Remarks by Sidney Van Zandt at Merritt Bench Dedication

Welcome to you all: To the Merritts, Nelson, his daughters Susan, Nancy, and Debra, to Tom & Hannah Treuer and John & Carly Matroienni.

I hope to introduce you to some of the folks that were able to be here today that have been involved in GOSA, and who have done so much to transform this beautiful place.

I would like to lay praise on our President Joan Smith who was very active in GOSA’s intervening in the developers plans for this place. But most important she created the massive collection of documents that made up the grant application to the Department of Environmental Protection. This was particularly difficult as the developers with an option on the land would not allow us access until we owned the land on May 16, 2008. The winning of that grant then allowed us to move forward in what ended up being over five years of legal activities, but we finally wore them down.

Whitney Adams, a Director of GOSA, began hacking away at this former victory garden turned invasive jungle. He is such a pied piper and it wasn’t long before he met Charlie Boos exploring the Merritt (who is now also a GOSA Director), and the two of them began work added to by Si Borys from across the Street, new Director Rebecca Brewer, Betsy Maltby, Jim Hansen, and so many others.

Very important to this program is Adrienne Loweth who was working on a WHIP grant over in the City of Groton. She helped us get the forms filled, got contacts with only a week left to apply. We were lucky as we got a 3-year grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the Department of Agriculture called WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program). The expert we hired to oversee the project was Charlie Boos and the NRCS person is Fernando Rincon. (Fernando is also overseeing a 5 year WHIP program we have just been awarded at the Sheep Farm that we acquired early this year.) The number of volunteer hours that many of us have put in to transform this field have been huge.

Also here are Tim and Kate Pratt whose Mother, Priscilla, our late GOSA President, lead us so diligently through over 8 years of endeavoring to Save this land from being clear cut and filled with up to 79 houses. Sarah Holmes of the Univ. of Connecticut, Avery Point has begun research of history of this land with her students.

Syma Ebbin, another Board member is here. Elected officials Senator Andrew Maynard and Representative, Ellisa Wright have given us support through all these many years of ongoing efforts. Fred and Eleanor Fischer worked magic as they contacted Foundations to help us in our fundraising efforts.

In closing I’d like to mention a young gal named Miquelle from Pawcatuck who instead of receiving birthday presents wanted to help a conservation project. She came here early on in the project one sunny afternoon with her one year old in a frame on her back and watched Whitney and Charlie demonstrate some of the new tools we had just purchased. Joan was over under those trees clearing cut piles. “You know” she said, “YOU COULD REALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE HERE!” So a few weeks later about 15 additional people joined our stewardship group- her parents, her friends and the little son on her back. She brought and set up two large tables. One had food and beverage, the other had information and maps, and forms, and sign-up sheets. They all then set to work pulling up and clipping, and moving piles.

I have an e-mail from Jim Furlong, our former director who was a very important part of the many years of activity and negotiations and particularly with getting this bench installed. He said:

From Jim Furlong on October 2, 2011

Hello Mr. Merritt,

I am pleased that the bench, long in planning and construction, will be dedicated soon. It is well built, with the two supports fixed by:

– – indentation into the underside of the bench slab
– – connecting rods
– – epoxy adhesives.

The supports were deeply embedded in cement-filled holes in the ground long before the bench was installed.
The bench should last into the foreseable future.

Just for your information, I stepped down as a director of GOSA on August 1 in order to pursue private projects, and will not be able to attend the dedication because of associated commitments. However, I feel deep satisfaction that this capstone of The Merritt Family Forest preservation finally has been put into place and is being celebrated.

GOSA and F.L. Merritt Inc. had a long struggle after you told me at 7:30 AM on March 22, 2003*, that you had “decided to go with” GOSA. Ultimate victory would not have been possible without your steadfastness throughout the nearly five-year legal dispute that followed. It has been a pleasure to work with you.

GOSA Vice-President, Sidney Van Zandt, who played the lead role in private fund-raising for the acquisition, is organizing the dedication, as you know. It is logical that she should be your “go-to” person at GOSA in the event of questions or problems in the future. I always will take a strong personal interest in the property, of course.

All the best,

Jim Furlong

* on March 22, 2003 Mary Merritt had a heart attack. It was at that time in the hospital that the Merritts decided “to go with GOSA” to save the forest rather than have the woodland clear cut and filled with houses. (comments S Van Zandt)

We also have put together a booklet that includes the photos, and trail map, provided by Whitney as well as a list of flora by Whitney, Charlie, and others of the stewardship committee. There is a list of birds sighted. There is a history by Nelson that you put together for us. The cover map provided for us by Rusty Warner, tells the story of the importance of The Merritt Family Forest because it is the “Keystone” for connecting the greenbelt in our town.

