Tag Archives: Westport Town Crier

Friday Flashback #148

A few days ago, I posted the back story of the Police Athletic League’s nearly-70-year sponsorship of Westport’s Independence Day fireworks.*

That sent alert “06880” reader/amateur historian Fred Cantor scrambling to the stacks.

He found the July 8, 1954 Westport Town Crier. There — on the front page — were photos and a story of that year’s pyrotechnics.

Held on Sunday, July 4**, the event drew a crowd of more than 3,000, the paper reported.

Some of them were dressed quite a bit fancier than today’s revelers.

Announcer Don Tedesco introduced the national anthem, then the fireworks.

They were shot from the sand, near the cannon. I remember that site well (though not from 1954!). The smell was strong and distinct. I always wondered what would happen if one landed next to me, sitting a few feet away from where they were launched.

Here’s a black-and-white photo from the paper. I’ll let you decide whether it looks very cool, or like a radiology report.

There was a lot going on, that holiday week.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish “sojourned” in Westport, at the home of Dr. John V.N. Dorr. Their visit was the lead photo on Page 1, as they posed with the equally famous Lucille Lortel:

Meanwhile, the Westport Country Playhouse advertised an upcoming production starring Eva Gabor and Richard Kiley.

The current production did not fare well. The last line of “Court Olympus” was “Let’s go home” — exactly what the Town Crier‘s reviewer advised audiences to do.

Other front-page news on July 8, 1954: “First Jewish Temple in History of Town Set For Construction” (the 6-acre site on a former Hills Lane nursery was eventually abandoned, due to issues with the land); town prosecutor Robert Anstett was named head of Westport’s Civilan Defense Corps, and 600 people were expected to attend the 6th annual Compo Beach Clambake, sponsored by the Saugatuck Fathers Club.

But the most intriguing story was this: “Teen-Agers Make Problem at Beaches.”

Turns out the Beach Commission was considering closing all beaches at night, “to stop teen-age beer parties.” In addition, “vandals, not yet apprehended, defaced many bathhouses and destroyed a new stone fireplace” at Compo.

Fishermen reported “beer cans piled along the shore,” while residents complained of “noise and speeding cars late at night.”

The town employed “special constables” to patrol Compo and Burial Hill.

If you’re reading this now, and were a teenager then — making you in your 80s today — click “Comments” below. We’d love to hear how that worked out.

* Bottom line: If you haven’t yet bought a ticket, do it now!

** Unlike these days, when the fireworks are shot off NOT on the actual holiday. Overtime for the scores of workers would be prohibitive.

Friday Flashback #77

February is Black History Month.

It’s a time to celebrate the many contributions and accomplishments of African Americans — and to reflect on our country’s often tortured relationship with race.

It’s a time to think about how Americans treat every person in our country.

And it’s a time to look back at how we did so in the past.

Alert “06880” reader — and amateur historian — Mary Palmieri Gai made an astonishing find recently. The Town Crier of December 15, 1949 ran this photo:

The caption reads:

For the first time in Westport history, a Negro attended one of this community’s town meetings. The group was especially interested in the debate on public housing.

It’s amazing — and embarrassing — to see what qualified as “news” nearly 70 years ago.

It’s also probably quite wrong.

Among Westport’s most historic homes is 108 Cross Highway. Built in 1805, it’s one of a few dwellings in town documented as being built by “a free black.”

Henry Munroe, a farmer, bought the land from John Burr in 1802. Munroe’s descendants were members of Green’s Farms Church.

Black families lived here throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. Some were servants and housekeepers. But others — like Munroe — were farmers, shopkeepers and businessmen, with a vested interest in town.

I can’t believe that 1949 was the first time a “Negro” attended a town meeting.

And I’m surprised that the Town Crier did not even dignify him with a name.

Which is one more reason why Black History Month remains vitally important today, for all of us.

“Save Cockenoe Now”: Still Relevant, 50 Years On

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.

To see Julianna’s video, click below:

Save Cockenoe Now: A “Powerful” Story From Westport’s Past

This Saturday (August 10), Jo Fox will join the Westport Historical Society’s trip to Cockenoe Island.

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.

Cockenoe Island.

Cockenoe Island.

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.

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.

"Save Cockenoe Now" posters were displayed all over Westport.

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 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.)

“News” News

For over 30 years the Westport News was the proud anchor of Brooks Corner, among downtown’s most prime real estate.

Current tenant Brooks Brothers has nothing to do with the corner’s name; it’s just a coincidence.  “Brooks” is B.V. Brooks, who founded the News.  It was, its motto clunkily declared, “A hometown newspaper in a town of homes.”

