.

(The Yankee Doodle Fair — and accompanying exhibit — are open tonight and tomorrow [Thursday and Friday, June 15-16], 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday hours are 1 to 10 p.m.; Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.)

A classic merry-go-round, at the Yankee Doodle Fair. (Photo courtesy Pam Barkentin)

So Proudly They Served

For the 2nd year in a row, it rained on Westport’s parade.

But a standing-room-only crowd gathered at Town Hall, for a moving ceremony honoring all who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Gathered quietly among them were many some of the many Westporters who served — and still serve — our nation.

We thank them all. We would not be here today without them.

Grand marshal Ed Vebell recounted stories as an illustrator behind World War II enemy lines.

Bill Vornkahl has organized Westport’s Memorial Day celebrations for the past 47 years.

Larry Aasen

Ted Diamond

Leonard Everett Fisher

Bob Satter

Bob Custer

Malcolm Watson

Rick Benson

Buyile Rani

Bill Delgado and Geoff Gillespie (active)

Memorial Day: We Remember

The World War II memorial on Veteran’s Green, across from Westport Town Hall, where a ceremony takes place after today’s parade (approximately 10:30 a.m.). Other monuments there honor veterans of other wars.

Long May It Wave

This Memorial Day weekend, an alert “06880” reader — who asks to be called “a local military vet” — is concerned that too many of us fly the American flag improperly. He writes:

I often see the flag hanging outside of houses in the dark and rain. The flag should traditionally be displayed only from sunrise to sunset. It may be displayed at all times if it is illuminated during darkness.

The flag should not be subject to weather damage, so it should not be displayed during rain, snow and wind storms, unless it is an all-weather flag.

When displayed on a float in a parade, it should be hung from a staff or suspended so it falls free. It should not be draped over a vehicle.

Hang a flag vertically against a wall, with the union at the top and facing the observer’s left. Over a sidewalk, ensure the union is at the top at the side farthest away from the nearest building.

The flag should never touch anything beneath it (ground, floor, water, merchandise). It should not be carried horizontally — always aloft.

It should never be used on a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be attached to the uniform of patriotic organizations, military personnel, police officers and firefighters.

The flag should not be used for advertising or promotion purposes, or printed on napkins, boxes, or anything else intended for temporary use and then discarded.

When the flag passes in parade, Americans should stand at attention facing the flag, and place their right hand over their heart.

On Memorial Day, the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon.

The Westport veteran adds:

It may seem pedantic to spend time on properly displaying the flag.

But it is not. It is important.

In the time of Trump, with so much of the population in open resistance to our elected leadership, proper respect for the flag is a way to show our commitment to the country, not the president.

Commitment can be given meaning by the individual. It does not require any notions of national defense.

For what it’s worth, everyone who enters the military takes an oath to defend the Constitution — not the president.

(For the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ “Guidelines for Display of the Flag,” click here.)

Ed Vebell: Monday’s Grand Marshal Has Stories To Tell

Everyone loves Westport’s Memorial Day parade.

It’s the one day each year that our sophisticated, hedge fund-filled suburb turns into an All-American village. The parade is filled with countless cops, youth soccer players, Y’s Men, Suzuki violinists, firefighters, library and Westport Country Playhouse representatives, and (of course) military vets and school band glockenspielers.

Everyone else who is not marching is on the sidewalk, enjoying the show.

But when the parade ends, not everyone makes it over to Veterans Green across from Town Hall.

That’s a shame. That’s where the real meaning of Memorial Day takes place. It’s a quick half hour of patriotic music, a few greetings from dignitaries.

And a speech from the grand marshal.

Ed Vebell, in his Compo Beach studio.

This year’s marshal is Ed Vebell. He’s that increasingly rare — but particularly important — American: a World War II veteran.

Ed turned 96 yesterday. He still lives alone, a few steps from the beach.

It takes him a while to get ready in the morning. He’ll get up extra early on Monday. He won’t speak long — his eyesight is going, and he can’t read speeches that well — but, he says, “I’ve got some war stories to tell.”

Does he ever.

Ed joined the Army Air Force in 1942. A talented artist-reporter, he was dropped behind enemy lines in Algiers, Italy and France. He’d sketch enemy equipment and positions, then be picked up 3 days later.

