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The Connecticut River is one of the most remarkable ecosystems in New England. Not long ago, large sections of the river were collectively referred to as “the best landscaped sewer in the nation.” Fortunately, over the years it has come full circle to become a high-quality, clean and fully-functioning ecological system. It is the largest river system in New England. Its headwaters lie in northern New Hampshire near the Canadian border, from which it flows 410 miles to Long Island Sound. Its watershed spans five of the six New England states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and small parts of Maine. During the past 50 years I have fished, hunted and hiked along this river from northern New Hampshire, where it crosses the Canadian border, through Massachusetts and into Connecticut, down to its mouth at the Long Island Sound. Lately, I have taken special interest in the amazing diversity of the Lower River, which begins 15 miles south of Hartford near the towns of Portland and Cromwell and then flows the final 36 miles to Long Island Sound. Within this section of the river are natural wonders that are unique to the entire watershed. Here you will find shallow coves and marshes that are separated from the mainstream by bars and levees. Upstream, the force of river flow prevents these estuary and tidal waters from developing. By definition, an estuary is an area where fresh and salt water mix. Tidal water is where the surface waters are fresh and devoid of salt water influence. The tidal relationship that this river has with the Atlantic Ocean is expressed in the name of our state. Connecticut is a French corruption of a native American word quinetucket, which means beside the long tidal river. The wetlands and waters in the estuarine complex of the Lower River contain a remarkable clustering of rare and endangered species which include geese, wood ducks, ospreys, Bald Eagles and loons. Mammals like muskrat, beaver, river otter, mink and whitetail deer are also thriving residents in this area. Migratory fish like the American shad, alewife and Atlantic salmon live and thrive here also. Native Americans have used the living resources of the river for many years. For example, bulrush and cattail from tidal wetlands have been woven into lodge coverings and mats. Tubers of water lily and many other plants provided important food items. The abundant wildlife was hunted for food, clothing and as a source for ornamental objects.
The Connecticut River and its tributaries represent the best of this state’s natural heritage. In recognition of its ecological value, the Connecticut River’s beautiful watershed was recognized as a national wildlife refuge in 1995. It is a treasured and popular destination for thousands of Connecticut residents and tourists who visit the river to kayak, hike, bird watch and fish. Three of Connecticut’s most popular attractions: the Essex Steam Train in Essex, Gillette Castle in East Haddam and the River Museum in Essex are close neighbors in the Lower River area. There is much to experience and photograph here all year. I plan to visit the Lower River several times over the next several months and share with you my adventures, along with plenty of photos.
During the months of February and March, groups of Bald Eagles fly down from the frozen north to the open water of the Lower River to feed in the ice-free open water. I decided to grab Ginny Lee (my camera) and see if I could get some raptor shots, and also visit the Connecticut River Museum. The museum is a must stop for first time visitors to the Lower Connecticut River. It is located on the river at the end of Main Street. Built in 1847, the building was originally a warehouse and general store. By the early 1960s, the building was beginning to fall into disrepair. With the support of former Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso, the building was restored and opened as the Connecticut River Museum in 1975.
A view of the river as it flows southeast to Long Island Sound
Below is a photo of an upstream portion of the Lower River. In the distance is the historic East Haddam Swing Bridge that spans the river near the Goodspeed Opera House.
Below are photos of four prominent and popular neighbors of the River Museum. On a recent adventure to the Lower River we boarded the Essex Steam Train at Essex Station. We disembarked from the train in the next town upriver at Deep River Landing, and boarded the Becky Thatcher Steamboat to continued upriver, past the Gillette Castle to the East Haddam Swing Bridge and the Goodspeed Opera House.
This year raptor enthusiasts and photographers are excited about the arrival of record numbers of Bald Eagles on the Lower River where open water remains, unlike the iced-over northern reaches. These majestic birds are fish-eaters, flying down from the ice-covered north to feed in open water. This year, the extreme ice on the Upper River and a rare die-off of striped bass at one of the river’s tributaries in Old Lime caused by extreme cold weather in January, lured more eagles than usual to this area. It is believed that shallow water conditions during low tides allowed water temperatures to drop to unusual lows causing the die-off. This is a real plus for Bald Eagles, because they are carrion eaters. They will eat dead fish with the same gusto as live fish, and will switch to fresh-caught fish in the spring when they are feeding their young. Unfortunately for me and some other disappointed eagle enthusiasts, the extreme cold forced the cancellation of two EagleWatch tours sponsored by the River Museum. In desperation, on both of these occasions, I drove up to Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam hoping to get a few prime shots from there. No luck!
