Tag Archives: Jacques Voris

29 North Avenue: The 2nd Story [Photos Added]

29 North Avenue — the charming saltbox home featured in Monday’s “06880” — has a long history.

Jacques Voris — whose roots in Westport go back to at least the 1700s — knows that home, and the surrounding area, intimately. He writes:

I am grateful that Annette Norton chose to restore the house, rather than turn it into yet another generic, soulless, overly large one.

29 North Avenue, today.

In Monday’s article I am quoted as a background, using words I have said over the years. I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify and update some of that information.

I know that for many people this story is meaningless. The people discussed are long dead, and in the grand scheme of history had little impact. However, I find it to be a remarkably human story that gives a sense, a taste, of what life was like in bygone days.

My family has always called it “The Squatter’s House,” because it was said that when it was built they squatted on the land without title. That is why it is so close to the road: It was built in the right of way, a gray area where no one had clear ownership of the land.

The situation was normalized later, in a land swap with the town. Alas, while it is a juicy story, we have little in the way of proof.

The first house on the plot of land was probably built around 1780 by Daniel Mills. He was born in Stamford in 1748. When the situation at Lexington and Concord drew militia from all over New England, Daniel and his brothers marched off with their neighbors.

He seems to have given perfectly good service in his time under arms. But his views later changed, to that of a Loyalist. He and his brother Ezra were tarred and feathered in Dutchess County, New York.

Daniel’s other brother John moved to Canada after the war, so strong were his Loyalist views.

What changed? We don’t know. I have long had a feeling that the death of his uncle Beebe fighting the French and Native American allies around Fort Edward played a factor. Defending your rights “as an Englishman” is one thing, but allying with the hated French is another.

In any regard, after the incident in Dutchess County Daniel moved to Greens Farms, where some cousins lived. They were children of Beebe, as well as his uncle Robert Mills, and the descendants of his great-grandfather Aaron Fountain.

Hezekiah Mills, Daniel’s son, next owned the house. Kiah was veteran of the War of 1812, and a blacksmith. His shop was further up the street, about where 59 North Avenue is now.

He married Charity Mills, his second cousin once removed. She was the daughter of John Mills and Eunice Frazier. John was Kiah’s second cousin, being the son of Ebenezer Mills.

It is likely Kiah and Charity remodeled the house about 1830 into something close to its present form. An architectural review of the house done some years ago noted elements that were consistent with the 1830 date, but also cited tool marks on timbers that would be from earlier.

Undated photo of 29 North Avenue. The barn is in the background.

I have little troubling seeing my frugal Yankee kin reusing much of the material when rebuilding the house.

An undated hand-drawn map of the North Avenue neighborhood. #29 is on the left side, labeled “House.”

The stories of Native Americans visiting the house referred not to random passersby, but allegedly were kinfolk to Charity. That we have such ancestry is a longstanding story in our family, but I can find no documentation to bear it out.

Their son, William Henry Mills, next owned the house. When he marched off to fight in the Civil War with Company C of the 28th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry he left 9 children in the care of his wife Betsey Ann Batterson.

While she raised the children, tended the farm and was midwife to the neighborhood, she was not alone. There were many kinfolk around her. She was also a good churchgoing woman, who sat in the front pew in the east center of the Greens Farms Church.

This undated story from the Fairfield News notes the Mills family’s pew at the Green’s Farms Church. Horace Staples sat in the first pew. Other notable names include Burr, Jennings, Bradley, Wakeman, Taylor, Jesup, Sherwood, Hyde, Meeker, Hull and Bedford.

Then the house was owned by Henry Eldridge “Hen” Mills, the last large-scale onion farmer in Westport according to his obituary.

Henry Mills, 1936.

His son Elmer owned the house next. He is the source of much lore about the house. Elmer seems to have been interested in a good story more than good history.

He was a colorful person. Shakespearean actor, manservant to powerful people, he had style and panache among a family of dour Yankees. Elmer was the last person surnamed Mills to own the house.

The story doesn’t quite end there though. Elmer sold the house to James Edward “Jimmy” Godfrey, his cousin. Jimmy was the son of Eugene Godfrey and Julia Mills. He added indoor plumbing to the house in the 1950s.

