UConn Farm

I remember passing through the entryway and immediately being bombarded by the incessant ‘baa-ing’ of sheep. Although the sound of strangulation seemed like a better description of certain guttural bleats heard throughout the barn, nothing quite topped a trip to the UConn farm as a kid. Even though if I recall, around age five the sheep actually frightened me a bit, especially when I witnessed one in mid-shearing.

Spring is the time for baby sheep

The ride up from Norwich seemed long, but recognizable landmarks both helped quell any fidgetiness as well as build the anticipation. First we journeyed into Franklin, by the Victorian House, up the hill on Route 32 and then past the tractor place. Apollo Pizza. Eagle Liquors. Immaculata Retreat House. I knew we were getting close at first site of the stone textile mill in Willimantic. Soon enough, the sign to Lewiston Ave, home of Jared and Justin and eventually, the East Brook Mall, with The Hoot and Kathy Johns came into view.  On late 1980s trips to the farm there were pigs (no longer there, or if they are, not accessible to the public). The pig barn was announced by a rectangular blue sign with white letters declaring, “Swine Facilities.” Once I was even able to see a large sow with a few days old piglets. And there was that time that a horse sneezed all over my white T-shirt. Ah, the memories.

A newborn foal with its mother

As a father, it brings me joy to take my own son there. Although at this age he’s just as interested in running in circles on the cement as seeing the animals. Along with parks like Harkness in Waterford and Gillette Castle in East Haddam, it’s a nice feeling to share these favorite places of my childhood with him.

Danny enjoys the cows (and the cement) at the farm

Now, as when I was young, the UConn adventure is often capped by either a walk around Mirror Lake on the college campus or an ice cream at the UConn Dairy Bar.

Dave and Jackie on a walk around Mirror Lake

The farm is located on Horsebarn Hill Road in Storrs. The road intersects Route 195 right in the middle of the campus. The agricultural facilities are a long home run away from the classroom buildings, but seem like miles further. The public is able to visit the barns free of charge and are able to roam around on their own.

Horse

For more information please visit:

http://animalscience.uconn.edu/visitors/tour.php

Gillette Castle – a true Connecticut original

Gillette Castle in East Haddam rises majestically towards the sky

Gillette Castle in East Haddam rises majestically towards the sky

Gillette Castle

Location: East Haddam, Connecticut

Not so deep into the Connecticut woods, on the banks of the Connecticut River, perched high atop the chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters, is Gillette Castle. This castle, and yes it is a castle, was built in 1913 at the request of William Gillette. Gillette was famous for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage. Gillette’s vision of his dream house came to him while docking his houseboat on the Connecticut River, at the bottom of the Seven Sisters. He decided to build his home on the tallest hill and name his creation The Seventh Sister. Gillette scrapped his earlier plan of building on Long Island as soon as he realized the majesty that could rise from the hills of his home state. He spent over a million dollars on the home and its 122 adjoining acres.  

Gillette was born in Hartford, Connecticut, to a rich politician on July 24, 1853, and was a descendant of the famous Hooker family (of the Governor Hooker fame). William was the youngest of six children. His father wanted him to be a man of politics like himself.  William had other plans, and aspired to be an actor and writer, due to the urging of the Gillettes’ neighbor, Mark Twain. His New York City debut came in 1877 in an adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age, followed by a play that Gillette penned himself called The Professor. Much of his early work brought Gillette fame and fortune, but was not critically acclaimed. On a tour of one of his lesser known plays, a young actor named Charles Chaplin was chosen as a cast member. Much to his chagrin, Gillette was forced to take a six year hiatus from theater due in part to an illness, but he returned to the stage in the late 1890’s.                                                                                                                                                                                