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Celebration and Dedication of the Stone Bench for Mary Cory Merritt at the Merritt Family Forest

A beautiful summer/fall day on Monday, October 10, 2011 with temperatures in the high 70’s greeted the 39 guests plus some young neighborhood boys and several wild turkeys. We gathered in a circle of chairs to celebrate Mary Cory Merritt’s life. Eccleston Brook gurgled past us in the background. Next to us was a colorful tent with displays of maps, photos documenting the restoration of the meadow, and pictures of Merritt family members. Two large tables held food, a large decorative pumpkin from Sue Sutherland’s garden, and flowers from Nobby Williams. Dignitaries included Elissa Wright, State Representative and classmate of Susan Merritt, Andrew Maynard, State Senator and Noank native, and Fernando Rincon, our friend and coordinator for the habitat restoration program.

The event began with a welcome by President Joan Smith followed by a statement by Sidney Van Zandt, Vice-President. Sidney thanked the many individuals who had given their time and expertise to help make The Merritt Family Forest a lovely piece of open space, and she thanked the Merritt Family for selling the property to the Groton Open Space Association. (Click here to read the full text of Sidney’s remarks))

Susan Merritt opened a memorial ceremony for Mary, beginning with a piano piece of “Amazing Grace.” Her sisters Debra Matroienni and Nancy Treuer read a poem entitled “A Tree Blessing in the Year of the Forest.” This was followed by a beautiful hymn sung with a resonant male voice.

The afternoon then was full of rememberings. Nelson Merritt and his sister Marion “Mimi” Merritt Orkney sat together the whole time and each elaborated on their lives together. Nelson regaled us with his story of a horse taking off and racing around the field “like a Roman arena” when his plow hit a hornet’s nest. Some cousins met for the first time, and daughters wanted to know more about their family as they brought chairs close around. Name tags helped us all to learn the relationship with many of the various family members. Whitney Adams and Charlie Boos lead tours into the upper trails. We were still enjoying the day and lingered as long as we could in the warmth of friendship and the late afternoon sun.

Sarah Holmes, a University of Connecticut history professor was there with one of her students, Anne Meher, who had toured the site a few weeks before. Anne brought the large piece of pottery that she had found off the upper green trail. Nelson thought that it might have been made by Indians. Anne’s research came up with salt-glazed ware, likely produced in Stonington in the years between 1760 to 1830.

Nobody wanted to leave. Mary’s daughters spent some time up the grass laneway sitting on their Mother’s bench overlooking the field. Soon afterward, a flock of wild turkeys walked the same lane past the bench. It was a special day for all of us.

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A Merritt Family Forest History: The Farm On Fort Hill

The following is a reminiscence by Nelson A. Merritt about the family farm on Fort Hill, a portion of which was to become The Merritt Family Forest.
The article was written in 2011.

The farm that I was born and raised on was called Fort Hill Farm, thus named because it was located on the very site of the original fort of the Indian Chief Sassacus, the ruling chief of the Mashantucket Pequot Indians.  The farm itself was around 270 acres, one of the rather large ones in eastern Connecticut. It overlaid the original boundaries of the Indian fort almost exactly from the Eccleston brook on the east to the Poquonnock brook and Poquonnock plains on the west. The farm was bounded, as the fort had been, on the north by the original Indian trail (part of which is now U.S. Route One) that led between Fort Hill and the other Pequot fort located on Pequot Hill two miles to the east in Mystic.  On the south it was bounded by land that consisted of Indian hunting grounds, land which is now the Haley farm, leading to the seacoast.

In the very center of the farm on the top of Fort Hill there is a fresh water spring, a few acres in size that had supplied water to the thousands of Indians, braves, women and children, who had lived in the fort. It is still there, a pristine, primeval spring. It has been said that the water comes underground from a source about 300 miles away in the Adirondack Mountains.  In any case, the spring has never gone dry as far as is known. The water is not deep enough to swim in because there is a brook draining it off, but it was excellent for ice games when frozen over in the winter.  When groups were out on the ice, those who had skates on would pull the others on sleds or barrel staves as the case might be, up and down the 500 foot length of the ice surface, an exciting, lively party.

Fort Hill Farm is much higher in elevation than the surrounding territory; the view of the seacoast was unbelievable.  One could see the mouth of the Thames River in New London and the splendor of the Atlantic Ocean on the other side of Fishers Island Sound to Long Island. When a ferry left New London Harbor it could be seen going past Fishers Island and Watch Hill as it plowed through the waves of the Atlantic Ocean to Block Island.  On a calm day the white of its hull stood out in sharp contrast to the blue background of the sea.  In my grandparents’ time a mariner’s telescope was kept in the attic for spotting ships coming in to New London and Mystic on the Atlantic Ocean well out beyond Fishers Island, some from the Caribbean, others were traders from up and down the coast.