“I was a good target for snipers,” Ed says. “The photographers just took their pictures and ducked down. I had to stand up and draw.”

Of course, he adds, “when you’re 20 you think you’re invincible.”

He had good reason to think that. He tumbled from the Swiss Alps in a Jeep (he landed in snow-covered trees). He was lost at sea for 11 days. A sword pierced his chest. He was hit by a locomotive.

But he survived. And, Ed says, “it was all really something. I was a young kid from Chicago who had never even seen the ocean.”

An Ed Vebell illustration made in Italy, in 1944.

When the war ended, Ed stayed in France for nearly 3 years. He worked for a French newspaper, enjoyed the Folies Bergère, met Charles de Gaulle and Edith Piaf — and covered the Nuremberg trials.

Returning to America, he worked for Readers Digest, Time and Life. He illustrated books and advertisements.

He also represented the US as a fencer, at Helskinki in 1952. (He made the semifinals.)

Oh yeah: A book he wrote about his experiences — “An Artist at War” — comes out soon.

Ed Vebell definitely has stories to tell.

No one should miss them on Monday.

Ed Vebell’s book will be published next month.

 

 

Westport’s Amazing World War II Families

It may be an American record.

During World War II, 8 of the 12 Cuseo sons left Westport, to enlist in the armed forces.

Fortunately, only one — James — was killed.

The Cuseo family in 1935 or ’36. Daughter Mildred is missing.  Father James and mother Lucy are in the middle.. (Photo courtesy of Woody Klein’s book “Westport, Connecticut.”)

But when the Cuseos’ mother, Lucy, died in 1943, her daughter said it was due to her “broken heart.”

Lucy was buried here with military honors. American Legion members served as pallbearers.

The Cuseos’ contributions to World War II were astonishing. But in terms of sacrifice, none made more than the Wassell family.

Four sons enlisted. All were pilots. Three were killed in action — all within 15 months of each other.

Charles P. “Pete” Wassell

Before the war, Harry — the oldest — helped design fighter planes in Stratford. He, his brother Bud and other Westport men started the Westport Defense Unit, to teach marksmanship.

He enlisted in the Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor. A 2nd lieutenant, he died in Iceland in 1943 while ferrying aircraft to the European Theater.

Frank L. “Bud” Wassell Jr.

Like Harry, Bud left college because of the Depression. The 2 sons worked with their father, Lloyd, in starting the Wassell Organization on Sylvan Road. A very successful businessman, he had worked as personal assistant to George Westinghouse, founder of Westinghouse Electric.

The company invented and sold production control equipment, becoming instrumental in expediting the efficiency of defense contractors. A 1st lieutenant flight commander, Bud was killed in 1943 in a midair collision, while a flight instructor in Florida.

Harry B. Wassell

Pete — a 1940 Staples High School graduate — left Middlebury College to train as a pilot in the Civil Air Patrol. He transferred to the Army Air Force, and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant navigator.

He served in the China/ Burma/India Theater, and died in 1944 after his B-24 aircraft was hit by antiaircraft fire while attacking a Japanese cruiser.

The 4th son — George — was a member of Staples’ Class of 1943. But he left high school in 1942, to enlist as an aviation cadet. Appointed a B-17 aircraft commander at the age of 18, he was recalled from overseas duty when his 3rd brother Pete was killed. He served as a B-17 pilot instructor through the war’s end.

George Wassell with his parents, Lloyd and Georgene, by the Westport train station on Railroad Place in 1943 or ’44.

George turned down a full engineering scholarship to Cornell in order to join his father in the Wassell Organization.

Pete left behind a child, born 2 months after his death. Harry had a daughter, Patty, who still lives in Westport. George married Betsy Schuyler in 1945. They raised 6 children in Westport.

George and Betsy Wassell at Longshore, not long after the war.

When Lloyd moved his family to Westport before the war, he and his wife Georgene bought several acres of land on Mayflower Parkway. He built a large house (by 1930s standards), and planned to give building lots to his 6 kids: the 4 boys, and daughters Pat and Betty.

World War II sabotaged all that. But George and Pat did build homes there after the war. George added a pool, 3-hole golf course and tree house. The property became a great attraction for lots of cousins, and tons of neighborhood kids.

