Streeter donating trove of Groton history to town

James Streeter has been collecting Groton memorabilia for years.
James Streeter has been collecting Groton memorabilia for years. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Groton — Open a file in James Streeter's home office. Any file.

There's a photo of Mamie Eisenhower christening the Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, on Jan. 21, 1954.

"Wait," said Streeter, Groton town historian, pulling something else: The official program of the seventh annual convention, American Legion New London, August, 1925.

But wait. Now he's got the business card of R.A. Gray, the only person from Groton to win the Medal of Honor during the Civil War. Gray wrote on the back of the card from Merritt, Gray & Company Steam Polishing.

Streeter, a former town councilor and mayor who has been collecting every Groton-related historic document he could find since the 1960s, has now offered to donate his vast history collection to the town.

"My favorite saying is 'History doesn't belong to me,'" he said. "'It belongs to everybody.'"

Most of the files are stored in his Groton City home, in file cabinets in his home office or two packed, walk-in closets, although he keeps boxes in the attic and cabinets in his daughter's garage as well.

A town librarian visited Streeter's house couple of weeks ago for a quick inventory.

His estimate: Fifteen shelves of books, 10 four-drawer file cabinets, a 15-drawer map case and a 10-drawer artifact cabinet. Streeter also has 15,779 archived photos, including thousands of originals, at least another 1,000 pictures yet to scan, boxes of negatives, a postcard collection and a large box of never-used calendars from local businesses dating back to the 1940s.

His books include 40 yellow hardcover city directories that list everyone who lived in Groton in a given year by street, by name and by telephone number. They go back to 1929.

Some documents are so fragile that their thin pages are fraying, including a copy of the speech given at Fort Griswold in 1825, commemorating the battle fought in 1781.

The speech begins: "There is a tendency in our nature to venerate what is ancient and to wonder at what is distant …" Streeter keeps the document in plastic for safe-keeping.

He said he couldn't put a value on his collection, but it's important enough that Groton Public Library wants to accommodate it.

"To me it's invaluable," Library Director Betty Anne Reiter said. Streeter's materials would more than double the library's existing history collection.

"Much of the material is not organized, so it does present us with a huge project," she said. "Not just finding a home for it, but cataloguing it and making it available to the public."

File drawers are labeled "Groton," "Avery Point," "postcards" and "photographs." Streeter knows where things are, but it can take a bit of effort to find them.

On Tuesday, the Town Council authorized the town manager to seek a state library grant to expand the local history room in Groton Public Library to create more space.

The town qualifies for 50 percent state reimbursement for the project, which would cost $370,000 by itself. But since Groton may also apply for maintenance help, town officials expanded the request to ask for money to replace roof sections, repair the floor in the video studio, repave the parking lot and replace ceiling tiles. The total project would cost $800,000, with the state covering half.

Groton would have to submit its plan by Aug. 29, then come up with matching funds within a year if the grant is awarded in November.

Reiter said the project would contribute a great deal.

"Our collection tends to be more books," she said. The library's history section is heavier on family genealogies annual reports and books on Groton history; Streeter's is heavier on pamphlets, news articles, and pictures.

"It's very complementary because we just don't tend to have that," she said.

Some of the Groton artifacts Streeter has went on display last week in the Municipal Building: Spools of thread from Max Pollack & Co. Inc., a company founded in 1880 with offices in New York and mills in Groton and Willimantic; a wooden box from the Groton Cigar Factory, including a drawing of men playing cards and smoking; and a box of medicine from a local pharmacy from July 14, 1936.

Although his collection may end up at Groton Public Library, Streeter said he'll keep looking for material, researching and giving presentations.

"People are constantly asking me, 'Jim, what used to be here?'" he said. "And then when you describe it to them and you're able to show them a photograph, they're amazed.

"Groton is so rich in history that this material, it's so important that it has to be preserved and documented. If you don't preserve it, it's gone. It's gone forever."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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