Category Archives: Looking back

Buell’s Gift Keeps Giving

Very few “06880” readers ever met Buell Neidlinger. But — thanks to his frequent comments on the blog, always providing nuance and back stories to the topic of the day — many of us knew and admired him.

He lived in Westport from 1938 through the ’50s. He had a long and storied career in music, playing bass with Billy Holliday, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Elton John, Dolly Parton, the Carpenters, the Moody Blues, Barry White, Whitney Houston, Ringo Starr and Bill Monroe.

Ella Otis

When he died suddenly of a heart attack in March, at his longtime Washington state home, the “06880” community mourned.

Mary Cookman Schmerker was especially touched. The 1958 Staples High School graduate first got to know Buell when he responded to an “06880” story about the Saugatuck Congregational Church by asking Mary if longtime organist Ella Otis was her grandmother.

Buell was a member of the children’s choir, and remembered Ella.

“I loved the way she would improvise fab modulation sequences between the hymns,”  he wrote. “Kinda reminded me of the movie music I heard down at the Fine Arts on Saturday afternoons.

“Anyway, I could tell your grandmother loved music from the way she played. That was my first introduction to that feeling in music, and it made me want to be a musician. I was, and still am in music!”

Buell Neidlinger

Buell and Mary exchanged several emails. Once, they spoke briefly by phone.

Buell told Mary that he wished he could revisit his parents’ graves in Evergreen Cemetery. She lives near Houston, but promised Buell she’d take a photo when she got to Westport in the fall. Her mother, brother and grandmother — Ella Otis — are all buried there too.

However, Hurricane Harvey canceled Mary’s trip year.

A couple of weeks ago, she finally made it back to Westport.

“Unfortunately, Buell couldn’t wait for me,” she writes. “He has left us for his eternal home with the Lord.”

But Mary kept her promise. She found his parents’ graves very easily.

(Photo/Mary Schmerker)

Mary wishes she had paced off the distance from Buell’s parents’ graves, to her grandmother’s. They’re very close — just as she felt close to him.

Their paths did not cross in Westport. He was 4 years older. Yet as she read the comments following his death, she learned he grew up in an old house on Clinton Avenue. She lived nearby, on Calumet.

“We would have roamed the same woods, walked the shores of the Saugatuck down to Lees Dam, heard the noise in the summer from Camp Mahackeno, and watched weekend traffic from the bridge over the Merritt Parkway,” she says.

Rereading Buell’s first email, she noted it was sent just over a year ago: June 1, 2017.

“I encourage everyone to ask questions of your elders now while you can,” Mary says. “Share the stories for future generations.

“I am smiling, and thankful to Buell for sharing with me my grandmother’s influence on his life. What a wonderful gesture and gift he has given me, and our children and grandchildren.

“Buell will live on in our hearts. And his music will resonate for a very long time.”

Photo Challenge #181

I thought I knew my “06880” readers.

But you know Westport better than I know you.

Five minutes after I posted last week’s photo challenge — one I thought was particularly tough — Andrew Colabella emailed with the correct answer.

David Sampson, Matt Murray, Morley Boyd, Rob Hauck and Arline Gertzoff soon followed.

Then came Michael Calise, Mary Cookman Schmerker, Seth Goltzer, Amelie  Babkie and Jaimie Dockray.

All knew that Susan Iseman’s shot showed the flower boxes outside the “Mill Building” on Richmondville Avenue. (Click here to see the photo.)

Built in 1814, the Richmondville Manufacturing Company was run by 4 generations of the Lees family. (That’s why it’s Lees Pond, Dam and Lane, not Lee’s.)

They manufactured tinsel ribbon cords, fringes, ribbons, boucle, seine and cotton twines, candlewick and cords. It was powered by a millrace diversion of the Saugatuck River.

Today the handsome brick building — similar to those in many New England towns — has been repurposed as offices.

Richmondville — off Main Street, just around the corner from the (sigh) former Crossroads Ace Hardware — may be a little out of sight.