The folks at the museum informed me that professional wildlife photographer Dr. Stanley Kolber was giving a lecture at the museum on March 1st. I have recently become a fan of the doctor’s work, so I planned to attend. I was not disappointed. He discussed photography (especially bird photography) with such calm, sincere passion and enthusiasm that his obvious love of the art was inspiring. I have included a link to his website below.
The museum conducts several EagleWatch tours in February and March on a 65-foot, 50-passenger research vessel called the Enviro-Lab III, which belongs to Project Oceanology. This is an organization formed in 1972 by a group of public school administrators from southeastern Connecticut. The boat is a 56-foot confiscated lobster boat donated by the U.S. Customs Service in 1986. The last EagleWatch Tour will be on March 16. I will be there with Ginny Lee and will share with you any successful photos that I am fortunate enough to shoot. I asked Dr. Kolber if I could borrow his Nikon setup (shown below) for the shoot. He smiled and continued with the lecture. (Just kidding.)
The museum has made a substantial commitment to the Bald Eagle. Shown below are parts of the exhibit.
The first floor has an impressive exhibit depicting the burning of the fleet of a privateer warship moored in Essex in 1812. There are also two full-size replicas of the Turtle, the first American submarine, which was built in Essex in 1776 to be used against British ships during the American Revolution. The black model is a working unit that I was told has been tested in the Connecticut River.
The three-story museum’s main and third levels offer changing exhibits, while the second level is home to a history of shipping and commercial boating on the river, which includes maps and models of steamships. This floor also has exhibits of the various fish species in the river. Below are examples of the commercial navigation exhibit.
The 36-mile stretch of the lower Connecticut River consists of a group of small waterfront towns that, unlike similar communities in other areas, offer interesting and exciting adventures for visitors all year. After experiencing the wonders of the Lower River, remember, there are still another 374 miles of fun and excitement to the north.
The photographs of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta portion in this post were taken by two of my lifelong friends, Mike and Jane McLaughlin. We grew up in Dorchester, one of Boston’s largest neighborhoods. After successfully raising two children and managing rewarding professional careers, these two exceptional folks are now retired and are engaging in one of their lifelong passions — world travel. We grew up in a housing project in one of Boston’s largest neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a great place to live, especially for folks with young children. The stark-looking red brick buildings in this development were furnished, well built, safe and comfortable homes to about 400 families. Most of these families had a parent that was a member of the military during the Second World War. Friendships were easily made in this diverse area, and many of these friendships are still alive and doing well today. Some of the housing projects that were built in Boston during the 1950s were built in areas that made them seem more like prisons than housing development. This development was built in an attractive residential neighborhood that was surrounded by an expansive open park and wilderness-like playground. Most of its attractions were in easy walking distance for an average 8 to 10 year old. If transportation was necessary, safe and reliable public transportation was always available.
Below are a some photos of our old neighborhood. The first three were taken with a Kodak Brownie 127 camera that Santa Claus left under my Christmas tree about 60 years ago.
This is where we called home.
Below is Scarboro Pond. It was created along with two other ponds as part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s master plan for Franklin Park, the largest park of the Emerald Necklace. This pond is surrounded by 500 acres of open and wooded land, and is an easy half hour walk from Franklin Field. Here we enjoyed fishing, hiking, and picking wild blueberries in the spring and summer. During the winter, the many hills of the golf course and the wooded areas were great for coasting (snow sledding). All of this was free.
Below is Franklin Field, our most frequented playground. Because our neighborhood was so ethnically diverse, we were exposed to a worldwide variety of sports activities on this still active open field, including ice skating (in the cold months the Boston Fire Department flooded large portions of the field), baseball, tennis, softball, basketball, bocce ball and cricket. We were never able to fully understand cricket, but these games were fun to watch. We also had fun trying to mimic the unique accents of the British, Haitian, Trinidadian and Jamaican players as they bantered with each other during the game. We were also amused by the retired men, who constantly argued while rolling a huge ball down a narrow dirt strip. Like cricket, we never quite understood bocce ball.
