North America

Autumn In New England

Part II: The Quiet Corner

By Mary Ashcraft and Rod Lopez-Fabrega

The northeast area of Connecticut is called the Quiet Corner. It was not always called this. King George III's Colony of Connecticut was a small, agricultural and ultra-conservative corner of England's American colonies in the late 18th century. Everyday life moved along at a steady pace largely guided by an inflexible Puritan code. A century later, after the War of Independence from England and partly in response to the demand for supplies by northern armies fighting the American Civil War, the little state experienced a manufacturing boom. During this period, Connecticut was filled with optimism and produced its share of inventors and inventions, among them: Eli Whitney's cotton gin, the Winchester Repeating Arms Co., Charles Goodyear's rubber goods, Thomas Sanford's friction match, and Alfred Fuller's twisted-brushes. Said Mr. Fuller to his salesmen, "Go door to door and sell your brushes." There were many others. Then the depression of the 1870's began, and the little northeast corner of Connecticut closed its tanneries and gristmills, and many of these establishments drifted away from the area, leaving it to revert to its more natural landscape.

Today, designated a National Heritage Corridor by the U.S. Congress, it is a quiet corner of authentic colonial homes, cemeteries filled with the gravestones of its founders and its Revolutionary War heroes, fruit orchards, horse farms, vineyards and welcoming inns. It is recognized as a unique national resource and is called "the Last Green Valley" between the megalopolis that stretches from Boston to Washington D.C. To call the Quiet Corner picturesque is an understatement. Busy highways are forgotten here, where the roads, lined on both sides with ancient rock walls, take one through lofty hills and dells, by orchards, meadows, town greens, and tangled woods, and where many property lines are enclosed by distinctive Virginia rail fences. Rural highway Route 169 that runs through the middle of the Quiet Corner is on the list of the nations top ten scenic roads.

Route 169, An Outstanding Scenic Byway

Route 169 is a direct link to Connecticut's Quiet Corner and New England's Colonial history. The area is a preserve of New England's rural beauty and an antique hunter's paradise. One of its structures is a quiet reminder of past racial injustices and another an eye-popping example of America's 19th century merchant aristocracy. Ranked by Scenic America as one of the country's "Ten Most Outstanding Scenic Byways," Route 169 takes its place along such spectaculars as Big Sur Highway in California. It is a splendid weekend trip for any time of year, but especially in the fall of the year.

Accessible from Interstate Route 95, rural highway 169 runs south to north from the Connecticut shore into the neighboring state of Massachusetts. Though the entire highway deserves attention, officially the scenic portion is the 15-mile stretch of Route 169 beginning at the intersection of Route 14 in the town of Canterbury. Incorporated in 1703, most of the town of Canterbury clusters around this intersection. It is a bucolic and unlikely place for the beginnings of a small revolution that helped to influence the course of social history in the United States

Prudence Crandall, Connecticut's "Female Hero"

In 1831, Prudence Crandall, a young teacher and graduate of the Friends' Boarding School in Providence, Rhode Island, was invited to come to Canterbury to open a school for young ladies. There, in a house her family helped her purchase for $2,000, she established her very successful school. The young women who attended learned reading, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, natural and moral philosophy, rhetoric, chemistry, drawing and painting, piano, French and the delineation of maps. Tuition was $25 per 23-week term, which included $1.50 per week for board and laundry. Day students were charged $3 per term, and every student was expected to attend public worship on the Sabbath.

In the fall of 1832, a young black woman from Canterbury asked for permission to attend the school and was admitted as a day student. The community was outraged. One by one, the white girls were withdrawn from the school. However, Miss Crandall was not to be put off, and in 1833 opened her doors to the "reception of young ladies and little misses of color" and continued to operate a school exclusively for black girls.

The determination to stop her was fierce. A "Black Law" was passed to force the closure of her school. A night in the county jail and three court battles left her undaunted until a mob smashed the windows and attempted to set fire to the house. Official refusal to protect the school finally forced her to close her doors in September of 1834.

Fifty years later, two prominent residents of Hartford, Samuel Colt of the Cold Firearms Company and Samuel Clemens, a.k.a writer Mark Twain, pushed the state
into offering the now aged and impoverished Miss Crandall a yearly pension. In 1995, the state legislature passed a bill declaring Prudence Crandall as the "state of Connecticut's female hero". Her house, now a museum, is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, February 1 through December 14

Brooklyn, Connecticut

Continuing north, stone walls border Route 169 with clusters of buildings tucked in among fields and woods afire with fall colors. Some of the houses are well-preserved colonial cottages and a few splendid mansions dating back to the 18th century.

