Tag Archives: Mary Gai

Friday Flashback #186

This week — much to some Westporters’ dismay — the New York Times shined a spotlight on our town’s role in, and reaction to, the coronavirus crisis.

On September 8, 1832, the Springfield Journal took note of a cholera epidemic here.

Of course, there was no “Westport” yet — it would be 3 years before we broke away from Fairfield, Norwalk and Wilton.

I have no idea why a newspaper in Illinois would take note of what was happening here. But here’s how they reported it.

Worth noting, nearly 190 years later:

  • Then, as now, people who were able to left New York for the suburbs
  • Quarantines worked
  • Newspaper writing was a lot different then, but …
  • Just like today, mistakes crept in. “Newark” in the last sentence should be “Norwalk.” The river referred to is the Saugatuck.

I have no idea how very alert “06880” reader Mary Gai found this. But it’s important proof that we are not the first generation to face a crisis like this.

In 1832, New York’s population was 250,000. The cholera epidemic killed 3,515. In today’s city of 8 million, the equivalent death toll would pass 100,000. For more on that long-forgotten epidemic, click here.

PS: The Norwalk Gazette is long gone. But the Springfield Journal  — now the State Journal-Register — is still around. It calls itself “the oldest newspaper in Illinois.”

PPS: Did Abraham Lincoln read this story? Probably not. He moved to Springfield in 1837.

Memorial Day: Back In The Day

If you’ve ever been to a Memorial Day parade in Westport — and the ceremony that follows on Veterans Green, opposite Town Hall — you know it’s one of our most fun, diverse, community-minded (and small-town) events.

If you’re a newcomer — or an old-timer who always sleeps in — you really need to see it. Stand anywhere along the parade route (from Saugatuck Elementary School on Riverside Avenue, across the Post Road bridge, left on Myrtle), and enjoy the passing parade of cops, firefighters, EMTs, Y’s Men, young soccer and lacrosse and baseball and violin players, fifers and drummers, and random others having all kinds of retro fun.

It seems like it’s been this way forever (except for talking on cell phones while “marching,” and taking selfies). Now we’ve got proof.

Alert “06880” reader and indefatigable historic researcher Mary Gai unearthed a news story from 1921. It describes Westport’s plans for the upcoming Memorial Day parade. The details are a bit different — but any of us magically plopped down 95 years ago would recognize it instantly.

Participants included a color guard and bands; veterans (from the Civil and Spanish-American Wars, riding in cars); the Red Cross, American Legion, VFW, and Boy and Girl Scouts. “As usual,” the story said, “a number of autos and many marchers” were expected to follow behind.

Hotel Square -- the start of the 1921 Memorial Day parade -- was located downtown, where the YMCA later stood. Today, it's being renovated at Bedford Square.

Hotel Square — where the 1921 Memorial Day parade began — was located downtown, where the YMCA later stood. Today, it’s being renovated as Bedford Square.

The parade began at 9 a.m. sharp, at Hotel Square (near the soon-to-be-constructed YMCA, at the corner of Main Street and the Post Road — then called State Street).

The route took marchers over the bridge, then to King Street (Kings Highway North), with a halt by the Catholic cemetery. The parade then headed south to Canal Street and North Main, stopping at Willowbrook Cemetery before doubling back down Main Street to Myrtle Avenue. Everyone ended at Town Hall (now Rothbard Ale + Larder, next to Restoration Hardware), for services on the lawn. The ceremony ended with a gun salute.

Exactly 50 years later — in 1971 — Mark Groth took some Memorial Day photos. He stood on the 2nd floor of Main Street, in the Youth-Adult Council offices, as the parade passed by.

Now another 45 years have passed. How much has changed — and how much hasn’t?

Check out Mark’s shots below. You be the judge. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

For years, E.O. Nigel Cholmeley-Jones was a fixture in the Memorial Day parade. A lieutenant in World War I, as a child he had been photographed with Walt Whitman.

For years, E.O. Nigel Cholmeley-Jones was a fixture in the Memorial Day parade. A lieutenant in World War I, as a child he had been photographed with Walt Whitman.

Staples High School band. In 1971, Main Street was open to 2-way traffic.

Staples High School band. West Lake Restaurant was located at the foot of Main Street, by the Post Road. In 1971, Main Street was open to 2-way traffic.

The Y Indian Guides make their way down Main Street (in 1971, a two-way road). Note spectators watching from 2nd-floor windows along the route.

The Y Indian Guides make their way down Main Street. Note spectators watching from 2nd and 3rd-floor windows above the Westport Food Center grocery store.

Local clergymen, including Rev. Ted Hoskins (Saugatuck Congregational Church) and Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (Temple Israel) march in front of a banner urging peace.

