Category Archives: Looking back

A.E. Hotchner: Westport Till The Cows Come Home

A.E. Hotchner — the author and philanthropist who died on Saturday at 102 — was a true Westporter. He moved here in 1953, and — with fellow resident Paul Newman — helped create both Newman’s Own foundation and the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Many Westporters knew him through his other passion: tennis. 

In 1986, he wrote a piece about our town for the New York Times. “06880” reader Dick Seclow received it from a friend, Kelsey Libner, and sent it along. Thirty-three years ago, Hotchner said:

WHEN I first came to Westport in the 50’s, it was referred to as ”going to the country.” I rented a primitive little cabin for $300 for the summer, and as far as I was concerned, confined as I had been for most of my young life to the unforgiving streets of St. Louis and New York, Westport was indeed ”country.”

There were shops run by stonemasons and welders and old-fashioned hardware stores with bins of nails that were sold by the scoopful. Greenberg’s on Main Street sold ”notions” (a wonderful word that has gone the way of the pterodactyl), and on Main Street, too, there was a butcher shop where sides of beef hung on hooks and the butcher wore a straw boater, and a fish store that sold fish that had been unloaded from fishing boats that very morning. There was even a blacksmith who would make a grate for you in his forge that would precisely fit your fireplace.

Main Street in 1962 — nearly a decade after A.E. Hotchner moved to Westport.

On the Post Road was Rippe’s vegetable stand, bins heaped with vegetables grown on farmland behind the stand, and crisp apples picked from Rippe’s own orchards. In fact, Rippe operated an old-fashioned cider mill in full view, and the foamy, amber juice that spilled down the trough was sold to the customers right on the spot. I once bought a wooden barrel full of Rippe’s cider, deceived by the barrel’s compact shape into severely underestimating the quantity of its contents. As Thanksgiving gave way to the wintry gusts of December, the spigot of the barrel unceasingly yielded its golden contents that imperceptibly matured, climaxing in a drunken Christmas revel.

After a few years, I forsook my cabin (with some regret) for a grand, Normandy house that I couldn’t afford and still can’t afford. It was straddled by a wheat field on one side and a meadow on the other that yielded fraises de bois if you were willing to crawl along the ground, searching for the tiny, red fruit hidden under the leaves of the plant. I did, on the conviction that whatever you had to do to obtain a bowl of freshly picked fraises de bois was well worth the crawling.

But of all the country pleasures of Westport, none for me was greater than watching the vast herd of black and white Guernsey cows grazing on the emerald pastures of the Nyala Farm, which was located in the Greens Farms section of town, adjacent to the turnpike exit, so that as I arrived on Friday, the woes of the past New York week clinging to me, the first thing I saw as I hit Westport was this Turner landscape filled with magnificent Guernsey cattle.

Nyala Farm (Robert Vickrey painting, courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

The farmhouse, constructed of old New England stone, strongly evoked an English countryside in the cows’ native Guernsey. And every morning, Mike Ferris of the Ferris Dairy delivered a couple of quarts of Guernsey milk, a thick layer of cream extending all the way down the neck and into the shoulder of the bottle. No milk ever tasted like that before or since.

I can’t tell you precisely when the country started to go out of Westport. It didn’t happen just like that, but one after the other, Greenberg’s notions, the authentic hardware stores, the shop of the stonemason, the smithy, the butcher shop and the fishmonger were replaced by Ann Taylor, Laura Ashley, Aca Joe and the Banana Republic. Rippe’s vegetable stand and the fertile, verdant fields that had grown the cauliflower, tomatoes, corn and strawberries, became a packed enclave of condominiums.

But the day I knew the country had irrevocably gone out of Westport was when I made that turn off the turnpike from New York, expecting as always to be solaced by the balming sight of that lovely Guernsey herd, but the herd had vanished – not a single Guernsey cow, a herd that had been grazing that lush, hilly meadow only a week before. Nyala Farms had been bought out by the Stouffer [sic — Stauffer] Chemical Company, and the building where once the Guernseys had been quartered and milked and calved was now occupied by people engaged in the business of dispensing chemicals, many of them, I was sure, antipathetic to the very meadows where the Guernseys once roamed. And, of course, Mike Ferris never came to our door again.

