History Revisited: A memorial to Groton’s Avery clan

July 20 will be a special day of remembrance for many descendants of the Avery family of Groton. The date will mark the 125th anniversary of the tragic fire that destroyed Old Avery Homestead in Poquonnock Plains in Groton.

By way of historical explanation, in the year 1630 Christopher Avery and his only son, James, came from England to America. In 1649, James Avery, who at this time was known as Captain James Avery, became a resident of New London.

In 1656, Captain Avery and his family moved to the Groton side of the Thames River where he built a house on his farm in Poquonnock Plains. The house was located on the west side of Poquonnock Road, just north of the railroad overpass, across the street from the Pipefitters Union Hall, as you approach Long Hill Road.

Throughout those years, many additions were made to the original house. One noteworthy addition was made in 1684 after James Avery Jr. bought the old Blinman church in New London and subsequently used the materials from the structure to add a wing to the west side of his home in Groton. The house took on its unique appearance when a separate two-story addition, with a second chimney, was added to one end of the building and a lean-to was added to the other end.

Over the next 220-plus years, eight successive generations of Averys resided in the house and it became known as “The Hive of the Averys.” Eventually, the house became the property of James Denison Avery, who was the great-grandson of Lt. Parke Avery, who had fought and lost an eye in the Battle of Fort Griswold.

James D. Avery was elected town clerk of Groton in 1874 and, as was the custom, he kept all town records, dating back to 1703, at his home and all town business was conducted at the house. Fortunately for Groton, Avery maintained most of the records in two large fire-proof safes in the house.

On the night of July 20, 1894, sparks from a passing locomotive on railroad tracks near the house landed on the west roof of the house. The age of the wooden house, and the fact that Groton had been experiencing a very hot and dry summer, made the house an easy prey to the fire.

After ensuring that his family members were safely out, Avery picked up many of the more recent Groton records to carry from the house and then shut the doors to the safes. Within a short 30 minutes the landmark structure had been reduced to ashes, with only the two stone chimneys and the two safes remaining standing. Unfortunately, all abstracts and road charts were not in the safes and were destroyed by the fire.

It took four days for the safes to cool down enough to enable them to be opened. Once opened, a total of forty-six books were discovered. Except for five books, all the remaining books containing Groton records were found to be in good condition.

Although the fire had destroyed what was believed to be the oldest dwelling in the town, residents can be thankful that Town Clerk Avery had the forethought to have acquired the fireproof safes to store most of the town’s significant and historic records.

Shortly after the fire, members of various Avery families established The Avery Memorial Association for the purpose of erecting and preserving a suitable memorial on the site of the old historical homestead. The association was officially incorporated by the State of Connecticut in September 1895. James Avery Jr., the last resident of the house, deeded the land on which the house sat to the association.

The association wasted no time in developing the memorial, and the property soon became a small park. Stone curbs were used to outline where the house once stood, and portions of the chimneys were also left intact. Old hearthstones marked the areas where doorways were once located. In the center of the property a 23-foot-high polished granite shaft was erected as a monument to the Averys. At the base of the obelisk was a bronze tablet with a bas relief of the old homestead. The tablet was a gift from John D. Rockefeller, founder of the famous Standard Oil Company, who was an Avery descendant on his mother’s side. The granite for the shaft was quarried in Westerly, and the total cost for the monument was $800. The monument was placed in position in the fall of 1895, and a small public ceremony was held on the second anniversary of the fire in July 1896.

In the late 1890s, the association decided to enhance the park by adding a likeness of Captain James Avery to the apex of the shaft. Sculptor Bela Pratt, a native of Norwich, who was also an Avery descendant, designed a bronze bust of Captain James Avery, the first Avery to settle in Groton in 1656.

On July 20, 1900, six years to the day after the fire, a crowd of more than 500, including Avery descendants from throughout the country attended this annual association meeting and unveiling ceremony of the bust. Trains from both directions stopped at the park to discharge passengers attending the event.

Dr. Elroy M. Avery, president of the association, presided over the meeting, and Helen Morgan Avery unveiled the bust which had been covered with an American flag.

The Avery Memorial Park and the Avery families who resided within the “Hive of the Averys” house, which once stood on the property, is certainly a significant piece of Groton’s history. Unfortunately, maybe because of its location or lack of signage, it has become an obscure landmark.

I wish something could be done to bring more attention to it.

Jim Streeter is the Groton town historian.

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