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Tag Archives: Green’s Farms Congregational Church
It’s been more than 40 years since aging, down-on-his-luck ex-minor leaguer Walter Matthau coached a team of misfits.
But even current Little Leaguers — whose grandparents saw the movie when they were kids — knows that the “Bad News Bears” are not exactly the New York Yankees.
There were 2 sequels to the sports comedy. Only 5 actors appeared in all 3. David Stambaugh is one.
His character — Toby Whitewood — is the son of councilman Bob Whitewood, who secretly paid Morris Buttermaker to coach the team.
Stambaugh — whose career began at age 4 (he was in commercials for, among others, Bazooka gum and Tide), and continued with a decade’s worth of appearances on the soap opera “Love of Life” — put all that behind him before he was out of his teens.
“At 15, acting becomes very competitive,” he says. “Especially if you don’t look as cute as you did at 9.”
An avid church youth group member since junior high, Stambaugh attended Messiah College. It’s a Christian school, but he did not want to be a pastor. He majored in communications.
Yet religion was important. So Stambaugh went on to earn 2 master’s degrees, in theology and divinity.
His undergrad major actually came in handy. “I communicated as an actor,” he notes. “As a pastor, I communicate when I preach, and do weddings and funerals.”
He became a youth and young adult minister in New Jersey, then a solo pastor for 5 years at a church on the Shore.
Stambaugh returned to Hollywood — but not as an actor. He got the call from the United Methodist Church there.
However, his family was all on the East Coast. When Stambaugh’s wife was hired as children’s pastor by the First Congregational Church in Guilford, they eagerly moved back.
The minister there introduced him to Jeff Ryder, senior minister at Greens Farms Congregational.
Last month, Stambaugh was ordained as the 307-year-old church’s minister of faith formation. He works with the 8th and 9th grade confirmation classes, and with adult education. He teaches Bible studies, and preaches once a month.
Stambaugh knows Westport’s heritage as an arts community. He’s played drums for years, and looks forward to meeting fellow musicians.
He’s also intrigued that Jason Robards once lived here. Stambaugh was in “The Thanksgiving Treasure” — a 1973 film — with him.
Three years later came “The Bad News Bears” — David Stambaugh’s Hollywood home run.
Iron shackles. Burned timbers. “Negro child.”
They’re not the usual things you see at the Westport Historical Society.
But this is not the usual WHS exhibit.
“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opened in May. It’s one of the most creative and compelling shows ever mounted at Wheeler House. (Which, the exhibit notes, sits across Avery Place from a building that may have been built by slaves.)
It’s also one of the most important.
I attended the opening reception. It was packed. I talked with people who recalled some of the important events, like Martin Luther King’s visit to Temple Israel, and the fight over bringing Bridgeport students to Westport through Project Concern.
But it was too crowded to really see the artifacts and photos, or read the texts.
So the other day I returned. The Sheffer Gallery was quiet. I had time to study the exhibit.
And to think.
I learned a lot. I’m a Westport native and lifelong New Englander. But I never knew, for example, that slavery was not fully abolished in Connecticut until 1848. (The decades-long process spared white farmers the loss of free labor while they were still alive.)
Some of Westport’s biggest names — Coley, Nash, Jesup — were slave-owners. The property deeds — as in, these human beings were their property — are right there, for all to see.
We see too a recreated hearth, from a Clapboard Hill home. It’s cramped and dark — and it’s where a young slave girl might have slept.
I did not know that black Westporters fought for the Union in the Civil War. Nor did I know that an unknown number of slaves are buried in unmarked graves in Greens Farms Church’s lower cemetery.
I did know — on some level — that African Americans have a long history here. But I had not thought about what it meant for them to work on our docks, in our homes, or at our farms.
Black Westporters were domestics, chauffeurs and seamstresses. But they were also, the exhibit notes, teachers, artists, physicians, activists and freedom fighters.
The exhibit includes a 1920s painting by J. Clinton Shepherd, “The Waffle Shoppe.” It may well be based on an actual restaurant on Main Street.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the Great Migration drew millions of African Americans north. Westport — offering work on farms and estates — was one destination. Black families lived on the Post Road, Bay Street — and 22 1/2 Main Street.
I have known for years that that address — set back in an alley that later became Bobby Q’s restaurant — was the site of a boardinghouse, where dozens of African Americans lived.
I knew that in 1950, it burned to the ground. Arson was suspected.
But until the WHS exhibit, I did not know that a few months earlier, black Westporters had asked to be considered for spots at Hales Court, where low-cost homes were soon to be built. The Westport Housing Authority grudgingly agreed — but only after veterans, and others “with more pressing needs,” were accommodated.
Was that a cause for the fire? The exhibit strongly suggests so.
(Nearly 70 years later, construction at the old Bobby Q’s has revealed charred timbers — vivid testimony of that long-ago tragedy. It’s worth a look.)
The exhibit pays homage to African Americans like Drs. Albert and Jean Beasley, beloved pediatricians; Martin and Judy Hamer, and Leroy and Venora Ellis, longtime civic volunteers, and educator Cliff Barton.
It also cites the contributions of white Westporters like Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (arrested with Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida); Board of Education chair Joan Schine, who fought for Project Concern, and artists Tracy Sugarman and Roe Halper, staunch supporters of the civil rights movement.
But ultimately, “Remembered” remembers the largely forgotten men, women and children who helped shape and grow our town. Some came freely. Others did not. All were, in some way, Westporters.
In the foyer outside the exhibit, a stark wall serves as a final reminder of the African Americans who lived quietly here, long ago.
It lists the 241 slaves, and 19 free blacks, found in the Green’s Farms Congregational Church record books between 1742 and 1822. Most were listed only by first names: Fortune. Quash. Samson.
