Mill Woods Park: A History

by Jim Meehan

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“Het Up For Fair”

“Your ear for a minute, please, a bit of space in your paper if possible in these days of shortage, for I am het up for fair.

“Wethersfield has before it a proposition of tremendous import as clearly delineated by the Park Board and Town Plan Commission before an interested two hundred or more residents Wednesday night in the Charles Wright School.  It has to do with developing a tract at the southern end of Wolcott Hill Road known as the Mill Woods…..

“The value, the priceless value of such a spot to the community at large is immediately apparent.  We have in our reaches a piece of property whose acreage includes wood dales, ponds and brooks that less fortunate towns would spend a mil to acquire….

“A mill or a mill and a half on present taxes will ‘put it in the works’, with swimming by midsummer a possibility.  May every Wethersfieldian (and who isn’t proud of the name?) back this undertaking wholeheartedly, bearing in mind he lives not in a bombed-out desolation but on a grand piece of native Yankee land which a bit of his hard-earned ‘whats-left after taxes’ will vastly improve to the future honor of his day and generation.

“If a public subscription, which may be a good idea to start the ball rolling, is deemed advisable, the paragrapher will donate the small sum of $25 to ‘open the pot’”.

I.M. Soldonit
To the Editor, Hartford Courant, March 25, 1944.”

All According to Plan

One-half century later, on August 8, 1995 Wethersfield Mayor Daniel Camilliere proclaimed, “WHEREAS, Now in 1995, attendance records continue to be set with over 40,000 people of all ages utilizing the Mill Woods pool facility as a place to swim, socialize, relax and generally enhance the quality of their daily lives… HAPPY FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY TO MILL WOODS POOL.”

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Cake was served.  There was a sand castle contest, water events, and free admission to all town residents and their guests.  Doris Harwe was there in her swimsuit.  She was also there, similarly attired, on June 16, 1945 – the day Mill Woods Pool first opened under the watchful eyes of Park Superintendent Ellis Backman and his staff of life guards: Ann Tewksbury, Tom Lasher, Roland Breaux and Ray Parent.

The Wethersfield Post reported that Ms. Harwe recalled moving to Wethersfield in 1940 as a child and finding nothing to do – no playgrounds, no swimming, nothing.  Most families had one car, and most mothers did not drive then anyway – so she had to wait for the weekend and her working father’s availability to go for a trip to the beach or a lake.  Then Mill Woods Pool opened and things changed – just as Herbert S. Swan predicted it would, back in 1928.

Swann, a City planner from New York, was hired by the Town Planning Commission – James B. Madigan (Chairman), John S. Buck, George S. Francis, F.B. Williams (Clerk), Edward W. Willard, Kenneth L. Fox, and A.W. Hanmer (Ex-Officio) – to develop a strategy for successfully converting the town of Wethersfield from the semi-rural community it had become in the early Twentieth Century to a densely built suburb of Hartford.

“Without a plan the city builds only for today – there is no attempt to foresee and provide for the needs of tomorrow….how fortunate it is that Wethersfield is able to develop a constructive plan before the whole town has been ruined through piecemeal planning.”

The general thesis of the document was that Wethersfield needed to leverage its geographic proximity to Hartford by becoming an attractive residential area with good transportation thoroughfares to and from the capitol city.  Part of this would be accomplished by having well-placed parkways and well-planned parks.

In the new residential Wethersfield “nearly every family will possess an automobile.  The whole countryside can, therefore, be readily reached within a few minutes of every home.”  Large public parks will become obsolete and be replaced instead by smaller neighborhood play areas “in order to get the children off the streets, to avoid needless traffic accidents and death.”

The plan would require the unselfish co-operation of property owners.

“Generous property owners are afforded by the comprehensive plan an opportunity to aid the town in its realization, through gifts of parcels incorporated in the park scheme. Various parks in Hartford have been donated to the city…Today, they constitute not only worthy memorials to these public spirited citizens in that their names are handed down to posterity but that funds that might otherwise have gone into the building of a mausoleum afford countless thousands of children and opportunity to enjoy necessary outdoor recreation.

“To realize this park program is probably more than the treasury of the town will admit of for a good many years to come.  To make this realization certain, the town requires the co-operation of the property owners themselves.”

