Out of the Woods / Wakeman Farm's reawakening
I found it moving, deeply gratifying, and a profoundly important moment in our town's history.
As I watched a group of enthusiastic townspeople at the long-awaited ribbon cutting ceremony last Thursday, marking the official opening of the Wakeman Town Farm & Sustainability Center on 134 Cross Highway, my mind was flooded with memories of that beautiful stretch of former farmland, since turned into ball fields after a losing battle to save it as "open space" in the 1990s.
The symbolic snip of a vine by Charlie Colasurdo, 10, a fifth grader at Kings Highway Elementary School -- who reportedly knows a lot about farming -- set off a huge round of applause and marked the beginning of a forward-looking experiment in Westport.
Making it official were First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Second Selectwoman Shelley Kassen, Project Manager and Chief Financial Officer Cathy Talmadge (who raised funds from local businessmen), and a host of other people, was an uplifting, historic moment which we we all shared.
It was especially meaningful for this observer who, for more than 40 years, had lived around the corner from the Wakeman Farm and had befriended Isaac and Pearl Wakeman and their family. I recall bicycling past Wakeman's and turning right on Woody Lane (a coincidence), thrilled at the sight of the tall corn fields that stood as high as the eye can see. For this former city dweller, it was a beautiful scene that I shall remember as long as I live.
My family and I arrived in Westport from New York City in 1968, marveling at that nearby sprawling 38-acre spread, owned and farmed by the Wakemans for so many years and sold to the town in 1970 for a modest $200,000 (except for 2.2 acres on which the Wakemans lived in their house), with the provision that it would be preserved as open space.
Now, it has been revived and morphed into something even more ambitious than a local farm. A determined group of local residents have brought their vision to life -- to expand other large farms and gardens as part of an area-wide Westport Green Village Initiative (GVI), a local, grassroots, nonprofit initiative in which The Sustainability Center will be an organic demonstration homestead and farm open to the public. The land is leased to the organization for $1 a year. More than 20 Staples interns worked on the farm this past summer and played a key role in bringing the project to life.
"The goal," according to its website, "is to become a model facility that will educate/inspire the community with healthy food production, responsible land stewardship, sustainable practices and community /service presentation. Activities will include growing fruits and vegetables, demonstrating/teaching best practices for food generation and preservation, and providing a farm stand for pickup by two groups known as CSA and RSA."
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and brings together community members, farmers, and agricultural land. Members of the community purchase a "share" of the harvest and make payments in advance at an agreed upon price. In exchange, the farmers plant, cultivate, harvest, wash and distribute a selection of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs.
The RSA stands for Restaurant Supported Agriculture based on the CSA model already enjoyed by many Westporters. The goal is to help chefs obtain local, organic food from multiple farms for their restaurants at a convenient single location, according to its leaders.
The entire project at the Wakeman site came about as a result of the planning of Westport architect Peter Wormser and Associates, "who restored the house and spent almost every weekend of the last nine months here making it happen," Project Manager Cathy Talmadge said at the ceremony.
The Wakeman family is one of the founding families of Westport. In 1908, John Wakeman purchased the farm and moved from the Compo Hill area to run a dairy and onion farm on acreage that was located on both sides of Cross Highway. The land stretched all the way to Staples High School as it does today.
Jeanne Wakeman Mann, a daughter of the Wakemans who grew up on the farm, was quoted as saying that she recalled that the Wakeman home was a gathering place for the family. At Pearl's 90th birthday, some 100 people from five generations showed up to celebrate. Her father, Ike, died in 2000. Pearl died in April 2009.
Dan Levinson, a Staples teacher and current chairman of GVI, summed it up this way: "Many of us used to do nonprofit work outside of Westport because as a wealthy/creative community Westport didn't really need help. But then, when the [plastic] bag was banned, it opened our eyes to the possibility of Westport returning to its liberal/creative roots and becoming a leader! So GVI was formed out of that energy with the goal of helping our town become a model of what is possible, in terms of a thriving sustainable community."
And, with everyone's help, it shall be.