Category Archives: History

The Little Red Gingerbread On Long Lots Road

It’s one of the most recognizable houses in Westport: the red “gingerbread” house at 55 Long Lots Road, just east of Hall-Brooke.

For the first time in 60 years, it’s on the market.

As befits a home built more than 150 years ago, it’s got a back story.

Plus a bit of mystery.

According to Tad Shull — a current co-owner and musician/writer in New York, who spent his childhood there — it was constructed as a caretaker’s cottage or gatehouse, elsewhere on Long Lots.

It was moved to its present site in the 1870s by William Burr, who inherited it from his father. Additions were built in the 1920s and ’60s. From the street, it still looks much like the original.

55 Long Lots Road. The entrance to Hall-Brooke is on the left.

It may (or may not) have served as a 1-room schoolhouse. But it has a definite connection to education: Burr Farms School opened in 1958 a few yards away. (It was demolished in the 1980s; all that remains are athletic fields.)

The most intriguing tale is this: Shull’s parents bought the house in 1957 from Elaine Barrie — the 4th (and last) wife of John Barrymore.

Shull had heard that the actor used the house as a “love nest.” It’s uncertain whether Barrymore lived there; Barrie bought it after he died in 1942.

Shull also heard rumors that Barrymore had an affair there with a married woman,  Blanche Oelrichs, who published poetry under the name Michael Strange. Shull found a book of her poems — with her handwritten annotations — on his mother’s bookshelf last fall.

More lore: Stevan Dohanos’ famous “Thanksgiving” painting may have used the red Long Lots house as its model/inspiration. (“06880” posted that possibility last year; click here, then scroll down for several comments confirming it.)

Stevan Dohanos’ “Thanksgiving” painting. Recognize this house?

And, Shull adds, he heard from Tony Slez — who once owned a gas station at the foot of Long Lots, where Westport Wash & Wax now stands — that his Polish relatives worked as onion pickers on the road.

Shull says that as a youngster he was teased for living “next door to a mental institution.”

But he calls his boyhood “a paradise. There were plenty of kids around. We had a pond with frogs. It was a great place.”

His family hopes that whoever buys the house will preserve it. And — even if only part of its history is true — the red gingerbread that everyone passes on Long Lots has quite a past.

Photo Challenge #145

Unlike Sam Cooke (and Herman’s Hermits), “06880” readers do know much about history.

Last week’s photo challenge showed part of a historic marker (click here to view). Very quickly, you guys (and gals) identified the location as the small Machamux park, nestled near I-95 off Greens Farms Road between Beachside Avenue and the train station.

You chimed in with other information: “Machamux” means “beautiful land” in Pequot. The plaque is on a boulder that’s the site of the very first Greens Farms meetinghouse.

But no one commented on the name of the young sachem on the plaque: “Chickens.” (Maybe people were too scared…?)

Congratulations to Fred Cantor, Joyce Barnhart, Seth Schachter, Robert Mitchell, Wendy Cusick, Jacques Voris, Amy Schneider, Seth Goltzer, W. Tucker Clark and Jacque O’Brien. You know your onions — er,  your Westport history.

But do you know where in Westport this is?

If you do, click “Comments” below.

The Little Rock 9: 60 Years Later

Steve Parrish has lived in Westport for 27 years. Now retired, he and his wife Diane raised 2 Staples High School graduates, Amanda and Clay.

Steve Parrish

In September 2007, Steve was invited to the 50th anniversary commemoration of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. Before he left, he was surprised to learn that some Westporters did not know the story of the Little Rock 9.

His visit to Arkansas was very moving. When he returned to Westport, he wrote about it. Today — on the 60th anniversary of that desegregation day — he shares his thoughts with “06880” readers.

September 25, 2007. I am standing near the steps of Central High School in Little Rock with Tina Walls, my friend and colleague of almost 20 years. There are hundreds of other people on the grounds. Many are smiling and laughing. Most of them are black.

September 25, 1957. Central High School in Little Rock. Hundreds of people were there. None were smiling, and almost all were white. The crowd was there to prevent 9 African American students — 6 girls and 3 boys—from entering.

The 1957 school year was supposed to begin on September 4, But when it became known that a group of black students planned to attend, “citizens councils” were formed.

These groups demonstrated, and threatened to physically block any African American student from entering Central High. When the identities of the black students became known, their families were harassed. They received death threats.

The Little Rock 9, with leader Daisy Bates.

On September 23, the 9 black students were slipped into school through a side door. When members of the mob learned what happened, they threatened to storm the building.

The next day, President Eisenhower ordered members the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to Little Rock. On September 25 — carrying bayonet rifles — they escorted the 9 black students into Central High School.

Adults taunted teenagers trying to go to school.

The Little Rock 9 are together again today, September 25, 2007, at Central High School. It is the 50th anniversary of the desegregation. They are on a stage built at the foot of the same steps they climbed half a century ago.

