Connecticut Foliage Driving Tour

THERE’S A PERFECTLY good reason why Nathan (“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”) Hale came from northeastern Connecticut. Settled a generation after the rest of New England’s colonizing along the coastline and the Connecticut River Valley, this area became home to many ex-Massachusetts families looking for more […]

By Janice Brand

Jun 04 2008


Photograph of Willimantic, CT

Photo Credit : Jeff Folger

THERE’S A PERFECTLY good reason why Nathan (“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”) Hale came from northeastern Connecticut. Settled a generation after the rest of New England’s colonizing along the coastline and the Connecticut River Valley, this area became home to many ex-Massachusetts families looking for more elbow room. Distanced from their Puritan comrades, the settlers began thinking and acting for themselves. That independent spirit eventually bred not only discontent with British rule, but Nathan Hale as well.

Photograph of Willimantic, CT
Photograph of Willimantic, CT
Photo Credit : Jeff Folger

Day One

As you travel southbound on I-91 into Hartford, be ready to make a left-lane exit onto Interstate 84 east to I-384 (toward Providence). As the freeway ends, follow signs to Coventry; a good place to start our tour is the Nathan Hale Homestead. Hale himself might not recognize the house in which he grew up. It was substantially rebuilt in the fashionable Georgian style in the year of his death, 1776. The Connecticut hero might find the surroundings familiar, though. The house sits in the middle of the 1,219-acre Nathan Hale State Forest, off Highway 6, a wooded setting not too dissimilar from the surrounds of Hale’s boyhood 300-acre farm.

Farming persists in the region, especially in nurseries, gardens, and vineyards. Be sure to visit the Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market (11-2 on Sundays through October) on the grounds of the Museum of Connecticut Glass at the intersection of Route 44 and North River Road. Another good stop is Topmost Herb Farm, 244 North School Road, a beautiful farm set on a dirt road in an idyllic setting and open weekends in the fall.

To get to Coventry center, follow South Street east from the Hale Homestead, bearing right at the stop sign and soon thereafter turning left onto Cross Street/Lake Street, which intersects with Route 31. Here you can find two good places for a meal before getting back in the car: and Bea’s Country Kitchen. Bidwell’s is known for chicken wings; it sells 3,000 pounds a week in more than 25 different varieties. It has nearly the same number of beers on tap. Or hold out until you get to Willimantic Brewing Co./Main Street Cafe, a microbrewery housed in an old post office building, keeping up with national trends in Willimantic. With 10 house brews (I’m a big fan of the Address Unknown IPA) and 25 guest brews, the brewery’s list of beers is impressive. To get there, take Route 31 south from Coventry, which merges with Route 32 and then with Route 66 East, into Willimantic.

Willimantic is one of many former mill towns in the Quiet Corner that helped bring prosperity to this region in the 19th century. The brick mill architecture, mansions and Victorian houses, and commercial fronts reflect the days of cotton thread and cloth production. Willimantic was nicknamed “Thread City” for its production of silk and cotton thread. In the 1890s these mills were the state’s largest employer. For more in-depth exposure to the milling industry, visit the Windham Textile & History Museum. Or, if sitting by the river is more your thing, stroll across the street to Windham Hills State Heritage Park. It’s open from sunrise to sunset.

Pick up Route 66 east again, turning right after the Exxon station onto Route 14 east (which joins Route 203 south for a while) into the town of Scotland. If you happen to visit the town during Columbus Day Weekend you’ll most certainly come across the annual Highland Festival held in October (always the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend). The festival features bagpipes and folk music, Highland dancing, sheepdogs, and Scottish food, all in honor of the motherland.

Next take Route 97 north (it will cross Route 6), with Pomfret as the evening’s destination. A good place to stop for a stretch along the way is Trail Wood on Kenyon Road, which is maintained by the Connecticut Audubon Society and was formerly the property of naturalist, birder, and author Edwin Way Teale. The 156 acres feature three miles of walking trails. It’s located about a mile north of Hampton.

Pomfret is home to the ivied and preppy-filled buildings of the Pomfret School. In the hills outside town, stop for a sandwich at the yellow barn that is Vanilla Bean Cafe. Pick up one of the local tourism association’s excellent brochures from the rack by the door to plan your own side trips for antiquing, bicycling, or hiking.

If you’re a gardener, don’t miss Martha’s Herbary. Martha Gummersall-Paul lived in the Quiet Corner for 15 years and impressed neighbors with her gardens. Her husband runs her shop of unusual garden accessories, books, wreaths, herbs, specialty plants, clothing, and jewelry.

Sharpe Hill Vineyard has won Tasters Guild International gold and silver medals, and you can sample their wine or tour the vineyard Fridays and Saturdays. They also serve lunch in the wine garden in good weather, or fireside in the cozy tavern, where you can smell cassoulet simmering on the hearth. Or, for a delicious dinner, try the Harvest. Located in a renovated 1785 homestead, it offers eclectic international fare that will wow you every time — from filet mignon to pistachio-crusted salmon.

