History Revisited: Region owes gratitude to Morton F. Plant

A painting of Morton F. Plant by renowned Florida artist Christopher M. Still. The painting, to to be unveiled in January at the newly renovated Belleview Place Inn in Clearwater. (photo courtesy of Jim Streeter)
A painting of Morton F. Plant by renowned Florida artist Christopher M. Still. The painting, to to be unveiled in January at the newly renovated Belleview Place Inn in Clearwater. (photo courtesy of Jim Streeter)

This November will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Morton F. Plant, the millionaire business entrepreneur, yachtsman and philanthropist who, to the good fortune of southeastern Connecticut, made Groton the site of his summer residence.

Morton Freeman Plant was born in Branford, the son of Henry B. Plant, a wealthy industrialist who made his fortunes constructing and operating railroad lines, steamships and hotels throughout the southern United States. At the time of his death, in 1899, the wealth of the elder Plant was valued at $17.5 million which, by today’s standards, would be approximately $550 million.

Ultimately, Morton Plant inherited two-thirds of his father’s estate valued at, by today’s standards, approximately $325 million.

In the late 1880s, Morton Plant and his wife Nellie conceived the idea of building a summer home and retreat in Groton.

They first built and resided in a three-story, nine-bedroom shingle framed house on Shore Avenue. In 1900, they purchased the Spicer farm property on Avery Point at Eastern Point for the purpose of constructing their “summer retreat mansion.”

The mansion, called Branford House, took over four years to complete and cost over $3 million ($80 million by today’s standards). The four-story granite structure was almost 19,000 square feet with over 30 rooms. It still stands today and is presently owned by the University of Connecticut.

Once Mr. Plant established his summer residence in Groton, he pursued his personal dream of becoming a “gentleman farmer.” He purchased several large parcels of land in Groton and converted them into farms.

His large and modern dairy and vegetable farm was located where Groton/New London airport is located today and also a poultry farm where the Branford Avenue apartment complex is. He also purchased approximately 3,000 acres of land in East Lyme to establish a private game preserve where he raised various game birds, sheep and pigs.

In 1905, Plant purchased the 125-room Fort Griswold House hotel located at Eastern Point, near his estate at Avery Point. Later that year he had the old hotel raised and, within a period of six months, opened the new luxurious, 440-room Griswold Hotel. The Griswold was the “sister hotel” to the Belleview Hotel built by Henry B. Plant and Morton Plant in Clearwater, Fla.

Plant was also an avid sportsman with keen interests in yachting, baseball and golf. At one time, in the 1890s, he was part owner of the Philadelphia baseball team in the National League. He was also the owner of the New London Planters, a semi-professional baseball team in the Eastern Association.

Shortly after having the Griswold Hotel built, Plant saw the need to develop the four-hole golf course which Thomas Avery had built on his farm property. By 1914 he had acquired sufficient land to expand the course into the (present day) 18-hole Shennecossett Golf Club.

Yachting was his favorite sport and he was the owner of several top-rated racing yachts. One, the schooner yacht Elena, won numerous races all over the world.

Commodore Plant, as he was referred to after serving as the commodore of the Larchmont Yacht Club in New York, was also the owner of a 309-foot, five-deck, 1,800-ton steam yacht which he had built for about $1 million ($26 million by today’s standards).

In 1909 and 1910, he took this ship on a 33,000-mile cruise throughout the Far East.

Morton F. Plant did not squander his fortune and was known for his philanthropy. He maintained a strong commitment to the community and did not hesitate to make appropriate contributions to causes he felt were worthy. Some examples of the contributions he made to Groton and the surrounding communities include:

● Donating property and a sufficient amount of money to build a Catholic church for his workers on Eastern Point Road in Groton.

● Providing a $1 million endowment to the newly established Connecticut College in New London and providing money to build two dormitories.

● Providing necessary funding to construct a new and modern town hall for the Town of Groton.

● Contributing a large sum of money toward the construction of a new Groton Congregational Church so the church would be debt free.

● Purchasing in 1907 $25,000 of Groton’s financial notes, relieving the town of indebtedness.

● Making large donations to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London and providing funding to establish the Morton F. Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Fla.

● Donating his 3,000-acre game preserve property in East Lyme to the Connecticut Fish and Game Commission.

● Paying $5,000 to have a special church organ installed in the St. James Episcopal Church in New London.

● Donating sufficient funds to improve and pave several roads in Groton, including Thames Street, Eastern Point Road and South Road.

● Donating funds to build a new facility at the Yale regatta boathouse in Gales Ferry.

Someday, when time permits, this author would like to compose a book about Mr. Plant and the many aspects of his professional and personal life. In the interim, it is hoped that this article has brought to life some interesting facts about him. Groton was fortunate to have Morton F. Plant as a member of the community.

Jim Streeter is the Groton town historian.

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