STONINGTON — When the executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center was searching the internet for information on developing the Greenmanville Trail at Coogan Farm and restoring the 400-year-old apple orchard there, she came across a familiar name with ties to Mystic and the farm.
Davnet Conway Schaffer wondered if Eliza Greenman, who is based in a small town in Virginia about an hour west of Washington, D.C., and described herself on her web page as an orchardist, fruit explorer, public speaker, farm activist and consultant, could be related to the Mystic Greenmans.
She sent Greenman a message on Facebook. Greenman said because she didn’t recognize the name, it took her awhile to read the message. Then she called an aunt, who verified that they are indeed cousins of the Mystic Greenmans. She is a descendant of the Mystic shipbuilders who bought the farmland across from what is now Mystic Seaport in the mid-1800s, where they raised animals and farmed to provide fresh produce, milk and cheese to their shipyards.
“I never knew about these relatives,” Greenman, a nationally recognized heirloom orchardist, said during a recent telephone conversation. “It’s crazy … It’s nuts."
She said her friends in Virginia did not believe her when she told them she had found an apple orchard in Connecticut that was cultivated by her descendants.
“My neighbor thought I was lying when I said I was going Connecticut to look at an orchard owned by my relatives,” she said.
Using part of the funds from a recently awarded grant from the Edward and Mary Lord Foundation of Norwich, the nature center has hired Greenman to help restore what is called the Gallup Orchard. Plans are to improve habitat for wildlife and bring the trees back into production. She will also document the lineage of the fruit to research the potential of a unique heritage apple.
Greenman attended the nature center’s Green Tie Gala Nov. 8 and toured the orchards during her visit. She said she’ll be back in the spring to start work. Plans include clearing out invasive species that have taken root around the existing trees and eventually pruning the trees.
During her visit, Greenman said she felt welcome. Her aunt told her when she visited the Mystic area, it all felt very familiar to her, too.
The nature center announced earlier this month that it had received a $250,000 grant from the Lord Foundation to enhance the Coogan Farm project and further collaborate with the Denison homestead and Mystic Seaport. The Coogan Farm project began five years ago when the nature center acquired the Greenmanville Road property.
The Lord Foundation grant is spread out over three years, and in addition to the apple orchard program, the money will be used to connect historic trails between Coogan Farm and the Denison Homestead. The two properties make up the bulk of the 400-acre greenway in Mystic. The money will also be used to create indoor and outdoor gathering spaces in the Avery Farmhouse Welcome Center and the Stillman Foundation, to meet the growing demand for educational programs that connect children to nature.
“This grant will affect all five of Coogan Farm’s mission values,” Schaffer said in a press release announcing the grant award. "Completing the trails system and restoring the orchard will continue our work to preserve and enhance the habitat of Coogan Farm."
During a morning ATV drive around the former farm, Schaffer pointed out stone walls, the foundation to the Stillman mansion that was never completed, the paths that connect the farm to the Denison homestead on Pequotsepos Road, the sweeping views overlooking Mystic Seaport and the Mystic River, and the overgrown vegetation surrounding the apple trees.
“We want to preserve the historical significance of the land,” she said, adding that some of the grant money will be used to put up interpretive signs. She would also like to see historic re-enactors along the paths talking to hikers in real time about the land. Restoring the orchard is a big part of the project.
The orchard project also includes documenting the lineage of the apple trees to research the potential of a unique heritage apple, she said.
“To me, Eliza Greenman is the fun part of this story,” Schaffer said.
“This is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity for us to learn from her (Greenman),” added Craig Floyd, Coogan Farm manager, who was driving the ATV.
Greenman has a forestry degree from Sewanee: The University of the South, and is a master of horticulture in diversified cider orchard systems from the Royal Horticultural Society.
She said she is still in shock about discovering her connection to Mystic and the orchard, and is looking forward to restoring the health of the apple trees and creating a community orchard where fruit can be harvested, children can climb trees, and wildlife and insects can thrive.
“It’s an amazing project,” she said.
In September, the nature center marked the five-year anniversary of its acquisition of Coogan Farm. The 45 acres was the last parcel of undeveloped farmland between downtown Mystic, Mystic Seaport Museum and Mystic Aquarium. The property contains nearly 400 years of 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 watersheds.
At the time the Nature Center obtained the land, in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, it identified five areas it would focus on: conservation, public health, community spirit, education and sustainable tourism.
In addition to restoring the orchards, the Lord Foundation grant will support the following projects:
- Completing the vision for a Greenmanville Trail to tell the story of how the Greenman brothers used the farm in the late 1800s to provide food to sustain Greenmanville shipyard workers with interpretive signs and tours at both the Mystic Seaport Museum and Coogan Farm.
- Solidifying the connection along the historic trails between Coogan Farm and the Denison homestead, the two properties that make up the bulk of the 400-acre Mystic greenway.
- Developing new indoor and outdoor gathering spaces in the Avery Farmhouse Welcome Center and at the Stillman foundation to meet the growing demand for educational programs that connect children to nature.