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The Bedford Family and the Family Y

E.T. Bedford PicEditor’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 12, 2013, on the occasion of the Westport Weston Family YMCA’s 90th Anniversary. It has since been updated.

Two families, one shared story.

The first family traces its roots in Westport to 1861. The second got its start on Sept. 5, 1923, and from that first day to the current day, the center of community life that is the Westport Weston Family Y owes a profound and lasting debt of gratitude, indeed its very existence, to the first family, the Bedfords.

Throughout the Family Y’s ever-evolving history, the Bedford family has been there.

Most know the story of Edward T. Bedford’s gift to the town of Westport, the original YMCA building at the corner of Post Road and Main Street. Mr. Bedford not only provided $150,000 to build the Y but was also responsible for the new firehouse next door. The “Bedford Y.M.C.A.” deeded the land to the town for $1, and Mr. Bedford donated half of the $36,000 needed to build the matching Tudor-style Central Fire Station on Church Lane.

(To read extracts of the Westporter-Herald’s account of the Y’s grand opening and to view historical photos, please click on this link to “Sept. 5, 1923: The Day Westport Got Its Y.”)

Flash forward to the early 1980s. The original Y is thriving; the old firehouse is vacant, rendered obsolete by bigger fire trucks and evolving needs. To the rescue come the Bedfords – E.T.’s granddaughters, Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren and Ruth Bedford.

The two Y benefactors provided $200,000 through the Bedford Fund to acquire the old firehouse and begin the process of converting it to a two-story Fitness Center (which remains in use to this day, original fire pole included).

Ruth Bedford hosts a Y event in her home. At left is Les Giegerich; to her right is Malcom Beinfield.

Ruth Bedford hosts a Y event in her home. At left is Les Giegerich; to her right is Malcom Beinfield.

“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 quotes Mrs. Warren saying. “The Y needs it and the family would have hated for the firehouse to be used for something else.”

The article continues: “The spirit of generosity is almost second-nature to family members, including the younger generations. ‘They don’t have to be pushed,’ Mrs. Warren said.”

Indeed, a Bedford’s word is as good as gold. Flash forward 30 years, to the spring of 2012. With the fate of the Family Y hanging in the balance, the “spirit of giving that has been carried on by generations of Bedfords” graces the Family Y once again. Lucie McKinney and Briggs Cunningham III, two of Lucie’s children, make six-figure donations to the Family Y’s campaign to build a modern new home at its Mahackeno campus.

The donations come at a critical time and help sway the volunteer boards that guide the Y to continue with the construction of a new 54,000 sq. ft. facility to replace the beloved but outdated and flood-prone original Y downtown.

A 1935 portrait of Frederick Thomas Bedford by Sir Oswald Birley.

A 1935 portrait of Frederick Thomas Bedford by Sir Oswald Birley.

Camp Bedford

Flash back to the summer of 1944. For the previous two years, the Y’s summer camp has been held on a rugged, 30-acre parcel of woods and old farm fields along the Saugatuck River, five minutes north of the Y’s downtown facility. The property is offered to the Y.M.C.A. The YMCA Board of Directors and Board of Trustees organize a committee to solicit funds for the purchase of the camp site.

Mr. Frederick. T. Bedford, a son of E.T. and father of Lucie and Ruth, said that the Bedford Fund would pay half the purchase price if the community would pay the other half. Within a few weeks the committee 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 of the camp was changed to Mahackeno. Later that year, the Bedford Fund gave the camp $5,000 for capital improvements, which included piping city water from Rices Lane and a “complete sewage disposal system.”

“When I met him, he was a very grandfatherly type,” Lucie McKinney said recently of Frederick Bedford, who had built a grand estate on Beachside Avenue, but was most passionate about the 52-acre working dairy farm on Greens Farms Road that he had named after the beautiful “nyala” — antelope — he’d seen on safari in Africa.

“My grandfather was tremendously proud of his prized dairy cows and horses,” said Lucie McKinney. “And he loved his White Owl cigars…” she added, smiling at the memory.

Mr. Edward T. Bedford driving a sulky at his Greens Farm oval track.

Mr. Edward T. Bedford driving a sulky at his Greens Farm oval track.

‘Do You Work Hard Enough?’

Frederick T. Bedford, himself a successful businessman, horseman and owner of racing yachts, died in 1963, at the age of 85. His daughter Lucie passed away in 2012 at age 104. Her sister Ruth is with us still and is now 99.

A third sister, Helen Bedford McCashin, was an accomplished horsewoman and sailor in her own right; she passed away at 93 in 2002. A fourth sister, Mary, died in infancy.

Ruth, who died in April 2014 at the age of 99, served actively on the Y’s Board of Trustees for many years continues her interest as a Trustee Emeriti. Like her father and many relatives of the day, she was an avid sailor and pilot; for decades, the family’s seaplanes were a common sight off the local shores.