Houghton’s Pond is a spring-fed kettle pond located within the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, Mass. This, by far, was our largest and most challenging play area. The 15,000 acres of wilderness-like woodlands that surrounded this popular swimming area was, to us, like being in the wilds of Maine or Alaska. During one warm and sunny day during February school vacation, a group of us (which I think included me, Mike, his brother Ed, Bobby, Buddy and Kenny) loaded a bunch of crude camping stuff into a Radio Flyer wagon and headed for the Blue Hills. The walk was a little longer, but still manageable. Well, everything went great until the sun went down when radiation cooling gripped the area at the high elevation. I don’t think that details of the kind of night we weathered is necessary. You would think that this experience would teach us a lesson on winter camping, but we repeated this adventure the following year with better equipment and a slightly, I repeat, slightly, better outcome.
When adventures like this come to mind, I can understand why Mike and Jane look forward to their next travel adventure. These adventures are much wider in scope, but the anticipation and excitement is the same. Don’t tell Mike that I said this, but I think the February thing was his idea.
This is only a sampling of the rich and rewarding environment that this neighborhood offered its residents during the 1950s and 1960s. Boredom and inactivity were nonexistent at Franklin Field during this time.
Mike and Jane in Alaska with Mt. McKinley (the high one) in the background. I love this photo, because it reminds me of my own cross country motorcycle trips during the 70s.
A favorite author of mine states in his work; it is time to “bring on the bear,” Which in this case is the main subject of this post.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Mike and Jane were visiting friends in Arizona. Their next destination was the balloon festival in New Mexico so they headed down Arizona State Route 89A, just south of Flagstaff into Oak Creek Canyon, a smaller cousin to the Grand Canyon, to Oak Creek Vista, an overlook with a spectacular view of the canyon. This canyon is known around the world for its spectacular scenery with colorful rocks and unique formations.
The Balloonist’s Prayer
May the winds welcome you with softness. May the sun bless you with its warm hands. May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter and sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
The first Spanish settlers arrived in New Mexico around 1540 headed by General Francisco Coronado. In 1706, King Phillip of Spain granted a group of later settlers permission to build a new city on the banks of the Rio Grande. These colonists chose a spot at the foot of the mountains where the river made a wide curve. This spot provided them with abundant water and plenty of hard wood for construction and fuel. They named the new settlement La Villa De Alburquerque after a prominent Spanish duke. Over the years the first “r” was dropped, leaving Albuquerque spelled as it is today. Being religious people, the first thing they built was a small adobe chapel, which later collapsed in 1792, but was rebuilt in 1793 and named San Felipe de Neri. This adobe chapel was built in a section of Albuquerque called Old Town, a popular shopping and tourist destination which consists of about 10 blocks of historic adobe buildings grouped around a central plaza (a common feature of Spanish Colonial towns). Today, Albuquerque is a major city with a diverse population, with its cultural traditions being part of everyday life. The Balloon Fiesta is still an infant when compared with this rich history. But I am sure that it will continue to be a popular event well into the future.
The Balloon Fiesta began in 1972 to highlight the 50th anniversary celebration of a local radio station. The radio station manager asked the owner of Cutter Flying Service, and the first owner of a hot air balloon in New Mexico, Sid Cutter, if he could use his balloon as part of the festivities. Twenty one other balloonists were invited to attend the celebration in an attempt to break the world record of 19 balloons assembled in a rally. Unfortunately, bad weather prevented several from attending. So, the first Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta began with only 13 intrepid balloonists. Today, it is the world’s largest hot air ballooning event. For nine days during the first week of October, balloons begin their assent over the city just before dawn breaks. This is the Dawn Patrol; it serves to give other balloonists information about wind speeds and direction at different altitudes. The Dawn Patrol is followed by the National Anthem, and the first Mass Ascension of the day. This is one of the most spectacular events of the fiesta. All of the participating balloons are launched in waves, coordinated by launch directors. The sight of several hundred balloons in the sky is a breathtaking sight for both first-time visitors and veterans. Another popular event is the Special Shapes Rodeo. Many non-traditional uniquely shaped balloons are launched at the same time. Photos of two of the most famous shapes, the milk cow and the stagecoach, are shown below along with other innovative balloons. These balloons are also featured in the Glowdeo, a nighttime event that features all the special shapes balloons illuminated by their propane burners, standing static without taking off.
Other events include: The Fiesta Challenge, where balloonists attempt to drop a marker closest to a target. The Challenge Gas Balloon Race, where special long-distance gas-filled balloons are inflated and launched. The winner of this contest is the balloon that travels the farthest. Balloons competing in this race have traveled as far as the East Coast.
Nearly 750,000 visitors attend this event every year. If you would like to join the fun and experience a vacation to remember, this year’s Fiesta will be held October 4th thru the 12th. I am planning to be there with my wife, Tricia, and Ginny Lee (my camera). I hope to see you at the Fiesta this year!