Local clergymen, including Rev. Ted Hoskins (Saugatuck Congregational Church, beard) and Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (Temple Israel, hand on head) march in front of a banner urging peace.

First Selectman John Kemish (tie) is flanked by veterans.

First Selectman John Kemish (tie) is flanked by veterans. (All photos/Mark Groth)

All You Ever Wanted To Know About Coleytown, But Never Knew To Ask

Mary Gai is many things: an alert “06880” reader. A realtor. A lover of Westport history.

Those 3 elements come together in her fascinating story about the Coleytown neighborhood:

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw 277 North Avenue in the early 1980s. But I immediately knew I was looking at history.

Standing hundreds of feet from any road, the dramatic lines of the 1740s saltbox — constructed to avoid taxes the King of England imposed on 2-story houses — had not changed since it was built.

Amazingly, it still exists today — along with a carriage house, barn and surrounding acreage. The fact that it does is due to a series of little miracles. The first was that James Earle Fraser and Laura Gardin Fraser bought sizable chunks of Coleytown starting in 1914, including this property.

James Earle Fraser, at work on a bust of Theodore Roosevelt in his Westport studio.

James Earle Fraser, at work on a bust of Theodore Roosevelt in his Westport studio.

Westport would not be Westport if not for the Frasers.  They were the most famous residents of Westport ever (according to his 1953 obituary). The 1st polo games ever in Westport were held on their property. A year later they founded The Fairfield County Hunt Club.

They were also among the founders of the Westport Beach Club (now known as Longshore), and Shorehaven Country Club.

These politically active, internationally famous sculptors attracted to Westport a dizzying array of internationally famous visitors, including both Roosevelt first ladies, Edsel Ford, the Harvey Firestones, the Mayos, Averell Harriman, the George Patton family, famous poets, architects, writers, activists and philanthropists. Three-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson lived with them in Westport for 15 years.

Public records reveal that the Frasers intentionally purchased property to keep their neighborhood quiet enough for their creativity. They then sold some land to other artists, effectively founding Westport’s famous artists colony.

Former Fraser student and famous sculptor Lila Wheelock Howard and her illustrator husband Oscar bought the old mill and barn on Coleytown Road in 1919. Kerr Eby, world-famous artist and pacifist, bought the Coley homestead from the Frasers in 1923, just a few hundred feet from the Fraser studios. The property that he named “Driftway” became the inspiration for many of his etchings (still sold today). He lived in his beloved old saltbox for the rest of this life.

Water was an important part of the property, for many reasons.

Water was an important part of the property, for many reasons.

Heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune Ward Thorne and his wife Judith bought Driftway from the Eby estate in 1949. They lived there for the rest of their lives as well. To insure that the property be taken seriously by historians, they donated it to the Antiquarian & Landmarks society.

The current sellers are true heroes of preservation. They stabilized and restored the magnificent saltbox, insuring that it will “live on” with its 5 working fireplaces, chestnut beams, floors and gorgeous woodwork. A family addition echoes the saltbox form, and adds functionality for today. They also purchased the old mill and barn to reunite the property and the main building components, which now includes 3 antique homes, 2 barns and 10.5 acres of the original farm homestead.

277 North Avenue today. The original lines of the 1740s saltbox still remain.

277 North Avenue today. The original lines of the 1740s saltbox still remain.

The area is called “Coleytown” because of the Coley family. They farmed their land for 200 years, and had quite a sophisticated operation. Fresh water from the Aspetuck River helped grow grapes, flax, corn, onions and other crops.

The Coley wharf was located on the Saugatuck River just south of Gorham Island. Produce — including grain processed at the Coley mill — was transported on the Coley’s sloop “Nancy” to New York and Boston on a regular basis.

The c.1760 gristmill — replaced by steam power — became a cotton mill by 1840. Batting produced from Southern cotton was sent to manufacturers to fill the need for textiles in Northeastern cities. A piece of cotton mill apparatus still hangs from the barn rafters, and an original millstone decorates the riverfront landscape. A footbridge and waterfall create a gorgeous, unspoiled landscape.

The original mill house.

The original mill house.

The Frasers and 4 other owners of this property not only preserved the antique buildings and land along the Aspetuck River. They also preserved the largely forgotten village center, first called “Coley Ville.”

The mill and converted barn on Coleytown Road were the center of the little village. It included a small green, schoolhouse, shoemaker, blacksmith, yarn manufacturer, horse stables, 5 Coley homesteads, and probably a couple of other shops.

The original Coley homestead.

The original Coley homestead. (All photos courtesy of Mary Gai)

Today, the former village gristmill, barn and the Coley homestead are looking for new stewards. Let’s hope they preserve the character of this special neighborhood — one that has endured even longer than our nation itself.

(For much more information on the property, click here; then follow the “Driftway” links on the left.)