As COVID cases soar, Westporters search for safe activities.
Among the best places to explore on your own: cemeteries. Odds are you won’t find anyone infected there (or anyone else alive, for that matter).
Our town is filled with fascinating graveyards. Willowbrook, off Main Street near Cross Highway, is the biggest. Greens Farms Church — Westport’s first meetinghouse — has 2 (“upper” and “lower”) on Hillandale and Greens Farms Roads, near the Sherwood Island Connector.
Saugatuck Church’s Evergreen Avenue cemetery and the one shared by Assumption and Christ & Holy Trinity Churches on Kings Highway North near Old Hill are also filled with Westport names, both famous and obscure.
Smaller cemeteries include Compo Beach Road, Longshore Club Park, Post Road West near the Norwalk town line, and Wilton Road near the Merritt Parkway.
Gray’s Creek cemetery on Compo Beach Road. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)
All are easily accessible. But the Kings Highway Colonial Cemetery is not.
It’s a small graveyard at the corner of Kings Highway North and Wilton Road. Unless you walk or bike there, the only access is by parking at the medical office across the street, then taking your life in your hands (bad analogy) as you cross Route 33.
The other day, David Wilson did just that. He grew up in Westport (Staples High School Class of 1975), and still spends plenty of time in the area.
Yet in all those years, he had never explored that cemetery.
He was dismayed to find parts in disrepair. Headstones were knocked over. Brush littered the grounds. Broken trees were everywhere.
Intrigued, David found 2 archived Facebook Live tours of the cemeetery. They were led by Nicole Carpenter, director of programs and education at the Westport Museum for History & Culture.
Once in a driving rain, and once on a beautiful spring day, Nicole gave viewers a look at the gravestones. She explained back stories too, including the changing styles and meanings of the stones’ shapes and colors.
The Taylor family — who gave their name to the neighborhood then called Taylortown (the nearby marsh is still called that) — share a large section with the Marvins (of tavern fame).
Abigail Taylor’s grave.
A non-family member is also interred there: Dinah, a “colored” servant and cook. That’s highly unusual, Nicole explained.
There’s the Judah family too, among the first Jewish residents of Westport (then part of Norwalk). Michael moved from New York City because of anti-Semitism. His son Henry became an Episcopal minister; Henry’s son, Henry Moses Judah, was a brigadier general in the Mexican-American and Civil Wars.
The Judas family owned an estate in Saugatuck, which was named for them. Over the years, Judas Point morphed into Judy’s Point.
The 2 tours are fascinating. If COVID keeps you indoors, click here and here to watch.
Kings Highway Colonial Cemetery.
But Nicole missed one of the most fascinating parts of the cemetery. At a mound not far from the road — perhaps the spot where Benedict Arnold (not yet a traitor) set up a cannon to thwart the British as they returned from their 1777 raid on Danbury (they thwarted him, by taking a different route back to Compo Beach) — there was a secret, spooky spot long known to kids like me, growing up in Westport.
If you lay flat on your stomach, and peered into the area where the ground had shifted, you could see all the way down to the bottom. There — arrayed like a horror film — sat a set of bones.
I’ve forgotten many things about being a kid here.
But as long as I live, I’ll always remember that skeleton.
A section of the burial mound, near where the earth has moved.
Alert “06880” reader/curious explorer/noted journalist Scott Smith writes:
Westport 06880 has many blessings. But we don’t have a charming, white-washed covered bridge built in 1880. We also lack a soaring water tower with our name splashed across the top. And a Dollar General store.
These are the chief landmarks of Westport 47283, a small farming community surrounded by miles of corn and soybean fields in south-central Indiana.
The Westport, Indiana covered bridge.
I passed through that Westport recently on my way back from a road trip out West. Eager to leave behind endless Zoom meetings, I settled on a route that would take me to the most COVID-free part of the country – chiefly, Badlands National Park and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
A close encounter with Devil’s Tower across the border in Wyoming and a sublime drive back through the Sand Hills of my native Nebraska were among many other roadside attractions along the way.
Welcome to Westport, Indiana.
I did not spot another Connecticut license plate the whole 10 days. So here are 3 observations for state residents from what’s known as flyover country to some, and the heartland to others.
First, this large part of America truly is a landscape of vast scale and industrial agricultural enterprise. I passed a thousand miles of cropland — mostly corn and soybeans — planted in tight rows extending as far as the eye could see (or pivot irrigation could reach).
Lush green pastures were dotted with countless supersized rolls of hay destined to fatten up cows for beef. This is the breadbasket of the world, and we should all be proud of that. I know our farmers are.
Yet though the fruits of their labors are so evident, I saw hardly any people working the fields. One 30-foot-wide, GPS-guided combine can cover a lot of ground.
