This if file #82. This is Jean McMillen and I am interviewing two of Anita Westsmith’s daughters-Lyn Westsmith and Kim Simmons. Today‘s date is Oct. 6, 2014. We are doing this at the family home.
JM:We are doing Anita Westsmith. What was her birthdate?
LW:February 17, 1913.
JM:Where was she born?
LW:Providence, Rhode Island.
LW & KS:She had none.
JM:When was she married?
LW:January 30, 1941.
JM:Her husband’s name?
LW:Richard Alan Westsmith.
JM:She had children?
LW:Yes, she had three children Lyn, Jan and Kim.
JM:When was her death date?
LW:April 4, 2011. So she lived until she was 98. She was vital and driving and eager for life right up to the last day.
KS:My tidbit-at her memorial service someone commented that she died a “Cadillac death.”
JM:That is a wonderful comment.
KS:I have never forgotten it.
JM:I am going to skip over the early part and just focus on when she came to the area in 1964. Would one of you ladies tell me where they came and why they chose that particular town?
KS:My mother loved New England. She had lived in Texas, and at St Louis and then California, but at a certain point when the kids grew up, she wanted to come back East. She convinced my father to come in springtime when it was green and lush and beautiful. He noticed that there was a lot of green grass that didn’t have to be watered. This was a very convincing point for him. It was so beautiful; he hadn’t expected it to be so beautiful. They went around looking for property and they found the
property on White Hollow Road which they managed to get. The plan was they were to come here for …
LW:The fall and spring which were the most beautiful times; then 3 months here and three months in California for the summer and winter?
KS:That worked for a while, so they bought the property and renovated it because it needed a lot of work.
JM;But I am looking for the story about Admiral Harte.
KS:OK that is where Lyn comes in.
LW:They were driving through town on their way to some other real estate meeting and they came to Salisbury first and then Lakeville; they said, “Isn’t this beautiful part of the world? This is such a lovely town.” Having been all over New England they knew what they were talking about. They got to Sharon on their way. It happened to be that the town was giving a party for their senior citizen Admiral Harte and they were giving it on the Green. My mother said to herself and to my father, “We should think about looking for property here because any town that gives a party for its senior citizen on the Green like this is a town I want to live in.”
JM:Would one of you ladies tell me about the Sharon Old Movie Enthusiasts.
LW:When they came here they were able to buy the property on White Hollow Road and across the road the Buckleys lived, Jim and Ann Buckley with their 6 kids. We did caroling and things like that with them; they invited us to the Sharon Old Movie Enthusiasts –SOME. This was held at the Mixes, Ted and Alice Mix outside of Sharon. They had a back building that they held it in and they had reel movie projectors. We just saw movies even, it was a social event. The Mixes were there and the Buckleys were there and the Stones, George and Jodi Stone were there and a number of other people of the town and Hotchkiss. It was a big deal. I remember Priscilla Buckley invited me to go down the Grand Canyon with her on one of those life raft boats.
LW:Absolutely! It was terrific. She was a star.
JM:I would like to move on to the Christmas Tree Farm and the Ben Franklin punch.
KS:I didn’t remember the details of how it got planted.
LW:We had a Christmas tree farm. My parents decided to have this Christmas tree farm to see if they could make some money from the farm. They didn’t want to farm it.
KS:It was a tax advantage to have it as a working farm.
JM:Can you give me some dates?3.
LW:We came in 1964 and they did it right away. They got George Kiefer to come and plant trees and then care for them for several years. They plant little ones and it takes several years for them to become salable. So George came over for years and pruned them and weeded them with his tractor and stuff and his crew. When they finally got big enough, my father sold a lot of them to George and to people that George recommended.
KS:They were contracted out to take them to New York.
LW:You know those big massive truckloads of trees. My father also put an ad in the “Daily News” on Long Island. He put one ad in in November inviting people to come and cut their own trees. People began to come. They would bring their families in their station wagons and have an outing. They would bring some food and then get out of the car and walk around the Christmas tree farm and find the tree that they wanted and cut it down. We kept saws, twine and stuff like that that they might need outside the front door. So everybody could come, pick up a saw, go out and get a tree and drag it back to the car.
