Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Grass Island

Grass Island in Guilford is not an island, but a little swoop of beach between Long Island Sound and the East River. You reach it by walking to the edge of a Madison neighborhood where houses are raised on stilts and boats are as numerous as cars. You continuing walking when the road stops, onto the sand where you're not sure if you are technically allowed to go. You walk around the perimeter, where the land meets the water, stepping on piles of shells and seaweed-draped stones. You go because you know the red shack is there, around the corner, somehow still standing after all these years. And when you reach it, you turn around, and walk back.

(To walk to Grass Island, I parked at the East River State Boat Launch in Madison. The shack is also visible from the Guilford Town Marina.)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Eastford | Nathaniel Lyon

Civil War monuments are common in Connecticut. Often they are simple obelisks on town greens or lone soldiers standing on pedestals. Sometimes they are grand, like the Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Arch in Hartford. But for true Civil War sites, you have to go further south.

Or so you'd think. In fact, there are places in Connecticut that connect more directly to events of the Civil War. One such site is the empty and eerie John Brown Birthplace in Torrington.

Another is this rough-hewn chimney in Eastford, which is all that remains of the birthplace of General Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general to die in the Civil War. Lyon was born in Ashford in 1818 (the chimney is now in the town of Eastford, which broke off from Ashford in 1847) and killed in the Battle of Wilson's Creek in Missouri in 1861.

Lyon was, to put it mildly, an unusual and complicated guy.* He is not, perhaps, the very model of the ideal Union general Connecticut would choose to claim as its own. Born into a family populated with military heroes and notorious nonconformists, he had a (literally) violent temper and frequently questionable judgement. Many of his military actions were (again, to put it mildly) controversial, and he was quick to express his sometimes uninformed opinions. Yet, he was a vehement opponent of slavery. He consumed large quantities of candy and was known for eating mustard "slather[ed] ... on thick slices of bread, even in the midst of battle."** He died while leading a counter-charge at 9:30 in the morning (having already been wounded in the leg and head and having one horse shot from underneath him) from a bullet to the heart. He once told an aide who apologized for finding him a sleeping place on uncomfortable stony ground, "I'm quite alright. Back in Connecticut, where I come from, I was born and bred among rocks."

The fireplace and chimney (notice the small square oven in the side) stands at the center of a grassy circle, ringed by a dirt road, near ancient-looking stone walls and dark woods. On the map, this is called Nathaniel Lyon Memorial State Park. It is a small part of the Natchaug State Forest, which spreads across parts of Eastford, Chaplin, Hampton, and beyond.

Nearby, on General Lyon Road, there is a small cemetery. Here, in his family's plot, Nathaniel Lyon is buried. There is a marble monument to him, marked with the names of battles he fought in and topped with a dove. Somehow, it seems not as fitting a remembrance as the imposing chimney that has survived for centuries and looks as if it will stand through many more.

*For a biography, try Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon, by Christopher Phillips.
**OK, this comes from Wikipedia, so who knows if it's true. But I hope so much that it's true.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Nutmeg Poisoning

Happy Friday! Here are some of the Connecticut-related tidbits I've been collecting on my browser's bookmarks toolbar recently:

-It's always a little fun and more than a little bizarre to read about one of the everyday grocery stores of your childhood in Business Insider. (The intern who wrote the piece loved Stew Leonard's; I wonder what he would have made of Finast.)

-Since I don't currently own a TV, it was pure luck that I stumbled across Season 3, Episode 3 of Mysteries at the Monument, which travels to Windham to look at the famous "battle" behind the Frog Bridge in Willimantic. The episode is available on Amazon, and probably elsewhere online, or look out for it on the Travel Channel.

-The New York Post is calling part of the Connecticut Shoreline "the next 'new' Hamptons." [Ed note: Nooooo!!!] Town and Country agrees.

-This American Life did a two-part series on school integration. Part One focuses on Missouri, Part Two on Greater Hartford. It is always fascinating to see how one's own city and state is covered in the national media, and the episode is both inspiring and depressing.

-I found, by accident, New London's old municipal cemetery (located in Waterford.) This is where the city once interred people who did not have money or loved ones to arrange for their own burial. While researching what this unusual cemetery might be, I came across a New York Times article about Connecticut's smallpox cemeteries. I knew that Madison had one (the Madison Historical Society maintains it) but it turns out - quite unsurprisingly - that there are many more.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Falls Village


Think of Falls Village as a video that someone paused around 1850 and never came back to play again.

The website of the Town of Canaan-Falls Village explains the frozen-in-time quality:

Once there was a dream that Falls Village would become an industrial mecca. It would be fueled with an abundance of hydropower thanks to the miles of stone canals running along the Housatonic River and the great Falls. Those canals (along with much of Falls Village) were built up over the course of several years. In 1851, the canals finally opened. The crowds cheered, the water flowed, and everything leaked…..Thanks to that dream and the fact that it died, Falls Village lives on, much as it was in 1851.

But before I get to Falls Village, I feel I have to at least attempt to explain on a very basic level what the deal is with the Canaans. Falls Village is one of several villages in the town of Canaan. (One of these is called South Canaan.) But because it is the town center, people who live or work in Falls Village will refer to Falls Village as if it is a town in itself - or in other words, as if the town of Canaan and the village of Falls Village are the same. 