The Farmington Valley is located in central Connecticut on the western boundary of Hartford County and the eastern border of Litchfield County. It is defined by the Farmington River which runs through it. This valley is, by simple definition, a lowland floodplain, flanked by the Litchfield Hills on the west and Talcott Mountain on the east. The photo below is a view of the valley from Talcott Mountain. In local terms, Farmington Valley refers to a large watershed covering areas of land from the north central portion of Connecticut into southern Massachusetts. I am most familiar with section running through the towns of Farmington, Avon, Simsbury, Canton and Granby, in Connecticut. Many of my favorite trout fishing spots are on sections of the Farmington River flowing through these towns.
I live in Farmington, near a patch fertile land on which the Tunxis Indians, a sub Native American tribe of the Saukiogs, established a seasonal village. They named this land Tunxis Sepus, (at the bend of the little river). They thrived here for many years by fishing, farming, trapping and hunting the fertile waters and land in this area. Farmington residents refer to this land today as the “flats,” and it is one of the most productive farming areas in the Valley — shared by both recreational gardeners and professional farmers. This patch of fertile land supports the crops of at least five mid-size working farms and the 225 Community Garden Plots (Kolp Gardens) sponsored by the town of Farmington. For the past 20 years I have been a daily visitor to this area, especially during the planting season. By the first of March, all of the garden plots are leased and latecomers are placed on a waiting list. The ground in much of Connecticut, along the rivers, is Windsor soil, named for the town of Windsor, one of the oldest towns in the state, famous for growing high quality tobacco used as the outer wrapping for the world’s finest cigars. Windsor soils are very deep, well drained, fertile loamy sand soils, formed by glacial meltwater and windblown deposits. The combination of this soil and the clean water from the Farmington River makes this Community Garden one of the largest and most popular in the state. Another attraction is that the town of Farmington employed the extensive knowledge and experience of the farming professionals at Krell’s Farm to manage and care for the soil.
A brief history of farming in Connecticut
Early European settlers found nearly all of Connecticut covered by forest. For at least 1000 years prior to the arrival of these settlers, these forests were maintained by the Native Americans. Their efforts resulted in suitable habitat for game species on which they subsisted. In 1640, Pilgrims from Essex, England, seeking land to enlarge their settlement in Farmington, bought a patch of land from the Tunxis Tribe and renamed the area “the Plantation at Tunxis”. The land consisting of about 225 square miles was incorporated as the Town of Farmington in 1645 by an act of the Connecticut General Assembly. The townspeople and the Tunxis tribe lived here together peacefully for years. Under the agreement, the settlers plowed the land, and the Native Americans cut wood for fuel and traded their corn and hides. For the following hundred years the main occupation in this town was farming. The settlers shared the meadow, raising corn, rye, barley and other crops. They also pastured cattle and sheep in the hills above the village. By 1700, the community also attracted carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, tanners, and coopers (those who make and repair wooden casks and tubs). After this, the landscape across Connecticut began to changed dramatically. The settlers began clearing the land and building small subsistence farms. By the early 1800s, Connecticut’s extensive forests were mostly cleared to be replaced by thousands of small farms and towns that were built using the harvested wood for homes, barns, furniture and fuel.
By 1820, only about 25 percent of Connecticut’s forest remained. Forests once thought to be unlimited had disappeared. The state began to experience soil erosion that muddied creeks and caused widespread timber shortages. Indigenous wildlife, like black bear, elk, mountain lion, white-tailed deer, quail and grouse, disappeared from most of the state. Farming, however, continued to flourish until the Erie Canal, linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic seaboard, was completed in 1825. Within two decades of this event the small stony farms of Connecticut were unable to compete with the larger well-mechanized farms of New York and the Ohio Valley. Farmers left marginal farms to take jobs in the cities that were created by the growth of manufacturing. This abandoned farmland soon began reverting to forest, and this process has continued, causing a decline in farmland to the present day. However, the state is beginning to reverse this trend and is establishing effective programs to preserve its farmland. Today, Connecticut has approximately 4,200 farms which encompass 360,000 acres. On average, each farm has only 40% of its acreage devoted to crop production. The remainder usually consists of woodlands and wetlands. At first glance, these numbers seem small, but a closer look shows that over the past few years, public interest in foods produced by the local farms in this valley has skyrocketed. To meet the demand for these foods, the number of small to mid-size farms have been on a slow but steady increase since 2002. Farm stands, both seasonal and year-round, are also increasing and most seem to be doing well.
