Monday, October 20, 2014

We're Everywhere, Summer Edition

New London is Connecticut's second-smallest municipality. I lived in New London for something like five years. I write about Connecticut history. I write about Jewish stuff. I am fond of tiny, incongruous buildings. Add all that together, and you would not be crazy for assuming that I would have stumbled over this small historic synagogue near Ocean Beach Park. And yet, I had no idea it was there.

I knew that once upon a time, during New London's heyday as an upscale summer resort town, there had been a seasonal shul here for Jews who came to escape the heat of the cities. But I thought that was one of those old memories of a bygone New London, like when whaling ships came home laden with oil and their captains built mansions along the city's tree-lined streets. 

But then Dirk Langeveld, the former editor of New London Patch who sometimes tips me off to fabulously obscure Connecticut spots, told me the synagogue was still there. I Google Mapped it immediately, and when I saw it on my computer screen I knew I had to go find it the next time I was in southeastern Connecticut.

And there it stood, on a residential street I had remarkably never gotten lost on in all my years in New London.

Even if I had, I might have missed it. You have to get up pretty close to see the details, including the little sign on the door indicating that not only is Temple Israel still standing, it's also still functioning as a synagogue. A nice surprise after this find.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Go West

Don't worry, this is not another post about fall in New England. I'm simply using this classic Colonial, complete with pumpkins, American flag, and changing leaves, as an introduction to one of the stranger moments in Connecticut history.

The 18th Century can seem like a simple time, an era of symmetrical windows and Redcoats in a row. But that image leaves out the Pennamites and the Iroquois. It forgets King Charles II's abysmal grasp of geography. And it can't explain how a slice of northeastern Pennsylvania briefly became part of Litchfield County.

This house, located in Windham and built some time around 1705-1715, belonged to Eliphalet Dyer. Dyer was a lawyer, a Yale graduate, a Connecticut judge and legislator, a militia officer in the French and Indian War, and a delegate to the Continental Congress. But as far as this post is concerned, those parts of his resume doesn't matter. What's relevant here is that Dyer was a founder of the Susquehanna Company.

The Susquehanna Company was a group of Connecticut men who banded together in 1753 to settle and develop Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley. The land, they believed, was pretty much theirs already; it had been granted to the Connecticut Colony in the Charter of 1662, which essentially defined Connecticut's shape as what you would get if you took a map of today's Nutmeg State and extended its northern and southern borders westward to the Pacific Ocean. But there was a problem. The cartographically challenged King Charles had also granted that piece of Pennsylvania to William Penn in 1681. And of course, as always, there were various Indian tribes living there already; in the late 1700s, the most powerful of these were the nations that comprised the Iroquois confederacy.

The Connecticutians' plan was to split the Valley into five townships, with each township providing land for 40 settlers and their families. (Digression: If each settler had a wife and 2.5 children, that would be 180 people living in a town roughly the size of New London. If each couple had five children, that would provide each township with 280 residents. If a "family" included a couple, their five children, both sets of their parents, and a spinster aunt with a cat, their town welcome sign would read Pop: 480. Not counting cats. In any case, these people were not big on population density, which is why they wanted to get out of Connecticut in the first place: too many people, not enough farmland.)

The initial Yankee foray into northeastern Pennsylvania began in 1762. There were conflicts from the start, and one particularly violent clash sent them back to Connecticut for several years. But when they returned in greater numbers in 1769, and built the townships of Pittston, Plymouth, Wilkes-Barre, Nanticoke (later Hanover) and Forty Fort (later Kingston) the first Yankee-Pennamite War - or Pennamite-Yankee War, if you prefer - was on. (Pennamite was the name given to Pennsylvanian settlers who, like the Connecticut settlers, believed that their royal charter and their purchase of land in the wild Wyoming Valley from Iroquois representatives gave them the right to settle there.)

Connecticut won this first round, and it was during the ensuing period that their bit of Pennsylvania frontier actually became a Litchfield County town. It was called Westmoreland, and it sent representatives to the Connecticut legislature. It soon morphed into a separate Connecticut county, also called Westmoreland.

