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Exploring Historic Wethersfield, Connecticut

Where’s the oldest and largest historic district in the state of Connecticut? In Wethersfield, of course. Founded in 1634, more than 150 homes predate the Civil War (and many predate the Revolutionary War). Walking along these quiet streets, with brick-paver sidewalks shaded by mature trees, you’d never know you were just a stone’s throw from busy I-91. The historic district is a little world unto itself.

History lovers, architecture fans, and those who simply appreciate the aesthetically pleasing qualities of a classic New England village will enjoy a walking tour through the centuries — and that’s easily done here while exploring historic Wethersfield. Start with the Buttolph–Willams House on Broad Street. Believed to be built in the early 1700s, it’s the setting for the Newbery Medal winner The Witch of Blackbird Pond. A 1947 restoration led to the discovery of the four-inch overhang at the second-story level, which had been covered by modern clapboards.

Buttolph-Williams House

Just down the road, expansive, park-like Broad Street Green comes into view. Livestock would’ve grazed here back in the day, and in 1776 the nation’s first cavalry unit assembled on this grassy area. Today it’s a nice picnic spot below the branches of towering sycamores, oaks, and copper beeches. Across the street from the Green is the elegant Silas W. Robbins House Bed & Breakfast, a Yankee editors’ choice. It’s said to be the finest example of Second Empire architecture in town.

Broad Street Green

Silas W. Robbins Bed & Breakfast

Back on Main Street, you enter the 18th century and beyond at the gem of the historic district, the Webb–Deane–Stevens Museum. This collection of three period homes, each providing a snapshot into the lifestyles of the past, is set on nearly eight acres, with a rustic barn (available for weddings and other events today) and formal garden.

Joseph Webb House

Silas Deane House

Isaac Stevens House

Every corner of the 1752 Joseph Webb home reveals another story. Your tour guide can take you through the tale behind the elaborate wall murals installed in 1916 by Wallace Nutting (the famed photographer/artist who purchased the home as a backdrop for his picture-taking) to the most famous story, which revolves around George Washington’s stay here. Logistics made Wethersfield the perfect meeting site for Washington and the French General Rochambeau, and plans they set into motion under this roof eventually led to the fall of the British at Yorktown. A peek into Washington’s bedchamber leaves one feeling … well, very presidential …

And the gardens that have taken root behind the Webb house were originally planned by a rare find in the year 1921—a female landscape architect. Amy Cogswell was charged with creating a Colonial Revival garden. Now restored, it contains arbors, and many of the same flowers found in the colonial era, such as larkspur, peonies, and hollyhocks.

Colonial Revival Garden behind Webb House

Silas Deane’s circa-1770 Georgian-style home is, like the Webb house, a National Historic Landmark. Its finely appointed interior reflects a setting suitable for America’s first diplomat to France. Much effort has been given to presenting historically accurate details, too, right down to the dark trim color on the painted sash.

The third home in the parcel belonged to a tanner, Isaac Stevens, and provides a peek into a less aristocratic way of life in the early 1800s, complete with a collection of children’s toys from the period on display in a second-floor bedroom.

The museum is ever-evolving, with school programs for kids and annual events. You’ll want to visit twice: in summer to enjoy the gardens and the outdoors, then again when the homes are decked out for the holidays.

Diagonally across the street is the stately brick and brownstone 1893 Keeney Memorial Cultural Center. Originally a high school, it now houses the town’s visitors’ center and local history museum.

Just down from the Keeney sits the Hurlbut–Dunham House, an elegant brick Georgian. Though originally built in 1790, it reflects the style of its last owners, the Dunhams, and is therefore filled with original furnishings and wallpaper from the early 20th century—bringing you at least back into the 1900s.

Hurlbut Dunham House – Tours arranged through the Historical Society

If that’s not modern enough, take a lunch break at one of the local hot spots. Every place needs good pizza and ice cream, and Village Pizza and the Main Street Creamery fill the bill. Lucky Lou’s occupies a renovated Colonial, complete with a bar (where Red Sox and Yankee memorabilia live side by side—a nice touch of neutrality) and a large, lovely patio area, all wrapped up with a white picket fence.