Town Hall in Westport, Indiana.
Using interstates to connect with state roads and scenic byways, I was struck by the vast, beige buildings of corrugated steel roofs and aluminum siding, as large in scope as the mega farming and just as strangely absent of people.
Often they’re depots for Walmart or other distribution conglomerates, with scores of truck bays. The manufacturing facilities stand out with their networks of pipes and conveyors taking in resources and exhaust vents belching things out. Who knows what goes on inside these gargantuan structures, save for a small sign out front that typically sports an acronym followed by “Industries.”
It’s big business to be sure, but not a lot of local jobs, at least of the kinds that kept this swath of America thriving for generations. I passed dozens of small towns with Dollar General at one end of town, and a convenience store (usually with a name like Whoa ‘n’ Go or Pause ‘n’ Pump) selling gas, beer and junk food at the other.
In between, invariably, was a Main Street or “Historic Downtown District” composed of brick buildings boarded up long ago, or given over to a social agency or someone trying to make a go of a curio shop.
A boarded up building in Westport, Indiana.
With ornate facades, and scrolled dates and names of their founders across the sturdy lintels, these landmarks are ghostly echoes of the tin sheds and warehouses on the outskirts of town that long ago replaced them.
Westport 47283 (population 1,379) seems to be doing better than many small Midwestern towns. Though many of the big old buildings are shuttered, they’ve still got a Dairy Queen.
The Dollar General — and Dairy Queen.
The next “woe is Westport” lament I hear about our own town’s retail fortunes, I’ll be thinking of the identical rack of brightly hued ladies and children’s summer fashions I kept noticing stationed outside the front door of the dozens of Dollar General stores I passed driving through these hamlets. If cheap had a smell, I would’ve had to roll the windows up.
This is MAGA Country, to be sure. I drove by Trump stores in four states, including a large, Trump-bespoked RV set up in the parking lot of the Wounded Knee Museum (commemorating a massacre of Lakota Indians by the U.S. Cavalry; think about that). I don’t recall seeing one Biden lawn sign in 4,700 miles, though I was pleased to see a plurality of Black Lives Matters signs on the tidy block in Omaha where my grandparents lived from the 1920s to 1970.
A Trump banner, near the Westport, Indiana water tower. (Photos/Scott Smith)
Point is, the voters in Westport, Indiana, and in all the rural towns beyond, while not large in number anymore, hold more electoral sway than us here in 06880 or in blue states. While I can’t fathom why they’ve put their faith in the poseur populist that is our current President, seeing what they’ve lost and what remains, I can imagine why the fellow in Westport 47283 with the big Trump flag on his front porch would take a flyer on the promise to make his America great again.
Last night’s Remarkable Theater drive-in movie was another smash.
As you can tell from Katie Augustyn’s photo, it was “The Graduate.”
Next up: “Life Animated” (Wednesday, July 15) and “Do the Right Thing” (Thursday, July 16). Click here for tickets.
Last year, “06880” introduced a “Street Spotlight” series. The goal is to shine a light on a Westport road, from a resident’s point of view.
What makes your street special? Do you have unique traditions? Does one particular person, family or physical feature bring people together? Has everyone gone through an experience that bonded residents tightly?
“Street Spotlight” runs irregularly — whenever we get an interesting submission. Here’s your chance to show off your road, lane, drive, circle or court to the entire “06880” community. Send info and photos to email@example.com. Happy trails!
Happy, friendly High Point Road residents.
A timely reminder: If you’re going to say you maintain a traffic island, you should maintain it!
Last week’s Photo Challenge was out of this world.
Well, out of Westport, anyway.
Trace Burroughs’ shot of a “Westpoort” sign was taken in Amsterdam. (Click here to see.)
Dan Vener, Peggy O’Halloran, Arthur Hayes, Jack Marshall, Andrew Colabella, Doug Fierro, Robert Fox, Barry Cass, Lawrence Joel Zlatkin, Amelie Babkie and Tracy MacMath all knew the Dutch connection.
Peggy added this helpful link, from Wikipedia:
Westpoort (Western Gateway or Western Port) is a borough (stadsdeel) of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The borough covers the Port of Amsterdam, the main harbour and industrial area of the city, and is located in the north-western part of Amsterdam. It is divided in the industrial areas of Teleport, Sloterdijk areas I, II and II, De Heining and the harbour area (Havengebied).
While the borough has very few permanent residents, it serves as corporate headquarters of over 1,500 Dutch and foreign companies that operate in the Netherlands. Therefore, approximately 45,000 people commute to the area for work on workdays, making it the largest commuter destination within city limits.
