History knows no season, nor will your travels as you head back in time to immerse yourself in Connecticut’s glorious industrial past, its military installations, its crusading women or its key role in the American Revolution. As you travel back and learn, you’ll find that Connecticut’s story is really a lesson in American history as well.
For about 100 years, beginning in the 1840s, Connecticut was a manufacturing juggernaut. In almost every corner of the state, in large factories and small, people were making things and the rest of the world was buying them. Today, you can find the old manufacturing buildings in almost every Connecticut town - some of the old brick factories have been abandoned, but others have found new life as retail centers, residential complexes or even museums. And if you want to revisit the era, Connecticut has some places where you can do that, too:
New Britain is known as The Hardware City for its manufacturing prowess, and much of its input can be found at The New Britain Industrial Museum. Here, the collection includes local products from the past and present. You’ll find everything from pistols to toasters on display, and products from Stanley Works, Fafnir Bearing and other local luminaries.
Connecticut enjoys a spectacular history as a maker of clocks and watches. Early inventors and innovators such as Eli Terry and Seth Thomas lived here, but the state was also the early home of the Mickey Mouse watch. Visitors can get a good taste of the history of marking time at the American Clock & Watch Museum in Bristol. Here, you’ll find over 1,500 timepieces on display, as well as the compelling story of how Eli Terry and others spurred the industry in America, and especially in western Connecticut. Be sure to be on hand at the top of the hour, when many of the clocks begin chiming. If you’re in Bristol, you won’t be far away from Terryville, home to the Lock Museum of America. The lock-centric collection includes locks made in Connecticut, but also others dating back to the early 1500s and sturdy, intricate locks from banks and prisons. Time is also of the essence at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, where the stunning local history exhibit traces, among other things, the story of manufacturing might in the city and region.
The history of Manchester is intertwined with the history of the Cheney Brothers silk mills, and much of that story is accessible today through the Manchester Historical Society and its guide to the Cheney mills, mansions, churches, halls and housing built for mill employees and still standing in town. The Manchester History Center and the Old Manchester Museum both house collections and artifacts relating in great part to the city’s glowing industrial era.
Textiles were the thing in eastern Connecticut, and Willimantic’s Mill Museum of Connecticut is a place that “preserves and interprets the history of textiles, the textile arts and the textiles industry.” Here, the industry’s fascinating history is combined with special exhibits and programs to make a well-timed visit very worthwhile.
In Connecticut, it’s not hard to explore the stories of women from history who were first (Ella Grasso was the nation’s first female governor elected in her own right), best (Katharine Hepburn won four Oscars for Best Actress) or extraordinarily influential (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin fired up public sentiment for a war over slavery) in the lives they led. Today, some of Connecticut’s best-known travel destinations have a woman’s story at their center. You can find these and more by visiting the Connecticut Women’s Heritage Trail.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center features Stowe’s life story and her literary works, and it colorfully illuminates her 19th-centure world in Hartford. The Stowe Center is part of the Nook Farm complex, home to Stowe and her influential family, including many strong, successful women (not to mention neighbor Mark Twain). The Center is home to regular programs that connect issues of the past to modern day problems of gender equality.
The Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington is located in a house designed for her parents by architect Theodate Pope Riddle, one of the first female architects in the country. Riddle and her parents toured Europe together, where they picked up the impressive collection of Impressionist art that is now displayed throughout the museum. The Hill-Stead also boasts a restored sunken garden.
Florence Griswold helped cultivate American Impressionism by hosting painters in her home in Old Lyme, turning the little town into a thriving artists’ colony in the late-19th century. Today, the Florence Griswold Museum, housed in Griswold’s former home, presents an outstanding collection of American Impressionist Art and preserves Griswold’s legacy as a patron of the arts.
Similarly, in the 1890s, Josephine Holley and her daughter Constant ran a boarding house for writers and Impressionist artists and fostered an artist colony in the village of Cos Cob. John Twachtman and Theodore Robinson were among the painters attracted to the site, now known as the Bush-Holley House. However, Holley was not the first remarkable woman to occupy the home. During the Revolutionary War, while her husband was imprisoned, Sarah Bush defended her house and family against attack. Both women’s stories are interpreted here.
It was 240 years ago this winter, in 1775-76, that George Washington had taken over command of the Continental Army, Boston was under siege by Minutemen, and Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was published. Feelings were running high in Connecticut, too, which would later become known to Gen. Washington and other leaders as the Revolution’s “Provision State.” You can recall those remarkable days of long ago at any or all of the Connecticut revolutionary sites.
In September 1781, on the site of Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park in Groton, British troops under the guidance of Benedict Arnold raided and burned New London in the Battle of Groton Heights. Arnold was a traitor, and he gave the British enough secrets about the Americans’ defenses so they were able to prevail after a pitched battle. Prior to the battle, the fort defended the harbor (along with Fort Trumbull on the opposite side) and allowed New London the security it needed to become a major supply center for the Continental Army. Today the site here includes the restore earthwork battery, cannons, monuments and memorials.
To this day, the small, rural town of Lebanon seems a little amazed that it “played an unexpectedly important role in the American Revolution.” But it did, and visitors there today will still find some of the flavor of life during that far-off time. Begin your visit at the Lebanon Historical Society Museum and Visitor Center, then on to the Governor Trumbull House (at first, he was the only Colonial governor to support the independence movement) and the Revolutionary War Office, where the Revolutionary Council of Safety held more than 1,000 meetings during the war, and where Gens. Washington, Knox, Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette were visitors.
