We admire its vast, open meadows. We marvel at its ever-changing beauty. We take almost as many photos of its iconic well as we do of the cannons at Compo.
We don’t even mind that the enormous expanse of land tucked between Greens Farms Road, the Sherwood Island Connector and I-95 is an office park — one of 2 Westport headquarters for hedge fund titan Bridgewater.
We don’t mind, because we don’t see it.
What many people may not know is that Nyala Farm is not a cute, throwback name. Back in the day, it was an actual, working dairy farm.
(Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)
Generations of Westporters took field trips there. They learned that all 52 acres were bought in 1910 by E.T. Bedford.
His son, Frederick T. Bedford, named the farm in honor of the beautiful nyala (antelope) he’d seen on an African safari.
In 1970, Stauffer Chemical developed their world headquarters there. It was Westport’s first corporate office park.
That put an end to scenes like this:
(Robert Vickrey painting, courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)
The cows and sleds are gone. But the well — and the memories — remain.
I told the back story: how in 1945 Frederick Bedford bought an Imperial Avenue house for the civic improvement organization to use. Five years later, he put up half the money to add meeting space. It came from an unusual source: Part of Saugatuck Congregational Church was moved from its original site, several hundred feet up the Post Road.
When the building was reassembled and joined to the Imperial Avenue house, the clapboard matched perfectly.
Now — a year later after Bedford Hall opened – the Westport Woman’s Club is ready to celebrate.
A birthday party — celebrating 150 years since the original meetinghouse was built — is set for Saturday, April 16 (6-9 p.m.).
There’s comedy (with Jane Condon as emcee), live and silent auctions, wine, food and birthday cake. Bedford family members have been invited.
As is true with Bedford Hall itself: The entire town is invited.
See you there. Hey — you only turn 150 once!
(Tickets to Bedford Hall’s birthday bash are $75 each. Reservations are due by April 8. Checks made out to Westport Woman’s Club should be sent to 44 Imperial Avenue, Westport, CT 06880. Include “Birthday Bash Reservations” in the memo line, and include names of attendees. Tickets will be held at the door.)
Bedford Hall — the Westport Woman’s Club‘s newly renovated, recently dedicated event space — is very modern.
Costing $120,000, it includes a state-of-the-art AV/home theater system, recessed and cove LED lighting, new halogen stage lights, and much more. It will be Westport’s go-to space for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, art shows, memorial services and much more, for years to come.
But its story begins 108 years ago.
In 1907, a group of Westport women decided to do something about the muddy, horse manure-filled streets of downtown. They put on a fair, raised money, and built sidewalks.
By 1925, the Westport Town Improvement Association had added sidewalks — and gotten rid of mud and manure on Main Street. The entrance to what became the Westport Woman’s Club (the “Bedford House” portion of the YMCA) is on the right side in this 1925 photo.
That “sanitary” project led to others: bathrooms at Compo Beach. Hot lunches and vaccinations (!) in the schools. More sidewalks on Compo Road.
A few years later, when E.T. Bedford was building his YMCA, that same group of women — now called the Westport Town Improvement Association — asked what he was doing for the ladies. He modified the Y’s design, giving them a separate entrance on Main Street. It was called “Bedford House.”
That’s where the Westport Woman’s Club — as it was known by the 1930s — held art shows, conducted dental screenings, handed out scholarships and hosted the visiting nurses’ offices.
“It was a very popular club to be in,” says current WWC president Dorothy Curran. “It was also the de facto health department in town.”
In 1945, as men returned from war and new families began moving to Westport, demands on the Y space increased. Bedford’s son Frederick continued his father’s commitment to the Woman’s Club, buying an 1881 house at 44 Imperial Avenue for the organization to use.
It was a beautiful waterfront home, with a big veranda. But it was in disrepair. And because there was no meeting space inside, it sat unused for 5 years.
