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Earth Matters The woman who influenced the look of Redding

December 15, 2018

A photograph of Mary Anne Guitar, nicely framed, now hangs in Redding’s Town Hall.

She is holding a pot of tulips and smiling. Mary Anne was sitting in her kitchen, so there is light from the kitchen windows flowing in, as well as a background shot of the brass pots hanging above her stove, ready to be called into service.

Her friend, Ann Taylor, took the picture late in Mary Anne’s life — she died in 2017 at the age of 95. So it would be easy to think it’s a portrait of well-deserved serenity. But her eyes are still sharp. There were still political points to argue, land to preserve. She did not cease from mental fight.

“I am so happy Mary Anne’s portrait is hanging in Town Hall,” said Julia Pemberton, the town’s current first selectman, and a student in small-town politics under Mary Anne’s tutelage. “She spent the better part of her life working to protect open space in this town.”

In fact, if Redding looks the way it does today — more open and rural than its neighbors — it’s because Mary Anne and a few other like-minded residents saw suburban sprawl coming in the 1960s and 1970s and did not like it.

“They called themselves ‘The Land Savers,’” Pemberton said.

“She established herself early on a resister to bedroom development,” said Henry Merritt, a longtime member of the Redding Land Trust, which Guitar helped found in the 1970s. “She was involved in the environmental movement in the 1960s. Now, we all are.”

“Maybe the newer residents in town don’t realize it as much,” said Gordon Loery, the co-president of the Redding Land Trust. “Others do. She and that whole generation really shaped how the town looks.”

Here is a scant biography of Mary Anne Guitar’s life. She was born in Missouri. She moved east as soon as she could, attending Smith College and then living in New York City, working as an editor and writer.

She bought a small cottage in Redding as a summer home, only to find she loved small-town life rather than big-city bustle. She had a bob-tailed cat named Shorty. When she died, she donated four acres of her land to the Redding Land Trust. The trail on the land is called Shorty’s Trail.

Also, she was not averse to the occasional glass of champagne. She and Henry Merritt had a long-running debate on the proper way to mix a martini — he liked them dry, she, vermouth-y.

And, luckily for those who got to know her, she was a brilliant conversationalist.

“She had a wicked sense of humor,” said Laurie Heiss, a former vice president of the Redding Land Trust and an old friend. “Sometimes, really wicked.”

She got involved in local politics in the 1980s. She was the town’s first woman selectman, and then, the first woman to serve as first selectman in Fairfield County’s history. In a very Republican town, Mary Anne, a staunch Democrat, more than held her own.

She was one of the town leaders who successfully stopped the Super Seven project from putting a four-lane highway through town. She fought against high-tower electrical lines being strung through Redding.

In 1972, she wrote a primer on small-town land preservation — “Property Power: How to keep the bulldozer, the power lines and the highwayman away from your door.”

So when Carmen Matthews, the owner of New Pond Farm in Redding, decided to transform it into a nonprofit nature center, she called on Mary Anne Guitar, who was on New Pond’s first board of directors.

“She was passionately, passionately involved in the issue of open space,” said Ann Taylor, who along with being a friend of Guitar’s is executive director of New Pond Farm in Redding.

Taylor said Guitar had the gift of looking at a plan or a project and cutting quickly to the core of the issue and concentrating on that. Her example still has its influence at New Pond Farm today.

“We make decisions very deliberately,” Taylor said.

Her cousin, Mary Guitar, also said Mary Anne learned how to present an issue to the public by moving quickly to the heart of the thing.

“She learned that was a way to unify people,” Mary Guitar said.

Pemberton said it’s also good to have Guitar’s picture in Town Hall to remind people of the open space battles to come.

“As we march on, these things keep circling back,” she said.

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com

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