Clearly though, it’s not out of Westporters’ minds.

This week’s photo challenge shows one of my favorite hidden gems of Westport. If you know where it is, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Ken Palumbo)

Historic Designation For Bridge Street Neighborhood

Werner Liepolt lives on Bridge Street.

Around the corner is the William F. Cribari Bridge. In 1987 — the first time the century-old span was slated to be replaced by a modern one — Westporters succeeded in gaining National Historic Structure designation for it.

The William Cribari (Bridge Street) Bridge is the gateway to Bridge Street. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

In November 2015 — with plans once again afoot to renovate or replace the Cribari Bridge, and spillover impacts likely for Bridge Street and beyond — Liepolt began a quest to get National Historic District status for his entire neighborhood.

The longtime Westporter knew that many of the houses on his road had contributed to Westport history. Over the years, he’d heard stories from older residents about who grew up where, which families were related, and how beautifully the forsythia had bloomed.

He saw historical plaques affixed to many homes. But to submit a Historic District application, he needed to learn more.

Morley Boyd — Westport’s historic preservation expert — directed Liepolt to a history of the town, and an 1869 document in which Chloe Allen “dedicated to the public” the road between her house (still standing on the corner of Bridge Street and South Compo) and the Saugatuck River.

Chloe Allen lived in the Delancy Allen House at 192 Compo Road South. It was built in 1809.

That half-mile stretch now boasts more than 20 historical resources. Thirty-one properties are eligible for Connecticut State Historic Preservation plaques.

Wendy Crowther noted that a New Yorker cover by Edna Eicke shows a little girl celebrating July 4th on the porch of her 1880 home, on the corner of Imperial Avenue and Bridge Street.

That’s the same house where John Dolan — keeper of the manually operated swing bridge — lived until the 1940s.

The New Yorker cover of June 30, 1956 shows this 1880  home, at the corner of  Bridge Street and Imperial Avenue.

Liepolt also researched what it means to be a National Register District. Benefits, he found, are modest — and obligations non-existent.

A homeowner can do anything to and with a house that any other owner can. An owner who makes restorational repairs may enjoy a tax benefit.

Liepolt learned too that if any federal funding, licensing or permitting is involved in development in a National Register District, that agency must take into account the effects of that action on historic properties, and consult with stakeholders.

Liepolt says this means that a possible Connecticut Department of Transportation plan to use federal funds to widen Route 136 — Bridge Street — as it feeds the bridge over the Saugatuck would require the Federal Highway Authority to consider the effect, and consult with property owners there.

The 1884 Rufus Wakeman House, at 18 Bridge Street.

The goal of this consultation is to mitigate “adverse effects,” Liepolt explains. These can be direct or indirect, and include physical destruction and damage; alteration inconsistent with standards for the treatment of historic properties; relocation of the property; change in the character of the property’s use; introduction of incompatible elements; neglect and deterioration, and more.

In February 2016, Liepolt asked Westport’s Historic District Commission to make a formal request for designation of the Bridge Street neighborhood. It was approved unanimously.

Liepolt worked with HDC coordinator Carol Leahy and an architectural historian to complete the research, take photographs, compile materials and write the final application to the National Parks Service.

The 1886 Orlando Allen House, at 24 Bridge Street.

This past April, the application was approved. Bridge Street is now added to the list of Nationally Registered Districts.

There was no big announcement. I’m not sure if anyone in town really noticed.

But we sure would notice if — without this designation — the look and character of the Bridge Street neighborhood ever changed.

Jim Crow And Compo

With the hubbub of a holiday weekend, you may have missed  the NewYork Times opinion piece, “The North’s Jim Crow.”

It’s by Andrew W. Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia. He recently wrote a book about Ned Coll, the 1960s and ’70s activist who sought access to Connecticut’s shoreline for all.

Citing 2 recent examples — the Starbucks manager who called the police when 2 black men asked to use the restroom while waiting for a friend, and the woman who called police to report a black family grilling at a picnic — Kahrl says that “the selective enforcement of minor ordinances … performs the same work today that segregation laws did in the past.”

