Friday, May 22, 2015

Salem Herbfarm

Here are some things I do not possess:

1. A house.
2. A yard.
3. A knowledge of plants.
4. The ability to keep any green thing alive for more than a week.
5. Any inclination to spend any time on my knees in dirt wearing over-sized canvas gloves.

And yet. Whenever I pass one of Connecticut's many garden centers - not the ones that sell only plants but the ones that double as free-outdoor entertainment - there I am, wandering between the rows of herbs and flowers and admiring the surroundings.

Everyone around me takes pots and bags of soil and loads them into their wagons like responsible adult garden center shoppers. I just take pictures.

These pictures are from Salem Herbfarm in Salem.

In addition to herbs and plants and all sorts of whimsical and practical garden accessories, they have doves and goats.

They have an emu and some very sophisticated-looking black-and-white chickens.

They have formal gardens (where they host weddings) and little bags of spices and a wall of terracotta pots and...

Well, just go. You'll see.

While you're at it, check out two other eclectic Salem spots, Panfili's - about which I wrote a post in 2013 - and Salem Feed & Grain.

If you're further north, go to Martha's Herbary in Pomfret. And if you're further south, try Smith's Acres in Niantic.

Or just drive around on Connecticut's back roads. You'll probably find a store that catches your eye with pretty flowers and sucks you in with creative displays and unusual gifts and general eccentricity.

(And if you know of another unique local garden center, please let me know in the comments!)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mystic

Like probably every Connecticut schoolchild, I went to Mystic Seaport and Aquarium a lot back in the day. I don't know why we went so often (it was always either Mystic or the Museum of Natural History in New York; you'd think all the adults in our lives were secretly training us to hunt whales) but I do remember that no one ever mentioned the non-Seaport, non-Aquarium side of Mystic.

Perhaps the village's central shopping and dining area, and the bascule bridge that spans the Mystic River between Mystic's Groton and Stonington sides, were not big tourist attractions in the 1980s. After all, that was before Mystic Pizza (not filmed in Mystic) became a nostalgic favorite. Or perhaps I was just a clueless, day-dreaming child who didn't pay attention. (I was.)

These days, however, the historic districts anchored by West and East Main Streets, and the twisty quasi-grid of hills that branch off from them, are almost always full of people. People lining up for tours, people sitting outside drinking coffee, people watching that famous bridge raise up, as the line of cars and pedestrians waits to cross, then watching it lower again.

If you, like childhood me, are of the belief that the Seaport and Aquarium are all Mystic has to offer - or if you, like grown-up me, can't afford the crazy admission fees - I encourage you to go explore the downtown area. It's not exactly off the beaten path; in fact it's pretty bustling. (Get there early for easier parking, and don't miss the side-streets with their enviable historic homes and fewer tourists.) But I'm sure there are many visitors who pass through the village without even thinking to venture beyond the familiar old school field trip spots.















Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Main Street, Willimantic

Willimantic has always tried to evade easy categorization.

Born as a small village on the Willimantic River in the early 19th century, it became a borough of Windham in 1833, then a city in 1893. In 1983 the city consolidated with the town of Windham, and Willimantic became a village - or one of four sections of the town - once again.

Downtown Willimantic feels like your typical well-worn college town, except where it doesn't.

Some parts of it are classic New England.

Some parts are reminiscent of Connecticut's other small, scrappy cities: New London, Norwich, and the like, with their mural walls and vibrant little centers that fade out into sleepy industrial areas and suburban-looking streets. (Willimantic's nickname, Thread City, also seems to recognize how city-like the place remains.)

Thread City's history is as Connecticut as it gets: prosperity, carried in on the waterfalls that powered the mills, then decline, as America's need for thread could be satisfied more cheaply elsewhere.


The void left by the mills is being filled in a typically Connecticut way too.

Now instead of spools of thread, Willimantic turns out art, culture, and history, and stands as a sort of quirky palimpsest that lures visitors across its bridges and around its corners where unpredictable oddities seem to hide.

And then, of course, there are the frogs.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Camp Columbia

One amusing trick to play on visitors from afar - or even Connecticut residents who are only familiar with one section of the state - is to tell them you're taking them on a little walk (or a long hike or a short drive) but leave out the fact that the trip is a rambling sentence punctuated by the giant exclamation point of an old stone tower.

They will dutifully stroll or climb or ride along. On the way they will admire the blue sky, the little streams that trickle over mossy rock-beds, the once-majestic fallen trees resting on the forest floor, and the view from this elevated height. And then they will look up, and they will say, "Oh."

This water tower is one of two remaining structures at Camp Columbia State Park/Forest in Morris. (The other is a stone house that has seen better days.)

