Category Archives: Places

“Save Cockenoe Now”: Still Relevant, 50 Years On

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of some significant events.

1967 was the Summer of Love. Martin Luther King spoke out against the Vietnam War. “Race riots” consumed Detroit, Newark and other cities.

Meanwhile, here in Westport, we debated whether building a 14-story nuclear power plant a mile off Compo Beach was a good idea.

The story is remembered by many — and unknown to many more. It starts with United Illuminating, the statewide utility that in 1965 secretly bought Cockenoe Island, a popular spot for boaters and fishermen.

Cockenoe Island, off Compo Beach. In 1967, it almost became the site of a nuclear power plant.

Another key player was Jo Fox Brosious, editor of the fledgling Westport News. She crusaded tirelessly against the idea.

It was not easy. Although plenty of Westporters opposed the plan, the more established Town Crier was all-in. What a boon for the tax base, the paper said.

Brosious helped rally a coalition of common citizens, conservationists, fishermen, attorneys, Senators Abraham Ribicoff and Lowell Weicker, and Congressman Stewart McKinney.

Local artists Walter and Naiad Einsel created a memorable (and very 1967-ish) poster with the group’s rallying cry:

Under pressure — with national coverage in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and thanks to the threat of a bill in the Connecticut legislature that would curb eminent domain requests of power companies — UI agreed to sell Cockenoe.

To the town of Westport.

The deal was struck in 1967. The purchase price was $200,000. When the contract finally closed 2 years later, the Westport News headline read: “Cockenoe Island Safe in Sound.”

Memorabilia saved by Jo Fox includes news clippings, a bumper sticker, a photo of Jo on Cockenoe, and another shot of her speaking in Hartford, as sunlight streams directly on her.

That’s the bare-bones, SparkNotes version. You can read more by clicking here.

Or — this being 2017 (not 1967) — you can watch a YouTube video about it.

The 9-minute mini-documentary comes courtesy of Julianna Shmaruk. A Staples High School sophomore, she created it for a National History Day competition.

The contest theme was “Taking a Stand” — which is exactly what Westporters did.

Julianna tracked down old newspaper clippings. She interviewed 91-year-old Joe Schachter (a boater involved in the battle), and got vintage home movie footage from Ed Stalling (a then 11-year-old who wrote a postcard decrying the sale).

Julianna’s video offers vivid evidence that — as Stalling says — “the people can win.” And that newspapers can rally public opinion.

Those lessons are just as important today as they were half a century ago.

To see Julianna’s video, click below:

Pic Of The Day #5

Fairfield County Hunt Club (Photo copyright Lynn U. Miller)

Jim Hammond, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Famous Writers And The Westport History Rabbit Hole

Jim Hammond grew up in Westport. He graduated from Staples High School in 1979, but has not been back for a long time.

Jim Hammond

A few weeks ago, he heard about the controversy surrounding TEAM Westport’s “white privilege” essay contest.

That led him down the “06880” rabbit hole — and a story on fellow Staples alum Deej Webb’s documentary about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in town.

That spurred him to write and post an essay on his philosophy-and-literature website — 2 of his passions, since he was a teenager.

And THAT led him to send these thoughts to “06880”:

Fitzgerald lived on South Compo Road, near what is now Longshore, in the summer of 1920. J. D. Salinger also lived on South Compo, from about 1950 to 1952.

I read a Salinger short story, and asked my mother, Nancy Hammond, about old Westport. She lived there from 1957 to 1997, and was involved in local politics.

When she arrived, Westport was home to the Famous Artists School, which purported to turn people into artists. Prominent artists like Norman Rockwell lent their names to the scam.

Norman Rockwell (center, bow tie), with some of the Famous Artists School’s faculty.

You would send in a sample of your work. They would write back, saying you had great potential, and should enroll in their school. Salesmen combed the country, recruiting gullible students. Ads filled the newspapers, Money rolled in.

It was so profitable that a Famous Writers School was also established in Westport, using the same template. Bennett Cerf of Random House was a founder. Prominent writers like Clifton Fadiman, Bruce Catton and Mignon Eberhart lent their names. By 1969 the stock price had risen from $5 to $40.

The next year, Jessica Mitford published an exposé, called “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers,” in the Atlantic Monthly. An investigation was launched, the stock price fell, and in 1972 the Famous Writers School went bankrupt.