When my grandparents, Francis Edwin Merritt and Abby Crouch Merritt, purchased the farm as a young couple in the middle of the 1800’s there were several small sections of it missing, a few small farming plots, a grist mill and a church or two having been acquired from the original owner by small farmers shortly after the Revolutionary War.  My grandfather diligently re-acquired these missing pieces as they became available; in a few years the entire facility was complete again.

The house on the farm was built in 1732, long after the Mashantuckets were gone from the fort.  There were six rooms plus a bathroom on each floor. There was a very large kitchen on each floor with a wood burning range at one end and an oval table that held at least ten or twelve people on the other end.  It was customary for the family running the farm to live on the first floor and the grandparents to live on the second.  Each kept their best things in their parlor which was to be used only for Sunday dinners. There was a common cellar and a full attic, the cellar being used in the winter for storage of potatoes, turnips, apples and barrels of cider.  The attic was a very large open room running the length of the house with windows at each end.  It held a loom for weaving, spinning wheels and carding equipment that were used by earlier generations to make cloth of various kinds for blankets and clothing.

A single story annex on the back of the house covered a cistern for holding rain water in early times before there was a deep well.  In later years, the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, the house was completely updated with a deep driven well, electric pump and piping to the kitchen and full bathrooms on each floor as well as piping to the outlying buildings.  Electric lighting was also supplied to the house and all the buildings.  A wood range was retained for cooking, however, and fireplaces were used in each room for heating.

The size and complexities of the overall facility were overwhelming.  Besides the house there were three barns, The Cow Barn, which held the milking cows, had electrical milking machines.  The second barn was the East Barn, which housed the heifers and calves that would eventually be milkers once they had grown up.  Electrical milking machines were not needed there.  The cows and calves from the East Barn were very numerous.  The grazing area that they used for about nine months of the year was made up of what is now the Merritt Family Forest.  Then there was the Horse Barn, which housed the horses in stalls with their harnesses and other paraphernalia hung on pegs on the walls. The Horse Barn had a large area for storing implements such as horse drawn mowers and also had an extensive work area with forge, anvil and heavy tools of all kinds for working on the machinery around the farm.

All of the barns had haylofts that had to be filled each year with hay for the animals for the coming winter. Both the Cow Barn and the East Barn had horse powered hay lifters that picked the hay off of the hay wagons and transported it along a rail in the peak of the roof of the hay loft to a point where the operator “tripped” the lifters, dropping the hay in selected locations.  These powered loaders were great labor saving devices over the situation at the Horse Barn where the unloading was all manual.

There was a long carriage shed some distance from the barns that sheltered various wagons, including very elaborate surreys and fancy buggies and a one-horse milk delivery wagon.  These provided all of the means of transportation there was until Francis Merritt bought his first Oldsmobile truck and Oldsmobile sedan in the middle 1920’s. At the end of this shed was a closed-in woodworking shop complete with electric power tools of every kind that can be imagined. I am told that my grandfather Francis E. Merritt built this shed and furnished it with tools so he could do his own ‘thing’ after he retired from active management of the farm and his son, Francis L., took it over. Grandfather had worked at the Noank Shipyard before and during the Civil War and he was a skilled designer and craftsman.

There were a number of smaller buildings–a milk house which had a boiler in the basement that provided steam and hot water for washing and sterilizing milk bottles and cans.  It also had electrical refrigeration for cooling the milk as well as equipment for filling milk bottles automatically.

There was a gasoline powered rotary saw station located in what was called the wood yard.  This was used to cut the logs brought in from the woods into short lengths for the fireplaces and stoves for the coming winters. Wood of various lengths was also sold.  Whenever there was time available we went into the woods with horse and wagon, axes, hammers and wedges and saws to cut and split logs regardless of the time of the year, although it was better to “sled” the wood out in the winter when the ground was frozen.  The saws we used were called crosscuts and each required two people as there were handles on each end. There were also corn cribs, chicken and turkey coops and a pig sty.

Besides the unusually large assembly of buildings, equipment and machinery to be used and maintained there were large pieces of equipment that would not fit in the buildings such as the stone wall builder, large hay wagons and steel rollers for keeping up the roads on the farm.

This was the farm I came into on June 16, 1920. I was the fifth child with two older brothers and two older sisters–boy girl, boy girl.  Two more came later, girl, boy, making a total of seven eventually.