Take public beaches, for example. He notes that while Southern officials “literally drew color lines in the sands,” towns in the Northeast “devised elaborate, and ostensibly colorblind, procedures for determining who could access public shores, and what they could bring and do inside, and then proceeded to enforce them for black and brown people only.”

In 1975, members of Ned Coll’s Revitalization Corps demonstrated in Old Saybrook, for access to the beach. (Photo courtesy of Bob Adelman)

Kahrl zeroes in on “wealthy, all-white towns along the Connecticut Gold Coast, where blacks were effectively excluded from living by racist housing policies.”

He says, “While nearby urban black populations swelled and the demand for access to public places of recreation spiked, towns like Greenwich, Westport and Fairfield restricted their beaches to residents. It was obvious whom these laws were meant to exclude.”

This winter — in response to last summer’s crowds, who came from throughout Connecticut and nearby New York, and sometimes filled the parking lot to capacity — Westport restricted the number of daily passes (sold to anyone without a season sticker).

Yet I don’t know that Westport ever “restricted (our) beaches to residents.” That’s a pretty strong charge for Professor Kahrl to make, and for the New York Times to print.

If any “06880” readers have recollections of Westport’s beach policies in the 1960s and ’70s, click “Comments” below.

(For the full New York Times opinion piece, click hereHat tip: Fred Cantor)

For Scott And Zelda, Westport Was Far More Than A Summer Fling

When Richard “Deej” Webb was 14, he read “The Great Gatsby.”

Through his bedroom window across from the Minute Man monument, he could see the house that — decades earlier — F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald once rented.

In between was Longshore. Deej caddied, biked and ran there. He knew every inch of the property well.

In 1996, when Barbara Probst Solomon wrote a New Yorker story claiming that Westport — not Great Neck, Long Island — was the inspiration for Gatsby’s “West Egg,” Webb was fascinated.

By then he was teaching US history at New Canaan High School. But the 1980 Staples graduate’s heart — and home — remained here.

Webb studied Solomon’s theories. He researched Longshore, and environs. Convinced she was right — and that Westport, in fact, influenced both Fitzgerald and his wife far more than anyone realized — Webb spoke to whomever he could.

Many Fitzgerald scholars and fans were interested. Most Westporters, he says, were not.

In 2013 Webb participated in a Westport Historical Society roundtable examining the town’s literary past. Organizer Robert Steven Williams — a novelist — asked Webb if he’d like to collaborate on a documentary about Fitzgerald’s time here.

The film will be shown on public television this fall. A companion coffee table book — “Boats Against the Current” (taken from a famous “Gatsby” line) — will be published next month.

The book cover shows the iconic photo of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, in front of their South Compo house. The image was Photoshopped — long before that term came into general use.

“Boats” is thoroughly researched, lavishly illustrated, and immensely educational. It should be required reading for every Westporter.

Webb and Williams took Solomon’s original thesis — that Fitzgerald’s home next to the 175-acre estate of reclusive millionaire Frederick E. Lewis (now Longshore) informed not only the author’s physical description of Jay Gatsby’s mansion, but also much of the novel’s emotional power — and expanded it to encompass nearly the entire Fitzgerald ouevre.

In 1920 — when F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in Westport — F.E. Lewis owned a magnificent next door. His mansion (above) now serves as the Longshore inn, including Pearl restaurant. (Photo/courtesy of Alden Bryan)

In 1920, his first book — “This Side of Paradise” — had just been published. Fitzgerald was making great money. He and Zelda were newly married — and kicked out of New York’s finest hotels, for debauchery.

Westport was their honeymoon. It was also their first home. Here — especially at Lewis’ next-door estate — they enjoyed celebrity-filled orgies. And they skinny-dipped at Compo Beach.