The Nyala Farm office complex. Its 2020 tenants include the Bridgewater hedge fund.

In what I can only think of now as a gesture of angry defiance, I plowed under my wheat field and built a tennis court on the meadow that had nurtured the shy fraises de bois. It was all over, wasn’t it, so why not the coup de grace? The hell with it. Westport had become an extension of New York. Main Street was riddled with Madison Avenue shops. Burger King, Beefsteak Charlie’s, Shoe Town, Waldenbooks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Hallmark Cards, Sam Goody – name it, it was here or on the way. Real-estate developers outnumbered the gypsy moths.

I never again referred to Westport as ”going to the country.”

Never, that is, until Murray McMurray came into my life. I don’t know who suggested that he get in touch with me, but I am forever indebted to my anonymous benefactor. Murray McMurray sent me a letter and a brochure from his hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. On the cover of the brochure were two of the most exotic chickens I had ever laid eyes on, identified as Dark Brahmas, and on the inside cover was a picture of Murray himself, with a Black Giant hen sitting on his shoulder.

Until that moment, apart from a restaurant menu, I had never thought much about chickens, one way or another. But as I marveled over the grace and beauty of what Murray called his Rarest of Rare Breeds -huge, plump Cochins with thick feathers all the way down their legs and feet to the ground, Crevecoeurs native to Normandy, Silver Gray Dorkings bred by the Romans and brought by them to Britain, Phoenix and Yokohamas, ancient breeds that roam Japan’s Imperial Gardens, graceful, long-tailed Sumatras indigenous to the island of Sumatra, cinnamon-colored Cubalayas from Cuba, a very rare breed, La Fleche, from France, Chanteclers, natives of Quebec – page after page of beauties that I’m sure Frank Perdue wouldn’t recognize.

A Westport chicken coop — though not A.E. Hotchner’s.

A local carpenter built a little henhouse for me and I sent away for the Sears Farm Catalogue, from which I ordered a cluster of nest units in which my rarest of rare could lay their eggs, a feeder, a waterer, buckets, scoops and all the other wonderful paraphernalia that a chicken fancier needs. I sent my order to Murray McMurray and awaited the arrival of my day-old chicks.

Murray McMurray has indeed put the country back into Westport for me. Those baby chicks have grown into the most wondrous creatures you can imagine. What do I care if Roy Rogers is building a wretched, fast-food outlet on the nearby Post Road, when I can go out in the henhouse in the morning and take a couple of warm eggs from under an obliging Lakenvelder or Dominique for my breakfast? Last Easter, my son didn’t have to dye any eggs because the Araucanas lay turquoise, blue and green eggs. And for the information of misguided jokers, the Polish hens are not dumb clucks but very austere ladies who wear large round bonnets of feathers.

I wake in the morning now to the muted sound of a Cochin rooster’s strutful cry. I know I’m in the country. No mistaking it.

(Click here for the link to the story in the Times‘ archives.)

Hail To The Chiefs!

No, not the ones from Kansas City.

I’m talking about our nation’s presidents. You know, the guys — and yeah, they’re all men — who we celebrate today in the usual manner: with special sales, no mail delivery, and absolutely no thought given to Zachary Taylor, Benjamin Harrison or Gerald Ford, let alone actual presidents like Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and (the big one) William Howard Taft.

Westport — a national leader in areas like hedge funds, education and nannies — would seem to be a natural for presidents too.

We’re not.

Besides passing through on the railroad or highway, our town has few connections with our commanders-in-chief.

George Washington, of course, slept here — he slept everywhere. In 1780 he is said to have discussed war strategy with the Marquis de Lafayette and Comte de  Rochambeau at the Disbrow Tavern (where Christ & Holy Trinity Church is today). He returned twice in 1789 as president, coming and going on an inspection tour of the Northeast. He spent 1 night at the Marvin Tavern — located on the Post Road, opposite King’s Highway South — but did not have a bang-up time. In his diary, he called it “not a good house.”