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Nelson Merritt’s Memories Of Farm Life Added To Website; Career Also Described

GROTON — The GOSA website has posted a 1,500-word article by Nelson Merritt about the Fort Hill Farm where he grew up, a 75-acre portion of which now is The Merritt Family Forest. Also added to the website is a newspaper article describing Mr. Merritt’s remarkable post-farm career as an engineer with significant achievements in submarines, aviation, and outer space.

Nelson A. Merritt

Nelson A. Merritt

His account begins: Mr. Merritt, who was president of the family firm of F.L. Merritt Inc. when it sold the tract to GOSA in 2008, covers the history and geography of the land, along with his family’s ownership and farming of it starting in the mid-1800s. Mr. Merritt wrote the article this year.

The farm that I was born and raised on was called Fort Hill Farm, thus named because it was located on the very site of the original fort of the Indian Chief Sassacus, the ruling chief of the Mashantucket Pequot Indians.  The farm itself was around 270 acres, one of the rather large ones in eastern Connecticut.” Links to both articles are included in the Merritt section that appears on the right side of each page directly under the headline “GOSA In-Depth.”   Direct link to farm article.

The news article — from the Danbury News-Times — tells of Mr. Merritt’s involvement with the Nautilus submarine, air traffic controls systems, and the Apollo moon mission.

It begins:

DANBURY — Nelson Merritt got the assignment of his life in 1963 — to help design a flight simulator to help astronauts train to fly to the moon.

The tricky part was this: The spacecraft, called the Apollo, only existed as a name.  Direct link.

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GOSA Receives CLCC Award for Outstanding Land Acquisition Effort

By Joan Smith, GOSA President

GROTON — The Groton Open Space Association has received the Connecticut Land Conservation Council’s prestigious annual award for Outstanding Land Acquisition Effort.

The award was presented at the CLCC 2011 conference Saturday, April 30 at the Exley Science Center at Wesleyan University in Middletown. Other categories for the CLCC’s Excellence in Land Conservation awards include Excellence in Stewardship, Successful Collaboration and Exemplary Fundraising or Outreach Project. The Connecticut Land Conservation Council, formed in 2006, is a coalition of land trusts, statewide conservation and advocacy organizations, town, and open space conservation commissions, garden clubs and private individuals working for the common interest of Connecticut’s conservation community.

The Connecticut Forest and Park Association, headquartered in Rockfall, serves as the fiscal sponsor of the CLCC. More information about the CLCC  is available at

GOSA was nominated for its efforts in acquiring the 63-acre Sheep Farm site at 245/255 Hazelnut Hill Road in Groton on December 14, 2010. Against long odds, this small group of volunteers secured two Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection awards (Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Program and Long Island Sound Program), eight foundation grant awards and donations from a wide range of local residents and businesses. GOSA reached out to the community and received 637 signatures for a petition seeking Town Council endorsement, which it received.

GOSA acted under time pressure, due to an expiring option, to secure a bridge loan from The Conservation Fund, of Arlington, VA, and to close the deal within two months of being chosen for the grant award in October 2010. GOSA then managed within a three-month timeframe to demolish eight structures involving lead and asbestos problems and in-ground fuel tank abatement issues, and received its DEP OSWLA check on March 16, 2011. A government holiday schedule and five major snowstorms in January had threatened to delay the project. Next, GOSA immediately met a two-week application deadline for a five-year Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

GOSA has benefited from a wide range of expert consultants, who have documented the Sheep Farm’s significant wildlife habitat diversity, historical interest and watershed protection value.

The property is a scenic gem with rugged land formations, meadows, forest, waterfalls, extensive wetlands and unique vernal pools. GOSA is proud of its accomplishment and grateful to the community, the CT DEP, the LIS Program, The Conservation Fund and our many contributors, contractors, and professionals who helped in protecting this site for generations to come.

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Sidney F. Van Zandt Statement For Recreational Liability Hearing

HARTFORD — Following is a  statement that Groton Open Space Association Vice President Sidney F. Van Zandt delivered to a Connecticut House Judiciary Committee hearing April 4, 2011, on a bill to protect municipalities against lawsuits for accidents on their recreational lands.

The slightly condensed text:

I would urge you to support H.B. # 6557 that will protect municipalities that 1) offer free access to their recreational lands, and 2) that take reasonable precautions to ensure that recreational areas are safe. A successful lawsuit against the MDC resulting from a biking accident in 2010 has aroused fears that municipalities may need to restrict or end public access to open space parcels that they hold. [The MDC is a state-chartered, non-profit municipal corporation that provides water and sewer services to Hartford and nearby communities.]