JD Salinger

When J.D. Salinger moved to Westport, Famous Artists School had been going for 2 years. It’s likely that he heard about the school. In 1952 he published a short story about an art correspondence school, called “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.”

When I was growing up in Westport, the phrase “Famous Artists” rang in my ears. The school rented space from Eddie Nash on Riverside Avenue. Since money was rolling in, they decided to build a new headquarters.

They chose my neighborhood as the site. Specifically, they selected an area we called the Gravel Pit. Now known as Partrick Wetlands, it’s between Partrick Road, Wilton Road, the Merritt Parkway and Newtown Turnpike.

According to rumor — spread by my mother, in countless phone conversations — Famous Artists School planned to build a large office, with a parking lot for 1,000 cars.

My mother banded together with other neighbors, and formed a group called Families for a Residential Westport.

A pond near the Partrick Wetlands. (Photo/Scott Smith)

They referred to their opponents as the Boyd Group (or The Boyds). John Boyd was a prominent Westport lawyer, who favored business and development. One of his allies, Lu Villalon, ran the local newspaper, the Town Crier.

My parents were Republicans. So were the Boyds. The battle over Famous Artists wasn’t a Republican-Democratic battle, or a conservative-liberal one. It was a development battle, similar to those fought in thousands of American towns.

My mother’s group won the battle. Famous Artists never moved to my neighborhood. They built their new headquarters on Wilton Road, along the river.

Cockenoe Island, off Compo Beach. In 1967, it almost became the site of a nuclear power plant.

The next development battle in Westport was over Cockenoe Island, where Northeast Utilities proposed building a power plant. Anti-development forces used the fledgling newspaper, the Westport News, to help rally support. The anti-development forces won, and the paper became the dominant one in town.

A third battle was fought over a dairy farm, Nyala, where Stauffer Chemical proposed building their headquarters. They won that fight.

Fortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house is still standing. I plan to take a look on my next visit to Westport.

And maybe I’ll visit Partrick Wetlands too.

Uncovering 300 Years Of Church History

In 2011, Green’s Farms Congregational Church celebrated its 300th anniversary.

The other day, operations director Claire England sent me a copy of a souvenir brochure, produced for that occasion.

I’m amazed I didn’t see it earlier. It’s filled with astonishing stories, intriguing sidelights, and tons of fun facts.

I’m sorry it’s taken me 6 years to get around to reporting on this. But after 3 centuries, that’s not so bad.

Here are a few things I learned:

† In colonial days, communities were led by their churches. The term “1st selectman” — for our town’s leader — dates back to the days when the secular leader of the church was “selected first.” Even after Westport was incorporated in 1835, Green’s Farms Congregational members served as 1st selectmen. In 1997, Diane Goss Farrell — a Green’s Farms congregant — was elected 1st Selectwoman.

Before services were announced by a drum or bell, early settlers were called to worship by the beating of 2 thin strips of board, from a high hill.

So, the brochure asked, was Clapboard Hill named for the excellent quality of building wood that was harvested there, or for its great location that allowed worshipers to hear the clapping of the boards?

An early map of Green’s Farms. Turkey Hill and Clapboard Hill are in the center. The 1st church site (now marked by Machamux boulder) is just below that. The 2nd site is marked “Colonial Church” (center left). “Third and Fourth” Churches are also noted at the top. Green’s Farms’ founding Bankside Farmers properties can be seen along Long Island Sound. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

 In 1742, Reverend Daniel Chapman — who had served as minister since the church’s founding 31 years earlier — was dismissed. The reason: He “hath led for several years an Eregular [sic] life …in being sundry times overtaken in drinking to excess.”

150 years later, then-Reverend Benjamin Relyea noted: “In those times, when it was an act of discourtesy in making pastoral calls to refuse to partake of something from the array of decanters which always stood upon the sideboard, the only wonder is that any minister ever went home sober.”

After the British burned the 2nd Green’s Farms Church (located near the current commuter parking lot, at the corner of what’s now the Sherwood Island Connector and Greens Farms Road), services were held in private homes for 10 years.

Meanwhile, the new American government compensated our local church for its losses during the war with land in the Ohio wilderness, known as the “Western Reserve.” The church later sold its Ohio lands, to raise money for the new meeting house (on Hillandale Road, site of the current building).

Lucy Rowe’s headstone.