Most of the farm land in the Tunxis “flats” belongs to the town of Farmington. There is, however, an eleven-acre patch in the north/west corner that is privately owned, and is farmed by two brothers. The remainder is leased and planted by several professional farming families and the recreational gardeners of Kolp Gardens. One of the professional farmers contracts with the town to prepare the gardens each year for planting. The farmer plows the soil, then conditions it by applying carefully calculated amounts of lime and fertilizer.
A view of the Farmington Valley from Talcott Mountain State Park.
Here the river is flowing west as it approaches the “flats.” A few yards past this point, it turns south/east and runs along the “flats” for about a mile.
This is the north/west end of the “flats” where the river starts heading south/east.
This is where the Farmington joins flow with one of its tributaries, the Pequabuck River (the “Little River at the bend”), turns to the north and heads towards the town of Avon.
Krell’s farm stand opens in the spring and remains busy throughout the planting, growing and harvest seasons. I have purchased plant seedlings, fresh corn, fresh garlic, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs, honey and a variety of other fruits and vegetables from this stand over the 25 years that I have been living in this area. I have never been disappointed with a purchase. Every time I ask Carl why his product is so consistently superior, his answer is always, “Good seeds.” I believe it is more than that, but I can’t argue with a pro.
Both Carl and Jill come from well-established and respected farming families. They have a collective wealth of farming knowledge, and consistently select quality seeds for planting. They also plant them in a timely manner and care for them in a time-honored fashion. Their meticulous attention to detail produces some of the best looking, healthful and best tasting vegetables in the Farmington Valley.
The crew that does most of the farming at Krell’s — Carl on the left, Jill on the right, and the boys
Preparing Kolp Gardens for planting. Carl is the first to arrive at the Community Gardens in March, maneuvering around the fields in a large tractor that my kids call “Big Green.”
This is me being nosy and hoping to get an early shot of Carl preparing the gardens for planting.
I have a small garden in front of my house throughout the gardening season; I buy seeds and plants from many of the farms in the Valley. The planting success that I have had with seeds and plants I buy from here convinces me that Carl’s claim of “good seeds” are on the money. The photo below shows Carl (in the back), Jill (on the left), and an assistant setting up one of the greenhouses in the spring. As far as I could tell this is the entire crew assigned to this task.
The photo below is this same greenhouse just a couple of weeks later.
Carl has completed plowing and enhancing the soil in the Community Gardens. Next up are the town surveyors laying out the 225 plots.
Pictured below is Tony. He has been the first gardener to start setting up his plot and begin planting for several years. Unfortunately, Tony will not be back this year. He will be missed.
A view of Kolp Gardens from the north/west at mid-season.
Carl and “Big Green” begin preparing the soil for Krell’s Farm vegetables. This location is one of several corn fields. At these locations, he plants several carefully selected varieties of sweet corn.
To keep the soil in place over the winter months and to have organic material to plow into the soil in the spring. Carl and the other farmers plant winter rye in the fall. The large light-green patch of rye will be worked into the soil of the Community Gardens.
Mature winter rye, like this, is harvested, dried, and baled. It is later used as mulch for gardens and as food for farm animals.
The corn and squash shown in these photos is sold only at Krell’s farm stand. Folks in this area can hardly wait for these crops to arrive at the stand. Carl and Jill tend about 60 acres of fields in several locations. Carl often laments, “I would love to have the space to plant more.”
Not everything sold at Krell’s farm stand is planted by machine.
Fresh eggs are sold throughout the year.
A pile of fat crappie from one of Carl’s fall fishing trip. He didn’t share just where he caught these fish, but I don’t believe that he had to travel very far.
Carl’s credentials include extensive hunting, trapping, and fishing skills. He has state and local licenses in all three skills. The photo below shows Carl and his granddaughter, Kayleigh, displaying the reward from their successful deer hunt this past fall.
Carl processed the head, mounted it, and gave it to Kayleigh for Christmas. Carl tells me that he also tanned the hide and sent it to school with Kayleigh for show and tell. I am sure that it made the session interesting.
Carl and Jill’s home for several weeks before Christmas is a trailer set up on farm land owned by Carl’s family. Here they sell fresh Christmas trees. For years I have made unsuccessful attempts to buy one of their trees before they were all sold. This year I finally went early enough to buy one of their very popular, high-quality trees. My wife, Tricia, saw the tree and instructed me to get there early enough every year from now on.
