Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Poke Through the Past in Connecticut’s Farmington Valley

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By Marlene Fanta Shyer

Mature Life Features

Seven gentle towns, tied together in a lesser-known region of Connecticut by proximity, commerce and a river, call themselves Farmington Valley and offer an easy weekend of history and art just 30 minutes on I-84 from the state capital, Hartford.

A car is a must to navigate Routes 44, 10 and 4, the area’s main arteries, which are less highways than country roads bordered by foliage and wide lawns instead of neon, American flags instead of billboards as they meander through Avon and Simsbury, Canton, Farmington, Granby, East Granby and New Hartford,

Our first stop was the sparkling white 1771 First Church of Christ in Farmington, famous

for its role in the saga of the slave-ship Amistad. In 1841, the Africans who arrived on this ship as slaves and who were freed through the efforts of John Quincy Adams, were sent to this area

because of its central location and geographical proximity to Hartford, then a transportation hub.

The newly freed men and women attended weekly services at this Congregational church, at

which town meetings to determine their fate were also held. In these pews sat the people who

raised the funds that allowed the Sierra Leone natives to return home. The minister, the avowed abolitionist Rev. Noah Porter, was the father of Sarah Porter, who later founded Miss Porter’s School. The school, which includes the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis among its alumna, is the church’s neighbor on Main Street.

A short drive away on Mountain Road is the Hill-Stead Museum, the jewel in the

local crown, that was the private residence of the Pope family who intended to use it as a

retirement home. Designed by their architect daughter, Theodate Pope, and built in 1901 on

152 acres, it stands as it stood then, complete with its first edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary

in the library, and a museum-caliber collection of art on its walls. In the midst of eclectic household furnishings, against a backdrop of wood paneling and wallpaper, hang the oils of Mary

Cassatt, Whistler, Degas, and Manet. There is so much detail in the decorative arts here, so many prints, clocks, Wedgwood, vases – a Pixis Corinthian jar is 2,500 years old – that we almost overlooked the Dürer etchings and renowned Monet paintings of grain stacks in the main drawing room.

To pick up treasures for your own homestead, head for Collinsville Center. Antique shops around here are more common than pedestrians, but the Collinsville Antiques Co. allows the militant shopper a block-long, two-story experience. There is everything from a $5 Goldwater-for-President campaign pin and 1920s license plates for $20 to a $4,000 Maurer safe to hold these plums.

For more genteel antiquing, try the Balcony Antiques in Canton, voted Number One in the state of Connecticut. If you know what you’re doing – it’s even more fun if you don’t — raise your hand during the bidding wars every Saturday night at the Canton Barn every Saturday night for housefuls of the ordinary and the extraordinary. There are no holds barred and no bottom price on anything. Everything is sold. Nothing is held back. But credit cards are not accepted. To learn more, go on line to http://www.cantonbarn.com.

For a proper dinner before all the action, head for the 1780 Pettibone Tavern in Simsbury, where you’re sure to hear about the on-site ghost of Abigail Pettibone, who was beheaded by her husband, and the 4,000 bottles of wine in the cellar. You can sit down to a filet mignon accompanied with crab meat and asparagus or a glazed salmon, or sit at the bar and order some steamers with butter.

One of the many ways to work off the good eating in Farmington Valley is a hike to Heublein Tower, which was the homestead of food-and-beverage magnate Gilbert Heublein. He built the 875-foot atop the highest point of Talcott so he could view most of central Connecticut. Or you can take a two-mile bike-hike along the Farmington River between Collinsville and Unionville. Tubing is popular when the weather’s hot and the water’s cool. Canoeing, fishing, and golf are all available.

So is shopping. It’s best in Old Avon Village, where the shops cluster and the words”candles” and “soaps” comes to mind. The tiny Petite Boutique may feel smaller than your bathroom but it’s packed full of hand-made jewelry and things the proprietor describes as “vintage” and “exotic”.

Vintage is a word very much at home in the Farmington Valley. It’s a getaway that brings one back to a time of fifes and drums. You may even have to stop to let a turtle cross a road. Or you might just want to slow down anyway. There’s probably an old cemetery or some other historical site just around the next bend.

For more information, go to www.farmingtonvalleyvisit.com.

(Farmington First Church of Christ Photo by S. Wacht, GeminEye Images) 

Mature Life Features, Copyright 2004

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Written by Cecil Scaglione

May 25, 2012 at 10:53 pm

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