The way we were
I remember only too well those beautiful, warm summer days in 1968 soon after I had arrived in Westport with my family from New York City to discover a farm -- a real, honest-to-God farm -- around the corner from where we lived on Blue Ribbon Drive (which itself had been Blue Ribbon Farm in the 1950s).
Wakeman Farm, owned and operated by Isaac (Ike) and Pearl Wakeman, was something of a miracle for me. After having spent all of my life in the city, I was overjoyed by the experience of driving around the corner and loading up with fresh chickens, vegetables and fruits.
It was an epiphany. We had moved within walking distance of fresh food grown from the soil of a Westport farmer, whose family roots dated back hundreds of years. Little did I know at the time, but the Wakeman farm at 134 Cross Highway would be my cause celebre when I was editor of this newspaper from 1992 to 1997.
The reason for my sentimental feelings now is the Westport Board of Finance's unanimous vote a week ago recommending that the Board of Selectmen create an organic farm on a 2.2-acre site that remains -- out of the original 18 acres of farmland -- which the town had purchased from the Wakemans in 1970 for $350,000 with the understanding it would remain as "open space" in perpetuity.
In the 1990s, the town decided to use the Wakeman land it owned to build ball fields which, at the time, I strongly opposed and ran an editorial campaign against. I objected to intruding on open land, filled with rich corn fields as high "as high as an elephant's eye" in Oklahoma. We lost. The ball fields were built in the name of Joe Arcudi, then first selectman, and a leader in the development of Little League baseball in Westport. Looking back, I now concede that was a constructive change.
Now comes the delightful realization that the remaining land and house in which the Wakemans lived all of their lives will be used for farming once again. The property became available in the spring at the termination of a life-use of the 121-year-old farm house on the site. This followed the death of Pearl Wakeman, the last remaining member of the Wakeman family to occupy the house. Husband Ike died a few years earlier.
Knowing the Wakemans as well as I did -- I spent a good deal of time at their house strategizing our ill-fated crusade to keep the open space free of any development -- I am certain that they would have wanted their home and remaining land to be converted back into a farm. Ike was a typical New England Yankee -- a man of few words who did business with a handshake.
The Board of Finance's approval last week followed the Board of Selectmen's favorable vote on October 27, headed by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, who -- having been raised here -- deserves credit for his respect for the past. A positive recommendation last October by the Planning and Zoning Commission all but sealed the deal.
Officials estimate it will cost up to $100,000 to create a second floor apartment for a farmer who would occupy the farm house as a sub-lessee and modernize the remaining part of the house. Which has already been certified as historic by the Westport Historic Commission and designed as such by the state.
The project is being sponsored by the Green Village Initiative (GVI), which states that eventually it would like to spend $250,000 on the house in a year or two to include the installation of solar and geothermal heating. Westport architect Peter Wormser, to his credit, has volunteered his services for the farm project and would be the person responsible for investigating possible soil contamination, and to make certain the house did not have major structural problems. Under the current plan, the farmer -- yet to be selected -- would be paid a monthly salary of $2,000 and would live in the house rent-free as part of his compensation package.
A spokesman for GVI, Daniel Levinson, told the finance board at its meeting last week that the rehabilitation of the house would not be a major undertaking. He said GVI would not replace the roof, or the siding, or put in new windows; nor would it modernize the existing kitchen. The plan calls for a farmer to sign a one-year lease.
The return of even a small parcel of the Wakeman farm is one of the best developments in Westport in decades, especially on the heels of the opening of the town's farmer's market. We are, at long last, returning to our roots -- reengaging ourselves with the last remaining vestiges of levying off the land. I am deeply moved by this stunning turn of events.
It is a welcome change from the trend in our town toward replacing homes -- as they are sold to builders -- with McMansions that have changed the face of residential Westport for the worse and left our dedication to preserving Westport's character in the dust.
In a real way, with the revival of Wakeman Farm, we are returning to the way we were.
Woody Klein's "Out of the Woods" column appears regularly in the Westport News. He is author of Westport, Connecticut, the Story of a New England Town's Rise to Prominence, sponsored by the Westport Historical Society and published in 2000.