Carlotta Walls LaNier was only 14 years old that day the 101st Airborne escorted her into Central High School. Her mother Juanita also is here today. She looks beautiful, elegant and proud.

The commemoration program begins. There are speeches by the mayor, the president of the Board of Education and the governor. But it is The Little Rock 9 everyone wants to hear.

I’m not sure what I expect them to say, but I am struck by what they don’t say. They are not bitter. They are not angry.

Elizabeth Eckford tells the crowd that she has forgiven, that she doesn’t need an apology to forgive and move on. Gloria Karlmark speaks about faith, caring and sharing. She describdes the story of the Good Samaritan. Melba Beals quotes Gandhi, and says that we must be the peace we wish to see in the world.

The Little Rock 9 at Central High School — 50 years later.

When it is Carlotta’s turn, she talks about the importance of her family to her journey. She speaks of hope, and the promise of freedom for everyone. She says that The Little Rock 9 did not set out to change the world (although they did). They “just” wanted what they believed the Constitution gave them: the right to an education.

As Carlotta speaks, I look at her sister Tina and mother Juanita. I try to imagine what it must have been like for them. I try to put myself in Juanita’s position.

Could I have put my daughter in that car with the soldiers on September 25, 1957, not knowing what would happen? Could I have persevered through the profane phone calls, the death threats, the assaults on my child?

Now it is time for the keynote address. Bill Clinton — former Governor of Arkansas, former President of the United States — talks about the courage of the Little Rock 9 and their families. He says we should be grateful for what they did.

After speaking at the 50th anniversary commemoration, former President Bill Clinton gets a hug from a current Central High School student.

President Clinton tells us that is easy to have an opinion. It is easy to say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone did something to change things.”

But, he continues, “these 9 people didn’t just have an opinion. They didn’t just say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if someone did something to change things.’ These 9 people and their families stepped up and said, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me.’ ”

I look at Tina. She is crying. I look at Juanita. She is smiling — half proudly and half sadly, it seems to me.

I look at Carlotta up on that stage. Her hands cover her mouth as she tries to maintain her composure.

Carlotta Walls LaNier: recently, and in 1957.

Then it is over. The 50th anniversary commemoration ceremony concludes. The Little Rock 9 pose for more photographs, perhaps their last ever as a group.

The crowd begins to leave. Tina and I still stand in front of the stage.

I am overwhelmed. I’m not sure what to say or what to do.

And then Tina takes me by the arm. She, Juanita and Carlotta escort me up the steps and through the front door of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Central High School, 60 years ago. Despite decades of progress, race remains a deeply divisive issue in America today.

Ken Burns’ Vietnam: The Westport Connections

Ken Burns’ epic, 10-part PBS series “The Vietnam War” shines a spotlight on one of the most consequential, divisive and controversial events in American history.

Like all of Burns’ masterful works it combines visual images, music and 1st-person accounts, plus the insights of experts with a wide array of perspectives.

One of those contributors has Westport roots.

Marc Selverstone

Marc Selverstone adds his wisdom, as chair of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The project produces scholarly transcripts of secret White House tapes, from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.

The 1980 Staples High School graduate — who earned a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in history from Ohio University — also serves as an associate professor at UVa.

His contribution began 6 years ago, with a call from co-producer Sarah Botstein. Selverstone sorted through “countless” Vietnam-related transcripts, and forwarded them on. It was an arduous — but crucial — process.

The next phase of collaboration began in the fall of 2015. Selverstone and Ken Hughes — the Miller Center’s Nixon expert — spent 4 days watching the entire series at WNET in New York, with Burns and the full Florentine Films team.

Also in attendance were key figures who appear in the film: Tim O’Brien, Les Gelb, Hal Kushner and many more.

“To hear their stories on film, then speak to them — because they’re sitting right next to you — was a profound and immersive experience,” Selverstone says. “It offered access to the war, and its era, that’s hard to come by.”

Born in 1962, he remembers the assassinations 6 years later of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. He recalls too the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium protest — he was there with his father, then-Staples guidance counselor Bob Selverstone — but as an adult he’s studied Vietnam as a scholar.

“I did not have a lot of contact with people who shared so much of themselves, and the way they’d been affected by the war,” he notes.

Though the film was nearly finished, Selverstone offered feedback. He was impressed that Burns’ team was “really concerned about getting it ‘right.'”

Selverstone then worked closely with co-producer Lynn Novick on post-production, and on an Atlantic story she and Burns published last week called “How Americans Lost Faith in the Presidency.”

Now, Selverstone is writing a chapter on President Kennedy, for the upcoming “Cambridge History of the Vietnam War.” He met with Burns, Novick and the 15 other scholars involved in that book, prior to a public presentation for 1,000 people at Dartmouth College.