Here Carl is serving a customer. Every tree that Carl and Jill sell is unpacked, staked and allowed to relax. The customer can easily see the exact shape of the tree, making the selection process easy.
Carl and Jill embody all of the characteristics and work ethic of farming families through this country, in particular, Farmington Valley. I am convinced that this brief outline doesn’t convey everything that is required to manage a successful farm and farm stand like Krell’s. Professional farmers, in my opinion, seem to work extremely hard and produce amazing results without sufficient recognition of their efforts. This is my small attempt to change this. If you are ever lucky enough to visit the Farmington Valley during the growing season stop by Krell’s or one of other farm stands in the Valley. You will not be disappointed.
After proofreading this post, I was surprised to discover that it contains almost twice as many words as the Homestead Act of 1862. Here I am discussing a small portion of the 18,432 acres of land that is the town of Farmington, Connecticut. The Homestead Act outlined the distribution of 270 million acres of U.S. land into the hands of individual citizens. And I don’t feel that I have said enough about one hard-working and quality-oriented Connecticut farming family.
The Ballard Institute is a school solely dedicated to the art of puppetry. It is one of a small number of institutions where aspiring puppeteers can pursue an advanced degree in puppetry. The museum and school of puppetry were founded by a world renowned master of the art of pulling strings, Frank W. Ballard. Ballard joined the University in 1956 as a theatrical set and technical director. In 1965 he founded the University’s puppet arts program, which he directed until he retired in 1989. It has been said that he and Jim Henson made puppetry a valuable tool of expression in this country. The University is one of only a few in this country offering B.F.A., M.A., and M.F.A. degrees in puppetry. Students enrolled in the program study all aspects of the art form, from the making and manipulation of puppets to playwriting, set and costume design, and music and movement. The program’s students come from all over the world and are sought after to ply their craft in film, theater, and television. Shows like Avenue Q, The Lion King, and Little Shop of Horrors were either built or performed by Ballard Institute alumni. My son, Michael, is a resident artist at Shakesperience Productions, a Connecticut-based touring troupe for arts education. Recently, Michael worked with a talented puppet designer/fabricator, Travis Lope, a graduate of Ballard, in a production of the Walt Disney classic, The Reluctant Dragon. Over the years, I have developed a deep appreciation for the talent of puppeteers.
While growing up, some of my favorite television shows featured imaginative puppet creations. My mother and I have many favorites: Bill Baird and and his famous puppetry sequence, The Lonely Goatherd, in the film version of The Sound of Music; the flexible fun puppets, Gumby and Pokey; and The Pee-Wee Herman Show with puppet cast members like Globey the Globe and Corky the Robot. My list is longer than space allows, but I must also list the favorites that are responsible for this fascination: Howdy Doody with Buffalo Bob Smith and Mr. Rogers and his puppet king, King Friday XIII.
The museum, in its present location, is small with limited but well-planned space for display. It will be moving soon to a more spacious and accessible location in the newly-developed Storrs Center in downtown Mansfield, just steps from the University campus. After the the move, I hope that the museum will be able to display many more of its reported 4,300 classic puppets.
The Knight Hospital, Dark Shadow of the Past, On The UConn, Depot Campus
To most folks, the Depot Campus is home to the well-known Ballard Institute, but this campus has less colorful past history. Pictured below is what remains of the Knight Hospital. The hospital was part of a 350-acre campus known as the Mansfield Training School. The school opened its doors in 1917, and was considered an ideal place for treating people with mental disorders. When in full operation, the campus housed 1,800 residents and contained over 50 buildings. The Training School was closed in 1993, and many of the buildings were demolished. Some of the remaining buildings, including the hospital, became part of UConn’s Depot Campus. Other parts of the Training School campus were annexed to The Bergin Correctional Center, a level-2 minimum security facility for male offenders.
In 1987, The Mansfield Training School was added to to the National Register of Historic Places. It has an interesting history that dates back to 1860. I will return to this campus and devote a separate post to this mysterious and fascinating place.
