‘Friends’ advocate for Putnam Park

Members of the Friends and Neighbors of Putnam Park (FANS) gathered with re-enactors last Saturday before the annual Winter Walk at the park. From left are Dave Solek, FANS member and Butlers Rangers’ re-enactor; Jeanine Herman, founding member of FANS; Scott Stetler, FANS president; Nancy Cowles, another FANS founding member; T.G. Henderson, FANS treasurer and park museum staff member; Nathan Hale, park supervisor;
Jim Freebairn, FANS member,resident whitesmith, re-enactor with the 5th CT regiment; and Carl Baccadoro, 5th CT Regiment. Missing from the photo are founding members Buzz Merritt and Harry Gibson. —Bryan Haeffele photo

Putnam Memorial State Park has “Friends.” These Friends have stood by the park in bad times and in good. Because of their persistence, the park has a visitors center, new maps and signs for self-guided walking tours, living history events, and much more.

“The park is a very unknown hidden treasure. A lot of people don’t appreciate its historical significance,” said Jeanine Herman, a longtime “Friend” of the park, which lies in Redding and Bethel.

The park, sometimes referred to as Connecticut’s Valley Forge, is the site of the 1778-79 winter encampment used by the Continental Army under Gen. Israel Putnam during the American Revolution. There were two other encampments in Redding as well, but Putnam Park was created as a memorial park honoring the soldiers of all three camps. In 1887, the state legislature created Putnam Park atop the old army campground, and a year later, a granite obelisk monument was erected to memorialize Gen. Putnam’s three camps. The park’s pavilion, converted by the state, at the behest of the Friends group, into a visitors center in October 2005, was built in 1893.

Over the last 15 years or so, the state has put money into the park. Besides the visitors center, the park’s museum has been upgraded, there are new signs to help the park’s visitors navigate the park and there are new maps for self-guided tours. Education about the park and its history is among the main goals of the Friends group.

That group sprang from the volunteer efforts of neighbors who used their own lawn mowers and other equipment to maintain the park as best they could during the years it was decommissioned and during the first few years after it was reopened with a limited budget.

Ms. Herman, whose home abuts the park, was one of the early volunteers who helped mow grass and keep the park presentable when it was decommissioned in 1991 by then Gov. Lowell Weicker. The park generates no revenue, as does Sherwood Isle, for example, so it was an easy park to shut down to save money, said Ms. Herman.

The late Ernie Williams and the late Walt Ayers began mowing the park, she recalled, and they were soon joined by Hank Gissan and others, including former Reddingite Nancy Cowles, Harry Gibson of Bethel, Kathleen von Jena and Dan Cruson, local archaeologists, Buzz Merritt of Redding and Karl Epple of Bethel, among others.

Even though the park was decommissioned, the volunteers had a permit from the then state Department of Environmental Protection to do cleanup, Ms. Herman said. People could still walk through the park, she said, although the gates were closed.

It was not until May 1997 that the park was re-opened by former Gov. John Rowland, and then only with “a very limited budget,” said Ms. Herman. That fall, the Friends and Neighbors of Putnam Memorial State Park (FANS) was organized by historians, re-enactors, hikers, and park neighbors, becoming a volunteer park group.

Its first president was Ellen Visynei, followed by Ms. Herman, who has served several times as president, most recently as a co-president with Mr. Gibson and Scott Stetler of Bethel, who is now the sole president.

“We have roughly 65 members in the Friends group, and a dozen attend meetings, but we get things done,” Ms. Herman said.

The Friends’ core group of volunteers work hand in hand with the park supervisor, Nathan Hale, Andy  Sullivan, senior park employee, and the park staff, Ms. Herman said.

“The third group of people that have lent ‘outstanding assistance’ is the re-enactors/craftspersons who swing into action during the School Days program, Summer Craftsmen program, Living History Re-enactments, and some even participate each year during the December Winter Walk,” said Mr. Gibson. “All of these categories of people have melded together to produce one of the outstanding parks in the state of Connecticut Park Division of the DEEP (Department of Energy and Environmental Protection).”

The Friends group pays for the re-enactors to come in to promote education for the Living History and School Days programs, said Ms. Herman. The School Days program, now for fifth graders, used to be  free, she said, but the Friends group now charges the schools who participate “because the re-enactors charge so much.”

Participating schools have included Redding, Brookfield and Bethel. “We have had from 500 to 1,200 students come through,” said Ms. Herman. “It’s a wonderful way to expose kids to the Revolutionary War history.”

The Friends also sponsor a Summer Craftsmen program that brings artisans demonstrating Colonial-era crafts on weekends, although there was only one weekend program this past summer.

The Living History event was canceled this year because of the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy. The Friends do not charge admission for this event, but do take donations to offset the cost.

“I feel the FANS group breathes life into the Park. The School Days, the Summer Crafts people, the Winter Walk, and the re-enactments  bring the present and the past together for everyone to remember, reflect and enjoy,” said Mr. Stetler.

The most recent event at the park was Saturday’s annual Winter Walk, led by Mr. Cruson, a retired social studies teacher who taught at Joel Barlow High School. The Connecticut 5th Regiment, a Continental Army re-enactor group, and Butler’s Rangers, a British unit, participated.

Mr. Cruson provides a history of the park and talks about the archaeological digs there that he spearheaded.

One of the digs uncovered the fact that no one is buried in what was thought to be a cemetery at the park. After finding a bone a dog had chewed, it was determined that the site was actually home to officers’ quarters, Ms. Herman said.

Besides its distinction as the oldest state park, Putnam Park is also the state’s first archaeological preserve, designated as such in January 2001.

“We had it deemed that way so people couldn’t bring in metal detectors and remove things from the park,” said Ms. Herman.

Education and interpretation are priority objectives for the Friends group. Signs made by the park crew have been erected in the historic section of the park. The signs complement the new map and self-guided walking tours. Walking tours may be taken year-round, even when the visitor center and museum are closed for the season. T.G. Anderson of Redding is one of the interpreters in the park’s museum and also serves as the Friends treasurer/recording secretary.

The park is open year-round from sunrise to sunset; the visitors center and museum are open Memorial Day to Veterans Day, when they are staffed.

The park’s group also advocates for park improvements — for example, the conversion of the open-air pavilion into an enclosed visitors center, where an ongoing project is to add interpretive tools, such as maps and displays, the cleanup of the Reflections Pool and assisting in getting a donation to hydrorake at least some of Lake Putnam, which runs along Route 58.

Ms. Herman said the Friends do a lot “to supplement the park. … We contribute a lot for the benefit of the park. We are here to promote the park.” She hopes to get the support of both the Redding and Bethel communities through donations and membership “to help offset what the park needs.”

The Friends meet the first Monday of the month at the visitors center at 7 p.m. Membership is $25 for individuals, $50 for a family. Donations may be sent to P.O. Box 736, West Redding CT 06896. For more information about the park, visit putnampark.org.

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