The first moon landing. Woodstock. Chappaquiddick. The Mets.
All year long, Americans have celebrated the 50th anniversary of historic evenets.
Locally, 1969 was an important year too. But most Westporters have forgotten a battle that — if lost — would have irrevocably changed this town.
Joe Schachter still remembers the fight to save Cockenoe Island from becoming the site of a nuclear power plant. (You read that right. Click here for full details.)
Joe — a member of the “Cockenoe 50th Commemorative” group, along with Betty Lou Cummings, Miggs Burroughs and Jo Fox Brosious (honorary) — writes:
1969 marked the end of a townwide, all-consuming effort to stop installation of an industrial-size nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island. The huge, 14-story complex — just a mile or so off Compo Beach — would have transformed our pristine view; stopped access to the island’s trails, beaches and boating anchorages, and forever altered this part of Long Island Sound.
A rendering of what might have been.
The 2-year “Save Cockenoe Island” battle “involved more residents in a local action than ever before– or since,” says Jo Fox Brosious, then-editor of the Westport News. Her leadership, editorials and articles led the battle.
Victory meant that families who might have considered leaving Westport if the nuclear plant had been built did not have to make that choice. Nor did thousands who moved to Westport since, but might not even have considered it, had the plant been erected.
That critical 1967-69 effort followed an earlier battle by Westporters that took place about 250 years ago, and also shaped today’s Westport. Note these parallels:
In 1777, Westport farmers rose up as “Minutemen” to battle British efforts to stop formation of the new republic that, centuries later, provides today’s envied way of life.
In 1967 Westport residents rose up again, to battle an ominous nuclear presence on Cockenoe — avoiding a specter that could have decimated our way of life.
The 1777 British troops who burned their way up to Danbury were engaged by Minutemen as they returned to their waiting ships, seen anchored from Compo Beach.
The 1967 Westporters stopped a potentially despoiled view from Compo Beach, and prevented loss of access to Cockenoe’s swimming, clamming and fishing grounds.
Today’s residents see reminders of our patriots’ 1777 battles as we pass the Minuteman Monument, or see a pair of cannons on South Beach — each commemorating an event about 250 years ago.
But our town has yet to officially recognize an existential episode of only 50 years ago by designating even one similar lasting object to commemorate this critical achievement.
Indeed, most Westporters under age 60 don’t have even one first-hand memory of an all-out battle that preserved the character of our precious community.
To prevent this clash from disappearing from the pages of our town’s history, members of the 1967-69 “Save Cockenoe Island” original leadership commemorated that battle every 10th anniversary year with events, press releases and boat parades, right through to the 40th in 2009.
2019 is its 50th commemorative year. Those remaining few who were part of that pivotal battle will not be around much longer to remind youngsters and newcomers how their predecessors protected this community for them.
Now we leave it to them to preserve the sparkle of this historic contribution to our town’s brilliantly shining light.
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.
She’ll walk the 28-acre spit of rock, brush and sand a mile off Compo Beach. For decades it’s been a favorite spot of birders, boaters and campers (and lovers).
Some members of the tour will be regulars. Others will see it for the 1st time.
None would be there, though, without Jo’s herculean efforts nearly 50 years ago.
In 1967 Jo Brosious was the editor of the Westport News — a fledgling newspaper, challenging the established (and establishment) Town Crier.
A newcomer from the West Coast, Jo and her husband enjoyed taking their small boat out to Cockenoe (pronounced kuh-KEE-nee), to fish and clam.
One day, they heard a rumor. The island would be sold. On it, a power plant would rise.
Jo started a campaign to keep Cockenoe in the public domain. Readers quickly responded.
A couple of months later, the Bridgeport Post ran an enormous headline: “UI Plans A-Plant in Westport.”
United Illuminating — a statewide utility, and the new owner of the island that had long been privately held — would not just build a power plant. They planned a nuclear power plant. A 14-story nuclear power plant.
With a causeway, linking the island to shore.