While all this was happening, a little tiff called the Revolutionary War was breaking out. So before the Second Yankee-Pennamite War could happen, the Yankees and Pennamites had to team up and fight the British! Actually that's not really what happened. This gets complicated, but the short version is that the enemy of one's enemy is often one's friend, so in 1778 the Connecticut settlers, defended by a few Yankee officers on leave from their positions in the American army, were attacked by Tory troops, their Indian allies, and a few Pennamites.

This was the Battle of Wyoming, in which the outnumbered Yankees were outsmarted and defeated by the Loyalist-led troops in a half-hour of combat that was eclipsed in popular memory by the massacre and flight that followed. (If that sounds vaguely similar to the Battle of Groton Heights, it is - the Loyalists were even led by a man from southeastern Connecticut.) The battle was romanticized in the poem Gertrude of Wyoming, which places flamingos in the Pennsylvania skies and may have inspired the naming of a certain western state. Today, there is a granite monument at the gravesite of the massacre's victims in Wyoming, PA. (This is about three hours and twenty minutes from Hartford, if anyone else was wondering.)

To make a long and tragic story short, once the Revolution was over the Yankees and Pennamites picked up where they had left off. Since their disputed land was now part of the United States of America, it was up to Congress to sort them out. In 1784 it was decided that the Wyoming Valley would be part of Pennsylvania, but there were still questions about the ownership of the homes and farmland there. Pennsylvania's government ordered the Connecticutians to give up their claims and get out, sending rangers to forcibly remove them. Second Yankee-Pennamite War, anyone?

Obviously, Connecticut and Pennsylvania are not still fighting today, so something must have eventually happened to stop this. In 1786, a compromise was made that let the Yankees keep their Wyoming Valley land and become citizens of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Connecticut finally gave up all claims to land in the region in 1799.

Eliphalet Dyer, I should note, was not actually among the Wyoming Valley settlers. He had helped to initiate and promote the Susquehanna Company's venture, even traveling to England at one point to attempt to secure British support. But when not traveling in service to his state or country, he chose to live in Windham, because Connecticut is better. Just kidding, Pennsylvania, just kidding...

Delaware, Nanticok

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden

You might have noticed it's getting a bit autumnal outside.

And autumn is the perfect season to cross off one of the state parks that have been languishing for years on your list of must-see state parks. (Please tell me I'm not the only one with a list of must-see state parks.)

So the other day I went to Sleeping Giant in Hamden.

I had heard that the 1.6 mile Tower Trail was flat and extremely easy, a favorite of hikers with barely ambulatory children and small dogs. So of course my knees picked that route. (Yes, my knees have decided opinions on hiking trails.)

And it is pretty darn easy, but it isn't exactly the suburban sidewalk it's made out to be. The path is rocky, and can be uneven in places. And while going up was pleasant enough, my knees were not entirely happy about going down.

Still, as mountains go, this is about as painless as it gets.

And when I say "mountains," I mean comatose traprock giants.

Sleeping Giant's sleeping giant was an evil monster called Hobbomock. (Spell-check thinks Hobbomock should be Homophobic, which is also a sort of evil, but an entirely different problem.)

As punishment for Hobbomock's misdeeds, which included changing the course of the Connecticut River in a fit of anger, a god - or a good spirit, depending on which version of the story you read - cast a spell over him, causing him to sleep forever.  (Some history and legend can be found here and here.)

While I was walking up the trail I developed a theory about why the people of Connecticut so enjoy climbing things.

It's because we want to see the castle at the top.

Well, perhaps it's not much of a theory. But it's how at least one parent I overheard on the path convinced her little kid to keep walking, and it's certainly a good part of why I climb things. I definitely don't do it because I want to see Long Island, which apparently is possible from here. If I wanted to see Long Island I'd get on a ferry to Long Island - far easier on one's knees.

The tower, like so many of the impressive man-made structures in Connecticut's state parks, was a WPA project. Makes you wonder what anyone is building today that will still exist, let alone inspire droves of people to climb mountains, 80 years from now...

And now, two unrelated little notes.

1. Last month I mentioned I was going to be thinking about what to do and where to go with this whole Size of Connecticut thing. I did in fact come up with some ideas, so stay tuned for those; in the meantime the blog will be the same as always, though I may be posting less frequently for the next few months.