The Exceptional Puppet Master—Dick Meyers
Born on May 21, 1921, in Flint, Michigan, Dick Myers attended a marionette production of an English folk tale, Dick Whittington and His Cat. This performance set the stage for his successful career in puppetry. At age seventeen he joined Stevens Marionettes, a Midwestern leader in American Puppet revival, and trained with them for a short time. He left this company to study aeronautical engineering, acting, art, and dance. He returned to Stevens Marionettes at the end of the Second World War and applied his sophisticated technical knowledge to building custom sound equipment, designed to be used in contemporary puppet theater productions. During this period he continued working with his mentors at Stevens Marionettes as well as Rufus and Margo Rose, the folks who first entertained him with Dick Whittington and His Cat when he was in grade school. By 1950 he had enough confidence to create his first production, a hand puppet show titled Magic Potion. It was so well received at the American National Puppetry Festival that he continued to perform Magic Potion for the rest of the year. Despite the positive feedback that he received for his shows, and the appreciation that other puppeteers had for his skill and technical ability, Myers continued to feel uncertain about his work. He once again left puppetry to pursue other interests. He returned to puppetry briefly in 1956 and began to develop his own style of rod puppetry. By 1966 he was ready launch his own show. His production, The Story of Dick Whittington’s Cat, premiered at the 1966 National Puppetry Festival in San Diego. It was so well-received that an encore performance was requested. From there, Dick Myers went on to perform other rod puppet gems like Cinderella and Simple Simon. In 1983, Dick performed his last full-length show. He died on May 19, 2005. Classic examples of his dynamic puppets are currently on display at the Puppet Museum. For more information about Dick Myers and his creations, visit the web site at DickMyersProject.com.
To identify a Dick Myers puppet, look into the eyes.
Simple Simon and The Pie-Man
My favorite–The Baby William Band
The museum features the works of many other artists. The photos below are just a sampling these works.
The story of the “Old Leatherman” is very complex and burdened with a unique mix of fable, myth and reality. For this post I have decided to limit my dialogue to some basic details of Old Leather’s 30 years of walking his planned route through Connecticut and New York State. I have also included photographs of the Leatherman, one of his shelters (that is only 10 miles from my house), and his final resting place in Sparta Cemetery in New York State. To help with some of the questions you may have after reading my comments and viewing the photos, I have included a link to an entertaining and informative You Tube video that was aired on Connecticut Public Television several years ago.
One misty, misty morning
When cloudy was the weather
I chanced to meet an old man
Clothed all in leather.
He began to complement,
And I began to Grin
How do you do?
And How do you do?
And how do you do again?
This little rhyme became a popular jingle during the 1870s when a mysterious, forlorn man dressed all in leather clothing, of his own making, became a common sight wandering the country roads and railroad tracks of Connecticut and New York State. His curious garments were made of soft-tanned leather cut from discarded boot tops, and stitched together with leather lacing. A domed cap with a leather visor and leather shoes fitted with hand carved, wooden soles completed his unique outfit. Some have pinpointed his first appearance in Connecticut to be around 1856 in Harwinton; a town west of Hartford. He had a passion for silence, so his real identity has remained a mystery. Folks simply identified him as “The Old Leatherman”. He died in 1889, but his legend is still very much alive throughout New England, New York State and parts of Canada.
From the day of his first appearance in 1856, he traveled between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers, and possibly made trips to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and as far north as Canada in his early years. In 1883 he began walking a regular 360-mile circuit. He entered Connecticut from New York near Danbury walking east to southeast, eventually turning south to the Shoreline and west to New Haven. He completed this 360-mile journey in about 34 days. The Leatherman was reported to be very regular in these trips. A record of his trips past a railroad station in Milford, Connecticut was kept for 6 years, from 1883 to 1889. In 1884/1885 he made nineteen consecutive trips, passing this point every 34 days. In March of 1888 a monster blizzard dumped 50 inches of snow in parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut, leaving snow drifts as high as 50 feet in places. The storm paralyzed the East Coast from Chesapeake Bay to Maine, bringing most types of transportation to a halt for days. However, the storm’s most noticeable effect on the Leatherman was to increase his 34 day circuit to 39 days. Old Leather was a tough man. He knew how take care of himself by employing an incredible ability to adapt to his ever-changing environment. But the “Blizzard,” along with a quickly-spreading cancerous growth on his lower lip, really took a toll on him. On March 24, 1889, he was found dead in one of his cave/rock shelters in Mount Pleasant, New York. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Sparta Cemetery, located in Ossining, New York.
The Leatherman, photographed on June 9, 1885.
The Leatherman, photographed in 1888. This photo was used as the basis for the near life-size portrait, painted by A. V. Durant in 1892.
Durant’s portrait now hangs in the Derby Public Library in Derby, Connecticut. Thanks to the cooperation of the library director, Cathy Williams, and her staff I was able set up my equipment and take this photograph.