 

This may be the only time Millard Fillmore appears in my blog. Or any blog.

Millard Fillmore was a guest at Richard Winslow’s “Compo House” mansion on the North Compo/Post Road corner (it later became a sanitarium, then was torn down before tear-downs became fashionable). But that was here 6 years after he left office.

Abraham Lincoln supposedly stayed at Hockanum, Morris Ketchum’s Cross Highway estate near Roseville Road, during his presidency. Woody Klein‘s history of Westport says only that Salmon P. Chase — Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury — was a frequent guest. Hockanum still stands; there is a “Lincoln bedroom” upstairs, and the deed states that no changes can be made to that room.

Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke on the steps of the YMCA’s Bedford Building during his re-election campaign of 1936. He was the 1st sitting president to definitively visit since George Washington. In addition, FDR’s grandson David lived here for several years in the 1990s. And FDR’s wife, Eleanor, often visited Lillian Wald’s South Compo “Pond House.” I know, I’m stretching here…

Hey hey, LBJ…

Lyndon Johnson was friendly with Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas — so friendly that that helped scuttle Fortas’ nomination to be Chief Justice in 1968. Fortas had a summer home on Minuteman Hill, and some beach residents say that Johnson was an occasional guest.

Bill Clinton trolled here for money, before and during his presidency. As president he attended fundraisers at the Inn at National Hall, and a private home on Saugatuck Avenue. Both were low-key affairs, if you don’t count the 25-car motorcades, sharpshooters on top of buildings and helicopters whirling overhead.

And, of course, in 2012 Barack Obama flew in for a fundraiser at the Beachside Avenue home of not-yet-disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. I’m sure the former president would like a do-over on that one.

The presidential motorcade at Harvey Weinstein’s Beachsdie Avenue house, in 2012. (Photo/White House pool, courtesy of WestportNow)

Westport has had better luck with presidential candidates. Like Bill (and Hillary) Clinton, in recent years many made their way here — more for fund-raising than actual vote-seeking. Who knows?  Soon, Amy Klobuchar or Elizabeth Warren — or one of the guys — may come to town.

Though I’m guessing — for different reasons — we’ll see neither #45, nor Mike Bloomberg.

Friday Flashback #180

I’ve written about this before.

But every so often, a reader discovers a 35-year-old video about Westport. And sends it to me, as if I’ve never seen it.

If you lived here in 1985 — as I did — you know it well.

That year, the Marketing Corporation of America gave the town a 150th- anniversary: a 30-minute film.

MCA is no longer around. Westport is no longer the “marketing capital of America.”

But after 3 1/2 decades, “Westport’s Got It All” is the gift that keeps on giving.

The video is filled with celebrities who lived here. Strangely — or, perhaps, understatedly and on purpose — none are named. Jim McKay reads a newspaper by the river. Harry Reasoner sits near a tennis court. Joanne Woodward has a cameo.

ABC's "Wide World of Sports" anchor Jim McKay sits on the banks of the Saugatuck River, in the town he called home.

ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” anchor Jim McKay sits on the banks of the Saugatuck River, in the town he called home.

Okay, so Rodney Dangerfield cracks, “The town of Westport has my respect.” But that’s the closest anyone comes to identifying him or herself.

The video opens with a cheesy, “Westport’s Got It All” song (including the line “Kids hanging out at the Dairy Queen…”). It’s sung by former Westporter Dara Sedaka — Neil’s daughter.

But the pace quickens. There are shots of Main Street, the Playhouse, Staples, Compo, the downtown art show, Longshore, Cockenoe, the Levitt and the Memorial Day parade (ending at Jesup Green).

Most look pretty much the same today. But there are plenty of other places and things that are long gone: Remarkable Book Shop. The White Barn Theater. Mohonk House. Hay Day (in its original location, opposite Carvel). MCA.

And, of course, restaurants: Manero’s, Chez Pierre, Ships, Peppermill, Three Bears, Allen’s Clam House, Connolly’s … and on and on.

I found the voiceovers fascinating. Mason Adams, Alan Parsell, Herb Baldwin, Claire Gold, Julie Belaga, Dick Leonard, Cary Pierce — I recognized the voices of so many former politicians, educators, students and others.

