Historic Westport Weston Family YMCA

OUR HISTORY

The Westport Weston Family YMCA has been an enduring presence in Westport for nearly a century. This venerable social service institution has served as the nexus of community life since 1923.

For these 90+ years the Family YMCA has enriched the entire community by developing and nurturing the potential of its youth, promoting healthy living and fostering a sense of social responsibility. The values represented by the Family YMCA today – Caring, Respect, Responsibility and Honesty – are those espoused by Edward T. Bedford, Westport businessman and philanthropist, when he founded the Family YMCA.

Timeline of Key Events

The following timeline was first developed by local reporter Anthony Karge in 2011, and since amended and expanded:

The Westport Weston Family YMCA has been an enduring and venerable community organization that has served as the nexus of community life since 1923 when Edward T. Bedford, a successful businessman and Westport’s leading philanthropist, built a brand-new YMCA for the community at the corner of Main Street and the Post Road in downtown Westport.  The values represented by the Family YMCA today – Caring, Respect, Responsibility and Honesty – are those also espoused by the founder.

The Bedford family’s legacy of support over the generations has allowed our Y to thrive as a volunteer-led member organization and fulfill its charitable mission of service to our community in ever-evolving ways.  The YMCA has enriched the community by developing and nurturing the potential of its youth, promoting healthy living, and fostering a sense of social responsibility.

TIMELINE OF KEY EVENTS

The following timeline was first developed by local reporter Anthony Karge in 2011, and since amended and expanded:

1920: Edward Thomas Bedford, a wealthy oil executive and philanthropist, purchases the Westport Hotel. He tears down the building and plans to build a YMCA. The Westport resident wanted to provide something beneficial to the town because drinking was prevalent at the inn.

1923: Bedford dedicates the Tudor building as a gift. It cost him $150,000. Two years later, he vows to spend $15,000 annually of his own money on the YMCA. He pays an additional $2,000 annually for a women’s center at the Y.

1929: Work on an indoor pool at the YMCA is completed. Bedford paid for it.

1931: Bedford dies at 82 years old. His trust fund continued to support the organization years after his death.

1939: The YMCA offers a day camp based out of Doubleday Field on Riverside Avenue, named for the Y’s Physical Director, Doc Doubleday. The kids created crafts, sang songs and went swimming at Compo Beach. Enrollment cost 30 cents a week per child.

April 1942: The location of the camp is less than ideal since a lot of travel around town was needed for the various activities. According to legend, a janitor overheard a secretary and a YMCA director talking about the fruitless search. He recommended a place alongside the Saugatuck River just north of downtown that would eventually become Camp Mahackeno.

1942: On an undeveloped swath of land bordered by the new Merritt Parkway, Wilton Road and the Saugatuck River, the new location for the YMCA’s camp was established. Helen Smith, a Stamford resident, offered use of part of her property as long as the YMCA paid the property taxes. They obliged her and the camp opened for business with 60 boys. Some small cottages were built, and there was no drinking water. Electricity was inconsistent.

1944: Enrollment grew over the years, and Smith sold her property. The new owner offered the YMCA 30 acres of land. E.T. Bedford’s son, Frederick, offered to pay for half of the $10,000 cost. The other half was raised from other donations.

March 1945: The YMCA moves in to the camp. It’s named Camp Bedford.  At the request of Frederick Bedford, the name is changed to Mahackeno. In the early 1600s, the property was used as a summer lodge for Mahackeno, chief of the Norwalke Indians, and his tribe.

Bedford Boys Camp 1947: Town water and sewers are installed. By then, there are 120 campers enrolled.

1949: The downtown YMCA continues to grow. This year, they allow females to join.

1955: Dealing with rapid expansion, the YMCA begs for financial support. A report commissioned by the organization analyzes whether the building should be sold and the organization move elsewhere in town. During this time, Camp Mahackeno was heavily renovated with new buildings, boats, rifles (for the marksmanship activities) and other items.

1969: It’s believed that this was the first summer that girls were allowed at Camp Mahackeno.