Zelda at Compo Beach — before (or after) skinny-dipping. (Photo courtesy of “Boats Against the Current”)

Their experiences and memories — along with the town’s sights and smells — all became part of “Gatbsy”; of “The Beautiful and the Damned”; even of Zelda’s paintings, Webb says.

In fact, he adds, “Westport shows up in their works more than any other place they lived.”

The back story of Lewis — a descendant of one of the wealthiest families in American history — is particularly fascinating. He’s not a familiar name. But his parties at what later became Longshore — which the Fitzgeralds surely must have attended — were beyond legendary. One even featured Harry Houdini. (Yes, he performed an escape trick right there.)

His and Williams’ painstaking work has been accepted by many Fitzgerald scholars, as well descendants like granddaughter Bobbie Lanahan.

Robert Steven Williams (left) and Richard “Deej” Webb flank the Fritzgeralds’ granddaughter Bobbie Lanahan.

The New York Times recently published a story on Webb and Williams’ project. The international attention was gratifying.

But the duo have a more local concern too.

All around town — including Webb’s boyhood Compo Beach neighborhood — homes are being torn down. Big new houses are replacing older ones with important  histories.

Webb and Williams worry the same fate may befall Fitzgerald’s house. And, they fear, few people will care.

The current owners, Webb says, “are fantastic. They’re well aware of the significance, and treat it with great respect.”

But there’s no assurance a future owner will not tear the 1758 structure down.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald slept — and partied — here, on South Compo Road.

There is only one museum in the world dedicated to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s in Montgomery, Alabama, where he wrote portions of 2 novels.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Webb and Williams ask, if at some point the town could buy the house, and turn it into a “Fitzgerald Center”?

“Sometimes Westport has amnesia about its history,” Webb says. “It’s an incredible past. It’s hard to find an American town that has more. But it’s disappearing in front of our eyes.”

Of course, as a history teacher — and amateur historian – Webb knows the one thing that never changes is change.

When the Fitzgeralds arrived in 1920, he says, “farmers in  Westport worried about all the New Yorkers coming in.”

With their lavish parties and skinny-dipping orgies, those newcomers had a new way of doing things.

One hundred years later — thanks to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald — those Westport days live on.

And — thanks to Deej Webb and Robert Steven Williams — they’re memorialized forever.

(To pre-order “Boats Against the Current” on Amazon, click here; through Barnes & Noble, click here.)

More Memories: 1981 Memorial Day Parade

In December 1980, Tom Leyden bought a video camera.

He was one of the first Westporters to tape kids’ sports, school shows and other events.

An early effort — taken from the Assumption Church steps — was the 1981 Memorial Day parade.

Leyden’s son had just won a trivia contest on WMMM’s morning show. The prize: a chance to ride with host John LaBarca, in the back of a groovy convertible.

Leyden captured that moment — and the rest of the parade too.

It’s all here: former Governor John D. Lodge and all the town bigwigs; the Staples High School, and Long Lots, Coleytown and Bedford Junior High bands; WWPT sports broadcasters, Little Leaguers, Scouts, Indian Guides, the Westport Historical Society — even Big Bird.

There are many gems. Right at the beginning, for instance, we see Bill Cribari — the man the Saugatuck River bridge is named after — strutting proudly along.

Westport’s Memorial Day parade is timeless. After 37 years, so much in this video looks familiar.

Except for one thing: Everyone actually watches the parade.

There’s not one cell phone to be seen.

 

Mike Joseph’s Very Sound Career

Growing up with 20,000 records filling his basement, a new-fangled stereo in the living room and a Wollensak tape recorder in his bedroom, it’s no surprise Mike Joseph spent the rest of his life around music.

The Westporter’s father — Mike Joseph Sr. — was a radio executive. In the 1960s he turned WABC into an AM powerhouse. In the ’70s he flipped more than a dozen major market stations to the “Hot Hits” format he created.

Mike Jr. got the music bug, and never let go.

In 1960s Westport, he recalls, “everyone was either in a band, or listening to one.”

