Tag Archives: Westport Historical Society

Mystery Object #9

No one likes a trip to the dentist.

But if you lived in the 1700s, you would have liked it a lot less.

The Westport Historical Society‘s most recent Mystery Object was a tooth key.

Also known as a dental key, it was used to extract diseased teeth. (Stop reading now if you’re squeamish.)

Modeled after a door key, the tooth key was inserted horizontally into the mouth. Its claw tightened over a tooth. The dentist then rotated it, loosening the tooth.

The original design featured a straight shaft, which caused it to exert pressure on the tooth next to the one being extracted. A newer (1765) version featured a slightly bent shaft.

The photo above shows the earlier design. It was donated to the WHS by Mrs. William L. Coley.

The tooth key was part of the ongoing “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. Every 2 weeks there’s a new mystery object. If you stop in and identify it, you can win something from the gift shop.

There was no winner this time.

Which  may be good. It means no one in Westport has had actual experience with a tooth key.

Mystery Object #8

If you’re a Westporter in 2018, you don’t know what this is:

If you lived here in the mid- to late-1800s though, you’d recognize it easily.

It’s a sausage stuffer. The tin tube with interchangeable nozzle and wooden plunger made filling the animal-based casings much easier.

Industrialized tools for kitchen use became very popular in the 1850s onward. This early example was the most recent Westport Historical Society “mystery object.”

Part of the current “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit, it changes every 2 weeks. If you stop in and identify it, you can win something from the gift shop.

The sausage stuffer stumped everyone. But a new mystery object is on view now at the WHS.

Take A Selfie With Sam And Betsy

For years, Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty were packed away inside.

Now, the pair of Einsel kinetic sculptures — Walter’s tips his hat, and his eyes light up; his wife Naiad’s torch shines, and her heart pulsates — have been moved from the Westport Historical Society’s cobblestone barn, onto the Avery Place lawn.

The public is invited to take selfies with “Sam” and “Betsy.” (No, I don’t know why the Statue of Liberty bears Betsy Ross’ name — maybe it’s her flag dress?).

Photos can be posted to the statues’ Instagram account: Betsy_and_Sam. Each week, the WHS will give a prize from its gift shop for the funniest, most creative selfie.

Please respect Sam and Betsy. Don’t climb on them. After all, they were born in the 1800s.

Westport Historical Society Mystery Object #7

This thing looks pretty intriguing. But what is it?

This is just a simple apple parer (also called an apple peeler).

They were patented in the 1800s, to meet the growing needs of farmers. Apples were becoming a winter staple for both food and beverages, but had to be processed.

Paring, coring and cutting enough apples to meet the winter need was both difficult and time consuming. Farmers first manufactured machines out of wood to make the process go more swiftly.

In the 19th century, cast iron led to a boom of patents. Over 100 were issued from 1850 to 1890.

This one was patented date in 1863. It’s still in good working condition —

It was the Westport Historical Society’s “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. The featured item changes every 2 weeks. If you stop in and identify it, you can win something from the gift shop. Just like Reeves Frey did for the apple parer.

A new mystery object is now on view at the WHS.

Damn! I’m Sure I Put That Time Capsule Somewhere Around Here …

Those pesky time capsules.

We keep burying them. And keep forgetting where they are.

It happened a few years ago with Greens Farms Elementary School.

Now it’s Saugatuck Congregational Church’s turn.

In 1866 a time capsule was buried under the cornerstone of their then-new Sunday school building. The church was located across the Post Road, and up the hill from where it is now — approximately where the gas station and adjacent bank are, near South Compo Road.

Saugatuck Congregational Church, at its original site.

In 1950 the church was moved — v-e-r-y slowly — across the street, to its current location by Myrtle Avenue. At the same time the school building was relocated to Imperial Avenue, where it created what is now Bedford Hall at the Westport Woman’s Club.

In the 1950s, Life Magazine ran photos of Bedford Hall being moved from the Post Road to Imperial Avenue.

The cornerstone was not unearthed during the move. No one seems to know what happened to it.

Now — 68 years later — the Westport Historical Society is on the case.

If you have any idea of the whereabouts of the Saugatuck Church cornerstone — or hey, any other in town — email info@westporthistory.org.

And for God’s sake, the next time you bury a time capsule, leave detailed instructions!

Westport Historical Society Mystery Object #6

If you guessed that this Westport Historical Society mystery object —

— was a wick trimmer, you were right.

Unfortunately, no one did.

The wick trimmer was part of the WHS’ “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. The featured item changes every 2 weeks. If you stop in and identify it, you can win something from the gift shop.

So what is a wick trimmer?

Until the discovery of styrene and a self-consumed plaited wick in the 19th century, a candle wick had to be snuffed or trimmed to avoid smoking. Candle trimmers, or snuffers, are scissors designed with a box attached to catch the wick as it’s being trimmed.

The Historical Society says the current mystery object is easier to identify.

We’ll believe that when we — and you — see it.

Historical Society Shines A Light On Westport’s Troubled Past

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.