2. This post happens to be my first on Hamden and that means I have now written at least one post on each and every one of Connecticut's 169 towns. It never occurred to me to count that sort of thing until a few months ago, when I made a valiant (though probably inadequate) effort to straighten out the town/city/village/CDP situation in the categories on the right side of the page. My goal was to tag posts on, e.g., Collinsville and Niantic with 'Collinsville' and 'Niantic' as well as 'Canton' and 'East Lyme.' Pretty much no one who lives in Mystic or Falls Village would say they live in Groton or Canaan, so I felt that at least the major non-city/town places should have tags of their own. And somehow, during that process, I discovered which towns were missing from the list entirely, and made a little note when I happened to fill one in. Therefore Hamden, which I have passed through approximately 10 million times in my life without ever forming an opinion about   one way or the other, will now always have a slightly special place in my heart as #169.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A New Year

Tonight a new year - 5775 - begins on Rosh Hashanah (literally, the head of the year.) Yesterday we entered a new season, and for the first time in a while in Connecticut the weather appears to be cooperating with the calendar. The mornings are colder, and each time I drive down Route 2* I notice a few more leaves bursting into what look like red flames.

And once again, though I've never had a pumpkin spice latte or bought an autumnal Bath & Body Works candle, I'm completely falling for (sorry) all the fall propaganda. I'm thinking about those leaves, and when they'll tip from spectacular to sad. (I don't want to miss it.) I'm also thinking about sweaters and boots, about hot cider and fresh apples and turning those apples into cake.**

And because it's fall, time of new beginnings and new years, I'm also thinking about change.

I read a blog post recently, written by Kristen of Milo and Molly. (Check out her shop, if you haven't yet. Warning: you might want to buy everything.) The post is about blogging, and wondering what the point of it is, or if it has a point at all. Though I write a different sort of blog, I found the post very relatable and thought-provoking. I have no desire to stop blogging, but I do occasionally question whether it's worth it, when so few people read. And I always wish I was doing more to improve this blog. I get mad that I don't have the time to do that, and then I realize that's just an excuse.

I'll be taking a short break and resuming blogging in October. Hopefully by then I will have come up with some ideas on how to make the blog better; at the very least I will have eaten too much apple cake.

*Route 2 is the best for seeing how the leaves are changing. It doesn't get photo shoots in magazines, like certain towns in the Litchfield Hills, but it's the best. Trust me.

**Apple Cake:

2 eggs
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tsp vanilla
4 cups thinly sliced apples
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

Slice apples.

Pre-heat oven to 350F.

Beat eggs, 2/3 cup sugar, and oil together.

In separate bowl, mix flour and baking powder.

Add to egg mixture alternately with juice; add vanilla; blen.

Place half the batter in greased 9x9 pan. Add apples. Mix 1/4 cup sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over apples. Add remaining batter on top.

Bake at 350 for 1 hour.

(Pareve. Adapted from Bubbe's Kitchen: Cherished Dishes from the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Vancouver Section.)

Monday, September 22, 2014


My aunt and uncle used to collect hippopotamuses. (Hippopotami?) Not the animals, it should go without saying, but little hippopotamus figurines. The tiny hippos could be found on shelves and other surfaces around their house, and it was all very cute, but after decades of this they reached a hippo tipping point and asked everyone to please stop giving them hippopotamuses because it was getting out of hand. They didn't want to be those people.

That's a bit how I feel now when I blog about one-room schoolhouses. There are just so many out there, each one as sweet as the next. But if I keep stopping to photograph them, will I start to look like a complete loon? Will I be, effectively, that person who goes from appreciating miniature hippos/old schoolhouses to hoarding them, boring visitors with tales of how each was acquired? I don't know. But while I figure it out, here is Harwinton's First District School House.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scenic Route

When I have to go anywhere even slightly unfamiliar, I normally prefer to look up routes beforehand and write directions on scraps of paper. But occasionally, I give up and let the little voice inside the GPS tell me where to go.

She sounds level-headed, that little voice, like the type who would not be impressed by pretty scenery or send anyone home the long and circuitous way. And usually, she doesn't. But, like me, she sometimes throws caution to the wind.

This is when I find parts of Connecticut I never knew existed, though I could swear I've driven through them before. This is when I see state routes with unfamiliar numbers, and signs tacked to trees that say things like "Wake Up America!" and "We Buy Stone Walls."

