Woog’s World / Mitchell’s is an icon of Westport life
I wonder what was in the 1958 water.
Six decades later, that year stands out as one of the most remarkable in Westport history. It wasn’t because of a momentous political decision. It wasn’t a natural disaster, or a national event. It was simply the coincidence that an astonishing number of institutions were founded that year. Well more than half a century on, all thrive.
It was in 1958 that Ed Mitchell — tired of commuting to New York City — and his wife Norma opened a small men’s clothing store in former plumbing supply shop at the corner of the Post Road and North Compo.
It was a risky move. He was in his 50s. But Norma believed in his dream. Every day, she brought her coffee pot to help customers feel at home. Ed’s mother served as tailor. A couple of teachers helped out on weekends, and made Ed Mitchell’s the place to be.
Slowly, it grew. The store moved twice: first to Colonial Green, then to much larger Post Road space a mile east.
The clothing lines grew finer. Mitchells added a women’s department, and jewelry. More than two dozen tailors worked downstairs. Slowly, they bought similar family-owned stores, revitalized them, but kept their names: Richards in Greenwich. Marsh’s on Long Island. Wilkes Bashford in northern California. Marios in the Pacific Northwest.
Today, Mitchells is more than just a Westport-based luxury retailer. It’s an icon of Westport life. The second and third generations of Mitchells have never forgotten their commitment to this town. And as the next generation prepares to join them, they won’t either.
While Ed and Norma Mitchell were setting up shop downtown, the Mid-Fairfield County Youth Museum was doing the same in Westport’s western woods. Occupying 62 acres of undeveloped land that the town had considered using for an elementary school, the education center focused on the environment long before that was popular — or a popular word.
With displays, after-school and weekend programs, a nursery school, hiking trails, animals and more, it quietly became one of Westport’s most important organizations. It changed its name to the clearer Nature Center in 1973. Today we know — and love it — as Earthplace.
There is still no school in the forest bounded by Woodside Lane, Stonybrook Road and Old Hill. There is, instead, a robust environmental center. And, as of a year ago, the nearby Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum, 10 more acres for Westporters, other residents of “mid-Fairfield County” — and beyond — to enjoy.
By 1958, Staples High School was well established. It was already 74 years old, a steady and respected presence on Riverside Avenue. But Westport was baby booming. New schools were needed — including a modern high school. Town officials had dithered and dickered since the early 1950s. Finally, they moved.
Several sites were suggested, all far from downtown. A 67-acre parcel on North Avenue was perfect — except that the U.S. Army wanted it too, for a Nike missile site. An agreement was reached; the site would be shared.
Architects drew plans for a school with six separate buildings. Money would be saved by eliminating hallways and common spaces; there would be less area to heat, too. The fallacy of that decision was obvious almost immediately, and the town paid for it for years. But on September 4, 1958, the new Staples High School opened. It was modern, it was handsome, it was beautiful — even if it the California construction cost problems until a completely new school was built, nearly half a century later.
The new school included a new organization. The year before, a student named Christopher Lloyd asked his English teacher, Craig Matheson, to help put on a production beyond the traditional “senior class play.”
That was the start of Staples Players. The first major show was “The Teahouse of the August Moon.” It won Connecticut Drama Festival and New England awards. The superintendent of schools loved it. The Town Crier editor’s son starred in it. Townspeople raved about it. The high school troupe was on its way.
Sixty years later, it’s more dynamic than ever. With two mainstage productions a year, many Black Box shows and a One-Act Festival, Staples Players is the school’s signature program. Don’t miss “Legally Blonde” next month!
Oh, yeah: One other Staples program began in that magical year of 1958. It’s the Staples boys soccer team. As head coach, I’m loath to use this column to toot our horn. Suffice it to say that I take our legacy seriously. In 60 years we’ve won the most state championships in the largest division (12); 27 league titles — and, equally proudly, 16 consecutive Academic All-America awards for a team GPA of 3.25 or higher.
Last week, over 100 alumni came from as far as California to celebrate that legacy (and see the “new” Staples). Hopefully they got a chance to stop at Mitchells and Earthplace too.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.