Going Around

F rom Salisbury in the northwest to Stonington in the southeast, Connecticut doors were open and visitors were coming to call on Saturday, June 8. It was the Connecticut Office of Tourism’s 15th Open House Day—a chance to visit more than 200 museums and attractions in 106 Connecticut towns at a discount or free of charge and to participate in special games, crafts, activities, reenactments and other history-themed events.

My first stop was Bristol’s New England Carousel Museum, home to nearly 200 antique carousel pieces. In the carpeted main gallery draped with festive gold lamé bunting, I found a collection of wild-eyed horses with flying manes and bridles of every color, some of them dating back to the late 19th century. Living among the traditional horses were some surprises: a deer, rabbits, wild boars, a rooster, even an egret and a great blue heron.

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The museum’s mission, executive director Morgan Urgo says, is “to preserve and protect carousel pieces, primarily antique wooden rides.” About 200 such rides are left in the U.S., but once they’ve been broken up, the museum tries to preserve and restore individual pieces, with a staff of two full-time wood carvers and two full-time painters. They’re also currently restoring carousels from Somers, Connecticut, and Lake Compounce so they can be ridden and enjoyed again.

In honor of Open House Day, admission and rides on the museum’s working carousel were free. One tot enjoyed the spin but burst into tears at the sound of the loud bell signaling ride’s end. Other visitors wandered upstairs to see the period ballroom, the restoration shop (on break for the weekend) and the neighboring Museum of Fire History, “with alarms to sound, levers to pull and uniforms to try on,” as its website promises.

I said goodbye to Urgo and followed Route 72 through downtown Bristol, then drove through Plymouth, passing a package store, an auto repair shop, a septic tank cleaner. In the center of town, American flags lining Main Street waved in a lazy breeze while a live band rocked a front yard flea market. The town’s giant water wheel, circa 1830, was an intriguing roadside attraction, but I passed it by, as well as the Plymouth Historical Society, also celebrating the day.

In nearby Thomaston, floating puffs of cottonwood rushed at my windshield as I crossed a bridge over the railroad tracks. A sharp turn at the end of the bridge led down to the Railroad Museum of New England, where a crowd was congregating next to the tracks for a noon excursion train to Fascia’s Chocolates in Waterbury. For Open House Day, an extra train was on the schedule.

In the restored 1881 station, volunteer Michael Futschik demonstrated operation of a 1932 interlocking machine—originally from South Station in Boston—used to control the signals and switches on the tracks. Outside, several historic rail cars were open for tours as well. Conductor Matthew Sniffen took me through an antique Pullman car used by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad until the early 1960s. At one point in its history, the car journeyed at least as far as Denver, according to an inspection sticker found in an electrical box.

The Pullman is a time capsule, with worn upholstery, crackling paint and antique fixtures intact. The sense of lives lived there is still palpable. Sniffen pulled aside a privacy curtain to expose an upper bunk with a mattress covered in striped ticking. Wooden clothing hangers were attached to the safety bars with canvas straps. Most of the electric lights and fans still worked.

According to museum president Steve Casey, at one time 100,000 people crossed the country by train every night. “Doesn’t it make you wonder what happened on those trains?” I asked him, ever interested in history’s stories. “Everything!” Casey exclaimed.

I left Thomaston down a residential side street, then met up with Route 109 on the way to my next stop: The Institute for American Indian Studies. Hidden down a narrow, forested lane in the rural town of Washington, this small but impressive museum tells the story of native peoples as hunter gatherers, farmers and traders. Original artifacts are supplemented with reproductions made by Native Americans. Another exhibit covers North American native peoples today.

In the museum’s life-sized longhouse, I met Darlene Kascak, the institute’s education coordinator and a member of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. Her traditional storytelling is reportedly the most popular Open House Day event. “I learn my stories in the old-fashioned way,” Kascak explained. “I sit with an elder, gain their trust. They give me a story by word of mouth as a gift. I can’t write it down. I can’t record it. I have to memorize it, and it’s my responsibility to share that story with others.” Kascak often modifies the stories in her own way, but the lesson, she says, must remain intact.

The museum is visited by about 140 kids every weekday, Kascak says. “We try to bust through some of those stereotypes, we try to fill in the blanks where history books miss out and I try to show them what a Native American person looks like today.” You can also visit IAIS to try out the new Wigwam Escape, a challenge set in 1518 in which participants have to learn how to hunt, gather, cook and prepare supplies for a seven-mile journey to a fictional neighboring village.

My own journey was almost done. I followed winding country roads, lined with wildflowers and tall grass heavy with seed, to Woodbury and the Glebe House Museum. A crowd was gathered in the narrow, low-ceilinged entry to the 1740 home, which was occupied from 1771 to 1786 by the Reverend John Rutgers Marshall, his wife Sarah, their nine children and three slaves. The term “glebe” refers to a plot of land intended to support a parish priest—in this case, Marshall, who was Woodbury’s first Anglican minister.

The crowd that clogged the house’s narrow doorways was the result of a perfect storm, said the volunteer at the desk: free Open House admission, nice weather and peak bloom for the Glebe House’s surrounding garden, famed for its designer, Gertrude Jekyll, “considered by many to be the [20th] century’s pre-eminent garden writer and designer,” the website trumpets. The grounds were a picture perfect June bouquet of dozens of colorful native blooms.

Like those colorful flowers, brightly colored Open House Day signs met me at every turn on my trip, even at the places I didn’t have time to visit. You don’t have to wait for next year’s Open House Day, though, to check out Connecticut’s hundreds of similarly inviting attractions. Many of them are free all the time, and some are seasonal, making summer a great time to go knocking.

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. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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