Crusty Yankee Alan Parsell was 83 years old when he was interviewed for the 150th-anniversary video.

Crusty Yankee Alan Parsell was 83 years old when he was interviewed for the 150th-anniversary video.

Here are some of the things they said:

  • “Nothing goes on here that people aren’t concerned about. For every issue, there are at least 10 sides.”
  • “I’m worried the town is losing its mix of a variety of people.”
  • “Westporters have extraordinary aspirations for their children. And they’re willing to pay for it.”
  • “I work 2 jobs, 90 hours a week, to keep my head above water here.”
  • “Westport has the sophistication of New York, the exuberance of a California town, the quaintness of New England — and a sense of humor.”
  • “We do have latchkey children, as more and more parents go off to work.”
George Weigle conducts the Staples Orphenians. They sound great in the video.

George Weigle conducts the Staples Orphenians. They sound great in the video.

  • “It’s a very loving community, in many ways.”
  • “We draw people into town, to go to the theater and movies.”
  • “The Post Road is a disaster. But every town has its Post Road. This one looks better than many.”
  • “Commercialization has really changed this town. It’s been good and bad.”
  • “It’s a generous, gregarious, outgoing town. You can dress any way you like. You can be anyone you want to be. That’s the uniqueness of the community.”

That was Westport, 1985. Thanks to MCA, we’ve got a video record — promotional, but still pretty honest — of who we were.

What’s happened in the past 35 years? Are we better, worse, just different — or the same — as we were back in the days when big cars roamed Main Street, the Church Lane YMCA was still new, and people came from out of town for the movies?

Click on the video below (then wait 10 seconds to begin). Then click “Comments.”

Westport History Museum Removes Historic Name

Ann Sheffer is a native Westporter. The Staples High School Class of 1966 graduate’s family arrived here nearly a century ago.

Her father Ralph served on the RTM for 16 years, 10 as moderator. He chaired the Nike Site Committee, which managed the difficult task of bringing two military facilities to town, on North Avenue and Bayberry Lane. As chief fundraiser for the Westport Library, he helped spearhead the move from the Post Road to its present location.

Ann’s mother Betty was an active town volunteer. After her death at a young age, the Betty R. Sheffer Foundation provided major funding for arts, education, health care and history projects.

Ann Sheffer

Ann has carried on the family tradition. She is involved in literally dozens of town committees and events, including arts, education, history and culture.

For many years, the main exhibition space at the Westport Historical Society was called the Sheffer Gallery.

The institution’s name change — it is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture — as well as new leadership has brought many changes. Among them: The Sheffer Gallery will now be called the Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall.

A number of Westporters who were long associated with the WHS have expressed dismay at the changes — including the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery. Ann Sheffer is among them. She sent this open letter to the Westport History Museum:

Last week I drove by Wheeler House. I was pleased to see that the bricks that I bought to commemorate my family’s tenure in Westport are still there (and my husband Bill’s name is now spelled correctly), as are Miss Liberty and Uncle Sam, who have graced the porch or lawn of the house since we donated them in 2000 as part of the Millennium celebration.

Bricks bought by Ann Sheffer and her husband Bill Scheffler, honoring the extended Sheffer family.

As the bricks note, my family has been part of Westport since 1930, and also very involved with the Westport Historical Society. I don’t want to recite all of the volunteer positions we’ve held, contributions to the archives we’ve made, and most significantly, the major contribution to the expansion of the building, which resulted in the naming of the Exhibition Hall in honor of my parents.

So I was dismayed to receive a letter from your board president, Sara Krasne, with the following vague, disingenuous “notice” that the Westport History Museum had received “a significant donation for the purpose of upgrading the exhibition hall to a modern, state-of-the-art standard in return for naming the hall after the donor.”

First, it’s very unprofessional of you to send me a letter rather than speaking to me in person — and trying to understate the fact that you are taking my parents’ names off of the Exhibition Hall. I’m disappointed that you don’t value our history of support for the organization enough to be honest about what you are doing.

