Roots: Westport farming traditions run deep
Updated 10:07 am, Sunday, May 29, 2011
It was a story of indigenous people, hardy settlers, rugged farmers and bohemian artists, all of whom have called the Westport area home and are part of its rich agrarian history.
A new exhibit showcasing that legacy, "Back to Our Roots," opened Friday at Westport Historical Society, 25 Avery Place.
Its timeline begins in the "pre-contact" era when local land was forested and shared with wildlife, continues through Puritan and Colonial times, carries through the Civil War, when Westport was the largest supplier of onions to General Grant's army, and wraps with a look at modern-day Wakeman Town Farm. Additional exhibit features include a collection of photographs of area stone walls by Larry Untermeyer, vintage tools housed in the adjoining 1846 Bradley-Wheeler Cobblestone Barn, historic barn photos shot by Larry Silver and watercolor depictions of local landscapes by Hardie Gramatky. The exhibit opening was attended by several dozen people, who enjoyed wine and hors d'oeuvres as they browsed.
Society Board President Dorothy Curran spoke about the origins of the exhibit. "It started as a conversation between Molly Donovan, who recently passed, and Wakeman Town Farm," she said. "We quickly realized that the story about going back to our roots was bigger than Wakeman Town Farm alone and wanted to put it in a larger context."
Curran provided a synopsis of each significant timeline era. "In early times, pre-European contact, indigenous peoples grew corn, beans, peas and Jerusalem artichokes," she said. "They lived by the shore in the summer and inland in winter to be close to game. When Roger Ludlowe arrived during the Pequot War and found salt meadows, he established a foothold for farming, which was initially just to keep villagers alive. As they began to clear area land, lumber and fish became main exports."
In 1670, the Puritans divided a significant portion of the Fairfield/Westport area into "Long Lots," as a legal protection of land ownership against the crown, and more actively farmed. "Onion farmers would take carts to the shore, load up with seaweed and spread it on their fields as fertilizer," said Curran. "Try to find an abundance of seaweed now," she challenged.
In 1806, the first market boat from Saugatuck made its way to New York City. "These boats ran daily, taking farm produce to the city and bringing back goods to the farmers," said Curran.
However, because Westport was so favorably situated for sail-based commerce in general, by the 1840s, only 40% of Westporters were still farming. Maritime commerce then shifted to railroad commerce, which made it feasible to supply Grant's army.
"By the late 19th century, as farms in the Midwest expanded, local farms declined and were abandoned," said Curran. "At the same time, a new trend was happening that was unique to Westport and Weston. Artists, many from the Midwest who had moved to New York, took the train to Westport and discovered its great beaches, but also area barns that they converted to studios. As such, there are nearly 250 local barns that have been preserved. A large number of these, about 100, are concentrated in the greater Compo area due to the convenient location at the time of local trolley service and proximity to the train."
Exhibit visitor Robbie Barnes found the exhibit very complete and informative. "I grew up in the area and it's fascinating to learn about its roots," she said.
Mike Aitkenhead, program director of Wakeman Town Farm, took interest in the stone wall photos. "When you think about the amount of work involved in creating the walls, it's pretty impressive," he said. "When all of these houses fall down, the walls will be the remaining relics."
Liz Beeby, a Westport resident for the past 45 years, connected with much of the more recent lore. "I recognize many of the names here -- the Wakemans, and Fillows for example," she said. "I remember when there was a Fillow flower shop in town. I feel a huge historical connection to Westport."
The "Back to our Roots" exhibit runs through Sept. 2. For more information, visit www.WestportHistory.org.