As a primarily business district, Westpoort does not have its own district committee like the other boroughs do. Instead, it is governed directly by the central municipal council, as a port and industrial park rather than a neighborhood.
The northern border of the area is formed by the North Sea Canal. The district borders the boroughs of West and Nieuw-West and the municipality of Haarlemmerliede en Spaarnwoude (including the town of Halfweg).
As for the spelling: the double “o” in Dutch is pronounced “oh,” not “ooh.” So my last name — which is Dutch — rhymes with “vogue,” rather than “voooog.” Think “Roosevelt” or “Moog” (the synthesizer guy).
Don’t worry, though. I’m used to people mispronouncing my name. I even do it myself!
Today’s Photo Challenge is both interesting and artistic. If you know where in Westport you’d see this, click “Comments” below.
A couple of weeks ago, “06880” put out a call. Readers could help design a fun, creative local coloring book.
The idea came from Mark Potts. The 1974 Staples High School graduate lives in Lawrence, Kansas now, and sent his mother — renowned Westport historian Eve Potts — an article about a coloring book created there.
Eve thought it was a wonderful, creative way to bring our community — of all ages — together during this crisis.
Artists of all types — professionals, doodlers, everyone in between — were invited to submit a page of their favorite Westport scene. They’d all be turned into a PDF, for anyone to print out and color.
Now — with the help (of course!) of Miggs Burroughs — we present “Color Us Westport.” The 24 page book of historic, iconic and fun spots around town includes contributions from Miggs, Eve, Mark, Kathie Motes Bennewitz, Claire England, Kris Jandora, Penny Pearlman and Melanie Yates.
In this all-COVID, all-the-time world, we hear stories from across the US, and places like China, Italy, Spain and the UK.
But the coronavirus is truly a global pandemic. Today, Michelle Wilson checks in from South Africa. She says:
I am writing to you from Cape Town, although I call Westport home. I spend most of the year overseas, and as the crisis came into focus in March, I contemplated where I would spend the pandemic.
Michelle Wilson in Westport …
It’s not like deciding where to go for the holidays. But South Africa is about 2 months behind the US on the epidemic curve. (We had only 5 deaths here when I was considering my choices.)
After consulting with wise mentors in both hemispheres, I decided to stay put in South Africa, and avoid the risk of exposure during travel and back in Westport at the very height of the outbreak.
In one sense, I was already stuck here. All commercial flights in or out of this country came to an abrupt halt on March 31.
Complicating the decision though was word from the US State Department. They planned to evacuate any American who wanted to get home.
… and with a friend in South Africa.
When I got the email, an irrational fear welled up in me. If my government is willing to evacuate me, shouldn’t I go? What do they know that I don’t?
After an unsettling 24 hours of debate, I decided not to take the flight. About 300 people would be leaving from Cape Town, on chartered Air Ethiopian Airlines planes. They would fly to Swaziland to pick up other stranded Americans, then to Togo to refuel, and finally on to Dulles in Washington.
This would take 30 hours. No one would be tested for the virus before departing. They would be given a mask and gloves. However, there is no chance of social distancing on a plane. Those plans were more unnerving to me than taking my chances here.
Three evacuation flights left South Africa by Friday, April 10, with 1,000 Americans on board. I am happy with my decision, as I am quite isolated in a low density farming area (the beautiful wine lands of Stellenbosch and Franchhoek).
The gorgeous wine region.
South Africa is in total lockdown. We are confined to our homes, allowed to shop only for groceries and medicine. We are not allowed to even walk the dog. Police can stop anyone, ask for ID and demand proof of your need to be out.
Another feature of the lockdown is that no alcohol or cigarettes are allowed to be sold. These undemocratic and highly restrictive measures have bought the country some time to flatten the curve (and encouraged a thriving black market in booze and cigarettes).
I spend time in South Africa because it is the most vibrant, crazy place full of contrasts, with abundant natural beauty. I have been involved with the preservation of endangered species in South Africa (terrestrial) and Mozambique (marine), an incredible life journey.
Camps Bay, beneath Lion’s Head, usually brims with tourists. During the pandemic, the streets are deserted.
Most people I meet here are fascinated with American culture. Television here provides all the American channels, including Netflix, so everyone is aware of cultural curiosities like the Tiger King series, Judge Judy and America’s Got Talent.
So while I am an ocean away from Westport, I am bombarded by popular American culture on a regular basis. That said, I have loved learning some Zulu, a language with no short words. The word for “blue,” for example, is oluhlazaokwesibhakabhaka (loosely translated as “the color that the sky is”).
Getting home to Westport is still a priority for me. Like everyone else, I await some good news that will allow me to make firm plans.