Second, it is a fairly serious breach of faith and fiduciary responsibility to remove a donor’s name from a building without having the courtesy to ask their permission.

“Uncle Sam” and “Miss Liberty” — donated to the Westport Historical Society in 2000 by Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler — were almost sold last year. They still remain at what is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

I would note that my family’s contributions are recognized by a number of other cultural organizations in town, most notably the Westport Library — whose director, Bill Harmer, called me as soon as the plans for the recent renovation were announced, to discuss how we would like our family’s name to be displayed in the new design.  Not only were we delighted to be consulted, but his approach resulted in our making additional contributions.

I’m very disappointed that an organization that is ostensibly dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of Westport would be so insensitive and dismissive of the historical contributions that have insured their existence.

I have no interest in any further discussion with you. But I sincerely hope that you will not treat other donors in such a dismissive fashion, and that you will make an effort to honor the founding principles of the Westport Historical Society despite your name change.

Westport is, as we often say, a special place, with a long history worth celebrating — and the Westport History Museum has a responsibility to preserve that history in an ethical and professional manner.

 I asked executive director Ramin Ganeshram to respond. She emailed back: “Please find the official press release regarding the exciting opportunity to upgrade the Exhibition Hall in order to continue the Museum’s transformative path toward excellence in providing world class exhibits in the tradition of our award-winning ‘Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport.'”

Here is that press release, dated Friday, January 10 but suddenly sent yesterday morning:

Westport Museum (formerly Westport Historical Society) is honored to announce that it will be naming its main exhibit hall after local philanthropist Daniel E. Offutt, III following a significant donation from the Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust. Mr. Offutt, who lived in Weston, was a generous donor to many local nonprofits both during his lifetime and via his estate.

The gift is the largest single donation ever received by the Museum. The main exhibit hall was formerly named after Ralph & Betty Sheffer, longtime supporters of the Museum who provided the major funding to complete the space in 2002.

“We are thrilled to be able to name this significant cultural resource after Mr. Offutt who was a generous and active member in the local community. His interest and support has helped many cultural organizations here and around the nation,” says Ramin Ganeshram, Executive Director of Westport Museum. “I only wish Mr. Offutt were with us to see the value his good work will bring to this and surrounding communities.”

Daniel Offutt had a lifetime interest in history and in art as both a collector and an artist. A self-described “farmer,” he was more aptly described as a “Renaissance Man”: a tennis player, traveler, sailor, metal sculptor, wood worker, fixer of anything, collector of everything, lover of projects, stock market investor, and a good friend. Mr. Offutt lived for more than 30 years in Weston, Connecticut in a house that he built himself.

The gift from Mr. Offutt’s Trust will enable Westport Museum to make much needed upgrades to its main exhibit hall, in keeping with national museum standards to provide quality experiences with universal access to the widest audience. The goal of upgrading exhibit spaces at the Museum is part of a multi-year strategic initiative to create a world class regional Museum in Westport.

“As Trustee, I am pleased to support the growth and improvement envisioned for the Museum,” said Richard H. Orenstein. “Working with Ramin has been an easy and creative endeavor.”

“Thanks to this significant gift we will be able to create our next ground-breaking exhibit with the highest standards in mind,” said Ganeshram. The first exhibit to open in the newly remodeled space will be in late 2020 about Westport’s indigenous people who inhabited the town and surrounds for 7500 years before European colonization.

While the name change is effective immediately, a plaque will be formally installed to rename the gallery “The Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall at Westport Museum” at a ceremony to take place at the opening of the 2020 indigenous people’s exhibit in November.

Photo Challenge #262

Seems like there are a lot of wrought iron fences in town.

One surrounds Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. Another sits outside “Fort Apache” — the medical center on Kings Highway North,near Wilton Road.

Neither of those fences was last week’s Photo Challenge, though. Amy Schneider captured the one at Winslow Park. It was built for a previous use of the rolling land bordered by North Compo and the Post Road: originally handsome estate for Henry Richard and his wife Mary Fitch Winslow (click here for that amazing back story), then part of the mysterious and spooky Westport Sanitarium (click here).

