RUTLAND – The last time members of the state’s conservation and recreation department told Rutland History Commissioner Jeff Stillings that they were planning to demolish Rutland prison camp, Stillings simply said said, “We’ll see about it.”
Now plans are on hold as state officials take the reins to stop the demolition.
On May 12, the Rutland Select Board held a virtual public hearing on the proposed demolition of the prison camp structures, which the state says poses a danger to public safety. In attendance were State Senator Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, and State Representative Kimberly Ferguson, R-Holden, who sided with the city in opposing the demolition of the historic site.
Gobi and Ferguson created an amendment to preserve Rutland prison camp, allocating $ 50,000 for the preservation, protection, signage and maintenance of the historic camp. On May 25, the Senate passed the amendment, which will go to a conference committee before being tabled in Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk for approval.
“These are very important steps towards preserving what we believe to be a historic and important place in Rutland,” said Stillings.
Rutland Prison Camp was established in 1903 as a working farm for prisoners to grow food and tend the livestock that would feed residents across the state. The state purchased 914 acres from Rutland to build the prison camp, which included a dormitory, farm, and other buildings. In 1907, a 30-bed hospital was built for prisoners with tuberculosis.
The process will begin for the 1903 prison camp to be included in the Register of Historic Places
The prison camp and hospital were abandoned on November 30, 1934, and the land was sold to the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission.
The Rutland Historical Commission sent a letter to DCR stating that it vehemently opposes the demolition of the site. Community members rallied around the preservation of the prison camp, with petitions circulating online to save the local monument.
Stillings said the commission would begin the process to have Rutland POW camp listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as the structures have been in place since 1903.
State representative wants demo off the table
The historical commission put the issue on representatives’ radar, informing them of the state’s proposal.
“Obviously, Representative Ferguson and I were very upset that the DCR and the Commissioner did not notify us and let us know about the proposal before they started contacting people in our communities,” Gobi said. “Things have to be done in a collaborative way and it’s not something the city wants at all.”
Gobi said she and Ferguson met with DCR’s watershed division to discuss the proposal, but the senator said she left the meeting with more questions than answers.
“I felt that the arguments they raised to try to demolish these buildings had nothing behind them,” she said. “I don’t think it was really well thought out, so obviously hopefully at this point it’s not just going to be put on hold, but taken off the table altogether.”
Neither the Senator nor Stillings know what will happen to the existing graffiti if the site becomes a preserved historic monument. Community members said the structures were a place of public art, as did Peter Holmes who spoke at the May 12 board meeting to say graffiti is considered a form of art that brings “aesthetic value” to the region. Holmes said he viewed Rutland prison camp as a “living work of art”.
Community outrage fuels movement
Stillings said community outrage fueled a productive movement to save the prison camp.
“I could not be happier with the efforts of Senator Gobi and Representative Ferguson and the efforts of the city’s board of directors,” Stillings said. “Everyone came together and this is just a great example of bringing the public’s attention to an event and everyone working together as a community to preserve what we believe to be a historic asset. I think that we did well.
He said the city “could not have had a better partner” than the senator and representative on this matter.
Gobi said she understands why the community is standing up for the site. Like many locals, she said she has been hiking Rutland prison camp since she was in school.
The amendment has yet to be approved by the conference committee, but the senator said she hoped it would be successful. Rutland prison camp is currently still open to the public.