Day Two

The spine of the Quiet Corner also happens to feature one of the prettiest roads in all New England. Route 169, officially sanctioned as a State Scenic Highway, weaves south from Woodstock through Pomfret and on to Brooklyn and Canterbury. Travel its curves and hills to dig deeper into this green region’s past.

Start your day by leaving Pomfret via Route 44 for a detour through Putnam. Putnam, part of Pomfret until it broke away in 1855, has been the site of textile mills since 1807. Until just ten years ago, it was a place to drive through quickly on the way somewhere — anywhere — else. But then Putnam began to attract antiques dealers into the large empty spaces of its brick downtown. Today it’s a changed place. The Antiques Marketplace, progenitor of the shops, is a multidealer store with some fine mission-style furniture, ticking wall clocks, fine china, jewelry, and hundreds of other collectibles. Well over 200 individual dealers are represented on four floors of 350 booths and cases.

To get to Woodstock, take Route 171 west. The town, settled in 1686 by emigres from Roxbury, Massachusetts, presents a tidy face of clapboard houses and trim lawns. By the mid-1800s, northeastern Connecticut was crisscrossed with railroad lines; some brought Manhattanites looking for summer retreats, one being local-boy-made-good Henry C. Bowen, who built his Roseland Cottage here in 1846. The dramatically pink Gothic Revival house retains its custom-made furniture, and it presents a taste of the good life of a Victorian summertime, from its stained-glass windows and private bowling alley to a series of tea parties and evening concerts.

Tourist attractions are minimal: There are no strips of T-shirt shops and gift shops in the Corner. When farming declined and manufacturing ascended in the early 1800s, perhaps those who had once dubbed Woodstock and Pomfret “inland Newports” found the area too industrialized. The region boasts no big old hotels. Overnight choices tend toward small B&Bs with only a handful of rooms.

Dining is limited, too, along this corridor. There is the Inn at Woodstock Hill, former estate of a gentleman farmer, which serves ambitious lunch and dinner menus on its deck and inside its formal dining room. Farther down the road, in Brooklyn, you’ll find the venerable and enjoyable Golden Lamb Buttery. Celebrating its 44th year, this 1,000-acre farm has a legion of loyal fans, including a few high-profile customers such as the Baldwin brothers and Roger Clemens. (Be sure to reserve ahead.)

The next stop on our journey is Brooklyn. Retrace your steps from Woodstock to Pomfret. From there, follow signs for the village. Agriculture is still important to the town of Brooklyn; its fairgrounds have been in use since 1852. So it’s no surprise to see cows grazing behind the old stone walls of a farm off Creamery Brook Road. What is surprising is the small shaggy herd of American buffalo — or, more accurately, bison — their tails and long ears twitching at flies on a Connecticut ridge. At Austin and Deborah Tanner’s Creamery Brook Bison farm, you can buy various cuts of bison meat and hear about its healthful virtues. If you’ve never tried this lean red meat before, take their suggestion and start with the hamburgers. (To get there, follow Route 169 south out of Brooklyn, staying left where the road splits to pick up Route 205 south. After two miles, turn left onto Allen Hill Road — the road marker is difficult to see, so keep your eyes peeled for signs for the Public Golf Course. After half a mile, turn left onto Creamery Burke Road, then left onto Purvis Road. The farm will be on your right.)

Just a little to the east, take a detour to Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson: From Brooklyn, take Route 6 east to Route 12 (Main Street, in Danielson) to North Street; turn left at the third light. Logee’s is four-tenths of a mile on the left. Eight greenhouses nurture more than 1,500 plants. Their specialties include flowering plants, begonias, passion flowers, gesneriads, scented geraniums, and herbs. Since 1892 the Logee-Martin family has been growing and selling over a thousand varieties of tropical and subtropical plants. The fragrance from a walk here is guaranteed to make your heart soar.

In Canterbury, at the intersection with Route 14, the outer appearance of a handsome beige Federal suggests little more than Yankee austerity. But a tour of this, the Prudence Crandall Museum, reveals a tumultuous past. When the parents of white students pulled their daughters out of Crandall’s academy over the admission of one black student in 1832, Crandall retaliated by turning over the entire school to the education of black women. Rage and lawsuits ensued, and although Crandall eventually won in court on a technicality, she closed the school when a furious mob attacked the house. Today there are few original furnishings; curators aren’t even sure which rooms were used for what purposes. But there’s a palpable spirit in the house, perhaps that of Prudence herself.

The last leg follows Route 14, which veers hard to the left just outside of Canterbury center, through Moosup. The road also leads through charming little Sterling — named for a doctor who reneged on his promise to build the hamlet a library if it took his name.

They don’t call it the Quiet Corner for nothing. But lately they’ve been calling this region something else, too: Last Green Valley. If you fly from Washington, D.C., to Portland, Maine, Connecticut’s northeast corner is one of the very few green spaces left that you can see from the air. Preservation of the farmland and open space has become paramount. Those who care want to keep this corner quiet, free from the rest of the Northeast’s suburban sprawl.

Self-dubbed the “Quiet Corner,” the region offers attractions that are subtle in nature: The most rewarding discoveries come after a little digging. And the digging continues with the Rhode Island tour as you drive eastward on Route 14.