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The 23-year War

The land that forms today’s 234-acre state park was acquired in bits and pieces. The first bits were purchased in 1914, but it was not until 1937 that the key parcels were acquired and public access was assured. During these years, Westport’s William H. Burr acquired land for the state and led the battle against the influential landowners who did not want a park in their backyards. Most of the story below has been pieced together from newspaper clippings and other documents in a collection of Burr papers recently donated to the Fairfield Historical Society.

1914- Connecticut State Park Commission selects Sherwood Island as park site

“So long as man is born with eyes and ears and arms and legs, he will continue to use them in various ways, and it turns out that some of those ways are impossible to him in the city.”

At the end of a week, or a month, or a year, or in some cases, possibly a lifetime, the city sights and sounds and pavements become unbearable and a rest and contrast become as necessary as sleep at night.”

To the fortunate few who may have a country house or a shore cottage with an automobile or so, the problem is easy. What for the rest? The dry highway and the ‘no trespass’ sign.”

Albert Milford Turner, 1917
[Pugsley Award recipient]

The Connecticut State Park Commission (SPC) was authorized in 1909. Later it was renamed the Connecticut State Park and Forest Commission (SPFC). In 1971, it was succeeded by the newly formed Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

One of the SPC’s main tasks was to find and develop shore parks along Connecticut’s coastline. Hired as Field Secretary in 1914, engineer Albert Turner went out and walked the shore line from New York to Rhode Island seeking suitable sites.

A suitable site would have several hundred acres of undeveloped land with natural scenic beauty, fronting on a good beach, and be far enough from cities to ensure freedom from sewage pollution and lack of interference with industrial development.

His recommendations were Hammonasset Beach, Rocky Neck, Bluff Point, and Sherwood Island in Westport, the only suitable site in Fairfield County.

Sherwood Island is called Connecticut’s oldest state park, because the first acquisitions were made in 1914. (Purchases at Hammonasset State Park didn’t begin until 1919.) But according to Turner, “a park isn’t a park until it is used and enjoyed.” By that criteria, it took over two decades to make Sherwood Island a park.

1914-1923: the first acquisitions

Acquisitions by the State
Year   Seller Acres
1914 1
2
Ball
Miller & Jordan
5
4
1915 3
4
Rollin G. Sherwood
Kendall
1
4
1916 5 Foster & Bulkley 0.75
1917

6

7

8

Gorham &
Mandeville
Gorham &
Mandeville
Jennings

2.25

0.75

2.5

1918 9 Newkirk et al 2.5

1923 10
11
12
Wesley Sherwood &
Eliza F. Sherwood &
Anna T. Dunnebacke
4.5
11.5
2.5
Total by deeds 41.25
Total by survey 48

Bits and pieces
In 1914, five acres (Ball) were acquired, west of Burial Hill Creek, and then another four acres west of the Ball property. In 1915, an acre was picked up off to the west, as well as four (Kendall) acres along the beach, but not connected to the other properties. The next three purchases were small ones to fill in the spaces. That much added up to about 24 acres by deed, 30 acres by state survey.

In 1923, about 18 acres of upland and salt marsh, adjacent to the railroad tracks, were acquired. This land could potentially be used for parking, but the salt marsh (which had many owners) lay between the 18-acre tract and the 30-acre tract. The beach area was somewhat accessible via Burial Hill (a Westport town park.) The 48 acres were purchased for less than $18,000. That included 2,350 feet of shoreline, at $4.17/front foot.

In its 1917 report, the SPC said: “The name of William H. Burr of Westport will remain inseparably linked with the first purchases of Sherwood Island as they passed to the state through his local knowledge and good offices, and he is thus the grantor of record.”

The trouble was that the purchased land would be useless without funds for additional purchases and development. After 1923, the money dried up.

1924: the troubles begin

Westport Town Meeting #1

On 10/27/24, a Westport Town Meeting approved the following resolutions:

Resolved: That the town of Westport does not desire the state of CT to acquire additional land at Sherwood Island for park purposes. Resolved further that the town of Westport does not desire a state park at Sherwood Island. Resolved, that the representatives from this town to the next General Assembly do their best to prevent an appropriation for any such purpose. Resolved, that the town clerk send to the clerk of the next General Assembly, a copy of these resolutions.

Westport to Hartford: don’t provide the money
In October 1924, Westport decided to instruct its legislators to “do their best to prevent an appropriation for any such purpose.”

By 1924, some of the wealthy Westport landowners with properties adjoining the proposed park had launched a campaign against it. The leader of the opposition was George W. Gair, who’s estate lay to the east of Sherwood Island Lane, on the Mill Pond. Gair and 21 others proposed the resolutions that were approved by the 10/27/24 Town Meeting.