Julia Mills was the daughter of William Henry Mills and sister to Hen Mills. People today still recall his daughter Elizabeth “Betty” Godfrey, known as “Nurse Betty.”

Henry Mills and family.

So Annette, there is a story about your house. It’s probably more than you will ever care to know.

You are now the trustee of a legacy of a family, a history that has deep roots in Westport. May you and yours add another long chapter to this history.

William Mills

29 North Avenue: Big Story Behind Small House Rehab

Westport is known for big — okay, gargantuan — homes.

But one of the smallest is also one of our most beloved.

#29 North Avenue — the tiny saltbox just south of Staples High School, which juts almost into the sidewalk — has long been an object of admiration (and curiosity).

29 North Avenue, in 2014.

There’s some dispute about its history. It dates, in some form, to the 1770s.

Jacques Voris — a descendant of the area’s famous Mills family — says it was built by Revolutionary War veteran John Mills (1760-1829) for his daughter Charity and her new husband Hezekiah Mills (a cousin).

Charity Mills — who lived to be over 100 — had 13 children, “all born in that Mills homestead” on what was then called Eleven O’clock Highway.

Jacques’ research shows it was constructed in the right of way — without title to land. In fact, John seemed to have no claim to the spot whatsoever. Nevertheless, he set up a blacksmith shop for his daughter and son-in-law.

In 1950, a local newspaper described it as built before the Revolutionary War. It featured a huge chimney; “Indians” sometimes seated themselves before the fireplace.

Other sources say the house was built in the 1830s, using beams from the original kitchen of a previous dwelling on the site.

At any rate: It’s old. And in recent years it was vacant, mouse-infested and deteriorating.

An investment group bought it, in foreclosure. When they listed it for sale (at the lowest price of any property in town), potential buyers lined up. All wanted to tear it down and build a new home — just like the ones behind it on Greystone Farms Road, which in the 1990s replaced the orchards and fields behind it.

Never mind that #29 North Avenue stood on a small, awkward piece of land that would make rebuilding difficult and costly (and require numerous zoning variances).

The barn at 29 North Avenue. (Photo/Michelle Perillie)

Annette Norton — who’d grown up in Fairfield, always loved Main Street, and after opening the funky, eclectic Savvy + Grace helped revitalize downtown — had other ideas.

She saw promise in the 930-square foot house. Despite dark rooms, a cramped kitchen and ugly 1970s tiles, she loved its charm.

And she knew it had potential.

As the pandemic raged — and her store remained closed — Annette bought the house.

Most contractors were slammed with work, on much bigger projects. She found Javier Pasato, who shared her passion.

“It was disgusting,” Annette says of the condition of the house. Mice feces dropped from the ceiling. There was termite damage throughout. Even the insulation was gone.

Together, they embarked on a year-long, top-to-bottom renovation/ rehabilitation project.

29 North Avenue, today.

They’re not architects or interior designers — but you wouldn’t know it from their work.

They refinished the floors, retiled the kitchen, opened up a skylight to the second floor, combined 2 closets to make a new bathroom, and used lighter paint (and new windows on the door) to brighten the interior.

The 2 bathrooms blend old and new.

They removed sheetrock, exposing original beams. Annette found a historic fireplace mantel in Bozrah. She and her daughter Chloe drove there; Javier then installed it, replacing bricks installed by a previous owner.

Fireplace before (left) and after. Note the narrow staircase, and refinished floors.

They repaired the cedar roof, replaced the siding, fixed the pipes, added central air conditioning, and installed energy-efficient windows.

The kitchen is small. But with restored tiles, a skylight and a serving island, it works well.

Every inch of the small house makes sense. A reading nook hides the air conditioning unit; hooks on the wall work in place of a coat closet.

From hooks to storage under drawers, Annette Norton takes advantage of every available inch. Original beams and white paint give the small, historic space a bright look.

Outside, the stone wall dating back to the original Mills masons was rebuilt. (Annette constructed a new one nearby too — herself — using leftover stones.) There are new entertainment areas outside in back and front, with heat lamps.