The 1928 plan proposed the following parks: Goodwin Park (Within Wethersfield)/84 acres; Goodwin Park Extension/206; Reservoir Park/112; Cove Park (land)/27; Cove Park (water)/67; Wells Park/34; Griswoldville Park/30; Rocky Hill Park (Within Wethersfield)/22; Goff Park/7; The Green/6; and Mill Park/5.

The map included with the formal document showed Griswoldville Park as an uneven five-sided area with its two western borders adjacent to a straight-line extension of Wolcott Hill Road and a proposed “Goodwin Parkway” that would run from Campfield Avenue in Hartford “in the valley south of Goodwin Park” south to Prospect Street then southeasterly to connect with another proposed parkway along Goff Brook.

“Wethersfield is exceedingly fortunate in the fact that the inland parks need not be developed without water features…Goff Brook as already been dammed, so there are ponds at various points along its course.  Reservoir Park, Griswoldville Park and Rocky Hill Park all utilize various ponds made by damming Goff Brook.”

The Goodwin Parkway however was never built. Instead, as described in its minutes, on July 10, 1933 The Bureau of Public Works of the Metropolitan [Water] District “respectfully” recommended “the layout of a street or highway to be known as Folly Brook Boulevard extending from Camp Field Avenue in Hartford to Griswold Road in Wethersfield.”

The idea for a park in the Griswoldville area however remained alive.

A Wooded Setting of Rare Beauty

“The second known corne-mill in the New-England, operated by Leonard Chester 1637-48 and the saw-pit were located upon Two Stone Brook which coursed with a wooded setting of rare beauty, owned by the descendents of early families.  ‘Many person had suggested its use as a park’ under the leadership of L. Wayne Adams who had previously obtained option from interested owner, Mr. Frederick I. Griswold, upon a land-locked 6/12 acre section in the middle of the tract. [L.W. Adams was the son of Luther Walton Adams, the nephew of Sherman W. Adams, and one of the prime movers in founding Wethersfield Historical Society.] A group of eight townsmen was organized in April 1939 to complete the purchase. (“Origins of Our Parks” by Jared B. Standish in the 1953 Town Annual Report)

millwoodsA Wooded Setting of Rare BeautyGriswoldvillemap-thumb-320x356-253-thumb-200x223-1239

On a comfortably warm June 2011 afternoon my wife Marsha and I walked with Martha Mayer of the Griswoldville Preservation Association to the site of that “corne-mill”.   We began our trek in the park, at the parking lot by the skateboard facility.  The mill remnants are located in an easily accessible but difficult-to-see section of Mill Woods Park – beyond the outfield fence of the Fusco softball field, down a short narrow path, and through the waterside vegetation to the banks of what is today commonly called Goff Brook.  A few stones from the original mill and the earthen dam are visible, with a little assistance from Martha.  The stream then turns right and runs in an easterly direction over a cement dam built in the mid 1800s into what is now called Bell Pond.  We walked to the dam and entered the pond side at the foot of the waterfall by crawling though an opening in the chain link fence that marks the boundary of the park.

We then retraced our steps and drove over to the dog park where we left our vehicles and headed off on foot to the southern end of Mill Woods Park. Walking along the eastern edge of Winding Brook Turf Farm we slogged through some watery land following the path of Goff Brook and came to what is generally called Griswold Pond on the western side of Randy Lane.  Upstream from the dam Martha pointed out the former site of the Griswoldville Ice House on a small spit of land into the pond.  The wooden building, filled with sawdust to preserve the ice, went up in flames in the 1930’s and was not rebuilt.

From there we walked out Cheston Circle to a location near the spot where Two Stone Brook goes under Griswold Road, crossed the street, and walked northward to the former site of the second mill on our tour, midway in the turn in the road.

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This mill belonged to Captain Thomas Williams – the son of immigrant English parents whose mother steered him into blacksmithing rather than working in the mills, which trade led him to a life at sea sailing out of the Fairhaven/New Bedford area where he quickly rose through the ranks, ultimately to Captaincy, moved to Wethersfield in 1859 and bought the mill in 1866 in order to control the water privileges in the area.  The mill was in what is now the backyard property of two private homes, and with the thick spring leaves we were not able to actually see much of the remains.  Martha did tell us however about walking by this spot on a winter morning and, because of the conditions, being able to clearly see that the distribution of riparian vegetation east of the stream matched the square outline of a mill pond shown on an historic map (1869).