In 1925 the legislature defeated a bill proposed by SPFC that would have allocated $500,000 for Sherwood Island State Park acquisitions.

Note: The State did not need Westport’s approval, but the legislature was apparently reluctant to move without it.

 

Reference maps

For a clearer picture of the situation in the 1920s, see two maps drawn in the early 1930s, when not much had changed.

The 1932 map commissioned by the Sherwood Island Park Association shows the two pieces of land owned by the State of Connecticut, separated from each other by the salt marsh, and without access roads.

The 1931 map that appeared in the Bridgeport Herald marked the properties of some of the influential landowners. E.T. Bedford owned land in the area including the dairy farm marked #3. The home of Erwin M. Jennings is at #2. The spot marked #8 is the lot purchased by Louis Stone from Sherwood Island Co. Inc. with the intention of building a house there.

Ominous land transfers
Bedford to Gair. In October 1924, after first indicating willingness to sell to the state, E.T. Bedford changed his mind and sold two key parcels of upland to Helen Gair: eight acres on the railroad tracks, and 16 acres adjacent to the 18 acres that the state had acquired in 1923 from the Sherwoods. On the 1931 map, the 16-acre parcel is marked #17. On the 1932 map, it is marked “Fitzmaurice.”

Sherwood Island Co. Inc. was incorporated in November 1924 to sell small lots for residential construction on and east of the Point. The plan is shown on map #331 registered in the Westport Town Hall.

Sherwood Point Realty Co. bought land to the west of the Point in September 1924 and filed map #336 in the Westport Town Hall.

Pinehurst Realty Co. bought just under 10 acres in December 1924 that included five acres of what was called Little Island. (Today that area is called the western woods or the oak forest.)

 

 

1924: A plea from the State Park and Forest Commission

The State’s claim

Excerpts from the 1924 SPFC report were printed in a long article in the Waterbury Republican(June 7, 1931). The paper said that the commission had never since then spoken out so forcefully, presumably because of political pressure.

About the state’s claim, the paper said:
“That the state staked its claim first there is no question. That the intention of a state park there was known to property buyers who bought in the vicinity, some of them upon the very land which the state might be expect of desiring later to acquire are facts not disputed.”

A critical stage
In it’s 1924 report, the SPFC said that the situation at Sherwood Island had reached a critical stage. Recounting what had happened by then, it said that in 1914, “About 300 acres of upland and salt meadow, with a mile of shore front, seemed available if prompt action was taken.” The state had been making purchases when opportunities arose.

“Since 1917 the commission has earnestly advocated before each Assembly the appropriation of sufficient funds for purchase of adjoining upland and such development as would properly open this beach to public use, but without avail.”

About the developers: “Lying directly west of Alvord beach are two parcels of upland amounting to some 37 acres, with one farm house and outbuildings, and about 2,000 feet of shore front. Titles to these parcels have recently been secured by two corporations with the purpose of immediate subdivision, and they have been plotted into some 140 lots, which are now either sold or being offered to private purchasers.”

This upland would be essential for “such public park purposes as the commission was established to provide. The proposed development will either defeat this purpose or render its accomplishment immeasurably more expensive to the state.”

1925: A plea from State and County associations

Access to the shore

“Although Connecticut possesses some of the most beautiful shore line on the Atlantic coast, the public is being rapidly excluded from all but an insignificant portion of it. To remedy this, the State Park Commission desired to create several great shore parks which shall preserve for the perpetual use of all the people outstanding examples of this their rightful inheritance. Certainly Fairfield County is entitled to at least one such place.”

1925 booklet, CFA and FCPA

In a booklet published in February 1925, the Connecticut Forestry Association and the Fairfield County Planning Association set forth all the reasons why Sherwood Island was desirable as a state park, and other sites not, and refuted claims that public parks lower land values. Pleading for support of a funding bill pending in the General Assembly, they said, “The present State holdings are nearly all beach and marsh land and cannot be properly developed until the State owns enough high land to provide proper service facilities.”

see the booklet’s back page, which has a small map.

Note: the Connecticut Forestry Association was later renamed Connecticut Forest and Park Association (CFPA).

 

1929: another Westport vote against the park

Talk of a class war

BATTLE LOOMS BETWEEN VESTED WEALTH AND PUBLIC RIGHTS AT SHERWOOD ISLAND

Headline, Bridgeport Post, 3/3/29

“Sherwood Island has not yet come into its own. It is isolated, undeveloped and almost unknown.”

Petitioner Harrison Streeter in an article in the Bridgeport Post before the meeting.

The people of Westport have made a terrible mistake with this blind and stupid vote. The area belongs to the people of Connecticut [but] because of unreasonable opposition to the development of the property, the place has lain idle for many years and is inhabited only by crows.

Paraphrased quote from William H. Burr in the Bridgeport Sunday Post, after the meeting.

