Category Archives: Looking back

Westport Historical Society Mystery Object #7

This thing looks pretty intriguing. But what is it?

This is just a simple apple parer (also called an apple peeler).

They were patented in the 1800s, to meet the growing needs of farmers. Apples were becoming a winter staple for both food and beverages, but had to be processed.

Paring, coring and cutting enough apples to meet the winter need was both difficult and time consuming. Farmers first manufactured machines out of wood to make the process go more swiftly.

In the 19th century, cast iron led to a boom of patents. Over 100 were issued from 1850 to 1890.

This one was patented date in 1863. It’s still in good working condition —

It was the Westport Historical Society’s “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. The featured item changes every 2 weeks. If you stop in and identify it, you can win something from the gift shop. Just like Reeves Frey did for the apple parer.

A new mystery object is now on view at the WHS.

Damn! I’m Sure I Put That Time Capsule Somewhere Around Here …

Those pesky time capsules.

We keep burying them. And keep forgetting where they are.

It happened a few years ago with Greens Farms Elementary School.

Now it’s Saugatuck Congregational Church’s turn.

In 1866 a time capsule was buried under the cornerstone of their then-new Sunday school building. The church was located across the Post Road, and up the hill from where it is now — approximately where the gas station and adjacent bank are, near South Compo Road.

Saugatuck Congregational Church, at its original site.

In 1950 the church was moved — v-e-r-y slowly — across the street, to its current location by Myrtle Avenue. At the same time the school building was relocated to Imperial Avenue, where it created what is now Bedford Hall at the Westport Woman’s Club.

In the 1950s, Life Magazine ran photos of Bedford Hall being moved from the Post Road to Imperial Avenue.

The cornerstone was not unearthed during the move. No one seems to know what happened to it.

Now — 68 years later — the Westport Historical Society is on the case.

If you have any idea of the whereabouts of the Saugatuck Church cornerstone — or hey, any other in town — email info@westporthistory.org.

And for God’s sake, the next time you bury a time capsule, leave detailed instructions!

Paul Newman Hangs Out At Farmers’ Market

As previewed earlier this week, Paul Newman made a special appearance today at the Westport Farmers’ Market.

The movie star/blue-eyed idol/race car driver/food purveyor/philanthropist — and, for 50 years, our neighbor — is unfortunately no longer actually here with us.

But a life-size cutout of him stood under a tent, in the bustling market on Imperial Avenue.

Dozens of shoppers of all ages stopped by to pose for a photo. Many had stories. A camera crew from Newman’s Own Foundation — the Westport-based charity that in over 35 years has given away more than $530 million — recorded Newman-related memories.

It’s a Foundation project, for use as a video and on social media.

If you missed him today, don’t worry. Paul will be back on Thursday, August 16 (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). His eyes will be as blue as ever.

BONUS STORY:  I was one of the many Farmers’ Market-goers today who shared a Paul Newman story. Here’s mine:

It was the 1970s. Early one summer evening, some friends and I were playing pick-up soccer on the front field at Coleytown Middle (then Junior High) School.

Suddenly, a helicopter hovered overhead. We scattered. It landed.

Out stepped Paul Newman. He wore shorts — and carried a briefcase.

“Hi, boys!” he said cheerily.

The helicopter whirred back into the sky. And, with a wave, one of the most famous actors in the world walked around the corner to his home.

Traffic Tales: Back In The Day

The ongoing intense, important and interesting discussion about the future of the William F. Cribari Bridge — including effects on spillover traffic from I-95, particularly with tractor-trailers and other large vehicles — got me thinking.

The highway — then called the Connecticut Turnpike — sliced through Saugatuck in the 1950s, devastating that tight-knit, largely Italian neighborhood. Homes and businesses were demolished. Families were uprooted. Entire roads disappeared.

But for the rest of Westport, “the thruway” was a godsend. Post Road traffic had become almost unbearable. Trucks rumbled through day and night. Route 1 was the main — and really the only — direct route between New York and Boston.

Post Road, near the Riverside Avenue/Wilton Road intersection, a few years before I-95 was built. Fairfield Furniture is now National Hall.

I know this only because I have heard stories from people who lived here then. When my parents moved to Westport, the Turnpike was open. It was fresh, modern and new — a symbol of postwar modernity, heralding a very promising future.

What I do not know — and what many “06880” readers would like to hear — is what the Post Road was really like, in the years before I-95.

How bad was it? Did it affect parking, businesses, homes? How did people cope?

If you lived in Westport in the pre-thruway days, let us know. Click “Comments” below. Tell us what you remember. If you’ve got photos, send them along.

And if you’ve got any advice for the town and state, as we grapple once again with the future of Saugatuck, we’d love to hear it.

Westport Historical Society Mystery Object #6

If you guessed that this Westport Historical Society mystery object —

— was a wick trimmer, you were right.

Unfortunately, no one did.

The wick trimmer was part of the WHS’ “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. The featured item changes every 2 weeks. If you stop in and identify it, you can win something from the gift shop.

