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.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Nutmeg Poisoning

It's Friday (and also somehow September already, I think we need to track down and punish whoever is responsible for that) so it's time for a bunch of Connecticut links.

-New London was in the New York Times and the Boston Globe.

-While I'm linking to the New York Times, I just love the image of Connecticut that this story must  suggest to outsiders. It's true, we are an exotic land of agriculture and strange crime...

-I stumbled across the blog Colonial American Digressions, which has a few posts that mention Connecticut, like this one about the Fundamental Orders and this one about early American roads (quote: "Perhaps the Boston Post Road wasn't a very good highway.")

-A YouTube find: "The stunning black and white photography of Jack McConnell's Connecticut Farm Project set to the music and lyrics of the talented Jack Collins."

-If Discovery Communications had existed in 1939, there would have been a reality show filmed in Glastonbury.

-"This is undoubtedly one of the most astounding natural phenomenons in the bird world that you can experience in North America...It's more remarkable than the sandhill crane migration on the Platte River (in Nebraska), the snow goose migration in the Arctic and the hawk migration in the fall." And it takes place in Haddam

-Remember this story I wrote about the excavation of a mikveh in Montville? Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni talked about that site, and other Connecticut archeological discoveries, in his appearance at the Old State House. You can watch it on CT-N.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wallop School

Sometimes I have a lot to say about a schoolhouse. Maybe it has an interesting history, or it's not alone, or I just happen to instantly fall in love with it. But other times I'm just, like, Yup. It's a schoolhouse.

I could say that this is the Wallop School, now a museum run by the Enfield Historical Society. I could write about how it was built in 1754, and how it burned down and was rebuilt in 1800 as the no-frills brick structure you see above, and how it was used as a school up until 1947.

I could also talk about where this schoolhouse is located, in the southern part of Enfield, past tobacco sheds and fields, in the middle of a tangle of short residential streets.

But it's still essentially a rectangle with windows on a traffic island in Enfield. Which seceded from Massachusetts in 1749. Now that's interesting.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bridgewater, Again

In February, I trudged through the snow to get a better look at the childhood home of Captain William D. Burnham in Bridgewater.

Last week, I finally was able to return and take a little walk around the center of Connecticut's only dry town.

Bridgewater is one of those Little White Buildings towns. This is the grange hall.

The Village Store is apparently the place to be on weekend afternoons.

Bridgewater also has something for street name aficionados. Of which I am one.

I imagine if anyone did something as crazy as actually sitting on this bench, heads would turn. But it is a very nice bench.

It wouldn't be a small Connecticut town without a white church. (Bridgewater has more than one of these, but this one, even half-hidden behind a tree, struck me as the nicest.)

The Burnham Library (yes, Burnham of the little house in the first photo) has quite the history.

This is the Elijah Peck House, now owned by the Bridgewater Historical Society. It contains an iron kitchen stove, a pair of wedding slippers from 1755, a Sturdevant spinning wheel, and a melodeon. Because that round porch wasn't enough.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mine Hill

There is much more to the Mine Hill Preserve, maintained by the Roxbury Land Trust, than the remains of a 19th century iron mine. But as much as I love wilderness, I love the crazy-looking things that people go to great lengths to construct in that wilderness even more.

In a sense, if you've seen one blast furnace you've seen them all.

Yet encountering these massive structures is always a bit awe-inspiring. These ovens were used to heat the iron ore after it was extracted from tunnels, which were dug by hand and excavated by candlelight. The ore was transported to the ovens in wheeled carts, which were then pulled back uphill by donkeys. After being heated, the iron was sorted, cast in the blast furnace, and eventually transformed into steel.

The process is described here. It still sounds, to me, like impossible alchemy.

Despite all that effort, the iron works here did not last very long, nor were they particularly successful. For a few decades in the late 1800s work at Mine Hill was frequently stymied by problems, both technical and financial. By 1900, mining here was over.

But in that brief window of time when this peaceful preserve was a noisy industrial site, this part of Roxbury was like a different world.

The mines were surrounded by a town, called Chalybes after the iron working people of ancient Chaldia on the Black Sea.

Some of this town remains in the form of the buildings at the foot of Mine Hill, the ones that look a little like an Old West movie set. But most of Chalybes is gone.

This is one of the few places I've written about on this blog that require some travel tips.

-The walk from the parking lot to the furnace site is quite short, but it involves hills and rocks and tree roots, and you should really do it in decent shoes. Meaning sneakers or hiking boots, not sandals. (I did it in sandals and I was fine, but it was stupid, like that time I climbed the Castle Craig steps in a skirt.)

-There is limited-to-nonexistent cell service in this area, so if you're depending on your smartphone to direct you to the preserve, you will get lost. Funnily enough, there is cell service at the furnace site itself, so if you wear sandals and break your leg, you can at least call for help.

-The road up to Mine Hill Preserve is unpaved, fairly steep, and quite narrow. The entry into the small parking lot is downhill and also somewhat steep. Drive carefully and don't visit when there's snow or ice on the ground unless you have proper tires. (I've done that too, and I lived, but, like the sandals, it was stupid.)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Stony Hill School

Looks like the Old West School  in West Hartford has a cousin in Windsor. The Stony Hill School was built in 1850, rebuilt in 1899, and is currently used as a yoga studio.


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