The first person to correctly recognize that fence was Fred Cantor — though he qualified “Winslow Park?” with a question mark.

We see that fence all the time, stuck at that Post Road/Compo traffic light. Next time, look a bit more closely.

It’s beautiful.

Today’s Photo Challenge is a cornerstone. No one is alive today who remembers it being laid — but it was an important one. Click “Comments” below if you know where it is.

(Photo/Dan Woog)

Have A Holly Jolly Johnny Marks Christmas

The list of famous Westporters is vast and well-known. Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Rodney Dangerfield, Bette Davis, Michael Douglas, Rod Serling, Martha Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Bolton, Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Robert Ludlum, Jim Nantz, Harry Reasoner, Meat Loaf, Nile Rodgers, Neil Sedaka, Frank Deford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Lindbergh, Fiorello La Guardia, James Comey — and those are only a few.

So why do we never mention Johnny Marks?

This Christmas, it’s appropriate to remember the man who for many years had a home on Green Acre Lane, off South Compo.

He died in 1985 from complications of diabetes. His son still lives here.

Johnny Marks

Marks wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — the classic tune that, since its first release by Gene Autry in 1949, has sold nearly 200 million records.

That was just the start. Marks formed his own publishing company — St. Nicholas Music — and churned out a slew of other Christmas classics: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Run, Rudolph, Run” and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” among them.

Not bad for a Jewish kid from Mount Vernon, New York.

I’ve tried to find some information on Marks’ life in Westport. It’s hard to come by.

If you remember him, click “Comments” below.

If you’ve got stories of how his songs impacted your life, you can add those too.

Let’s not forget Johnny Marks. He’ll go down in history!

Looking Back At An Unsung Hero: Snow Day Edition

Alert “06880” reader and native Westporter Seth Van Beever writes:

The unsung hero of every child in Westport on a snow day was John La Barca at WMMM. We listened closely to the alphabetical school closings announcements.

A snow day was all about going to Birchwood Country Club to go sledding.

Oh yeah. I remember. Every 10 minutes or so, John would start: Ansonia, Amity Regional, Bethel…

It was an agonizing wait. Who cared about Our Lady of Fatima? Did it even exist?

But then — right after “Weston…” we would hear “Westport.”

And all would be right with the world.

In addition to Birchwood, Winslow Park (pictured this past March) and Greens Farms Elementary School are great sledding spots. (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

Kid Gloves And Nash’s Barn: The Sequel

This morning’s post about Kid Gloves — the boxing gym where heavyweight boxer Floyd Patterson once trained — offered a fascinating look back at a brief, forgotten piece of Westport history.

It also contained one error. The Nash’s Barn building on Kings Highway North — behind what was once the Small Car Company, and most recently was Dragone Classic Motorcars — was not torn down.

The Revolutionary War-era structure still stands. It’s now home to Nice Threads, a custom logo-wear and promotional products company.

Nash’s Barn today … (Photo/Kris Nash)

The owner is Tim Nash — a descendant of the original property owner (for whom the nearby pond is also named). The family has owned the barn since 1784.

The barn has undergone many incarnations. Thanks to the stewardship of the Nash family, it will likely see many more.

… and in 1952.

(Hat tips: John Terpening and Kris Nash)

Floyd Patterson And Westport’s Kid’s Gloves

If you live in this town long enough, you hear everything.

But it’s taken me my entire life to learn about Westport’s boxing club, Kid Gloves. And one of the men who trained there: Floyd Patterson, heavyweight champion of the world.

The story comes thanks to alert “06880” reader Franklin Mason. A 1960 Staples High School graduate who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry, taught college for 10 years and then became a technical writer in Silicon Valley, he emailed me recently with this fascinating tale.

Franklin Mason: 1960 and 2010.

Mason sent news clippings and photos too. There is no hook or angle to this; no upcoming title fight, demolition of the boxing club building or anything else. It’s simply a fascinating tale, about a long-buried part of Westport’s past.

In 1958, a few prominent Westporters started an after-school gym. The focus was on boxing and body-building. (There were also “figure control classes” for ladies.)

Seven years earlier, the group had helped start Westport Little League. Now they were doing something else for boys in town.

