Upton Bass bringing past into present at Groton site

Groton - What once was the source of blue water soon will be the source of the blues, and classical, and maybe even some country. Whence once came witch hazel, soon will come fine string instruments.

At the west end of the serpentine, half-mile thoroughfare that is the historic Packer Road, just a boulder's tumble south of Route 184, there stood until recently the remnants of a foundation of a factory, a witch hazel mill, built around between the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The structure was not protected by the dictates of the Burnett's Corners Historic District. Former Historic District Commissioner Nancy Mitchell, owner of the Pequot Hotel - a former stagecoach layover turned bed and breakfast - said that, at the time, how a property owner intended to vote on the establishment of the historic district played into whether their property was included in the district. The factory was not.

"Now it's lost," she said. "Once it's gone, it's gone forever."

But Gary Birkhamshaw and his wife, Aubrey, who own that property at 159 Packer Road today, believe they are creating new history in a building that will serve in years to come as staunchly as the original.

The Birkhamshaws are the proprietors of Upton Bass, which builds, repairs and sells double basses in two shops, one in Stonington and one on Boylston Street in Boston.

Gary Birkhamshaw has his own appreciation for history.

"I'm a historical preservationist in my work," he said. "I restore 18th- and 19th-century instruments. It was my original intent to build on the original foundation."

He said he was saddened that he wasn't able to do that. Before dismantling, all that remained was a perimeter of about five rectangular pillars per side;, columns, perhaps 8 feet tall, made from thin, flat fieldstones, brick-shaped rocks and large granite blocks, squarely configured without benefit of mortar. Vines grew over some of them.

Birkhamshaw said the building burned down at some point.

He said a neighbor who has lived in the community since 1933 had never seen the building in operation as the witch hazel mill.

As the father of a young child, Birkhamshaw said, he was concerned about safety.

"There was only face stone left standing," he said. "The inside was filled with dirt, a compost dump, grass, leaves, Christmas trees, hoses, birdbaths. We went to inspect the footings and learned that there were none."

Birkhamshaw said he dismantled the stonework and plans reuse it after building a solid foundation that will support a new post-and-beam barn.

He recently received a zoning variance to operate Upton Bass at the rurally zoned property. He plans to move his business there from the Taugwonk Business Park in Stonington.

"We numbered the stones in order to reconstruct it to its original look," he said. "We're pouring a foundation, then we'll replace the face stone. From the road it will look like a modern-day equivalent.

"I'm doing a rebuild of a historic structure." The barn, when finished, will be home to the craftspeople of Upton Bass. There, they will build custom, handmade double basses for world-renowned musicians.

According to its website, Upton Bass also has "an ever-evolving stock of fine, old, vintage and used double basses, from mid-18th century Italian bass violins, older fine collectable American bass viols, all the way to more recently made string bass instruments of the 1940s."

"In 200 years, like the instruments we make, the building will still be there," Birkhamshaw. "Had we left it (as it was), I think it would be piles of stone by then."

c.potter@theday.com

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included the incorrect date when the building was constructed and the incorrect height of the pillars around the perimeter of the structure.

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