Why preserve 183 Ridgefield Road?

When settlers first arrived in Wilton, it was forest. That eventually changed as they cut trees to build houses, barns, churches, and other buildings. The land was tilled and crops were planted as the town’s agrarian roots took hold. As the centuries passed, farming as a way of life gave way and as the fields were abandoned second-growth forest reclaimed the land that housing developments did not.

The result is that there is little open space — as in open vistas — left and untouched meadows are rare, which is why the Wilton Land Conservation Trust is so invested in preserving the 13 acres at 183 Ridgefield Road.

A Bulletin reporter walked the property recently with Donna Merrill, executive director of the land trust. The land trust is seeking to purchase it from developer Jim Fieber for $2.3 million, and already has $1 million committed so far — $750,000 from the Bauer Family Foundation and $250,000 in pledges from members of the land trust’s board of trustees.

Why is this land so important? “This property, it’s been decades since anything was done to it but mowing,” Merrill said. “It’s really one of the best meadows … there are a lot of plants that are important to pollinators. It will be the epicenter of the Pollinator Pathway.”

Explaining that breaking the crust of the soil encourages the growth of invasive species, she noted there is no multiflora rose and very little barberry. “It’s pretty pure,” she said.

What is growing there are a number of native species including blue flag iris, milkweed, woodland geranium, and a number of meadow grasses. The meadow is an early succession habitat, which, according to the land trust, is an ecological community in decline in Connecticut. Because there are few trees, bird life is well supported.

The property is also desirable because of the 18th- and 19th-Century stone walls there. It also buffers a two-acre wetland.

In addition to being used for passive and active recreation, such as hiking, birding, picnicking, and cross-country skiing, it would also be used for multiple educational purposes.

Educational opportunities

Should the property be acquired, Woodcock Nature Center has plans for environment and meadow habitat education programs for children. The American Chestnut Foundation is interested in using a portion of the land to assist in developing disease-resistant strains of American chestnut trees. Chestnuts made up a quarter of forests before being devastated by a blight in the early 1900s.

Also interested in participating is the Wilton Historical Society, which envisions seasonal, small-group satellite programs for children and adults. One use of a small portion of the property would be to enhance its colonial textile program through the planting of flax.

As part of their history curriculum, Wilton fifth graders visit the historical society where they learn aspects of colonial life including the use of flax. As it stands, the society does this with purchased flax.

On Ridgefield Road, society co-director Kim Mellin said, they would create a flax garden. Because students visit the society in February, the society could create an after-school program where children would plant flax seeds, tend it while it grows, and help harvest it.

After harvesting, flax needs to be soaked, then dried in the sun after which the seeds can be collected for the following year.

During their visit to the society, fifth graders use flax breaks to break off the dried outer parts. They take what’s left and use a scutching board to remove debris after which the fibers are combed with a hetchel. The straightened, fluffy fibers resemble hair, from which the phrase “flaxen-haired” comes, co-director Allison Sanders said.

The hetchel removes tough fibers called “tow,” hence the phrase “tow-headed,” she added.

The straightened fibers are then spun into thread after which they can be woven into fabric. Depending on the thickness of the thread, flax can be used for rugs, bedding, and clothing. Tow was used for rope and making material similar to burlap.

Without a garden, Mellin told The Bulletin, “half the process is invisible. Having some kids do the planting, we think, would be a huge educational boost.”

Flax is a type of grass native to the Northeast and was used, along with wool, by early settlers for fabric since cotton will not grow here.  “It’s what our ancestors would have been doing,” Mellin said.

Other ideas the historical society is contemplating are to place beehives on the property and present historical re-enactments.

The land trust will launch a town wide fund-raising campaign to raise additional funds in the coming months and, if successful, will take title to the property in the spring of 2019.