Next we turned up Highland Street and onto private land on which Martha is allowed to conduct her tour.  In the back yard was a stone spillway connected to an earth dam, which had created a former mill pond.  Some of the stones and wood from the original earthen dam that helped control the water there in the 1800’s still remained.

We then walked down Stocking Mill Road and turned briefly onto Terrywood and the former location of the Griswoldville Manufacturing Company.  Portions of the former mill, which burned down in 1847, were clearly visible.

Photos of this walk taken by Marsha are posted at the end of this piece.  More information on Griswoldville and its mills is available in Donna Hemmann’s “Articles from the Community” on the Wethersfield Historical Society website.  Walking tours of the mills are available through the Griswoldville Preservation Association.

The First Parcel

“Acquisition of Mill Woods property for conversion to a public park by CWA [Civil Works Administration] labor is impossible because owners either will not sell or else hold their land at prohibitive prices First Selectman Alfred W. Hanmer reported at a meeting of the Wethersfield Men’s Business and Civic Association” in February, 1934.

Then, on April 29, 1939, Frederick I. Griswold deeded 6.25 acres to the town of Wethersfield with the stipulation that the land be used for park purposes, reverting to him or his heirs should that not occur. According to the Hartford Daily Courant “The land in question….consists of woodland almost entirely free of underbrush and intersected at one end by the stream known variously as Two-Stone, Mill, Goff or Spring Brook.”  (The multiplicity of names for geographic features makes the researching of history in our town all the more interesting.)

Griswold was allowed the rights to any fallen timber on the donated tract removed before June 1.  Today this original Mill Woods bequest comprises roughly the area wherein we walked to the first mill. Additional land was said to be available to the town for a price of around $2,000 but none was acquired at that time.

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Conversations about the development of Mill Woods Park were a regular feature at Town Plan Commission meetings for the next several years.  In 1939 and 1940 the issue became intertwined with the building of a road proposed to run southward from the intersection of Wolcott Hill Road and Prospect Street to Maple Street, ending two hundred feet southwest of the east border of the Burgey property.  Much of the debate centered on whether to have a detailed plan for the facility prior to purchasing the land, or acquiring the land and then planning it, like the city of New London was doing with Ocean Beach Park.  Most of the desire expressed at the meeting was for a swimming area.

Three years later at a town meeting on July 27, 1942 the Town Plan Commission was authorized to secure as much acreage of Mill Woods as necessary for future public use as a Recreational Center.  In August of that year Mill Woods Park, consisting entirely of the original Griswold bequest, was opened for public use.

Entry to the recreation area was via a ten-foot wide strip of land leased for $1.00 from John H. Risley that ran 1789 feet easterly from Griswold Road along the dividing line between Mr. Risley’s and Alfred P. Brighetti’s properties.  This right of way was limited to foot, bicycle and horseback traffic, and the public was urged to take precautions not to trespass on the privately owned property that surrounded the park.  John Willard, Park Board Chairman, said that plans were under way to equip Mill Woods Park with fireplaces, picnic tables and “settees” as soon as possible.

Between the official entrance and the “park” lay “Shep’s Pond.” – the official-unofficial swimming hole for kids in the south-central part of Wethersfield, and thus an obvious candidate for expansion of the park.

Due to Public Demand

In his memoir “Wethersfield Summers” published in “Articles from the Community” on the Wethersfield Historical Society website Dr. Tom Gworek recalled,

“We had little trouble crossing the barbed wire fence and headed for the small grove of trees a few hundred yards off navigating between thistles and cow droppings along the way.

“Ahead of us lay “Shep’s” pond. We never knew or cared who “Shep” was but that was the only name we ever used for our swimming hole. The side we approached was very shallow and always covered with green algae and accompanied by one or two cows drinking.”

