Woog's World: 'Stories from Westport's Past' informed and intrigued, but what about the future?
Published 7:29 am, Sunday, September 7, 2014
Back in the day, the Westport News ran a regular series called "Stories from Westport's Past." The title wasn't particularly compelling, but the content was. Solidly researched and intriguingly written by Joanna Foster, the weekly columns covered a gamut of tales from (duh) Westport's past.
They were later compiled into booklets. The other day, Dick Seclow came across one of them, and sent it to me. It makes for fascinating reading.
One story describes the era when market boats sailed the Saugatuck River. The first was called the "Pedler," and headed for New York City in 1806. It hauled eggs, cheese, butter and meat; passengers paid 50 cents to ride along.
The "Pedler" proved profitable, and other ships followed. Farmers and manufactures from as far away as Bethel and Danbury brought goods to wharves and warehouses along the Saugatuck, Foster wrote. River commerce flourished until the railroad was built -- not far from an important wharf -- in 1848.
In the middle of that era-- 1820 -- the Norwalk Gazette featured a real estate ad for Cockenoe Island. "The island has about 30 acres of ploughland of excellent quality," it read. "The remainder is salt-meadow. The communication from the mainland is easy and safe for carriages at low water." The island contained "a good three-story dwelling house and a good barn with several sorts of fruit trees. It is a good stand for a tavern or boarding house."
In 1835, when Westport was formed as a town, Cockenoe Island was part of the deal. Foster unearthed those details, as well as the back story of its name. As a youth in 1637, the Long Island Indian who would later be known as Cockenoe was visiting the Pequots when English settlers attacked them. Because he was not a Pequot, he avoided being sent to Bermuda as a slave. Instead, he was given to a Massachusetts man. The name "cockenoe" apparently means "interpreter."
Foster ends that column by noting that by 1868, Cockenoe Island was no longer used for farming. Instead, at low tide oxcarts brought barrels of molasses. They'd return with barrels of rum. "Eventually the federal government got wind of the operation and the Cockenoe Island distillery was raided," Foster wrote.
Speaking of slaves, Foster described Henry Platt's 373 North Main Street house as a possible station on the Underground Railroad. Slavery was legal in Connecticut in the 1830s and '40s -- full emancipation did not come until 1848 -- but a growing number of people went beyond debating to help aid runaway slaves.
The front hall of Platt's house had a trap door into the cellar, hidden by a rug. Foster wrote that at the foot of the back staircase a hinged stair step and riser opens into a secret hiding place behind the old fireplace. In the old kitchen was a wall cupboard, the bottom half of which was a secret door leading to the cellar. Foster does not know for sure if Platt was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. But -- as with Cockenoe Island -- she provided insightful descriptions of a place and time in Westport most of us never thought about.
Similarly, a three-story building in the back of the old Saugatuck post office was -- who knew? -- the longtime main building of a button factory. Elonzo Wheeler brought his business to Westport in 1860. The location was ideal: next to the new railroad, and right on the Saugatuck River. By 1868 the factory was running night and day. In those pre-child-labor days, many workers were young boys and girls. Wheeler patented the rivet pants button that quickly became popular, and was a pioneer in making cloth-covered buttons.
He died in 1896, and his son Sterne took over. The company branched out into -- among other items -- "lining tacks for the casket trade." By 1927 the button business was in decline. The factory was sold, though the coffin tack business continued in the old firehouse next to the Bridge Street bridge. Cloth to cover the tacks -- matching the silver linings of coffins -- was pressed by several dozen women, in their homes. During the Depression, that formed an important cottage industry throughout Saugatuck.
Taken together, none of those stories are remarkable. Boats plied the Saugatuck River. Farmers worked Cockenoe Island. A house on Main Street was a stop on the underground railroad. A button factory stood in Saugatuck.
But a community is made up of unremarkable stories. Today, we are a town that relies almost entirely on automobiles. Cockenoe Island is -- like Compo Beach and Longshore -- a recreational site. Our homes have entertainment centers and luxurious spas, while the business of Westport is finance.
One day -- a couple of centuries from now -- what kind of tales will a future edition of "Stories from Westport's Past" tell about us, the Westporters of today?