Although the Farmington Village Corporation hasn’t taxed its residents or had a fire department since the early 1970s, the board of assessors gathered Thursday night in the back room of what was once the fire department for a brief, empty annual Town Meeting.
A pile of thin annual reports sat unused on the table while the board members voted on the nine articles, facing an empty room of 10 chairs.
About five minutes into the meeting, Andrew Robinson, a member of the corporation planning board, walked into the room just in time to make a motion to adjourn. Corporation officials weren’t expecting any residents to attend, though they did post public notices about the meeting and did send reminders out to some people.
“It wasn’t always like this,” said Tom Holt, superintendent of the water district. “I’ve read there was times when a couple hundred people came out.”
The Farmington Village Corporation is an entity within the town of Farmington that effectively has been reduced to a water district and a planning board, but 150 years ago it was formed to provide fire protection and other services for downtown residents.
In 1850, farmers and other residents living on the outskirts of town didn’t use services such as the municipal fire department or town water.
“They didn’t want to pay for the water, the fire department and the constable,” said Jane Woodman, business manager for the village corporation.
As a solution, the Farmington Village Corporation was born. The municipal system created a separate tax base within the town for downtown residents who used town services, which eventually also included a night watchman, streetlights, street sprinkling in the summer, zoning and circus permits.
Farmington is now one of a half-dozen communities left in the state with such a government system in place — basically a town within a town. While coastal village corporations such as Northport and Bustin Island remain more active, with historical societies and subcommittees, the Farmington corporation has lost much of its authority over the last 50 years.
The district is directed by a three-person board of assessors elected by residents of the water district, and the daily operations are overseen by a superintendent, Tom Holt, and Woodman.
Seven people attended Thursday, all directly involved in the water district, but 60 years ago the corporation’s annual Town Meeting teemed with hundreds of people as they voted to create the town’s first planning board.
“And there was stories of trying to take the vote quick, before another surge of people came in,” he said.
In 1955, a controversy sparked when Sun Oil Co. wanted to build a gas station in a parking lot on Main Street next to the Congregational church. Church members did not want it and the local legislators got approval for the corporation to create zones for the first time in town to prevent the project. Assessor Jim Andrews said creating zones and a planning board was a controversial thing to do at the time.
“You have to realize, in the ’50s, zoning was seen as a very communist thing,” Andrews said.
The zones were created based on the present uses of buildings and didn’t change already functioning businesses. A funeral director on Court Street and a dressmaker on Perkins Street were allowed to continue operating in residential zones.
The corporation still maintains a planning board that has to approve downtown projects along with the Farmington Planning Board. They’ve turned down eight permit applications since, including a request last year from the University Credit Union to build a parking lot and tear down an adjacent building.
Assessor Clyde Ross said the corporation is the reason the downtown still has its New England village appearance, starting with turning down the gas station.
“We’ve maintained the integrity of the town,” he said.
An informational meeting was held this year with the Board of Selectmen to discuss how the two share jurisdiction. The board has made previous requests for the corporation to defer some of their authority to the town.
“And we said nope,” said Woodman.
Rooting out the unique history of the corporation has become a passion of Woodman’s.
“For years I’ve said someone should maybe write this down and look into our history,” she said. “That someone became me.”
In the vault in the corporation’s office, all the town reports since the incorporation in 1860 are kept on two shelves, and Woodman has so far read through the corporation’s annual reports from its inception into the 1940s. She has a small collection of artifacts stored in what used to a bathroom at the corporation building.
“This is a real treasure,” she said, holding a up a wooden pipe once used as a water main. The pipe was flaking, with some bark still attached, and was discovered when a different functional pipe burst and flooded the Broadway branch of TD Bank two years ago.
Along with the pipe, Woodman pulled a street light out of storage that was donated in 1882 by opera singer Lillian Nordica when she performed at Merrill Hall and gave the proceeds to the corporation for additional street lights.
When the lamps switched from being manually lit to electricity in 1890, their cost rose from between $25 and $50 annually to $350 annually. As more lights were installed and the costs grew, they began to reach beyond the corporation boundaries and in 1922 became a town expense.
Woodman learned from her research that the corporation was formed to provide fire protection for the village area of Farmington — from around what’s now Horne’s Corner to the north, Fairview Avenue to the east, Tannery Brook to the south and the Sandy River to the west. They also maintained a public clock.
Over time, the corporation grew, said Woodman. Before paved roads, the corporation paid to sprinkle the streets in the summer to keep the dust down. It had the final say on whether a circus could come to town.
When night safety became a concern, the board of assessors bought street lights and hired a night watchman. Records show that over the hundred years the corporation employed watchmen who monitored downtown, “served insane papers,” checked doors, “escorted vagrants to the town line” and arrested drunken residents.
For a while the night watchman, sometimes referred in annual reports at the corporation police chief, lived at the High Street village corporation building in what later became a kitchen and then eventually storage.
The reach of the corporation began to wane, however, as residents farther out from the water district began to demand the same services as downtown residents.
In 1959, Farmington residents voted to move the night watchman to the Farmington Police Department, according to an annual report from that year. In the same annual report, then-Fire Chief J. Bauer Small recommended voters take over the Fire Department.
“As the department has outgrown its original service, I think it only fair that the entire town assume the total cost of maintaining it,” he said.
And in 1975, Ross said, the Farmington Fire Department assumed control of the corporation’s fire services and equipment while he was a member of the department.
After losing the Fire Department, the village corporation was reduced to what it is today, running and maintaining 93 miles of water mains to serve water district customers and directing a planning board. The corporation is the water district for Farmington, Temple and a handful of Wilton residents, serving a total of 1,550 customers.
The three board members for the village corporation said they think the majority of residents is unaware of the corporation’s existence, let alone its history or the extent of its authority.
Andrews said he didn’t know the water district’s history at all until he began to sit on the board five years ago. Assessor Louise McCleery said she’d heard pieces of the history from her father, who’d been a fire chief.
Woodman said that most people aren’t aware of where their water comes from, much less the unique history of their water district.
“But there was a time when this was the town,” Ross said.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 [email protected]