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However the same June 25, 1942 Hartford Daily Courant that foretold the opening of the park also recounted a 1937 State Board of Health report on possible swimming places in Wethersfield.  “The report indicated that the Griswold Pond and the Mill Pond which were considered at that time were not free from pollution and had insufficient flow of water at some times of the year so that the town would be better satisfied by building a concrete pool rather than investing in the development of the ponds.”  Town Engineer Philip O. Roberts however reported that it would be impossible to obtain the steel necessary for such a project – presumably because of WWII material shortages.

“Shep” in fact was Hiram Shepard.  And in July 1943 and April 1944 John Risley and Hattie Churchill Shepard deeded “Shep’s Pond” to the town of Wethersfield in the form of two adjacent parcels of land totaling almost twelve acres for “Ten dollars and other valuable considerations” each. In addition to the water hole, this land now includes the two northernmost ball fields on the west side of the park.

The remainder of what was to become the Mill Woods Swimming Pool (along with a portion of the Upper Pond) was donated – also for $10 – to the town in May of 1943 by John H. Risley.

Additional gifts of land from Burton A. Harris (2.4 acres on 3/10/1944), Mabel A. Deming (15.5 acres on 6/5/1944), and Edward Horowitz, and Bessie H. Apter.  (.67 acres each on 9/19/44) provided what today are the Prospect Street entrance and adjacent soccer field, the southwest two-thirds of the woods, as well as two small adjacencies to the main parcels.

The August 21, 1944 minutes of the Wethersfield Park Board listed $18.820 in projected expenses for readying the pool plus $1,180 for additional expenses totaling $20,000:
Road           $1,000
Excavation    2,400
Water            2,345
Culverts        1,300
Fences          2,500
Toilets           1,000
Bathhouse    5,000
Equipment       500
Sand             2,500
Dam                 200
Boat                   75

At the end of August “bank run sand” at 90 cents per ton was placed on the bottom of the basin, and the Clark Construction Company completed the bathhouse for $5,524.  An undated newspaper clipping at the Parks and Recreation Department says that the D.V. Frione Construction Company, Inc. of New Haven was awarded the contract “for excavating and stripping at Mill Woods…the first step toward development of swimming and park facilities at Mill Woods.”  Just two-thirds of the eight-acre swimming pond was prepared at a cost of $3093 ($1,000 less than planned) in order to meet the budget allowance from the town.

A detailed map of Mill Woods was requested from the Town Planning Department “in order that cows pastured in abutting property may be kept out of all park property as the work progresses.” And in January of 1945 the Park Board gibed the Town Planning Department to “get busy on this matter” lest the swimming pool not be ready on time.  In May Ellis Backman was appointed as the first Park Superintendent.

The June, 1945 minutes of the Park Board noted that, the swimming area was originally conceived as a post-war project, “but public demand as reflected by the Recreation Committee and school authorities resulted in earlier action.”

No Cows Using the Water

The pool officially opened on June 15, 1945.

In his memoir “Wethersfield Summers” Dr. Tom Gworek recalled:

“We finally came to a narrow paved road where there had once been the pasture we wandered through.  At the end was a bathhouse and over the door the wording “Mill Woods Park”. It was great. There was a sandy beach, no cows using the water as a bathroom and the water was almost clear.
The clarity (or lack thereof) is a recurring theme in the history of Mill Woods Swimming Pool.]

“There were swimming lessons and lifeguards.

“That opening day they had swim races and I was proud to win some type of ribbon for my age group. I remember staring in amazement at an under water race. One of the older boys I knew dove in from the small dam at one side of the pool and never seemed to come up. I stared in awe as a small trail of bubbles marked his path under the water. I didn’t think anyone could stay under the water that long and began to feel scared that something had happened to him. Just then his head shot up out of the water. We all cheered and he waved. He won a ribbon too.”

Three days later Philip F. Roberge Jr. (13 years of age) – the son of Dr. and Mrs. Roberge of Dorchester Road – accidentally drowned when he reportedly stepped into a hole in the swimming area.  The deceased and a friend, Ronald Whaley, were walking in the water about twenty feet from shore.  Whaley reported the disappearance to the lifeguards and Superintendent Backman organized a human chain, which found Roberge’s body.  Neither boy was able to swim.  Park officials later discounted the existence of a hole.  The attempted recovery was the first use of the inhalator (respirator) that had been newly acquired by the town of Rocky Hill.  The pool closed for the season on Labor Day with the possibility of weekend opening should the warm weather warrant it.

