From col­lies to clam­bakes

Sprite Is­land has seen many changes

The Norwalk Hour - - FRONT PAGE - By Pat Tom­lin­son

NORWALK — It was a swel­ter­ing sum­mer af­ter­noon, but through the heat shim­mer above the black­top of Shore­haven Road, it was easy to make out Sprite Is­land just off Norwalk’s coast.

In the not-too-far dis­tance, a fam­ily of kayak­ers could be seen push­ing off one of the is­land’s two beaches for a midafter­noon pad­dle while, nearby, a mid­dle-aged man made last­minute prepa­ra­tions to his sail­boat’s rig be­fore em­bark­ing on a week­end cruise. Between the two, a snowy egret perched atop a half-sub­merged rock and stalked an un­seen prey be­neath the wa­ter’s sur­face.

As a small skiff tax­ied pas­sen­gers through the boat moor­ings sur­round­ing the is­land, its man­ager, Jeremie Blais, ex­plained why Sprite is his fa­vorite spot in Norwalk.

“Just look at all the other Norwalk Is­lands,” said Blais, ges­tur­ing south to­ward the other two dozen is­lands. “None of them have the kind of tree cover and the shade we have here. Not only is it cool and breezy on a hu­mid day, but it’s easy for boaters to make out from al­most any­where in Norwalk’s wa­ters. We like to joke about how it looks like a gi­ant piece of broc­coli grow­ing out of the mid­dle of the is­land.”

From afar, the tow­er­ing trees may be the is­land’s most prom­i­nent fea­ture, but its man­i­cured grounds can mes­mer­ize on­look­ers too once ashore.

The is­land boasts a stretch of beach at the rear where adult mem­bers can lounge and soak up the sun as their kids swim to and from a float­ing dock from which they can can­non­ball into the wa­ter. A small trail from there leads through the woods up to the is­land’s bluffs — a steep, rocky out­crop that mem­bers tout as the high­est nat­u­ral point in Norwalk’s por­tion of the Sound — where vis­i­tors can en­joy a bon­fire or just kick back in an Adiron­dack chair and soak up the ex­pan­sive view of the Sound, from Cocke­noe Is­land all the way to Long Is­land.

Though it’s ge­o­log­i­cally part of the Norwalk Is­lands chain, Sprite is tech­ni­cally lo­cated in Westport wa­ters.

“En­joy it while you’re here,” Blais said as he shep­herded pas­sen­gers off the boat and onto the is­land’s docks. “This is Norwalk’s best-kept se­cret, the crown jewel of Norwalk’s is­lands.”

While Sprite may now have a lot to of­fer to the avid out­doors­man, the land it­self took some nur­tur­ing to get where it is.

Be­fore Sprite be­came a haven for sail­ing en­thu­si­asts and kayak­ers, the is­land was pri­vately owned by a lawyer from New York City named Sid­ney G. DeKay. While lit­tle back­ground in­for­ma­tion about DeKay is avail­able, what is clear is what he did with his 7.9-acre is­land es­tate.

He pur­chased the land back in 1923 and con­structed a pri­vate man­sion on the is­land. Over the course of a few decades, he trans­formed the rugged piece of land into the “hid­den gem” that Blais and other mem­bers came to cher­ish.

To start, DeKay planted a dense canopy of trees around his man­sion and sowed rolling lawns and flower-specked bushes around its core. Over time, he equipped the is­land with run­ning wa­ter and elec­tric- ity, and erected nu­mer­ous other struc­tures on the is­land, many of which stand still.

The ren­o­vated is­land was even­tu­ally pur­chased from the DeKays in 1952 by a group of Nor­walk­ers, who were said to have had a fall­ing out with a Norwalk club, the As­cen­sion Yacht Club, and sought a place to make their own. Their orig­i­nal club, which later be­came known as the As­cen­sion Beach and Pool Club, was lo­cated on the op­po­site side of Calf Pas­ture Beach un­til it was closed by Su­per­storm Sandy in 2013.

Though the DeKay’s man­sion burned down in an un­ex­plained fire in 1966, many of the other build­ings on the is­land were even­tu­ally re­pur­posed by the Sprite Is­land Yacht Club. A build­ing once used to house the col­lies bred by DeKay be­came lock­ers and stor­age area for club mem­bers, and a small cot­tage be­came a de facto club­house.

Over its nearly 70-year his­tory, the Sprite Is­land Yacht Club weath­ered many storms, both lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal. In 1974, the Tide­wa­ter Hold­ing Co. at­tempted to seize own­er­ship of the is­land, though it was de­nied in court. Between 1982 and 1983, there were at­tempts by two dif­fer­ent par­ties to have the club’s boat moor­ings re- moved from the Sound, but a com­pro­mise al­lowed the moor­ings to re­main in place dur­ing the spring, sum­mer and early fall months.

Things went smoothly for the club for a cou­ple of decades un­til late in 2012, when Su­per­storm Sandy rav­aged the is­land, caus­ing thou­sands of dol­lars worth of dam­age.

De­spite oc­ca­sional mo­ments of un­rest in the is­land’s his­tory, mem­bers of the club from over the years re­call it fondly.

Bet­sey Hubbell, 72, and her fam­ily were among the first mem­bers to join in the 1950s. She re­calls at­tend­ing dances and so­cials in the early 1960s, and wa­ter ski­ing for the first time.

“I prac­ti­cally grew up on the is­land,” she said. “I will al­ways have fond mem­o­ries of there.”

Gale Green­leaf, who be­longed to the club around the same time as Hubbell, re­mem­bered the days be­fore there was a boat to taxi them to the is­land and her and her sib­lings would walk to the is­land at low tide and col­lect clams along the way.

“It was very low key and a won­der­ful place for chil­dren to ex­plore on their own while par­ents did what­ever they did,” she said.

Erik Traut­mann / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Sprite Is­land on June 29 in Norwalk.

Eileen Leeds/staff graphic

Erik Traut­mann / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

The Keogh fam­ily en­joys the beach on Sprite Is­land on June 29 in Norwalk.

Club Man­ager Jeremie Blais tours the bluffs on Sprite Is­land.

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