John "Whit" Davis, Pawcatuck farmland preservationist, dies at 91
Stonington — John “ Whit” Davis, the quintessential Yankee farmer whose lifelong efforts to preserve his family’s almost 400-year-old farm at Osbrook Point made him an influential spokesman for land conservation, died Wednesday at age 91.
Davis had a deep knowledge and love of the farmland and salt marsh that had been worked by his ancestors and Native Americans before that.
And he would enthusiastically share that passion for the land with those who visited the farm located along the lower Pawcatuck River with views out to Little Narraganset Bay.
He delivered that knowledge with a no-nonsense perspective peppered with wry humor, a twinkle in his eye and sayings relating to farm life.
Davis also led the effort to form a nonprofit group to convert the property’s 17th-century homestead and its artifacts into a museum.
He also served 25 years on the town’s Conservation and Inland Wetlands commissions.
“Conservation is not some kick I’m on. I’ve lived it my whole life,” he told The Day in 2012 during a tour of the farm, whose salt marshes helped provision the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
Davis sold the development rights to some 228 acres of the farm to the state in 1990 so the land could be permanently preserved and also donated some of the salt marsh to the Avalonia Land Conservancy.
He retained ownership of 48 acres of waterfront land.
“He and his family have set the standard for the preservation of family farms,” said First Selectman Rob Simmons on Thursday. “When so many farms across the country have been plowed over for development, Whit Davis said ‘This land is sacred and special. We need to preserve and protect it.’”
Simmons said he considers Davis a personal inspiration because of his dedication to protecting the farm.
He pointed out that Davis grew the same Indian corn on the property that Native Americans grew there centuries ago.
And Davis always spoke reverently about the Native American connection to the land.
Simmons said that when he visited Davis in a local nursing home last month and told him how he and his family had bought their family farm and have been growing produce there, Davis got up out of his chair and shook his hand.
“He loved this town and loved the earth,” said Simmons, who added the town will now come up with a way to honor Davis for his contributions.
Maggie Jones, the executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, said Thursday she first met Davis when she was a student at Connecticut College more than 30 years ago.
She said he made a big impact on the impressionable college students as he talked about the importance of the farm and its history.
“He really helped us connect the dots,” she said. “He was a working farmer with the deep understanding of the land and the importance of conserving it,” she said.
“He was alway smiling and full of energy,” she added.
“He always had an interesting perspective to share and he was usually right on,” she said.
Conservation Commission Chairman Stanton Simm Jr. said Davis dedicated his life to conservation, working his farm and preserving it.
He said Davis was not only one of his favorite people but probably the most active conservationist in town.
"He's done an awful lot for this town. It's very sad to see him go," Simm said.
He said Davis' son Larry has the same committment to preserving the farm as his father.
"They have both given up a a lot to preserve the farm and their family history," Simm said.
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