Slave shackles, on exhibit at the Westport Historical Society.

“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.

A 1780 payment voucher for a black patriot soldier who bought his freedom, and immediately enlisted.

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.

The reconstruction of sleeping quarters in a crawl space, from a Clapboard Hill Road home.

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.

Photos and text about 22 1/2 Main Street.

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.)

I have long been fascinated by this photo, of one African American standing apart from everyone else in the Shercrow School photo. The WHS exhibit gives her a name — Anna Simms — and notes that she may have been a student or teacher.

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.

Roe Halper presents woodcuts to Coretta Scott King. The civil rights leader’s wife autographed this photo. The artwork was displayed in the Kings’ Atlanta home for many years.

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.)

In 1964, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the 5th anniversary of the dedication of Temple Israel. He autographed this program.

Westport Historical Society Mystery Object #5

Once again, the Westport Historical Society stumped its visitors. No one identified this object:

It was part of their “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. The featured item changes every 2 weeks. If you stop in and identify it, you win something from the gift shop.

So what was it?

Known variously as a sap, slapper or blackjack, the heavy leather pouch is 8 12 inches long, and filled with lead (sometimes a flexible steel rod too). Unlike a baton, a sap’s size and shape allows it to be concealed inside an officer’s pocket.

Saps may not look as intimidating as a gun or a baton, but they sure are dangerous. A sap is dense enough to break bones, and the leather edge is rough enough to cause a dull, ripping laceration to the face when jabbed. Slappers are ideal in tight quarters, like a fight on the ground against a large suspect.

Slappers are rare these days, forbidden by many jurisdictions across the country. Even so, some uniforms still come with a sap pocket.

Westport’s Watery, Wondrous Bohemia

Westporters are used to seeing our town pop up in stories about things to do and see in the tri-state area.

But WCVB-TV — a Boston station whose viewers usually head to places like Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Lake Winnipesaukee — featured us in its recent “A Tank Away” series on cool spots to see.

Like a teenager, we’re always concerned with what other people think of us. Here’s how we look on Boston TV.

Westport, it seems, is a place with “celebrity status, elegant neighborhoods and an expensive [or ‘expansive’] public beach, the arts, and an immaculately groomed town center lined with restaurants and shops.”

Our “immaculately groomed town center.”

Our history is “very bohemian,” says interviewee (and Westport Historical Society director) Ramin Ganeshram.

Compo Beach and marina are a 29-acre “park.” Historical properties are “a-plenty.” The Historical Society itself is “a gathering place for the public.”

The Westport Country Playhouse gets a shout-out. So does Earthplace (with a tangent about chinchillas) and DownUnder (especially its “Paddle With Your Dog” program).

“Nature has a starring role” in Westport, Bostonians learn.

And — oh yes — we have “watery wonders.”

You can catch the entire 5 minute-plus feature on WCVB’s website.

Where the subhead is: “Paul Newman was a fan – how much more motivation do we need. We’re off to Westport, Connecticut, a mix of beach town and bohemia that’s worth a trip.”

WCVB’s perky anchors tell Boston viewers to “head west on I-84 for the shores of Connecticut.” At some point they’ll have to head south, too.

(Hat tip: Bob Mitchell)

Remembering Barbara Van Orden

Many Westporters may not recognize the name Barbara Van Orden.

But without her, the Westport Historical Society might not be what — or where — it is today.

Barbara Van Orden

Barbara — who died on Sunday, age 88 — was a museum docent in several places where she and her husband Paul lived. After moving to Westport in 1977, she spent 26 years as a very knowledgeable and much-loved docent at the Yale Art Gallery.

She was also active in the Westport Garden Club and Saugatuck Congregational Church. But it was at the Historical Society that she made her most impressive local mark.

Barbara worked with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to raise money to purchase Wheeler House, the handsome 1795 home in the heart of downtown.

Then, attending countless auctions, she led the drive to furnish the period parlor, kitchen and bedroom, to look as they did in 1865-70 when Morris and Mary Bradley lived there.

She was also the longtime head of WHS volunteers and collections.

Thanks in large part to Barbara’s untiring, loving work, the Westport Historical Society moved — literally as well as figuratively — into the modern era, while honoring the town’s rich heritage.

Thanks in large part to Barbara Van Orden, the Westport Historical Society owns this handsome home on Avery Place.

Barbara was born in Ohio, and graduated from Bowling Green State University. In addition to history and art, she loved traveling, gardening and her summer home on Nantucket.

Her family says, “throughout her life, Barbara provided a constant example of the value of personal strength, discipline and perseverance, even in the face of challenges. Her daughters and grandchildren have inherited her tenacity, openness to new ideas, a keen perspective on what is really important, and an appreciation for all the good things life has to offer.

She is survived by her husband of 67 years, Paul; her daughters Sharon Alexander and Lisa Berger, 4 grandchildren and 1 nephew.

A funeral service is set for this Sunday (July 8, 1 p.m., Saugatuck Congregational Church), followed by a reception at the church.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Westport Historical Society, Westport Garden Club or Saugatuck Congregational Church.