His manager got the rights to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and Gillette worked on revising the script, but after completing it in 1897, bad luck struck, and the script burned in a hotel fire. After another rewriting, the play opened in Buffalo, New York, in 1897. Gillette’s run as Sherlock Holmes made him the most recognizable actor to play the part. It was Gillette himself who gave Holmes the now clichéd “deerstalker” hat and pipe, and this image became the model for many illustrators of Sherlock Holmes books. Gillette’s run as Holmes lasted decades, even as he forayed slightly into silent motion picture acting, and became the first voice of Holmes on CBS radio. Gillette played the role over 1300 times, in numerous cities, including New York and London.  Gillette was only married for six years, when his wife, Helen Nickels, originally from Detroit, Michigan, tragically passed away. Although he never remarried, rumor was he did not lack for female companionship.                                                                                        

Gillete’s faux-German castle is built from Connecticut fieldstone and white oak from Georgia. The rocks had to be brought up the large hill by a tram system. The castle is chock-full of all kinds of gizmos, including secret panels and a mirror system, which the eccentric Gillette used to spy on his guests. From his bedroom, Gillette could see via mirrors who was helping himself to a drink at his bar. He could also see who was arriving in the great hall, so that he could stage a grandiose entrance. There are forty-seven hand carved doors in the castle, all with intricate locks. The locks and light switches, all made of wood, are extremely ornate. The minute details of the castle’s interior are dumb-founding. For example, in the downstairs study, his desk chair is on a guided track so as not to scratch the floor. He installed an intricate sprinkler system throughout the castle, in which pipes were set up with wooden tassels to pull in case of a fire. Upstairs, there is a tower room with windows facing three sides, providing an incredible view of the Connecticut River. One of the rooms is set up just like Sherlock Holmes’s study, and occasionally an actor is hired to portray William Gillette portraying Sherlock Holmes.  The castle also features wooden light switches, and a room that he would scurry into if someone appeared at his front door whom he wanted to avoid. Gillette was obsessed with cats as well as frogs. His adoration can be seen in the copious amount of feline and frog memorabilia strewn around the castle. From pictures to figurines, the visitor will encounter them at every turn. Before the recent renovation to the castle, there used to be a frog fountain at the side of the castle, with water spurting from the frog’s mouth. One of the most interesting rooms in the castle is the greenhouse-styled room, equipped a lovely waterfall and a frog pond for Gillette’s two pet frogs. Gillette also fancied trains, hence the three mile narrow gauge rail loop on the grounds. The train traveled under tunnels and over bridges. There are tales of Gillette driving friends in one of two locomotives on crazy rides throughout his many acres. One of his trains was later sold to Lake Compounce Park in Bristol, Connecticut. Mr. Gillette also had a riverboat docked at the foot of his property on the Connecticut River. On the grounds is Grand Central Station (for the train), which is now a picnic area, and a frog pond. In his time living in the Seventh Sister, he entertained well known figures like the aforementioned Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein.                                                                                           

Gillette Castle is a fascinating combination of a man seemingly more child than adult. William retained his youthful vigor and enthusiasm late into his years, especially given the fact that his dream home was not even built until he was well into his sixties. In Gillette’s case, he had a plentiful amount of money and used it to its fullest. Every childhood hobby and dream became a reality. He liked trains, as do many children, but as most do not get to do, he bought two real working locomotives and designed a three mile narrow gauge around his “yard” so that he could become a train conductor. While considered by some to be merely a Connecticut eccentric, Gillette must be given credit for being true to himself. Expensive clothing, jewels, and beachfront property were not as much fun as a German castle with a mirror spy system and secret hiding room.                         

