History

Is Connecticut Really New England?

After decades of whispers, our analyst puts the Nutmeg State on the couch for a little identity therapy. Is Connecticut really New England? We think you’ll approve of the answer.

By Richard Conniff

Jun 13 2016

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Is Connecticut Part of New England?

Photo Credit : John S. Dykes
New Englanders have been whispering for decades: If many of its restaurants feature Manhattan-style (red) chowder, if many of its residents root for the Yankees (and boo the Red Sox), if many of its towns send a third of their residents on trains to New York City each workday, is Connecticut really New England?
Is Connecticut Part of New England?
Is Connecticut Really New England?
Photo Credit : John S. Dykes

I know this may be difficult for you, New England. But just for a moment, think happy thoughts about Connecticut.

No doubt your mind goes blank. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, they’re the real deal, “the heart of New England,” as they like to fashion themselves. You consider Connecticut, at best, some dim, vestigial part of the genuine New England experience. The appendix, say.

Connecticut natives include The Carpenters and Gene Gene Pitney.
Connecticut natives include The Carpenters and Gene Gene Pitney.
Photo Credit : John S. Dykes

Or maybe more like the wallet, with the entire state stereotyped as not New England at all, but more like one big bedroom community for hedge-fund managers from New York, with some weapons manufacturers and insurance executives tossed in for diversity. Connecticut is the state that “let’s be honest, nobody else in the region likes or respects,” Jon Stewart joked last year on The Daily Show. And the humiliating thing is that he was talking about the Mid-Atlantic region.

So does Connecticut really even belong in New England?

I’ve lived here for 37 years, and probably ought to know. But with considerable doubt I set out to answer the question. This may be partly because I grew up in New Jersey, which also lives in the shadow of New York, comes in for more than its share of ridicule, and yet somehow boasts a distinct identity—and great musicians like Sinatra and Springsteen to crow about it to the world. “Is there some Connecticut equivalent I’ve been missing?” I asked a Hartford native, and he shot back, as if in disbelief at my ignorance, “We had Gene Pitney, ‘the Rockville Rocket’!” Letting that sink in, he added, “Also The Carpenters.”

Well, you see the problem. It was compounded for me because I’ve frequently traveled for my work as a writer, and I’ve often been puzzled, after experiencing the literature of Ireland, say, or even Maine, to come home to a state whose great books all seem to be about someplace else. (Think Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Styron.) Even the director of the Connecticut Humanities Council once lamented, “Connecticut has no literature of itself.” Wallace Stevens might arguably be an exception because he sometimes wrote poems about Connecticut. But perhaps wisely, he also kept his day job. As an insurance executive.

In search of a longer view, I phoned University of Connecticut geologist Robert M. Thorson. Like me, he’s a blow-in, but he’s become an adoptive Connecticut Yankee and an expert on stone walls. (Memo to “Heart of New England,” and also Robert Frost: If you’re seeking “the epicenter of traditional New England stone walls,” Thorson’s book Exploring Stone Walls will steer you to the corner where Rhode Island and Massa­chusetts meet, ahem, Connecticut. Oh, and while we’re at it, your iconic New Hampshire play Our Town? Written by Thornton Wilder, a Connecticut resident.)

But back to Thorson. When I posed my question about Connecticut’s New England legitimacy, he replied, “Look at the landscape first, and don’t ask whether The Carpenters are the culture.” The arc of ancient mountains that runs like a spine through New England gets its start in the foothills of southwestern Connecticut, then sweeps up through the Litchfield Hills in the northwestern corner of the state, the Berkshires in Massachusetts, the Green Mountains and the White Mountains in … I forget those state names just now … rising finally to Maine’s Mount Katahdin.

“The whole damned thing is New England,” Thorson said, “and Connecticut is a very respectable part of it.” The same rolling hills, the same forests and ponds, the same rocky shores and pocket beaches, from Eastport, Maine, to, yes, Greenwich, Connecticut.

The real question, Thorson was saying, is why Long Island—basically a line of New England rubble dumped by receding glaciers—ended up being grabbed off by New York. But to myself, I was thinking, “Hmm, Long Island. The Hamptons. Billy Joel. Definitely the appendix. We can let that one go.”

***

Connecticut has plenty of nicknames—the “Nutmeg State,” the “Land of Steady Habits,” the “Constitution State,” the “Provision State”—and they all come from stories about our past. That “Nutmegger” thing, for instance, supposedly started with the idea that our far-ranging Yankee peddler forebears sometimes sold wooden nutmegs to suckers in other states. (Our story is that those customers were just too dumb to know that you have to shave nutmeg. They tried to crack it open like a nut instead.) We’re the “Provision State” (also the “Arsenal State”) because we’ve ranked among the nation’s top weapons suppliers since at least 1776, when rebels tore down a statue of King George III in Manhattan and shipped it to a foundry in Litchfield, to be recycled into musket balls for our soldiers to deliver back to the British.

Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Styron all called Connecticut home.
Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Styron all called Connecticut home.
Photo Credit : John S. Dykes

And yet Connecticut also suffers from the widespread notion that it has no identity, no sense of place. Maybe it’s because we have nothing to make us stand out along the lines of Boston’s “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” speech impediment. Nor do we say “ayuh,” or call good things “wicked.” Our accent is largely Mid-Atlantic newscaster standard. In sports and culture, we feel the tug of New York a bit too much on one side of the state, and of Boston on the other. (One wit suggested that our state motto should be “We’re kinda close to the places you really want to be.”)

Even residents often mistakenly regard Connecticut as an anyplace/noplace they happen to live right now. Half of us supposedly wish we lived someplace else, according to a 2013 poll. For outsiders, it can seem like just a place to race through en route to Maine, Cape Cod, or some other “more authentic” New England place. We are, said one friend, the “New England Flyover State.”

I turned for help to William Hosley, also a blow-in, from upstate New York by way of 1970s Vermont. At 61, he’s a boyishly ebullient devotee of all things Connecticut, a man who can dismiss Vermont as, historically speaking, “a wholly owned subsidiary of Connecticut.” Hosley has made his career as a Connecticut museum director and curator specializing in the state’s culture and history. He also runs a Facebook group with the somewhat symptomatic title “Creating a Sense of Place for Connecticut.” (A different website specializing in Connecticut museums uses the underwhelming slogan “Destroying the myth that there is nothing to do here.”) We met at a franchise coffee shop, one of the great purveyors of the “anyplace/noplace” sensation (though with a nice caffeine buzz to help customers forget).

“Connecticut has a lot of authenticity,” Hosley began. “What it doesn’t have is a lot of strong, coherent identity.” European colonization began with “little puddles of settlement,” each community living independently from the others, “and that independence survived even after they came together.” State identity matters now less than the very distinct identity of our towns, 169 of them.

We tend to repeat this number ritually, but it probably underestimates our fragmentary nature, because of proud bastions of local identity within towns: Ivoryton and Centerbrook, for instance, are sections of Essex, but distinctly different from Essex proper. This intensely local character turns up in the richness of the state’s 600 or so museums and historical societies—but also in its intractable segregation by race, ethnicity, income, and social status in communities that are sometimes side by side.

“Connecticut is really a thinking man’s state,” Hosley said. “You have to be alert to nuance—what differentiates places and makes them stand out. You have to be a connoisseur of cultural differences. If you want a foreign experience, just drive 20 minutes. There’s so much diversity packed into this state.”

***

Taking Connecticut at an angle, from Stonington in the southeastern corner to Salisbury in the northwest, it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive, three if you dawdle. But away from the anonymous highways, it’s unmistakably New England: the rivers, hills, and forests; the abundance and saturated color of the towering trees; the deep, dappled shade; the stone walls enclosing fields now gone to goldenrod; the lichen-dappled old gravestones; the town greens; the Congregational churches with their white-clapboard siding.

You can, of course, also see this New England character being eroded by 1960s ranch houses and 21st-century McMansions (a tale of too many gables), and by the Walmarts and Stop & Shops on the periphery of old downtowns. You can see New England’s lost industrial character, its waning Yankee ingenuity, in the cavernous brick factory buildings left idle, with tattered “Now Leasing” banners up top.

I stopped at Norfolk, the most altitudinous town in Connecticut, at 1,280 feet, and also “the icebox of Connecticut.” When I brought up my question about whether Connecticut belongs in New England, a local promptly replied, “It does in Norfolk.” A former farming and mill town, it’s one of the northwestern hill communities that reinvented itself, with the coming of railroads in the late 19th century, as a summer colony. Norfolk became an enclave for professors, artists, musicians, and writers. A thinking person’s town. For a time in the 1930s, the experimental-poetry journal New Directions was published from a barn there. (A local family recalls pelting Ezra Pound with grapes during a swim at Toby Pond.) Generations of visitors have also regularly assembled in Norfolk’s long, shingled, church-like music shed (hard seats, no air conditioning, great acoustics) for a celebrated summer concert series affiliated with Yale.

The thing about Connecticut is that if you pick around almost anywhere, you turn up tantalizing threads of history. Sometimes it’s in the garden, in the form of shell middens or a George III penny. Sometimes it’s in the attic, in a squirrel-torn letter from an Italian countess to her Yankee ship-captain husband. And if you follow the thread back in time, it becomes a story.