The original Bankside Farmers — founders of Green’s Farms parish — owned slaves. A century later, many freed slaves lived in Green’s Farms as respected residents. When slavery was finally abolished in Connecticut in 1848, the “last of the slaves” — Charles Rowe — was church sexton. He lived on Hyde Lane, near where Long Lots School is now. He and his wife Lucy are buried in the Green’s Farms Upper Cemetery (adjacent to the current church.)

The church’s original burial ground still stands, on the corner of Green’s Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector. The oldest gravestone belongs to Andros Couch, who died in 1730 at 57. Also buried there are the church’s 1st 3 ministers, who served for a total of 110 years; several sea captains, including Franklin Sherwood, and Dr. Ebenezer Jesup — a surgeon in George Washington’s army — along with his 3 wives.

In 1911, the church celebrated its 200th anniversary by commissioning a bas-relief plaque honoring past ministers. The artist was Gutzon Borglum — the same man who carved Mt. Rushmore. He seldom did small commissions — but friends in the congregation asked him for this one.

On November 25, 1950, the 100-year-old steeple crashed down during a hurricane. The weight of the bell carried it through the roof of the meeting house, into the Sunday School.

At the time, declining membership had already created doubts about the church’s future. Services attracted as few as 27 people, with the collection seldom reaching $5.

Insurance covered part of the steeple damage, and a subscription campaign raised the rest. Many non-members — calling the steeple a “landmark” and a “beacon” for sailors — contributed. That drive helped save the church. By 1957, membership had grown so large that 2 Sunday services were needed.

Part of the 1951 fundraising appeal.

There is much more of interest in the Green’s Farms Church’s 300-year historical brochure.

Here’s to its next 294 years!

Re-opening A Cold Arson Case

“06880” readers often email me with unusual questions. What was the name of that restaurant somewhere on the Post Road in the mid-1950s? Can you forward this email to my old English teacher? Will the Greens Farms firefighters have their annual Easter egg hunt this year?

But Peter Jennings Talbot’s recent request might be the most unusual of all:

In November of 1966, a person or persons set my great-grandparents’ (Erwin Morehouse and Mabel Sanford Jennings) home at 4 Beachside Avenue on fire. I believe that someone in Westport must know who did this. Would you be able to write a story about it and see if anyone would come forward with comments about it?

It’s simply out of curiosity.  Certainly the statute of limitations for the crime has long passed, but I, my mother Ellen F. Jennings, and her Jennings cousins have always wondered about it.  They spent great times at the house and on the property and have wonderful memories.

O-kay!

Helpfully, Peter sent along a front-page Westport News story from November 17, 1966. In it, Fire Chief Harold Shippey asked the Police Department for help investigating the possibility of arson, in the “spectacular fire Tuesday night which totally destroyed a vacant old house on the Jennings estate.”

A Westport News photo with the story, from November 17, 1966.

It started at 8 p.m., and lasted over 4 hours. As firefighters left the station, they could already see the blaze.

The house — the oldest on the property, and called Red Oaks — contained 17 or 18 rooms. Built around 1890, and abandoned for several years, it had been the target of vandals. The news story said all the windows were broken, and the floors and walls defaced. There was no light or heat. Neighborhood children referred to it as “haunted.”

Although the building had a replacement value of around $100,000, its assessment at the time of the fire was only $3,700.

The home at 4 Beachside Avenue, before the fire.

Peter says he could never understand why “such a wonderful and remarkable house was simply abandoned” — especially since the house owned by Erwin’s brother’s Henry was occupied next door.

That’s all I — and Peter — know.

He hopes at least one “06880” reader knows more. If you have any information on this long-ago, still-unsolved arson case, click “Comments.”

Or email me privately: dwoog@optonline.net.

Fire away.

Photo Challenge #119

Last week’s photo challenge was posted the day after April Fool’s.

It was a bit of a joke — a postcard image labeled “View along Main Street, Saugatuck.” (Click here to see.)

Of course, there’s no Main Street in our Saugatuck. But there is in Saugatuck, Michigan.

Fred Cantor, Bobbie Herman, Peter Hirst, Rod Hurtuk and Mary Palmieri Gai all knew that there’s more than one Saugatuck in the world.

But wait! Elaine Marino — who seems to be Westport (Connecticut)’s foremost expert on Saugatuck, Michigan — commented that the postcard was mislabeled. She said it was actually the corner of Butler and Mason Streets. She added a few more factoids, including that the Michigan town’s founder was originally from Hartford. Yes, the Connecticut one.

