All photos/art by Julie Bidwell
Just seconds from the roar of I-91 lies the tranquil center of Old Wethersfield, Connecticut’s first permanent settlement and one of New England’s prettiest villages. The sudden deceleration is disconcerting, then pleasing, like stepping through a portal into the past. The village’s improbable setting — poised between an interstate and the strip-mall blight of Silas Deane Highway — magnifies its charms. Downtown Hartford seems centuries, rather than minutes, away.
Fifty houses in the village predate the Revolutionary War. One hundred others predate the Civil War, and 150 more went up before the turn of the 20th century. That adds up to largest historic district in the Constitution State. Elegant old homes flank the spacious tree-lined green — where Washington once mustered troops for the battle of Yorktown — and form a gorgeous corridor of architectural styles all along Main Street, right to its end at placid Wethersfield Cove.
Last fall we were among the first guests at the new Silas W. Robbins House B&B. This Second Empire mansion, built on the green in 1873, was ravaged by fire in 1996. It stood abandoned until 2001, when John and Shireen Aforismo, who live on the green, bought the ruined hulk. They spent six years restoring every inch of its 9,100 square feet in sumptuous period style, with help from a squad of decorators, woodworkers, and artists. The home now holds five guestrooms with private baths, plus a parlor, a tearoom, and a dining room, all so richly adorned with Victorian stenciling, moldings, draperies, and other décor that at dusk we expected the sconces to glow with gaslight.
But Old Wethersfield lives alongside its past, not in it. A few old homes are now museums, but this is a community with no cobwebs on it. At lunch, the line for the delicious sandwiches at the hip Spicy Green Bean Deli stretches out the door. After school, kids crowd into Main Street Creamery & Café for homemade ice cream. There’s an antiques store, a few crafts galleries, an old-fashioned tearoom, and an 18th-century tavern/restaurant, but also a pizza place and a bar with a pool table. At Comstock, Ferre & Co. — “the oldest continuously operating seed company in the United States” — you can scoop loose seeds and bulbs from wooden rocker bins or browse long rows of oak drawers filled with seeds for flowers and vegetables.
The settlers who founded Wethersfield in 1634 picked the site because of the Connecticut River. We visited it in two ways: on a meandering riverside drive on empty roads, paved and unpaved, winding through fields and lush farmland; and on foot, by walking along the channel that runs from the cove, under the highway, to the river. Ducks streamed away toward the far bank, where nothing suggested the 21st century.
Many of the town’s early settlers rest here at Wethersfield’s Ancient Burying Ground. I like such places, where the crooked stones are speckled with lichens and incised with weather-beaten Biblical names: Jerusha, Hezekiah, Mehitabel. The oldest marker was dated 1648. Some commemorated men who had answered the “Lexington Alarm.” Fresher graves dotted the periphery, in view of the colorful playscapes at the church’s day-care center.
A cove and a river, history and rejuvenation, old graves and new seeds — that’s what we’ll remember from our rich fall trip to Old Wethersfield.
For a “Yankee Classic” story on the history and culture of Old Wethersfield, go to: Wethersfield and Onions.