In scenic Simsbury, Conn., the past prevails

A symbol of Simsbury: The 165-foot-tall Heublein Tower, built for liquor and condiment magnate Gilbert Heublein in 1914.
A symbol of Simsbury: The 165-foot-tall Heublein Tower, built for liquor and condiment magnate Gilbert Heublein in 1914. (Jim Church/Simsbury Historical Society)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Second in a month-long series spotlighting the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Distinctive Destinations for 2010.

Poking around Rosedale Farms & Vineyards in Simsbury, Conn., I felt like Peter Rabbit with a secret fruit addiction. The strawberries, primed for picking, dared me to step off the dirt path and pluck one, two, maybe three. As I strategized my attack, a truck drove up and stopped, a poof of dust atomizing the air.

Quick, hide: It's Farmer McGregor.

No, wait, freeze: That man is smiling warmly and holding a pile of berries in the palm of his hand. For me to eat. Gee, thanks, Farmer Epstein.

Rosedale's co-owner, first name Marshall, encourages visitors to explore his family's 110 acres and savor their bounty. In addition to the sweet-as-candy strawberries, there's wine made from grapes grown on his property; peaches; squash; lettuce; sweet corn, whose stalks form the walls of a fall maze; and two acres of flowers overseen by the family matriarch.

This year Rosedale turns 90, and because of the Simsbury Land Trust, we can expect 90 years more. By placing more than 830 acres of local land under easement, the nonprofit group guarantees that the fields of today will not become the strip malls of tomorrow.

"We want to preserve the character and legacy of Simsbury," said farm manager Jon Kozlowski, Epstein's son-in-law. "We are concerned about living in a town that is not fully developed, in an area abundant with history going back to Colonial times."

The protective shield doesn't stop at the farmland borders. Founded in 1670 by English settlers, the town 12 miles northwest of Hartford covers just 34 square miles but packs in four historic districts plus assorted structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the 19th-century Old Drake Hill Bridge, abloom with flower boxes and hanging baskets, for example, and the Simsbury 1820 House, birthplace of Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and, appropriately enough, a committed conservationist. (It's now a B&B.)

"We want to show people that history is alive," said Sarah Nielsen, executive director of the Simsbury Main Street Partnership, who nominated the town for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Distinctive Destinations designation. "It's not just old buildings and museum collections."

On the main drag of Hopmeadow Street, the Phelps Tavern Museum provides a visual lesson about Simsbury as told through 14 period and modern structures, including the tavern built for Capt. Elisha Phelps in 1771.

"Hops were grown in Connecticut," said guide Barbara Strong as we stood in the front room of the dual-purpose watering hole/travelers' lodge, the smoky scent of the cooking fireplace still lingering in the air. "Beer was the drink of choice in the 1700s. No one drank water back then. It was considered unhealthy."

The tavern is one of two buildings original to the site; the others, such as the one-room red schoolhouse and the Victorian probate court, were moved from elsewhere in the Simsbury area. However, their "outsider" status does not diminish their impact.

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