It’s hard to believe that breaking and entering could lead to anything but jail time but to Norma Judson it’s led to her quest to revive the fast fading history of Westport, MA. Since September 2003, Judson has been leading a loosely organized group of Westport citizens on a purposeful tour down memory lane. “Too much is being thrown out, people don’t realize how valuable their old letters, photos, and documents are,” she laments.
To Judson, these relics, as well as the memories of Westporters who assemble in her living room once a month, are all pieces of a New England history, bits of a jigsaw puzzle that she’s trying to fill in before time runs out. Just the sea reclaims sand on Horseneck Beach, Judson knows that history is also lost when older members of the community pass away.
Two events, occurring nearly fifty years apart, motivate her sleuthing. The first spark was struck when she snuck into A. H. Cory’s Store (now the site of the Paquachuck Inn) in the dark of night with several other teenagers after a dance. The store, a casualty of the abrupt decline of the whaling industry at Westport Point, had sat forlornly and uninhabited ever since she could remember, a “ghost store” to the neighborhood kids. Rumors about the interior of the store abounded. “All the kids in the neighborhood were dying to know what was in that building,” she recalls, and one night after a local dance, they couldn’t deny their curiosity. They found a window they could open, cranked up their courage, and climbed in.
“What I saw is burned in my memory. It was like I was flown back in history to see those little leather shoes and little gloves in boxes,” with hats and the other merchandise still spread on counters. “We went up into the sail loft, it was like they went home one night, closed the door and never came back. That was a thrilling thing to see and for me it was like a peek into old Westport.”
That thrill smoldered in Judson’s memory during her 44-year career, coincidentally in a retail business that began just across the river from the former A.H. Cory store. “I started my Moby Dick shop in 1953, mostly gifts and women’s clothing, and operated it as a summer store. In 1968, I bought land from Al Lees, cut up my three buildings, and brought them over the bridge, and set up Silas Brown’s, which was located where Sovereign Bank is now.” Silas Brown’s became a well-known store that included departments for men and women, fine gifts, and a decorating department “where we wired lamps, sold paint and wallpaper,” she recalls. She closed the business in 1997 and sold the property to Compass Bank.
Sparks of history intermittently flared during her business career. ”I always had a love of old houses and restored a number of them. I restored the Wing Carriage House and the Feio house, a big old farm that I bought on Main Road, and some in New Bedford where I was born.” Her affiliation with the Westport Historical Society provided more fuel for her curiosity. In the 1970s she was on the committee that restored the Bell Schoolhouse for the Westport Historical Society. One of the society’s programs became the second event that kindled her interest in Westport’s past.
“Lincoln Tripp, the historic society’s president, gave us a quiz on one of the first meetings there and I did poorly. I remember the question, ‘What happened to the Kate Cory?’ I had no idea and wanted to get the answers. I went to the library and began reading (local historian) Eleanor Tripp’s volumes.”
Between then and closing her businesses in 1997, “my antenna was up and I just collected general knowledge. After retirement, it came very naturally to me. I saw the need to do something about the records, which were scattered all over the place and that concerned me. They needed to be in one good fireproof place.”
Just as she once took inventory in her stores, Judson now takes inventory of Westport history. Each month’s meeting features a Westporter with stories to tell. Topics have included Russ Hart's recollections about an old wooden aqueduct built at Westport Harbor, Ab Palmer's tales of the sword fishing industry, Cukie Macomber's stories about the history of Westport’s store businesses and the arrival of telephone technology (with amusing anecdotes about “party lines” in which no news was ever private), and Howie Gifford's memories former ice house businesses here.
“I call this a work group, it’s certainly more than a social group. The old timers really shine here... age is an asset. If they’ve had roots here all their lives and a good memory, they know more than they think they know,”
The current group is comprised of about a dozen regulars and others who attend intermittently. There’s a lively give and take as listeners ask questions and add anecdotes. Judson takes notes, makes copies of documents that have been brought in, and files them in a corner of the Westport Public Library.
“I have a dream that some day there will be a room in that library filled with Westport information, wonderful pictures on the walls, copies of books people from Westport have written, and drawers of files of everything from the landings to the bridges to the farms, you name it. Anyone could walk in there and know what this town is all about.”
That dream is stepping into reality. A corner of Library Director Sue Branco’s office contains a file cabinet and several bookcases of material that Judson has organized.
“Her contribution gives us ready access” to material that isn’t yet cataloged, says Ms. Branco. ““For the past five years there’s been a boom of interest in Westport history and my staff and I are doing a better job of helping people find what they want because of how Norma has organized this material.”
Some day in the not too distant future, residents will come to value this corner of the library as a public heirloom, a link to a town’s rich history that is slowly fading away.
If you have any documents that would shed light on Westport's history, contact Norma Judson at 508-636-2603. She will copy the documents for inclusion into the Westport History section of the library and return them to you. The group's meetings are taped and broadcast on local cable TV. Also, consider starting your own history group. As Norma Judson says, “There’s enough Westport history to go around for everyone."