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Wethersfield, CT, and Onions

A town beholden to its past would not have the Silas Deane Highway, either. It’s named for the town’s most famous citizen, the perhaps shady, certainly iconoclastic diplomat who negotiated with the Count de Beaumarchais (the model for Mozart’s Figaro) to get arms for the Revolutionary cause and who is also credited by some with planning the attack on Fort Ticonderoga led by Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys.

Now, you’d think a highway christened for such a figure might have a sort of historical flavor; but instead, the route is a raggedy strip of malls and fast-food joints. But Wethersfield seems to know that the Silas Deane highways of the world have their uses. “The Silas Deane Highway, built where it was, saved the historic district,” Eleanor Wolfe explains. Originally the highway was planned to cut along Main Street, where Wethersfield’s best 17th- and 18th-century houses stand.

Besides, it would be pretty difficult for a town this close to Hartford to remain quaint. (Want to know just how close? Note the tawny, weathered stone marker in front of 174 Main Street, with the chiseled message “IVH,” meaning four miles to Hartford.) No, Wethersfield can’t escape the shadow of the capital. Lots of state offices are located here, for instance, and you’ll see the ubiquitous green signs for the Motor Vehicle Department, and State Surplus, and Lottery Claims.

But the incongruous thing is that all these monuments to bureaucracy coexist with the historic district and its wide, sycamore-lush streets and that cornucopia of stolid old houses. Wethersfield’s heyday ended by the second half of the 19th century, and in historic preservation terms, it’s a lucky thing. Few had the money to renovate, and thus we are left with these splendid legacies, un-prettied up with Victorian filigree.

Stroll through this section of town, and someone will undoubtedly tell you what John Adams said about its charms. After attending a service at the Congregational church in 1774, he wrote that the view from the steeple was “the most grand and beautiful prospect in the world.” That’s a bit overdone, but this clutch of houses actually has few New England rivals for size and multiplicity. Take the Ebenezer Talcott house at 366 Main. It’s a sturdy saltbox with an unusual peaked roof — the original owner served aboard the Oliver Cromwell in the Revolutionary War. At 481 Main, you can see the George Hubbard Sr. house, circa 1637. It speaks of a rough, hunkered-down era — note the house’s squinty look, characteristic of the small, casement-windowed construction of the time.

There’s also the 1692 Buttolph-Williams house, with its hewn overhang, the model for the house in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. But the real jewel is the sturdy chestnut-stained gambrel-roofed Webb-Deane-Stevens home, where Washington and Rochambeau met before their victory at Yorktown.

Follow Main Street to its natural conclusion, and you wind up on the Connecticut River at Wethersfield Cove. Notice the weather-beaten, chocolate-colored warehouse, Wethersfield’s oldest structure. It has such heft and character. Indeed, this warehouse is the only one of a half dozen to have remained intact after the flood of 1700 — a deluge that changed the course of the river. Its likeness appears on the town seal. “Every spring since, you can see the river trying to put itself back in its old channel,” says Eleanor Wolfe. “It doesn’t like the curve.”

The cove provided a natural harbor, and because navigation northward was virtually impossible, Wethersfield became the main port on the Connecticut River. Ships from the West Indies came up from Long Island Sound. Animals straining on shore towed the boats through the narrower channels. Sea captains built homes in Wethersfield.

Unfortunately, we don’t know in great detail about the town’s seafaring past: In 1781 Benedict Arnold burned down the Customs House in New London, where all of Wethersfield’s records were kept. Some of the ships may have been slavers, but by and large they were floating warehouses of the foodstuffs — including those famous scarlet onions — grown in the valley.

But truth be told, the cove itself is a little disappointing. In spite of a chain of rough wood sound barriers, you can hear the nearby rumble of Interstate 91. The parking lot crunches with gravel, and seagulls wheel about looking for scraps from picnickers. The opposite shore is more appealing, with its ribbons of green lawn unfurling to the water’s edge.

Actually, it’s not unusual to feel a little deflated sitting here in the cove. Kit Tyler, the 16-year-old heroine of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, had a similar reaction. Arriving from sunny Barbados in the mud season of 1687, she observed a shore “muffled in thick scarves of drifting mists . . . Her heart sank. This was Wethersfield!”

Oh, but on a milkweed-lazy, sun-shot spring day, outside Comstock, Ferre & Company, seed purveyors, you say, “This is Wethersfield!” and the exclamation point is a happy one. We are smack in the middle of the historic district here, and a scattering of gardeners, anxious to get back to their plots, pick over the goods.

Comstock, Ferre, founded in 1820, lies across the street from Hart Seed. They are now Wethersfield’s living testaments to its agricultural past. For Oniontown, with its thick aromas and fertile floodplains, was the home not only of the onion maidens, but also of the most important seed businesses in the country.

Indeed, Comstock, Ferre’s founder, William Comstock, was a sort of Dr. Spock of gardening in the mid-19th century. His tome, Order of Spring Work, was the gardener’s manual for its era; it told you when to plant, how to store seeds to keep them from going stale, when to fertilize. Comstock also brought the Shaker notion of sealing seeds in packets to its fullest potential — commissioning enticing illustrations for the covers and distributing hundreds of varieties all over the country.

Today, Comstock, Ferre boasts that wonderful warmish, slightly acrid smell of things growing. Bales of grass seed (sunny, shady, play, or slope) sit in a corner, and in the back, oakwood bins shuffle millions of seeds. The ones that grow into Wethersfield red onions are tiny and jet black, like flecks of anthracite. A burnished old scale avows: “No Springs. Honest Weight.” An annex, built in 1880, is still known here as the “new warehouse.”

Updated Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

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