North Canaan is a separate town, located north of Canaan (this cannot always be assumed in Connecticut; East Hampton can be found 30 miles west of Hampton), which contains a village called Canaan as well as other sections called Canaan Valley and East Canaan. Just as Canaan and Falls Village are sometimes used interchangeably, so North Canaan and Canaan (i.e. the village of Canaan) can also mean the same thing. (The United States Post Office could use this part of Connecticut for a PSA about why it's so important to put the right Zip Code on your letters.)

But wait, I'm not done. Because about an hour and a half south of this confusion, there is New Canaan. New Canaan began not as a town or a village, but a parish on the Norwalk-Stamford border. The people who went to church in Canaan Parish lived in one of those two cites until their new town was incorporated in 1801. But by that time, the name Canaan was already taken by the aforementioned Litchfield County town, so the Fairfield County parishioners had to settle for New Canaan. (Possibly the only example to date of anyone from New Canaan ever not getting what they wanted on the first try.)


Now, back to Falls Village. Before the Housatonic Railroad came to town in 1841, the settlement was actually called Canaan Falls. (I know, the hilarity never ends.) Falls Village was the name given to the train station, and eventually it came to refer to the whole town.


In terms of area, Canaan (or Falls Village, if you prefer) is fairly large, at 33 square miles. But the Falls Village District, the national historic district where I took these pictures, is only about 70 acres, consisting of "the half dozen square blocks that were built up in the middle of the 19th century as a result of Falls Village being selected as a station stop when the Housatonic Railroad was put through in the late 1830s/ early 1840s."


The historic district can feel almost eerily remote. Though it fills up on occasion for events, like the annual summer car show that crowds Main Street with classic vehicles and moseying spectators, on a normal day it is intensely quiet. 


Because it's set off of Route 7, the main road through the area, you could drive past this town center many times without realizing it was there. In that sense, it is the opposite of a tourist magnet like nearby Kent, where Route 7 runs straight through the middle of town.


It reminds me a bit of small towns in the West or Midwest that suddenly spring up as you drive towards them then abruptly end, giving way to emptiness. But because this is Connecticut, there is no sense of frontier newness here, and the surrounding countryside is hilly and lush. This is an isolated village, but it does not stand in an open space surrounded by flat fields or ice-blue mountains or endless straight highways. Instead, it hides between waterfalls and winding roads.


And yes, there is a one-room schoolhouse. The Beebe Hill School was built in 1918 to replace an earlier school building that burned down.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Wallace Stevens Walk, Hartford


Last week, on a perfect summer day, my friend Sally (who Connecticut-based readers might know as the editor of Books, Ink at HamletHub) joined me on a little Hartford adventure that had been on my list since I moved to the capital city almost two years ago.

The Wallace Stevens Walk is one of the less-publicized attractions in a city full of half-hidden gems. It's a very simple walk, stretching 2.4 miles from the stately Asylum Avenue headquarters of the Hartford Financial Services Group, where acclaimed modernist poet Stevens (1879-1955) worked for 23 years, to the tastefully unassuming home where he lived with his wife Elsie. You could say it is part of a grand literary tour of Hartford, but it is also a commute; Stevens, who didn't drive, used to walk this route every day, mentally composing poetry along the way. 

The walk is punctuated by thirteen plain granite markers, each bearing a stanza of Stevens's inscrutable yet evocative "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The landscape of the journey - like the poem - is sometimes stark and sometimes surprisingly ornate. The markers lead you from Asylum Hill to the West End, and you follow, past grand houses and drab offices and parking lots, past wildflowers leaning against metal gates, across the mostly-buried Park River where it still flows, almost unnoticed, above the ground.

When you reach the end you are happier about the whole thing than perhaps you should be, standing on a summer day on the grassy strip that divides Westerly Terrace, imagining the snow that will soon begin to fall.








Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Lowell, MA

I had two reasons to go to Lowell. First, one of my best and oldest friends, Stephanie, recently moved to the city. Second, Lowell is home to the Lowell National Historical Park, which tells the story of textile mills, immigration, labor, and industrialization in Lowell and America. As a Hartford resident, I was curious to see an urban national park, possibly similar to the one Hartford will eventually have in Coltsville.

I hadn't heard much about Lowell in the past. I think it might fit into my favorite category of place: the ignored and underrated city. Physically, Lowell felt familiar to me; it is classic industrial New England, with brick mill buildings and waterfalls, rivers and cobblestones, formerly grand Victorian houses and touches of art everywhere you look. But unlike anywhere else I can recall visiting, it is built around canals, divided by and joined together by canals, saved from an overwhelming heavy sturdiness by the surprise and occasional beauty of canals that slice and twist through the city's downtown.

The National Historical Park consists of museum exhibits, trolley and canal tours, and markers dotted along several walking trails that highlight different aspects of the area's manufacturing past. But even if all you do is stroll from one hipster coffee shop to another, you are nevertheless walking through a history lesson, past locks and gatehouses and narrow walkways connecting the massive mills that once filled Lowell with a clamor of power looms and a flood of people.

As we walked, I kept trying to compare Lowell to other places. It was like Hartford yet not like it; it resembled a mini-Pittsburgh; its canals, if this was Europe, would be lined with restaurant patios and filled with houseboats. But eventually I stopped comparing, and just took pictures.

What we did in Lowell:

Sights and Activities:

Lowell National Historical Park
Pawtucket Falls
Lowell Cemetery


Brew'd Awakening Coffeehaus
Coffee & Cotton (In Mill No. 5, see below)
Fuse Bistro


Mill No. 5
Van Gogh's Gear (In the Arts League of Lowell)


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