East Coast

East Coast

One of the best things about Branford’s Stony Creek is that, even on a gorgeous July afternoon, it feels as if almost no one is there.

Sure, some people are hanging out on the tiny beach or in the shade of the gazebo. Others are tinkering on their boats in the marina as a pair of kayakers paddle in. Kids and counselors at the village’s day camp are playing in grassy Bayview Park, where there’s one basketball court and a little playground with a pirate ship. And, full disclosure, there appears to be a small busload of tourists leaving The Thimbleberry restaurant with ice cream cones, though their transport is nowhere in view. There are however plenty of cars parked along the sides of the one road into town. (The directions to pretty much everything in Stony Creek are “straight ahead,” resident Scott Weber notes.) The cars may belong to tourists taking a boat tour of the Thimble Islands, which leaves from the Stony Creek dock, or the islanders themselves.

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Hopkins School - Admissions Tour on August 14

So, it’s not that literally no one is there. But Stony Creek—population 2,000 or so—is quiet. It’s easy to cross the street or to find a seat at one of The Thimbleberry’s dockside picnic tables. The people who are around know how to be friendly. “You from the newspaper?” a man with a bushy beard asks me, making conversation. He thinks I probably paid too much for my coffee milkshake, but it sure does hit the spot. Later, as I’m driving out of town, we cross paths again, and he calls out, “Good luck!”

There’s little pretention in this pretty seaside village to the east, established in 1644 along with Branford and eventually buoyed for generation after generation by business at the nearby granite quarries—at one time, nine of them, but today just one. The Stony Creek Museum, housed in a renovated white church on Thimble Island Road (a.k.a. the road into town), devotes some of its space to the story of those quarries, the first of which opened in 1859 and caught the wave of urban growth following the Civil War. You can pick up a handout at the museum that will help you find examples of Stony Creek granite as you stroll down to the dock.

Opened in 2012, the museum packs an impressive amount of information into a small space, with exhibits including an old apothecary display, vintage postcards, a “chemical fire engine,” puppets from the renowned Stony Creek Puppet House, oystering tools, a village diorama and multiple activities for kids. It’s also the temporary venue for this year’s performances of the Legacy Theatre, including the mouthful Past, Present, Future: An Overview of the Stony Creek Theatre’s Songs, Stories and Dance from 1866 to the Present, running August 1-3. The historic theater itself, with prior lives as a silent movie house and that famous puppet theater, is now under construction, with a hoped-for opening date sometime next year.

A drive to Stony Creek from downtown New Haven can take only 20 minutes, but you’ll feel as if you’ve arrived in Maine as you weave down the narrow country road toward the harbor. A gallery and an antique shop are the first signs of a business district. The Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library, “a little library with a lot to offer,” is built of Stony Creek granite (which also was used in the base of the Statue of Liberty). In addition to a collection of books and periodicals, it houses Keyes Gallery, which hosts community meetings, cultural events and, for now, the annual Stony Creek Summer Art Show, on view through August 23.

A grassy island in the roadway just outside the library is home to the village’s war memorials, from the Revolution to Vietnam. Then there’s the park, the beach and Seaside Home and Gifts, full of cute summer items like quick-dry beach towels, treasures made of Stony Creek granite and “a little bit of everything,” owner Heather Smiarowski says. Next door, you can eat at Stony Creek Market (open year-round for breakfast and lunch) or Stony Creek Pizza (summers only). (As for Stony Creek Brewery, you’ll have to cross Branford to imbibe. It’s not actually located in Stony Creek.)

Compared to the city, there’s not much to do here, which might be the point. I ask several locals as I wander the village taking photos and collecting information whether there’s a big summer population here, and everyone tells me no. The summer homes are out on the nearby Thimble Islands; one—Lewis Island, if the map is to be believed—sits smack in the middle of the harbor looking almost close enough to swim to. But the majority of residents on land, several people agree, are here year-round. It’s a “very, very strong community down here,” Betsey Plunkett of Stony Creek Market tells me.

I hear the train whiz past somewhere through the trees a couple of times while I’m walking around. It’s the only thing in Stony Creek that appears to be in a hurry. That’s not true, of course. Life goes on here just as it does elsewhere. Construction workers are laboring up at the historic theatre and on a side lane. The restaurant kitchen workers look pretty hot and tired. There may be more librarians per capita behind the desks at Willoughby Wallace than in any other town nearby. No doubt many other “Creekers” are hard at work in some other town at this midafternoon hour.

But then there’s the sound of the water lapping against the concrete boat ramp and the cold sweetness of a coffee milkshake and dark-bellied storm clouds blowing in from the north with a cool breeze. If you need a little vacation, even for just an hour or two, you know where to find it.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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