Everyone driving by — and that means everyone in Westport — notices all the changes. That’s because the exterior is painted a welcoming white, and Annette removed the imposing, deteriorating fence that half-hid the house.

She moved in in August. “I understand why people like tiny homes,” she says. “My life is so much easier. When I lived in a 3,000-square foot Colonial, I spent every weekend cleaning. Now it’s just an hour.”

The barn is Annette Norton’s next renovation project.

She’s not the only one who loves her house. A constant stream of passersby — drivers, joggers, walkers — thank her.

“Great colors!” one person said. “It looks so bright!”

“It’s beautiful. Such charm!” another added.

Some people even knock on her door. That’s a bit intrusive.

New front door, with entertainment area.

Annette has given everyone who lives or drives on North Avenue a gift. But it hasn’t been easy. Along the way, she doubted what she was doing.

Annette had similar thoughts when she opened Savvy + Grace. That space too had needed plenty of work.

One day, a sparrow flew into the store. It took a while to shoo it out. Someone who watched it happen told Annette that sparrows — though tiny — have survived a long time, against larger birds of prey.

“When you see one, it reminds you that even if you feel small, you’ll make it,” the woman said.

In the midst of both COVID and renovation, a sparrow flew into #29 North Avenue. That was a sign, Annette thought, that eventually everything would be okay.

Soon, she found a small wooden sparrow. Javier installed it at the top of her bannister. Every day, it reminds Annette that despite whatever else is happening — with both her store and her home — her life will work out fine.

(At “06880,” we keep our eye on every part of town. To help us do it, please consider a contribution. Click here — and thank you.) 

The sparrow, at the top of the stairs. (All photos courtesy of Annette Norton)


Pizza Principles 101

For years, Westporters have watched Jacques Voris turn dough and tomato sauce into delicious pies at Westport Pizzeria. He figures he makes 25,000 a year.

Many are awed by his pizza-making skills. Others wonder: How hard could that be?

Everyone (age 13 and up) now has a chance to try. Voris and his restaurant are offering “Pizza Principles”: a (truly) hands-on class in pie-making.

There are sessions every Sunday this summer, from 10 a.m. to 11.

It’s a group activity (up to 3 people per group). Each makes its own pizza, from start to finish.

You won’t take your finished creation home, though.

You’ll eat it right there.

Jacques Voris, at work.


(The cost for each “Pizza Principles” group is $30 — and includes all ingredients. To register, click here.)

Friday Flashback #60

Alert reader — and 11th-generation Westporter Jacques Voris — sends along a fascinating photo:

He writes:

This photo of John Burr Mills was taken circa 1922. He was about 87, and is holding his great-grand-niece, Shirley Mills.

John Burr Mills — a relative of mine — was here for much of the early formation of Westport, and its transition from a farming community into the artist colony of the 1920s.

He was born on February 25, 1835 in Greens Farms — a few months before Westport was incorporated. He was the second of 3 sons of John Mills and Sarah Batterson. His father died when he was 20 years old. He and his older brother Charles struck out on their own.

John was primarily a mason. He built the State Street (now Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Post Road) bridge. He lived until 1934, and his direct descendant Wayne Mills still lives on West Parish Road.

What I really like about this photo are his hands, as he gently holds the child. Look at the size of them, and think about their obvious strength.

In addition to the photo, Jacques has a request:

I need “06880” readers’ help finding something. There was once a horse track in Greens Farms called the Dingee Racetrack. Other than a name, I don’t know a thing about it. Where exactly was it located? When?

Readers: If you have any information on the Dingee Racetrack, click “Comments” below. NOTE: The racetrack on the Bedford property — near, interestingly, West Parish — was called Wynfromere. It may be a different one.

The Mills Of Westport

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a story about the Mills family.

Their home at 54 North Avenue — just south of Staples High School — was slated for demolition. After more than 200 years, there would be no Millses living on the road.

The century-old Mills home at 54 North Avenue has been torn down.

The century-old Mills home at 54 North Avenue has been torn down.

Millses had been farmers and masons. One helped build the original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue. Yet the family seems to be forgotten. I ended the story:

Other long-lived Westport families have schools or parks named for them. The Mills family does not.

