Eva Lutz Butler, scholarly dynamo
What would you do if town authorities ignored your concerns about a construction project that might destroy precious Native Americans artifacts before the site could be properly evaluated? If you were Eva Lutz Butler, you’d lie down in front of the bulldozers to make them listen.
A friend told me this story years ago, and sadly she’s no longer around to point me to her source. But even if it’s apocryphal, it perfectly symbolizes Eva’s passion for history, especially that of this country’s indigenous peoples.
Eva was born in in New Jersey in 1897, in an era when a woman’s place was in the home. They couldn’t vote and were considered too emotionally fragile to serve on juries, but these and other societal constraints didn’t stop Eva, a woman ahead of her time.
Eva and her husband, Sylvester Butler, came to Groton in 1928. When they arrived, plans for celebrating the state’s upcoming tercentenary were kicking into gear. Eva got involved immediately in community preparations, and became the moving force behind the construction of a replica of an early settler’s home on Fort Hill, where the Pequots had a fort in 1637. The structure no longer exists, but for some time it showcased many colonial and indigenous artifacts.
While her husband served as superintendent of Groton Schools, Eva taught Eastern Connecticut State University extension classes out of their home, the old William Noyes House (c. 1735), on Gallup Hill in Ledyard. Archaeology, history, and colonial literature were among the subjects she taught to enthusiastic students. Being a teacher was just one of the many hats she wore. She earned degrees from the Universities of Pennsylvania and New Mexico, and was an anthropologist, archaeologist, historian, and author. Her academic credentials were impressive, but the credentials that mattered most were her dedication and energy.
Eva interviewed and photographed local Pequots and Mohegans, earning their friendship and respect.
Her field notes and research on genealogy, town history, and Native American history grew over the years to fill hundreds of looseleaf binders. She became involved in some of the first archaeological excavations in Montville, Ledyard, and Preston.
Eva founded the New London County Children’s Museum (later the Thames Science Center, now closed). She and Mary Glasko, a Narragansett also known as Princess Red Wing, cofounded the Tomaquag Museum, whose website today notes that it is “Rhode Island’s only museum entirely dedicated to telling the story of the state’s Indigenous Peoples.” In 2016, the museum received national attention when it was one of a select few organizations to be awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Service.
Eva herself was recognized by the Connecticut League of Historical Societies as “the authority of ethno-history of all New England” and the “most gifted interpreter of the region’s Indian and colonial history.” Another tribute that would have meant a lot to Eva was given by her friend, Carol Kimball.
Kimball dedicated her book, “Historic Glimpses,” a selection of her newspaper columns, “To Eva L. Butler who got me started.”
By the 1960s, it was apparent that Eva’s health was declining. On top of that, her mountain of research material stored in her home was a fire hazard, and needed to be preserved in a safe location that could be open to the public. A team consisting of Mary Virginia Goodman (Mohegan descendent and author of The Day’s column “Noank Notes”), Carol Kimball, Harry Nelson, John Bucklyn, Ken Medbury, Joe Rattigan, James Spellman, and the Butler family bought an empty bank in Old Mystic from the town and installed Eva’s collection in what became the Indian and Colonial Research Center.
The bank had a multi-use history. It was founded in 1833 to support the local shipbuilding community. The current building dates from 1856, and became the Mystic National Bank during the Civil War. After the bank’s liquidation in 1887, the building was repurposed as a District Hall, polling place, fire department storage space, and finally the repository for Eva’s collection in 1965.
The center has recently been rebranded the Old Mystic History Center to reflect the current scope of its holdings more accurately. The collection has grown to include important local material from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but Eva’s notes, tapes, and photographs remain the heart of the center.
Serious businessmen in stove pipe hats and cutaway coats used to conduct their financial affairs in the tiny bank. Today, casually dressed men, women, and children with notebooks and smartphones visit the bank for a different purpose. They want to learn about local history, and, thanks to Eva and her visionary friends, they can.