Category Archives: Looking back

Westport’s Charter Oak Connections

If you’re new to Connecticut, you may not know about our charter oak. They don’t teach state history in school — I don’t think so, anyway — and most of the state quarters that were minted nearly 20 years ago are out of circulation.

But longtime residents know the charter oak. And one of its descendants may still live in Westport.

The story involves a large white oak tree that dates back to the 12th or 13th century.  Apparently our royal charter — given by King Charles in 1662, to the Connecticut colony — was hidden in a hollow in 1687, to prevent the governor-general from revoking it.

Connecticut's charter oak.

Connecticut’s charter oak.

The tree was destroyed in 1856, during a strong storm. But its legend remains.

So, supposedly, do many of its seedlings.

In 1965, a “Committee for the location and care of the Charter Oak Tree” was formed. Its purpose was to “accept the seedling  descendant of the Charter Oak from Mr. John Davis Lodge, care for it during the winter, select a location in which it can be planted in the Spring, and organize a planting ceremony.”

Lodge — a former governor of Connecticut and ambassador to Spain, and future ambassador to Argentina and Switzerland — lived in Westport.

Minutes of a November 20, 1965 meeting show that a seedling was intended to be donated to Staples High School in the spring.

Legend has it that the seedling was planted in the school courtyard on North Avenue. No one today knows authoritatively if that was done, or exactly where. If it ever existed, it was bulldozed away during construction of the new building more than a decade ago.

Connecticut state quarterThe committee also discussed the best location for another seedling, downtown. Members — including representatives of the RTM, Westport Garden Club, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution — agreed that Jesup Green was the best area. It could be “the first step in setting a centrally located civic center.”

Discussion then turned to the erection of a plaque, commemorating the gift to the town by Lodge.

“It was agreed that watering and care after the planting should be delegated to a Town employee who would be responsible for its care,” meeting notes read.

Arbor Day in April was suggested as a good time for the planting, and that school children should be involved.

The committee then went outdoors to study possible locations. They agreed to store the 2 seedling oaks in the “cold barn cellar” of Parsell’s Nursery. Garden center owner and civic volunteer Alan U. Parsell was a committee member.

And that’s the last bit of information I dug up about Westport’s charter oak.

Friday Flashback #4

Today — dwarfed by a 40,000-square-foot office building — it’s hard to imagine that Gorham Island even is an island.

But the spit of land now joined to Parker Harding Plaza was once home to a gorgeous Victorian home. (Though — like many other structures in Westport — it apparently was built elsewhere, then moved.)

Gorham Island house

In addition to being a favorite subject for artists, the Gorham Island home was known for something else.

Early on July 4th morning of 1961, Brendan McLaughlin — a former Marine working as a New York advertising executive — shot and killed his father during a family argument inside the house.

McLaughlin fled.  An hour before dawn he burst into the police station on Jesup Road.  He pulled out a semi-automatic pistol and fired at 2 policemen behind the front desk, wounding Donald Bennette.

Officers chased him into the parking lot, where he shot officer Andrew Chapo.  A shootout ensued; McLaughlin was wounded.

Chapo and Bennette recovered.  McLaughlin died several weeks later.

Longshore Lighthouse: The Back Story

For decades, no one thought about the Longshore lighthouse.

Yesterday, I published a photo of it as part of “06880’s” Friday Flashback series.

I had no idea that Westporters Dick Stein and Tracy Hinson had just offered an oil painting of that same scene to the town, as a gift.

Dick told official curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz that he found the painting behind an upstairs desk at last year’s Red Barn tag sale. Owner Tommy Nistico asked Dick if he knew where the lighthouse had been located. Dick remembered it instantly from  his youth.

The painting — by artist Harriet Horowitz, who moved from Westport in 1972 — was dusty and dirty. But Dick bought it, hoping it would one day hang in the Parks and Recreation Department office — at Longshore.

He had it cleaned and lightly repaired. Now he’s given it to the town.

Longshore lighthouse painting by Harriet Horowitz

That’s a great story. But there’s one more part.

