May 10th, 2013
“Five Generations of Yankee Ingenuity
The Gault Family” and “Tracy Sugarman, Citizen-Artist”
What is Yankee Ingenuity? And is it possible to be an artist, a patriot and an activist for social change at the same time? From May 24 to September 2, two new Westport Historical Society Exhibits explore these questions through the life experiences of local residents.
Five Generations of Yankee Ingenuity: The Gault Family, in the main Sheffer Gallery, follows a mid-19th century Northern Irish family’s move to Westport, seeking “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay” and how the family and its businesses have evolved since, in remarkable tandem with the town. Vintage photos, documents, tools and artifacts from the Gault Family Archive greatly enrich this Exhibit. (Thankfully, the frugal Gaults “never threw anything away”).
Each generation’s ingenuity—making “something” out of nothing–was the knack to recognize what their neighbors needed next and adapting services to provide it. The pattern begins in 1863 when Robert, the youngest, sees opportunity in closing the delivery gap between Saugatuck’s new railroad station and upstream factories. Most other coastal CT towns located their train station in the town center, but Horace Staples persuaded Morris Ketchum, Westport’s key New York-New Haven Railroad investor, to build the station at the shortest bridge span, “The Narrows,” closer to Long Island Sound and contiguous to Horace’s lumber yard, but miles from Lee’s Manufacturing at Richmondville and Kemper’s Tannery on the Post Road.
Robert bought a horse team and wagon, announced hauling, plowing and rock and stump pulling services, and was busy immediately. Later, Robert’s three sons—Leonard Hamilton, Robert Samuel and John Kirk—joined, too, as the fleet of horse-drawn wagons and services grew, along with facilities to house them.
Now, the company was “Gault Brothers.” With demand growing for lumber, stone and, especially, coal for home heating, and greater profits from owning and delivering commodities, the Gaults added these businesses and acquired a river frontage for receiving and storage. Meanwhile, they continued home-based farming, chicken and livestock raising and even ice harvesting well into the 20th century. NOTE: In 2013, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation added the three landmark Gault barns on South Compo Road to the new Connecticut Barn Trail.
By the early 20th century, coal had largely replaced wood-burning fireplaces for home heating. Supplies of coal and sand arrived by barge and rail to Gault’s 15 Riverside Ave. depot. Robert Samuel left to join a Saugatuck foundry as a mold designer, with Gault as a major customer for wagon wheels, coal caddies and shovels; he died not long after. John Kirk remained, and later served as Second Selectman. Leonard’s son, Howard, left Staples High School after 9th grade to join what soon became L.H. Gault & Son. His cousin and classmate Robert Franklin (Robert Samuel’s son) stayed in school and became an artist, inducted into the American Watercolor Society. During 1918’s Great Flu Epidemic, Gault provided horse-drawn hearse services. In 1919, diesel-powered trucks began to replace horse-drawn operations, and the Gaults bought the Taylor-Richards Coal, Feed and Grain business and dock on Main Street. On Imperial Ave., their Bald Mountain property was a busy rock quarry and gravel-crushing site. In 1929, Gault moved downstream from 15 to 563 Riverside, affording deep-water docking for larger coal and sand barges, and soon, for oil tankers.
Howard married Georgiana Taylor and had two children, Judy and Bill. In 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression, Leonard passed. Julia and Howard took charge, began delivering home heating oil in 5-gal. cans, and added oil storage tanks to the Riverside Ave. site. One day, after finding young Bill playing baseball in the middle of Imperial Ave., Howard created Gault Field, where thousands of Little League practices and games gave lifelong memories to a generation of Westporters.
Following World War II, with home building and baby boom under way, Howard purchased a large tract of the former Morris Ketchum estate, Hockanum, on Cross Highway. He subdivided it into building lots, taking care to preserve the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed landscape and carriage roads. Daily, after school at Staples High, son Bill paved the roads, using Gault sand, gravel and—another short-term business venture–asphalt.