Following the whims of the GPS voice when she's in this crazy mood, I pass villages that I've never heard of, villages that I suspect no one who doesn't live in them has ever heard of either. I discover tiny cottages clinging to the shores of lakes I couldn't name. Corn towers above my car as I drive, and sometimes chickens casually stroll along the shoulder.

On a drive like this I found a chapel in Andover, half hiding behind a much larger church. I stopped because I thought perhaps it was a schoolhouse, and it seems it was, for a while, when it wasn't being the library, Grange hall, or town meetinghouse.

The GPS voice was not happy when I turned around to see the chapel up close; it meant she had to re-do her entire plan. But it was all her fault. If she'd wanted a boring trip, she could have just sent me straight to the highway.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rain and Books, 12

I'm not sure exactly how I got this far without encountering Hidden in Plain Sight: A Deep Traveler Explores Connecticut by David K. Leff. But I recently grabbed it eagerly off the shelf of a Barnes & Noble (yes, I paid for it) and read it, partly during a storm when I thought the power would go out any second and partly on a weekend afternoon when I should have been working. (Oops.)

Hidden in Plain Sight's prologue begins with two places I grew up taking for granted, the Merrit Parkway and Westport's Nike Site. I had never considered that where I learned as a teenager to merge onto a highway from a dead stop and where I attended my first and only pre-football-game bonfire could have any link to my current love of exploring Connecticut and beyond. 

If you're wondering, a deep traveler is, apparently, one who observes their surroundings in all the ways I already do: slowing down to see things by the roadside to the consternation of following drivers, slamming on the brakes at the sight of interesting buildings, hiking through overgrown brush to find some historical remnant that may or may not be lurking underfoot, pondering what's behind street signs and place names, and generally being what I had always called a big dork. Finding out I could call myself a deep traveler instead was quite nice, I must say.

Today I Learned: I was relieved to find that this book did not contain that much I didn't already know. I was prepared to feel entirely unschooled compared to Leff, an essayist, poet, and former Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Environmental Protection. But in fact this book simply expanded what I already knew and made me want to continue looking for new places, rather than making me feel totally ignorant. So that was nice too.

That said, here are a few facts that were new to me: In the 1970s, the Department of Transportation attempted to find and replace all of the state's lost milestones. A Town Farm, recalled by the Town Farm Roads in many towns, was a 19th century poor farm. Connecticut has a "best-known roadside water source" and it is Alex Cassie spring in Windham. 18th and 19th century communities built "pest houses" at the edge of town to isolate those with contagious diseases. Elmwood in West Hartford (where my post office is; yes, I live in Hartford and my post office is in West Hartford, this is the beauty of Connecticut) was the site of thirteen elm trees, representing the thirteen colonies and planted in 1777 to celebrate the American victory at Saratoga in New York.

Amusements: This isn't a terribly funny book, but it has its rare moments, intentionally or not. For example, reading that Litchfield had a so-called Whipping Post Elm until 1815 and that in 1694, the Reverend Benjamin Wadsworth called Kent a "hideous, howling wilderness" made me smirk.

Listings: The hidden places and things Leff includes here are split into five sections: Along the Roadside, Places We Build, Seeing Green, Ghost Towns and Graveyards, and Through Artists' Eyes. Each of these contains about eight short essays. Some of my favorites are those on fall foliage, octagon houses, neglected graveyards, and the towns buried under Connecticut's lakes. At the end of the book there's a short and practical section that lays out where travelers can best see points of interest from old-growth forests to racetracks to quonset huts.

Quote: There were a few I thought I would pick out, but in the end I had to selfishly go with this partial sentence, describing Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton and Ridgefield: "In contrast to Yellowstone, which is the nation's first national park and itself the size of Connecticut..."

Friday, September 12, 2014

Main Street, Wethersfield

George Washington slept here, and though he probably didn't choose to stop in Wethersfield because it has one of Connecticut's most delightful Main Streets, I'm sure that was an added bonus. (If you have to plan a military campaign, why not do it someplace scenic, right?)

The area sometimes called Old Wethersfield - home to Wethersfield Cove - is also known as the Old Wethersfield Historic District, Connecticut's largest. These pictures represent only a small fraction of the historic buildings that make up this "Most Auncient Towne."