Longtime Westporter Jono Walker — George’s nephew — remembers those times fondly.

“The Wassells never dwelled on their tragic history,” he says. “At least none of us kids ever felt it. The house was constantly filled with great joy and life.”

As for George and Betsy: They moved to New Hampshire in 1974. He died in 2010, age 85. She is now 89, and lives in Maine.

The Wassell brothers’ 2 sisters are still alive. Betty is 98, in Florida, and Pat is 89, in Colorado.

The brothers and their parents are all buried at Willowbrook Cemetery.

(Hat tips: Eric Buchroeder, Jono Walker and Bud Wassell)

Friday Flashback #40

As Westport celebrates the 50th anniversary of the purchase of Cockenoe Island — click here if you missed that recent post, with all that fascinating saved-from-a-nuclear-power-plant history — Bill Whitbeck sends along this fascinating Kodachrome.

Click on or hover over to enlarge.

It was taken in 1971, looking north from Cockenoe Bay toward Saugatuck Shores (in the distance).

Bill says:

The photo shows a typical day on a summer weekend, with many boats enjoying this beautiful island. You can see a group of large tents on the sandbar off to the left, where families would camp for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, most of this sandbar has eroded into just a tiny strip of land, currently only exposed at low tide. You can clearly see how wide the sandbar was 46 years ago.

Sure, the sandbar is gone. But can you imagine what the scene would be like today if — 4 years earlier — many Westport political leaders and citizen activists had not said, clearly and loudly and repeatedly: “Save Cockenoe Now!”

Famed Westport Family Graves Vandalized

The Coley family has been in Westport a long time. Anyone who has heard of “Coleytown” knows the name.

Bill Coley has not lived in Westport since 1968. But — like other “06880” readers — he took time on Mother’s Day to visit his family plot. Here’s what he found:

My wife and I were in town on Sunday. We decided to visit Coley Cemetery on Weston Road, just over the Westport border. (It was known as Norfield Cemetery before being transferred to the town of Weston by Norfield Congregational Church, about 20 years ago.)

This is where my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great- grandmother are all buried, along with several older generations whose tombstones are now so weathered as to be unreadable.

When we arrived, we discovered that 6 to 8 gravestones in our plot and an adjoining one had been knocked over. Several were broken, including my great- grandmother, Abbie A. (Gray) Coley.

A few of the vandalized graves in Coley Cemetery.

Although Abbie died 70 years before I was born, I have always felt a special affinity toward her and her husband, my great-grandfather Horace Coley. He was a farmer and teacher in Westport in the mid- to late 1800s.

Seeing her stone knocked over and broken in half hit me in a way I never would have imagined. Even as I write this 4 days later, I am still very emotionally affected by it.

Our plot is at the back of the cemetery, so the vandals would have been virtually invisible to anyone driving by on Weston Road. We reported the damage to the Weston Police, who are investigating.

I remember this happening once before when I was growing up, but I was still shocked by what I saw. It is obviously the work of teenagers with too much time on their hands.

I know it’s unlikely, but if anyone has heard anything about this incident, please contact the Weston Police. The case number is 17-4298.

Abbie (Gray) Coley’s tombstone, before the vandalism.

Get Your Historic Home Preservation Tax Credits Here!

One of the constant themes on “06880” — not as popular as entitled drivers and parkers, but then what is? — is real estate.

Specifically: tearing down an old home, or preserving it.

There are valid arguments on both sides of the (picket) fence. But here’s something homeowners considering both options may not know:

Connecticut has a statewide Historic Preservation Office.

And a Historic Homes Rehabilitation Tax Credit program.

Normally, you’d have to dig to find that information. But on Saturday, May 20 (10 a.m. to 12 noon, Westport Historical Society), an architectural preservationist for the state will present a workshop on that important topic.

Alyssa Lozupone — whose office is part of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development — will discuss the application process. She’ll describe financial calculations, plus standards for work (including such now-that-I-think-of it questions like “Can I power wash the exterior?”).

Marc Lotti — a former member of Westport’s Historic District Commission — will be there too. He’ll discuss his very successful use of the program to restore his Kings Highway North home.

Marc Lotti’s historically preserved home.