Lucky Lou’s Bar and Grill

A short stroll from Lucky Lou’s brings you to the First Church of Christ, built circa 1764 as the local meetinghouse. It’s said that a town’s meetinghouse represented the sophistication and affluence of the townspeople, and therefore much attention was placed on capping the structure with a magnificent steeple—one that would rival those of both Boston’s Old North Church and Trinity Church in Newport.

First Church of Christ

Behind it, the Ancient Burying Ground remains a testament to the handiwork of dozens of centuries-old stone carvers. The oldest stone dates to 1648. For more research, check out the more than 1,000 books offering local and regional histories, and genealogies of Wethersfield families, housed at the Old Academy Building on Main Street.

The Ancient Burying Ground

We can’t talk about Wethersfield without a nod to its agricultural history. Once known as Oniontown, the plants’ heyday in these parts is long past (though the little red onion symbol is emblazened on town literature and signage). What remains, in addition to an abundance of green space and gardens, are the oldest seed companies in the country, Comstock, Ferre & Co. and Hart. Comstock, Ferre & Co., the oldest continuously operating seed company, has more than 200 years of experience in seeds, seeds, and more seeds. If you can’t find it here, you probably shouldn’t be growing it. The tomato selection alone offers over 130 varieties.

Just one of the many rows of seeds in Comstock, Ferre & Co.

There was more to see and do—a visit to the old Cove, a bike ride through these neighborhood streets, and more museum homes to tour—but the day was fleeting. Next time, an overnight stay will be in order, ensuring a more leisurely pace for a stroll back in time.

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Debbie Despres

Author:

Debbie Despres

Biography:

Debbie Despres is an associate editor for the magazine. Deb is the primary fact checker for Yankee Magazine and also contributes content to each issue. A member of YPI’s corporate staff since 2000, Deb joined Yankee’s editorial team in 2011. A native of New Hampshire, with a work history that includes several years in the travel industry, she enjoys discovering new destinations, and the myriad of road trip opportunities unique to New England.
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5 Responses to Exploring Historic Wethersfield, Connecticut

  1. Sharon Hendricks November 22, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Yesterday I read the WSJ Opinion – 1789 Thanksgiving article which included Wethersfield hosting a dinner at the library. My husband and I lived in Wethersfield for three years – on the back 9 of the Country Club. We loved being there so much. However, we were with Alcoa and were transferred to another location.
    I am interested in your library, as I have spent some meaningful time there researching history. And this led to many 4 day weekend trips in New England for us and for friends who visited.
    I am wondering if you have a membership club somewhat like The Metropolitan Museum. If so, could you please send me information about joining?

    Thanking you, I am
    Yours truly,
    Sharon Hendricks

    • Julie June 3, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

      Hello, Sharon!

      I’m so sorry, but I just saw this and noticed your comment and question. We would love to have you back for a visit when you’re back in New England! Many changes in recent years, all for the better.

      In the meantime, please see the following link for information on membership at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum. http://webb-deane-stevens.org/membership.html.

      So glad you have warm memories of Wethersfield and the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum!

      All the best,

      Julie Winkel

      • Beryl Churchill July 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

        My husband, Winston, is the great grandson of Stephen B. Churchill who was one of the earliest settlers in Wethersfield. Several generations of Churchills lived in the same house including Winston’s grandfather Frederick Griswold Churchill and his father Frederick Holmes Churchill who was born in 1910.

        Frederick G. Churchill and his brother Levi Churchill left Wethersfield and came to homestead in Powell, Wyoming in 1910 where they continued growing cabbage, parsnips, carrots and other vegetables.

        We are particularly interested in obtaining more information about the original Churchill house. Can you suggest where we might find that information? I am in the process of writing a book chronicling the 100+ year of the Churchill farm in Wyoming. Our sons are the fourth generation who have farmed the original Churchill homestead in Powell.

        I’d appreciate any help you can give me. Thank you,
        Beryl Churchill
        848 Road 10
        Powell, WY 82435

        • Debbie Despres July 22, 2013 at 9:42 am #

          Thanks for the inquiry, Ms. Churchill. The Wethersfield Historical Society has an impressive genealogical library which contains additional research material, including many photos of town events, buildings, and people. I think that would be the best place to start. Here’s a link for more information: http://www.wethhist.org

          Best of luck with your research!

          Deb Despres

  2. Steve July 15, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    You forgot about Wethersfield Fire Department Company 1 (oldest fire department in new england) and the Old Town.

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