Harwinton House and Tory Den
Old Leather established shelters all along his travel route; some were cave/rock (slabs of overhanging rock), others were simple lean-tos made from fallen trees, branches and twigs. He was never known to eat, rest, or sleep under a man-made roof.
Tory Den is one of his cave/rock shelters that is a short distance from my home. It was discovered by the grandson of Steven Graves on Thanksgiving Day, 1838. Graves was a Harwinton, Connecticut resident and the owner of property where the Den is located. Graves was also a Loyalist or Tory. Tories were the folks that remained loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution. In 1778 Graves built a log cabin on this property. The cabin became a meeting place for Tory leaders from the surrounding area. After the war he built a spacious house on this site. It would later come to be known as Harwinton House. In 1931 the house was moved to New Canaan, Connecticut, where it remains today.
In this part of Connecticut, Tories were relentlessly hunted by a group of Patriots called the Sons of Liberty. Any Tory captured by this group would face punishment, ranging from a severe beating to being hung. Whenever the Sons of Liberty were spotted in the area, a horn (conch shell) would echo through the trees, and Tories in the area would head for the Den to hide in safety. The Sons of Liberty relentlessly searched the area throughout the War, but failed to find the Den.
There is no verifiable information that indicates how the Leatherman discovered this and other cave/rock shelters scattered along his circuit. It is my feeling that he had extensive knowledge of Native American lore and was familiar with the entire area that he traveled. I also believe that he knew where he was at all times, and planned his route with precision. All of his shelters provided for him what he needed to stay alive: food, water, and protection from the elements. Most of the trees that blanket much of Connecticut today were not there during the Leatherman’s time. Early settlers cleared most forests to make room for farming. If you were new to the area today, locating the Den would be more difficult than it was for the Leatherman, because its location is masked by thick tree growth.
Harwinton House on its original site in Harwinton, Connecticut
A map showing the location of Tory Den in relation to Harwinton House.
Armed with the map, shown above, my trusty compass and a pedometer, I set out on the Blue Dot trail to find the original site of Harwinton House and the Tory Den. The Den is located on the border of Burlington and Harwinton in a rocky section of forest called the Mile of Ledges. Following the section of trail, shown below, for about a mile into the woods led me to the Den. However, my attempt to follow the trail southeast to Harwinton House led me along what I figure is the most treacherous part of the trail. So I abandoned the effort and drove around Bristol Water Department property and entered the woods from another entrance to the Blue Dot. This section of the trail looked less hazardous.
Trail to the Den
This is the south entrance to the Den. It was a warm sunny morning, so I spent a couple of hours exploring the area. The south entrance is high enough for me to enter by stooping only a little. It is also wide enough to accommodate several people, my size, sitting on both sides. The dirt floor was clean and free of the usual junk that accumulates in historic sites like this. This is a real tribute to hikers of the Blue Dot Trail.
Trail to the Harwinton House
My maps indicated that I could get to the original Harwinton House site entering the trail from a different location. This part of the trail led me to a collapsed bridge abutment that I am sure was originally built as a crossing for horse-drawn carriages. In order to get across, I would have to make my way down a steep 20-foot rocky embankment and then up a similar bank on the other side. Carrying a heavy and expensive camera and tripod, this was more of a risk than I was willing to take. I can repair a broken arm, leg, or rib with less effort and expense than it would take to replace my equipment. So I turned back vowing to resume the search another day. When I return, I will post photos of the site.
The Blue Trail entrance leading to the Harwinton House site
To spite of his popularity, the Leatherman was buried in a grave marked only by an iron pipe driven into the ground. Finally, in 1953, a grave stone inscribed with the fictitious name “Jules Bourglay” was placed on the grave. On May 23, 2011 his remains were exhumed with the hope of subjecting them to DNA testing. All that was found was a few coffin nails in the dirt. I think that Old Leather’s wish to remain anonymous has been realized.
On May 27, 2011, whatever was unearthed from his original grave was reburied in a new grave inside the cemetery and memorialized by a new grave marker. Take note of the gifts on the grave marker, left by his still loyal adherers.
Meet the Kelley’s from Alaska. Mr. Kelley grew up in Ossining, and as a kid made frequent visits to the cemetery to see and show his friends a grave stone that was damaged by cannon fire during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the grave stone was no longer there. There was, however, a brief description of the incident inscribed on a plaque outside of the cemetery.
Click on the link below, sit back and enjoy a video that is informative and loaded with interesting Old Leatherman information.
The Road Between Heaven And Hell