The Westport News swung into high gear. Jo wrote news stories and editorials decrying the idea. She published letters to the editor, and editorial cartoons.
The Town Crier, meanwhile, supported the plan. It would be good, the paper argued, for the town’s tax base.
Memorabilia in Jo Fox’s basement 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.
An RTM hearing drew an SRO crowd. The legislative body voted unanimously to acquire Cockenoe. They’d use federal, state and — if necessary — local funds to keep the island as open space.
Save Cockenoe Now — a grassroots group — met often at Jo’s house. They enlisted the help of a Westport Library research librarian. In those pre-internet days, she struck gold: a Life Magazine editorial about ways in which municipalities could curb eminent domain requests of power companies.
Jo’s group decided to challenge UI’s eminent domain, through a pair of bills in the state legislature. One would enable the town of Westport to use eminent domain in this case. The other would allow all Connecticut towns to have pre-eminence over all utilities, in all eminent domain cases .
That was huge. Case law was unsettled over who had 1st rights in cases involving eminent domain: utilities or local governments.
Ed Green ran for state representative, on a “save Cockenoe” platform. He became the 1st Democrat in 50 years elected from Westport.
Democrats pressed the issue. They rented buses to take Westporters to Hartford, for committee hearings on the 2 bills. Green introduced the 2 Cockenoe bills in Hartford. They were co-sponsored by Louis Stroffolino, a Republican representing the Saugatuck area.
Westport’s arguments were not against nuclear power, which — before Chernobyl and Three Mile Island — was considered safe and clean. The argument was for saving a valuable recreational spot; the power plant could be located elsewhere.
Naiad Einsel’s “Save Cockenoe Now” posters were seen all over Westport.
Under pressure — including national press like the New York Times and Sports Illustrated; Senators Abraham Ribicoff and Lowell Weicker; Congressman Stewart McKinney; conservationists, fishermen, thousands of citizens, and even other utility companies that feared the omnibus bill — UI offered to sell the island.
There was, however, one condition: Westport would drop the proposed legislation.
In 1967, the deal was done.
The town paid approximately $200,000 for Cockenoe Island — UI’s purchase price. State and federal funds covered 75% of the cost. Westport now owns Cockenoe — in perpetuity.
Jo trumpeted the accomplishment with this Westport News headline: “Isle Be Home For Christmas.”
When the deal closed — on December 23, 1969 — she wrote this head: “Cockenoe Island Safe in Sound.”
The next summer — and for every summer thereafter — area residents have enjoyed Cockenoe. But each year, fewer and fewer know that, without a crusade led by one woman, the island — if not the entire area — would look and feel far different today.
In July 1970, Life Magazine called it one of 7 significant environmental victories in the nation.
Jo Fox today.
Jo has been out to Cockenoe a few times since 1967 — but never in summer.
This weekend — 85 years young — she looks forward to seeing the birds, clams and boats. (Though perhaps not the lovers.)
Thanks to Jo Fox, the water there is also a lot less warm than it otherwise would be.
(This Saturday’s trip to Cockenoe begins at 11 a.m. at Longshore Sailing School. In addition to kayak rentals — available there — the cost is $18 for Westport Historical Society members, $20 for non-members. Click here for details.)
Now that Hurricane Sandy is a fading memory, alert “06880” reader Nick Thiemann wonders what might have been.
Not “what if the storm was even more powerful?” Rather, “what if things turned out differently back in the 1960s?”
That’s the year United Illuminating proposed building a 14-story nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island. Which they’d bought, for that very reason.
Plenty of people were aghast.
And plenty thought it was a great idea.
Proponents were clear. Nuclear power was seen as a clean, inexpensive source of power — the fuel of the future.
The arguments against were twofold. Some believed nuclear power was dangerous. Others simply wanted to maintain the island for camping, clamming, and picnicking. (Teenagers would add “partying” to the list.)
The Westport News — a feisty upstart, just beginning to challenge the established Town Crier — took up the cause. For 2 years, editor Jo Brosious crusaded against the nuclear power plant — and for the right of Connecticut towns having the right of eminent domain over all utilities.