1976: The Week’s Pavilion was opened. The biggest expansion of the downtown Y to date, the addition included a six-lane lap pool and adjacent shallow pool, Health Centers for both men and women, squash/racquetball courts, and an indoor track. At this time, the Brophy Pool was also renovated to be used as a warm-water shallow pool for lessons, aqua fitness and family recreation.

1976: The Y’s Men of Westport/Weston form. This group of retired and semi-retired men organizes weekly meetings with a variety of speakers and participate in various activities.

1984: The Y acquires the adjacent former firehouse and converts it to a fitness center.

1992: The Y’s Women form.

1995: The third floor of the downtown building is converted from an indoor track to a new gymnastics center.

1995: With what’s described as an old, inefficient building, the YMCA begins looking for possible places to move. Approximately 30 locations around town are considered. After much discussion among the volunteer leaders who guide our YMCA, the decision was made to build a modern new home for our Y at a more optimal location — the Mahackeno campus along the Saugatuck River.

1997: Camp Mahackeno continues to grow. What was once a rag-tag group of few dozen boys is now a popular program with 756 campers. More than $600,000 in revenue was generated in that year by the camp.

1998: The YMCA celebrates 75 years with an exhibit at the Westport Historical Society.

2002: The YMCA Board of Trustees votes to move to Camp Mahackeno. The process is expected to be difficult and take at least five or six years until the new building is completed.  Once again, the Bedford family was there to help our YMCA “Make Mahackeno Happen.” By 2011, we were ready to “Build What Matters,” a state-of-the-art, 54,000 sq. ft. full-service, family-oriented facility on the portion of our Mahackeno property adjacent to the Merritt Parkway. Lending critical financial support to this project were Lucie McKinney and Briggs Cunningham III, great-grandchildren of Edward T. Bedford.  Helping guide the construction process as members of the Y’s governing boards of volunteer leaders were two of Lucie’s five children, John McKinney and Libby McKinney Tritschler, representing the fifth generation of the Bedford family legacy.

2004: The YMCA purchases the first of several homes on Sunny Lane, adjacent to Camp Mahackeno. Expanding the property of the camp is essential to eventually completing the new building.

2006: The approval process for the new Y begins. Plans call for a 102,000 square-foot building. In 2006, hearings with the Conservation Commission, Flood & Erosion Control Board, Architectural Review Board and Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection begin.

December 2006: The Family Y ‘sells’ its downtown building to a group of developers, Bedford Square Associates, who envision a mixed-use building with retail units and condos. The announced sale price is more $20 million, but no deed is transferred and the Y maintains control of the building. The contract stipulates the final sale price will depend when the Y moves out and there is a deadline for moving out. Some organization officials say that if the planned move fails, there will no longer be a Family Y in Westport.

March 2008: The main event of the governmental process for the new Family Y begins. The Planning and Zoning Commission holds 15 lengthy public hearings full of expert testimony. After a dozen work sessions, the Planning and Zoning Commission approves the building in a 5-2 vote.

2008: With most government approvals out of the way, a total of four lawsuits are filed against the town’s approvals. Two appeals are filed by Arthur Cohen, a Westport resident. Another two by Y Downtown, a group opposed to the move.

December 2009: Development of the new Y takes longer than expected, so the Family Y obtains a five-year extension with the development group that purchased the downtown building.

June 2010: The Westport Board of Selectman recommends the final governmental approval needed for the construction of the Family Y’s 102,000 sq. ft facility. They vote unanimously in favor of the Family Y’s plans to modify exit 41 of the Merritt Parkway. The state approves their recommendation soon after.

July 2010: Three of the four lawsuits are dismissed in Stamford Superior Court. The only lawsuit that remains is the appeal against the Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision.

January 2011: The final lawsuit rules in favor of the town and the Family Y. All legal hurdles are overcome, but a key challenge still remains. The Family Y still needs to raise millions of dollars to build the Family Y and complete a reconfiguration of exit 41 of the Merritt Parkway. Some money has already been raised and a committee is working to come up with a plan to raise the money.