In the same month the town put out a Request for Bids to build a concrete dam separating the Upper Pond from the swimming area – bids due by 11;00 am standard time on 11/4/1945 with the work to be completed by 6/1/1946.  The barrier was to be circular with a six-foot spillway and fifty feet in length with a height of eight feet.  The cement mixing specifications called for mixing of one and one-quarter minutes at between fourteen and twenty revolutions per minute.

“During the progress of the work, should the timing device become broken or out of order, the contractor will be permitted to operate for the balance of the day without the timing device, provided he furnishes and hangs in a conspicuous place on the mixer an approved clock with conspicuous minute and second hands and provided further that each batch is mixed two minutes.”

Useless, Idle Land

The June 15, 1946 Hartford Times announced that Mill Woods Park would officially open for its second season that day with several improvements – eight stone fireplaces, several newly constructed picnic tables, a re-sloped and re-sanded beach bordering the pool, freshly planted shrubbery around the bathhouse, and a new gravel walk along the entrance road.  In September the Wethersfield Rotary Club donated a fieldstone fireplace in memory of former School Superintendent Wilson Green.  The fireplace is no longer in existence.  And in October work was begun on an earthen dam and spillway between the Upper pond and the swimming pool.  According to the October 1949 Board of Park Commissioners minutes, the embankment was completed, to the month, three years later.

The pool was off to a great start – 9,370 paid admissions and approximately 2,000 people used the picnic grove.  But in 1947 an issue arose around the fifty-foot wide Griswold Road entryway to the park.  John C. Risley, the lessor of the property, wanted to develop it into a town road as the basis for a proposed residential community.

According to the Hartford Times:

“A survey by a sanitary engineer of a possible building development on proposed Risley Road, was advocated at the Town Planning Commission public hearing Tuesday night when the application of John Risley, requesting the acceptance of the proposed street running east from Griswold Road to Mill Woods park was presented.

‘Three persons said they did not oppose development of the area but feared that Mill Woods Park swimming pool would become polluted because of lack of sewer facilities for homes in the development.”

F. Ellis Backman said the proposed development properties were not suitable for septic tanks and the resulting seepage and drainage would create a serious hazard at the pool.  Frank T. Briggaman added, “It would be a dangerous procedure to the future of Mill Woods to put the street in without sewers.”  James J. Devlin questioned whether the acceptance of the proposed street and subsequent development would injure others.

Attorney Howard B. Phelan, representing Mr. Risley, countered that the real estate in question was “useless. Idle land” because the town had leased it from his client in 1942 with the expectation that the long term Mill Woods Park development plan would be adopted and the town would purchase more of Mr. Risley’s acreage.

“To keep the land available, without development, for the town to purchase is unfair.  If the town wants the property it is available for sale and equitable arrangements can be made.”

In July 1947 Superintendent Backman recommended to the Park Board the “purchase of more of the Risley property to prevent development close to the swimming pool.

At about the same time an organizational meeting “designed to form an association to ‘create and promote’ interest in Mill Woods Park and its future development was held.  Organizers included Mrs. David C. Brown, Mrs. Paul H. Twaddle, Mrs. Harold B. Mann and Mrs. William O. Mosher.  An organization was formed with officers of Dr. Eugene E. Lamoureux, Mrs. George Bragdon, Mrs.  David Cornwall and Thomas Kelleher.  F. Ellis Backman was named to the Executive Committee.

In June of 1948, after tabling the issue for several meetings, the Town Plan Commission formally disapproved the Risley Road development project and the Town of Wethersfield acquired nine and one-half acres of property – including the Griswold entryway – from Mr. Risley for $3,500.  The land was under cultivation at that time and it was agreed not to disturb it during that growing season.

“Purchase of the land is in line with the long range plan for development of the park.  Harry S. Griswold, park commission chairman, said…that the commission hopes eventually to have a baseball diamond and to improve the area near the swimming pool.”

The plan for a residential development along Risley Road was abandoned.  By the end of the 1947 swimming season more than 33,000 people (21,371 paid) had used the Mill Woods Swimming Pool.  The American Red Cross officially commended the facility for its swimming program.

