Land of Plenty

S ay “Connecticut” to someone who isn’t from here, and they’re likely to picture a town like Farmington, with tidy Colonial homes framed by stone walls and rolling farmland. The rest of us know there’s a lot more to our state than the postcard version. But even if you prefer the beach to back roads and cityscapes to farmsteads, a day trip to Farmington—about 40 miles due north—is worth your while.

I made my own Farmington visit on a frigid but sunny winter day with contrails streaking the blue sky and frozen puddles glistening in the fields. I-84 leads briefly to Route 508 and then Route 4, which snakes into town and makes Truffles cafe and bakery a good first stop. Servers there told me the most popular items often sell out by 9 a.m. I stopped in much later in the day and still managed to snag a Better-Than-Hostess chocolate cupcake with a familiar white squiggle of frosting on top ($2.79), a Cranberry Lemon Bar ($1.60) and a Billion Dollar Bar with chocolate and caramel ($1.80). The colorful Cake Pops ($1.85) looked tempting, too. Truffles also makes a good lunch stop, according to three different Farmingtonians I asked for recommendations.

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The Hill-Stead Museum is perhaps Farmington’s best known destination, the 1901 home of the Pope family: Cleveland iron magnate Alfred, his wife Ada and their daughter Theodate, originally named Effie, who took the name of her paternal grandmother upon enrolling at Miss Porter’s finishing school in Farmington. The formal, forceful moniker suited her better. Theodate would go on to convince her parents to relocate to Farmington and design for them the large but comfortable Colonial Revival home that today, thanks to her careful planning and a small endowment, remains what my knowledgeable tour guide, Moira Dailey, called a “time capsule” from 1946, the year Theodate died.

A photographer, licensed architect and world traveler who survived the sinking of the Lusitania, Theodate left behind a mandate that items should be neither added to nor removed from the home-turned-museum. And what a museum it is, filled with a small but astonishing collection of Impressionist paintings and other valuable works of art mostly purchased by her father. At the Hill-Stead, there are paintings or pastels by Manet, Monet, Degas, Whistler and Cassatt as well as 16th-century etchings by Albrecht Dürer, copies of valuable Japanese woodblock prints and ceramics dating back as far as the sixth century BC, all of them encountered intimately because they’re displayed not in a pristine museum gallery but on the Popes’ wallpapered parlor wall or fireplace mantlepiece.

Theodate married John Wallace Riddle in her late 40s, and together they raised two foster sons. A third died in infancy. Their home was visited by such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Edith Wharton, Mary Cassatt and Katharine Hepburn. Today, visitors can take a “highlights tour” Tuesday through Sunday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. or wander the home on their own on the first Sunday of every month.

From the Hill-Stead, I took the scenic route through the old part of Farmington by weaving my way along parallel routes High Street, Main Street and Garden Street. I got a view of Miss Porter’s School, founded in 1843 by Sarah Porter and now a college preparatory school; the historic Congregational church, first organized in 1652, with its soaring steeple; the 1720 Stanley-Whitman House, now a museum; and many other buildings that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Of course, Farmington has grown beyond its early roots. I headed out on Route 4 in search of a good, hot lunch and stopped at Lotus Grill, a tiny roadside restaurant serving Vietnamese fare. I ordered an appetizer of delicious Crispy Spring Rolls ($4.29) and a big, comforting bowl of Pho Ga ($9.29): chicken soup with rice noodles, served with a side plate of fresh basil leaves, bean sprouts, a lime wedge and a single slice of hot pepper. Lotus Grill’s tiny, narrow interior houses just seven tables—the server sat at an eighth snipping snow peas while she wasn’t waiting tables—but even at two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, several other customers arrived during my winter warmup.

Farmington can be a great place to spend time outdoors in the winter as well. Once there’s enough snow, Winding Trails, a nonprofit recreational area on the other side of the Farmington River, will be open for cross-country skiing and sledding. Meanwhile, the Hill-Stead has two and a half miles of trails on its 150-acre estate as well as a seasonally lovely Sunken Garden, restored using a design by renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand. The grounds are open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and leashed dogs are welcome. The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail also passes through Farmington—no surprise there—and offers a pretty stretch for walking, running or biking. You can drive up to the trail parking area by way of Meadow and Red Oak Hill Roads, crossing the lowland flats once farmed by the Tunxis Native Americans. Still farmed today, the landscape here is beautiful even in winter, with a surprising range of color among its cover crops and broken corn stalks, from deep green to silver to umber.

If it’s too cold to spend much time outdoors, as it was on the day of my trip, there’s at least one indoor amusement: Complexity, which boasts three escape rooms ($28 per person), with a fourth, themed after a blizzard, to come. I didn’t have a partner to play with, but Michelle Weathers, who owns the attraction with her husband, Kevin, showed me around. In the Cat Burglar room, players try to find the absent owner’s prized possession and make a getaway before he returns. The premise of The Mall is simple: someone has lost their wallet or keys. What’s complicated are the seven stores you’ll have to travel through to solve the puzzle. Players are literally in the dark in the Pirate Ship scenario, searching for treasure by the light of lanterns and candles (battery-operated, of course). Groups have 60 minutes to solve their puzzle, and Weathers reports that even the record-holding team, six experts who had played more than a hundred escape room games before, took 25 minutes to crack the last one.

On your way out of town, you might also want to pull over and gawk for a moment at the majestic new Hartford Connecticut Temple, the only Mormon temple in the state. Unless you’re a Mormon yourself, it’s too late to peek inside; public tours were offered back in 2016 before the temple was dedicated. But the imposing white structure with a gilded Angel Moroni reaching heavenward from the tip of its spire is impossible to miss as you head west out of town on Route 4.

In the 17th century, Farmington was considered the “frontier,” as a weathered historic marker on Route 4 informs visitors. Even today, it’s a bit off the beaten path. Farmington isn’t exactly a time capsule, but it’s a town whose centuries of history are easy to see and impressive to behold.

Farmington, Connecticut
West-southwest of Hartford (map)
www.farmington-ct.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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