‘Field Goals

‘Field Goals

Whenever I visit Litchfield (map), the county seat of Northwestern Connecticut, I think of the Kinks song “Village Green Preservation Society,” especially the lines, “Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you/What more can we do?” It’s clearly a town that’s in love with both historical tradition and contemporary sophistication and balances them with ease.

Take, for example, the Litchfield Candy Company, owned by Elmer “The Candyman” Odell. It’s a homey space that combines time-tested treats and gourmet innovations: peppermint balls, butterscotch buttons, fireballs, Mary Janes, Swedish Fish, licorice swirls, hand-dipped caramel apples, oversized chocolate truffles, locally produced fudge, malted milk balls in fall flavors and chocolate-covered candy corn, not to mention fancy gift boxes of Bergen Marzipan fruits and mini liquor-filled chocolate bottles by Anthon Berg.

Then there’s the town’s thoughtful conservation of its own past, via a series of carefully maintained houses and museums in a wide range of architectural styles. Key locations on the Litchfield Historical Society’s walking tour of the town’s center include the Tapping Reeve House and Litchfield Law School, the first law school in the United States (Aaron Burr was an alumnus). There’s also the still-active St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, constructed in 1921—for a parish established in 1745—in an English Ecclesiastical mode with Roxbury granite, Moravian tile and Tiffany stained-glass windows. The First National Bank of Litchfield, established in 1814 and merged with Union Savings Bank in 2010, is the town’s oldest continuously operating business. The Painter House (ca. 1685), a home relocated from West Haven, stands on the site that formerly belonged to the renowned Beecher family, to which author and Litchfield native Harriet Beecher Stowe belonged.

On my latest visit to Litchfield, I focused on two of Litchfield’s natural preservation sites. First, I checked out the gorgeous White Memorial Conservation Center, a 4,000-acre span of forests, fields, wetlands and 40 miles of trails. Established in 1913 by Alain C. White, a French-born, Columbia-educated local botanist and chess savant (a skill he used in deciphering German naval codes during World War I), and his sister May, a wildflower enthusiast, the grounds are open for year-round activities such as camping and biking, kayaking, swimming, birdwatching, fishing and ice skating (around Bantam Lake and various ponds), cross-country skiing on Apple Hill (where you can also climb a viewing platform at dawn and watch the moon set in the west and the sun rise in the east), and of course, all the walking opportunities you could ever desire.

In the hour or two I spent here, I walked part of the most popular trail, the Boardwalk, a 1.2-mile walkway that allows visitors to experience the wetlands around Little Pond. I also spent more time than I thought possible engrossed in the exhibits at the site’s Nature Museum, including an abundance of animal dioramas (accompanied by an explanation of ethical taxidermy), an extensive narrative on the natural and cultural development of Litchfield, a working honeybee hive, a fluorescent rock cave and a fascinating model of a beaver lodge.

I totally fell in love with the falcated ducks, common teals, masked lapwings, swans, owls, feisty pheasants (including one who definitely wanted a piece of me) and red-crowned cranes—more than 80 species in all—at the nearby 16-acre Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy, but the resident who especially touched my heart was Maggie, an elderly magpie goose who’s so used to human visitors she almost poses for photos. Sadly, she’s lost her lifetime partner and is the last of her species at the conservancy. While many of the birds here are protected by wooden fences, barns and wire gates, you can still come nose to beak with most of them, by venturing up to the edges of ponds and feeding stations.

This retreat was created by renowned ornithologist and conservationist S. Dillon Ripley (1913-2001), who started collecting waterfowl as a teenager. He went on to become the director of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, where he spearheaded the development of the National Air and Space Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt Gallery and Smithsonian, the magazine. Seasonally open to the public Fridays through Sundays, the conservancy’s last visiting date of 2023 is rapidly approaching: November 19.

For a town that boasts approximately one one-thousandth of the population of New York City (8,000 vs. 8,000,000), Litchfield sure does bustle on the weekends, particularly along its main drags, Route 202 (which runs east to west) and Route 63 (which runs north to Canaan and south to New Haven for 53 miles, and is an enjoyable, leisurely way to get into town). Its stores and restaurants, several of which cuddle together in a downtown strip known as West Street, combine the usual homespun charm with what I dare call Manhattan-esque elegance. Standout destination restaurants include West Street Grill and Litchfield Saltwater Grille, which bills itself as “Northwest Connecticut’s premiere seafood destination.” I personally prefer the more casual Village Restaurant, established in the 1950s, which sources its fare from local farms, bakeries and breweries and where I enjoyed the most succulent broiled salmon, crusted in horseradish and parmesan, I’ve ever eaten.

I’ve also discovered Meraki, a wee joint where the all-day menu stretches from blackboards to the sides of refrigerators, and where to-go options (coffees, teas, baked goods and house-made salads) are plentiful. I’m now addicted to its avocado toast, featuring whole-grain bread with local poached egg, feta cheese and pickled onion among other toppings. For shopping, my go-tos include the selective couture center Hayseed on the Green, the airy and grand home decor establishment CP Farmhouse (specializing in handcrafted Amish furniture) and any of the establishments that crop up in the Cobble Court cul-de-sac—particularly Milton Market, offering carefully curated everything from jewelry and coffee table books to housewares and personal care products.

Any day trip to Litchfield is going to miss a lot. I couldn’t get to Litchfield Distillery, which offers hourly tours and tastings of its whiskeys, vodkas and other spirits every day except national holidays, or Peaches N’ Cream, a homemade ice cream shop offering seasonal flavors like cinnamon, pumpkin, egg nog and peppermint stick (plus adults-only rum raisin). Nor did I set foot upon bucolic retreats like the Boyd Woods Audubon Sanctuary, a birders’ Mecca featuring more than 100 acres of diverse habitats (its annual Duck Ramble is scheduled for Nov. 19), or Windfield Morgan Farm, where you can visit with, learn to ride (via Lee’s Riding Stable) or even purchase your own Morgan horses.

I did pay homage to Litchfield’s Town Green, the commercial/historic district’s narrow park in three sections (known as “West,” “Center” and “East”), featuring maple, oak and ash shade trees, memorial benches and seven war monuments. Here I spotted the 1812 county jail (still in operation), the town’s 1889 courthouse and its 19th-century Methodist and Congregational churches.

What more can I say but, as the Kinks would, “God save the village green!” And the rest of Litchfield, too.

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean. Image 1 features a view at the Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy. Image 2 features the Litchfield Candy Company. Image 3 features the Boardwalk Trail at the White Memorial Conservation Center. Image 4 features a pair of peasants at the Ripley Conservancy.

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