An intricate window at Gillette Castle

An intricate window at Gillette Castle

Today, the state of Connecticut is conserving one man’s creative legacy. Some write, some paint, some sing, but William Gillette, even though he did write and act, expressed the inner workings of his mind in the architecture, the intricate woodwork, and the precise placement of stones of his palace. Gillette wrote in his will that he did not want a “blithing sap head” to inherit the land. He would be pleased to find out that the state has done an excellent job in preserving the land and the home just as it was when he dwelled in it, save for a newly added gift shop and a hotdog stand.                                                         

The castle stands much as it was when it was built, almost 100 years ago, perched up top the seventh hill of the Seven Sisters chain. From the Connecticut River one can see the castle rise above the trees. This oddity stands as a thriving tourist attraction, with more than 340,000 visiting a year. There is a small fee to take a self-guided tour of the inside of the castle. Visiting the grounds, with their extensive hiking trails, is free, and leashed dogs as well as children in school groups are encouraged to roam, a breath of fresh air in a corporate world full of rules and regulations and steep entry fees.                                          

The park closes at dusk, which may be just as well. Workers closing up the castle have witnessed strange happenings, and some say that Gillette himself has not completely left. The Castle is located just off Route 82 in East Haddam.

While You’re There:

Cliff Haslam - The Clockwinder album

Cliff Haslam – The Clockwinder album

Visit nearby Essex, home of the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat. The Riverboat actually passes right by Gillette Castle as it travels along the Connecticut River. Essex, once voted best small town in America, has much to offer in terms of shopping, picturesque Colonial architecture, and the Connecticut River Museum. My favorite Essex event happens every Monday night at the famed Griswold Inn. On Monday nights, the banner outside The “Gris” proclaims “Sea Chanteys Tonight.” The Jovial Crew, led by Connecticut’s own Cliff Haslam, has performed there weekly for what seems like forever. The Jovial Crew performs traditional songs of the sea as well as folk music of the British Isles. Cliff Haslam’s CD “The Clockwinder,” available to buy during performances, was released in the 1980s on Sharon, Connecticut’s Folk Legacy record label. “The Clockwinder” is a must-have album for any traditional folk music fan. The Griswold Inn has been around since the dawn of this country, 1776. Various styles of live music are featured nightly at the taproom. The bar is situated in a circa 1735 school house that was added to the main building in 1801. The Gris is constantly heralded as the best bar in the state by Connecticut Magazine, and Esquire has called it one of the top 100 bars in the country. I almost forgot, the Griswold Inn is a working inn and features a top notch restaurant. The Griswold Inn is located at 36 Main Street in Essex.

Seaside Mansions – Eolia and Branford House

Seaside Mansions of Glory– from More Connecticut Lore – out late summer 2016!

Waterford and Groton

Branford House at UConn Avery Point

Branford House at UConn Avery Point

Branford House, on the campus of University of Connecticut’s Avery Point branch in Groton, and Eolia, the mansion at Harkness State Park in Waterford, are stately timeless testaments to the wealth of their previous owners. The word “impressive” is an understatement in describing these two mansions both of which would seem at home along Newport’s Ocean Avenue. The splendid palaces look if as they had been kept up meticulously since their use as private summer homes. This is not the case, for both were left in various states of disuse for years, with the Branford House eventually in need of serious repair. Luckily, both architectural gems escaped from the shadow of the wrecking ball. Today they are used for venues such as weddings and other receptions and what venues they are, with a glimpse of the high life, at least for one evening. The story of Branford House and Eolia involve two families, unfathomably wealthy through industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but whose legacy lives on in the philanthropic work that the families endowed, as well as their grand summer abodes that can now be enjoyed by the public.