Selverstone has been involved in a few recent events surrounding the film too. Last week he was at the Kennedy Center with John McCain, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.

He’ll be at a special screening of the final episode in Washington on September 28. The next day he’s a panelist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In November he’ll join Novick for a Q-and-A at the Virginia Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Selverstone is busy building the Miller Center’s pages to provide more content to visitors to the PBS “Vietnam” website.

Selverstone is glad for the buzz around the film. “I hope it provides an opportunity for the country to think about its past, about those who suffered and sacrificed, and about us as a collective,” he says.

“Ken talks about how frequently we focus on the ‘pluribus’ at the expense of the ‘unum.’ If these 2 weeks and their extension into the fall allow us to take comfort through a moment of national uplift — to watch this film together, as a people, and celebrate those who endured — then it might have a tonic effect on a country sorely in need of one.”

Burns’ film has another Westport connection. Christian Appy — who graduated from Staples 8 years before Selverstone, and is now a University of Massachusetts history professor and Vietnam expert — is writing 7 articles about the film for the Organization of American Historians.

Christian Appy, and his book.

Appy — the author of “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity” — says that Burns’ film will reach more people than any book ever written about the war. It could rival audiences for films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.”

Thus, Appy says, it is critical that “history teachers of all kinds — not just Vietnam War specialists — give this documentary serious attention.”

Of course, he and Marc Selverstone already have.

Fran Southworth: Why I Stood On The Bridge

Fran Southworth has lived in Westport for 29 years. She is part of Indivisible Connecticut 4, and the Facebook Love in Action group.

Last night — saddened and horrified by the events in Charlottesville — she felt compelled to act. Fran writes:

Seeing the images of the University of Virginia students made me think about my own kids when they were in college, and the horror if they had been confronted with such hatred, intolerance and racism. Because of the hateful slogans chanted by the white supremacists, and the physical actions that caused at least 1 death and many injuries, I felt the need to unify as a community. We needed to come together to voice our opposition to hate, and teach our children and grandchildren that what they are witnessing now is not what America is all about.

So I decided to do a pop-up peaceful gathering on our bridge in Westport. I thought I might  be standing there alone with my sign: “Normalize Love Not Hate! Honk if You Agree.”

Getting Darcy Hicks involved was a sure way to gather people.

This morning Melissa Kane contacted me. We chatted about our similar family history. She spread the word as well.

Then a new activist friend, Juliana Hess, told her group. We were off and running.

Juliana wrote beautifully that people in Europe would never have sat back and done nothing if they knew what was coming. My Jewish grandparents ran for their lives from Russia. They and others told me stories of friends and relatives who ran. Many were killed in the Holocaust. Others survived. All taught me: “Never Again.”

Never again — yet Charlottesville just happened. I feel very deeply the pain, destruction and horror it has caused. I also say: “Never Again.”

Fran Southworth (center), flanked by Myra Garvett and Darcy Hicks, on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge earlier today.

I also want to speak out for my close friend and singing partner, an African American woman. Because of the history of slavery and racism in America, blacks have always struggled here. But things are worsening, with white supremacists set loose by the tacit acceptance of our administration toward violence and intolerance.

My friend explained to me that they don’t want to have a separate “Black Lives Matter” presence. Unfortunately they have to.

We have to stop these white supremacists in their tracks. We must make it very clear that they — and their hate and intolerance — have no place in our communities. White supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites are the antitheses of our American values.

The president said there are many sides to this. There are no other sides to hatred and bigotry. I watched David Duke, a former KKK leader, say that President Trump told them they will take back our country.

No! We will take back our country. We will continue to live up to the American ideals of tolerance and inclusion of all people.

We need to let our politicians know that this is a very important issue for all of us. It’s not about anyone’s political party or agenda. It’s about human decency, compassion and respect.

Bob Powers: The View From Charlottesville

Bob Powers grew up in Westport. After graduating from Staples High School in 1971, then Amherst College in ’75, he headed to med school at the University of Virginia.

He loved life in the college town. His children were born there. He moved twice — to Minnesota, and back to Connecticut. But as Powers — a physician and professor at UVa’s med school — notes, he’s now spent 30 years in Charlottesville. That’s longer than he’s lived anywhere else.

Like any Southern town, Powers says, there’s a history of racial discord dating back to slavery. Though the university has provided an intellectual base, schools there closed in the 1960s rather than succumb to desegregation.

“I have African American friends here who helped integrate the schools,” Power says. “And I have white friends who were pulled out of them.”

One of his patients — an older black woman — was involuntarily sterilized.

“This is not ancient history,” he explains.

Dr. Robert Powers

As a youngster in Westport, he says, “I was blissfully ignorant of all that. It’s part of Southern history. There’s nothing like that in the north.”

