When retired historian and researcher Gurtha Strand decided to put together a committee in November 2014 to research the history of Denver community of Westport – sometimes called Lake Norman’s first planned community – her goal was to answer a question: Why do residents remain there for so long?
Some residents have lived there more than 40 years; some children who grew up there have returned as adults.
“That says something about the community,” said Strand.
The research project is in honor of the community’s 50-year anniversary. Property was first sold to future residents in 1965, just a couple of years after Lake Norman was created and filled. The long-term nature of the neighborhood makes it very different and more varied than most neighborhoods on the lake.
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The wide variety of architectural styles, home sizes and price points reveal the area’s history and contribute to its diversity. For example, while driving through Westport one might notice many of the lakefront houses were obviously built decades before the homes across the street, because the lakefront property was bought first and more recent residents have built on lots that remained. A tiny retro cottage might be directly next door to a million-dollar mansion; some homes are very small because they were built as vacation and weekend homes for people from Charlotte, before the construction of Interstate 77 made it a quick trip to get from the city to the lake.
“There are 750 homes and you won’t find two that are alike,” said Andy Strand, Gurtha’s husband and a former president of the Westport Community Association.
In the 1950s, Dwight L. Phillips purchased 780 acres that would become Westport, in hopes of using it as a radiation testing site for the U.S. government. When the government chose a different site, and Lake Norman was built in the early 1960s, Phillips suddenly had a lot of lakefront property on his hands. The idea for the community was born. Lakefront lots there were originally sold at then-steep prices of around $3,500, a price-point dwarfed by today’s prices on the same properties.
Each of the research committee’s seven members are assigned with a different task, such as researching the grist mill stones on display at the Westport Golf Club that were found in an area of Westport that may have been used for mining. They have collected relics such as survey maps from 1964, aerial photographs of the community from the early 1970s, newspaper clippings about and tickets to home and garden tours in the community, old copies of the monthly neighborhood The Westporter publication and more. The committee meets monthly to discuss findings and what direction to take next.
As an award-winning historian for research conducted while living in Long Island, N.Y., Strand already knew the methodology of researching her community’s history. She started by examining original survey maps. The committee discovered subjects of interest to research by sending letters to 70 long-term residents to ask what it was like living in Westport throughout time.
The responses answer Strand’s question of why people settle in Westport and stay.
A widow described the way her neighbors rallied to support her when her husband passed away, even offering their homes for her out-of-town family and friends to stay.
“If something happens on a street where some member of that street needs help, it’ll show up,” said Andy Strand. “They won’t have to ask for it, it will just be there.”
Another letter told of a woman’s experience in which a stranger left his wallet and watch with her while he went out boating because the area was considered that trustworthy.
A fun fact Gurtha Strand Strand shared is that one of Westport’s high-priced sections, Governor’s Island, was once called “Goat Island” because of the wild goats that roamed there.
The committee is still looking for any other interesting stories, information, historical documents or relics relating to Westport’s history to add to the display they are creating. Anyone with information is welcome to contact the Strands. The Strands can be reached at 704-483-8171.
Gurtha Strand said the goal is for the exhibit to be displayed at Westport’s St. Peter By-the-Lake Episcopal Church’s barbecue in April. After that, it will be kept for display at the Florence S. Shanklin Branch Public Library in Denver, located right at the main entrance to Westport on Fairfield Forest Road.
Marjorie Dana is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Marjorie? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.