In keeping with the family’s tradition of service, Ruth left the comforts of home to serve her country during World War II with American Red Cross, volunteering to be stationed in England during bombings. Like her sister, Lucie, Ruth was a major supporter of the Norwalk Hospital, among many other local charitable causes; family legend has it that she and Lucie competed to see who clocked more volunteer hours at the hospital.

Mr. Edward T. Bedford, who died in 1931 in Westport, at age 82, was born in Brooklyn. His father, Fredrick, was a respected woodcarver originally from London. After buying the Greens Farm property, the elder Bedford and his two sons, Edward and Frederick, cultivated onions and strawberries as cash crops.

The original hotel at Main Street and the Post Road.

The original hotel at Main Street and the Post Road.

Said Mr. Bedford, in giving the Y to Westport in 1923:

        “I am asked why and how I became interested in the erection of this building. During the Civil War father moved from Brooklyn to Greens Farms, occupying the farmhouse then owned by the late Horace Staples, now known as Wynfromere Farm. Like most Greens Farms boys, I went to school in the Winter and worked in the Summer. My first work was for Mr. Staples. At the end of the season, then a boy of 15, I was very proud to hand to mother enough money earned to buy my winter overcoat – probably I never owned a coat of which I was never more proud or took more care of.

        “Sometimes of a Saturday afternoon and often of an evening I used to go to Westport and I have stood outside the windows of the old Westport hotel, where this building now stands, watching a game of pool or billiards. I was not allowed to enter on account of the saloon. The recollection of this and the experience taught me as to the need of some place for boys and young men to congregate lead to this building, which I hope may not only fill this want, but also be the headquarters for many good things that can be done for the benefit of our town.”

Leaving the family farm behind, the industrious Edward prospered in business. He started his career selling lubricating and heating oils for Charles Pratt & Co. With his friend, Robert Chesebrough, Edward Bedford helped develop and market the petroleum-derived product now known as Vasoline. He joined Standard Oil and, in 1903 was named a director of that company.

Mr. Bedford was a personal friend of John D. Rockefeller, and prospered immensely as a member of the Standard Oil executive committee, the pinnacle of American enterprise in the Petroleum Age. A frequent subject of news articles, he was even mentioned in Dale Carnegie’s landmark How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Retiring from the Standard Oil board in 1909, Edward left his interests in the oil business to his son Charles. Edward then founded the Corn Products Refining Company. The company developed and marketed starch, sweeteners and corn oils, supplying the raw materials for Argo cornstarch, Mazola corn oil and Karo syrup. (CPR has since evolved into the Illinois-based conglomerate Ingredion Inc., which now has 10,000 employees around the world.)

The original plans for the Westport YMCA and Firehouse on Church Lane.

The original plans for the Westport YMCA and Firehouse on Church Lane.

More of Mr. Bedford’s hard-earned wisdom from his speech at the dedication ceremony of the new Y, as reported in the Westporter Herald:

           “In our office we have perhaps 400 young men and women. Occasionally we hear from their mothers, sometimes from their fathers, that they work too hard. In my experience, this has never been true. It is not the extra hour at the office that is impairing their health or lessening their strength, it is the hours they spend in enjoyment, dancing, late suppers, etc. It is my belief no one has ever shortened his life from work. Of course they might worry in connection with their work, but not from the work itself. Take Mr. Edison. We know the hours he works in his laboratory, disregarding time, in the interest he takes in his work, and see what a vigorous man he is and what he has accomplished.

          “Do not think, boys and young men, that you work too hard – the whole question is, do you work hard enough?

According to the 1983 Westport News article, Mrs. Warren “recalled her grandfather was a statuesque man with white-haired lambchop sideburns, which he grew after he was shot in the face by a burglar.”

Aside from his success in the business world, E.T. Bedford was an expert horseman and breeder. At one time, he held the world’s record for driving a horse-wagon team over a half-mile track, and was a celebrated owner, driver and breeder of trotting horses.

Pleasure and Purpose

Briggs Cunningham II on the cover of a 1954 issue of Time.

Briggs Cunningham II on the cover of a 1954 issue of Time.

E.T. Bedford exemplified the classic Horatio Alger story of America’s industrial age, creating companies – indeed, entire industries – that are with us to this day. His son, Frederick Thomas Bedford, also demonstrated apt foresight – like his father, he saw a future in the corn products and sweetener business for a rising American consumer class, and founded his own corn-products concern. He also lived life fully, constructing a large mansion on Beachside Avenue on the shore of Long Island Sound, alongside stately homes and gardens of his father and Vanderbilt in-laws. His Greens Farms property, Frost Point, remains, though the 120-ft. dock where he kept his racing yachts and seaplanes has been lost to the tides of history.

The 1930 marriage of Frederick’s daughter Lucie to Briggs Cunningham II ushered in a new era of privilege and philanthropy, with a generous helping of mid-century American dynamism.