But they truly built this town. Their monuments are the countless stone walls, sea walls and foundations that exist to this day.

The piece sparked the curiosity of Mills descendant Jacques Voris. Eager to learn more of his family’s past, he visited the Westport Historical Society. They had almost nothing.

Voris began digging. He thought that Revolutionary War veteran John Mills (1760-1829) — who built #29 North Avenue, the small yellow saltbox that everyone still admires, as a blacksmith shop for his daughter and son-in-law –was the 1st family member in Westport.

29 North Avenue was built by Homer Mills.

29 North Avenue was built by John Mills.

Voris found, to his amazement, that Millses had lived in Westport for nearly a century before that.

Voris learned that his great-great-grandfather represented Westport in the state legislature, and the man’s son had been first selectman. Voris also discovered that a Mills was one of only 3 police officers killed in the line of duty here.

Now he wants to know even more.

For instance, what about the FL Mills Company? An automobile dealership started in Bridgeport in 1908 by Frederick LeClair Mills, it sold Studebakers for many years.

Bridgeport Post ad from August 11, 1959 mentioned a new location on the corner of Post Road and South Maple Avenue, selling Studebakers, Mercedes Benzes and a variety of used cars.

Voris never knew about the dealership. He hopes “06880” readers have details.

So: If anyone remembers the Mills car dealer — or has any other stories about this storied, but often forgotten Westport family — click “Comments” below.

The Mills family, in a horse and buggy.

Enjoying a horse-and-buggy ride: Ida Edith (Beyer) Mills; her son and daughter Ralph and Mildred, and her granddaughter Shirley Mills. This is from no later than 1928; Ralph died that year.


54 North Avenue: The End Of The Mills Family Legacy

Though they may not know it, Westporters are very familiar with 54 North Avenue.The brown wooden house stands a few feet from the southern entrance to Staples High School. It’s more than a century old.

54 North Avenue

54 North Avenue

But that’s not why 54 North Avenue rates an “06880” story. More significant is that later this month its owner, William B. Mills, will sell his home. And that will end more than 200 years in which the Mills family has lived on North Avenue.

The oldest house on North Avenue between Long Lots and Cross Highway is #29. Built by Revolutionary War veteran John Mills (1760-1829) for his daughter Charity and her new husband Hezekiah Mills (a cousin), it was constructed in the right of way — without title to land. In fact, John seemed to have no claim to the spot whatsoever. Nevertheless, John set up a blacksmith shop for his daughter and son-in-law.

29 North Avenue

The saltbox at 29 North Avenue.

19 North Avenue was built by John’s grandson Charles Mills (1833-1909). Longtime Westporters know the property as “Rippe’s Farm” — now Greystone Farm Lane — but the Rippes bought it later.

Charles was a master mason who built the foundation for the original Staples High School (1884) on Riverside Avenue. When it was torn down in 1967, Charles’ great-grandson recycled the bricks to build his chimney. Charles — who represented Westport in the state legislature (1885-86) — sold off most of the Mills’ farmland on North Avenue. Legend has it he got $50 an acre — a good sum in those days. But he gave each of his 4 sons 4 acres of property up the road from the house: #54, 58, 62 and 66.

54 North Avenue — the one being sold this month — was built by Charles Mills (1857-1945) on land he got from his father. Charles planted the beautiful red maple in front that is now a local landmark. Williams Mills — Charles’ grandson — is only the 2nd owner.

A red maple frames 54 North Avenue.

A red maple frames 54 North Avenue.

48 North Avenue — built by Homer Mills (1898-1981) — was built in 1943. The road was still rural; there were no side streets, and few houses. Homer attended Adams Academy on nearby Morningside North, but left school after 8th grade. He never got to Staples — which his father helped build. As did many Westport boys, he went to work on a farm. He later became a mason, like his father and grandfather.

Other long-lived Westport families have schools or parks named for them. The Mills family does not.

But they truly built this town. Their monuments are the countless stone walls, sea walls and foundations that exist to this day.

What will happen to 54 North Avenue after it passes from the Mills family? Well, a demolition sign hangs prominently near the front steps.

(Hat tip to Jacques Voris – William Mills’ nephew — for much of this fascinating historical information and insight.)