Reflecting on tides of change at Westport's beach community
Published 11:06 am, Thursday, November 11, 2010
Editor's note: This "Resident Reflections" feature is part of an occasional series showcasing reminiscences about Westport by longtime residents.
Traversing the scenic stretch of roadway from Compo Beach to Old Mill's seashore, walkers, joggers and bikers delight daily in Soundview Drive's inherent beauty. At the heart of this beachfront community is Toni Bosco Cunningham, a spry 94-year old who holds the office of treasure and secretary of the Compo Beach Improvement Association, a nonprofit organization founded by her father, Frank Bosco, in 1928. Residing in Westchester County, N.Y., during the off-season, Cunningham's family eagerly looked forward to spending hot days and nights at their Westport summer home swimming, dancing and sunbathing.
When she was a newly married woman, and her husband was inducted into the United States Army in the early 1940s, Cunningham and her month-old infant daughter, Sheila, moved to the Westport residence because she couldn't afford to live on the $21-a-month wages supplied by the Army. At summer's end, Cunningham asked to stay on, even though none of the Soundview Drive homes were equipped with heat. Cunningham vividly recalls her father telling her, "You can stay until the pipes freeze and then you have to come home to us in Scarsdale."
Fiercely independent, though, Cunningham cleverly managed to survive not only that first winter, but stayed in Westport until her husband returned from war, four years later. With a fire blazing in the fireplace, Cunningham would resolutely take the outdoor stairway leading to a pot belly stove in the cellar and, every four hours, shovel in "pea-coal," no matter how low New England's temperatures dropped.
"Every time I fed the baby, I knew it was time to put in more coal," she explained. "I remember putting her to bed in her snow suit. I would reach over throughout the night and touch her, just to make sure she was all right."
And, when blizzard conditions prevailed, Soundview Drive remained under a blanket of snow, Cunningham noted. "The town didn't know anyone was living down here," she explained.
Cunningham purchased food and household items from two stores located where Positano's and Elvira's now stand. Using an old sled and wooden box found in the basement, Cunningham configured a safe means for transporting her young daughter to and from the Old Mill area where she made friends with the store owners, the Montgomery and Sullivan families.
Of course, Cunningham couldn't wait for everyone to return to their summer homes on Soundview Drive. In her own words, she talks about some of the good times she had living in this special community overlooking Long Island Sound and Compo Beach.
Arriving in town
My first visit to Westport was in early spring of 1928. At that time, my best friend in junior high was Phyllis Daab, whose father was a reporter for Heywood Broun of The Daily News. Phyllis' family rented the Carl Anderson house on Tar Rock Road for the summer and even before school was over, her mother, Flo, who had been a show-girl in the times of DeWolfe-Hopper and Florenz Ziegfeld, used to drive us up to Westport in an old seven-passenger Packard.
This used to be a very close-knit neighborhood. Everyone knew everyone else. We were all crazy about swimming and crazy about dancing.
It's all about swimming
The emphasis in those days was all on swimming. The only reason my parents agreed to come to Compo was that they were both avid swimmers. From the moment we moved to 17 Soundview Drive, they took their twice daily "swim" from point to point, Daddy doing his Mediterranean breaststroke (he was born in Sicily) and Mom doing her Gertrude Ederle "English Channel" crawl. Ederle was the first woman ever to swim the English Channel, and my mother was a real fan of hers.
A swim to Cockenoe
My brother and I prided ourselves on being good "long distance" swimmers and one day in the summer of 1933, the gang bet us $5 that we couldn't swim to Cockenoe Island. We bragged that we could, and set off, at low tide -- walking first, as far as we could, and then swimming side by side the rest of the way. Just before the island, there is a strong channel and a current which pulls out toward Long Island. My parents got wind of what we were up to and, as we neared the channel, my Dad got so concerned for our safety that he paid a boatman $5 to motor him out to where we were. We were struggling but determined to finish the swim -- and finish we did! But we had to reimburse Dad for the $5 -- and that was a lot of money in those days.
The beach floats
We had wonderful times on the float. My father used to tie our old wind-up portable victrola to his head and swim out to the float with us, sometimes smoking his favorite cigar at the same time. Jim Murray, who was the captain of the Manhattan College Swim team and lived in New Jersey, would bring the 78 dance records out to the float and not one of them would get wet. Then, people used to sit on their front porch and just watch what was going on. We would dance to the music on the float on those hot summer nights.
Soundview party tradition begins
There were no fireworks on Fourth of July provided by the Town, so we used to have our own displays, shooting the rockets from card tables set up on the beach and letting the little kids shoot their Roman Candles out over the water. Also, on Labor Day, there were all sorts of competitions. Egg-throwing contests, swim races, obstacle races where teams had to swim out to the floats, put on old clothing that was left there and swim back to shore. We also had bicycle races and parades.
The Compo Beach Improvement Association
My father was one of the founding members and its first treasurer. When my daughter Gail became president in 1992, she told me, "I need someone to do the paperwork." So, I've been the secretary ever since. She got me a computer that I've been working on, even though I sometimes want to send it out to Long Island Sound. Six or so years ago, when the treasurer moved, I decided that we should combine the two jobs since all the treasurer was doing is writing checks and dropping them off in my mailbox so that I could send them out. I'm now the group's treasurer, too.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured in the Westport News' "Resident Reflections" series, contact Editor Gary Jeanfaivre at email@example.com or 203-255-4561, ext. 111.