George Washington was a frequent visitor to Old Wethersfield, as well, where many of the attractions predate the Revolution. The Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum consists of three houses – the Joseph Webb House served as Washington’s headquarters in May 1781 and the Silas Deane House was built for America’s Revolutionary War diplomat to France.
Before Benedict Arnold was a turncoat, he was an inspirational leader, never more so than during the Battle of Ridgefield in April 1777. Here, outmanned Colonial forces engaged British troops three separate times as the latter attempted to return to the coast after burning a supply depot in Danbury. Arnold was one of the leaders of the revolutionary side and dispatched with a British soldier while trapped beneath his fallen horse. The story of the battle can be found at the Keeler Tavern Museum, where a cannonball from that day remains lodged in the side of the building.
Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding is located on the site chosen by Major General Israel Putnam as the encampment for his troops during the winter of 1778/79. Today, the park holds the remains of the encampment, reconstructed log buildings and a museum, where large display panels tell the story of the war in general, Connecticut’s role in it and the events that took place during Putnam’s winter encampment.
The African-American Story
From Connecticut’s Colonial beginnings to the present day, African-Americans have had a significant role in the state’s rich history. The legendary Amistad trial was held in New London, abolitionists across Connecticut provided refuge along the Underground Railroad, and the state’s tradition of tolerance made it a comfortable home for African-American luminaries from Paul Robeson to Marian Anderson to Jackie Robinson. For a comprehensive list of sites that relate to the African-American experience, take a look at the excellent Freedom Trail compilation. Meanwhile, here are a few highlights to consider for your travels.
The Amistad Center of Art & Culture is tucked inside Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and its purpose is to celebrate art and culture influenced by people of African descent. The Center’s collection holds more than 7,000 works of art, artifacts and cultural objects, and exhibitions are displayed in newly restored galleries. Be sure to see “This Is My Story, This Is My Song: Writers, Musicians and the Black Freedom Struggle.”
Nearby, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center features Stowe’s life story and her literary works, especially her enormously influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The displays also colorfully illuminate her 19th-centure world in Hartford. The Stowe Center is part of the Nook Farm complex, home to Stowe and her family, including many strong, successful women (not to mention neighbor Mark Twain). The Center is home to regular programs that connect issues of the past to modern day problems of gender equality.
The Underground Railroad, which carried enslaved African-Americans from bondage in the South to freedom in the North, ran all through Connecticut. Today, many of the stops and landmarks along the way are open to public viewing – you can find a list of sites here and a map here.
As for the Amistad itself, it’s undergoing repairs in Mystic, but until it hits the water again you might visit the Amistad exhibit at the New London Maritime Society/Customs House Museum. The Mystic-built ship is a replica of the Cuban schooner that sailed from Havana in 1839 carrying 52 enslaved Africans. It was intercepted by the U.S. Revenue Service (the forerunner to the Coast Guard) in August 1839 and brought to New London's Custom House, eventually resulting in the freedom of the Africans who had been aboard.
During the United States’ long history of conflict, Connecticut’s coastline has always made it vulnerable to enemy attack. From the very first settlement here, building a fort was always the very first order of business. Today, some of these fortifications, or at least their strategic positions, still survive. Visit them and you will get some sense of life – and threats to life – in those early days.
Benedict Arnold forever stamped in legacy as a traitor when he led a British raid on Fort Griswold in Groton in 1781. The British captured the fort and massacred 88 of the 165 defenders stationed there. Today, the remnants of the fort remain, along with other period structures related to the battle. The site is now a state park offering some amenities, such as picnic tables.
New Haven’s early commercial interests and its position on Long Island Sound meant it was a potential target for enemy raids. Black Rock Fort (Revolutionary War) and Fort Nathan Hale (Civil War) were put in place to repel invaders and give the locals a sense of security. Both forts occupied roughly the same space on the east shore of New Haven Harbor. In recent years, they have been reconstructed with a drawbridge, moat, ramparts, powder magazines and a “bombproof” bunker.
One of Connecticut’s most strategic positions from its very earliest days was the community of Saybrook (now Old Saybrook) located at the mouth of the Connecticut River. A good taste of those days can be found at Fort Saybrook Monument Park, whose 17 acres include the site of the original fortification and storyboards depicting the history of the Saybrook Colony.
The Civil War brought fears along the Connecticut coast that it was open to raids and attacks from the Confederate Navy. Fort Trumbull was built on 16 acres along the banks of the Thames River in New London. Today, the site has been restored as a state park, including a visitor center and two floors of theaters and interactive exhibits. Consider visiting it in tandem with the nearby Fort Griswold (see above).
The Native Americans had forts, too, and one of them, Fort Shantok, in Montville, has been declared a National Historic Landmark. Fort Shantok was used as a strategic location by the Mohegans, under the leadership of Uncas, in holding off the aggressive Narragansetts in 1635. A monument at the site pays tribute to Uncas and memorializes the battle.
Finally, if it’s a “fortress” rather than a fort you’re looking for, head to the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, where a magnificent Boeing B-29A “Superfortress” awaits your appraising eye. The four-engined, propeller-driven heavy bomber was designed by Boeing for long distance and high altitude operations during World War II. It was first flown in 1942 and was the most advanced bomber of its era.
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