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Saturday, April 21 News

Fairfield 375: Beaches attracted waves of out-of-towners in search of seaside oasis

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fairfield, established in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest communities. From its settlement 375 years ago by English colonists on "four squares" of land that Native Americans called Uncoway to the vibrant town of 60,000 residents that it is today, Fairfield's history is a chronicle of compelling events and colorful characters.

The Fairfield Citizen will highlight vignettes from that rich history throughout this 375th anniversary year on a regular basis.

Fairfield Beach, the long stretch of shoreline now encompassing Jennings Beach, Penfield Beach and beyond, made Fairfield famous in the late 1800s. The local shoreline lured Bridgeport and New York City residents, and visitors from as far away as Boston and Philadelphia, making Fairfield a popular resort town in the late 19th century.

Yet no one wanted to live there.

Instead of building any kind of permanent residences along the beach, beachgoers would use horses and wagons to bring large tents to Fairfield Beach, where they stood for the duration of the season. Beachgoers would walk from town to the beach, where they would change in the tent-like temporary "pavilions." Their owners enjoyed the beach tents during the day, staying at hotels in town at night. The summer became a time for picnicking, sailing and dances along the waterfront.

Residents of Danbury actually built some of the first small cottages on Fairfield Beach in what became known as "Little Danbury." They mostly worked in the hat-making industry in Danbury, and came to Fairfield to enjoy fresh air and sun on the expansive beachfront. About the time when Reef Road was built to provide better access from their cottage community to the town at large, real estate development of inexpensive cottages at the beach began in earnest. "Little Bridgeport" sprang up at Pine Creek, as well as other settlements of small, summer dwellings.

Fairfield's wealthy citizens -- some of whom only summered here -- joined the tide of beach denizens when 26 of them formed the Fairfield Beach Co. in 1886. They offered beachgoers who bought shares in their company or paid a hefty annual fee the opportunity to use bathhouses in the company's two-story pavilion on the beach.

Over the years, others erected private pavilions in the Fairfield Beach area, including John Boyle, who opened a casino and dance hall at the corner of Reef and Fairfield Beach roads, and the Fairfield Pavilion Co.

The first complaints about rowdiness at the beach -- often heard these days about student renters -- began to be aired in the early 1900s. Fairfield Beach Co. members complained about what they considered loud and unseemly behavior on the adjacent beach leased to the Fairfield Pavilion Co. Eventually, the property's owner, Oliver G. Jennings, formed the Penfield Reef Corp. with other wealthy Fairfield residents. The new corporation promised to keep its bathers from causing problems for the adjacent exclusive club (now the Fairfield Beach Club) and to provide public facilities for bathers.

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In 1934, property donated by philanthropist Annie B. Jennings-- the sister of Oliver G. Jennings -- and adjacent property owned by the town were incorporated into Jennings Beach, rounding out the beach property owned by the town.

Today, in addition to Penfield and Jennings beaches, the town of Fairfield's public beaches include Sasco Beach, Southport Beach, the tiny South Pine Creek Beach and Lake Mohegan's freshwater beach, offering Fairfielders plenty of places to enjoy sun, sand and water.