When he moved to Charlottesville he noticed rebel flags, and statues of Confederate heroes. He saw “thinly painted over signs” for colored restrooms.

Since then, he says, the town of 45,000 has gentrified. UVa has drawn “carpetbagging Yankees like me” for years.

Much of Charlottesville remains “voluntarily segregated.” There are black and white churches, funeral homes and neighborhoods. “People feel a level of comfort” in separate cultures and identities.

There is little “overt animosity” between blacks and whites, Powers says. The university in particular has made great strides toward inclusion. The dean of the medical school, hospital director and Powers’ own boss are all African American.

What happened this weekend, he says, began with outsiders who seized on the fact that Charlottesville’s officials “dithered” about removing statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from prominent places. Issues like cost, and what to do with them once they were gone, made the city a “fat target and convenient flash point” for alt-right and racist groups.

However, he adds, 2 of the main organizers have ties to the area. White supremacist Richard Spencer graduated from UVa in 2001 (with high distinction in English literature and music), while self-described “white rights activist” Jason Kessler lives in Charlottesville.

A rally last month drew Ku Klux Klan members from North Carolina. It was “nasty,” Powers says, “but not terribly violent.”

A striking image from the Ku Klux Klan’s July 8 rally in Charlottesville.

That led to a national call to action, by a variety of alt-right, Nazi and KKK groups. It also galvanized opposition from around the country.

“It was very clear that people came this weekend expecting to fight,” Powers says. Protesters wore fatigues, and carried helmets, batons and shields. Virginia is an “open carry” state; some brandished civilian versions of AK-47s.

Storeowners boarded their windows. The UVa hospital discharged patients, keeping beds open for mass casualties.

The weekend turned into “much more than the First Amendment right of assembly and peaceful speech,” says Powers.

Mostly, he says, “this was not local people behaving badly. It was people coming in to our city to behave badly.”

A scene from yesterday in Charlottesville.

On Friday night — hoping to “demonstrate opposition” to the march, by “showing our faces and being counted without confrontation or violence” — Powers and his wife Sally attended a large community prayer service. Harvard professor Cornel West gave a powerful speech. Other clergy — including Muslims — spoke too.

Powers was gratified to see that the majority of attendees were white. “This is not about race,” he says. “It’s an outrage of principle.”

A torchlight alt-right procession came close to the church. As a precaution, police kept service-goers inside.

On Saturday morning, Powers and his wife went to a clergy-led march. It ended around 9:30. The couple went home.

Soon, authorities revoked the alt-right marchers’ permit. They dispersed — unhappily — into smaller groups around Charlottesville. Police could not control them. Confrontations ended when a car roared into counter-demonstrators, killing 1 woman and injuring 19.

“I’d be horrified to watch this from a distance,” Powers says. “It’s even worse when it happens in your own back yard, in a city not prone to this.”

Now, he predicts, there will be finger-pointing. Why were demonstrators and counter-protesters allowed to be so near each other? On the other hand, how could a small city be expected to handle so many inflamed people?

Powers is sure of one thing.

“The vast majority of the city — rich and poor, white and black, university-affiliated and not — were unified against this.”

And, he notes, the woman who was killed was from Charlottesville. The driver was from Ohio.

“Someone in our town was murdered by someone from elsewhere,” he says.

Bob Powers grew up in Westport. But Charlottesville is now his home town.

Like many Americans, he grieves for it.

And like many of us — in Westport and elsewhere — he wonders what comes next.

Jean Donovan Honored With Assumption Church Plaque

Jean Donovan is one of Staples High School’s most famous alums.

And one of its least recognized.

Just 9 years after graduating with the Class of 1971, Donovan — a lay missionary helping poor people in El Salvador — was one of 4 American churchwomen killed by Salvadoran national guardsmen.

Jean Donovan

Jean Donovan

She and 3 nuns were beaten, raped, shot in the head, then dumped by the roadside.

The Catholic church is considering her for sainthood.

Her story was told in“Salvador.” Written by Oliver Stone — who directed it too, as his 1st major film — the character based on her life was played by Cynthia Gibb. Amazingly, she’s a 1981 Staples grad — and lives here still.

Other films, and several books, portray her life and death.

A Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship at Santa Clara University supports students interested in social justice, while in Los Angeles the Casa Jean Donovan Community Residence houses members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

But until recently, the only memorial to Donovan was a framed photograph in Assumption Church. That’s where her memorial mass had been held, and where she attended elementary school.

The existing memorial to Jean Donovan — a story from the Assumption Church bulletin.

John Suggs — a longtime Westporter, and Assumption parishioner — has worked tirelessly to keep her memory alive here. He enlisted the help of Donovan’s ’71 classmates.

Father Tom Thorne was proud of the chance to house a plaque in the vestibule. A blessing and unveiling ceremony will be held soon.

 

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.