Preservation can be more costly than other alternatives. But ours is one of the few states that offers tax credits for saving historic structures.

Of course, to take advantage you first have to know about them.

Now you do.

(Click here for more information on the May 20 event.)

Uncovering 300 Years Of Church History

In 2011, Green’s Farms Congregational Church celebrated its 300th anniversary.

The other day, operations director Claire England sent me a copy of a souvenir brochure, produced for that occasion.

I’m amazed I didn’t see it earlier. It’s filled with astonishing stories, intriguing sidelights, and tons of fun facts.

I’m sorry it’s taken me 6 years to get around to reporting on this. But after 3 centuries, that’s not so bad.

Here are a few things I learned:

† In colonial days, communities were led by their churches. The term “1st selectman” — for our town’s leader — dates back to the days when the secular leader of the church was “selected first.” Even after Westport was incorporated in 1835, Green’s Farms Congregational members served as 1st selectmen. In 1997, Diane Goss Farrell — a Green’s Farms congregant — was elected 1st Selectwoman.

Before services were announced by a drum or bell, early settlers were called to worship by the beating of 2 thin strips of board, from a high hill.

So, the brochure asked, was Clapboard Hill named for the excellent quality of building wood that was harvested there, or for its great location that allowed worshipers to hear the clapping of the boards?

An early map of Green’s Farms. Turkey Hill and Clapboard Hill are in the center. The 1st church site (now marked by Machamux boulder) is just below that. The 2nd site is marked “Colonial Church” (center left). “Third and Fourth” Churches are also noted at the top. Green’s Farms’ founding Bankside Farmers properties can be seen along Long Island Sound. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

 In 1742, Reverend Daniel Chapman — who had served as minister since the church’s founding 31 years earlier — was dismissed. The reason: He “hath led for several years an Eregular [sic] life …in being sundry times overtaken in drinking to excess.”

150 years later, then-Reverend Benjamin Relyea noted: “In those times, when it was an act of discourtesy in making pastoral calls to refuse to partake of something from the array of decanters which always stood upon the sideboard, the only wonder is that any minister ever went home sober.”

After the British burned the 2nd Green’s Farms Church (located near the current commuter parking lot, at the corner of what’s now the Sherwood Island Connector and Greens Farms Road), services were held in private homes for 10 years.

Meanwhile, the new American government compensated our local church for its losses during the war with land in the Ohio wilderness, known as the “Western Reserve.” The church later sold its Ohio lands, to raise money for the new meeting house (on Hillandale Road, site of the current building).

Lucy Rowe’s headstone.

The original Bankside Farmers — founders of Green’s Farms parish — owned slaves. A century later, many freed slaves lived in Green’s Farms as respected residents. When slavery was finally abolished in Connecticut in 1848, the “last of the slaves” — Charles Rowe — was church sexton. He lived on Hyde Lane, near where Long Lots School is now. He and his wife Lucy are buried in the Green’s Farms Upper Cemetery (adjacent to the current church.)

The church’s original burial ground still stands, on the corner of Green’s Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector. The oldest gravestone belongs to Andros Couch, who died in 1730 at 57. Also buried there are the church’s 1st 3 ministers, who served for a total of 110 years; several sea captains, including Franklin Sherwood, and Dr. Ebenezer Jesup — a surgeon in George Washington’s army — along with his 3 wives.

In 1911, the church celebrated its 200th anniversary by commissioning a bas-relief plaque honoring past ministers. The artist was Gutzon Borglum — the same man who carved Mt. Rushmore. He seldom did small commissions — but friends in the congregation asked him for this one.

On November 25, 1950, the 100-year-old steeple crashed down during a hurricane. The weight of the bell carried it through the roof of the meeting house, into the Sunday School.

At the time, declining membership had already created doubts about the church’s future. Services attracted as few as 27 people, with the collection seldom reaching $5.

Insurance covered part of the steeple damage, and a subscription campaign raised the rest. Many non-members — calling the steeple a “landmark” and a “beacon” for sailors — contributed. That drive helped save the church. By 1957, membership had grown so large that 2 Sunday services were needed.

Part of the 1951 fundraising appeal.

There is much more of interest in the Green’s Farms Church’s 300-year historical brochure.

Here’s to its next 294 years!