The History of Westport in 100 Objects

Over the next year, we’ll be telling the story of Westport through the many amazing and historically significant objects in our archives, art, objects, and costume collections. Stop in at WHS to check out this mini-exhibit rotating every two weeks, look for it by the Wheeler House front door and guess the latest mystery object. Drop your answer in the box or email it to guess correctly and we’ll enter your name in a drawing to win a popular Westport item from our gift shop! Check this page to look at the objects up close, learn more about the artifacts, and to see any cases you missed!

There was no “Westport” in the 1630s. Instead, using the Saugtauck River as the boundary, the town was divided between Fairfield and Norwalk. On the Fairfield side, many farmers settled along the Long Island Sound–amidst the original settlements of the Pequot Natives. By 1637, there was all out “war” between the two groups. Originating in Massachusetts, Europeans hounded the Pequots all the way to the swampy area between what is now Southport and Greens Farms. The massacre that ensued was called The Great Swamp Fight and effectively ended the war and the Native presence in this part of the colony. The Native People who survived were either absorbed by other tribes or sold into slavery. Over the years, their presence has been erased except for the now-familiar place names they left behind like Saugatuck and Aspetuck.

Cannonball on a Stick?

Ice Shaver

The establishment of the Congregational Church of America dates back to the founding of this nation with the arrival of religious dissenters from England to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620. Called Puritans in England, a derogatory term referring to their zeal for simplicity in church organization and worship, they believed each church should be organized with members who enter a covenant agreement with the right to choose their own minister.

In the 1630s and 1640s, thousands of Puritans arrived in New England and flourished with the conviction that they were chosen by God to play a central role in the unfolding of this new land and human history. Churches and church leaders played an important role in shaping New England society.

The organizational system of Congregational churches required mutual trust and personal commitment, yet this was not always a given. Voting in Massachusetts was limited to individuals who had been formally admitted to the church after a detailed interrogation of their religious views and experiences. Thomas Hooker disagreed with the limitation of suffrage and in 1636, led one hundred followers to found Hartford. After 1636, freeman settlements were formed throughout Connecticut.

In 1639, Roger Ludlowe and a group of settlers from Windsor came to modern day Fairfield and formed The First Church of Fairfield. By 1644, Fairfield was the fourth largest town among the colony’s nine towns and extended from Stratford to Norwalk. As populations grew and church attendance was mandatory, groups began campaigning for the right to establish their own parishes. In 1708, the Bankside farmers started their petition to form the West Parish of Fairfield, which is the modern day Green’s Farm Church in Westport.

Bird Cage?

A Foot Warmer!

The most common use of a foot warmer, or foot stove, was in the four hour services held on Sunday in local churches during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the midday break, parishioners would break for lunch and place fresh embers in their foot stoves before they would head back to the second service.
Foot warmers were also used in unheated carriages or sleighs in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As American people soon discovered the ease of rail travel, the foot warmers found their home on trains. As traveling become easier with heated cars and carriages, it is certain that the foot warmer remained in use in the late nineteenth century in remote parts of the country. 
As use of the ceramic hot water bottle came into use in the mid-nineteenth and twentieth century and heating improved in homes and churches, the foot warmer was relegated to an antique reminder of earlier times.

In the Colonial era, the land east of the Saugatuck River bordering what we know now as Fairfield, and west of the Mill River was called Green’s Farms. A group of farmers settled there, known today as the Bankside Farmers among them John Green, Henry Gray, Thomas Newton, Daniel Frost, and Francis Andrews. In later generations, farmers like Joshua Jennings possessed landholding encompassing a large parcel of Green’s Farms. Settlers cultivated the rich soil, initially for their own subsistence and later for commercial profit. Positioned on the Long Island Sound, Green’s Farms was also a seafaring community which tapped into the export trade. Flax was grown for linen; and corn, also known by the Native name maize, was grown for the settlers’ families, their cattle, and for export to the Caribbean where it was used to feed enslaved people. Farming also included aquaculture, and fish, clams, and oysters were part of the bounty. Fish and lobsters were so plentiful they were used for fertilizer.

Vintage Numchucks?

A Grain Flail!

Courtesy of Fairfield Museum and History Center
An agricultural tool used to separate grains from their husk, a flail is made from two or more large sticks attached by a short chain or strip of leather so it may swing down onto grain piles to thrash or beat out grain from the husk. Flails fell into disuse when the original combine harvester, pulled by horses, was invented. But flails have survived the test of time. In Minnesota, wild rice of the Ojibwe people called monoonin, can only be legally harvested from canoes using this primitive method with a flail of specific dimensions.