Wethersfield, CT, and 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.
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.