According to alert “06880” reader Peter Barlow — who sent the lighthouse photo along for the “Friday Flashback” — in the late 1960s a popular Parks and Recreation Commission official ordered the demolition of the lighthouse.

Years later, he admitted it had been a mistake.

The commission member’s name?

Lou Nistico — father uncle of Red Barn owner Tom Nistico, who sold the lighthouse painting to Dick Stein.

Charlie Karp Knows Them Changes

If you’ve read “06880” for a while — or tried to interest me in your Staples High School reunion story — you know I usually don’t post those kinds of articles.

Reunions are a dime a dozen (or at least every 5 years). And every class thinks theirs is the best/tightest/most amazing one ever.

But you also know I’m a sucker for Staples-themed rock ‘n’ roll stories. So this one makes the cut.

When the Class of 1971 met for their 45th reunion this weekend, they (like many other classes) had a live band. This one was very good. It included Grammy winner Brian Keane, Dave Barton, Bill Sims, Rob McClenathan, Julie McClenathan and others.

Among the others: Charlie Karp.

Charlie Karp shares a laugh with Keith Richards. (Photo/Ray Flanigan)

Charlie Karp shares a laugh with Keith Richards. This was not at the Staples reunion. (Photo/Ray Flanigan)

You may know Charlie Karp from his many local bands (including White Chocolate, The Dirty Angels, Slo Leak and the Namedroppers). You may have heard his his work as an Emmy-winning producer of music for sports networks, documentaries, and feature films.

But you may not know his Staples-era back story.

When he was 14 in 1967 — and still a student at Coleytown Junior High School — Charlie’s band opened for the Doors, at their legendary Staples concert.

He was at Fillmore East the next year when it began, and stood on the side of the stage on New Year’s Eve 1969, for the fabled Band of Gypsies concert featuring Jimi Hendrix.

Later that night, 16-year-old Charlie hosted a party at his parents’ Upper West Side apartment. His dad was away — but Hendrix was there.

Not long after, Buddy Miles asked Charlie to play on what became the renowned “Them Changes” album. Charlie contributed an original song — “I Still Love You, Anyway” — and played acoustic guitar.

In April 1970 — while his classmates trudged through junior year — Charlie played with the Buddy Miles Express. They opened for Hendrix at the Los Angeles Forum, in front of a capacity crowd of 18,000.

Charlie Karp (left), playing with the Buddy Miles Express.

Charlie Karp (left) with the Buddy Miles Express.

In 1971, Buddy Miles — with Charlie — opened for Three Dog Night at the Cotton Bowl. That same year Miles recorded a live album with Joe Tex. Charlie joined bassist David Hull (part time Aerosmith player), and a tremendous horn section.

After all these years — there is not enough room here to talk about his career from the 1970s till now — Charlie is still very much a working musician. He teaches guitar and songwriting at his Fairfield studio. He helps his students and other professional musicians produce their own music too.

His latest release — “Endless Home Movie” — is available on iTunes. It comes almost 50 years after his 1st single — “Welcome to the Circle” — with his Fun Band, on ABC Records.

And 45 years after he left Staples, to follow — and reach — his musical dream.

He did not graduate with his class. But he helped make this year’s reunion a very classy one.

(Click here for Charlie Karp’s website.)


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The Briggs Cunningham Watch

More than once, “06880” has honored Briggs Cunningham.

The polymathic Westporter skippered Columbia to the America’s Cup title in 1958. He invented “the Cunningham,” a device to increase the speed of racing sailboats. He competed in the 24 hour auto race at LeMans, developed and built the Chrysler C-4R racing car, owned the 1st Ferrari in America, and made the cover of Time magazine.

Briggs Cunningham II, on the cover of Time.

Briggs Cunningham, on the cover of Time.

He also married Lucy Bedford, daughter of Standard Oil heir F.T. Bedford — not a bad career move. (Cunningham’s father, Briggs Sr., was an early investor in the company that became Procter and Gamble. So the son did not exactly pull  himself out of poverty.)

But “06880” has never mentioned Cunningham’s watches.