Eolia Mansion at Harkness State Park

Eolia Mansion at Harkness State Park

Harkness State Park is named for Edward and Mary Harkness, the couple whose summer retreat they called Eolia, named for Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds’ island home, Aeolia. Harkness is truly a 230 acre paradise by the sea. Being a part of the Connecticut State Park system, access to the grounds is granted for a nominal fee during summer. Harkness is a park that can be explored for hours. Although the mansion was the center of the Harknesses’ lives, it is not the focal point of the state park. After parking the car, a wide expanse of lawn greets the visitor. Perfect for kite flying and family picnics, this area can be loud and full of revelers. Long Island Sound was literally in the Harkness family’s front yard. From the lawn, watch the ferries, sailboats, and other watercraft coming and going out of the New London harbor. Past the wide swath of green lawn, dirt roads lead to entryways. The one on the right hand side is a boardwalk which crosses over sand dunes that leads to the beach. This beach, although small compared to nearby Westerly, Rhode Island beaches, is a perfect place to dip your feet in the water. Swimming is not permitted, but wading in for a quick cool-down is more than allowed. The left side of the beach is noted for its large boulders and on the right is an inlet. Notice when looking on the right a spire rising above the horizon; this is the tower of the former Seaside Sanitarium. Harkness has many nooks and crannies to explore. Although I had been going here ever since I can remember, as the years rolled on, I discovered more and more facets of the property that I was previously unaware of. On the eastern edge of the property is an amphitheater, hidden behind shrubbery and with a direct view over the marsh to Long Island Sound. Close to this spot is a path which traverses the marshland of Harkness. Even when the parking lot is full of cars and the smell of barbecues is overwhelming, certain spots in the park, like the marsh path will be deserted. It is truly an explorer’s delight. Closer to the mansion, shaded behind tall trees is a former water tower which used to have a windmill attached to the top. Also on the grounds are acres of former farmland, with roads and paths which wind around, towards the western end of the property. Due west though is Camp Harkness, which, through Mary Harkness’s philanthropic legacy, is a camp for children with special needs that has its own facilities, including a beach with ramps which make it wheelchair accessible. In addition to the impressive gardens that flank the mansion itself, other gardens pop up in unexpected places, close to greenhouses which are tucked away on the property. The four bay carriage house contains a small gift shop which is open seasonally; in most places, this building would be the centerpiece! I even discovered in the shade of an ancient looking tree with twisted branches, a small burial plot, seemingly for family pets. Speaking of pets, dogs are most certainly allowed at Harkness!

The inside of the Eolia Mansion

The inside of the Eolia Mansion

 

The area of land where the mansion was built is called Goshen Point. In my early years going to Harkness, I remember vividly the gardens on the grounds being in full bloom. Equipped with Asian themed and gnome statuary, they were stunning. Unfortunately, for many years they were not tended to, and the mansion itself was looking a bit forlorn. Thankfully, those days are long gone. The mansion and gardens are kept up meticulously today. The gardens, designed by famed landscape architect Beatrix Jones Farrand, ever changing with the season, are lined with paths. Some paths are geometrically traceable, and others meander here and there. Highlights are an Alpine rock garden and an Oriental garden featuring a statue of Buddha. It is simply a taste of Europe, as the visitor is allowed to linger on the stone benches in the pergola supported by stunning columns with vines snaking above and alongside the trellis. Just like the park’s grounds, the gardens harbor splendid little corners that veer off the beaten path.

Eolia Mansion, built in 1906, designed by the firm of Lord and Hewlett, and bought a year later by the Harknesses, is simply stunning. Eolia was built in Second Renaissance Revival style, equipped with a Spanish hip roof. Looking north at the mansion from Long Island Sound, the Italian inspired palazzo is flanked on one side by the breakfast room. With large glass windows, the room is adorned with stenciled flowers and leaves, climbing and snaking alongside its cathedral style archways. On the other side is another pergola, which is utilized as a porch. Inside the mansion, a grand staircase gracefully descends from the second floor to the first, directly to the glass doors facing the ocean. Sparsely decorated, although years ago the walls were adorned with prints of birds, the rooms spring to life during events as personal accouterments are on display. Nighttime festivities are lavishly bathed in candlelight, which suits the mansion perfectly. The interior is colonial revival and other features of the house include balustrades, Palladian windows, and chimneys. During its heyday, the grounds included a squash court, a billiard room, and a bowling alley. Even the current rest room facility and the guard booth were once part of the estate. Sixty-one buildings encompass the entire property (including Camp Harkness to which the public is not granted access).