Voting Booths and Swishing Water

During the summer of 1948 “A refectory program at Mill Woods Park, instituted on 7/3/1948, was successfully conducted by Mrs. Walter Dudley throughout the swimming season.”  The refreshment stand was constructed “using one of the town’s discarded voting booths.”   The booth was open from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm and Mrs. Dudley was paid $.75/hour plus a percent of sales.

A drought in 1949 forced the pool to enforce a 100-bathers-at-one-time limit.  Water from the north dam – treated daily with five pounds of chlorine and ten pounds of copper sulphate – was fed into the pool.  According to F. Ellis Backman, “the latter kills algae but…has not bothered the pool’s fish or frogs.”  As a result of the drought and the  “polio scare” of 1949 (which curtailed the usage of public pools nationwide), attendance at Mill Woods decreased by over 9,000 from the previous year (13,164 paid).

Users of the pool also complained that the water was “murky” and might be a danger to the children using the facility.  In October of that year the Mill Woods Park Improvement Association named an eleven-member panel to investigate the problems and estimate cost of remedying them. Panelists identified in the October 31, 1949 Hartford Courant were: Dr. and Mrs. A.S. Deming, Burton A. Harris, Mrs. Robert J. Farrell, Daniel Whelton, Arthur De John, William Gustafson, Mrs. Ralph O. Magnuson, and Mrs. George T. Holbrook.

The group issued its report on February 15, 1950.  The document recommended: weekly testing and treatment of the water by the Town Health Officer and the publication of these results in the local newspapers; the addition of erosion-preventing logs and more sand to the beach area; the creation of a children’s wading pool, and (most importantly) that the “entire basin of the pool could be ‘stabilized’, that is, mixed with cement, a process that has worked successfully on roads, landing fields, and a pool in New York” or (a less expensive alternative) that the entire bottom be covered with a ten inch layer of clean gravel and sand..  They estimated the cost of the stabilization at no more than $11,000.  Representatives of the Portland Cement Company showed a film of the process, which actually mixes the cement with the soil at hand – according to a “scientifically tested formula”.

Later that year Park Board Chairman Henry S. Griswold announced a new plan for circulating water at the pool which, if successful, would get the clay and mud off the bottom of the pool by having the current push it downstream.  At that time water entered the pool from Goff Brook at the southwest corner and was divided into two streams that went around either side of the pool and exited at a spillway at the northeast corner.  Under the new system, the water from the east side stream would be diverted back into the pool to circulate with the other stream – “how you clean a bathtub by swishing water all around the sides.”

Also in July of 1950 the Park Board gave permission to the town Little League Committee permission to get a purchase price for land east of the town road and north of Goff Brook Green from the Horowitz Estate for Little League fields to be moved from the Broad Street Green.  In September the committee reported back that 8.5 acres, 200 feet from Prospect Street was available for sale at $10,000 or lease at $1,000 per year.  In February the Board reported that there would be new Little League fields north of the brook and on land purchased from Hattie C. Shephard on the west side of her property.

In November the Park Board Chair Henry S. Griswold announced the go ahead for a concrete dam project at Mill Woods.  Architectural plans drafted by Henry W. Buck of the firm Buck and Buck were presented, examined and accepted by the board.  The concrete dam was completed that year and was replaced in the year 2000.

Additional land was purchased over the next several years from Rose Fazzini, (6/25/48 -west side between baseball fields); Harry N Griswold (10/21/1952 – east 1/2 of woods; Merritt N Baldwin (11/10/1961 – East 1/2 tennis court, Northeast baseball field, woods & stream); Stephen Morgan, (1/29/1962 -South 2/3 pond); Newton H Griswold Jr. (6/25/1963 – South exit way); and Alps Enterprises (9/25/67 – south end of dirt rod beside Upper Pond).

Unsolved Mysteries

I was unable, however, to find the complete story on all of the proposed Mill Woods projects that are mentioned in the Park Board Minutes.

In October 1952 the Meyer Building was donated to Mill Woods.  It was to be moved from its location on Welles Road to “left of the town road to [the] Park, south of the Horowitz property and north of the brook.”  I did not find out if and when it was relocated – or if it ever was or still is in the park.

