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    Monday, March 20, 2023

    History Revisited: Growing Up In Groton’s Fort Hill Homes Project (Part 2)

    This 1950s photograph depicts the Fort Hill Homes Community Center where many tenants of the Fort Hill Housing Project, both young and old, attended and participated in various educational, recreational and social activities. The building was destroyed by fire in 1972. (Courtesy of the Jim Streeter Collection)

    My last column detailed the development of a temporary federal housing project built in the early 1940s on 400 acres of potato farmland adjacent to the Groton Town Hall in Poquonnock Bridge. The 1,100-plus modular housing units — comprised of prefabricated, modular wooden structures — were expected to be in use for no more than 10 years.

    In the late 1950s, the government disbursed its ownership of the housing units and the project’s property to various interested parties, including the Town of Groton, private owners and developers. Some units were moved from the project while others were completely demolished. Most, if not all, of the housing units that remained were upgraded, renovated and/or modernized into refurbished, more attractive and suitable one-family homes. Newer houses and multi-unit apartment buildings were also constructed on the property once used for the temporary housing units.

    The housing units that were originally built and used in the Fort Hill Housing Project would probably, by today’s standards, be considered as low income or substandard housing and not favorable for raising children. However, at the time they were built the government felt they “met the need” for temporary housing.

    Putting housing definitions and negative perceptions aside, for the large majority of us who grew up in the “Project” during the 1940s through the 1960s, we considered living there to be an enjoyable, constructive, and educational environment to be raised in, and never had any reservations about calling it “home.”

    Very rarely did anyone growing up in the “Project” have any want for friends or recreational activities. It didn’t matter what color you were, where your parents worked or the type of clothes you wore, within a very short period of time after moving in, you were accepted and welcomed to participate in various organized and unstructured recreational, educational, and other social activities.

    Fortunately, construction of the housing project included a large, two story, L-shaped building to house rental offices and maintenance facilities and, more importantly, to be used for various community and recreational activities by tenants and their guests. Without a doubt this building, called the Fort Hill Community Center, became a central point for children and young people to inter-act with those of the same age and, in many cases, to make what are considered lifelong friends.

    In preparing for this article, I made contact with individuals who had grown up in the Project during the 1940s through the 1960s, and I asked them one simple question: “What are some of your memories about growing up in the Fort Hill Housing Project?”

    The number of responses was sizable and brought to light recollections of numerous positive childhood events and activities that have obviously been burnt into the memories of so many. Many, if not most, of the stories and memories can best be described as “conversational common denominators” for those who grew up there.

    It would certainly be impractical, if not impossible, to include all of the expressed memories in this article; however, what follows provides a brief listing of some of the more interesting and thought provoking recollections relayed by a number of the Project’s “alumni.”

    Playing on monkey bars (jungle gyms), swings, push merry-go-rounds, seesaws and slides made of iron pipes and heavy metal. Located in a lot at the end of the Community Center.

    Attending early year school classes (kindergarten and first through third grades) held at the Community Center, the Fort Hill School (a small four room stucco building on Central Avenue across from the Community Center), Poquonnock Bridge School, the Trails School and Claude Chester School. Then to Fitch High School (when it was first located next to the Groton Town Hall and after it was located at the top of Fort Hill) and the Fitch Junior High School (after the high school had vacated it).

    Buying candies, snacks, “grinder roll” sandwiches and other miscellaneous food items from two large step up van vendor trucks: one named “Olin Paige Traveling Store” and the other known as “The Grinder Man.” The trucks would park at the end of the Project’s cul-de-sacs and beep their horns several times to announce their arrival.

    Also, in the summer months, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Good Humor ice cream truck after hearing its jingling music and bells as it traveled through the Project to sell various ice cream treats.

    Playing pick-up baseball, football, volley ball, kickball and dodgeball games with neighborhood friends on small undeveloped building lots and fields scattered throughout the project. One of the large fields, located next to the community center, would often flood after rain storms and, in the winter, it froze, thus making it the opportune location for ice skating — either with or without skates.

    Catching polliwogs (tadpoles) and baby frogs at the Fort Hill brook; fishing and clamming in the Poquonnock River; catching snakes in the high grass in vacant lots or caching honey bees and other bugs in jars to take home or to school to show family members or friends.

    Paying 10 cents to attend cartoon and Western movies, sponsored by the Town Police, all morning long at the community center on Saturday.

    Attending meetings and dances held at the community center by the Groton Teen-Age Club. Former members of the club have expressed how it improved the moral, mental, social and material conditions of its members.

    Going with their parents to various “home businesses” located in Project homes being operated by tenants: two barber shops, one on Central Avenue and the other on Vergennes Court; a dress shop on Depot Road; a leather shop on Central Avenue; a small fishing tackle shop on Central Avenue, operated by my father in our housing unit; and the dental office of Dr. Wakim on Midway Oval.

    Various business trucks making deliveries: milk and other dairy products from Radway and Mohegan Dairy; bread and bakery items from Wonder Bread; coal deliveries from Spicer Coal and Fuel; block ice from Ziggy, the ice man from Mystic Ice Company; pickups from the ragman; salesmen from the Fuller Brush Company and various home life insurance companies.

    Attending various activities held at the community center, including Protestant and Catholic church services; Girl Scouts, Brownies, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Junior Midshipmen (both boys and girls) clubs; basketball court games; tenant council meetings; garden club; tap, ballet, ballroom and square dancing; cooking classes; “grocery bingo”, and movies on several nights for children and adults. The list goes on and on, but it is important to note that they were important social resources for the tenants, especially when you take into consideration the fact that the most common, modern and affordable entertainment appliance at the time was the radio. Television did come on the scene in the ’50s, but the Project did not have the best reception.

    Memories of the Fort Hill Homes Project exemplify how, growing up in that Project, life’s enjoyments were had without the need of the niceties and material things that exist in young people’s lives today. For many who grew up in the Project, “life was good.”

    Nancy (Durr) Barnhart, Arthur Nichols and Lucille Teague contributed to this article.

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