The Past Is Barn Again At The Westport Historical Society

The seven-sided cobblestone barn on the grounds of the Westport Historical Society is arguably one of the most unique, interesting structures around.

Home to the society’s museum, the barn is the only one of its type in Connecticut. And during warm weather months its large wooden doors are open wide, welcoming the public to browse among Westport artifacts and vintage photos

The centerpiece – and the first thing a visitor sees – is a five-foot square historical diorama of downtown. Upstairs, an even larger display showing a Christmas village served by miniature trains. It once sat in the window of Swezey’s jewelry, which for many years had a store on Main Street across from today’s Williams Sonoma.

Earlier this spring, architectural model maker Tom Clough and model railroad specialist Hank Teller fine-tuned the two installations in preparation for summer visitors.

“The goal,” said Teller, “is to get kids to bring their parents.”

Created for the society by Clough in 1999, the diorama depicts Westport over time and not as it appeared at a specific date.  Barbara and Ray Howard commissioned Tom and guided him in this authentic re-creation. It shows downtown during the mid and late 19thcentury, from the west bank of the Saugatuck to Myrtle Avenue, and from State Street East to just beyond Veterans Green. Naiad and Walter Einsel designed the remainder of the historical displays in the barn.

Panels with labeled buttons let visitors identify old buildings that vanished years ago. They simply push a button and the corresponding building lights up.  So if you attend, or attended,  Coleytown Middle School.,you can see where the school’s namesake conducted business by pressing the button for Coley’s Store. Voila, a light goes on at a little building on Main Street near the corner with Avery Place.

Symbols of the Maritime Years

Present-day residents may wonder about the replicas of the graceful sloops docked where Parker Harding Plaza now stands. These “market boats,” many of them made in Westport and captained by local men, carried local produce and other goods up and down the East Coast.

A time traveler to the 1860s, when maritime commerce flourished here, would see shipwrights building these craft at boatworks on the banks of the Saugatuck.

In those days, Westport was largely agricultural and onions were the staple crop. They were grown on farms that stretched from Cross Highway to Sasco Creek and the Saugatuck, hauled to the wharf in ox carts, and shipped to the soldiers fighting for the Union.

The market boats also carried Westport manufactures, including tinsel ribbon cord, fringes, candlewicks, shoes and valises. There was even a factory in Saugatuck that imported Brazil ivory nuts and made them into buttons.

All of these historical tidbits and more are related in a 20-minute narration recorded by Oscar-winning Westport actress Joan Woodward.

The upstairs Christmas display features four oval tracks, lighted trains, and little replicas of Saugatuck Congregational Church, the former Taylor Floral Arts building, Saugatuck Fire House and, of course, Swezey’s.

In all, there are some two dozen model buildings sitting before a background of snow-covered hills with a ski slope, chairlift, sled run and skating pond with hockey players.

For kids, there’s a “can you find” game that asks them to locate eight or nine places in the display, including “a diamond mine.”

Swezey’s holiday express is fully automated. When visitors go up the stairs they trip a motion detector that starts the trains on their rounds. The display was purchased by Donna and Michael Brody when Swezey’s closed and donated to the Historical Society.

The Crown Jewel

The barn itself could be considered the Historical Society’s crown jewel. Built by blacksmith Farmin Patchin sometime in the late 1840s or 1850s, it was in a sad state of disrepair when the Historical Society purchased its current home in 1980.

The foundation and masonry walls were “endangered,” and the “wooden beams and rafters weakened by repeated freezing and thawing.”

Over a period of 10 years, the structure was restored under the supervision of Westport realtor and engineer Leo Cirino. Stones from the deteriorated foundation and walls were removed and catalogued so they could be returned to their original position as the walls were rebuilt.

So, come out to the Historical Society this summer, browse through the museum and check out its lovingly restored home. The doors are always open, and there’s no admission charge. The Historical Society is at 25 Avery Place across from Town Hall. For more information, call (203) 222-1424
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