Local History: Bicentennial spurred preservation of Mystic history
The following is the first in a series of stories that will run occasionally this year to honor the 50th anniversary of the Mystic River Historical Society.
In the early 1970s, Mystic was looking toward the future with the development of the Olde Mistick Village and Mystic Aquarium after Interstate 95 opened. At the same time, a small but dedicated group influenced by plans for the coming American bicentennial became concerned about the loss of Mystic’s historical artifacts.
As a result, they began meeting informally, and ultimately officially formed the Mystic River Historical Society in 1973 dedicated to documenting and preserving Mystic’s history.
In the early years, the society established its structure, leadership and membership and began developing its historical collection. The second half of the decade was dedicated to the restoration of the Portersville Academy, Mystic’s first school.
Amos Clift constructed the building in 1839 as Groton’s Fifth District School, and it served in that capacity until 1879 when it was abandoned in favor of the larger Mystic Academy.
In 1888, the Town of Groton began using the building, now known as First District Hall, as a polling place. The first floor was converted to a courthouse.
The Town of Groton abandoned the building entirely in 1958 when the polling place moved to S.B. Butler School.
In March 1974, town officials solicited the society’s support to rehabilitate the building as a space for public use. The society board quickly realized the potential of the building for its own use, and by April 1975 ownership of the building was transferred to the society for $1.
The membership was energized, and fundraising began to restore the building to its original look. Members and volunteers removed trash, scraped shutters, glazed windows and performed general cleaning.
Fundraising and building work skyrocketed in 1976. They raised money in a variety of ways: Selling brownies and iced tea at Mystic’s bicentennial parade, raising $1,500 from a historic home tour and raffling 5- by 7-inch replicas of Portersville Academy.
The concentration of work in 1976 was on weatherproofing the building. But at year’s end they had raised only about a fifth of the $50,000 they needed to restore the building.
In 1977, they began an ambitious plan to undertake a “showcase house” at 2 Clift St. (The Captain’s House) for four weeks in mid-summer. Decorator showcase houses featured multiple rooms designed by different interior decorators.
The showcase house committee created posters and sent thousands of mailings across Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and Massachusetts to chambers of commerce, historical societies, interior decorators, women’s clubs, garden clubs, antique shops and design schools.
Their efforts paid off handsomely. The proceeds were approximately $7,000 which is equivalent to $35,000 today and was $1,000 above their estimate.
With the increased funds, the society immediately solicited bids from Mystic contractors for the next phase of the work: roof replacement, repairing substantial rot and damage, installing new windows, painting the building and shutters and converting the single front door to the original two doors (one for boys, the other for girls).
Costs were higher than anticipated, and by June 1978 they had spent all the money they raised. In October 1978, Society president Joyce Everett announced another $20,000 was needed to complete the exterior restoration. By the fall of 1979, that money was raised and exterior painting and the shutters were completed.
The final touch was building and installing a new belfry and cupola. The society received a grant to pay for the project, but the money would be released only after the work was completed. So the society had to raise the money for the work and then get reimbursed through the grant.
In December 1980, the society newsletter celebrated the completion of the new belfry.
It noted that Mystic Seaport had donated the original bell from Mystic Academy for the cupola.
But there was no rest for the weary. The society now had to raise money and tackle the restoration of the interior of Portersville Academy.
This narrative shows the hard work and determination of early leaders and members of the historical society to restore a significant building in Mystic’s history. Today Portersville Academy, at 74 High St., periodically holds open houses so the public can see Mystic’s first school.
Lynn Schroder is a member of the board of trustees of the Mystic River Historical Society.