According to a long story in Hodinkee — a website devoted to all you’d ever want to know about luxury watches — the Westporter was an American hero.

“His name means little to those outside the highest echelons of motorsport and aquatic racing,” Benjamin Clymer writes.

“But to those in the know, Briggs Cunningham and his collection of bespoke wristwatches are downright legendary.”

Cunningham’s place in horology (the art of making clocks and watches — yeah, I looked it up) is secured by his ownership of 3 Patek Philippe watches.

Briggs Cunningham's least expensive watch.

Briggs Cunningham’s least expensive watch.

All are stainless steel. (He chose that design over gold because he was a “highly active, top-tier athlete.”)

Two are unique commissions designed especially for him.

The other — created in 1949 — is still in mint condition. It sold last year for about $100,000.

The 1463 chronograph.

The 1463 chronograph.

That’s chump change compared to Cunningham’s 1463 chronograph. Made unique by its black dial with luminous markers and hands, it has achieved “mythical status since first appearing on the market,” Clymer writes.

Cunningham wore it in a photo with driver Phil Hill. They’re examining the Westporter’s Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing — the 1st one ever delivered commercially.

That combination of watch and automobile “has long made him an icon to me,” says Clymer.

That watch is on the market now. It can be yours for $1.5 million.

Briggs Cunningham, his watch, race car driver Phil Hill, and the 1st Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing ever.

Briggs Cunningham, his watch, race car driver Phil Hill, and the 1st Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing ever.

But even that is a drugstore Timex compared to Cunningham’s 1526 perpetual calendar watch.

“It is just one of just two perpetual calendars to be made in steel, and the Arabic markers are covered in black lacquer. How incredible is that?” Clymer asks.

The 1526 perpetual calendar watch.

The 1526 perpetual calendar watch.

Apparently, quite incredible. One of the most beautiful watches ever made by Patek Philippe, it sold for $3,956,159 in 2008.

The buyer: Patek Philippe itself.

I can’t imagine I’ll ever write another “06880” post about watches.

But something tells me I’ll keep discovering interesting tidbits about Briggs Cunningham, for years to come.

(Hat tip: Peter Tulupman)


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Harold Levine: “You Might Say I’m A Dreamer…”

Alert “06880” reader/former advertising executive/94-year-old longtime Westporter Harold Levine writes:

I recently learned about the closing of Oscar’s Deli, probably the last of the old family-owned stores on Main Street. When Sue and I moved to Westport we frequently walked Main Street, chatted with friends and neighbors, visited Sally at Klein’s to learn about the latest records, and dropped in on the Kramers in their popular book store. We shopped at Gristedes and the local hardware store. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could bring that mood back to Westport?

Main Street, in the mom-and-pop shop days.

Main Street, in the mom-and-pop shop days.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our kids would meet in school children whose parents were nurses, electricians, plumbers, policemen, teachers and auto mechanics?

Wouldn’t it be nice if our children could become friends with black, Hispanic and Asian kids before they went to college? Wouldn’t it be nice if Baron’s South became Westport’s Central Park, where kids could play ball, ride a bike or go roller skating, and families could picnic on this beautiful spot?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a plan to provide an area in downtown for small, family-owned stores, and where we could  stroll and enjoy the riverfront?

I can hear my friends saying, “he’s a dreamer.” They are right. I have always been a dreamer.

Perhaps there are others in town who agree with me. Maybe they will start a small group that could meet and hopefully plant the seeds for making Westport a “friendlier and more welcoming community” over the next 25 years.

Isadora Duncan Lives — In Westport

Rodin called Isadora Duncan “the greatest woman who ever lived.”

The mother of modern dance died in 1927. (She was just 50. Her flowing silk scarf became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and axle of an automobile in Nice, France, breaking her neck.)

Now, 89 years later, Duncan — or at least her spirit — is alive and well in Westport.

Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan

On Sunday, September 11, the Isadora Duncan International Institute launches its 40th season with a dance performance and garden champagne reception at the early-20th century, very Duncanesque former Schlaet estate on Bluewater Hill.

The event benefits the Institute and Jeanne Bresciani, a world-renowned dancer and longtime Duncan Institute director.

