Westport celebrates 175 years

Daniel Nash, Westport's founding father, stood by the pulpit in the Saugatuck Congregational Church on the first Sunday of May 1835 and delivered the good news that had just arrived from Hartford.

"No longer are we citizens of separate towns. No longer are we from Norwalk, Fairfield or Weston. No longer are we paying taxes to benefit Norwalk Harbor and Southport Harbor," he said. "Today, we all are from one town, Westport, and our taxes will benefit our community and our port."

What a day it was.

The actual date was May 28, 2010, and Nash was portrayed by Craig Matheson, clad in a black top hat and gray overcoat. The location was fitting since the first Westport meeting took place in that very church, which at the time was located across the street.

Joining a large cast that included some of the major players in Westport's history, Matheson was just one of the many actors that kicked off Westport's 175th birthday in style.

From a script written by Dorothy Curran, president of the Westport Historical Society board of directors, dozens of people (and a horse) were involved in weaving the tale of how 1,800 people -- many of them farmers -- came to be the first Westporters. And it all started with a petition to secede from Fairfield, Norwalk and Weston.

In the early 1880s, the area was known for its bustling port supplying goods for New York City and Boston. The trains had yet to arrive and agriculture was a way of life. The borders of Weston, Fairfield and Norwalk all flooded beyond the modern-day borders of Westport. Conceivably, that could have remained the case if it wasn't for Nash. In 1835, the Norwalk resident led the charge to have Westport created.

With 145 signatures, the Connecticut General Assembly accepted the new town. In dramatic fashion, the pivotal scene in Westport's history played out in a historically accurate setting. With nearly 100 people standing in the front of the Saugatuck Congregational Church, a courier riding a horse galloped to the parsonage next door.

The parsonage was formerly the home of Ebenezer Jesup, a wealthy wharf owner. Out of the door came Jesup (played by Carl Leaman), who snatched the charter and spread the word about Westport's formation being formally approved.

As he made his way from his home to the church, he was interrupted by an anachronistic Dianne Wildman, newscaster for Channel 12. She was overseeing the events, which were recorded for the Westport Historical Society's archives and for broadcast on the news station.

"Are you Ebenezer Jesup of Saugatuck, in Fairfield?" she asked him.

"Not anymore!" he said. "I'm Ebenezer Jesup of Westport!"

Inside the church, some items had to be addressed. Why was the town named Westport? Who would run the local government?

As was explained, the name Saugatuck, which was the name of the community, was deemed a bit too complicated, so Westport made more sense. There was a port there and it was west of Fairfield. As to who would be the first selectman, Thomas Rowland was selected in an old-fashioned yea or nay vote. Appropriately enough, Rowland was played by current First Selectman Gordon Joseloff.

The nomination for second selectman Taylor Hurlbutt, portrayed by today's second selectman Shelly Kassen, had a minor hitch when Wildman seconded the nomination.

"Out of order!" Nash said. "I'm sorry, but women are not allowed to vote or hold office until the 19th Amendment passes, so you'll have to wait until 1920 -- another 85 years! Gentlemen, do I hear a second?"

While the 175th birthday for Westport is biggest in town and came complete with a lavish cake provided by Great Cakes, the milestones are just beginning for the Westport Historical Society. On June 17, at 4 p.m., a ceremony for the 100th anniversary of the Minuteman Statue on Compo Road South is planned.