So what is a wick trimmer?

Until the discovery of styrene and a self-consumed plaited wick in the 19th century, a candle wick had to be snuffed or trimmed to avoid smoking. Candle trimmers, or snuffers, are scissors designed with a box attached to catch the wick as it’s being trimmed.

The Historical Society says the current mystery object is easier to identify.

We’ll believe that when we — and you — see it.

Historical Society Shines A Light On Westport’s Troubled Past

Iron shackles. Burned timbers. “Negro child.”

They’re not the usual things you see at the Westport Historical Society.

But this is not the usual WHS exhibit.

Slave shackles, on exhibit at the Westport Historical Society.

“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opened in May. It’s one of the most creative and compelling shows ever mounted at Wheeler House. (Which, the exhibit notes, sits across Avery Place from a building that may have been built by slaves.)

It’s also one of the most important.

I attended the opening reception. It was packed. I talked with people who recalled some of the important events, like Martin Luther King’s visit to Temple Israel, and the fight over bringing Bridgeport students to Westport through Project Concern.

But it was too crowded to really see the artifacts and photos, or read the texts.

So the other day I returned. The Sheffer Gallery was quiet. I had time to study the exhibit.

And to think.

I learned a lot. I’m a Westport native and lifelong New Englander. But I never knew, for example, that slavery was not fully abolished in Connecticut until 1848. (The decades-long process spared white farmers the loss of free labor while they were still alive.)

Some of Westport’s biggest names — Coley, Nash, Jesup — were slave-owners. The property deeds — as in, these human beings were their property — are right there, for all to see.

A 1780 payment voucher for a black patriot soldier who bought his freedom, and immediately enlisted.

We see too a recreated hearth, from a Clapboard Hill home. It’s cramped and dark — and it’s where a young slave girl might have slept.

The reconstruction of sleeping quarters in a crawl space, from a Clapboard Hill Road home.

I did not know that black Westporters fought for the Union in the  Civil War. Nor did I know that an unknown number of slaves are buried in unmarked graves in Greens Farms Church’s lower cemetery.

I did know — on some level — that African Americans have a long history here. But I had not thought about what it meant for them to work on our docks, in our homes, or at our farms.

Black Westporters were domestics, chauffeurs and seamstresses. But they were also, the exhibit notes, teachers, artists, physicians, activists and freedom fighters.

The exhibit includes a 1920s painting by J. Clinton Shepherd, “The Waffle Shoppe.” It may well be based on an actual restaurant on Main Street.

In the 1920s and ’30s, the Great Migration drew millions of African Americans north. Westport — offering work on farms and estates — was one destination. Black families lived on the Post Road, Bay Street — and 22 1/2 Main Street.

I have known for years that that address — set back in an alley that later became Bobby Q’s restaurant — was the site of a boardinghouse, where dozens of African Americans lived.

I knew that in 1950, it burned to the ground. Arson was suspected.

Photos and text about 22 1/2 Main Street.

But until the WHS exhibit, I did not know that a few months earlier, black Westporters had asked to be considered for spots at Hales Court, where low-cost homes were soon to be built. The Westport Housing Authority grudgingly agreed — but only after veterans, and others “with more pressing needs,” were accommodated.

Was that a cause for the fire? The exhibit strongly suggests so.

(Nearly 70 years later, construction at the old Bobby Q’s has revealed charred timbers — vivid testimony of that long-ago tragedy. It’s worth a look.)

I have long been fascinated by this photo, of one African American standing apart from everyone else in the Shercrow School photo. The WHS exhibit gives her a name — Anna Simms — and notes that she may have been a student or teacher.

The exhibit pays homage to African Americans like Drs. Albert and Jean Beasley, beloved pediatricians; Martin and Judy Hamer, and Leroy and Venora Ellis, longtime civic volunteers, and educator Cliff Barton.

It also cites the contributions of white Westporters like Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (arrested with Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida); Board of Education chair Joan Schine, who fought for Project Concern, and artists Tracy Sugarman and Roe Halper, staunch supporters of the civil rights movement.

Roe Halper presents woodcuts to Coretta Scott King. The civil rights leader’s wife autographed this photo. The artwork was displayed in the Kings’ Atlanta home for many years.

But ultimately, “Remembered” remembers the largely forgotten men, women and children who helped shape and grow our town. Some came freely. Others did not. All were, in some way, Westporters.

In the foyer outside the exhibit, a stark wall serves as a final reminder of the African Americans who lived quietly here, long ago.

It lists the 241 slaves, and 19 free blacks, found in the Green’s Farms Congregational Church record books between 1742 and 1822. Most were listed only by first names: Fortune. Quash. Samson.

Some had no names at all. They are called only “Negro Child,” or “Negro Infant.”

The wall does not carry the names of all the white people listed in the church books during those 80 years. Many are well known to us, centuries later.

And most of them, the exhibit notes, owned the men, women and children who are now honored on that wall.

(For more information on “Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport,” click here. The Westport Historical Society, at 25 Avery Place, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors. Members and children 10 and under are free.)

