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Katharine Wroth is a senior writer at Grist.org. Her work has appeared in Special Places and other publications.
A few feet away, a worker clad in white coveralls applies a swatch of light green paint to a plaster wall. His fellow crew members are busy sawing and sanding in other parts of the house, and the buoyant beat from a small radio dances through the rooms. Suddenly, a woman’s voice cuts through the genial chaos: “Hello?”
A local resident has dropped by with her sister and mother for a walk on the 40-acre Westport Town Farm property, which swoops from this roadside farmhouse and a small cluster of wood and granite outbuildings down
to the East Branch of the Westport River. Drawn by the sounds emanating from the house, they ask if they can peek inside. Though the building will not be open to the public for several more weeks, Dubois – Director of Southeast Region Community Conservation for The Trustees – spends a few minutes discussing the project with them. She points out some of the unique features visible from the front entry, like a bowed interior wall and a set of black metal reproduction hinges that have just been forged and painted. Their questions answered, the women head out to enjoy the property’s gentle one-mile walking trail.
“We get a lot of curious visitors, and a lot of people who come by to see how things are progressing,” Dubois says. The interest is understandable: For nearly 300 years, this site has been a staple of the Westport landscape. Originally built as a working farm in 1720, the house became the town “poor farm” in 1824, growing into a complex that housed residents who could not care for themselves due to poverty, physical or mental illness, or other reasons. After serving this role for more than 125 years, the farm was used as a rest home, then rented out as apartments by the town.
By the 1980s, the structure was suffering from decay and neglect, but the dedication of a small group of local residents helped it survive. The Trustees got involved in 2006, building on decades of their own work in the area by leasing the property, cleaning it up, and opening it to the public for the first time. Since then, they’ve launched programming that ranges from composting workshops to kayaking trips, as well as starting a community garden with produce raised and harvested by local teens – The Trustees’ Youth Conservation Corps – and then donated to area residents in need, honoring the tradition of the farm.
Now The Trustees and their longtime partner, the Westport Land Conservation Trust (WLCT), have undertaken an environmentally sustainable and historically sensitive renovation of the main building that will see it rehabilitated for use as meeting space and offices for the two organizations. (An adjoining ell will still be leased to a private tenant, and the outbuildings used for storage.) With a 99-year lease in place, the Town and The Trustees know this is a partnership built to last.
“This renovation project is terribly important,” says Heli Meltsner, an architectural historian and author of the recently published The Poorhouses of Massachusetts: A Cultural and Architectural History. “Town farms are a visual representation of how communities took care of their own, and Westport is an
amazingly well-preserved example.”