February 2012: The Family Y announces that its new Y facility will be built in stages, keeping pace with fundraising for the facility and ensuring the financial sustainability of the Family Y as a community center focused on developing youth, promoting healthy living for all and fostering a sense of social responsibility.

February 2013:  The official groundbreaking ceremony is held for the first phase of the new Y at Mahackeno, a 54,00o sq. ft. facility with all the features and amenities of a modern, family-oriented Y. “The Y has always served as a center of community life and wellness for our local citizens of all ages,” said Jim Marpe, then Chair of the Family Y’s governing Board of Trustees and now Westport’s First Selectman. “Today, we are taking a very important next step in assuring that our mission of community center and wellness continues, not just for the current generation of those who live and work in our towns, but also for future generations of local families for decades to come.”

June 2014: The YMCA Gymnastics Center at 145 Main St. in Norwalk, our Y’s first off-site facility, opens.

August 2014: After 18 months of construction, and at a cost of $38.5 million, the Family Y holds a Dedication and Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony at its modern new home, to be known as the Bedford Family Center in honor of the Y’s founder.

October 2014: The Family YMCA’s new facility at its Mahackeno campus at 14 Allen Raymond Lane in Westport officially opens, welcoming longstanding and new members at 5:30 am.

March 2015: The Family YMCA receives an incredibly generous endowment of $40 million from the estate of Ruth Bedford.  The Family YMCA is using a portion of the bequest to establish the Bedford Family Social Responsibility Fund, which will allow our charitable nonprofit organization to expand upon our mission to develop youth, promote healthy living and foster social responsibility throughout the communities we have served for nearly a century.

June 2015: The Family YMCA announces the establishment of the Bedford Family Social Responsibility Fund, which will allow our charitable nonprofit organization to expand upon our mission to develop youth, promote healthy living and foster social responsibility throughout the communities we have served for nearly a century.

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The opening of the ‘Bedford YMCA’ was front-page news in the Sept. 7, 1923 edition of the Westporter-Herald.

THE BEDFORD FAMILY LEGACY

In 1923, Edward T. Bedford, a successful businessman and Westport’s leading benefactor, built a brand-new Y.M.C.A. for our community at the corner of Main Street and the Post Road in downtown Westport. Mr. Bedford not only provided $150,000 to build the Y but was also responsible for financing the new firehouse next door, designed in the same handsome Tudor style.

On Sept. 5, 1923, while dedicating the new Y, Mr. Bedford told a large audience of local citizens and visiting dignitaries, “All we desire is that it may be most generously and properly used and that we may be permitted with you to continue to contribute to both its upbuilding and financial support.”

The Bedford family’s remarkable legacy of support over the generations has allowed our Y to thrive as a volunteer-led member organization and fulfill its charitable mission of service to our community in ever-evolving ways.

In the late 1920s, Mr. Bedford added an indoor pool, allowing the YMCA to become our community’s leading provider of swim lessons, water safety classes, recreational and competitive swimming.

“CAMP BEDFORD”

Our YMCA also pioneered summer camp in our community, establishing a day camp for local boys on playing fields behind the Town’s high school. In 1944, Y leaders found the perfect property for a permanent home: a rugged, 30-acre parcel of woods and old farm fields along the Saugatuck River, five minutes north of the Y’s downtown facility.

Frederick T. Bedford, Edward’s son, promised that the Bedford Fund would pay half the purchase price if the community would pay the other half. Within a few weeks the YMCA’s volunteer leaders had collected $10,000 from the people of Westport; the Bedford Fund gave the other half.

It was decided to name the camp, Camp Bedford. But at the request of Frederick Bedford in 1946, the name was changed to Mahackeno, and today the scenic Mahackeno campus is home to both our beloved summer camp and our modern new facility, the Bedford Family Center.

