Woog's World / Gault: Field of dreams, family of accomplishments
Published 6:39 am, Monday, June 3, 2013
The first thing you see when you walk into the Westport Historical Society these days is a big green scoreboard.
It's not exactly the Green Monster, but to generations of former Westport Little Leaguers, it's far more important than that Fenway Park icon.
The scoreboard in the cramped Victorian building across Myrtle Avenue from Town Hall comes from Gault Field. For decades, that was home to Westport's National League teams. American League Little Leaguers played their games at Coleytown Elementary. It was nice enough, for a school field. But Gault Field had charm.
It was built on the Saugatuck River, just past the bend where Imperial Avenue heads toward Bridge Street. Home plate was a few feet from the river. The outfield fence fronted Imperial, a tempting target for particularly strong 12-year-olds.
Gault Field had the requisite Little League accoutrements: Snack bar, dugouts, a "press box" on top of a dugout where the "official scorer" sat. From the 1940s until it was razed in the early 1980s (or so), it was a place where countless Westport boys (and their parents and siblings) spent countless hours.
I was going to say "countless happy hours," but as with all things youth-oriented, the past is totally happy only in retrospect. Like Little Leagues everywhere, Westport had its share of home run hitters, no-hit pitchers and patient, caring managers. It also had its share of untalented, miserable players and impatient, uncaring adults. But the passage of time diminishes the bad memories while enhancing the good ones, so today the words "Gault Field" bring to mind only images of lazy, hazy Boys of Summer days.
As they should. Gault Field is long gone, replaced by expensive riverfront homes. Kids play on beautiful, professionally manicured Little League fields, many of them clustered in a handsome complex on North Compo Road. That's youth sports, 2013-style. You couldn't recreate Gault Field again even if, for some funky reason, you wanted to.
It would be equally hard to recreate the Gault family too, unfortunately. The reason the Gault Field scoreboard hangs in the Westport Historical Society entrance is because the family is the focus of an intriguing exhibition there. (Running through September 2, it also highlights Tracy Sugarman, the illustrator/author/social-justice activist who died in January at age 91.)
The Gault family deserves all the attention, and more. Building a Little League field was a minor part of their contributions to town, but it's typical of what five generations have done for Westport.
The Gault story begins in 1863 -- 150 years ago. Our town's oldest business -- still owned by the family that started it -- was born in the middle of the Civil War. Westport had been incorporated only 28 years earlier. Robert Gault -- newly arrived from Ireland -- saw an opportunity to move goods between the new railroad station in Saugatuck, and the manufacturing plants and tanneries a few miles north.
With a horse team and wagon he soon added plowing, and rock and stump pulling services.
According to the Westport Historical Society exhibition flyer (from which much of this history is taken), his sons Leonard, Robert and John joined the business, now called "Gault Brothers." They farmed, raised chickens and livestock, and harvested ice. The Gaults added lumber, stone and coal to their services, and bought riverfront property. Not far away, on South Compo Road, they stored equipment and sheltered their horses in three large barns.
Leonard's son Howard left Staples High School after ninth grade to join the company (soon renamed L.H. Gault & Son). The 1918 Great Flu Epidemic hit; Gault responded with horse-drawn hearse services.
Next came gas-powered trucks. Always alert to new opportunities, they bought a feed and grain business, and adjacent dock, on Main Street. In 1929 they moved downstream on Riverside Avenue, providing deeper docking for the large coal and sand barges, and oil tankers, that were becoming an important part of their business.
After World War II, Howard bought the 167-acre "Hockanum" property on Cross Highway. He developed it carefully, preserving the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed landscape and carriage roads. Sand, gravel and asphalt paving all came from Gault.
As times changed, the Gaults adapted. They added burner installation and, more recently, biofuel, propane, indoor air quality systems, energy audits, oil tank removal and standby generators.
Meanwhile, the Gault family's commitment to Westport grew stronger than ever. Their historic preservation efforts include the WHS, and their own red barn on South Compo. Their current project -- one of their most important ever -- is nearing fruition: The renovation of a wide swath of Saugatuck, adjacent to their long-time headquarters.
And just across the river from the site of still fondly remembered Gault Field.