The Impulsive Traveler: Exploring the ages in Glastonbury, Conn.
By Andrea Sachs,
No one wants to be older than New England towns, which have turned the rivalry over their founding years into sport. I can almost hear Boston (est. 1630) trash-talking Providence, R.I. (1636). Among Connecticut communities, Glastonbury can hold its own at more than 300 years old, but it earns extra points for some neighbors who roamed nearby shores millions of years ago.
Over many millennia, the Connecticut River Valley has hosted various bipeds, from Godzillas with three toes and sharp claws to Homo sapiens with two feet and a hoe. During the early Colonial years, Glastonbury, just south of Hartford, and Rocky Hill, across the river and the site of roughly 2,000 dinosaur tracks, were part of Wethersfield. Both eventually broke away but remained close, connected by a ferry and the thread of time.
The Connecticut River divides Rocky Hill and Glastonbury, but you can go from bank to bank aboard the nation’s oldest ferry in continuous use. According to the historical signs on the Glastonbury side, public transportation has been offered between here and there since 1655. Modes of mobility included a pole-pushed raft, a horse treadmill, a steam-powered vessel and today, a diesel tugboat that pulls a three-car flatboat.
The ferry takes only four minutes, puttering 600 yards from start to finish. And at $1 per trip, you won’t feel guilty for frivolously riding it back and forth, back and forth.
Only a short drive from the ferry stop, Dinosaur State Park contains one of North America’s largest concentrations of dino prints. The tracks were discovered in 1966 by a bulldozer operator, who wisely stopped his vehicle before turning the ancient site into brownie crumble. One section of 1,500 prints remains hidden beneath a thick blanket of grass while it awaits a protective roof. A few prints, though, are left exposed, allowing visitors to make plaster of Paris imprints (some materials required). Silly me, I’d neglected to bring 10 pounds of casting material and a quart of cooking oil. But I could still press my hand against a Eubrontes print, which brought home to me that if I ever ran into the creature that made it, I’d be as small and vulnerable as an acorn.
Unlike wolves and teenagers, dinosaurs didn’ttravel in packs. They also didn’t walk in straight lines, as you can see in the indoor arena of 500 prints. Enclosed by walls with “Land of the Lost” backdrops, the tracks run willy-nilly across the floor, a wild dance party frozen mid-beat. Yet as we all know, the party wouldn’t last forever.
Unlike the dinosaurs, Glastonbury adapted to change, a smart move if you want to avoid extinction.
“There are a lot of towns that are old, but Glastonbury is different,” said Jim Bennett, executive director of theHistorical Society of Glastonbury. “It was involved in all the major movements — abolitionist, women suffragist, every war.”
The town flaunts its age in its buildings: According to the historical society, the community claims to have more Colonial houses (154 predate 1800, including four from the 1600s) than any other town in the state and to be second in the country behind Marblehead, Mass. Most of the houses are private, so you’re welcome to have a look from the sidewalk or the car window. For greater insights, pick up a self-guided walking tour booklet at the historical society gift shop, which comes with a companion walking tour of trees. For a longer peek into the lives of the people who once resided here, go deep into the historical society, housed in the original Town Hall (circa 1840).
The day I visited, the museum resembled a flea market hit by a hurricane, as the staff prepared for an upcoming juried antiques show on the adjacent Hubbard Green. But I could still make out some of the exhibits among the towers of china and toys for budding sheriffs.
On one wall, I learned of the amazing Smith sisters, a quintet of 19th-century Gloria Steinems who were as outspoken and intellectual as any man of that era. When officials decided to raise the property taxes of only the last two surviving sisters and a pair of widows, the siblings agreed to pay under one condition: that women be given the right to vote. Abby Hadassah Smith, then 76, even climbed into a wagon outside Town Hall to trumpet the cause. The case reached the state Supreme Court, but the judges wormed out of a decisive ruling, agreeing that the tax would be dropped along with the demand for suffrage.
While the women were busy fighting for equality, among other hobbies, some of the menfolk were working the land. John Howard Hale and his brother, George, whose grandfather owned a grove of 70-year-old trees, expanded a pushcart fruit business into a 2,000-acre peach orchard in the Glastonbury area. The J.H. Hale peach even migrated south, digging its roots deep into Georgia soil.
“If there’s one around, it’s a stray,” said Lin Scarduzio, the curator and program coordinator, when I asked her if I could find a J.H. Hale peach tree ripe for the picking in Glastonbury.
Alas, I had to settle for strawberries, which, considering the size of the fruit (jawbreaker-ish), was hardly a step down. Orchards stripe the land outside town, the tidy rows of trees dipping into valleys and climbing the hills without breaking the clean pattern. Dozens of farms, many owned by generations-old families, grow fruit and vegetables for local farmers markets, in addition to pick-your-own [fill in the seasonal produce]. My visit in early June coincided with strawberries, while cherries waited in the wings.
“A lot of the farmers came from Northern Italy,” said Michael Preli, whose immigrant grandfather opened the 150-acre Belltown Hill Orchards a century ago, “because the land is so similar to where they came from.”
Up the road, Italians Joseph and Mary Ann Dondero planted a fruit orchard in 1911. It’s now a full-scale operation with a greenhouse, a bakery and DIY picking. Inside the store, a glass case displays Joseph’s Ellis Island record and the couple’s marriage certificate (they’re listed as Marianna and Guiseppe). The adult grandchildren now run the business, with the fourth generation learning the trade by, as far as I could see, stuffing their baby faces with baked goods and berries.
Grabbing a yogurt container with a string for a handle, I walked the dusty path lined with apple trees, the ground littered with fallen fruit. At the patch, the strawberries hung like heavy ornaments on Christmas bushes. I barely worked for my meal, thinking all the while how unfortunate it was that the dinosaurs never lived long enough to eat some Glastonbury strawberries.