I also came upon part of the story of the Girl Scout Cabin at which a celebration was to be held in October of 1947.  I do not know its origin but its demise occurred in March of 1953 when it burned to the ground and the park Board decided to “raze the remains of the building leaving the fire place for use of the picnic grounds.”  The fireplace is no longer in the park.

And most perplexing to me is the following undated draft letter of which I found copies at both the Wethersfield Historical Society and Parks and Recreation Department.

“Whereas the present Mill Woods area is embraced within the 100 acre grant by the town of Wethersfield in 1637 to Leonard Chester for the purpose of erecting the earliest “Corne Mill” in the town, and

‘Whereas it is proposed to convert the east portion of these woods into a residential area necessitating the destruction of a large part of these woods, and their historical significance, therefore be it resolved that the Wethersfield Historical Society believes that it would be an advantage to the town to own the woods and annex them to the present Mill Woods Park thereby extending the park to the eastward to border on Maple Street and be it further resolved that the Town Plan Commission and the Park Commission be and they are hereby requested to take such action as will result in the acquisition of these woods and annexing them to the present Mill Woods Park.”

Preserving the Open Characteristics of Residential Neighborhoods

From the 1950’s through 1970’s (although not every year) Mill Woods Park was the site of the town’s Fourth of July fireworks display.  In 1952 some 15,000 persons attended the event, which began at 7:30 pm with a band concert by the First Regiment Band of the Connecticut State Guard while a detail of six policemen directed by Chief Thomas J. Sullivan stood watch.  The displays were ended in 1976 for cost reasons.

In July 1961 the “Report on Planning” a.k.a. “The Allen Report” was presented to the Park and Recreation Board.  Also that year Bill Pitkin was appointed Director of Recreation.

“Mill Woods Park is the principal town area devoted to open land uses and, with the Golf Club and the 1870 Reservoir, will preserve the open characteristics of the residential neighborhoods in the southern part of town.’

The report went on to say that Mill Woods Park “should be a town-wide park and playfield.”  Among the recommended installations were: 3 softball diamonds; 2 baseball diamonds; 2 football-soccer fields; and 18 hole par three golf course; 2 parking areas; expanded picnic facilities; day camp, nature trails and council ring in woods; 2 bocce courts; a carousel; and a recreation building with various features.  The top immediate priorities were a baseball diamond, large parking area and to “construct a dam and excavate the pond.”

The opening of four new tennis courts in August was delayed by vandalism.  The protective coating had been applied to the surface and was drying and the lines had been painted.  The despoilers climbed over the locked 10 foot high chain link fence and stole the custom made net fittings which then had to be special ordered from a company in Kokomo, Indiana.

During the next month vandals also damaged six nursery swings, masonry in one of the fireplaces, and one of the water fountains causing a “towering squirt” that attracted a relatively large audience from the surrounding neighborhood.

In June eight projects from the Allen Report were slated for implementation at Mill Woods at a total cost of $606,000 – a recreation center multi-use areas; preschool area; an expanded and improved picnic area; a civil defense building; 9 holes of the par three golf course; and 2 bocce courts.  The second 9 holes of the golf course were scheduled a part a later project grouping.

Evidently implementation of the projects did not go smoothly. Public demand for building an actual swimming pool at Mill Woods apparently continued in spite of the plan, and in March of 1965, based upon responses to a survey and a defeated town referendum Director Bill Pitkin announced the “pool is dead” and that the golf course was now a “long term” possibility.  In August it was decided to build a new swim facility at Greenfield School.

The murkiness issues however continued at the Mill Woods pool, which was closed in May of 1966 due to the “turbid condition of the water”.  A vacuum filter employing diatomaceous earth was installed by Connecticut Swimming Pool Company at a cost of $29,000 and Edwin Balf Company paved a portion of the swimming pool bottom (six feet out on land to twenty-four feet beyond the water line) with three-part surfacing using bituminous materials the top layer of which was a soft white bitumen.

In August of 1969 Director Pitkin agreed to provide a lighted area within which town teenagers could hang out at night – unsupervised.  The teens agreed to a code of behavior to which they adhered and other than some generalized concerns expressed by older residents visiting the park at night, there were apparently no untoward incidents.  The informal program continued for several years.

