Litchfield County Sketches

By Newell Meeker Calhoun

Litchfield County University Club
1906

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III
The Upper Reaches of the Farmington

EVEN those who are well acquainted with the region of which we are writing do not ordinarily associate the Farmington River with Litchfield County. Its wild beauty, however, is very largely on its upper reaches, and within our borders. The gorge below New Hartford, known as Satan’s Kingdom, with the railroad tracks cut into the solid walls on either side, and the river rushing and swirling over its rocky bed, is a bit of Colorado in miniature. Above the same town the river widens out, because of the extensive mill dam, and is bordered by low-lying meadows, with fringes of trees and a background of wavy hills. These meadows are dotted with elms, whose wide-reaching, drooping branches shelter herds of cattle taking their noontime rest. At Pleasant Valley, three miles farther up, the hills have grown steeper, the river more noisy, and the scenery more rugged. From thence to Riverton is a most delightful drive, with pleasant surprises at every turn of the road. Sometimes you come out into the open, and have a magnificent view of hemlock sprinkled hills, which in Autumn show off the oaks, birches and hard maples to wonderful advantage. Again the carriage passes noiselessly over a thick bed of pine needles, while the pines overhead sing the old time dirges which they sang to Indian mourners in the long ago. Now you look upon an ancient mill, almost hidden by the trees, and again up a mountainside, down which a noisy brook is leaping. Another turn of the river and the roa.d, and you look up the broad stream for a half mile or more, as the water tumbles over huge boulders or makes frothy eddies under their dark shadows, with nothing to do the livelong day but to enjoy itself. Here the birds come to drink, and pay for their refreshment with a song. Down through the dark woods a herd of deer have often been seen, pausing on the bank of the river to listen for any sounds betokening danger. These beautiful animals are multiplying rapidly in the county, and, being protected from the hunters, are becoming more and more accustomed to the sight of men. They are often seen in the pastures feeding with the cows, as quietly as if they were a part of the herd. Driving or walking along the unfrequented roads has, besides the interest of the landscape, the expectation of seeing not only deer crossing the way, but also many other wild animals and birds rarely seen on travelled highways. Gray squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, foxes, partridges, pheasants, all take a look at you, and if your eyes are sharp and your feet light you may have a good look at them.

At Riverton they used to make the river work, fashioning scythes for the farmers and making paper with which to wrap up the sales of country and city stores; but the old mills are most of them silent now, the moss growing over their unused wheels. These scythes were in great demand in the old days, before mowing machines were invented. Here at Riverton lived for many years a man who sold the produce of one of the mills, and afterward became the honored Governor of the State. Deserted stores and closed houses and churches with small congregations tell of the inability of such remote places to compete with manufacturing centres along the line of the railroads. The hum of machinery has given place to the more musical plash of water over the darn, as it idles away the long Summer days. Sandy Brook flows into the Farmington here. Its name is prosaic, but not so the stream itself. Rising in Massachusetts, it appears in our county as a sizable trout stream, and one of the best if times and seasons are observed. Through the woods of North Colebrook and Colebrook it takes its course, through lovely wooded valleys, alongside of the country roads, under picturesque bridges that tremble with the weight of horses and carriage. In the early Spring it is a raging torrent, while in the late Surmner it is a quiet, sedate stream, on its good behavior. He who has spent a day in the month of May fishing along its banks has indeed drunk of the very elixir of life. A flush of green was on the birches, and the fragrance of the flowers and all growing things in the air. The birds just back from the Southland were trying all their new songs, and fairly beside themselves with joy to be again in Northern woods. There were love ditties in the air, and love making in the trees, with the warm sunshine ifitering through the branches, making the trout lively and playful. Sandy Brook can be followed long distances without sight of human habitation. What a delightful place to forget the rushing, maddening course of things in the busy world, and have blessed communion with Nature, that dear mother of us all!

From Riverton to New Boston, along the Farmington, there are revealed to Nature lovers new beauties at every turn, showing the infinite possibilities of a stream born among the hills. As you go farther north toward the Berkshires, the landscape is more broken, with hills that are nearly high enough and rocky enough to be called mountains. The road takes you at times under great forest trees, but the wandering sawmills are rapidly making the beautiful woods into lumber. Shaded drives in Litchfield County are likely to exist in memory only unless something can be done for the preservation of the forests. It is no uncommon thing for farms to be sold .for what the lumber is worth, and then when the last stick of wood that is of any value has been cut the farm is abandoned.