Jackie at Harkness

Jackie at Harkness

 

Edward and Mary Harkness were originally from Ohio, and Edward was the heir to his father’s fortune. His father had been a silent partner of John D. Rockefeller, investing in Standard Oil. In a poll in 1918, Edward was ranked the sixth richest man in the United States. Incredibly philanthropically driven, the Harkness name appears on buildings throughout the country including the Harkness Tower at Yale and the Harkness Chapel at Connecticut College. Generous donations have been made to other other colleges, including Harvard, Brown, and Columbia. The Harknesses’ year round home was another fine mansion on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Another remarkable Harkness gift is the Temple of Perneb to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is the immense Egyptian temple which one can actually walk into as part of the museum’s extensive Egyptian collection. In total, the Harkness family, which included Edward’s philanthropic mother, Anna, contributed upwards of one to two hundred million dollars to worthy causes. The final gift that Edward and Mary left was their estate to the state of Connecticut, to be enjoyed by all for posterity.

Camp Harkness was created by Mary Harkness as a summer camp for children who were stricken with polio. In 1920, she welcomed 30 children from New York City to spend the summer on their estate and created the basis for what would become Camp Harkness. This lasted for years and eventually when the state attained the land in 1952, Camp Harkness itself was founded as a state park accessed by individuals with special needs. Facilities include a dining hall, a beach, cottages, tent sites, and horseback riding. Also located on site was a working farm, where the family raised its prized Guernsey cows, grew their own vegetables, and produced their own milk and eggs. The food would be utilized at the summer home, but also eaten year round in the New York estate.

Harkness State Park is located on Great Neck Road in Waterford, just down the street from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. In the summer, the lawn plays host to music, much of it classical in nature, but national names like James Taylor and Spyro Gyra have graced its stage.

If Harkness is close to the western border where the Thames River meets Long Island Sound, then another phenomenal estate, the Branford House, serves as a guardhouse to the eastern shore. This manor, today also used for functions, is on the campus of UCONN Avery Point. Although it has a similar backstory to Harkness (wealthy businessman, or heir to one, buys elaborate summer home on the shores of Long Island Sound), its popularity has only blossomed since complete renovation of the site in 2006. The Branford House, summer retreat of Morton Freeman Plant, a railroad and steamboat magnate, was named after Plant’s hometown of Branford, Connecticut. This is an imposing seaside estate designed in the Tudor style which no longer has the accompanying lavish gardens that it once had as Harkness does, but similarly has an unspoiled view of the sound. The estate was built by craftsmen and artisans employed from Italy and Germany. If Eolia resembles a grand Italian villa, the Branford House’s reference point would be a castle or grand English countryside estate. Just like Harkness, the estate held the family’s cow barn and gardens in which they grew their own produce. Although Avery Point lacks a beach like Harkness, it does have a wide expansive lawn and its rocky coast is popular with fishermen. Mr. Plant was also a generous benefactor of many institutions including a hospital in Clearwater, Florida which bears his name.

The lighthouse at Avery Point

The lighthouse at Avery Point

 

Although the estate was given over to the state of Connecticut, it spent years as an outpost for the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard built barracks and other unsightly buildings on campus and unfortunately left the gorgeous Branford House in a state of decay. When UCONN Avery Point opened its doors in the late 1960s, the school was confounded as to what to do with the former glorious mansion. After being hit by Hurricane Gloria, and after years of continuous neglect, its fate was uncertain. Luckily the beautiful building has been refurbished and now is a very popular wedding venue. Other former estate buildings are now utilized by the campus, case in point, the police station. The stone cottage containing the police department is as ornate and stunning as its larger counterpart, albeit on a much smaller scale. One highlight of the estate’s time under Coast Guard control is the lighthouse which was completed in 1943. Its concrete block design is accentuated by an octagonal lantern. It served as a beacon to the New London harbor for 25 years and is now listed (along with the house, and Eolia for that matter) on the National Register of Historic Places.

