GROTON -- In a practical sense, Blood Farm in West Groton has served its owners as well as the surrounding community for almost 300 years; first as a subsistence holding and later, around 1919, as a local slaughterhouse and meat-packing business.
Since their arrival in 1725, less than a hundred years after the founding of Groton in 1655, members of the Blood family have served on local boards and committees. And somewhere along the way, their freehold became more than just another farm -- it became an institution, a living, breathing link to the town's past when conflict with local Indian tribes was still a very real threat.
For that reason, when fire swept the farm in the early morning hours of Dec. 29, it very nearly destroyed more than a single building, it struck near the heart of what gives Groton its unique character.
And though the farm's slaughterhouse building was not the most historic structure at the farm, its destruction, combined with a similar event that destroyed the Groton Inn in 2011, serves to illustrate the fragility of any kind of historic structure and their importance to the cultural life of a community.
"We need to preserve the records like what Mike Bouchard is doing at Town Hall," said John Ott, president of the Groton Historical Society. "There are lots of reasons to look back to the past and see how we got to where we are today. We have artifacts, records at Town Hall, and historic buildings on Main Street.
However, there is a difference between historic homes and businesses such as those like Blood Farm, cautioned Ott. While homes can be and often are preserved unchanged from their original construction, a business is a more organic entity, changing, altering, keeping pace with developments in the particular field it competes in. And in cases like Blood Farm, they can be active places of work and employment, not just showplaces preserved in amber.
"It takes a building -- and in the case of the Groton Inn, several buildings added over the years -- to make it historic," said Ott. "But for farm buildings, owners always continue to improve things so that basically, original structures usually don't survive over the years."
While the Groton Inn could retain its classic colonial era appearance down through the centuries, Blood Farm has been forced to change to meet the needs of the owners and later, government oversight that regulates every part of its meat-packing business.
"The fire has taken away a service that was very common on New England farms in the 17th and 18th century," said Ott of Blood Farm's living history. "The number of places that can do it successfully have just gone away. It's an agricultural community that at one time could have slaughtered cows or sheep at any farm but that has since come down to just one: Blood Farm.
"Many customers are Groton people but the actual customer base spreads over the whole region," continued Ott. "Being one of the few federally approved operations in the area, Blood Farm was a major supplier of fresh meat and even sportsmen relied upon it in deer season. And when it comes to Greek Easter, it handled an awful lot of lamb.
"So it's a major loss to this community," Ott concluded. "A good butcher gets the business and what they did down there they did well and did it for a long period of time. People knew what they were doing and how they offered a high-quality product. It just ended up being their vocation.
"Today, things that people remember from the past are mostly written in books," lamented Ott.
"But there are people alive today who remember Blood Farm where they went to get spring lambs or a turkey at the holiday season. When something like that goes away, they're forced to go to a supermarket, but its not the same as going to a place where packaging fresh meat is the only thing that is done. I think that's something. That's important."
Institutions like Blood Farm, said Ott, are not only places of business, they are also sources of new history.
"But every community needs to do more to document its farmland, historic properties, roadways, walls and fences, and signposts," warned Ott. "The fact that every year, we still have the Board of Selectmen walk the bounds to make sure markers are in place is very important. In fact, there are still mile posts near the Groton School and Lawrence Academy that anyone can go and see."
Ott agreed that selectmen's annual walking of the town's metes and bounds was not only a practical exercise, but a symbolic one; an acknowledgment of the town's continuity with its past.
"The town's trying to bring back the fairgrounds is along the same idea," said Ott. "We're still basically a rural community but it's a different world today, especially in communications, but we still have beautiful landscapes which help to preserve Groton's character. Even so, we're not standing still. We have new buildings going up. Buildings like the Center Fire Station but that are designed to conform to the style of our older buildings.
"And in West Groton, there's the Rivercourt Residences that occupy buildings that were once basically destitute and now offer elderly housing," said Ott. "It's taken on a new life while also giving West Groton a purpose and new meaning and provides jobs for people. West Groton is going to continue to thrive in its own way."
The fact is, buildings like the Groton Inn and active, evolving, ongoing concerns such as Blood Farm are inextricably tied in to the identity of the town. Like a human being whose adult personality is the result of a lifetime of past experience, a town's current identity is the sum total of its past history.
And if the owners of Blood Farm have anything to say about it, history in Groton will continue to be made as talk proceeds to rebuilding.