It's official: Mystic's Coogan Farm is open

Mystic — It was not your typical dedication and grand opening ceremony at the Denison Pequotsepos/Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center Monday.

A great horned owl and a snake were there, along with about 150 supporters and interested citizens.

There were politicians and community leaders, too, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who noted he had never been invited to cut a vine before. And U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, who remarked, "this is the coolest podium I've ever been in front of," as he stood at a dais hand-fashioned from native woods, including cedar, grape vine and birch.

The Coogan Farm, a 45-acre, $5 million project that will enhance environmental educational opportunities in the region, officially opened Monday afternoon with the dedication of the John E. Avery House & Welcome Center and the Jules X. Schneider Nature & Arts Barn at the Greenmanville Avenue property. The governor, and the center's executive director, were joined by other dignitaries to snip a long garland of twisted grape vine with over-sized scissors to officially mark the occasion.  

While the speakers lauded the vision of Maggie Jones, the executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos/Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center, to bring the acquisition of the property and its transformation to fruition, Jones thanked the community and specifically the project's supporters, for making it a reality.

"This place, the Coogan Farm, it speaks to me," she said. "It's one of the last green spaces."

Jones said she would like people to "slow down and listen to the landscape," when they visit Coogan Farm.

"Our entire community is enriched because of her work," said Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, of Jones' guiding the Coogan Farm project.

Jones said the Coogan Farm "has spoken" to others in the community, too, including the Avery family, which supported restoration of the farmhouse on the property, which has been named for John E. Avery Jr., and his father, John E. Avery Sr., both of whom are deceased.

The farmhouse includes a welcome center and small retail shop, a teaching kitchen, and conference/classroom space, as well as nature center administrative offices.

Paul Avery, the son and grandson of John E. Avery Jr. and Sr., spoke on behalf of his family and noted that his descendants first arrived in Massachusetts in 1630, and since about 1650 have been living in the Groton/Mystic/Stonington area.

He said multiple generations of his family have lived within a 10-mile radius of the Coogan Farm for centuries "and my father and grandfather are here now in spirit as true Cooganites."

Jeff Schneider spoke about his late son, Jules X. Schneider, for whom the farm's nature and arts barn is named. Jeff and Ana Schneider lost Jules in 1984 when he was 13, as a result of cardiomyopathy.

The barn will serve as both classroom and exhibit space, and Schneider said his son will live on through the people who use the space, and benefit from the facility.

"Today we are here to celebrate the Coogan Farm, and Jules," he said.

On behalf of the citizens of the state, Gov. Malloy thanked Jones and others who made the Coogan Farm a reality, and called it "a gift" to the public and Connecticut.

Courtney noted that the farm's Giving Garden has already begun to supply produce to the local food locker, and said, "What happens here is not just about the haves, but the have-nots, too."

"Coogan Farm is not elitist," he said.

Following a two-year fundraising effort in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, the nature center bought 34 acres of the Coogan Farm property in 2013 for $2.8 million. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service contributed $600,000 toward the purchase and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection gave another $500,000. The Coogan Family then donated an additional 11 acres.

In addition, there were 800 more individual monetary contributions, for a total of $5 million, with $2.2 million going toward property improvements.

Monday's grand opening and dedication fell on the exact date of the 70th anniversary of the wildlife sanctuary's founding. On April 25, 1946, local citizens created the Pequot-sepos Wildlife Sanctuary, intended to preserve natural resources and educate people about the environment.

That work continues today.

Jones, the executive director, has said that what started as a land preservation project — saving the Coogan Farm — has grown to something much bigger. It is now possible to hike from the original Pequotsepos Nature Center property off Pequotsepos Road through trails and meadows to the Coogan Farm property off Greenmanville Avenue.

The project has created a greenway linking open space, footpaths, bike trails, and area attractions, shops and schools.

It is also habitat for species listed as high conservation priorities by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, such as the New England cottontail, box turtle and American kestrel. And, it helps to protect the Mystic River and Pequotsepos Brook.

a.baldelli@theday.com

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