We hadn't intended to stay here so long. We have a family visit in New York State next Friday, and originally we'd thought we would zig-zag slowly westward, through southern Vermont. But New England is Full this week - motel after motel had no rooms, or only Smoking rooms at high prices, and a newspaper story explained why: Motorcycle Week was happening in Laconia, New Hampshire, with "several hundred thousand" motorcyclists converging on this one place.
So we opted for one more week in Franklin, and more sightseeing. Yesterday we explored what the Connecticut Visitors' Bureau calls The Quiet Corner of the state. Along the way we could stop and check cemeteries for graves of long dead ancestors. What was unexpected was the wide variety of towns we encountered.
The first colonial settlements were on the shore, with a good harbor for the boats which would resupply the settlers from England; then they worked their way up the river valleys, and didn't penetrate beyond the rivers until the eighteenth century. So we started our tour in Groton, an early settlement. Groton is still a pretty quiet town, with summer seaside tourists and a year-round economy fired by the Navy sub base and the submarine contractors.
We returned to Packer Burying Grounds, on the road to Mystic. We'd been here before, but now our trips to the library had given us more graves of ancestors to seek - Burrows and Fish, in this case, and we were lucky. Their graves were near the entrance to the small cemetery, the inscriptions still barely legible.
We looked for an old farmhouse, that once belonged to an eighth great uncle, but there was no sign identifying it as a historic building. It could have been a very old house; we weren't sure. Many of the old New England farm houses have been expanded and remodeled so little of the old structure is visible; at the same time many of the new New England farm houses have been cleverly built to look like old New England farm houses!
We headed north along the Thames River to Norwich, a former mill town.
New England is not known for great farmland; it's rocky and hilly with a short growing season. So the colonists looked for other things to do. First they cut timber and raised livestock; later they built ships and became merchants; in the nineteenth century, while the wild west was still being won, New Trumbull store, Lebanon, CT England pioneered the industrial revolution, building textile mills along every river and stream. Stealing European designs for factories and machinery, as well as inventing their own, they hired cheap labor (mostly women at first) from the big farm families and shipped their cloth wherever the market price was best.
The river valleys near the juncture of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have been designated the Blackstone National Heritage Corridor, in tribute to the nineteenth-century mill towns. The mills are still standing along the rivers, huge edifices made of brick, now blackened with age, and generally with hundreds of broken windows. There were no laws to force the buildings to be torn down, and so they aged not so gracefully, silent hulks reminiscent of a forgotten prosperity. The mill towns are full of signs of a depressed economy: dial-a-ride buses, empty stores, large modern buildings for unemployment offices and the administration of justice. There are no new all-suite hotels for the modern business travelers, and no corporate parks.
Just north of downtown Norwich is Norwichtown, located away from the river, with the green where the militia trained, the old white church, and dozens of eighteenth-century buildings, very beautifully preserved. Hard to believe that the dilapidated mill town is just a mile away next to the river.
We cut off onto a quiet country road and up a long hill to Lebanon, where we encountered some evidence of the weekend event: hundreds of motorcyclists roared through the intersection while the few motorists stopped and gawked. Cops on motorcycles zoomed ahead to guard each intersection on the route, and every now and then a popular corner store had no room for cars to park as dozens of bikers made a rest stop. General Israel Putnam
As soon as the motorcycles were over the next hill, and the line of waiting cars had cleared out of town, Lebanon became quiet and sleepy again. This is a beautiful town, with a mile-long green flanked by old colonial farms and homesteads. Gov. Trumbull lived here, and his old store was used as a war office, where quartermasters took all that the farmers could spare (and then some more) to supply the troops of 1775-81. Washington was here (of course). There's a monument near the green for every war and every famous citizen; it hardly seems that such a small town could have had such an impact - but it did.
An after-church social was in progress behind the church, with chefs at the barbecues and old women setting the tables and children racing around. We paused for some pictures and met another couple - looking for ancestors! They kindly provided us directions to the cemetery, where we found more ancestors and relatives buried near the top of the hill.
Connecticut 169 is in our National Geographic Scenic Highways book, which has provided us with many a fine ride as we travel from state to state. This byway runs north past fine old stone walls (symbolic of the rocky fields cursed by old Yankee farmers) and old Connecticut prep schools. We traveled under a canopy of trees, along winding roads lined with flowering shrubs, past old homes and small farms. In Brooklyn we found the imposing statue of General Israel Putnam on his horse. He was at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and reputedly said, "Don't Fire Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes."
As we wandered through the countryside back to Franklin, we continued to notice the curious reversal of fortunes for New England towns. The tiny farm towns, like Lebanon, once stricken with the poverty of subsistence farming, appeared snug and prosperous, attracting weekend visitors to view the historic buildings, populated perhaps by retirees living the life of country gentlemen and gentlewomen, while the once thriving mill towns are struggling to find work for all their inhabitants and businesses to fill their empty buildings.