The Connecticut of your mind’s eye comes into sharp focus in the Litchfield Hills, the area roughly bounded by Route 8 to the east, Massachusetts’ Berkshire County to the north, and New York State to the west. Travel the hill towns in fall and you’ll see those mind’s-eye images in living color: the Litchfield town green, its Greek Revival Congregational Church, and the stately mansions of North and South streets; forest- and farm-ringed Lake Waramaug, an unspoiled jewel straddling New Preston, Kent, and Warren; downtown Kent, the people’s choice for leaf peeping; Kent Falls, the state’s most heart-stoppingly beautiful cascade; the covered bridge over the Housatonic in West Cornwall, an architectural marvel in 1864 and a photographer’s favorite subject today; and Bear Mountain in Salisbury, 2,316 feet high, the state’s tallest peak and an incomparable outlook yielding panoramic vistas.
Yes, the Litchfield Hills are blessed with true natural resources—but locals have safeguarded them. Chief among them in the early days was Alain White, scion of an old Litchfield family and a student of botany. In 1908, while fishing with a friend on Bantam Lake, he mused, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to preserve this lake, river, and countryside as we see it?” He began buying up land; in 1913 he created Litchfield’s White Memorial Foundation, a 4,000-acre nature preserve, and went on to donate land that became the basis of the state park system. “The best thing we can do for the public,” he said, “is to keep this as it is.”
“Keeping this as it is” is the key to the region. Some 226 years ago, the Hopkins family started a farm that in time became Hopkins Vineyard, overlooking Lake Waramaug in Warren. According to Hillary Hopkins Criollo, hers is one of few Centennial Farms in the state, in an area that remains virtually unchanged. “People like to keep things the way they are around here,” she says, noting the strict zoning laws.
In 1972, maestro Skitch Henderson and his wife, Ruth, bought The Silo at Hunt Hill Farm in New Milford, which they grew into a cooking school, gourmet kitchenware/food store, and art gallery; it’s now the Hunt Hill Farm Land Preserve. And in 1999, two successful New York businessmen, George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis of Manolo Blahnik footwear, bought an old spread in Litchfield that they renamed Arethusa Farm and nurtured into one of the top dairy-cow breeding businesses in North America.
Meanwhile, the partners have become active members of the community. Residents of the Litchfield Hills today are a mix of families who’ve been here, often farming the land, for years; people who’ve found a new way of life here; creative types; and weekenders, many from New York. Among those who’ve settled here is Dr. Mark Ruchman, an ophthalmic plastic surgeon who lives in Washington, Connecticut, and practices in Southbury, Trumbull, and Lakeville. He and his wife, Sharon, grew up in the New York suburbs and met as graduate students at Yale. Then, he recalls, “on Columbus Day 1975, we took a drive and came upon the Washington Green. The leaves were changing, and it was achingly beautiful: the Green, the Congregational Church, the Green Store with its old-fashioned soda fountain. We felt we’d walked through a time warp into a Norman Rockwell painting, a place that was beautiful, peaceful, and clean.”
They purchased a home in this town of few traffic lights, surrounded by families whose roots go way, way back: the Gunns, who founded The Gunnery School and the Gunn Memorial Library and Museum; the Van Sinderens, who lived in what is now the Mayflower Inn and donated some 650 acres along the Shepaug River to the Steep Rock Association; and the Averills, who since 1746 have owned the town’s largest orchard, where the Ruchmans pick apples every fall. Bottom line: The Ruchmans have lived here all their married life, raised their family here, and never want to leave. Their friends outside these hills, meanwhile, remain “dumbstruck that this Brigadoon-like sanctuary still exists.”
Weekenders also have a profound impact on the area. Take Susan Swatzburg, a New York interior designer whose family purchased a onetime stable, which over time she’s transformed into a showplace home. “I sank my toes into the sand and said I was never leaving,” she says. She loves the stability of the area, the craftsmen whose families have been here for generations, the farm stands, the little shops, the opportunity to live where she can see, do, smell, and touch things, including animals. At the Goshen Fair, she says, she’s “in heaven.”
Wherever you go in the Litchfield Hills, at times it can be hard to know, unless an accent gives it away, who has been here for generations and who has fallen in love with the land later in life. They live together, and struggle together, to keep this corner of Connecticut a land apart, as if the noise and clamor of the 21st century had pulled up to a gate and stopped right here against the soft hills. It’s never easy, and not everyone wants the gates closed. But there’s probably no better spokesman for that passion for the land than Bill Hopkins of Hopkins Vineyard, whose family has farmed here for generations. His daughters work with him now, and there are grandchildren who profess a tie to the farm. They’ll never sell, he says. “We’ve had this land [since 1787],” he adds. “We ought to be able to hold on to it.”