As long ago as the 1950s, the YMCA’s downtown home struggled to keep up with the demands of a baby-booming Westport as it fully embraced female members and sought new ways to serve a burgeoning population of seniors looking to stay physically active and engaged in the community they helped make prosper.

DOWNTOWN EXPANSION

With the help of leaders from throughout the community, including the Bedford family, our YMCA greatly expanded in the 1970s, adding a new aquatics center and health centers for men and women.

In the 1980s, Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren and Ruth Bedford, granddaughters of our founder, provided $200,000 through the Bedford Fund to acquire the Central Fire Station adjacent to the Y and begin the process of converting the matching Tudor-style firehouse into a two-story Fitness Center for our YMCA, complete with original brass pole.

“Mrs. Warren noted that her sister, a Y Trustee, first suggested the Bedford Fund donate the money because, she quipped, it is best to ‘keep it in the family,’” according to an account in the Westport News. “If you have money and don’t spend it on yourself, it’s nicer to give to other people,” the paper quoted Mrs. Warren saying.

MAKE MAHACKENO HAPPEN

By the 1990s, even these efforts to modernize our YMCA proved insufficient to meet the demands of our Members and community. After much discussion among the volunteer leaders who guide our YMCA, the decision was made to build a modern new home for our Y in the best, and only, place possible: Our Mahackeno campus along the Saugatuck River.

Once again, the Bedford family was there to help our YMCA “Make Mahackeno Happen.” With Lucie and Ruth’s support, the Bedford Fund helped spearhead the initial plans for a Y facility that will be able to serve the community for the next century.

By 2011, we were ready to “Build What Matters,” a state-of-the-art, 54,000 sq. ft. full-service, family-oriented facility on the portion of our Mahackeno property adjacent to the Merritt Parkway. Lending critical financial support to this project were Lucie McKinney and Briggs Cunningham III, great-grandchildren of Edward T. Bedford.

Helping guide the construction process as members of the Y’s governing boards of volunteer leaders were two of Lucie’s five children, John McKinney and Libby McKinney Tritschler, representing the fifth generation of the Bedford family legacy.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of many generous donors and steadfast supporters, the Westport Weston Family YMCA’s beautiful new home, the Bedford Family Center at 14 Allen Raymond Lane, opened to members and guests on October 6, 2014.

THE RUTH BEDFORD BEQUEST

This new era for the Family YMCA continues with the incredibly generous endowment of $40 million from the estate of Ruth Bedford, announced on March 18, 2015. The Family YMCA is using a portion of the bequest to establish the Bedford Family Social Responsibility Fund, which will allow our charitable nonprofit organization to expand upon our mission to develop youth, promote healthy living and foster social responsibility throughout the communities we have served for nearly a century.

ADDITIONAL READING

To learn more about the contributions of distinguished volunteer and staff leaders, please click on the following links:

Family YMCA Announces Creation of $5 Million Bedford Family Social Responsibility Fund” (June 17, 2015)

Matt Johnson: A Builder of the Y, and the Communities We Serve” (March 21, 2014)

Pete Wolgast Receives AARP Senior Star of the Year Award” (Dec. 12, 2013)

New First Selectman Marpe Steps Away from Y Trustee Board” (Nov. 20, 2013)

The Y’s Doc Doubleday: The War Years in Westport” (Nov. 8, 2013)

Doc Doubleday, the Westport Y’s First Physical Director” (Oct. 22, 2013)

Another Important Y Birthday” (Oct. 11, 2013)

Honoring 90 Years of Y Families” (Oct. 1, 2013)

The Bedford Family and the Family Y” (Sept. 12, 2013)

Sept. 5, 1923: The Day Westport Got Its ‘Y’” (Sept. 5, 2013)

Descendants of Family Y Founder Edward T. Bedford Continue His Legacy of Giving to Our Community” (May 4, 2012)

Family Y Building Project Bolstered by New $1 Million Gift from Strittmatter Family” (April 4, 2012)

Family Y to Rename Road to Mahackeno “Allen Raymond Lane” (Jan. 23, 2012)

 

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