In 1950, as the Saugatuck Church prepared to move its 1832 meetinghouse from the Post Road/North Compo corner, several hundred feet across US 1 (to its present site near Myrtle Avenue), it put its 1866 Sunday school building on the market for $2,000.
The WWC was interested. It would cost another $18,000 to move it to Imperial Avenue, and renovate the interior. Frederick Bedford agreed to pay half the cost of the purchase, moving and renovation price.
In September 1950 — a couple of weeks after the church made its slow, famous trek across the Post Road — the 2nd, less famous building was cut in half. The 2 sections then made their own journey west.
Photos depicting the Saugatuck Congregational Church’s Sunday School building move hang in its current home on Imperial Avenue.
When the Sunday school building was reassembled and joined to the Imperial Avenue house, the clapboard matched. “It was meant to be!” Curran says.
A kitchen was added. Dedicated the following June, the hall was used for the WWC’s active theater club, and rented to outside groups.
Over the years, the room grew old. Rental income dropped.
The gazebo and gardens are a lot lovelier in spring, summer and fall.
But the space is great. It’s centrally located. There’s a garden with a gazebo, for wedding photos ops. And so much parking! In 1955 the WWC granted the town 2 acres of riparian rights. The land was filled in, and now the club has 100 parking spaces to use in perpetuity.
Westport is one of only 2 Woman’s Clubs in the state with their own clubhouse. (The other is in Greenwich.) They share space with 2 tenants: Connecticut Braille Association, and the Westport Young Woman’s League.
The WYWL was formed in 1956, when a group of younger Woman’s Club members realized they were doing much of the group’s work, but had no representation on the board. The split made the New York Times.
Westport Woman’s Club president Dorothy Curran stands proudly outside the organization’s Imperial Avenue home.
At the time, the Young Woman’s upper age limit was 35. It became 40, then 50. Now there is no limit at all.
Today, the median age of Woman’s Club members is “a bit older” than the Young Woman’s group, Curran says. But in many ways the 2 clubs are similar.
The WWYL organizes the Minute Man Race and CraftWestport, and awards many grants.
The WWC runs the Yankee Doodle Fair, art shows, the Nutcracker Tea, Curio Cottage, Westport food pantry — and donates to many of the same organizations as the WWYL.
Which brings us back to the new Bedford Hall. The $120,000 project — funded mostly by Lea Ruegg and her son Erhart, and completed in January with a stage, Steinway baby grand piano, maple floors, crown moldings and seating for over 100 people — will be the site this Wednesday (March 18, 12-1:30 pm) of the 1st-ever event co-sponsored by the Westport Woman’s Club and Westport Young Woman’s League.
A Steinway piano and modern lighting are just 2 features of the new Bedford Hall stage.
It’s a panel, breakout discussion and brown bag lunch on the topic: “What is the role of women’s volunteer service organizations in the 21st century?” The public is welcome.
After so much help from 2 philanthropic Bedfords, it’s fitting that 44 Imperial Avenue finally has a “Bedford Hall.”
And fitting too, that a pair of well-run, very generous women’s organizations — both born in the 20th century — are joining forces in their shared 19th-century home, to address 21st-century women’s issues.
(For information on renting Bedford Hall, contact Susan Loselle: 203-227-4240 or 203-246-9258; firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com)
A handsome, 19th-century interior leads into the modern Bedford Hall (rear).
A momentous moment seems to have passed by in Westport, almost unnoticed.
Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren
Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren died earlier this month, at her Green’s Farms home. She was 104.
The granddaughter of Edward T. Bedford — who was a director of Standard Oil, founder of the Westport YMCA, namesake of Bedford Middle School — she was no slouch herself.
A benefactor of countless causes, Lucie volunteered at the Norwalk Hospital until she was 96, and the Pequot Library Book Sale through age 97. A champion golfer and sailor, she and her 1st husband — 1958 America’s Cup champion Briggs Cunningham — won numerous European sailing titles.