And that’s where the Westport-Isadora Duncan connection becomes even tighter.

Back in the day, Duncan’s dancing delighted millions. But she also taught children. She adopted 6, who became known as “the Isadorables.” They performed in Europe and the US.

Three went on to teach as well, passing along Duncan’s beautiful, timeless technique. It has become the inspiration for creative dance education for children, and of dance therapies worldwide.

Vicky Sloat with 2 young dancers.

Vicky Sloat with 2 young dancers.

One of those Isadorables was Maria Theresa Duncan. She mentored Bresciani — who went on to teach Vicky Sloat.

Sloat has paid it forward, teaching children and teenagers in Westport for 12 years.

And — drum roll, please — she and her husband now own the Schlaet property.

The event thus comes full circle — an artistic, dancing circle. It bridges Isadora Duncan with a disciple of sorts, decades later — for a cause that will keep Duncan’s memory and work alive, for many decades to come.

(Tickets for the September 11 event are available here. For more information, click here.)


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Friday Flashback #2

Today it’s Goodwill. For many years before that, it was the Peppermill.

Even earlier though, this building on Post Road East was Westport’s Greyhound bus station. In the days before I-95, Route 1 was how you traveled between New York and Boston.

Attached to the depot was something called the Post House — a restaurant?

Greyhound Post House - bus station and restaurant

If you’ve got any memories of the Greyhound station, or the Post House, click “Comments” below.

(Hat tip: Neil Brickley)


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Friday Flashback: The Follow-Up

Friday’s 1st-ever “Flashback” photo caused quite a bit of commotion, among a subset of “06880” readers.

The image — of the Pine Knoll Inn — led to back-and-forth comments, about whether the once grand home-turned-boardinghouse had ever been moved, from its spot on the Post Road behind the Crest Drive-In to a place further back at what is now Playhouse Square.

Jill Turner Odice just sent this photo, from 1950:

Saugatuck Church moving 1950

It shows the Saugatuck Congregational Church being moved — on logs — down and across the Post Road, from its original site near the current Sunoco gas station, to its present location. (Life Magazine featured the event, in a photo spread.)

You can see the Tydol gas station (more recently Getty, now Quality Service and Towing.) Next to it is Dairy Queen — the forerunner of the Crest.

And there, directly behind the gas station on the far left, you can see a little bit of the Pine Knoll Inn.

Meanwhile, Neil Brickley emailed aerial photos. They don’t reproduce well here, but they do show that between 1934 and 1965, the Pine Knoll definitely moved further back.

The year was probably 1957. Wendy Crowther noted this:

In April of 1957 there was a law suit filed by contractors who were hired to remove topsoil from the Pine Hill Estates property “in the rear of the Dairy Queen stand” during the “relocation of the Pine Knoll Inn, which is owned by Pine Hill Estates.”

The Pine Knoll Inn met its end in the early 1980s. It was torn down to make way for the Playhouse Condominium complex, behind what had already become Playhouse Square.

Friday Flashback #1

If you’ve lived in Westport for more than a day, you know what a visually intriguing place our town is.

If you’ve lived here for a while — or lived here once, before moving away — you know it’s always looked intriguing. And a lot different yesterday than today.

“06880” is excited to announce a new feature: “Friday Flashback.”

Each week, we’ll post a new photo of a place that no longer exists. Some will be old. Others will be very old. A few will be real old.

For a while, folks have been sending me great shots. There are many more floating around on the internet, including some great Facebook pages. (Thanks, Paul Ehrisman!) It’s time to share them with the wide “06880” community.

This week’s Friday Flashback shows the Pine Knoll Inn.

Pine Knoll - now Playhouse condos

For many years a boarding house — and before that, a home owned by the Kemper family (whose tannery and orchard are now the Westport Country Playhouse) — the Pine Knoll was torn down in the early 1980s.

Today it’s the Playhouse Square condos, behind the post office.

“Friday Flashback” needs your help. Please email any great photos — showing any Westport places, buildings, stores, etc. — to dwoog@optonline.net. Thanks!


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