Westport Town Meeting #2 votes against the park 

On March 4, 1929 a town meeting was held in Westport at the request of 108 residents who had petitioned for it. The petitioners wanted the meeting to rescind all action taken at the October 1924 meeting and resolve to cooperate with the State Park Commission in securing a sufficient appropriation to develop the Park and improve the condition of the creeks at Green’s Farms. The resolution was voted down.

The pro-park petitioners included William H. Burr, George P. Jennings, and Harrison Streeter. Before the meeting both sides lobbied. George Gair wrote an open letter to the people of Westport, and met with the real estate board.

Referring to Gair’s open letter, petitioner Harrison Streeter wrote in the Bridgeport Post, “The burden of it’s plaint is the possible damage to property interests and values by reason of an influx of undesirable pleasure seekers.”

After noting Westport’s interest in the outcome of the upcoming meeting, he said that “the people of the remaining towns of the county are vitally interested [as well] … We are a seaboard county without an available and accessible strip of shore line to call our own. We secure our outlet to the beach by journeying the many miles to Hammonasset or by crowding into spots which are more or less reserved for local residents along the coast. This is not as it should be. As free-born American citizens, we resent the implication that we are interlopers within our own county.”

Summer 1929: Gair’s ditch and Elsie Hill’s picnic

Gair’s ditch project

The State parklands were virtually inaccessible to the public, but people could go to Burial Hill and go across New Creek when it was dry or almost dry.In the summer of 1929, at the direction of George Gair (who was also Chairman of Westport’s Board of Finance), the ditch was deepened several feet and widened to 30 feet. Gair said this was necessary for mosquito control.Most park supporters saw this as a means to keep people out of the park, and Gair’s move aroused outrage.

Note: George Jennings, a park supporter, argued that the dredging was justified because New Creek had been a deep creek in the past.

See the controversial creeks

Elsie Hill’s picnic
Elsie Hill, of Redding, activist and wife of Professor Albert Levitt, organized a picnic on the park land on August 31 for residents of Westport, Redding, Ridgefield, New Canaan and Bridgeport. A resolution was passed that demanded that any barriers, real or imaginary, to the state property at Sherwood Island should be lifted, allowing the island to again be made accessible to the public. The resolution was to be presented at the State Park Commission meeting in Danbury on October 9.

The Hill-Bedford letters
Before that, Miss Hill wrote to E.T. Bedford, and asked for his position on the park. Her letter and his reply appeared in the 2/8/31 Bridgeport Herald.

She said that three prominent men of Fairfield County, all republicans, had said that “it’s pretty hard for the republicans to move with Bedford against it.” She said she was told that he had threatened to stop political contributions and public gifts to Westport and Norwalk if the state goes ahead with plans for Sherwood Island. She was told that State Controller Salmon could be influenced by Bedford.

On 10/10 Bedford’s reply said in part, “If, as I have said to Mr. Burr, a state park is wanted, there is only one place that could be had with ample ground and beach, with roads already made, and that is Calf Pasture at Norwalk.”

February 1931: an especially chilly Town Meeting

Gair’s ditch project

RICH MAN – POOR MAN’S FIGHT AT SHERWOOD ISLE
THE HERALD IS ON THE SIDE OF THE POOR MAN
Bridgeport Herald, 3/8/31

February 9, 1931: Park advocates introduced the following resolutions.

Resolved: That whereas the State Park on Sherwood Island would render greater service to the public by the acquisition of more land, the erection of pavilions, the introduction of water and the other necessities and conveniences found at our other state Parks: Therefore, Resolved: that we do hereby petition the State Park Commission to seek an adequate appropriation to acquire the land and to make the improvements that the times and place demand.

Cinderella
“For 16 years, the Cinderella of our state park system, alone and forlorn, has listened to the moan of the sad sea waves and waited for the fairy godmother to life her from her humble state. By fairy godmother, I mean an appropriation in the Legislature. Four bills asking for an appropriation for Sherwood Island are before the present Legislature.”

Daniel S. Sanford, president of the Fairfield County Planning Association, at the annual meeting of the State Park and Forest Association, 2/7/31.

Hundreds braved the weather
On a cold and snowy evening, over 800 people came out for a Town Meeting at Bedford Junior High to vote on a pro-park resolution proposed by George L. Rippe. Before a vote was taken, the turbulent and acrimonious meeting came to a bizarre end. When an argument broke out about the method of voting, the chair of the meeting decided that voting by ballot would be impossible. A proposal was made to postpone the vote until the next town election, when the matter could be decided with voting machines. In the confusion, it was not clear whether everyone present realized that the next (biennial) election would not take place until October 1932.