The Town Crier argued that the facility would reduce local taxes.
In 1969 — helped by a New York Times editorial strongly supporting Westport’s wish to preserve Cockenoe (and, Nick Thiemann says, a casual conversation in Hartford between Governor John Dempsey and Westport State Reprsentative Ed Green) — a deal was struck. UI would sell the island to the town for $200,000, if Westport dropped its proposed eminent domain legislation. State and federal funds covered 75 percent of the purchase price.
The RTM voted unanimously to buy the land.
In 1970, Life magazine cited the deal as a resounding conservation victory. A photo showed Jo Brosious at Compo Beach, with Cockenoe Island — pristine, not nuclear power plant-ed — in the background.
Which is how Cockenoe remains, 42 years later.
It’s still a place for camping, clamming, picnicking (and partying) (and rats).
But imagine for a moment — as Nick Thiemann does — what might have happened to a nuclear power plant during last month’s hurricane.
Much of B.V. Brooks’ life seems to come from an earlier, more traditional New England era.
His real name was Babert Vincent. His nickname was “Dexter.” He attended Deerfield Academy and Dartmouth College. Like his father — also named B.V. — Dexter was a faithful Yankee Republican.
He followed his father into real estate development. (In the 1950s, B.V. Sr. developed one of Westport’s 1st shopping strips — Westfair Center, opposite what is now Super Stop & Shop — and an adjacent housing development behind it. Dexter Road is named for his son.)
In 1964, the Brooks family launched a new local paper, the Westport News. According to Woody Klein’s history of Westport, it was formed as an opposition voice to the established Town Crier, seen as “the voice of the Republicans in power.” The Brookses were aligned with Westport’s more conservative Taxpayers Party.
Ironically, the News made its biggest name — and ultimately drove the Town Crier out of business — with a very un-Republican crusade. In 1967 United Illuminating announced plans to build a 14-story nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island, less than a mile off Compo Beach.
Brooks’ paper — led by its activist editor, Jo Brosious — began a 2-year crusade against the utility company’s purchase. In 1969, the town of Westport bought Cockenoe for $200,000. Our water has been swimmable — and our homes safe — ever since.
The News tilted more Republican in later years, but Dexter Brooks never was a ham-fisted, you’ll-say-it-my-way-or-be-gone publisher. I should know: I spent 3 years as sports editor there, and my byline has appeared in the paper ever since I was a Staples junior.
In 1999 the Brooks family sold the Westport News — and its other Brooks Community Newspapers, in towns like Fairfield, Norwalk, Darien and Greenwich — to the Thomson chain. Dexter stepped down as publisher that year.
He remained president of the Brooks, Torrey and Scott real estate company. It was another family business: Torrey and Scott are the names of his sons.
(Fun fact: Brooks Corner — where his newspaper and real estate company once had offices — is named for the family. The fact that Brooks Brothers now has a clothing store there is pure coincidence.)
Dexter Brooks’ impact on Westport — both as a real estate developer and a publisher — were enormous.
And no one could say he did not know his town.
Woody Klein’s book contains an anecdote about Dexter Brooks. Once, a fellow member of the New England Press Association asked him how a small town like Westport could support an 84-page paper. Where did so much news and so many ads come from? he asked.
“You don’t know Westport,” Brooks replied.
He explained that thanks to shoppers from far and wide, the town’s retail sales per capita were the highest in the state.
“The number and quality of restaurants is renowned far and wide,” he continued. Home prices and income levels were quite high too.
But, Brooks continued, statistics did not tell the whole story.
At the heart of the difference here, in my opinion, is the dynamics, the widespread activism that engulfs Westport. We kid that the shortest time span in the world is the time between when the light turns green and the guy behind you blows his horn.
And Westport boasts the world’s shortest time for organizing a group “pro” and a group “con” on any local issue.
Dexter Brooks died on Thursday, after suffering a heart attack while vacationing in Mexico. He was 84.
His family’s legacy — and his own — will live for years.
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