JM:Don’t forget the Ben Franklin punch!
KS:We were all in college so we had a long Christmas break so we would all come home to stay from mid-December through the end of Christmas break. It was Jan who came up with the idea at Thanksgiving. She came up with the idea of a Benjamin Franklin punch. We made it at Thanksgiving and then it would be ripened by the time we came back at Christmas.
KS:Fermented! Mature, smooth, ready! She found an old crockery umbrella stand, quite colorful and beautiful that would take the sufficient amount of rum, orange juice and …
LW:I think honey or sugar.
KS:There was a lot of sugar. It sat by the fireplace warming for a month and when we got back at Christmas time, a cup would kill you. You didn’t need more than a cup.
LW:It was so smooth that it tasted like orange juice, but you didn’t notice how strong it was.
LW:So when people came, do you want the story about the guy and the parking lot?
JM:Oh yes, definitely.
LW:One of the guys that came for their Christmas trees on this first trip. He had 2 families in the car with their kids in a station wagon. He was looking for a parking lot and it was cold winter day. He thought that the pond was a nice black asphalt parking lot. So he opened the gate and drove onto the parking lot which was to say he drove over the edge of the dam and his front wheels fell into the pond and broke the ice. So he came up…
KS:They all got wet; it was sufficiently over that…4.
LW:in order to get out of the car they all got wet. So they came up and wanted somebody to help them. So we huddled them all in the house and gave them Benjamin Franklin punch. They sat beside the fire and let them change their clothes.
JM:That would warm them up, and somebody pulled the car out?
LW:They finally had to call, I tried to pull them out with our big tractor that we inherited with the property, but it didn’t work. So I had to call the troopers and they had to get a truck to lift it in order to pull it out.
JM:It had a happy ending.
LW:It had a happy ending. They came every year after that and came up to the house and said, “HI, we’re the people who fell into the pond.”
JM:How many years did your parents run the Christmas tree farm?
LW:The trees took about 7-10 years to grow and then we did it for about 7-10 years. Then they got too big so they started topping them instead of cutting them off at the bottom.
JM:Now we are going to move on to Salisbury. Your mother had a wonderful idea in 1984 to help your dad retire. Tell me about that, please.
KS:He fell off the roof. You know the details better than I.
LW:He retired from his ophthalmology business. He always wanted to work on the farm. So he did a lot of clearing and a lot of work on the farm. He really loved it with his tractors and things like that. One day he climbed up on the roof and fell off. He broke his leg. He also at another time hit his head and had a kind of a hematoma that Dr. Roger Moore at Sharon Hospital discovered and saved his life by operating in a timely way. Then he began to get foot problems and so my mother, after he fell off the roof, decided that we had to move to another place. He didn’t want to, so she bought this land that we are on here in Lakeville. She decided to have them build a house. They had built houses before together so they would build a nice new house together on this property and move in. So that is what they did.
JM:What a wonderful project.
LW:It was a terrific project and they loved doing it. We used Berkshire Home.
KS:The other thing was that he was beginning to need a wheel chair, and they wanted the house to be wheelchair accessible, so that was part of the idea.
JM:Very forward thinking.
KS:Very forward thinking, unfortunately the people who built it didn’t do it. The wheel chair wouldn’t fit through the doors. But that was after the fact.5.
JM:Now Lyn you told me about one of your mother’s Parisian dancing partners.
LW:When my mother lived in Paris she had several beaus. She was there for some time. One of them was Charlie La Bouchere. She always loved going dancing with Charlie LaBouchere. When she moved here, she discovered that Charlie LaBouchere was living in a house on Salmon Kill Road over in Lime Rock. That was a big plus; she was so surprised at that they should live in the same general area after all these years.
JM:It is a small world. Now your mother was involved with Taconic Learning Center at the beginning. Please tell me about that.
LW: (Jean and Herbert Wagner Ed.) really did the heavy duty lifting on the thing, but she was part of the group that started Taconic Learning Center and went to the early classes as did I. The early classes were given in the Methodist Church by the Northwestern Community College in Winsted sort of as an outreach to the local community. They sent out teachers who would give classes; this lady teacher gave a class on archeology and focused especially on the Aztecs of Peru. She had a couple of classes over a couple of years and then the idea of the class was that you would go to these classes, learn all about the Incas and then go down there for a trip. My parents never went down there but many of the people in the group did. She was very successful. She finally married the Peruvian guide.