She was the mother-in-law of former US congressman Stewart McKinney, and grandmother of current State Senator John McKinney. She is survived by 3 children, 12 grandchildren, and 25 great-grandchildren — as well as her sister, Ruth Bedford.
Charlie Taylor did not know Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren. But he knew Ruth very well. Lucie’s death prompted these recollections, about an earlier — and fascinating — time in Westport.
I worked as a landscape gardener and laborer for Ruth Bedford and her father Fred (Edward T. Bedford’s son) on their Beachside Avenue estate from 1958 — when I was a Staples sophomore — until I graduated from college in 1965. What a great place to work!
Edward T. Bedford — Fred’s father, and Lucie’s grandfather — built an enormous estate on Beachside Avenue.
My dad had encouraged me to go to Nyala Farms to get a job at the dairy, as a 15-year-old. (NOTE: The 52-acre farm, now bordered by Green’s Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector, had been owned since 1910 by the Bedford family. Fred Bedford named it after the beautiful “nyala” — antelope — he’d seen on safari in Africa.)
Louis Gordon — chief gardener and estate caretaker — intercepted me. He told me to report on Saturday “down on the Shore Road. I’ll put you to work on the Bedford Place.” I stayed for the next 6 summers.
It took up 17 acres, mostly on the Sound. I spent all day cutting the front and back yard of the house, with a 6-foot Locke mower. I started at $1.10 an hour, for an 8-hour day.
There was a greenhouse where we grew cut flowers for the main house, and a truck farm across the road. I was in charge of storing a year’s supply of coal to fire the furnace for the greenhouse. A truck came at the beginning of June, and dumped a small mountain of coal. It took me 6 days — 8 hours a day — to move the coal into the bin.
The main house included a big game trophy room, and models of hulls of 12-meter racing boats.
The Bedford estate (front view).
The dock went probably 120 feet into the Sound. A little house at the end received guests in bad weather. Stairs went down into the water, to ease passengers onto the dock and walkway that led to the expansive backyard and rear entrance to the main house.
Mr. Bedford kept a long, black Cadillac limo for trips to his homes in New York and Palm Beach.
Numerous car commercials were shot on the estate, especially the semicircular pea gravel driveway. Every Friday I raked all the tire tracks from the driveway, in preparation for the weekend. It was so long, the job took 4 hours. I also weeded the driveway.
The Bedford estate gardens.
One day I was clearing brush. Mr. Gordon was talking to the man who owned the property next door. It was J.C. Penney himself. We were never introduced.
My favorite times were Friday evenings, at quitting time. Mr. Gordon would ask if I had a date that night. If I did, he’d whip up a corsage of carnations or other flowers for my date. If I was staying home, he’d make up an arrangement for my mom.
When I was in college, Mr. Gordon occasionally let me take dates down to the dock, to swim. He told me to be very discreet, however. And I was.
Charlie Taylor, today.
Mr. Gordon sent me on some dangerous assignments, like 50 feet into huge old elm trees to prune, or onto chimneys at the main house to cut back ivy. But I gained confidence during those summers. I learned to work and give all-out effort. He accepted nothing less than the best. There were no slackers on the Bedford payroll.
He made me very proud of myself. When he chewed me out, I deserved it. More to the point, he explained why he was chewing me out, and the importance of doing a good job.
I owe Westport, and the Bedfords, a lot. Miss Ruth, if you read this, thanks for the week I caught poison ivy so bad that when I showed up for work with a face and fingers so swollen, you sent me home — but you still paid me my $80 for the week I missed. I learned a lot from you too, Miss Ruth. Thank you.
(Charlie Taylor is now a senior development officer at the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. He’s also a long-time musician. To keep busy while mowing the Bedford lawn, he made up song lyrics. He later studied songwriting at UCLA, and worked with musicians like Gram Parsons, Billy Preston and others. Charlie’s 3rd CD will be released soon.)
Charlie Taylor back in the day, with Kitty (Amanda Blake) and Dale Evans.
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