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Wethersfield, CT, and Onions

by in Sep 2008
Wethersfield, CT, and Onions
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Yankee classic from August 1993

Plan a weekend visit to Wethersfield today.

In those days, you could smell Wethersfield before you could see it. Outsiders dubbed the Connecticut village “Oniontown,” with a crosshatch of affection and derision, for this was home of the world-famous Wethersfield red onion, and its pungent scent stung the air. Wethersfield lies in the heart of the Connecticut River valley, and her floodplains released an exuberant harvest.

Today the town is a suburb, though some vestiges of its gloriously arable past survive. But it’s not the way it was. Just imagine the fields back then: ruddy with onions, sky-blue with flax, puckered with all manner of vegetable and grain and leaf. Local seed companies would sprout in later years, and in fact, for a time Wethersfield was a veritable headquarters for the young country’s sowers. This seems perfectly logical when you consider what a lush wedge of exploitable geography lies here. Indeed, bone up on a little local history, and you’ll find a parade of citizens referred to deadpan as “a pioneer in lima beans” or “the horseradish king.”

But it was the eponymous onion that got the most attention. Those old Wethersfield reds were lovely to look at. Like Christmas ornaments they were, all round and blushing and braided into skeins, sometimes five pounds’ worth, dangling from the rafters and doorways. At the Wethersfield Historical Society, onion designs spangle canvas tote bags and stationery and handkerchiefs, but the Wethersfield red doesn’t much dot the actual landscape now — a Civil War-era blight known as pinkroot conspired to end its two-century reign.

But before the blight, a whole world sprang up around them. Poultices were made from their translucent saute — indeed the heroine of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a beloved children’s book set in Wethersfield, has her life saved by one steaming application. The local Congregational church is even known as “the church that onions built,” since it paid its town taxes in reds rather than greenbacks for many years.

But the most notable bit of onion lore comes from the “onion maidens,” as the girls who harvested the reds were called. It was said the girls “weeded and wept,” reaping the onions for the reward of a silk dress, although Nora Howard of the Historical Society casts a somewhat gimlet eye on this bit of myth making.

“An English traveler wrote a book in 1780 that painted the Wethersfield onion girls as frivolous young things who would dirty their fingernails to get silk dresses,” she says. “It turns out he was driven out of Connecticut because of his Tory sympathies and wrote the book as a kind of revenge. Besides, there was about enough silk going around in those days to make a handkerchief. Instead, we’ve found out, the girls used their onion money to buy things like chewing tobacco and snuff!”

The people of Wethersfield were quite proud of the onion maidens. Their roll-up-your-sleeves attitude also carried over into the culinary realm: It was said that any old cut of meat tasted better in Wethersfield because it was stewed and spiced with the local onions.

Wethersfield has a pleasantly roguish past, much less pious than the Puritan settlements over in Massachusetts Bay. Its founder was John Oldham, kicked out of Plymouth for pulling a knife on Miles Standish. (Standish had asked Oldham to take his turn at doing the duty of “watch and ward” and apparently Oldham wasn’t in the mood just then.)

Oldham took off west with a group of men, mostly from Watertown, Massachusetts, known to history by the dashing name of “The Ten Adventurers.” By the time Oldham reached Wethersfield in 1633, he had mended his nasty ways. The story goes that Oldham nearly drowned, vowing to God that if He kept him afloat he’d “become otherwise and like ye.”

Perhaps our reformed knifer became a bit more “otherwise,” but he — and the town he founded — generally discarded the religious life for the commercial. And who could blame them? The rich river soil was some of the best in the world, deep, well drained, piling up for a millennium under the prehistoric lake that once lapped above it.

“They were more playful than polite,” writes author A. K. Roche in The Onion Maidens, speaking of the Wethersfielders, “and more robust than religious, which was most unusual at that time. As a result, their customs were quite different from those of the people in other towns.” (There does indeed seem to be something set apart about Wethersfield, the latest, juiciest example being the meteorites. Two have been witnessed to fall on Wethersfield, one in 1971, one in 1982, a distinction that marks only one other place in the world — Honolulu.)

Even today, this town of 27,000 has a “more robust,” impious air to it. “This is not a social-climbing town,” says Eleanor Wolfe, at age 75 one of Wethersfield’s real treasures (she won the Volunteer of the Year award a few years ago and knows town history cold). “No one comes to Wethersfield who wants to make the Junior League,” she adds with a laugh. “We’re not Farmington, or Avon, or West Hartford.” Indeed, the very layout of the place bears out this earthy attitude. For although Wethersfield’s historic district — the largest in Connecticut, with an astonishing 1,100 buildings in a two-square-mile enclave — rivals Deerfield, Massachusetts, for its variety and loveliness, this is by no means a place mired in the past. Hard by a few of Wethersfield’s stately old homes, you’ll find the Village Cafe and the Olde Towne Beauty Salon.

Updated Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

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