The Cunningham family settled in present-day Cincinnati in the late 18th century, making their fortune by supplying provisions to settlers moving west. Briggs Swift Cunningham I enlarged the family wealth by investing in railways, telecommunications, meat packing and commercial real estate. He was also the chief financier of two young men who had developed a bath soap that floated: William Cooper Procter, Briggs junior’s godfather, and James Norris Gamble, founders of what was to become the multinational giant Procter & Gamble.

Briggs Cunningham II spent his summers in the Northeast. When he was a teenager his family moved to Southport, Connecticut, and in 1930 married Lucie Bedford. It was said at the time that their combined fortune made them the richest couple in American history.

Lucie Bedford Cunningham.

Lucie Bedford Cunningham.

For the next 32 years the couple lived in Greens Farms, dealing with the family businesses and philanthropies. In their spare time, they participated at various competitions such as yachting and car concours, the wealthy gentleman’s sport in the 1930s. Always striving to make boats (and later cars) go faster, he invented a tackle for adjusting mainsail luff tension, called “the Cunningham,” which became a common device on sailboats.

Having acquired a taste for auto racing as a boy when his uncle had taken him street racing in a Dodge touring car powered by a Hispano Suiza aircraft engine, he began to build his own cars and enter them into races in 1940. During World War II, Airman Briggs Cunningham, who like many other of his family and generation had learned to fly airplanes, flew antisubmarine patrols for the Coast Guard.

In 1950, Briggs bought an automobile manufacturing and development business and moved it to Palm Beach, near where the family spent the winter seasons. The purpose was to build a sports car that would be competitive with the best that Europe had to offer and to use American components. It was called the Cunningham, and by the mid-1950s, the Cunningham team had become a dominant force in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) sanctioned sports car racing. Briggs II was on the cover of the April 26, 1954 issue Time magazine. As noted by 06880 blogger Dan Woog, “The H-Bomb In Color” rated only a ribbon at the top.

‘A Working Donor’

Lucie Bedford Cunningham “was a woman ahead of her time,” according to her obituary, “well educated, well traveled, gracely and athletic.” She enjoyed being part of the support team when her husband won the America’s Cup in 1958, and when he raced in Le Mans in the 1950s. She was also the only woman champion of the Star Atlantic Coast Sailing Championship and was golf club champion at the Country Club of Fairfield many times.

Lucie Bedford at a 2004 presentation of the restored portrait of her grandfather, which has been in the YMCA’s Bedford Building for 90 years. With her are Bern Dibner, great-great-grandson of E. T. Bedford, and Victoria Dibner, Bedford’s great-granddaughter.

Lucie Bedford at a 2004 presentation of the restored portrait of her grandfather, which has been in the YMCA’s Bedford Building for 90 years. With her are Bern Dibner, great-great-grandson of E. T. Bedford, and Victoria Dibner, Bedford’s great-granddaughter.

Lucie was also known and admired as a “working donor.” In addition to her active support of the Y, she generously supported Norwalk Hospital and volunteered there two days each week until she was 96. She also volunteered at the Pequot Library Book Sale each year until she was 97.

Her three children, Briggs III, Lucie McKinney and Cythlen Maddock, have in their own ways continued the Bedford Family philanthropic legacy. Briggs III, who lives in the Bluegrass horse country of Danbury, Ky., has been a generous contributor to the Family Y’s Building What Matters capital campaign to fund and construct a modern new Y. Much like her mother, Lucie McKinney was also a steadfast supporter of many charitable causes, a “working donor” who believed philanthropy does not need fanfare or notoriety. She passed away on May 10, 2014, at the age of 80.

Lucie’s marriage to Stewart B. McKinney took the family’s legacy of service into the public realm; Stewart McKinney was a Republican congressman who represented the area for 17 years before his death in 1987. Two of their five children continue the Bedford family tradition of giving back to the local community. John H. McKinney serves as a State Senator, representing Fairfield and portions of Westport, and holds a position as Trustee for the Family Y. His sister, Libby McKinney Tritschler serves on the Y Board of Directors.

These great-great grandchildren of Edward T. Bedford, as well as their many Bedford relatives, including a growing number of great-great-great members of this illustrious family tree, continue to uphold the promise of their patriarch.

As Mr. Bedford said at the opening of the “Bedford Y.M.C.A.” 90 years ago, “… 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. When we pass away this will be continued by my children and after them by their children and their children’s children, through the medium of the Bedford fund.”

The communities of Westport and Weston, and all who live and work here, have been immeasurably improved by the shared story of these two families for the past 90 years. May this happy story of the Bedford Family and the Family Y continue for another 90 years, and more.

For a more detailed timeline of Y history, please click here. More information about the Family Y’s Building What Matters capital campaign to build a modern new home at its Mahackeno campus may be found at www.westporty.org. Construction of the new Y facility began in January 2013, with a grand opening celebrated in October 2014.

(Editor’s note: This account of the Bedford family and Y history was drawn from a number of published sources and personal interviews. The Family Y welcomes corrections and further reminiscences; please use the Comment section below or email ssmith@westporty.org.)