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    Friday, August 12, 2022

    Pine Grove Niantic Association continues field day tradition

    Micah Fredericksen, 8, sticks his tongue out as he crosses the finish line in a kids race during the annual Pine Grove Field Day at the neighborhood in Niantic Sunday, July 3, 2022. The private beach community was established in 1975 on the site of a historic spiritualist camp and temple that has been there since 1882 and still runs. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

    East Lyme — On Sunday about 140 residents and their guests gathered on Center Street for the Pine Grove Niantic Association’s annual field day, a tradition that has continued since the private beach community’s founding in 1882.

    “Six and up, last call!” announced association President Debbie Jett-Harris through a red mini megaphone.

    “I got lots of medals and lots of bubbles too!” added associated Vice President Lori Nickerson as 20 children revved up at the starting line for a foot race.

    This, and other classic field competitions such as a sack race and tug-of-war captivated the young. Across the field, children of all ages were riding ponies, taking turns going down a waterslide, jumping on a bounce house, making arts and crafts under a pop-up tent, checking out some visiting baby goats and meeting Gilbert the Party Pig, a 120-pound, 2½-year-old socialized house pig from Glastonbury.

    “They started out with a budget of $300. They lean on the residents. It’s an amazing team,” Pine Grove resident David Bristol said about the group of PGNA board of governors who collected donations from residents and organized the field day. The group also plans an annual picnic, a kids' fishing tournament, a s’mores night, and Easter egg hunt.

    Bristol has been spending time in Pine Grove for 40 years, eventually purchasing a home as a year-round resident 25 years ago. He said in the 1980s about half of the community were summer residents. Today, he estimates that over 90% of the people in the community live there all year long.

    “There’s not a kid that’s ever been at Pine Grove that doesn’t want to be here forever,” Bristol added, fondly remembering being as young as 4 years old when he was allowed to roam the area unsupervised, but later admitting that modern society would now frown upon such a practice.

    The center green offers a baseball field, a fenced-in playground, a basketball court with pickleball lines and a volleyball court; the rest is open grass for frolicking. Kids bike around the neighborhood, winding around tightly situated homes all summer long, as though they are at camp. There are two private beaches: South Beach and Laurel Street Beach which has a bathing dock and swimming raft.

    Spiritualist History: Tent City

    The private Pine Grove community of 155 homes is on a peninsula just north of Camp Nett at Niantic Army National Guard Base on the edge of Niantic Bay. The PGNA, which was established in 1972, is a special tax district that manages the operations and maintenance of the residential area.

    The community dates back to 1882 when the Connecticut Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association purchased 40 acres on the peninsula and set it up as retreat for spiritualists. According to the Pine Grove Spiritualist Camp, which continues to hold services in the original Temple on the grounds, spiritualism is a religion, philosophy and science that believes in communication between the living and the dead. At the pavilion, a gazebo-like outdoor gathering area, mediums and spiritualists communicate messages between the two worlds.

    At first, they lived in tents. Eventually, people added floors and walls and expanded their home within their tent lots. Over time, summer cottages were upgraded to more durable modern homes that offer central heating and air conditioning. In the past, only spiritualists were permitted to purchase land, but sometime in the 1970s that faded and people needed the signatures of three spiritualists to buy property in Pine Grove but that is no longer the case.

    Cherished Ancestor Connections and Memories

    For Joanne Babich, 70, it was important to keep her home, which she purchased in 2004 from her father-in-law, in her late husband’s family. Her husband, who died in 2000, was a descendant of Captain Callender, who sailed from Great Britain and eventually settled there with his family. She remembers the old-fashioned rope and pulley windows, the original kerosene stove that she had to remove, and the wall paneling used on the floor of the deck she replaced when she renovated the porch. She was sure to restore an outdoor bench that was originally carved by the family.

    “I’ve been trying to keep it in shape. It just has a feeling of something special,” Babich said about the improvements she’s been making to the house. She said that her son often commented that he feels his father’s spirit there.

    Susie Whitney, who had three grandchildren visiting for the weekend, learned how to bike and swim at Pine Grove as a youngster. She spent summers there for over 60 years.

    “I wanted to see what the shoreline looked like in the winter,” she said, deciding to move there from the Greater Hartford area permanently once she retired.

    Gerry Powers, 68, and Mickey Powers, 70, are two of eight brothers who grew up in Pine Grove. Their family members own four out of the first five homes along the entrance of the community. They recalled the community having its own grocery store, a small deli and an ice cream parlor with counter service, a pinball machine and a jukebox.

    They have the original archived paperwork that listed their mother Rita Powers’ 50-yard dash ribbons and medals.

    “Those were the prized possessions,” said Gerry Powers, adding that unlike today when all the children get medals, they could only earn a first, second or third place medal at field day when they were kids.

    Others appreciate the easy access to environmentally and ecologically sound nature on the grounds. The area is known to have a rich presence of eel grass, which is inviting to scallops. Every season, Stacie Seuferling, the community’s osprey expert, watches for the season’s visiting osprey family that stays in the standing nests built by the community at South Beach; she names each one, tracks their activities and documents it through photography for residents.

    The town of East Lyme was helpful in addressing Pine Grove's erosion issues in the past. In 2019, the PGNA's board of governors successfully banned the use of Monsanto's Roundup and herbicide products containing glyphosate throughout Pine Grove.

    “Things shift underneath. Every house here is crooked. We laugh about it,” Jett-Harris said, explaining that the surface underneath is permeable because of the sandy land.

    She said their “Pine Grove Proud” slogan is heartfelt by all residents as they continued the Spiritualists’ tradition of helping those in need within or outside their community

    “Our houses are on top of one another. But we have an extremely strong sense of community,” Jett-Harris said. “This location is very simple; nothing fancy but pure perfection."

    Laurabeth Nickerson, of East Lyme, takes a photo of her daughter Natalie, 5, riding a horse with Rock Hill Farm of East Lyme during the annual Pine Grove Field Day at the neighborhood in Niantic Sunday, July 3, 2022. The private beach community was established in 1975 on the site of a historic spiritualist camp and temple that has been there since 1882 and still runs. Nickerson´s parents live in the neighborhood. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    The Memorial Temple is seen in the Pine Grove neighborhood of Niantic Sunday, July 3, 2022. The private beach community was established in 1975 on the site of a historic spiritualist camp and temple that has been there since 1882 and still runs. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    Finn Smith, 4, slides down a water slide during the annual Pine Grove Field Day at the neighborhood in Niantic Sunday, July 3, 2022. The private beach community was established in 1975 on the site of a historic spiritualist camp and temple that has been there since 1882 and still runs. Finn´s mother, Abi Cushman, said they have lived there year round for about six years. “The winters are hard but the summers make it worth it," she said. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    Anastacia Seuferling sits at the picnic table of the dock at the South Street Beach in the Pine Grove neighborhood of Niantic Sunday, July 3, 2022. The private beach community was established in 1975 on the site of a historic spiritualist camp and temple that has been there since 1882 and still runs. Seuferling, who started spending time at the community as a child and now lives there year round, is known as the "Osprey Lady" and spends lots of time observing and taking photos of osprey in a nest on the water. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    Friends Victoria Luce, left, of New York, and Amy Gonsalves, read books in the sand of the South Street Beach in the Pine Grove neighborhood of Niantic Sunday, July 3, 2022. The private beach community was established in 1975 on the site of a historic spiritualist camp and temple that has been there since 1882 and still runs. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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