When I-95 construction bisected Saugatuck in the mid-1950s, the Gaults lost half their riverfront land, including oil storage tanks, to eminent domain. Their new 350,000-gal. tank–rare for a small family company to own–became a landmark for all traveling the Gov. John Davis Lodge Tpke. bridge.
The Westport that the Gaults had known for 100 years was changing rapidly. Howard and son Bill focused on keeping pace with business growth, adding burner installation and expanding service beyond Westport, Weston and Wilton. Meanwhile, nephew Bob (Robert Franklin’s son, an architect) and daughter Judy Gault Sterling focused on historic preservation. Beneficiaries included Westport’s Historic District Commission, the Westport Historical Society (Bob, an HDC activist and 4-year WHS president, was a force in the WHS procurement of Wheeler House, inspired his uncle to build “the Gault Vault,” and served 10 years as architect for Bradley-Wheeler Cobblestone Barn restoration) along with Art Rescue and the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection (Judy). Meanwhile, Bill and his wife Nancy have kept the Gault Family Archive, and daughter Ginger Gault Donaher continues the tradition.
Today, led by Bill Gault, his son Sam and son-in-law Jim Donaher, Gault’s growth proceeds with sensitivity to the environment, energy conservation and responding to climate change. The riverfront depot is gone, replaced by attractive retail and residential space. Newer services include oil tank removal, biofuel, propane and standby generators. And, as avid gardeners, the families still are connected to the land farmed by their great grandparents.
Tracy Sugarman, Citizen-Artist
The second exhibit, Tracy Sugarman, Citizen-Artist, follows the life and work of a reportorial artist who used his eyes and his hands to heal his heart after D-Day Naval service in England and France. After World War II, he became a successful commercial illustrator/designer and settled his family in Westport. But assignments for corporations, magazines and record album covers never diminished his real love for on-the-spot drawing, “striving to capture a reality that was unvarnished, authentic and unrehearsed.” He initiated or sought assignments of struggling Americans: the last labor strike of the ILGWU on New York’s Seventh Ave., textile mills, research labs, glassmaking studios, Wall Street offices, Broadways actors and French Quarter life in New Orleans.
Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King in 1964 at Temple Israel was life-changing, prompting him to travel South to document government-backed resistance to non-violent black voter registration initiatives. Through 115 drawings, two books (Stranger at the Gate: A Summer in Mississippi and We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi) and—in partnership with filmmaker Bill Buckley and Rediscovery Productions—over 40 African-American history and educational videos, he used his skills and objectivity as an artist, writer and scriptwriter to advance the cause of Civil Rights. He also documented poverty in Appalachia, the Malcolm X murder trial, life in Rikers Island prison and, for NASA, the Kennedy Space Center. At Tanglewood he sketched what he called “The Music I See.” His fluid pen and ink drawings of Alvin Ailey dancers in rehearsal are a featured part of the exhibit, along with photographs and other examples of his work. Original Sugarman work resides in the Library of Congress, NASA Smithsonian Collection, Mississippi Archive and New Britain Museum of American Art. His murals at Norwalk Hospital bring daily joy to patients and care-givers.
The Westport Historical Society is a private, member-supported, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that receives no taxpayer subsidies. Major support for Five Generations of Yankee Ingenuity: The Gault Family and Tracy Sugarman, Citizen Artist comes from annual sponsors, including lead sponsor, BNY Mellon Wealth Management, along with the Betty R. & Ralph Sheffer Foundation, Janet & Fred Plotkin/The Ruth and Adoph Schnurmacher Foundation, Berchem Moses Devlin, Sachs-Walsh Insurance, Thomas & Jeanne Elmezzi Foundation, Weichert Capital Properties & Estates, and Fountainhead Wines.
Additional Exhibit sponsors include the Gault Family Archive and Bank of America/U.S. Trust. Special lectures and programs will enhance these exhibits at various times to be announced through the summer at the Westport Historical Society.