Ink in their blood, books in their DNA

When I was a little girl, I loved to draw. My pencil was like a 6th finger — it never left my hand. If I was awake, I was drawing pictures. I didn’t know anyone else with this compulsion.

I was about 9 years old when my parents and I visited an ancestral farm in Vermont. One day while playing in the barn, I noticed some chalk portraits on the walls. Mom said that they were sketched by a great-grandmother. Discovering that a relative I’d never met shared my passion explained a lot.

I don’t know if Henry and Frederic Bill, brothers from Ledyard, ever had a similar moment of surprising insight, but whether they knew it or not, they had a lot in common with an English relative whose life’s work revolved around the written word.

John Bill was an official printer for King James, the man who commissioned the King James Bible. The Bills apparently were socially connected because one of John’s relatives, Thomas Bill, was a physician to Henry VIII. (I imagine that was a risky job.)

John worked at the King’s Printing House, publishing sermons, government documents, testaments, prayer books, and Bibles. Sources credit one of his rivals, Robert Barker, with printing the first edition of the King James Bible, although sections may have been subcontracted to John.

Besides printing, John served as the King’s library agent. He traveled to European trade fairs hunting down important books and manuscripts for his client. John’s success in acquiring scholarly texts and his capable management of the King’s Printing House earned him the monarch’s confidence and underwrote a distinguished career.

With King James’ death and the rise of Puritanism, English political and religious life became increasingly turbulent, leading people like James Bill, the printer’s son, to immigrate to Massachusetts. James, sometimes known as John, arrived in Boston around 1635 but died just three years later.

In 1668, James’ son, Phillip Bill, moved to Connecticut, possibly at the invitation of his friend, John Winthrop, Jr. Phillip settled on Allyn’s Point in Ledyard, where his neighbors included other local founding families like the Allyns and the Geers. As large land holders, tradesmen, militiamen, and civic leaders, the Bills contributed to the colony and the emerging new nation. Phillip’s great-grandson, Joshua, was wounded at the Battle of Groton Heights, leaving him with a permanent limp.

Fast forward a few generations to Henry and Frederic Bill, "Printer" John's fifth great-grandchildren. The boys' parents taught them the value of books, but the children probably had an affinity for the written word already hard-wired into their genes.

When Henry was a teenager, he apprenticed to Samuel Green at the New London Gazette. He taught school for a time and then joined a publishing company in Philadelphia. This job involved traveling across the United States, selling books door-to-door. Then Henry opened his own publishing business in Norwich. It flourished, making him a wealthy man — who retained a social conscience.

In 1867, Henry proposed establishing a public library in Ledyard. He donated money, books and bookcases. The library opened in the Congregational Church, where it was located until the current building was completed.

Frederic, like his brother, was a school teacher, and he then partnered with another brother in a Springfield printing business. After that, Frederic had a commercial career in New York, but he never forgot his roots. In 1888, he proposed the idea of a public library to Groton town authorities and backed his recommendation with a gift of 1,750 books and a substantial endowment. The Bill Memorial Library on Monument Street was born. Today, Groton and Ledyard residents continue to benefit from the Bills’ community spirit and commitment to books.

The novelist William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” I think that’s true. The past lives in you and me. We are the recipients of its gifts.

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