Out of the Woods: Westport transformed in a century of change
Updated 9:58 am, Wednesday, April 22, 2015
In the past one hundred years -- from 1915 to 2015 -- Westport's population exploded from a modest-sized fishing and farming village of approximately 5,000 to a booming, mid-sized, modern mini-city of 25,000 professional and service people, a dramatic population expansion as the streamlined 20th Century emerged from the Industrial Age.
One of the major forces behind the betterment of the town was the creation of the Woman's Town Improvement Association. In the 1920s, the WTIA gave a boost to some newly arrived artists in town by arranging for exhibitions, co-sponsorships with the YMCA, of their work in an art gallery in Bedford House, named after its donor, Edward T. Bedford. The Bedford family, over three generations, quietly donated to Westport's well-being. E.T. Bedford's fund program was established with the intent to encourage every resident of the community to become involved.
In the fall of 1919, E.T. Bedford bought the Westport Hotel and announced he planned to build a Tudor-style YMCA in its place. The late Town Historian Allen A. Raymond Jr. shared the following story with me in recent years:
"As a young boy, Bedford worked very hard picking strawberries on the farms around here and he was setting all kinds of records. He held the local record -- 80 quarts of strawberries in one day. Somebody asked him what he wanted to be when grew up. He said he wanted to be successful. He became a New York City broker of lubricating oils for the railroads. Soon he was a partner in the Thompson and Bedford Company and he became a sales agent for John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil.
"In 1901, he organized the New York Glucose Company, and he merged it with Corn Products refining where he was president until he died in 1931. Bedford like to play pool as a youngster, but he wasn't allowed in the town hotel's saloon. So, he bought the place when he grew up and built a YMCA so he could play pool. Whether he really bought it because he couldn't get into the hotel when he was a boy, I don't know, but it makes a good story."
By 1915, Westport had become "the place to be" in New England. Its local newspaper, The Westporter, stated: "The town has become famed for its fine residence, its people and the goods that are manufactured in its midst." Among its people were an increasing number of celebrities, including the famous William S. Hart, who strengthened Westport's fledgling image as a theater and art colony. The movie and stage actor/director came here in 1914 and lived on Kings Highway. He was arguably the most important movie star of his era. In his prime, he was reported to have made as much as $3,000 a week, the equivalent of $30,000 a week in 2000.
By March 1917, some 1,300 men had registered for the draft in Westport. In all some 1,500 signed up to serve in the military services. The war effort galvanized the entire town. In all, 238 men and women were sent abroad. Seven were killed in action and many others wounded. One of the Westport casualties, Joseph J. Clinton, was killed on Nov. 9, just two days before the cessation of hostilities. He had married before leaving for France and a grieving wife and family survived him. Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 399 in Westport was subsequently named after him. In the entire state of Connecticut, some 67,000 men and women served in World War I.
Westport, of course, would continue to grow on its reputation as a center of art, literature, writers, poets, musicians and people of all creative backgrounds. It also attracted political and business leaders with national and international reputations, and has become a regular weigh station on the campaign money-raising trail for major candidates from both parties, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gov. Howard Dean, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and others.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His column, "Out of the Woods," appears every other Friday in The Westport News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.