The town of Brooklyn comes up next. With a well-defined town center, it is in the heart of Connecticut's farm country as is shown by its 140-year-old annual farm fair. It takes place in August and is a stewpot of carnival rides, livestock exhibits, baking and canning competitions and awards to the grower of the "world's biggest" fruits and vegetables. In the town center is an impressive equestrian statue of local hero, General Israel Putnam, who was a renowned Indian fighter and distinguished himself in the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.

Pomfret and its Academy

Further north, at the intersection of Route 44, is the town of Pomfret, noted among other things, as the location of the Pomfret Academy, whose campus epitomized in its appearance, everything a New England prep school should be. Its dignified ivy-covered Georgian buildings and spreading oak trees overshadow meticulously manicured lawns, at this time of year dotted with growing islands of brown and russet fall leaves, and, collectively, radiating an aura of old money.

In contrast, but within walking distance of this aristocratic institution at the intersection with Route 44, sits the Vanilla Bean Café, a favorite of Pomfret Academy students and visiting parents and a great place to have an informal, delicious and plebian-priced lunch. Once it was a barn, then a carriage shed attached to an inn, long since gone. Now, the 190-year-old carriage shed is a picturesque café, serving a selection of sandwiches, salads, quiches, chilis, homemade soups and specials

Putnam, An Antique Lover's Delight

A right turn onto Route 44 will take you to the heart of the town of Putnam and right to the center of an antique lover's delight. There are antique stores cheek to jowl, filled with fascinating furniture, period clothing, bric-a-brac and even architectural oddities. Scores of friendly bikers vroom through the town on a sunny weekend, and these weekend easy-riders can be seen comparing motorcycle horsepower over an espresso at one of the many tea and coffee houses in town.

Woodstock and Roseland Cottage

Back on 169 and heading north, the next major point of interest is the town of Woodstock. Just beyond the intersection with Route 171, on Plaine Hill road, sits Roseland Cottage, a home of baronial proportions and a perfect gem of Gothic Revival architecture. It is painted a luscious and improbable pink, contrasting boldly with its colonial-style neighbors. This color suited Henry C. Bowen, a successful businessman in the dry goods trade (fine silks and the best fabrics), who built the house in 1846 and filled it with custom-made Gothic furnishings. He married the daughter of a wealthy family from Tappan, New York and raised a large family here. He loved to entertain and often had houseguests from among the dignitaries of the day, including presidents Rutherford B. Hayes Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley as well as intellectuals such as Oliver Wendell Holmes. In fact, Mr. Bowen became known as "Mr. Fourth of July" because of the lavish Independence Day parties he gave, complete with fireworks from New York, but he never allowed alcohol, tobacco or gambling on the premises.

The story goes that he liked to finish an evening with his male guests by treating them to a game in his private indoor bowling alley, the first of its kind in the country. When President Ulysses S. Grant came to visit, he was taken to the bowling alley behind the carriage house and, never having played before, bowled a strike on the first try. Delighted with his success, he pulled out a cigar and began to light up in celebration. Bowen told him he had to smoke outside. Some say that was the reason Grant did not become the fourth president to spend the night in Roseland Cottage. The bowling alley is still there behind the carriage house.

Jonathan Trumbull House

It is difficult to imagine that the tranquil country town of Lebanon was once the heart and center of revolutionary activity. It is the home of one of Connecticut's heroes, Jonathan Trumbull who played a major role in the Revolutionary War of 1775-1783, and many historians regard him as one of Connecticut's greatest leaders. As a young man, he worked with his father in the family's import business. After studying law at Harvard University, he decided that a life of public service was more to his liking. Government in the colonies was conducted by the elite, which meant that offices were held by wealthy land holders. Therefore, as one of Connecticut's leading citizens and wealthy as well, he was ready and qualified to hold office, so he ran for the general assembly in 1730 and held that office until 1760. Next, he was a justice in the county's probate and superior courts, a colonel in the twelfth Connecticut regiment, deputy governor in 1766, and governor in 1769.

The large, center chimney mansion of the Trumbull family in Lebanon remains as it was in those times long ago and now is open to the public as an historic landmark and museum. You will notice that the window in the second floor study seems to be placed in an uncommonly high position. It was constructed that way for a very good reason. During the Revolutionary War the British put a price on Trumbull's head, so the logic was that if the window were high enough on the wall, the enemy (British or Tory) would be unable to see him and shoot him as he worked at his desk. At age sixty-five, he emerged as the central figure of the Connecticut war effort, turning his family store in Lebanon into the war office. This humble one story structure of hipped roof and central chimney design served as the base of supplies for the Continental armies. In this office, Trumbull discussed important details about the war with George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Israel Putnam, and the Count de Rochambeau, the French general, marshal of France and commander of the French army that came to support freedom fighters in the American Revolution.