He took his reel-to-reel tape recorder to Mike Mugrage’s basement, and recorded classmates Jeff Dowd, Dave Barton, Brian Keane, Rob McClenathan, Julie Aldworth, Peter Rolnick, Harry Miller and others.

In 1971, Jeff Dowd practiced guitar in a Staples High School music rehearsal room.

It was quite a crew. Dowd went on to become a noted opera singer. Keane is a Grammy Award winner. McClenathan and Aldworth — who got married — still make music. So did Mugrage and Barton.

That’s the milieu Joseph remembers fondly.

At Staples High School, the Class of 1971 grad says, “people sat outside the cafeteria playing guitars and harmonicas.” He had a morning shift on the school radio station WWPT-FM. Music was everywhere.

Rich Bradley — Joseph’s English teacher at Coleytown Junior High School, who later taught at Staples — was the first director of the Youth Adult Council. Concerned that teenagers were just hanging out downtown, he recruited Joseph and Guy Rabut to put on a coffeehouse.

Held first downstairs at the Saugatuck Congregational Church, then at Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall), the shows harnessed the talents of local singers.

As audio director for Staples Players, Joseph served as stage manager for acts that played at Staples: the James Gang, Delaney & Bonnie, Taj Mahal, the Byrds, Mahavishnu Orchestra and more. He showed roadies where the electrical tie-ins were, and shepherded the groups to and from the green room (usually a music rehearsal space).

Hiding mics in the catwalk, he occasionally recorded concerts for personal use.

Then he did sound for Jesup Green concerts. Joseph owned big Altec Lansing speakers, and borrowed power amps from his friend Bob Barrand. He’d rig up a PA system on the flatbed trailer that served as a stage.

Mike Joseph, in the early 1970s.

Back in the day, music and politics went hand in hand. In 1971 he and Barton hitchhiked to Washington for a May Day rally. Joseph wore bell bottoms and a t-shirt, had 39 cents in his pocket, slept on a church floor — and helped handle the sound on the Capitol steps.

At Ohio University, Joseph helped build one of the first large student radio and audio production facilities in the country. He recorded bands in the studio and the field — including the Pipestem Bluegrass Festival in West Virginia for a very young NPR.

He transferred to Syracuse University — site of the nation’s first 16-track student-oriented recording studio.

Then came a long career as a recording engineer, record producer and club designer. He collaborated in Nat King Cole’s Hollywood studio with Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Blue Cheer and others.

Mike Joseph, at the mixing board.

In San Francisco — as chief engineer for Oasis Recording Studio and producer for BBI Productions — he worked with George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, Tower of Power, Santana, Journey and dozens more new wave and disco-era bands.

In 1989 Joseph became editor of Recording Engineer/Producer Magazine, and founded another publication. In that capacity he traveled the world, visiting studios like Abbey Road.

These days — decades after leaving his Westport home with its 20,000 albums, stereo and tape recorder — Joseph is still in Kansas City. He’s a strategic marketing and business planning consultant.

Mike Joseph today.

He’s just built a home production studio, to digitize vintage analog tapes.

He does it all: concerts, weddings, lectures. And — of course — old recordings for his many musician friends.

He’s happy to talk to anyone who has tapes they want to save.

Particularly if they also have stories about the very vibrant, really rich Westport music scene of the 1960s and ’70s.

(For more information, email mike.joseph@sbcglobal.net)

Naree Knows Trader Joe’s

In 1994, Naree Viner was a new intern at the Getty Museum. Her family was back in Indiana, so her colleague Madeleine invited Naree to her parents’ home in Pasadena for Thanksgiving.

“You’re going to Trader Joe’s house!” her co-workers exclaimed.

Naree had no idea what they were talking about.

Joe Coulombe and his wife Alice welcomed Naree with a flute of champagne. Each course had a different wine, which Joe described. The Coulombes were Francophiles so the main dish was goose, not turkey.

Joe and Alice Coulombe

It was a delightful day. And — as Naree learned — Joe Coulombe was also known as Trader Joe.