JM:This was back in the 1980’s when it started.
LW:It must have been. I don’t remember (1989 Ed.) Then Winsted decided that they couldn’t afford it any longer; at that time there was a discussion among all the people involved whether they would continue with TLC and whether they would pay the teachers or not; this was a big controversy at the time. Finally it was decided that they would not pay the teachers. It was a friendly thing to get people who wanted to teach with friendly people who wanted to learn.
JM:I think that one of the nice things about TLC is that they are quality courses; it is not underwater basket weaving or anything like that. They are really intellectual and stimulating courses. I believe that people come from miles around to come to these things.
LW:They come from Torrington, Norfolk, Litchfield, and Kent. They come because somebody like Nick Nickerson back here was a Professor of English/Journalism at the University of Delaware. He offered to teach English, poetry, linguistics and things like that, fantastic courses in his field. He loves to do it as do all the teachers.
JM:They are always very good at it. Recently they added a spring semester. They used to have the fall and winter only, but now they have added the spring semester. It is still going strong and it brings in a lot of people, and it is a wonderful social event with cookies and tea in the middle of it.
W:The attraction and one of the things that my mother loved about it. We used to go to it every single year. When she was getting older and couldn’t walk around too much, just getting out. It took people out in the winter time to meet friends and have interesting intellectual experiences and then share friendship and then go to lunch with people. It was a very community oriented thing.
JM:It is all ages; it is not just older people. It is older people and younger people and people that you wouldn’t necessarily meet if you didn’t live in Torrington or Kent or Litchfield.
LW:I am on the board of it now. We are always looking for ways to expand it to include younger people who may be working, but would like some intellectual stimulation as well. Perhaps we could do evening times or weekend times or something.
JM:It is nice to have the interaction between the students because that’s where all of us with life experience to a degree so we have many things to add beside just sitting there and taking notes. This is a joy.
LW:You don’t have to take notes and many people don’t bother. They never look at them again. The other thing we did do in TLC is that we last time we involved the Housatonic Valley Regional High School and had some of their social studies students come over and give some of the classes at TLC. They got to pick what they wanted to talk about out of the Great Decisions book. They talked about climate control and various things like that.
JM:So these are high school students from the Housatonic Valley Regional High School that have come to TLC.
LW:Their teacher at the high school (Peter Vermilyea Ed.) just got the high school teachers award for being the best teacher in the state. He brought them over and gave the week’s lesson 2 of the eight times. I think we are going to try to do that again to involve students. They said that they enjoyed it.
JM:At that age if they didn’t enjoy it, they would say so.
LW:They were very good; they did a beautiful job. They did a spectacular job, both teams that did it.
JM:That is very interesting and encouraging.
LW:They seemed to enjoy it and they had to spend a fair amount of time preparing for it, too. They really got into it. This is a chance for them to into real life with real people and talking about real issues of the day. It was a great advantage for everybody.
JM:Then we move along to “The Designing Woman”. How did this come into being?
KS:It started in California. She started her own shop in Woodside, California. I can’t remember the name of it. She had always done handwork, and once her last daughter had left…
LW:Would that be Kim?
KS:She was free! She was so happy to be able to do what she loved doing which was designing. This was the first money she had ever made. She was so excited about getting her first pay check or getting money for something that she did. She would design the canvases. She hit the market just as the beginning or the needlepoint upturn. Her little shop, she was a half a shop; she became a partner with three other ladies. It was a big hit in Woodside. So when she came here she brought it with her and started it in my father’s building that he used to practice his eye practice. He had an ophthalmology practice.
JM:Which was located where?
LW:Right across from Post Office behind the White Gallery at 342 Main Street.
KS:It was right across from what is now The China Inn, I think. (It is behind the White Gallery Building on Main Street Ed.)