In Norfolk, historian Ann Havemeyer has done much of the thread-following, and as we sat in her office at the town library, she shared the results, starting with an early-20th-century architect named Alfredo Taylor. On the cover of her book An Architect of Place and the Village Beautiful, “Fredo,” as he was known to his friends, cuts a jaunty figure in white jodhpurs, a checked tweed jacket, and a bow tie, with unruly white hair, a full beard, and a Sherlock Holmes–type briar pipe hanging from his lips.

Though he practiced in New York, Taylor designed more than 30 buildings in Norfolk, and they’re eclectic: an English Tudor house for one client, a Swiss chalet for another, a Serbian summer cottage for a woman who had fallen in love with a Columbia University professor from Serbia. “What Taylor did expressed the individuality of the client, and of the architect,” Havemeyer said. It was distinctive, not like the work of architects associated with nearby towns, who simply reached into their kit bags to lay on a veneer of imaginary New England colonialism.

Robert Dance, a fellow historian in Norfolk, chipped in, more explicitly: “It wasn’t like Litchfield. Litchfield made itself a sort of fake New England town, like Williamsburg. It’s beautiful, but those avenues of white-clapboard houses? They never looked like that.” (Did I mention that rivalries with nearby towns are the essence of local identity in Connecticut?)

But Norfolk reimagined its identity, too, Havemeyer added, and that had to do not just with the coming of the railroads, but of the Irish, generally regarded as the Mexican immigrants of their day, only worse. The Irish worked at the woolen mill and worshiped at a Catholic church in Norfolk’s lower village. From the pulpit, the minister of the Congregational Church (upper village) raged in 1859 against the trend among local families of moving to larger farms out West, “leaving our homesteads to degenerate under the semi-barbarous usage of foreigners.” The Irish were entirely at home taking over the rocky, unforgiving fields they left behind, even if unwelcome.

The rivalry between old and new passed from pulpit to street, at one point taking the form of “gang warfare,” Dance said, with rioting mobs flinging stones at one another. The warfare also took place along more discreet lines, in the tidying up of the town green and the commissioning of traditional New England public buildings to give permanent form to the dominant hierarchy.

In the early 1920s, the growing Catholic population needed a bigger church, and Taylor once again provided architecture that expressed the individuality of his clients (this time at no cost). The result was an ocher-colored stucco-and-stone structure, evoking medieval Spain, or Tuscany, or ancient Ireland, depending on your point of view. Its location also made it the first thing visitors saw on arriving in Norfolk from the west, “and the local elite were mortified,” Havemeyer said. They responded by hiring a different architect to add an imposing two-story colonnaded portico to the front of the Congregational Church. Thus Norfolk rejected what Havemeyer describes in her book as Taylor’s idiosyncratic “architecture of place” and “firmly wrapped” itself “in the Colonial Revival culture of recall.” The newcomers no doubt took in the abiding lesson of life in Connecticut: We are together, but we stay separate.

***

There is, let’s admit it, something amiss with Connecticut, but it’s certainly not a lack of New England identity. Maybe it’s a temporary breakdown of values, from having lost the industries that once gave purpose to individual lives, communities, even entire valleys: clockmaking and brasswork on the Naugatuck River, textiles on the Thames. Danbury, Bill Hosley told me, “used to manufacture 75 percent of the world’s hats, a couple of dozen major players, all gone. Now it’s where the help lives for Greenwich.”

Maybe the sense of emptiness is a reflection of stark income inequality, or of the industries that still thrive here: arms, insurance, financial services. Connecticut, the writer and radio host Colin McEnroe joked, is “about killing people elsewhere, and preventing anything from happening here. It has all that joyous and life-affirming character.”

Connecticut’s problem may just be that it’s a bit too much New England: too much taciturn reserve, too powerful a tendency for people to withdraw into their private lives, too focused on work (or the search for work). Once, after a highly gregarious trip through Cajun bayou country, I came home desperately seeking some Connecticut counterpart to Louisiana’s “Laissez les bon temps roulez!” Then I realized it was right in front of me, in the dependable, but joyless, “Land of Steady Habits.”

***

There is, however, one thing that draws us together, defines us, and also connects us inextricably to the rest of New England: the water. Partly I mean the coastline. Let’s call it 100 miles from Greenwich to Stonington, or 618 miles if you go by the federal system of measuring nooks and crannies, and I can tell you that the nooks and crannies definitely count: Take a boat tour among the raw granite ledges and outcrops of the Thimble Islands in Branford’s Stony Creek Harbor. Or eat a lobster roll at Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough in Noank. They’re almost—almost—the equal of Five Islands in Maine. (Our beaches are better—sand, not rock. But enjoying them, on the other hand, can be difficult. Eighty percent of the coast is privately owned.)