The French In Old Connecticut

One of the tales the old timers would tell about those times was of the day the French cavalry rode into the town of Lebanon. The Duke de Lauzun's legion of Hussars, by custom made up of French aristocrats, rode into the village on brightly caparisoned stallions to set up their winter quarters. It has been written that, "These young French noblemen were tall (all of them over the regulation six feet), and their blue and gold uniforms a wonderful sight to see. In the seven-month stay, the young nobles were not slow in noticing the attractions of the fair girls of Connecticut. Governor Trumbull and the Duke gave many entertaining evenings. There were dancing parties, tea parties, and sleigh rides, which kept the village in a whirl all through the winter. With their splendid uniforms and elegant bearing, the young officers won the hearts of the village maidens."

Governor Trumbull is buried nearby on the hill of the old Trumbull cemetery, alongside other Revoutionary War heroes whose moss-covered tombstones are distinctly marked with small American flags.

The Inn at Woodstock Hill

For travelers wishing to spend a weekend or more in exploring the Quiet Corner, the Inn at Woodstock Hill, also on Plaine Hill Road, just doors away from Roseland Cottage is highly recommended as an excellent base from which to explore the Quiet Corner on a long weekend. Once a privately owned estate, the massive clapboard 1816 house has been altered and added to over the many years until its present life as the meticulously restored and refurbished
Inn at Woodstock Hill. It provides a welcome retreat from busy days of exploration, providing four-poster canopied beds and fireplaces in some of the rooms and relaxing views of its flower gardens with gazebo, grassy field and forested hills. The feeling in the inn is Colonial America, but the amenities and attention are of the 21st. century. It is a great local favorite for wedding receptions and special holiday gatherings. A continental breakfast is included with your stay.

Two of the housekeepers at the inn claim that an apparition makes itself known to them from time to time, dressed in what appears to them to be a person who lived in the 1800's. They claim that the man they see only appears to them on third floor and converses with them in a friendly and non-threatening manner. He frightens neither guests nor horses. Innkeeper, Richard Naumann jokes to his housekeepers, "If the apparition is so friendly, why doesn't he help do the laundry."

More of the Quiet Corner

Also on Plaine Hill Road, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the Woodstock Apple Orchard where you may pick your own fresh apples, pears and peaches, purchase fresh apple cider, peanut brittle, and birdhouse squash. Near the orchard is the Palmer Arboretum, a small wooded area for quiet reflection. In Pomfret is the Sharpe Hill Vineyard, which has received over 100 medals in international tastings. The vineyard offers complimentary tastings and tours year round on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and lunch is served on the wine deck amidst flowering plants and vines.

The Creamery Brook Bison farm in Brooklyn is in a bucolic setting where one would expect to see docile cows munching grass. Instead, there are Bison roaming the pastures where they are fed only corn, grain and grass, no hormones or antibiotics, and one may purchase the lean Bison meat on the premises. In Ashford at Classics in Wood, there are reproduction Windsor chairs and colonial style tables for sale. In Mansfield is the Gurleyville Grist Mill with all its original grinding equipment, and in Coventry is the 1776 farmhouse of another Connecticut hero, Nathan Hale, who is remembered for his now famous last words, "I regret that I have only one life to lose for my country."

On your journey through the northeast part of Connecticut, prepare to stop along your way for the odd cemetery, the church with the interesting steeple, the village green, an old gristmill, or for a picnic by a wooded lane. In the Quiet Corner, you leave the highways for the charming and interesting byways of history.

More Area Attractions

Less than a one-hour drive from the Quiet Corner are many other attractions of interest such as: Hartford (the capital of Connecticut); Providence, Rhode Island; Old Sturbridge Village; Foxwoods Casino and Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center; Mohegan Sun Resort; and Mystic Seaport. It must be said that the Mashantucket Pequot Museum is arguably the most complete and sophisticated installation of its kind in the world about a Native-American tribe. It is a stunning, state-of-the-art exhibition center as well as a major repository of Native-American records and historical research material. These attractions are located approximately a one-and-one-half-hour drive from Boston and three plus hours from New York City.

Photo Credits:
Mary Ashcraft, Rod Lopez-Fabrega, Sara Emeson Rolleston (In her book: "Heritage Houses: The American Tradition in Connecticut"), Duke de Lauzun's Dragoons: Leslie Aller, Brown University.