Kid Gloves was located in Nash’s Barn, at the head of Nash’s Pond on Kings Highway North. Built before the Revolutionary War, in the early 1940s it had been converted into a theater. Then it was a dance studio, with a hardwood floor.

Nash’s Barn, 1952.

The building no longer exists. It’s been replaced by a handsome private home — the one owned by singer Michael Bolton.

But in 1958 it hummed with activity. Jim Freeman — a boxer in the 1928 Olympics, World War II pilot and boxing referee, manager and promoter — served as Kid Gloves’ director and “heart,” Mason says.

He should know. Though just 16, scrawny and out of shape, his neighbor Virginia Mercier — Kid Gloves’ office manager — hired him as an instructor.

Freeman taught Mason how to teach the boys how to work out — including 14-year-old Westporter Michael Douglas. One day, his father — Kirk — came to visit. He strapped on gloves, and sparred with his son.

The actor knew what he was doing: In 1949 he’d starred in “Champion,” a boxing movie (based on a short story by Weston’s Ring Lardner).

Other young boxers at Kid Gloves included Daniel, Max and Peter Shulman. Their father, Max Shulman, wrote “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” about the Westport Nike missile site. In 1958 it was made into a film starring Paul Newman. Soon he and his wife, Joanne Woodward, moved here.

Westport Town Crier ad, October 16, 1958.

In 1959, Floyd Patterson needed a spot to train for his rematch against Ingemar Johansson — the man who had recently taken the world heavyweight title from him.

He wanted a place with “peace and quiet.” A special, regulation-sized ring was ordered. Patterson’s smaller-than-usual speed bag was sent too.

Patterson arrived with his manager Cus D’Amato, and sparring partner Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson. Jackson spent several nights at Mason’s home.

Floyd Patterson, on the speed bag.

Ed Mitchell’s oldest son, Jack, was a football player at Wesleyan University. That summer, to get in shape for the upcoming season, he ran around the track at the old Staples High School on Riverside Avenue (now Saugatuck Elementary School). His younger brother Bill was with him.

D’Amato saw Jack, and asked if he wanted to work out at the gym. He brought the Mitchells across the Post Road. There was Floyd Patterson. They did some pullups and other exercises together.

Patterson asked Mitchell if he’d run on the track with him. “I was never a runner. He wasn’t either,” Mitchell recalls. “But we ran together.”

The brothers were told not to tell anyone that Patterson was there. They kept quiet.

But word got out. When it did, the Westport Town Crier ran this headline: “Boxing Gangsters Invade Westport.”

That was a reference to D’Amato’s alleged association with organized crime. When Patterson saw the headline, he left for another training facility, in Newtown.

Lou Dorsey and Franklin Mason, 1954

Freeman soon left also. But Kid Gloves added staff members. Lou Dorsey — a popular Saugatuck Elementary School phys. ed. instructor — took over as boxing coach. Derek Shelton taught dance to all ages; Edwardo Enrich was a judo instructor for boys and adults.

One of the dance students was Amy Vanderbilt — the famous etiquette expert. One day, waiting for a friend outside the building, Mason honked his horn. She rushed out, and reprimanded him. Sixty years later, he says, he still remembers — and has never done that again.

But Freeman’s departure was crucial. In January of 1960, Kid Gloves was sold. New owner Anthony Iannone of Stratford renamed it “Anthony’s Health Center & Gym.”

By that time Freeman could easily do sit-ups and chin-ups. He was adept on the free rings and trapeze.

Bridgeport Post ad, January 3, 1960.

In June of that year, Floyd Patterson knocked out Ingemar Johansson. For the first time ever, a boxer had regained the world heavyweight title.

Four months later, Anthony’s went out of business.

November 22, 1963

Today is Friday, November 22, 2019.

If you were alive on Friday, November 22, 1963 — and over, say, 5 years old — you understand how dramatically, and traumatically, America shifted that day.

If you weren’t, there is no way you can comprehend it.