Camp Columbia was once the summer training grounds of the Engineering School at Columbia College (later Columbia University.) The first group of students came to Connecticut in 1885, staying at a local farm and then a hotel. In 1891 Columbia began leasing land near Bantam Lake and housing students in tents. In 1903 the university purchased the land for their Connecticut summer campus and began constructing buildings here.

The school continued to expand through the 1950s, by which point it offered courses in Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, and Technology and International Affairs. Perhaps its most important years (or its most surreal, in the context of tiny, tranquil Morris) were 1917-1919, when Columbia students expecting to be commissioned as officers in World War One dug 300 yards of trenches here to train for they type of combat they would face in Europe. (Litchfield County has a history of bringing extra noise to its green hills; during this period at Camp Columbia there were "real as well as dummy gunfire and explosives.")

Now, that noise is long gone. The last students made their way from New York City in 1983, and Columbia sold the land to the Connecticut DEEP in 2000. It became a state park in 2004. Today, as you walk along the trail to the 75-foot stone tower, built in 1942 as a replacement of an earlier wooden structure, all you can hear are a few birds, hiding somewhere watching, and the wind.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Ferry Landing

You won't see it from your car on the bridge that carries I-95 high above the Connecticut River, but you might glimpse it from the window of an Amtrak train rushing to New York. You might look away from your work or your phone and glance down at just the right moment, as you travel above Old Lyme. If you do, you might catch it, stretching out across the blue water below: a narrow wooden pier, extending from the rocky shore to a raised platform, where - were you not on this train - you could sit for hours, surrounded by the marsh and the birds and the stillness.

You might be surprised that this slow watery place exists so far off your radar, somewhere between Providence and Baltimore, or Boston and Washington, or whatever two bustling places you will be in today. You will probably forget about it soon afterwards. If you don't, though, you can always come back to Ferry Landing State Park at the DEEP Marine Headquarters.

Standing on the wooden walkway, if you look up at just the right moment, you can spot the Northeast Regional as it comes into view, blurs into a streak of silver, then moves on.












Friday, April 17, 2015

Nutmeg Poisoning

-Freda Moon and Tim Stelloh wrote a gripping four-part story for Buzzfeed about a 1993 New Haven murder and its Corrupticut-style aftermath.

-When I wrote this post, I recommended the bookstore Other Tiger in Westerly, RI. Then the store closed. (Sad face.) But according to Shelf Awareness, the owners of Bank Square Books in Mystic will open a replacement, the Savoy Bookshop and Cafe, possibly in July.

-WNPR's Patrick Skahill reported on a "mysterious" historic house in Guilford.

-The Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast covered the Hartford Circus Fire.

-The nation's oldest furniture store is in Connecticut, of course. Well, it was in Connecticut. (Sad face again.)

-Johnsonville, the East Haddam "ghost town" I mentioned here and here, is for sale again (via Curbed.com.)

-Kristen of Milo and Molly and the Nutmeg Collective rounded up some locally made Etsy gems.

-This New Yorker cartoonist understands my life.

-And finally, FiveThirtyEight explored 50 years of American spice consumption. ("Nutmeg peaked in the 1980s and has since declined, while mace, made from the fruit of the same plant, has seen an increase in imports in recent years after declines in the 1980s and ’90s.")

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

NYC | High Line

I am probably one of the last people in the Tri-State area, if not the world, to make it to the attraction I overheard a tourist in Chelsea last week describe as "That High Line thing. It's like a walkway. I don't know what's up there."

Preservation of the High Line, the 1930s railroad trestle above Manhattan's West Side, began in the 1990s. But by the time the first section was opened to the public, it was 2009, three years after I had left the city. I've been back since then, but I've never had the time to be a tourist. Perhaps more importantly, I didn't want to be a tourist. New York moves fast, and when you leave you're gone, like you've stepped off a quickly spinning platform. You can't just jump back on. Returning to the city where I'd lived for so long, only to realize I was no different from those slow-walking hordes who don't know what's up there, on that walkway thing, just didn't sound like fun.

But last week, finally, I climbed the stairs and walked the entirety of this linear park, from Gansevoort Street to the Rail Yards. Joining throngs of other visitors, I followed the path between art installations, billboards, and the back windows of apartments which must have, not long ago, seemed quite private.

The High Line was just as I'd expected (the billions of photos everyone and their dog has taken ever since it opened helped with that) but it was also better. There's something novel and wonderful about moving through the city well above the sidewalks. From the High Line, the views of  pedestrians and yellow cabs navigating the streets below are somehow different than those you'd get from a third-story window. You are closer to construction cranes, window-washers hoisting themselves up walls on their little platforms, and water towers high up on rooftops. You see things the city didn't exactly intend to show you; it's almost like a view of New York from backstage. And it's worth going, even if you're late to the party, even if you're just a another tourist.















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