North East

North East

July 4th falls on a Tuesday this year, raising the tantalizing possibility of a five-day weekend. Such fortune, if you can get it, raises the problem of what to do with all that leisure time. After a day or two at the beach, new adventures beckon—for example, in East Granby.

East Granby? Actually, yes. Located an hour north of New Haven, its upper edge barely a mile from Massachusetts, this quiet town features possibly the most extraordinary museum you’ll ever visit: the Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine.

There’s no art hanging on the walls, because the walls, like the ceilings and the floor, are coarse, tunneled rock, making an extravagant hole in the ground with a history dating back more than 400 years. Opened in 1707, the mine never turned much of a profit and was eventually closed. Later, the Connecticut Colony bought the property and turned it into an underground prison. It opened in 1773 and held as many as 125 prisoners at a time until 1827.

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Two centuries on, Old New-Gate has evolved from prison to park. Tour guides take you down a steep flight of 36 steps into a chilly, dark maze of tunnels that sink as much as 75 feet underground. The ceilings loom as low as four feet; in some places I had to crouch. Off to the sides are pockets cut into the rock, where miners once dug out ore and prisoners later languished in their “cells.” The floors are uneven and damp; New-Gate suggests no open-toed shoes. Temperature in the mine stays at 52 degrees, so bring a sweater.

As you descend, you cross into a tiny chapter of American history. “It’s an awesome place to visit. It’s unique. It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s authentic,” museum administrator Morgan Bengel says. “But it has a really complicated past and we would be remiss to not draw people’s attention to that.” She notes that during the Revolution, some of the inmates were supporters of Great Britain. “At a time when Americans were fighting for their political freedom, they were imprisoning people for their political ideologies. We need to question that a little bit.”

It’s sobering to imagine serving a long sentence here with only a couple of hours a day above ground. Americans ratified the 8th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing “cruel and unusual punishment” in 1791, but Old New-Gate held on for another 36 years.

Today, above ground, Old New-Gate retains early prison buildings as well as a lawn with views stretching to the Litchfield Hills and into Massachusetts. A picnic lunch is advisable, because East Granby is not quite a hub of fine dining; Tripadvisor rates Subway at no. 12 among local restaurants. I had lunch at La Figata, an Italian restaurant, where my chicken parmesan sub was tough and tasteless. Lunch on a lawn with views in every direction would definitely have been the better choice.

Another good place for a picnic is Brignole Vineyards, where a rotating roster of food trucks provide a tasty addition to a glass of wine. Owner Tim Brignole says the vineyard cultivates “34 varieties every year,” ultimately producing 25,000 gallons of vino annually. Brignole took me on a tour of his 465-acre spread, pointing out rows of vines in various stages of development and seeming to stretch to the horizon. With all that land, he also has room to grow garlic, onions, tomatoes, corn, peppers and tobacco.

I had to grab the frame of his John Deere “Gator” as we bounced over ruts and hoses strewn across bumpy lanes, but the rough ride didn’t disrupt his narrative. “I’ve always been into farming, since I got out of law school,” he says. Tim is a lawyer in Hartford four days a week and a vintner the other three. He began growing grapes in 2016 and four years later found opportunity in calamity. “When COVID hit, they said you could have outside seating and serve alcohol. I had 60 picnic tables outside. So our place was absolutely full and we just skyrocketed. Our highest sales production was during COVID.”

After your wine and food truck lunch, you might want to walk it off. Nearby Cowles Park includes five trails graded from a gentle stroll to a strenuous hike. The trails cover 15 miles, some of them leading to the Farmington River, which roars, “Photo op!”

Finally, you might want to settle down for an afternoon beer. Almost Famous Brewing opened last year with the requisite passion for beer and sense of humor. The passion pushed them to create no fewer than 16 different brews, and the humor gave those beers names such as Thick as Thieves, Smirk, Anything’s Impossible. The brewery doesn’t open until three o’clock, a happy East Granby ending before finding your way back to New Haven for dinner.

Written by Jim Murphy. Image 1, featuring Old New-Gate and beyond, sourced from the state. Image 2, taken down in Old New-Gate, photographed by Jim Murphy. Image 3, featuring Brignole Vineyards, sourced from the vineyard’s website. Image 4, featuring a trailhead at Cowles Park, photographed by Jim Murphy.

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