This Hartford suburb might be, as one reviewer on TripAdvisor put it, "a little off the normal path." But if it's not currently on your path, you'll probably want to alter your route a bit.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

We're Everywhere, Part 5

Once there were thirteen active synagogues in Hartford; now there are none. But some of their buildings remain. This one, Ados Israel on Pearl Street, is my favorite.

The congregation was "organized in Hartford by Orthodox Eastern European Jews in 1884 as the "Association of Brothers, Children of Israel." It was the first Orthodox shul in the city. Members originally met on Pratt Street. In 1898 they moved to a large and distinctive building on Market Street, which was, like so many historic Hartford buildings, torn down in the early 1960s. At that time, Ados Israel moved to Pearl Street, into what had been the First Unitarian Congregational Church.

When the synagogue closed in 1986, the New York Times reported that "When the wrought-iron gates of the Pearl Street synagogue close for the last time, it will mark the first time since the mid-1800's that the city has been without a synagogue."

The building (which is on a really nice block) is for sale. So many buildings to save, so little time...

Monday, September 8, 2014


This story ends in East Haddam but it starts in Waterford, as a surprising number of stories do.

While running an errand in Waterford not long ago, I confused Parkway North with Parkway South (if you know Waterford, you will now either nod knowingly or laugh at me) and had to turn around at the dead end by the Wal-mart. As I was doing this I noticed a sad-looking little brick building that I instantly knew was a historic schoolhouse. And yet I'd spent years researching and writing about Waterford history (as well as driving down strange dead ends all over town) and this was a schoolhouse I'd never encountered. All because I try as hard as possible to avoid shopping at Wal-mart, I never realized that the old Gilead Schoolhouse was sitting there on Parkway North all this time.

But later, while I was reading about the Gilead Schoolhouse (Gilead was a section of town named for its situation "beyond Jordan," another Waterford village), I found something even better. Though most of Gilead disappeared as the area was developed (got to have a Wal-mart, right?) one lost building was not torn down. It was disassembled, driven 30 miles away, and put back together.

This was the Gilead Chapel, the Carpenter Gothic confection above, which was moved to Johnsonville in East Haddam in 1969.

Johnsonville was, first, a 19th century mill village. The Moodus and Salmon rivers provided the power for mills producing twine, which is how the village of Moodus in East Haddam got the nickname "The Twine Capital of America."

In the 1960s Raymond Schmitt, founder of aerospace company AGC, purchased the land and set about turning the place into a tourist attraction by restoring the village and importing historic buildings from other Connecticut towns. (The people of Waterford, for their part, were none too happy about this.) Visitors could be married in the chapel, examine the recreated "historic" interiors of the barbershop, and gawk at oddities like a steamboat that Schmitt had transported to East Haddam and docked in Johnsonville's millpond.

Today, Johnsonville is often called a "ghost town" or an "abandoned village," but it's probably more accurate to say it's a small section of a rural/suburban town with a concentration of empty historic structures. Not that it isn't slightly eerie and very cool - I highly encourage anyone to drive through East Haddam to see it - but, during the day at least, it's not exactly as spooky as it's sometimes made to seem. Though most of the buildings are cordoned off and all are plastered with warning signs, they are still basically part of a residential neighborhood.

Anyway, when I went to look at the chapel I got a surprise, in the form of a matching schoolhouse across the lawn.

The school was found in Canterbury.(About 40 miles away.)

It, like the rest of the village, stands empty, in what appears to be less than perfect but hardly terrible shape, in a positively lovely part of Connecticut, waiting for that rare combination: someone with money and imagination.

So many things could be done with this pre-assembled curiosity of a town. Tourist attraction, history museum, shopping center à la Cannondale, park à la Boothe Memorial, the list goes on. Personally I vote for subsidized housing for writers, but that's just me...

For anyone curious about Johnsonville, here are some links I accumulated while writing this post:

Johnsonville on Damned CT.
A Johnsonville virtual tour.
A look inside the buildings from the questionable reality show Abandoned, Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 (4:00 - wait, whaaaat?!)
A nice glimpse at Connecticut in the 1880s, with an appearance by East Haddam's mills, from the Connecticut Historical Society.
Memories of Johnsonville in the Courant.
A brief look at the Twine Capital of America on YouTube.


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