Some had no names at all. They are called only “Negro Child,” or “Negro Infant.”
The wall does not carry the names of all the white people listed in the church books during those 80 years. Many are well known to us, centuries later.
And most of them, the exhibit notes, owned the men, women and children who are now honored on that wall.
(For more information on “Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport,” click here. The Westport Historical Society, at 25 Avery Place, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors. Members and children 10 and under are free.)
(WHS is also memorializing the names of over 200 Westport slaves, through bricks in the brickwalk. The $20 cost covers the brick and installation. To order, click here.)
Unlike Sam Cooke (and Herman’s Hermits), “06880” readers do know much about history.
Last week’s photo challenge showed part of a historic marker (click here to view). Very quickly, you guys (and gals) identified the location as the small Machamux park, nestled near I-95 off Greens Farms Road between Beachside Avenue and the train station.
You chimed in with other information: “Machamux” means “beautiful land” in Pequot. The plaque is on a boulder that’s the site of the very first Greens Farms meetinghouse.
But no one commented on the name of the young sachem on the plaque: “Chickens.” (Maybe people were too scared…?)
Congratulations to Fred Cantor, Joyce Barnhart, Seth Schachter, Robert Mitchell, Wendy Cusick, Jacques Voris, Amy Schneider, Seth Goltzer, W. Tucker Clark and Jacque O’Brien. You know your onions — er, your Westport history.
But do you know where in Westport this is?
If you do, click “Comments” below.
In 2011, Green’s Farms Congregational Church celebrated its 300th anniversary.
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?
† 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).
† 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.
There is much more of interest in the Green’s Farms Church’s 300-year historical brochure.
Here’s to its next 294 years!
The other day, amateur historian Bob Weingarten published a story in Greens Farms Living magazine.
Read the previous sentence carefully.
The publication calls itself Greens Farms. Not Green’s Farms. Or Greensfarms.
Punctuation matters. And the punctuation of Westport’s oldest section of town was the subject of Weingarten’s piece.
I’m interested. From time to time, I’ve referred to that neighborhood in several ways. I never knew the answer — and never knew how to find out.
Weingarten quotes author Woody Klein, who called John Green “the largest landholder” among the 5 Bankside Farmers who in the late 1600s settled around what is now Beachside Avenue (the “banks” of Long Island Sound).
The area was called Green’s Farms. But in 1732 it was changed to Greens Farms because, Klein says, Fairfield — the town of which it was part — did not want “any individual landholder to become too independent.”
The plural form, Weingarten writes, could mean either that Green had more than one farm, or that it was “adopted from the multiple farms of the Bankside Farmers.” So Greens Farms it was.
Except in property deeds, which referred to “the Parish of Greensfarms.”
However, in 1842 — when the parish was incorporated into the 7-year-old town of Westport — the spelling became Green’s Farms.
The church of the same name adopted the apostrophe. Today it sometimes uses one, sometimes not. Sometimes on the same web page.
Confusion continued, though. For decades thereafter, official documents and maps referred to both Green’s Farms and Greens Farms.
Weingarten also mentions two streets: Green’s Farms Road and Greens Farms Hollow.
The state Department of Transporation has used both spellings — and a 3rd: Green Farms, for the Metro-North station.
Weingarten cites one more example. The post office near the train station uses the apostrophe spelling on one sign, the non-apostrophe on another.
Weingarten favors Green’s Farms. So do I.
But “06880” is a democracy. So — even though the zip code is 06838 — we’ll put it to a vote. Click the poll below — and add “Comments too.”
All you have to lose is an apostrophe.
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Bob Custer has done just about everything at Green’s Farms Congregational Church. He’s helped out at weddings and funerals. He oversees renovations and repairs. He gives tours for elementary students (in colonial costume), and keeps the nursery school going. Every Sunday, he rings the bell.
In fact, the only thing Custer has not done is preach a sermon. If he did, he’d deliver a wonderful one.
Custer’s official title is sexton. He’s been at the historic church on Hillandale Road since 1991. He’s “semi-retiring” on July 1. Even so, he’ll probably do more in one day than all “06880” readers do together in a year.
Here’s a brief glimpse into the rest of Custer’s life. A Norwalk native and graduate of Wright Tech (as a draftsman), he was part of the 1968 Vietnam Tet offensive as a squad leader with the 1st Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”).
Ever since, he’s been active in veterans affairs. Custer is now an officer with Westport’s VFW.
He’s an avid fisherman, and a former Little League and Pop Warner coach. “If I see someone doing something, I try it,” he says. “I love a challenge. I want to learn something new every day.”
Custer was working construction when he heard that Green’s Farms Church needed a sexton. He started in 1991, and has been there ever since. Kids he once saw being baptized are now returning, to baptize their own children.
In his quarter century at the church, Custer has made many friends. Everyone loves him — but especially the children. They call him “Mr. Bob.”
“They think I live here,” Custer says.
Actually, he might as well. “This is my second home,” he notes.
History is another of Custer’s passions. “People travel thousands of miles to see historical sites,” he says. “But they almost never look in their own back yard.”
Custer does. An avid reader of history books and church archives — and a garrulous man who strikes up conversations with people looking for ancestors in the church cemetery — he is a wealth of information. He loved dressing up and describing early Westport history to 3rd graders when they stopped in during the Jennings Trail tours.
Children were enthralled as he described the importance of the “meetinghouse” to the life of the town, and amazed to learn folks sat in church for hours on end — without heat or electricity.
Today of course, Green’s Farms Congregational Church has heat and electricity. Overseeing both is just part of Bob Custer’s job — one he does every day with respect, joy and pride.