Gair’s cartoon
Before the meeting, George Gair created a cartoon that was mailed to several hundred residents. It showed “Billy B.” [Burr] displaying a script reading “A Park on Sherwood’s Island, for the benefit of non-residents, – cost to state, $250,000; cost to Westport, lowered value Greens Farms taxable property, over $1,000,000.” It also showed the average Westporter bewildered with rent, grocery and other bills. [Gair also put a full page ad in a local newspaper denouncing the plan.]

Burr: a moral victory
After the meeting, Burr said the park advocates had won a moral victory for two reasons: “first, the previous votes were passed at small gatherings and we certainly got out the people last night. If it came to a vote we would have easily won; second, we were refused a vote by secret ballot for they knew we would have won.” Bridgeport Telegram, 2/11/31

 

February 1931: a Legislative Committee came to visit

They couldn’t get into the park lands

“High tide, filling the creek on the east boundary, kept the committee off the park property there. Private property to the west made it a matter of trespass to set foot on the State’s land from that side. A three-panel fence on the northern tip of land that touches highway discouraged the committee, including women legislators, from an attack at that quarter. Lack of a boat kept them from invading the tract from the Sound, or southward side. Thus they were contented with views from three sides.”

Bridgeport Telegram

A few days before the Westport town meeting, with funding bills pending in Hartford, members of the Fairfield County Legislative Committee had also braved cold and wind to visit the park. They could not get onto the park lands, but they viewed them from the periphery and warmed up at the Gair lodge. Gair and Burr spoke to the group, which been sent to the site by the county meeting of the seven senators and 37 representatives elected from the 23 towns, to find reasons for the State Park Commission’s inaction on the park.

Roton Point? The group reported back with a recommendation that Roton Point (Rowayton) would be a good substitute for Sherwood Island as a state park. It would cost $600,000 to buy it, and another $100,000 to develop it. At a hearing in Hartford, Daniel Sanford, president of the Fairfield County Planning Association, said “I submit that this committee has shirked its duty. Appointed three months ago and then to come back with such a flabby and amorphous report recommending the purchase of Roton Point — I doubt the sincerity of it.”

Anywhere but here
During all these years, opponents of park at Sherwood’s Island suggested other alternatives.

In 1925, the booklet published by the Connecticut Forestry Association and the Fairfield County Planning Association set forth the arguments against two of them: Great Marsh (Westport) and Stratford Point.

“Great Marsh Offers a beach somewhat inferior to Sherwood Island bordering salt marshes a mile wide. To provide necessary land, these marshes would have to be filled in at enormous expense. What natural beauty the site possesses is due to these very marshes. Furthermore the site is much less accessible than Sherwood Island.

“Stratford Point is a bluff commanding a fine view of the Sound. Beaches exist on both sides of it but are shallow at low tide and are endangered by sewage pollution from Bridgeport Harbor and the Housatonic River. This site is not conveniently located with respect to most of Fairfield County and must generally be approached through the crowded streets of Bridgeport. Furthermore, development of cottage sites and commercial beaches has already started.”

Nevertheless, proposals involving Great Marsh and Cockenoe Island kept surfacing again and again. As noted above, E.T. Bedford was suggesting in 1929 that Calf Pasture (Norwalk) would be a fine site. In 1931, Legislative Committee came up with a new idea — Roton Point (Rowayton).

There were intimations that the wealthy citizens who opposed the park at Sherwood Island would contribute to the purchase of sites elsewhere.

Early 1932: with time was running out, important progress

Republican support. At a March 1932 meeting, of the Fairfield County Republican Organization in Bridgeport adopted recommendations that the acquisition of all of Sherwood’s Island proper be sought in the next General Assembly and that in the meantime the state park commission be requested to make the beach which the state now owns available for public use during the coming summer. Fairfield News, 3/12/32.

The Sherwood Island Park Association was formed and had a map drawn up that showed all of the properties that would have to be acquired to bring the vision to fruition, including some that were already in the hands of real estate companies. [See the map.]

Elwood properties leased. In time for summer 1932, Elwood Farm and Elwood Beach were leased by the State (with a 5-year option to buy), temporary bath houses were built, and 1,000 visitors came. In a long article in June 1931, the Waterbury Republican included photos of the Elwood properties: shown here, the farm and the beach. The Elwood property was owned by John H. Elwood and his wife Fannie, who was a daughter of Franklin Sherwood.

April 29, 1937: Saved in the nick of time

After rushing them through the House and Senate, Governor Wilbur L. Cross signed two bills making a total of $485,000 available for the purchase of land and development of Sherwood Island State Park. The bill made $350,000 available immediately to take up the State’s option on the Elwood property before it expired and remove the threat that the park would have to be closed. An additional $135,000 was appropriated for the acquisition of the holdings of the Sherwood Island Co. and Sherwood Point Realty Co. [Newspaper article.]

After that, the rest of the pieces began to fall into place.