Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center
In September 2013, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, purchased 34 acres of the historic Coogan Farm property on Greenmanville Avenue in Mystic, capping a two-year Campaign to Save Coogan Farm.
With the donation of 11 additional adjoining acres, the Nature Center was able to create the 45-acre Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center. It is the last parcel of undeveloped farmland between downtown Mystic, Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium. The property, with sweeping views of the Mystic River, contains 370 years of American history, four early successional habitats supporting more than 10 species listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as high conservation priority, and protects two crucial watersheds.
The Nature Center is so grateful for the efforts of the more than 60 volunteers and the contributions from 760 donors and the Trust for Public Land to help us reach this critical milestone.
The grand opening of the Coogan Farm Nature and Heritage Center was celebrated with a Sept. 4, 2014 ribbon cutting and a Sept. 6 free community picnic. The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center and the Trust for Public Land hosted the ribbon cutting at Coogan Farm, 162 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic. Local, state and federal dignitaries were on hand to celebrate the official opening of the 45-acre public park.
At Coogan Farm, nature and history can shape the future for our children and our community. The vision for Coogan Farm echoes the voices of more than 400 community leaders, volunteers, donors and friends, as well as the Nature Center and the Trust for Public Land. Coogan Farm will incorporate the following values that are critical to maintaining our community’s good quality of life:
Protecting two Stonington watersheds, wildlife habitats and historic structures, the Farm will bring visitors close to nature and foster a public land ethic. This will address issues of overdevelopment, loss of biodiversity, water quality and flood control.
The walking and biking trails at Coogan Farm will encourage healthy lifestyles by linking a 300-acre greenway with area attractions, stores, schools, hotels and neighborhoods. Produce grown in the community garden and harvest-to-table activities will promote good nutrition and healthful eating habits.
As a centrally accessible gathering place and events venue, the Farm will engender public pride in its history as a birthplace of the American spirit. And, a large community giving garden will build civic-mindedness on a new scale.
Ascribing to the maxim, “To know is to value and protect,” the Nature Center’s experienced naturalists will utilize the Farm’s superb natural and historic resources. Coogan Farm will enhance the Nature Center’s already impressive programs for adults and children throughout the region. New teaching sites, interpretive signs, outdoor classrooms and historic buildings will be models of community education.
Beginning with the historic Greenmanville Trail, visitors will stroll or bike through the Farm to the Mystic Seaport, Mystic Aquarium, Denison Homestead and the Nature Center. The well planned network of trails will allow visitors to enjoy sweeping vistas, picnic breaks or simple relaxation after a busy day. The Farm will enhance visitors’ experiences in the Mystic area and entice them to stay longer and revisit.
What is Coogan Farm?
The property now known as Coogan Farm began to take shape in the 17th-century when Captain John Gallup received a 500-acre land grant from John Winthrop, Jr. for his efforts in the Pequot War. This land was west of Captain George Denison’s land and eventually bounded by the Mystic River at the farthest western edge. Gallup built his house on the west slope of the north-south ridge that divides the land. A stone-lined well marks the approximate location of the old Gallup Homestead. Recent clearing on the property has revealed what we believe to be the site of this early homestead.
Captain John Gallup joined his friends and neighbors, captains John Mason and George Denison, and their troops in the Great Swamp Fight in Rhode Island, which was a part of King Philip’s War. Gallup lost his life in the conflict and was buried in a mass grave. For another 200 years the Gallups continued to occupy or own the land until the Greenman brothers of Mystic purchased the 80-acre Lower Farm of the Gallup land sometime in the 1840s. George, Clark and Thomas Greenman of the shipbuilding trade used the land as a farm to ensure a supply of fresh produce, milk and cheese from the gardens and orchards of the farm.
In 1888, George Greenman sold the Lower Farm to his niece Harriet Greenman Stillman. She in turn transferred the land to her cousin (Charlotte) Elizabeth Greenman Stillman. Elizabeth was the wife of Thomas Edgar Stillman, Esquire of New York, who was responsible for the construction of the elaborate masonry foundation on the high ridge of the farm. This ridge separated the Mystic River Valley from the Pequotsepos Valley.
The Stillmans inspired many a romantic tale that has changed throughout the centuries. Some say Thomas was building the magnificent mansion for his blushing young bride Elizabeth before her untimely death. It is true that Elizabeth Greenman Stillman died in 1901 halting the construction, but their marriage was years earlier and their four children had since grown.
Left behind as if a silent memorial, two circular towers on the west side of the foundation still stand waiting to support a view of her homeland from the ridge. Today, we are still trying to confirm the architect of this unfinished pastoral mansion. It may have been the same architect used by Stillmans’ daughter Mary Emma Stillman Harkness, wife of Edward Harkness. The Harknesses constructed the famed Waterford mansion Eolia by Long Island Sound, which is now part of Harkness Memorial State Park. Their architect was James Gamble Rogers. Rogers also designed the Greenman Memorial Chapel in Elm Grove Cemetery across from Coogan Farm, as well as several other mansions and buildings for the family.
In 1902, Thomas Stillman sold the acreage of the Lower Farm to Walter C. Morgan. And thus it became the Coogan Farm after Clara Avery Morgan inherited it from her father and married Clarence A. Coogan in 1918.
Thanks in part to Historical Footnotes from the Stonington Historical Society and Rudy J. Favretti, a native of Mystic and Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture at the University of CT for historical background. The Mystic River Historical Society is curator of the Coogan collection of photographs and memorabilia.