In 1972 amesite was installed on about one-third of the lower pond bottom – covering most of the swim area.  In 2000 the town placed a special concrete mixture over the amesite.
Director Bill Pitkin passed away in March 1989 and was succeeded by Kathy Bagley in November of that year.  The town’s Community Center is named in his honor.

Providing for the Needs of Tomorrow

“In the spring of 2001, the Town authorized funding for a comprehensive study and Master Plan of Mill Woods Park….with the goal of meeting the recreational needs of the Town for the next several years.”

The study, performed by Kaestle Boos Associates, Inc., concluded that while “Mill Woods Park is generally in good condition, and is used extensively by a wide variety of community participants.”  – the numbers of athletic fields did not meet the Town’s growing needs; most of the park structures and building were not “American with Disabilities Act” compliant; inadequate parking and traffic flow problems still exist; and the apparatus in the parks playground also was not ADA compliant.  Among the plan’s recommendations were: an increase in the number of soccer and little league fields; several improvements to the beach; bicycle trails, more nature trails, and a footbridge to connect the park’s east and west sides at the southern end.  The plan also noted that the dam at the Upper Pond was already scheduled for replacement.

From the plan, as of this article, several projects have been completed – the Moeller Home has been converted to a Nature Center; Bocce Courts have been constructed; a Little League field has been lighted and the adjacent parking lot expanded; a water line to the upper softball fields was installed; walking trails have been improved; and new playground equipment set up.

Just a Little Bit of History Repeating

Like the original opening of the Mill Woods swimming area, two other major changes to the park came about, at least partially, due to “public demand” – and public initiative.
The Wethersfield Skate Park opened at Mill Woods in November 2005 with a brief ceremony and ribbon cutting.  About fifty skaters showed up to try out the new facilities.

The facility was recommended as part of the 2001 Improvement Plan. A committee of Wethersfield High School and college students chaired by 18 year-old Matt Zawadski worked for one and one-half years with the assistance of several town employee advisors to bring the facility into existence.  The group designed the park, hired the architect and contractor, and raised $165,000 through a combination of state and Hartford Foundation grants, fundraising activities, and contributions from local businesses.

Ten months later The Hartford Courant reported, “Dogs and their owners are checking out the new dog park at Mill Woods Park, even though the park doesn’t officially open until early October.

“‘People are bringing their dogs, hanging out there on weekends,’ said Don Griswold with the Wethersfield Dog Park Committee, which has since November 2005 raised more than $33,000 to build the park for dogs to run off-leash.”

The one-acre site was another cooperative effort between the committee and the town.  The town donated the land, cleared the brush, covered the area with wood chips and agreed to pay for refuse collection.  This committee likewise raised the money and designed the park.  In 2011 the facility was selected “Best Dog Park” by the readers of the Hartford Advocate newspaper.

Yet – even with all the changes – the wood dales, ponds and brooks endure.  In the 2001 Master Plan the Shade Tree Commission describes the forest at Mill Woods as “a jewel in Wethersfield’s crown.”

The park can be thought of in much the same way.  It still remains as I.M. Soldonit described it sixty-seven years ago – “a piece of property…. that less fortunate towns would spend a mil to acquire”.

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The Griswoldville Preservation Association

Wethersfield Summers by Dr. Tom Gworek [Online]

Groswoldville Connecticut (1680-1987) [Online]

Minutes of the Wethersfield Advisory Recreation and Park Board
?Wethersfield Parks and Recreation Department

Master Plan of Mill Woods Park
Wethersfield Parks and Recreation Department

Mill Woods Pool 50th Anniversary Scrapbook
Wethersfield Parks and Recreation Department

Mill Woods Park Scrapbook
Wethersfield Parks and Recreation Department

“Plan of A Residence Suburb Wethersfield Connecticut”, 1928?

Wethersfield Historical Society??Town of Wethersfield Annual Report – 1953?
Wethersfield Historical Society

Wethersfield Post
Wethersfield Historical Society??

Historical Hartford Courant (1923-1984) ?[Online]

??Hartford Courant (1992-current)  ?[Online]


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