Friday, October 2, 2015

Nutmeg Poisoning

-I'm not sure why I always take note whenever the NYT deigns to cover something in Connecticut. It's a little (or possibly a lot) pathetic, and probably symptomatic of some larger Connecticut inferiority complex malaise. Still, the NYT reviewed the renovated Wadsworth Atheneum.

-Someone is making a movie based on Little Pink House, Jeff Benedict's book about the Kelo v. New London case. Filming began last month in...Vancouver.

-Continuing on the legal theme, Where We Live did a show on some of the New Haven Colony's earliest court cases. If that sounds boring, don't worry - there's bestiality and drunken sailors. (The segment begins at 25:00.)

-I've been listening the Welcome to Connecticut podcast, in which Ken Tuccio interviews an assortment of well known and/or successful Connecticut residents. To be completely honest, I have no idea who most of these people are, but some of the interviews are fascinating (while simultaneously making you feel unaccomplished and rather hopeless.)

-I fell down the deep hole that is the search results for "Connecticut" on the Architectural Digest site. And now you can too!

-If you haven't been to the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, you should go. If you have been, you might enjoy this piece on color-blind Canadian painter Arthur Heming's time at the esteemed artists' colony.

-Regular readers of this blog will know that I've written a fair amount here and elsewhere about the Jews of rural eastern Connecticut. (Click the "Jews" tag below or to the right to see some of that writing.) I'm always excited to see that other people care about them too. Someone even wrote a play about them, which will premier for the 100-year anniversary of a synagogue in Chester.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Toll House

Once upon a time (more specifically, during the late 18th to 19th centuries), Connecticut was laced with 1,600 miles of toll roads. (Here is a list of them.) The tolls were collected not by the government, but by private corporations which built and maintained the roads. Sometimes this involved repairing an existing path, but other toll roads had to be constructed from scratch, carved out of the woods. In 1807, one visitor reported that "in almost every other direction" in Middlesex County, he encountered "a turnpike-road; for these roads being here made objects of private gain...they are established with avidity, on the smallest prospect of advantage."
“as in almost every other direction a turnpike-road; for these roads being here made objects of private gain . . . they are established with avidity, on the smallest prospect of advantage.” - See more at:
“as in almost every other direction a turnpike-road; for these roads being here made objects of private gain . . . they are established with avidity, on the smallest prospect of advantage.” - See more at:

Tolls were paid at the toll houses dotting the routes. A pike, mounted on a post, prevented travelers from passing by without paying. After they handed over their fare, the toll keeper would turn the pike, allowing them to continue. Not everyone had to pay all the time; the state of Connecticut exempted "persons travelling to and from public worship, funerals, society, town, or elector's meeting; all officers and soldiers going to and from military duty, by order of law; all persons going to and from grist-mills; or on their ordinary farming business, and not travelling more than three miles" on the road from payment. The toll roads are gone now, though whether or not to reinstate their modern equivalent is a frequent topic of debate. But their memory lives on in the many Connecticut thoroughfares that never dropped the "Turnpike" from their names, as well as in Cromwell's Shunpike Road, named for those travelers who chose to go around the long way rather than pay the toll.

This once-commonplace facet of Connecticut's past also survives in the few remaining toll houses. This one on Main Street in Plymouth is now the Toll House Museum, part of the Plymouth Historical Society. (The little red building is home to an 1852 Woodruff and Beach steam engine that powered the Shelton & Tuttle Carriage Company factory.)

As it turned out, running a turnpike was usually not a profitable venture. Connecticut's private toll roads were all gone before 1900. The Connecticut State Highway Department, formed in 1895, continued to collect tolls on certain roads to help pay for their maintenance, a practice that continued in some form until 1989. As for the toll houses, few are clearly identifiable. Aside from this one in Plymouth, there is one other that I know of, in West Cornwall near the covered bridge; it houses a Shaker furniture showroom. But others do survive, standing unnoticed on unremarkable roads where once, in order to pass by in your sulky, you would have had to stop and rummage around for spare change.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Years and Seasons

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, usually coincides nicely with New England's fall season and the sense of new beginnings that come with the first hint of cooler weather. In Connecticut, apples and apple picking mark the start of the season of back to school, warm sweaters, and changing leaves. For Jews, eating apples - along with honey - represents the hope of a sweet year to come.

This year (it's 5776 if you're wondering) the holiday began yesterday at sundown, eleven days earlier than it did last year. (In the Hebrew calendar, it falls on the same date every year, the first day of the month of Tishrei.) A week and a half might not seem like a huge difference from one year to the next, but a week and a half is a lifetime in the context of a New England autumn.