(WHS is also memorializing the names of over 200 Westport slaves, through bricks in the brickwalk. The $20 cost covers the brick and installation. To order, click here.)

In 1964, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the 5th anniversary of the dedication of Temple Israel. He autographed this program.

Photo Challenge #183

Westport still has a 1-room schoolhouse.

It’s not used anymore — but Marguerite Webb’s photo of a handsome part of the old building was last week’s Photo Challenge.

The school is Adams Academy, on North Morningside Drive. Madison Malin, Jacques Voris and Mary Palmieri Gai were the “06880” readers who identified it.

The town of Westport now owns the Greek Revival structure, which has official historic designation.

As well it should. From 1837 to 1867, the magnificently named Ebenezer Adams ran an eponymous coed prep school there. During his tenure, 637 students graduated. None were refused admission to college.

In 1868, Adams sold his academy and its 1-acre property to the Green’s Farms Association. They operated the school — less successfully — for the next 14 years.

A bank foreclosed the mortgage in 1882. Wealthy Long Lots resident Robert Martin bought it. The West Long Lots school district operated it as a public school until 1898.

It later became the home of grades 1-3, for the consolidated West Long Lots, East Long Lots and Green’s Farms districts.

The academy was abandoned in 1917, shortly before Greens Farms Elementary  School opened on South Morningside.

It’s been used as a town park, a home for the needy, offices for the town guidance department, and headquarters for the Westport Historical Society.

Now restored, it is one of our town’s most hidden — and historic — treasures.

(Click here for last week’s Photo Challenge. Thank you, Woody Klein, for that background information. To learn more about Adams Academy, click here.)

Patricia McMahon provides this week’s Photo Challenge. It’s a gorgeous image, and very intriguing.

(Photo/Patricia McMahon)

If you know where in Westport you’d find this, click “Comments” below.

 

Great Scott! Annual Gatsby Day Is Proposed

On May 14, 1920, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald signed a lease to rent 244 Compo Road South.

Deej Webb — whose film and book about the famous couple’s wild time in Westport has shined a light on both their literary legacy, and our town’s Jazz Age days (naked swims at Compo Beach!) — wants to make May 14 an annual holiday.

It would be called “Great Gatsby Day.”

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Photoshopped in front of their Westport home.

The 1980 Staples High School graduate/history teacher/amateur historian is circulating a petition. Citing Westport’s influence on “The Great Gatsby” (and other Fitzgerald novels), it says:

We want to insure that the town celebrates and treasures its connection with the Fitzgeralds and the book.

Furthermore, in times of rapid change we wish to ensure that this town’s marvelous history is not lost.

Webb envisions events at the Westport Historical Society and Westport Library; a tie-in with the Longshore flapper party; a walking tour of Longshore-influenced scenes from “Gatsby” and “The Beautiful and the Damned,” and more.

He’s open to other ideas from the community too.

Maybe another naked swim at Compo?

(To view — and sign — the petition to make May 14 “Great Gatsby Day in Westport,” click here.)

Michael Douglas: Once A Downshifter…

Michael Douglas has had quite a life.

The actor/producer/son of Kirk Douglas has won Emmy and Golden Globe Awards. He’s a political activist, and the husband of Catherine Zeta-Jones.

He spent some of his growing-up years in Westport. He did not go to Staples High School — his parents shipped him off to Choate — but he did join the Downshifters. That’s the hot rod club that flourished here in the 1950s and ’60s.

Michael Douglas is still making movies. And while promoting “Ant-Man” on Dan Patrick’s radio show this week, the talk turned to those long-ago days.

A screen grab from the Dan Patrick Show website.

He had a 1947 Mercury with a Model A axle in the back, the actor said. The car was named the “Ruptured Duck.”

He said he pretended to be a tough guy. “Tough being a tough guy in Westport,” Patrick noted.

And that was that. Host and guest moved on to other things.

But it’s nice to know that in some ways, Michael Douglas has never moved far from the Downshifters.

 

(Hat tips: Jim Harman and Carl Swanson)

 

Westport Historical Society Mystery Item #4

Do you know what a glass insect trap is?

I didn’t. Nor did anyone else in Westport.

Glass insect trap

The circa-1880 hand blown glass piece was the latest in the Westport Historical Society’s mystery contest. It’s part of their “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. The featured item changes every 2 weeks. If you stop in and identify it, you win something from the gift shop.

This week, no one did.

So what is a glass insect trap? According to the WHS:

Insect  traps, or insect catchers, such as this captured pests lingering in kitchens and gardens. Sugar water was poured into the trap, and a cork placed over the narrow opening.

Attracted by the sugar, insects such as flies and wasps would be caught in the trap’s belly. In Europe, these traps were used primarily to combat fruit flies at the end of the 19th and first quarter of the 20th centuries.

As utilitarian items, most were blown in a clear glass. Some came in color, created by adding elements such as manganese or selenium to the molten glass.

(For more information on the “100 Objects” exhibit, click here.)