Then Morley Boyd pointed out that there actually was a Main Street in our Saugatuck. It’s the same one that’s downtown today. The address was once Main Street, Saugatuck, because Westport was not named (and incorporated) until 1835.

However, we still do not have a Butler or Mason Street.

On now to this week’s photo challenge. If you know where in Westport you’d see this strange sign, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Ed Simek)

If You’re Wishing All This Rain Would End …

Riverside Avenue, an hour ago … (Photo/Nicola Sharian)

… at Sherwood Mill Pond … (Photo/Maria Calise)

… at the Compo jetty by Schlaet’s Point … (Photo/Jim Hood)

… and over Compo Beach.,,, (Photo courtesy of Katherine Bruan)

… as well as Levitt Pavilion. (Photo/Jack Krayson)

Nash’s Pond: The (Way) Back Story

Like most Westporters, you’ve probably admired the blue house set back from Kings Highway North, near the busy Post Road intersection.

You may know that behind it is Nash’s Pond.

You may or may not know that the pond — probably big enough to be a lake — was named for the Nash family. In 1835 Daniel Nash was one of the men who helped incorporate Westport, as a town separate from Norwalk, Fairfield and Weston.

You probably do not know that a Nash descendant — also named Daniel — still resides in Westport. In fact, he and his family live in that blue house.

The former Nash ice house -- now Daniel Nash's home. (Photo/Frank Rosen)

The former Nash ice house — now Daniel Nash’s home. (Photo/Frank Rosen)

You almost surely do not know that it was originally an ice house. Or that Daniel and his wife Nicole have spent the past decade restoring it, so that future generations of Nashes can remain there too.

The next generation — his 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son — will be the 14th in Westport. The Nashes arrived around 1650, from southern colonies — more than 2 centuries before the ice house was built.

“We’re trying to spruce it up,” Nash says modestly. (He’s doing the same for several other buildings nearby, called “the compound.”)

He’s cleaned the foundation, brought the inside up to code, redone the vents, reshingled the roof and added molding. It now looks like a home, not a business.

But what a history it had.

The Nash family erected a dam in 1879, and built 3 identical ice houses the following year. Workers harvested the ice from the pond, and stored it through the summer. After being sawed into blocks, the ice was sent to New York City for sale.

“It was a booming business, until electrical refrigeration came along,” Nash says.

Nash’s Pond is magical in every season. (Photo/Peter Tulupman)

The family has had a number of different occupations. Nashes have worked as farmers, hat makers, cider makers, and of course ice merchants.

Daniel’s great-grandfather was the last Nash businessman. Daniel’s grandfather and father managed the property. He’s spent much of his time doing the same.

Growing up, he loved the area — the big rock outcropping, stone foundation and waterfall. Every winter, he skated on the pond named for his family.

He and Nicole were married on the pond.They moved into the ice house, fulfilling his childhood dream. As the couple had children, they “carved out” rooms inside for them.

“It’s a work in progress,” Nash says. “We want to make it look fresh for the town. It’s on a major corner, and everyone sees it.”

Daniel Nash is taking his time. He wants to make sure the renovation of the ice house into a home for future generations is done right.

After more than 360 years here, the Nash family continues to care about their town.

And take care of it.

(Hat tip: Frank Rosen)

Yes, This Is An Actual Parking Job At Trader Joe’s. No, It’s Not A Late April Fool’s Joke.

Here’s another view. Yes, he left his door open the entire time.

When alert — and astonished — “06880” reader David Meth asked the driver if he couldn’t find a parking spot, the response was: “F— you!”

You can’t make this s— up.

Saugatuck Bridge Replacement Begins

No, not that one. The Cribari Bridge (aka Bridge Street Bridge) project is still a long way from resolution, let alone beginning.

But over on Saugatuck Shores, the Saugatuck Island bridge is getting a much-needed replacement.

Neighborhood resident Gene Borio sends along a couple of photos.

The new bridge will look like the old one, he says. It will retain its arch — vital for boat owners.

(Photos/Gene Borio)

Power lines must come down while new pilings are put in. Meanwhile, Saugatuck Island residents will run off a giant generator.

The bridge is out until May (at least). Fortunately, there’s an alternate route onto the island: Canal Road.

Unless it’s flooded.