A Short History of the Stonington Village Improvement Association
The Village Improvement Society, the forerunner of the Stonington Village Improvement Association, was formed on October 23, 1899 with 50 members. The Rev. E. B. Schmitt was the first president, Henry R. Palmer was vice president, Samuel Wood was secretary and Jean Palmer was treasurer. The Society was founded, in the words of a later SVIA president Franklin B. Hoadley (1956) to "promote the beauty and attractiveness of the Borough and arouse and foster unusual interest in its improvement." In 1901, the Board of Warden and Burgesses of the Borough of Stonington voted $25 to the Village Improvement Society for maintenance of Wadawanuck Park. That same year the Society also planted over 50 elm, ash, maple, and horse-chestnut trees on Borough streets.
In 1912 an "Old Timers' Concert" was held in Borough Hall to benefit the Village Improvement Society. The orchestra for the event included Maurice H. Crandall, Ralph Koelb, Charles S. Ryon, William Noyes, John Rose, Rouse B. Wilcox, Esther C. Perkins. According to the Stonington Chronology, "the hit of the evening was duet, 'Dost Thou Love Me, Sister Ruth,' sung by Vera Bradley and Chas. G. Cushman."
In 1931 a Mr. William P. Griffin of the Borough won a $10 prize from the Village Improvement Society for the best slogan-jingle about keeping streets clean: "To be spick and span throughout each street, Each day must be a part of clean-up week."
Following the devastating 1938 hurricane, the Village Improvement Society began a campaign to gather funds for tree rehabilitation and replacement.
The Articles of Association for the VIS (now re-named the Stonington Village Improvement Association, Inc.) were drawn up in 1947 (to read them, click here). A few months later, on the 1st of May 1947, the New Haven New York and Hartford Rail Road sold Mathews Park, which was the site of an old salt works, opposite the depot, to the SVIA for the very reasonable sum of $1.
In 1950 SVIA president Coert duBois and SVIA secretary Dana Burnet arranged to buy several parcels of land at Stonington Point for $20,000, money the SVIA certainly didn't have to hand. But after a public fund-raising campaign which raised more than $50,000 from every segment of the community, in May of 1956 the beach at the Point was opened to the public. Later that year, in June, the SVIA placed a monument of red Westerly granite at Stonington Point, deeded to the Borough from the US, to commemorate the battle of Stonington in 1814, to replace a sign that was destroyed by weather. The SVIA also erected flagpoles at the end of the Point. (In 1983 the minutes of a November 17 meeting note acidly "tamper proof mechanism was tampered with and another flag had to be put up.") And in 1960 the beach at the Point was named duBois Beach in honor of its creator.
In June 1963 the SVIA found itself at the center of a controversy involving a sign for Sealtest Ice Cream which had found its way atop the Strats Street Shop, located at 117 Water Street. In those pre-zoning-commission days, the SVIA offered to purchase signs for the merchants along Water Street that were in keeping with the Borough. Most merchants seemed to go along with this more or less agreeably until the Sealtest matter arose. Mr. John Knowles, president of the VIA, registered an objection to the sign at a meeting of the Board of Warden and Burgesses. In a letter to The Compass on the subject of what came to be called "The Great Sealtest Sign Controversy," Borough Burgess Alfred Lewis wrote "the native born resident definitely felt it was wrong for people who have only lately become residents of the boro to try to tell the residents what to do through the offices of the VIA." The Secretary of the SVIA, Ray Avellar, responded to this and other letters. But by July a writer for the Westerly Sun, Don Lewis, put paid to the dispute by stating categorically: "And to both Mr. Avellar and Mr. Lewis, even if you do stand on opposite sides of the fence, it's only a small one, so reach over it and shake hands. And don't bang your heads in the process. As for myself, if anyone feels that I have acted as self-appointed judge and jury," he continues, "I have."
As the 60s progressed and the country began to undergo another huge transformation of society at large, another SVIA president Taliaferro Boatwright noted pointedly in the annual appeal in the 1964 "We in Stonington are especially fortunate, for our homes, our surroundings, are largely what has been handed down to us. […] The Eastern seaboard is rapidly developing into megalopolis, or megalopolis plus suburbia. Beauty -- or at least its public face -- must be worked at, if it is to be retained. […] The Village Improvement Association is dedicated to the belief that it is vital to maintain the beauty -- and charm -- that lies around us -- to plant trees, landscape parks, and along the way to help provide pleasure and recreation for the people of Stonington."
In 1971, at the time of the installation of sewers in the Borough, SVIA president Boatwright explored extensively the possibilities of putting telephone and electrical wires underground while the sewers were being dug.
The welfare of the Village has always been paramount to the SVIA. In 1984 the SVIA board voted to contribute $5,000 to the United Church of Stonington to purchase a vacant lot on Main Street, between Elm and Grand Streets, for use as a park. This property had originally been part of the Stonington-Providence Railroad dating from 1837 and the SVIA, "recognizing that a house or other structure there would seriously impair the charm of the street," along with the church and other residents, negotiated to purchase the lot.
SVIA President Richard Haders wrote in 1990 "The classic charm and beauty of the Village is not an accidental occurrence but rather a reflection of the people living here and their respect for values passed on through generations of caring citizens." The SVIA sets out to protect and preserve these exceptional qualities, but has not restricted itself to this only. In the 1990s came the gift to the SVIA from poet and Stonington resident James I. Merrill of the James Merrill House at 107 Water Street. In 1996 the SVIA began the James Merrill Writer-in-Residence Program, which offers the former apartment of the acclaimed poet to a writer or scholar who in turn gives at least one free public lecture to the public. In 1997 Geoffrey Little began the hugely successful Stonington Farmers Market, and in 2000 SVIA president Robert Abramson began the SVIA boatbuilding program for six local youngsters in his own workshop.
In the spring of 2003, a new Children's Playground at a cost of over $90,000 was dedicated by the SVIA and the Town of Stonington near the Town Dock area. This was a complete renovation and purchase of all new playground equipment and had been a key SVIA project for a two year period. A wonderful committee lead by Lynn Callahan, Pam Alexander, and many other parents and local volunteers have given our kids a wonderful place to come and play and enjoy our village.
In 2011, a James Merrill House task force was initiated and this resulted in a five year Strategic Plan calling for increased funding to support the maintenance and capital expense projects of the house as well as enhancement and expansion of the James Merrill Writer-in-Residence programs. A new James Merrill House Committee has now been established to lead this critical effort.
In 2013, our duBois Beach renovation project was completed. This enhancement included a beautiful new stone wall and sidewalks, as well as new landscaping and other enhancements. Over $100,000 has been raised by another fine group of residents lead by Pete Hewitt to help this village enhancement become a reality.
What does the future hold for the Stonington Village Improvement Association (SVIA)? All that can definitely be said is that the scope of what the SVIA can accomplish to improve life in the Village is only limited by the residents and friends of Stonington. Look at how much has already been accomplished!