Category Archives: Places

Pic Of The Day #42

Yesterday, Boy Scout Troop 39 placed flowers on the graves of veterans, at 5 Westport cemeteries. Here, they decorated the entrance at North Kings Highway. The flowers were donated by VFW Post 399. (Photo/Amy Schneider)

Famed Westport Family Graves Vandalized

The Coley family has been in Westport a long time. Anyone who has heard of “Coleytown” knows the name.

Bill Coley has not lived in Westport since 1968. But — like other “06880” readers — he took time on Mother’s Day to visit his family plot. Here’s what he found:

My wife and I were in town on Sunday. We decided to visit Coley Cemetery on Weston Road, just over the Westport border. (It was known as Norfield Cemetery before being transferred to the town of Weston by Norfield Congregational Church, about 20 years ago.)

This is where my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great- grandmother are all buried, along with several older generations whose tombstones are now so weathered as to be unreadable.

When we arrived, we discovered that 6 to 8 gravestones in our plot and an adjoining one had been knocked over. Several were broken, including my great- grandmother, Abbie A. (Gray) Coley.

A few of the vandalized graves in Coley Cemetery.

Although Abbie died 70 years before I was born, I have always felt a special affinity toward her and her husband, my great-grandfather Horace Coley. He was a farmer and teacher in Westport in the mid- to late 1800s.

Seeing her stone knocked over and broken in half hit me in a way I never would have imagined. Even as I write this 4 days later, I am still very emotionally affected by it.

Our plot is at the back of the cemetery, so the vandals would have been virtually invisible to anyone driving by on Weston Road. We reported the damage to the Weston Police, who are investigating.

I remember this happening once before when I was growing up, but I was still shocked by what I saw. It is obviously the work of teenagers with too much time on their hands.

I know it’s unlikely, but if anyone has heard anything about this incident, please contact the Weston Police. The case number is 17-4298.

Abbie (Gray) Coley’s tombstone, before the vandalism.

It’s A Dog’s World

Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Winslow Park has always been Westport’s 32-acre, right-near-downtown park. It’s big, beautiful, hilly, wooded and — let’s face it — dull.

Sure, dogs romp. Their owners walk, throw balls and socialize. It’s a wonderful place. But not much really happens.

Last year, the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce sponsored the 1st-ever Dog Festival there.

It was the greatest thing since flea collars.

The 2nd annual Westport Dog Festival is set for Sunday, May 7 (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). I can already hear Fido and Spot pawing at your door.

Demonstrations include police dogs, emergency rescue dogs, guide dogs, hunting dogs, and and agility and training exhibitions.

Earth Animal offers prizes for best tail wagger, best dressed, best kisser, best trick, best lap dog over 50 pounds, and dog that looks most like its owner. Judges include some very important humans: Selectmen Jim Marpe, Avi Kaner and Helen Garten, and state legislators Toni Boucher, Gail Lavielle and Jonathan Steinberg.

There’s an obstacle course too. The winner gets a year’s supply of dog food.

Surrounding the main activities will be dozens of pet-related vendors, rescue/ adoption opportunities, vet seminars, caricaturists and giveaways, plus food trucks (for humans).

Choice Pet is the lead sponsor. TAILS — the local spay/neutering group — is again partnering with the Chamber.

There’s plenty of parking at the Westport Country Playhouse. Proceeds from the entrance fee ($10 per person, $25 for a family of 4) benefit non-profit organizations. Last year, the Chamber of Commerce donated $5,000 to deserving groups.

Dog owners can register for the competitions online, or at the festival. Click here for more information.

Arf!

Roger Wolfe’s small dog enjoyed last year’s large Dog Festival.

The Rich History Of Westport’s Poorhouse

Did every old structure in Westport start somewhere else?

Saugatuck Congregational Church, the Birchwood Country Club clubhouse and Bedford Hall at the Westport Woman’s Club are 3 examples.

This coming Monday (May 1, 3 p.m.), Project Return takes the spotlight.

The North Compo Road home — a converted 8-bed farmhouse that since 1983 has housed scores of girls and young women from Westport and surrounding towns — will receive a historic significance plaque.

Project Return, on North Compo Road.

Turns out the building — sitting handsomely but unobtrusively between Little League fields and the Town Farm tennis courts — has quite a history.

It started out in what is now Playhouse Square, nearly 200 years ago.

In 1901 it became the town “poor house.”

More than a century later, it still serves folks in need.

Bob Weingarten — WHS house history chair — says the structure was built in 1824. A decade after that, it became part of the Kemper tannery. In 1930, that land became the Westport Country Playhouse.

In 1864, Charles Kemper Sr. moved it to property he bought from Samuel Gorham on North Compo.

The town of Westport purchased it in 1901, for use as an almshouse. At that point, by renting space in individual homes, we were spending more money on indigents than surrounding towns. Buying the entire farm, including the house of 13 rooms, for $2,750 could save us at least $1,000 a year.

“Town Poor House,” circled on a 1911 map.

In 1927, a man named Alfred Violet — the same person who gave his name to the road off Myrtle Avenue? — found sanitary conditions there “absolutely unbelievable.” Chimneys were crumbling; windows furnished “practically no protection at all against the weather … and the grounds have been used for the past years as a garbage dump.” Approximately 15 children lived there.

It’s uncertain how long the “town farm” operated as a poorhouse. The site was considered for a town garage. From 1975-83 it was rented to James Drought, a noted writer.

After he died, the house deteriorated. Kate McGraw — assistant superintendent of special education for the Westport school system — had the idea to use it as a residence for girls whose parents could not keep them at home.

Renovation $100,000. Many local organizations and individuals contributed funds, labor, materials and furniture.

1st Selectman Bill Seiden championed Project Return. 2nd Selectman Barbara Butler — later named town human services director — helped negotiate a $1-a-year lease.

That contract is still in effect. Project Return pays for all interior and exterior maintenance, and utilities. The town pays for tuition of each girl, while parents pay residential costs.

The safe, nurturing home has helped over 160 girls rebuild their lives. Project Return has evolved with the times — most recently last year, when the state stopped funding group homes for youth. Homes With Hope merged with the organization, ensuring a seamless transition.

Monday’s plaque presentation will include representatives of the town of Westport, Project Return and Homes With Hope, plus Kate McGraw’s daughter Sarah and 2 of James Drought’s children, Hank and Sarah.

It will be a fitting tribute to an important town structure — one that, like so many others, has ended up in a very different place than it began.

Literally.

“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)