Fifty years ago this month, on Aug. 24, 1968, at 2:30 a.m., Roberta Trask was sitting in the farmhouse on the grounds of what was then called the Committee for Non-Violent Action in Voluntown and drinking coffee with another woman, Mary Lyttle, when three armed Minutemen, as the right-wing militia types were known, stormed into the room and bound, gagged and blindfolded the women.
Within minutes, shooting erupted outside as state police, who’d been monitoring the raid, ambushed a group of seven Minutemen.
The infamous raid on the “pacifist farm,” as it was known to locals and today is the Voluntown Peace Trust, ended up with seven people wounded, including one of the Minutemen who lost his sight after being shot in the face, and two state troopers. Roberta Trask was hospitalized with a severely injured thigh, torn up by buckshot from a shotgun, apparently brandished by a state trooper.
“Bullets and blood splattered Connecticut’s pacifist headquarters before dawn Saturday,” was the way the next day’s account in The Hartford Courant began.
On the 30th anniversary of the raid, in 1998, I talked with Roberta Trask, who was by then Roberta Thomas, a 60-year-old grandmother working as director of parent-alumni relations at Beaver College in Glenside, Pa. (The college later changed its name to Arcadia University.)
“I was rescued by a cop and shot by one,” she recalled. “A policeman saved my life by holding the artery together on the way to the hospital. I lost massive amounts of muscle and blood. I was only 3 feet away and the reality was I came close to dying.”
As it was reported then, a trooper armed with a shotgun encountered a Minuteman wielding a bayonet inside the house and close to the blindfolded and trussed women. The Minuteman lunged at the trooper and the shotgun discharged.
The farm, on Beach Pond Road in Voluntown, was purchased in 1962 by the New England Committee for Non-Violent Action and later put in the name of a holding company, the Voluntown Peace Trust. Among the trustees was Marjorie Swann who, with her then husband, Robert, had been organizing protests against the building of Polaris submarines at Electric Boat in Groton.
Pacifists and activists of various stripes gathered at the farm, coming and going through the years, and relations with the police were somewhat strained because both groups would often confront each other at EB protests.
In the summer of 1966 a barn on the property was torched in the middle of the night. Residents and police suspected the Minutemaen, a paramilitary group known to be active in surrounding towns and in Windham County, to the north. Several weeks later, in New York, police confiscated an arsenal of weapons after arresting some Minutemen. The indication was that the Minutemen were heading up to Connecticut to finish destroying the farm.
The 1968 raid occurred during the same week as the riotous and bloody Democratic National Convention in Chicago. David Dellinger, one of the Chicago Seven — charged with conspiracy in instigating riots outside the convention hall — had been at the farm before going to Chicago.
One of the state troopers there that night, Jack Burke of Killingly, told me, 30 years ago, that the police had gotten a tip about the Minutemen’s plans.
“We went up there in anticipation of it occurring to prevent it before it happened,” he said. “They were supposed to have a stash of guns in a gravel bank down the road. We lined the gravel bank with people. We had a contingency along Route 138.
“But they didn’t go to the gravel bank. The next thing we knew they were marching up Route 138. They got up there, cut the telephone lines and bound and gagged people in the house. Then the shooting started. We had shotguns with birdshot. There were seven of them and six got shot. They all got prosecuted. I ran into some of the same people at a KKK rally in Scotland a few years later.”
Six men eventually were sentenced for the raid, and one of them, Louis Rogers, then 24, of Lisbon, was blinded by a bullet wound. The others were from Milford, Canterbury, Norwich, Windham and Willimantic.
Roberta Thomas, who had come to the farm that summer with her two young children, had been part of the anti-Vietnam War movement and wanted to involve her children in an anti-war protest that was fundamentally peaceful. She also liked the idea of farm life.
Her recovery from the leg wound was lengthy. She filed a civil suit and received $3,000 from the state. She resented that the police allowed the raid to happen so that the Minutemen would be caught in the act, rather than arresting them beforehand.
The farm eventually was used as Connecticut headquarters of the American Friends Service Committee, passed into other hands, fell into disrepair, and is functioning again today as the Voluntown Peace Trust.
Inside the main house is a wall still bearing holes from shotgun blasts. A sign there describing the raid says, in part, “While some left the Peace Farm, most of the nonviolent activists continued their work, more aware of the risks they were taking for peace.”
Roberta Trask Thomas, who recently turned 80, lives today in Philadelphia. Neither she nor her two children, then 8 and 6, who were with her that summer at the farm, have returned to Voluntown. She fully recovered from her wounds.
Mary Lyttle, then married to Bradford Lyttle, perennial candidate for president of the United States for the U.S. Pacifist Party, left the farm after the raid and quit anti-war activism. She moved back to Canada, where she was from, divorced Lyttle, remarried and had a child, and eventually moved to Ireland, where she died several years ago.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at: email@example.com.