Saving Maggie's Farm
Copyright 2013 Michael Melford Photography, Mystic, CT
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If ever there was a sitting duck, there it sat. I could see the innocent mallard paddling in West Cove behind my childhood home in Noank. Unfortunately, so could a kid we called Tonto. “Roast duck tonight,” he sneered. Then he grabbed his pellet gun and charged down to the beach. Another boy, Matt, chased after him. I watched the whole performance from my bedroom window as they riddled that poor, beautiful bird with lead pellets. Tonto was a good shot. The duck never had a chance.
“We need a bird dog,” Matt hollered from the shore. “Get Chipper.” But neither my elderly Airedale nor I wanted any part in the crime; we hid in my room.
Afterward, they went to Matt’s house, boiled the bird, ripped out its feathers, decided cooking it would be too difficult, and ended up tossing the carcass in the trash. I was 12, and the next year my mother sent me to The Rectory School in Pomfret. There I could roam the woods, play in streams, catch frogs, turtles . . . and try to forget what I had witnessed. I was never a scholarly naturalist, but the order and apparent simplicity of natural life always appealed to me. In fact, when I was 9, I won awards at camp in Maine for Best Frog Catcher and Most Interest in Nature.
Over four decades later, my interest in nature is piqued talking with my old friend Margarett “Maggie” Jones, executive director of The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic. They’ve just rescued a red-tailed hawk struggling with a broken wing and buckshot wounds. “Hunters at Barn Island,” she sighs with the resignation of a seasoned precinct cop.
Now in her 20th year at the helm of the nature center, Maggie faces a far more complicated challenge than rehabilitating raptors. For a little over a year, Denison, The Trust For Public Land and over 60 influential volunteers have been working tirelessly to save the 372-year-old Coogan Farm. Already, they’ve raised over $2.5 million of the $3.5 million needed to purchase and restore 34 acres of heritage farmland—a spread that serves as a buffer between Mystic’s heavily commercial “Golden Triangle,” Mystic Seaport Museum and Downtown Mystic, and a perfect insulator from the comings and goings of one of the busiest exits along I-95’s nearly 2,000 miles.
“We’ve got to do this!” Maggie tells me during an autumn hike at the farm. “This is the only undeveloped piece of land along Route 27 on the Stonington side of the Mystic River. The family that owns it has already lopped off one parcel and sold it to a developer who’s approved for elderly housing. Developers are licking their chops, hoping we miss our goal.”
Alicia Betty, Connecticut director of The Trust for Public Land, concurs. “Coogan Farm is a rare conservation opportunity,” she says. “It is one of only a handful of larger pieces of land along the Connecticut coast that are undeveloped and available for preservation.”
The Coogan land became a farm in 1641, granted to settler/soldier Capt. John Gallup for his role in the Pequot War. High above the Mystic River, Gallup’s Farm served the area’s first settlers and eventually, under the Greenman Family, a large shipyard that grew up along the riverbank. Under Maggie’s plan, the land’s terraced meadows and shady paths will complete a network of walking trails from the nature center to Route 27.
During our walk, Maggie notes that Denison has already received 11.5 acres of Coogan Farm property as a gift from the Coogan family. “We’ve also applied for an Open Space Grant,” she says. “State funding will be critical since we’re under presure to meet our goal by March.” (The state delivered, with $500,0000 in late December, bringing them within $350,000 of the sales price.)
“Maggie,” I ask, laughing, “Twenty years! Is this how you keep it fresh?”
She chuckles. “One of the most rewarding things about a job that involves nature and the outdoors,” she says, “is that there’s always something new and unpredictable. You never know what’s going to come in through the front door, never know what you might see outside. Nature is always changing.”
Two old quarries have been found on the land. This partially explains the abundance of beautifully cut granite walls and gateposts. The stonework all around is among the most precise and beautiful one can find. With the help of slaves and indentured Indian servants, the Gallup family built magnificent walls out of giant granite block, some over seven feet high. They planted apple and pear orchards nearly 150 years before independence was won from Great Britain.
“Why should this matter to somebody outside the Mystic area?” I ask.
“This really matters to all of Connecticut. Mystic is a proven economic engine to the state, and a premier tourist destination,” Maggie replies. “Our history is authentic. We are a resource for filmmakers and artists of all kinds. Lots of other people come here for the aquarium and the Seaport. They also come for the quaint charm of a little town.”