The Trader Joe.

A Stanford Business School graduate and serial entrepreneur, in 1967 he’d turned a poorly performing Pasadena 7-Eleven into a new kind of grocery store.

The target market was “people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees who made teacher’s salaries,” Naree says.

The concept caught on. By the time of that Thanksgiving dinner, there were Trader Joe’s — the store’s name — across California. Joe Coulombe had already sold the company to German conglomerate Aldi.

Last year, Joe Coulombe celebrated the 50th anniversary of Trader Joe’s with his son Joe Jr., and 2 employees.

In 2012 Naree and her husband moved to Westport. After leaving the Getty — armed with a master’s in art history — she became a headhunter. Specializing in museum directors, she’s worked with institutions like the Smithsonian and Yale Art Gallery.

She’s still friends with Madeleine. And Naree has never forgotten that Thanksgiving as an intern.

She marvels at what Joe developed. He thought of tropical costumes for employees, and created a corporate culture that celebrates smiles and good fellowship.

As she studies organizational culture for work, Naree is amazed that the now-national grocery chain has managed to maintain so much of its original charm.

Naree Viner

Today Naree lives just a mile from the Westport Trader Joe’s. She loves finding new items there, and is not disappointed when favorites (like mango lemonade) disappear. One of the keys to Trader Joe’s success, after all, is low inventory.

Naree has told a few of the very cheery Westport crew that she knows the real Trader Joe — and that at 87 he’s alive and well, still painting and gardening.

“They’re amazed and amused,” she says of the local store staff.

Still, Naree wondered, why did I think this would make a great “06880” story?

“It’s fun and quirky,” I said.

Just like Trader Joe’s.

Westport’s African American History: Long Overlooked, At Last Remembered

The history of Westport was written by white men and women. This was — and continues to be — a predominantly white town.

But African Americans have a long history here.

From 1742 to 1822 the logbook of Greens Farms Congregational Church recorded the births, deaths, marriages and baptisms of nearly 300 black Westporters.

More than 240 were slaves. Their forced labor helped build our town’s prosperous farms and shipping businesses.

They fought in the Revolutionary War — on both sides. Some hoped for freedom in return for their service. Others departed with the British at war’s end.

Connecticut struggled with its place in the slave trade. It banned the importation of enslaved people, and very gradually — from 1784 to 1848 — abolished slavery.

Newly freed African Americans searched for a place in the community. Henry Munro — the first black landholder in Westport — built a house on Cross Highway in 1806. His family lived there for nearly 100 years — and the dwelling still stands.

The Munro house at 108 Cross Highway, today.

Others found work only a step above what they endured as slaves. They were laborers, domestic servants and farmhands. Some suffered from assault, false imprisonment, arson and murder.

But they persevered. They became educators, freedom fighters, artists, patriots and respected citizens.

Their stories are not well known. Later this month, the Westport Historical Society finally shines a light on the lives and contributions of these overlooked Westporters.

“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opens May 11. It’s an opportunity to rectify the myths about our town, state and New England, says WHS executive director Ramin Ganeshram. She hopes visitors will leave enlightened, and eager to learn more.

The interactive exhibit — created by Broadway set designer Jordan Janota — includes objects and artifacts from the 1700s through the civil rights era. There are slave documents; details about 22 1/2 Main Street, the alley boardinghouse for black families that mysteriously burned to the ground around 1950; material relating to Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1964 visit to Westport, and original artwork by Tracy Sugarman, an important figure during the Freedom Summer.

This newspaper clipping from 1964 — part of the Westport Historical Society exhibit — shows Rev. Martin Luther King at Temple Israel. He’s flanked by Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (left) and congregation president Dan Rodgers.

TEAM Westport — the town’s multicultural commission — partnered with WHS throughout the research, planning and installation of the exhibit.

“The generally accepted narrative is that the history and legacy of African Americans in Westport span the range of little to none,” says TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey.