Returning to Riverton, one should follow up Mad River, through Robertsville to Tunxis Falls, and through the gorge where the electricity for Winsted is generated. There is a drop here in the river of perhaps one hundred feet within a half mile. When the river is full banked it is a beautiful sight to see it rush over the rocks, and noisily and at a breakneck pace seek the river below. Commercialism never makes Nature more interesting, but takes away her lovely charm in part. Her beauty is always accentuated by solitude.

He who discovers the work of Nature unaided by man, just as it has come from the hand of the Creator, has seen beauty indeed. Explorers and pathfinders have been wonderfully favored. The track of human beings, the mark of axe or pick, wheel or hoof, that tells of the near presence of man, takes away something of the charm which Nature in her solitude must always possess.

Mad River is the clew which, if followed, will take you to the busiest place in all the Farmington Valley, if not the most beautiful. Winsted outrivals ancient Rome in one respect, for, while Rome was built on seven hills, Winsted can boast of well-nigh seventeen. It is decidedly a Swiss town, clinging to hillsides which rise in every direction. Few of the streets are straight, unless one should say that some of them are straight up and down. The townis better adapted for coasting than for automobiling. As in ancient Rome, so in Winsted you may hear the plash of water everywhere. The most excellent water power—the pride of the borough—makes possible its supply for drinking purposes and its well equipped factories, wherein almost everything is manufactured. The water is stored far up in the mountains in an artificially constructed reservoir, and in Crystal and Highland Lakes, which receive the overflow through a tunnel in the mountains, the gift of an enterprising citizen. From Highland Lake the water falls near a hundred feet to the level of the river, furnishing water power all the way down. The course of Mad River determined the windings of Main Street, which curves about in nearly the shape of a horseshoe. Mills have sprung up along its en tire course. In one of these factories pins enough are made in a single week to supply every man, woman and child in the United States with one. Others pi’oduce underclothing to keep people warm, jackknives to do their whittling, tools to build their houses, lamps to give them light, chairs for them to sit in, household hardware to make their homes beautiful, knives and forks to eat with, leather to bind their books and help to make organ music by furnishing material for the bellows, clocks to keep accurate time for them, and when time is no more for them shrouds and coffin trimmings are produced for their burial. While all this work is being done, the water dashing merrily over flumes and dams makes blithe music day and night.

Benevolent citizens have by gifts and bequests for their native town made it possible to build churches, the Gilbert High School, with its magnificent endowment of more than a half million dollars; the Gilbert Home for Orphaned Children, with an endowment as large, or larger—a model institution of its kind; a hospital with the finest location in the State; two soldiers’ monuments, and numerous other improvements, of which the town is justly proud. From the Soldiers’ Monument on a hill in the heart of the town a fine bronze soldier looks down by day and night, and when the darkness comes on the monument is lighted by electricity, indicating that the patriotism of a community is a light illuminating the darkest night. Three church edifices of granite, beautiful without and within, testify to the faith and works of the people, and that they believe that the church is in the world to stay. Two public libraries, one at either end of the town, furnish ample facilities for reading and study. The healthfulness of Winsted is borne witness to by the fact that in the Second Congregational Church there are living at this writing five people who have passed their ninetieth birthday——one of them his ninety-eighth— whose combined ages are four hundred and sixty-nine years. The drives about Winsted are unsurpassed and of wonderful variety. Go in any direction and you can make no mistake, whether it is about Highland Lake, over the Winchester and Goshen hills to New Boston, or through sleepy Colebrook village, or to Norfolk, with its beautiful residences and its commanding views. Pure air, kaleidoscopic scenery and well cared for roads make out of doors life a joy and delight.

Highland Lake, to which reference has been made, lies just above the borough of Winsted, is three miles long, and has a charming driveway clear about it. It is essentially an Adirondack lake, surrounded by woods and hills, with cottages scattered along its shores. Sitting on the broad veranda of one of these, with the moonlight reflected in the water, those words of Byron, written of Lake Leman, might apply:

“Clear placid Highland! thy contrasted lake,
With the wild world I dwelt in, is a thing
‘Which warns me with its stillness, to forsake
Earth’s troubled waters for a purer spring.”


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