Those eleven days could mean the difference between beaches, flip-flops, sunscreen and sleeping in front of the fan and leather boots, scarves, warm drinks, and adding an extra blanket. Later in the season, eleven days could be the difference between looking up at spectacular multi-colored leaves on every tree and feeling them crunch beneath your feet as the branches go bare.

Combined with the fact that higher temperatures have lingered longer than they have in decades, giving us heat waves and green trees even while advertisers persist in pushing dark lipstick, '70's-inspired jeans, and pumpkin spice everything, and it all adds up to a feeling of being entirely unprepared.

But the new year and the new season will always come, and they don't care how ready we are. Over the weekend I bought apples at Scott's Yankee Farmer and made my usual apple cake. Fall officially begins with the Autumnal Equinox on September 23, and perhaps by then the weather and my brain will have caught up. Maybe, hopefully, the season and the year will be sweet.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Fun Company & Swag | Two Shoreline Shops


These two stores on the Connecticut shoreline might not be exactly alike in dignity, but they share certain attributes that made me want to combine them into one post. They're both great for rummaging and finding surprises, they're both a safe bet if you need to buy a gift, and they both offer substantial discounts - which is not to say that all their goods are inexpensive (far from it), just that you can find very good deals if you look.

Fun Company in Stonington calls itself "the original sample outlet." The front room is filled with discount "designer" clothing (I put designer in quotes because I've never heard of most of the brands I've seen there, but that probably says more about me not being a colorful printed tunic person than anything else) children's things, and assorted sundry gift-y items. The back room is temptingly packed with linens - sheets, comforters, pillow shams, and so on, also discounted, and more little gifts. (I'm talking about the Cutler Street location; there is another, on Water Street, which carries mostly clothing and accessories.)

The reason I love Fun Company (or Fun, or FUN; I've seen it written all of these ways, I don't even know which is right, does it matter?) is for its stock of candles. This store has become my secret source for impressively inexpensive fancy candles that smell approximately 9,000 times better than the icky ones you can buy at those two candle stores in the mall. (Which shall remain nameless, though at least it's clear what their names are.)

I also love this place because sometimes while you are shopping a cat will appear, looking like a puff of black cotton candy with round yellow eyes, and push its little head into your hand while refusing to pose for photos.

Swag on Main Street in Old Saybrook is, well, random. That may be the most overused word of the decade - it's certainly the most overused word by me - but I have to use it here because, damn me if this place is not a collection of pure random. There's art, pretty soaps, clocks, greeting cards, candy, gag gifts, napkins, baby paraphernalia, a seasonal holiday section, and furniture. There's outdoorsy stuff, like insulated bags to tote around your chilled beverages, and a lot of beachy home accessories, like quotes about the beach printed on painted driftwood. There are magnets and pins and lanterns and I don't even know what, and it all changes regularly, so by the time you get there it might have different things entirely. (Like Fun Company, Swag - or SWAG - again, I don't know - also has a second store across the street for clothes and accessories.)

When I went to Swag to take these pictures I bought a tiny cotton flag with my first initial on it, which I don't need but I almost thought I needed at that moment because it was very cute and it cost $1. And that pretty much sums up shopping at Swag.


Friday, September 4, 2015

Nutmeg Poisoning

It's time for another installment of Nutmeg Poisoning. Here are a few more CT-centric stories I've come across lately:

-Everyone is talking about Governor Malloy getting photo-bombed by a beluga whale at a press conference at Mystic Aquarium. But I don't know - to me the whale looked more like it was just interested in the tourism stats. And by the way, this is the same whale who had a moment with a mariachi band in 2011.

-A post on zoning in the land of steady habits, on Heather Brandon's NPR blog Zoned, touched on a bunch of things that are fascinating and frustrating about living in Connecticut. (On a side note, I never realized before how cool-looking zoning maps could be. If I lived in Middletown, I might hang that Middletown map on my wall.)

-Slate looked at Brandiose, the company behind the branding of the Hartford Yard Goats. Their co-founder's assessment of Hartford, after a two-day visit: '“independent,” “territorial,” “temperamental,” “small,” “tough,” “bold,” and “resilient.”'

-Time's Best Places to Live 2015 came out recently. It includes Simsbury, Cheshire, and Tolland.

-Connecticut by the Numbers had a story on Putnam's revival, specifically the Award of Excellence given to the town by the Connecticut Main Street Center. Putnam now joins St. Louis, New London, and several Manhattan neighborhoods in the category of "places that start to become cool again soon after I move away."

-The Connecticut Post rounded up fifteen Connecticut Instagrammers to follow. (And you can follow me, @johnnakaplan for random Connecticut photos and snaps of my life, and @oldschoolct for historic Connecticut schoolhouses. And I just wrote the word Connecticut four five times in one very short paragraph, so I think I'm done here.)

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.









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