LW:She was downstairs and my father moved upstairs after a while. She did that with Ginny Palmer. First of all she did it with Jo Hartshorn and they were the ones who came up with the name. She and Jo did that and Jo was also a designer. The reason my mother loved it so because she wanted to be a designer of clothes, that was her greatest love. She was an artist and she loved clothes and she loved clothes designing. She went to Paris; she went to the Sorbonne, the fashion institute.
JM:How long did “The Designing woman “last?
LW:Several years and several partners. She was also a partner with Ginny Palmer, but there was another one Helen Hartcorn, Helen and Bob Hartcorn, but that was fairly short. Ginny came in towards the end. She and my mom had the best time. They went to New York City for conferences and do shopping and go to various things like conventions. They had a wonderful time. They always did a lot of laughing she said; laughing on the bus or train, laughing at the funny things that they found in the conventions.
KS:Making the money was part of it, but really it was the intellectual and the creativity and the fellowship. That is how she started with a group of 3 other ladies; that was so encouraging. I don’t think she would have been brave enough to do it on her own. But when she moved in with this group, they empowered her.
LW:Yes, and they taught her how to do it. They had a running business so she stepped in and give her needlepoint.
JM:I as a customer would go in and they were so helpful. I would pick out the canvas, but I wasn’t that good with color. They would say, “Now this would work well with…” I am a fairly decent needlewoman, but if I had a problem, I would go back, “Don’t worry jean it is perfectly all right. We’ll sort it out for you.” It was very comforting, and it was very warm and friendly. It made you want to go back.
KS:She taught us. 8.
LW:Look at all the things we have done. She did everything; she loved it. She loved especially the crewel work; she got very good at that which is very fine with gold thread and silver threads.
KS:Also she would show pictures. There was one woman who had made her dining room rug, panel by panel. It probably was a $10,000 rug by the time she finished. She actually completed it and my mother was as proud of that. She had helped produce this and helped this woman finish it because it was a huge project.
LW:It was the state flower of every state. Each panel was a foot and a half so it was a monster.
JM:Did she put it actually on the floor?
LW & KS:Yes, under her dining room table.
JM:I would have put it on the wall. Because of “The Designing Woman” was this how she got into doing miniature furniture?
KS:It was an Elder Hostel course up in Castine, Maine. They did a lot of Elder Hosteling after she had finished with “The Designing Woman”. They loved to go traveling; they went traveling all over the world. One of the things they did was to go up to Castine, Maine for miniature furniture. My father was good at that sort of thing, too. They did lots of classes together, a lot of crafty things.
JM:Did they meet Don Buckley in Maine? (See Don Buckley tape #124 A&B)
LW:Yes, I think they did and then discovered that he was here. They may have known him before, but I think they met seriously up there.
JM:Did she work with him?
LW:Yes, she worked with him as a teacher. He was the teacher. One of the comments that he made at her funeral was that he remembered her because at the end of the class she had made a little chair. She held it up and he took a picture of her. She said, “Oh aren’t you beautiful; what a beautiful little leg you have.”
JM:What a wonderful comment. I can just hear her say that.
KS:You can hear him.
JM:We are going to move on to the Congregational Church. You have 2 things that you are going to talk about the Fall Festival first with the book selling.
LW:She and Doris Stoecker did the Fall Festival book sale together for several years-5 to 7 years. They enjoyed it very much, collecting the books and setting it out, doing the sales and getting money for the church. They really enjoyed working with the other people in town, all the churches got together. They enjoyed very much the whole community activity. She really liked doing that, not only with Doris but with all the people that ran all the various church things.
JM:The last story that I am going end with is the story about the dandelions.
KS:That was another story at her memorial service.
LW:OK, I’ll pitch in.
KS:Somebody told a story about the dandelions. They were together on the Deacon board, the elders of the Congregational Church. They were discussing the need to get rid of the dandelions in the lawn and how they would poison them or whatever they could do to get rid of them. My mother turned to the fellow who was very adamant about getting rid of them and said, “John, dandelions happened to be my favorite flower!” He reported on that. They never got rid of the dandelions.
LW:He said, “We never talked about dandelions again.”
JM:What a wonderful life you mother had and thank you ladies both for sharing her experiences.
LW:We love talking about her.
JM:Thank you both very much.