The public is encouraged to enjoy today’s Avery Point. Its pathway is a favorite of dog walkers and is unparalleled at sundown. Both of these estates are hidden jewels of Connecticut. They are uber-popular wedding venues, with good reason. (Given my affinity for Harkness, this is where my wife and I were married, and it simply was the perfect venue). Often overlooked in favor of the weirder (Gillette Castle), the celebrity occupied (Mark Twain House), or those located near the New York metropolitan area (Lockwood-Matthews House), these two most certainly are worth investigating. Harkness is perfect for an afternoon of exploration, the beach, a picnic, and of course a dog walk, but just in time for sunset, drive two towns further east and enjoy the view at Groton’s Avery Point.

While You’re There: Literally, you will be there if you visit the Branford House, since Project Oceanology is also located on the campus of Avery Point. This environmental study group was founded to educate area children about the seascape around them. Although they often take out groups of school children or campers on ocean study trips, they do offer public outings as well. Their tours include a marine biology oriented oceanographic cruise, a lighthouse cruise (Ledge Light is located just offshore), and a seal watching cruise. The trips are fun and educational! Visit www.oceanology.org for more information.

A Birthday Trip to the Pioneer Valley

 

Zack at Yankee Candle

Zack rocking out at Yankee Candle Factory

Given the fact that I live in Plymouth, a trip to the Pioneer Valley is actually more accessible from Norwich than from home. With the wealth of places I could have chosen to go on my birthday, I decided the Pioneer Valley. It has been years since I have visited towns like Northampton and Deerfield. With the proliferation of breweries which have popped up in the Valley, it is time for another visit.

For my first stop, I am asking for a quick peek at Six Flags New England. Yes, the park is closed in February, but I think this way the park would be a more productive visit than while its open, since the price of admission would not be worth my money given I do not like thrill rides.

Bypassing Springfield, the next proposed destination is Holyoke. Unfortunately the Paper City Brewing Company is closed on the weekends, but Opa Opa is “opa-en.” A tasting here is a must. This will whet our palate on the way to Northampton. In Northampton, we will simply walk around, ducking in out of boutique shops and hopefully  a record store or two. Additionally, a quick taste at the Northampton Brewing Company is in order.

Next is South Deerfield’s Yankee Candle Factory, where we will have lunch, get lost in a gigantic candle display and pretend it is still Christmas. Chandlers, the restaurant at Yankee will have to suffice, since the nearby Berkshire Brewing Company is also closed on Saturdays. Chandlers offers their beer on tap.

Alternating between candles and beer, we will then stop at the People’s Pint in Greenfield. A renown brew pub which brews its own. Kringle Candle will be our last candle themed stopping point, as I am excited to see and smell their waxy creations. Finally, our trip will end in Brattleboro, to see the location of the Etsey Organ Company and possibly a museum (Brattleboro Museum) if it’s still open by then.

I can’t wait for Zack’s 33-year-old Birthdayland Adventure!

 

 

Five perspectives into the Nutmeg State

All images from “More Connecticut Lore”  Out now on Schiffer Publications

http://www.schifferbooks.com/more-connecticut-lore-guidebook-to-82-strange-locations-6053.html

Autumn comes to Windham Center

Autumn comes to Windham Center

An intriguing statue at a cemetery in Broad Brook

An intriguing statue at a cemetery in Broad Brook

Beckley Furnace still stands proudly as a testament to Litchfield County's industrial past

Beckley Furnace still stands proudly as a testament to Litchfield County’s industrial past

A view through the gates of Ponemah Mill in Taftville

A view through the gates of Ponemah Mill in Taftville

a 'big roar' guarding the Samuel Huntington mansion in Norwichtown

a ‘big roar’ guarding the Samuel Huntington mansion in Norwichtown