More than the coast, though, it’s the rivers that make us who we are: the Housatonic, the Naugatuck, the Farmington, the Quinnipiac, the Willi­mantic, the Quinebaug, the Thames. Together with countless tributaries, they drove the early agricultural mills, and later the first factories, obliging us to create and endlessly improve new products, in the process inventing Yankee ingenuity itself. The Connecticut River in particular gives Connecticut its name, raises it to the level of a great American place, and makes it the real heart of New England (or anyway, the aorta).

The river rises just below the Canadian border and travels through 410 miles, and four New England states, missing just Maine and Rhode Island. But it earns its name, an Eastern Algonquian word meaning “long tidal river,” only as it leaves Massachusetts and begins to feel the rhythms of its destination in Long Island Sound. From the Connecticut border south, the river’s footprint broadens into a 20-mile-wide rift valley, with some of the best farmland in the region (any region). Then, somewhere north of Middletown, a spirit of Yankee independence (or ancient geology) seizes hold of the river, and it abandons its own valley, veering southeast for 30 spectacularly scenic miles down to the Sound. This stretch of the river is why I live in Connecticut, and love it here. (The old valley bed, incidentally, ends up 32 miles away in New Haven, with the Quinnipiac now running there.)

One recent summer day, I was canoeing at the mouth of the Connecticut and was struck, as I’ve often been, by the way shifting sandbars have kept this estuary looking much as it did a century or two ago: unindustrialized, with the white steeple of Old Lyme’s First Congregational Church rising above the treetops. I was interested that day in ospreys. My guide, Paul Spitzer, an ornithologist who grew up in Old Lyme, described the species as a very Connecticut bird, “a bird of steady habits.” It migrates each fall to South America but remains loyal year after year to its North American summer nest site and to its mate. Both male and female are industrious at the business of catching fish to feed the young, and they share the work more or less equally.

Spitzer and other birders started working with ospreys here in the 1960s—another recent thread of history worth picking up—after the population plummeted from 200 nests to a few dwindling holdouts. Under the guidance of Barbara and Roger Tory Peterson, the bird artist, volunteers established the first 10-foot-high osprey nesting platforms on a place called Great Island, mainly to rule out the possibility that nest-raiding predators might be the real problem.

The platforms were an old New England idea updated. Someone remembered that Connecticut farmers used to put wagon wheels on poles to attract ospreys, with the idea that the fish eaters would keep the chicken hawks and redtail hawks away from their poultry. The problem for ospreys in the 1960s turned out to be not predators, of course, but the inadvertent eggshell-thinning effect of the widely misused pesticide DDT, abetted by dieldrin in the river from the woolen mills upstream. Even so, the ospreys took to the platforms on Great Island, especially as the population recovered after the banning of DDT and dieldrin in 1972. The platform idea soon spread along the East and West Coasts, and across to Europe. It was a bit of Yankee ingenuity, still at large in the world.

Great Island is now a kind of osprey garden, with more than 20 platforms, and on an earlier visit, Spitzer had peered into a nest to check on progress with the help of an old bicycle mirror attached to one end of a bamboo pole. Now, though, the young had fledged, and they were in the sky all around us, a male and female “jagging and flaring,” as Spitzer put it, in some sort of display, and others winging out to fish, and back again with their catch slung underneath, face forward, bright blood streaming down from where the talons gripped each fish’s flanks.

There’s an older sort of Yankee ingenuity at work here. Some of it is built in: Ospreys can, for instance, dislocate their shoulders to get their wings out of the way as they plunge beneath the surface to pick flatfish off the bottom. And some of it is just an extraordinary ability to spot shifting resource possibilities: An osprey will fly long distances to hit a fish hatchery, for instance, or pluck an expensive meal from an ornamental koi pond.

Mostly, though, their food comes, as it always has, from the river and the Sound. One osprey turned to run off a black-backed gull trying to steal its catch, and the gull, plainly outnumbered here, soon fled. Across the river, a “kettle” of ospreys—23 of them—wheeled over South Cove in Old Saybrook. I breathed in the salt air, glad to be apart from the rest of humanity for a while—something still highly possible in a state that remains more than 60 percent forested. The fledglings splashed down feet first to the water with a kind of childish exuberance, missing the fish much of the time, but hitting often enough to be happy.

You could call this place Connecticut, you could call it New England. The birds didn’t give a damn. On this gorgeous morning, it was simply a very fine place to live.