My concern is that existing open space if it is no longer available for recreation because of liability issues, may get placed on the auction block to the highest bidder. In addition, any future hope of promoting the protection of open space through purchase by municipalities would be threatened. Open space is not only a vital recreational asset and a refuge for wildlife; it protects our underground water supplies and retards harmful runoff into our waterways. Once it is claimed by development, it is gone forever.

There are 169 towns in this state. You represent some of them. If you take a moment to visualize each parcel that is owned by your town that includes woodlands and fields… you will realize how valuable these parcels are to the greenbelt, wildlife corridors and recreational areas that make your town and all the others special places to live. That also includes the village green, which is the center of the place you call home.

I was a founder in 1967 of the Groton Open Space Association (GOSA), which spearheaded the fund drive with the help of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association to raise the money for the Town’s portion of an open space grant that in 1970 saved the Haley Farm, now a state park. GOSA was also involved in helping to save Bluff Point from massive development pressures. That land is now Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve.

Bluff Point and Haley Farm have been joined by a pedestrian and bike bridge over the Amtrak rail line, and they total over 1,000 acres. Our organization has recently purchased — with the help of DEP and LIS funds and local supporters — two parcels in Groton of 76 acres (May 2008) and 63 acres (December 2010) for open space. We have been promoting the protection of greenbelts since 1967 for wildlife habitat. We support crosstown hiking trails, most notably the Bluff Point to Preston Bike/Hike Trail.

In Groton, lands belonging to GOSA, the Avalonia Land Conservancy, the State and Town have helped to provide a corridor from the Mystic River to the Thames River. Unfortunately, key parcels along this corridor belong to the town, and they could conceivably become unavailable for liability reasons.

If you extrapolate this example to every one of the 169 towns in Connecticut, the loss of liability protection has a huge potential effect. Liability protection is provided to municipalities in the abutting states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. I urge you to restore recreational liability protection for Connecticut municipalities by giving your support to:  H.B. 6557.

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DEP’s SOUND OUTLOOK Cites Sheep Farm’s Diversity, High Quality, Urban Proximity

GROTON — The February issue of Sound Outlook, an electronic newsletter of the Department of Environmental Protection, says this about the Sheep Farm, acquired by GOSA in December with the aid of state grants:

The property’s ecological and habitat diversity and quality and its proximity to a highly urbanized area distinguish the site, which is situated in one of the few remaining core forest areas within Connecticut’s eastern coastal ecoregion.

Below is a reduced-size preview of the Sound Outlook page.

Soundlook Article


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GOSA Working To Ready Sheep Farm For Public Use

GROTON–The Groton Open Space Association is working at high speed through heavy winter weather to prepare the newly acquired Sheep Farm on Hazelnut Hill Road for public use.

Eight buildings on the property, including two houses, a barn, and sheds, are to be demolished before the site is deemed safe for visitors. Asbestos and lead paint from some buildings have been identified and are being removed by a specialist and disposed of as hazardous materials. An in-ground oil tank has been drained and removed.

While specialized jobs — like demolition and tank and HAZMAT removal — are being handled by contractors hired by GOSA, volunteers have assisted by removing snow from the driveway and cutting trees and heavy brush to allow access by equipment. GOSA volunteers also have pulled out rusty wire fencing that would be hazardous to the public.  For safety reasons, the site currently is posted with no-trespassing signs, and the buildings are marked “Keep Out.” One of the buildings, a former barn, is near collapse following the heavy snows of January and February.

Joan Smith, GOSA president and coordinator of the remediation effort, said the current goal is to have the property ready by early March.

GOSA has been awarded a total of $616,500 toward the $878,500 purchase price by the state’s Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Grant Program and the DEP/Long Island Sound Fund. However, GOSA must meet state requirements for public use before actually collecting the money. Because of this timing consideration, GOSA made use of a bridge loan from The Conservation Fund of Arlington, Virginia, to close on the 63-acre property Dec. 14, 2010.

The Sheep Farm’s agricultural and industrial history dates back to the early 1700s, and it was active as a sheep farm until about 2000. (The collapsing building still contains some sheared wool.)

The farm’s rugged land, Mountain Laurel forest, meadows and highly productive wetlands, with three major and two minor vernal pools, provide ideal habitat for a wide array of plant, bird, amphibian and other species. The land is crossed by Fort Hill Brook, which spills over a 10-foot waterfall on the property, on its way to Mumford Cove. For more Sheep Farm information, click here.

Once GOSA gets the official go-ahead, the land — under GOSA’s stewardship — will be open to the public in perpetuity under terms of an easement held by the state.

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