Refusing to forget Doris Gagnon: Group pushes for acknowledgement of Milford icon

Doris Gagnon was a single woman ahead of her time, explained Greg Smith, one of several people who met at the Silver Sands boardwalk recently to remember her and to remind people of Gagnon’s legacy where the state park is concerned.

“Her courage and tenacity in fighting for her belief that no one had the right to take her property for their own purposes has been common since our nation’s founding and still resonates today,” Smith said. “When people learn of what Doris Gagnon went through to simply remain on her own land, most agree that she is long overdue the respect which was not given to her during her lifetime.”

Smith and his wife Christine met at the beach last week with former resident and writer Kathleen Schurman, resident Rob Massud, along with Flora Brooks Santagata and Tom Purcell, two of Gagnon’s relatives, to remember the Milford icon.

Smith, with help from supporters on a Facebook page he started, called Doris Gagnon Boardwalk at Silver Sands State Park, tried to have the boardwalk named for Gagnon in 2015, but the state said no: Officials with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) said the state does not plan to name the boardwalk. Instead, they said at some point educational kiosks explaining park history, and Gagnon’s role, would be installed.

State officials say that is still in the plans.

“As we have indicated in the past, we are committed to having some historic and natural resource interpretation in and around the buildings on the elevated deck in the proposed Silver Sands project,” state officials said, referring to controversial plans to expand facilities at the park. “Reference to Doris Gagnon will certainly be part of that.”

The timeline on that is uncertain at this point, state officials said, “but we would anticipate completing this project and having this feature within the next year or two,” they added.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Gagnon made headlines locally and nationally, usually accompanied by a photo of her with a chicken tucked under one arm, at the homestead she created with trailers and other structures at Silver Sands.

Her Silver Beach house had been knocked down, along with homes and neighborhoods all around her, to make way for redevelopment. While other homeowners left their property relatively quietly — many reluctantly caving to the government and eminent domain — Gagnon protested the razing of her house and her displacement until the day she died.

“Gagnon had claimed the state illegally demolished her former house near the park in 1971 and seized the land through eminent domain,” according to a 2012 article in the New Haven Register. “She refused the state’s offer of $15,000 and began living at the park without running water, a flushing toilet, phone or electricity. She demanded that the state build her a new home.”

Doris Gagnon was 77 years old when she died Sept. 19, 1994, after an ongoing battle with cancer. Within days, her sheds, chicken coops and trailers was cleared away from Silver Sands.

Smith said his Facebook page and petition to name the boardwalk for Gagnon attracted about 1,000 members in just a few days and has grown to 1,285 members today.

“So many people were affected by the government’s actions and the massive shift that followed,” Smith said in an earlier interview. “Many residents of the era feel very passionately. Doris has long been a symbol for many of those affected and a folk hero to others who admired her stand for her rights.”

Smith said Gagnon’s supporters already consider the boardwalk the Doris Gagnon boardwalk. They’d still like to see it  "officially" recognized as such by the state and will continue to pursue that goal.

“There are options which we would welcome from the state,” he said. “For example, an historical marker referring to the history of the redevelopment of the park and surrounding area, with a mention of Doris's fight to remain on her land,” Smith said.

State Rep. Kim Rose has worked with the group in the past, and said she will continue to work to see Gagnon remembered at the park.

“I thank Greg Smith for being dedicated to honoring Doris, who was a very strong, resilient woman,” Rose said. “She wasn't afraid to stand her ground for what she felt was right and just.  I'm thankful to have been able to meet her. She is a legend and her story deserves to be kept alive, whether it's a bench, a marker or another form. I will be happy to work with Greg and his group to bring DEEP to the table to find a mutually agreeable and appropriate way to honor her.”