“This exhibit turns that narrative on its head. For the town of Westport, it adds profound dimensions to where we’ve been, who we are, and where we can go in the future.”

A corollary exhibit — entitled “Rights for All?” — explores the effect of Connecticut’s 1818 constitution on emancipation, enfranchisement and civil liberties.

Judson’s store stood near today’s Beachside Avenue. This 1801 ledger entry — part of the WHS exhibit — gives credit to a free African American man. Many African Americans in the area were still slaves.

National attention has focused recently on important new institutions, like the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the just-opened memorial in Montgomery, Alabama dedicated to thousands of lynching victims.

Soon — in our own way — Westport joins those efforts. It’s an exhibit that everyone in town should  — no, must — see.

(“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opens with a free reception on Friday, May 11, from 5 to 7 p.m.)

Volunteer Firefighters Fill A Need — And Need You!

Westport’s fire department is older than Westport itself.

The volunteer Saugatuck Fire Company was incorporated in 1832 — 3 years before the town did the same. Equipment consisted of one hand engine.

In 1859, Westporters formed Compo Engine Company #2. Almost immediately they saved a lumber yard and adjoining buildings, when a candle factory caught fire.

Five years later Vigilant Engine Company #3 was organized on Wilton Road, in part because of the Post Road drawbridge. When it was up, engines could not cross the river.

The Vigilant Firehouse on Wilton Road, circa 1977.

Main Street, Pioneer Hook & Ladder, and the Saugatuck Hose Company followed.

In the early 1900s E.T. Bedford donated money and land for the Greens Farms Company. After World War II, the Coleytown Company was formed to serve that rapidly expanding part of town.

All those firefighters were volunteers.

The career department was established in 1929, with 2 paid firefighters. The first paid chief was hired in 1937.

But volunteers served vital functions, particularly as the town grew.

Gradually, volunteer companies folded. The only firehouses that remain — besides the Post Road headquarters — are on Riverside Avenue, Easton Road and Center Street. All are staffed by career firefighters.

The Saugatuck firehouse. The sign still says “Hose Co.”

Volunteers remain active. They’re still important.

But their numbers are dwindling.

Westport has changed. There are more dual-income families, greater demands on time, fewer blue-collar folks residents. At the same time, training demands have increased. Minimum state certification requires 180 hours of classroom and hands-on instruction, plus 24 hours riding a truck every 3 months.

The trend is nationwide.

But Westport needs its volunteers. With so many large and expensive homes, 2 bustling commercial districts, the Post Road, many offices, 3 beaches, Longshore, I-95, the Merritt Parkway and Metro-North, our very professional and well-respected career fire department has a lot to handle.

Westport firefighters respond to 3,500 calls a year — nearly 10 a day. They  include not only fires, but medical calls, motor vehicle accidents, odors, and much more.

Ken Gilbertie is a volunteer. Since joining in the early 1980s, he’s risen to the role of deputy chief of the Westport Volunteer Fire Department. He’s also a civilian dispatcher. He loves what he does.

And he’d like some help.

Ken Gilbertie, at his dispatch station.

“We don’t need muscle power,” the native Westporter says. “Just able-bodied people willing to do hard work.”

There’s no pay. In fact, volunteers must purchase their own protective equipment. Boots, pants, a coat, helmet and gloves can run $1700. The money comes in part from a townwide fundraiser.

What volunteers get is “a load of satisfaction. It’s a great feeling to know you’ve made a significant contribution to someone, on their worst day,” Gilbertie says.

Donna Cohen is a volunteer too. The PR executive and event planner walked in one day and asked how she could help.

“There’s a real team feeling with volunteers,” she notes. “There’s a social aspect too. This is such a good way to give back to the community.”

You know — the community that had not even been named nearly 2 centuries ago, when our first volunteer firefighters banded together to help their neighbors.

(For more information, email kgilbertie@westportct.gov)

No, these firefighters are not posing for the camera during an actual fire. It’s training, using a house that would be torn down. It was donated for the exercise.