Longtime residents offer town's history and nostalgia with Westport for Dummies tour
Published 1:01 am, Friday, April 2, 2010
Seaplanes, speakeasies and superstars were just a few of the tidbits of Westport folklore revealed during last week's Westport for Dummies guided bus tour.
Offering two separate guided tours on Wednesday and Friday, the longtime Westport residents provided interesting commentary about the town's historical and cultural sites.
For example, Longshore Country Club's lower parking lot, located in between the Parks and Recreation department's administrative offices and the golf pro shop, was once a sea plane hanger. Malone, a former chief of police, shared with 40 participants on Wednesday's tour that he took his first plane ride there when he was only seven.
The crowd obviously enjoyed Malone's personal stories, especially his recollections about the Penguin Hotel, which he described as an establishment with a "shady reputation."
He explained that there was a driving range located on the premises as well as a speakeasy.
Known as an artist's colony, Westport attracted literary legends-such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald-and also Hollywood stars. At the helm of Westport's law enforcement, Malone had the unique opportunity to get to know many of the town's rich and famous population.
However, it was during his teenage years, while he and his friends were fooling around with their cars, that he often encountered one of Hollywood's legendary actresses Gene Tierney. Living nearby on Morningside Drive, Tierney was obviously disturbed by the young hellions noise and around mid-afternoon, she frequently yelled to them, "Shut up! I'm trying to sleep!"
Malone praises, though, most of Westport's more famous residents. He is especially fond of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman and recounted the tale of helping to recoup an Academy Award statue that had been stolen from their Westport home.
Eileen Flug, a resident of Westport for eight years and member of several school and community organizations, such as the Westport Historical Society, thought the tour was a fun way to learn more about the town.
"I love Westport," she said. "And, I love all of the fabulous stories that our tour leaders have to tell."
For Westport native Margaret Troll, taking a ride on the Westport for Dummies bus tour was a way "to see what I've missed."
While Malone spoke mostly about the people of Westport, Raymond, a historian, provided facts about the town's role in history, especially during the Revolutionary War.
Driving by the Minuteman statue, located at the intersection of Compo Beach Road and Compo Beach South, Raymond humorously referred to an "I Love Lucy" episode depicting Lucy's decapitation of the historic monument. "Obviously, they used a replica of the Minuteman," he laughed.
The tour bus stopped in front of another colonial landmark, the Compo Beach cannons, commemorating the landing of British soldiers in 1777. Raymond explained that "24 ships and 40 to 50 flat boats carrying horses and carriages" anchored on the beach shore so that the Red Coats could march to Danbury for a raid. "No one expected them," Raymond noted.
However, as they marched back from Danbury, Benedict Arnold and his troops, who were stationed a drill ground located in the Old Hill area of town, saw them on Wilton Road heading towards back towards the beach. Benedict reportedly wanted to attack but his soldiers were reluctant.
"The British soldiers narrowly escaped back to the beach," Raymond added.
With some of the oldest houses in Westport located in this section of Westport, Raymond also pointed out that several sea captains resided on Old Kings Highway.
Jennings, an 11th generation Westporter, wrote a book about Westport's historic cemeteries, called "Buried in our Past." He commented that there are 143 people buried and six tombs located at Westport's oldest burial grounds on Wilton Road.
Another cemetery, which is found next to the golf greens at Longshore Country Club, contains more than 30 unidentified corpses.
Longshore is, of course, better known as a place for recreational activities, such as golf, swimming, boating, tennis and sunbathing. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Longshore is one of Westport's treasures.
Westport's beaches and exquisite scenic views of Long Island Sound undoubtedly add to its charm. Raymond recalled clamming in the tidal marsh around Old Mill Beach and selling buckets of clams for 25 cents to the owners of Allan's Clam House, a popular restaurant formerly located on the water in the Old Mill Beach area.
Both Malone and Raymond spoke fondly about the Old Mill Store, a place where people went for groceries. "There were no big supermarkets back then," Raymond said. "People sometimes bought their groceries right off of the truck that would pull up."
Raymond pointed out that Westporters also frequently bought groceries at a store on Main Street, located near to Lehn's Bakery.
"The Lehn family is still in town," Malone noted.
Although many people who grew up in Westport decide to raise their own families in less expensive towns, there are families, such as Jennings, who have consistently remained part of the Westport landscape for generations.
Malone explained that many Italian families who settled into Westport's Saugatuck enclave originally came to town to work on building the first railways. The Irish were responsible for building the second set, he added.
As the bus traveled on Charles Street, Malone pointed out that many of the houses there today are reminiscent of what Saugatuck looked like before the Connecticut Turnpike and railroad was built. "When the turnpike came in, it really disturbed the community," Malone noted. "Children used to run from house to house. It was really a close-knit, tight group of families."
Created by Raymond and Susan Gold, director of the Westport Historical Society, the guided bus tour was initially earmarked for local realtors so that they could learn interesting nostalgic and historic facts to share with prospective buyers. However, realizing that there was a desire among residents of all ages and all professions, she decided to open the tour to the public. "There are many people who have lived here a long time who are curious about the town," she said.
There are several tours offered by the Westport Historical Society, such as one called Destination Westport and a historic guide following the Jennings's Trail. Gold also leads kayaking and walking tours throughout different parts of Westport. For more information, contact the Westport Historical Society at 203-222-1424 or go to www.westporthistory.org.