Westport Historical Society New Exhibit: Saugatuck @Work – Through May 30

In the early years of the Connecticut Colony, the area known today as Westport was called Saugatuck and was a part of the towns of Fairfield and Norwalk. The river was the boundary between the two towns. But by 1835, the river’s growing economic importance moved Saugatuck’s business leaders, concerned that their river was playing second fiddle to ports closer to the centers of Norwalk and Fairfield, to have Saugatuck incorporated as a town to be called Westport.


Saugatuck’s Past Come Alive in Westport’s Artist Mural. Robert L. Lambdin’s meticulously researched mural depicting Saugatuck as a center of manufacturing and river commerce in 19th century Westport will anchor the exhibition “Saugatuck @ Work – Haven of Community, Commerce and Innovation” hosted by the Westport Historical Society on 25 Avery Place.

Saugatuck’s location near the mouth of the river, allowing raw materials to be delivered by boat and products to be shipped to New York and other ports, made it an ideal setting for manufacturing and maritime commerce. One of Saugatuck’s longtime employers was Elonzo Wheeler’s button factory, and some of Wheeler’s buttons, produced from ivory nuts imported from Brazil, along with local produce, can be seen in the foreground of Lambdin’s mural waiting to be loaded onto a market boat. Saugatuck eventually became a tight-knit community of Irish and Italian immigrants who came to Westport to work in factories and as stonemasons, gardeners and laborers on the railroad.

The late Westport artist’s large wall painting, “Saugatuck in the 19th Century,” was created for the Westport Bank & Trust Company’s Saugatuck branch when it opened in 1970. It measures 6 by 10 feet and shows the various types of vessels that plied the river over the course of the century, as well as such long-gone landmarks as the Saugatuck Bank, precursor of Westport Bank & Trust, and the Methodist Church, and those that still survive: Saugatuck original firehouse and the village’s historic swing bridge and train depot. Though I-95 did not come into being until the mid 20th century, its bridge over the river appears as a huge arc framing the riverfront scene.

The exhibition will also display historic photographs of workers and workplaces of the village, antique maps of Saugatuck harbor, vintage tools made there, patents by Saugatuck inventors, costumes, and ship and railroad logs.

A companion exhibit devoted to the life of those immigrants, “Framing Saugatuck,” will run in the WHS’s Mollie Donovan Gallery concurrently with “Saugatuck @ Work.”

For more information on the Westport Historical Society http://westporthistory.org/

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