I send my best to all Westporters at home, or far flung like me. And thank you to “06880,” for giving us a small window into the lives of the people who call such a wonderful town home.
A project manager at GE Capital and longtime Norwalker, he did it all: handing out flags at the Memorial Day parade, volunteering at the Oyster Festival, supporting children’s organizations.
He was a golfer and tennis player; a kind, generous and spirited man; a devoted grandfather who never missed a dance recital, sports game or any other event.
Joseph died last week, after battling cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. As a Korean War veteran, he was entitled to a full military funeral. A bugler should have played “Taps,” and presented an American flag to his family.
But Joseph died in the middle of a pandemic. Instead of being mourned by hundreds of family members, friends and fans, there was no celebration of life.
Following CDC guidelines, his burial at Willowbrook Cemetery was limited to 8 people. Pallbearers wore N95 masks.
Mourners and cemetery officials at Joseph Ariale’s burial on Friday.
The coronavirus has changed the way everyone lives. Now it’s affecting what happens even after we die.
Joseph’s final goodbye on Friday was not the only one at the beautiful cemetery on North Main Street, opposite Cross Highway.
A few hours earlier, another tiny crowd said goodbye to Connie Wilds. She earned 2 master’s degrees. She served Western Connecticut State University for over 30 years, as a professor of black studies and dean of student affairs. She sang in her church choir, and was a founder of the Stamford Afro-Democratic Committee.
Her entombment was witnessed by only 5 people — including funeral staff. That left only her son William, and his wife Daisy, to bid their final farewell.
“This is surreal,” William said. “We can’t give my mother a proper sendoff.”
From left: William Wilds; Daisy Wilds and funeral director Karen Graves-Medley of Stamford, at Connie Wilds’ entombment.
Even more sorrowfully, the few mourners must stay 6 feet apart. They can’t hug, or offer a literal shoulder to cry on.
“This is so difficult,” says Danny Amoruccio, manager/sexton of Willowbrook Cemetery Association. “They’re being stopped from doing what comes naturally to all of us: grieving together.”
Relatives and friends understand, he says. But at a time of intense pain, it’s one more burden to bear.
Daily operations at the cemetery have been whittled down to just sales of property, and scheduling of burials and entombments.
One section of the vast cemetery.
All communication is initiated by phone. There is minimal contact with the family.
The many other usual queries — where is someone buried? can I buy a monument? — are deferred to May, or done impersonally by phone or email.
Many families call just to verify their property. “They want the comfort of knowing that their deed and final plans are in place,” the manager says.
But Amoruccio still has work to do. In fact, recently — during what is normally a very quiet quarter — sales of graves spiked significantly, to 40 per month.
Families are securing property for their elderly parents — or themselves. They tell him directly: “With the coronavirus, we have to be prepared. We don’t want to run around at the last minute, taking care of final arrangements.”
When Amoruccio meets a family to sell property, he now speaks to them — no more than 2 people — outside their car. They follow him to view it, from the comfort of their vehicle.
If they see a property they’d like to purchase, he heads to his office to write up a contract. The family never goes inside. That once-comforting moment is gone too.
The newest section at Willowbrook Cemetery.
This month, Willowbrook completed an extension of its property. Earlier they bought a house on Richmondville Avenue, and razed it. They can now accommodate 500 additional burials, or 100 cremations.
So far, the cemetery has served one family whose loved one succumbed to COVID-19. They’ve received one additional call about a deceased person with the disease.
“We don’t treat them any differently,” Amoruccio notes.
He feels very badly for what mourners go through during this pandemic. “You see the frustration in their faces when it comes to the restriction of mourners” — once 10, now down to 5.
“But they seem to understand it’s for their own good. I hear in Italy, 2 family members are allowed at the burial. Or none — just the funeral director and cemetery staff.”
He is grateful that Willowbrook’s gates are open 24/7. Mourners can visit loved ones’ graves any time. Those who are barred from the burial have, at least, that chance to grieve.
And though dogs are not allowed on the property, Amoruccio sees a dramatic increase in walkers. “Visitors are always welcome to enjoy the peace and solitude here at Willowbrook,” he says.
The cemetery’s “daffodil mile” — the gorgeous rows of flowers fronting North Main Street — will bloom soon. The dozens of flowering trees — which always herald springtime in that part of town — will be even more beautiful and welcome this year.
Willowbrook Cemetery — established in 1847, and partly designed by Frederick Law Olmsted — is a non-profit community resource, Amoruccio notes.
“No one wants to think about an increase in deaths in our area,” he says. “But for me personally, I feel valuable right now. More than ever, we can be available for families at the worst of times.”
Even if death in the age of coronavirus robs those families of one of humanity’s most basic needs: saying a final goodbye.
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