With $1.85M, church hopes to revive Connecticut ghost town

The collection of quaint but somewhat-neglected Victorian-style buildings includes an old-time general store, post office, mill and covered bridge. The village of Johnsonville was supposed to be a tourist attraction but now sits abandoned. The asking price was $1.9 million. (Courtesy Raveis Real Estate) (Courtesy Raveis Real Estate)
Officials with Iglesia Ni Cristo and East Haddam, Connecticut, marked the closing Johnsonville's sale at a news conference this month. (Courtesy Iglesia Ni Cristo)
Officials with Iglesia Ni Cristo and East Haddam, Connecticut, marked the closing of Johnsonville’s sale at a news conference earlier this month. (Courtesy Iglesia Ni Cristo)
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Officials with Iglesia Ni Cristo and East Haddam, Connecticut, marked the closing Johnsonville's sale at a news conference this month. (Courtesy Iglesia Ni Cristo)

WASHINGTON — A Connecticut ghost town is set to gain new life after a church bought the 62-acre property for $1.85 million.

Johnsonville Village, a section of East Haddam, Connecticut, was purchased earlier this month by Iglesia Ni Cristo, an international church that originated in the Philippines. The church comprises more than 7,000 local congregations and missions in more than 130 countries and territories.

Church officials have not finalized plans for the property, which includes a general store, post office, mill and covered bridge. But restoration will be a priority, said Joji Crisostomo, district minister for the church’s northeastern seaboard region

“The members of the Church and the town’s people can expect good and great things to happen to the property,” Crisostomo wrote in an email.

It’s an unexpected new chapter for the property, which was founded back in the 1960s by an industrialist. Raymond Schmitt was hoping to create a sort of outdoor museum, said Emmett Lyman, East Haddam’s current first selectman (i.e., mayor or executive).

“Johnsonville was his hobby,” Lyman said. “He had money, and he said, ‘You know what? I’d like to put together a Victorian village with an old mill.’”

Many of the buildings were brought to the site, Lyman said. In its heyday, he recalled, the village was a tourist attraction that would be dressed up for Christmas with fully functioning stores, horse-drawn wagons and the like.

“And then he passed, and then his estate didn’t quite know what to do with it and wound up selling it,” he said.

A Connecticut hotel company, Meyer Jabara Hotels, bought the property in 2001. It was sold at an auction in 2014, but the purchase fell through a year later.

All the while, its vintage buildings were themselves falling into disrepair.

“I’ve been concerned that if someone didn’t get in there and start working on them, they weren’t going to last much longer,” Lyman said.

Enter the church, which made a very similar purchase back in 2011 when it bought the community of Scenic, South Dakota. Officials there told The Associated Press that the church has yet to do anything with that property.

That reported inactivity in Scenic worries East Haddam’s leader, who would love to see renewal at the Connecticut site.

“It was a beautiful place,” Lyman said. “Ray Schmitt had done a wonderful job with it.”

Although the plans are sketchy at the moment, the church will have a better idea of the site’s future once contractors have inspected the buildings, Crisostomo said.

And even visitors who aren’t members of the church will be welcome.

“The town will be open to the public,” he said.


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