In the mid-1960s the News was a feisty tabloid upstart — David to the staid, gray Town Crier Goliath. 

The Westport News earned its chops early.  Fearless editor Jo Brosious led a spirited fight against United Illuminating — the public utility that hoped to buy Cockenoe Island for use as a  nuclear power plant.  Thanks to the paper, our shore today is pristine — and Westport is not Three Mile Island.

That crusade made the News indispensible.  For 3 decades it chronicled town life.  Its downtown location was geographically smart, and journalistically symbolic.  It pulsed with Westport’s beat, because it sat right there at its heart.

The move a few years ago to Sconset Square was symbolic too.  Brooks  Corner could command higher rents from 2nd-story office tenants (the paper had long since moved from its ground-floor space).  Though the News’ new newsroom was just a few steps away, the rickety staircase and shrinking staff lowered its profile, lessening its impact throughout town.

Last year the paper moved from Westport entirely.  No longer owned by B.V. Brooks — the “Brooks Community Newspaper” name is a final, vestigial nod to the local past — the News decamped to an antiseptic office building in Norwalk.  True, it was right over the Westport line — but the symbolism was again strong.  The “hometown newspaper” had left its “town of homes.”

Yesterday the News moved again.  Hopscotching Westport, it leaped over to Fairfield.  The paper now shares office space with the Fairfield Citizen, and is overseen by Citizen editor Frances Moore.  Two key staffers — editor Will Rowlands and lifestyle editor Carol King —  were among 44 Connecticut journalists whose positions were eliminated Friday by Hearst, the current owner.

Another 80 jobs are on the chopping block soon, according to reports.

A new chapter has begun in the Westport News’ long history.  For news lovers’ sakes — and the best, most informed interests of our town — let’s hope this story ends well.

New To The Neighborhood

Last Friday, the Rockwell family met several thousand of their new Westport neighbors.

The young couple and their two children were featured — in four color photos — on the front page of the Westport News’ Real Estate section. “New to the Neighborhood” the headline blared.  “Sense of community, schools and scenery draw family to town” the sub-head burbled.

At first I thought the Rockwells’ shout-out came because they were the first people in months to buy a house here (or anywhere in the country). But as I read further — about the family’s choice of Westport over the rest of the tri-state region, based on their initial criteria of “a good commute, excellent school system, reasonable taxes and wonderful town amenities,” then nailed down by Westport’s greenery (thanks, Google Earth!), two train stations, Longshore and beach — I realized this was a 2009 version of an old newspaper tradition.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s the Westport Town Crier ran a regular Page 1 feature: “New Folks in Town.”  Befitting its folksy title, each week the column welcomed 2 or 3 new families here.

Reading the “New Folks” stories several decades later opens an intriguing window on post-war, baby boom Westport.  Many families moved here from New York City, Long Island and New Jersey; some came from the Midwest.  (The Rockwells relocated from London; wife Aini previously lived in Asia.)

The new fathers worked for Union Carbide, IBM — solid companies like that.  (Alan Rockwell is a partner with an international law firm.)

The mothers, of course, did not work outside the home.  (Not that anyone used the term “working outside the home.”  These women were “homemakers.”)

The families — and they were always intact; no single men or women, same-sex couples; not even divorced people — looked forward to Westport life.  Little League, sailing, the YMCA, PTA, the Garden Club  — over and over, the New Folks in Town were eager to join in.

A generation or two later, the Town Crier column still resonates.  Many of the newcomers’ names are familiar.  They stayed, grew roots, raised families, got more involved in Westport than they ever imagined.  They ran for the RTM and Planning and Zoning Commission; they led fights for and against education budgets; they opened local businesses.

Others stayed a year or two, then vanished without a trace.  They made no impact here at all.  No “Folks Leaving Town” column chronicled their departure.

Reading “New Folks in Town,” now that many are “Old Folks in Town” (or “in Florida”), it’s easy to see a Stepford sameness to their arrivals.  They came bearing similar suburban hopes and dreams.  They were young, optimistic; their lives seemed poised to soar, and Westport would be the launching pad.

Some found what they were looking for here.  Others did not, or could not.  In their first appearance in the local paper, no one could tell which new folks would wind up where.

So:  Welcome to Westport, Alan, Aini, Tyler and Finnegan Rockwell.  We hope our town is all you wish it to be.  We hope you’ll get involved in our lives, in ways you expect and ways you can’t yet imagine.

We promise to check in a few decades from now, and see how you’re doing.