The murder of President Kennedy was a horrific, galvanizing moment in time. It happened 56 years ago today, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

JFKI was in 5th grade. Since September my friends and I had walked to and from school. We gathered on High Point Road, cut through the Staples High School athletic fields and parking lot, sauntered down North Avenue, walked across open farmland, and arrived at Burr Farms Elementary.

We were like the “Stand By Me” boys: talking about kid stuff, reveling in our independence, figuring out each other and the world, in a world that would soon mightily change.

Minutes before school ended that beautiful Friday, the teacher from next door burst into our room. “Kennedy got killed!” she yelled. A girl broke into spontaneous applause. Her father was a leading Republican in town.

Our teacher slapped her face.

Usually, our teacher wished us a happy weekend. That day the bell rang, and we just left. No one knew how to interpret her reaction. We’d never seen a teacher hit a student before.

Then again, we’d never heard of our president being murdered.

JFK NYT

As my friends and I gathered for our ritual walk home, we suddenly had Something Big to talk about. For the first time in our lives, we discussed news. We had no details, but already we sensed that the world we knew would never be the same.

That vague feeling was confirmed the moment we walked down the exit road, into the Staples parking lot. School had been out for an hour, but clots of students huddled around cars, listening to radios. Girls sobbed — boys, too. Their arms were wrapped around each other, literally clinging together for support. I’d never seen one teenager cry. Now there were dozens.

At home, I turned on the television. Black-and-white images mirrored the scene at Staples a few minutes earlier. Newscasters struggled to contain their emotions; men and women interviewed in the street could not.

The president was dead. Now it was true. I saw it on TV.

Walter Cronkite on CBS, announcing the death of President Kennedy.

My best friend, Glenn, slept over that night. The television was on constantly. The longer I watched, the more devastated I became.

John F. Kennedy was the first president I knew. My father had taken me to a campaign rally in Bridgeport 3 years earlier. I could not articulate it then, but I admired JFK’s energy, was inspired by his youthfulness, and vowed to grow up and (like him) make a difference.

Now he was dead.

Bill Mauldin captured the grief of a nation.

Bill Mauldin captured the grief of a nation.

Saturday was rainy and blustery. I watched more TV. Like most Americans, I was obsessed by this unfolding tragedy. Like them too I had no idea that the impact of that weekend would remain, seared in my brain and heart, more than 5 decades later.

Sunday was the first day I cried. The raw emotions of all the adults around — in the streets of Westport, and on the television screen — finally overwhelmed me. I cried for the dead president, my fallen hero; for his widow and children; for everyone else who looked so sad and vulnerable.

Then — right after noon — Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Once again I sat transfixed by the TV. I was stunned, and scared.

Monday was a brilliant fall day. President Kennedy was laid to rest under a crisp, cloudless sky. The unforgettably moving ceremony was watched by virtually everyone in the world with access to a television.

To my everlasting regret, I did not see it live. Glenn said we could not sit inside on a day off from school. Rather than risk being called a nerd (or whatever word we used in 1963), I chose playing touch football at Staples over watching history. I was in 5th grade. What did I know?

The coffin, at Arlington National Cemetery.

The coffin, at Arlington National Cemetery.

The next day we went back to school. The Staples parking lot looked exactly as it had before that fateful Friday. Our teacher never said a word about slapping the girl who cheered President Kennedy’s assassination.

Thanksgiving arrived on schedule 2 days later. At our dinner — like every other table in America — the adults tried to steer the conversation away from the awful events that had consumed us for nearly a week.

Life Magazine coverIn the days and months to come — as the country slowly, painfully, pulled itself out of its collective, overwhelming grief — I devoured everything about President Kennedy I could find. I saved Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post. I ordered the Warren Commission report. Like so many others I still have it all, somewhere.

In the years that followed my admiration for the young, slain president grew, then ebbed. But it never died. He remained my political hero: the first president I ever knew, cared about, was mesmerized by, and mourned.

When President Kennedy was killed, journalist Mary McGrory said, “We’ll never laugh again.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan — who worked for JFK — replied, “Mary, we will laugh again. But we will never be young again.”

Fifty-six years ago this morning, I was a young 5th grader without a care in the world.

Walking home that afternoon, I could never not care again.