Reporting from Sharon, Conn.
It's autumn in New England
The days are getting shorter. Wood piles are stacked high. Geese are flying south, and Indian corn is hanging from the door.
People in new L.L. Bean flannels stop their cars in the middle of the road snapping pictures or checking the Internet on their mobile phones to find the reddest maples and the yellowest birch.
Meanwhile, a lot of Yankees — even recently transplanted ones like me — watch from the porch, chuckling. It isn't just that we have guaranteed front-row seats for the growing season's glorious last hurrah. We know New England is fine anytime, as long as there's a town with a green and a steepled church.
Classic, fit-for-a-frame villages right out of Currier & Ives are as common around here as falling leaves in October. Take these three, for example:
I'm always tempted to pull over when I drive south to Sharon along Route 41 in Connecticut. At the top of a hill just outside town, the valley comes into view with Mudge Pond cupped in the gentle folds of the Taconic Mountains.
Maybe the founders — men named Calkin, Peck and Skinner who bought property around 1740 in what was then known as the "far northwestern highlands" — were thinking of the vista when they named the town for the Plain of Sharon in the Bible. With their deeds in their pockets, they came out from settled places on the Eastern Seaboard and planted a town with a common grazing area that became the green and a meetinghouse that served as a place of government and worship before the written doctrine of separating of church and state.
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After the first minister, a graduate of Yale College in New Haven, was sacked for drunkenness, care of the Congregational Church was given to Cotton Mather Smith, who fulminated against King George III from the pulpit and sent many members of his flock to fight the Redcoats in Canada. When they came home, they traded flintlocks for hammers to build a New England town right out of the pattern book.
I like to take a sandwich and lunch on the common, a stately spot with a sign that says, "This green is not to be used as a playground. Per order of the Sharon Fire District."
The rectangular greensward is bordered by capacious old Colonial and Victorian homes, Hotchkiss Library, built in 1893 by Maria Bissell Hotchkiss, who also founded a private school up the road, and the 1775 Gay-Hoyt House now occupied by the Sharon Historical Society. Every New England town seems to have one. Sharon's mounts exhibitions and the Great Attic Classic, a triennial event known to antique collectors and tag sale connoisseurs far and wide (the next one is in July 2012).
There's a small shopping plaza down the hill and Paley's Farm Market just west of town, its bins loaded with apples and many-colored squash this time of year. But no chain stores or fast-food restaurants. If anything, Sharon is quieter now than it was in the 19th century, and that's the way folks like it.
Many of them are the reclusive well-to-do who started summering in Sharon around 1900, building estates with stables, tennis courts and swimming pools. Texas oil man William F. Buckley Sr. settled in a Sharon manse called Great Elm in 1925 with his wife and nine children, including William Jr., the noted conservative commentator who died in 2008. Nearby Weatherstone, a landmark Georgian mansion, beautifully renovated by New York designer Carolyne Roehm, can be glimpsed from Route 41 just beyond the Sharon Clock Tower.
The distinctive granite timepiece, built in 1885, marks the intersection of Routes 4, 343 and 41, all leading into the beautiful backcountry of Sharon Township. My favorite drive is along Calkinstown Road, which turns off Route 41 north of town winding past an old iron milling district and graceful farm houses on the flank of Sharon Mountain. In a few miles Calkinstown yields to East Cornwall Road and Miles Wildlife Sanctuary, a 1,500-acre Audubon Society wetland surrounding a pond with nesting ducks and croaking frogs.
The road ends in the hamlet of West Cornwall with its museum-quality, Shaker-inspired furniture store, Ian Ingersoll Cabinetmakers, and red covered bridge over the Housatonic River, which marks the eastern boundary of the township. Head north from here onto Route 7 following the river where fly fishermen wade and kayakers from nearby Clarke Outdoors ride the current.
Then turn in at the parking lot for the 2 1/2 -mile Pine Knob Loop in Housatonic Meadows State Park. The path climbs easily to the Appalachian Trail on its way across the northwestern corner of Connecticut, a view of the crazy-colored quilt that blankets the Housatonic Valley in the fall, and a deep drink of pure New England rapture.
East Hill Cemetery is a breezy spot with moss-covered tombstones and disrespectful squirrels. Visitors are rare, but anyone who has read or seen "Our Town" knows the spot because it inspired the unforgettable last act in Thornton Wilder's 1938 play about life and death in the town of Grover's Corners, modeled on nearby Peterborough, N.H.
Wilder wandered through the graveyard in the late 1930s when he was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, a retreat for artists on the edge of town. I found it 20 years ago and recently returned.
The cemetery hasn't changed, and the southwestern corner of New Hampshire still has traffic circles instead of intersections, state-run liquor stores and highway moose-crossings. But Peterborough has grown into something of a tourist hub for the region around 3,165-foot Mt. Monadnock, an old New England sentinel climbed by almost as many people as Japan's Mt. Fuji. I stopped at a pub in town for a bowl of chili, saw the fine old grandfather clocks at the Peterborough Historical Society and then went looking for another Grover's Corners.
As it turned out, there are plenty of contenders around the solitary, stone-topped peak, including pretty East Jaffrey and Fitzwilliam; Dublin, the birthplace of Yankee magazine; and Hancock, tucked in the woods about 10 miles north of Peterborough, with nothing extraneous to break the "Our Town" spell, just a white clapboard church, triangular green, public library, café-bakery and general store.
The 1789 Hancock Inn, which has a porch overlooking the main street, tavern, restaurant and 14 amiable guest chambers, clinched it. I'd found what I was looking for and celebrated over a Yankee pot roast dinner, followed by bed underneath a picture of George Washington and a patriotic red, white and blue spread.
I was up early the next morning to wander around town, starting at the 1820 Meetinghouse. Jointly owned by the town and First Congregational Church, it has a sanctuary on the second floor lined by clear glass windows about 20 feet tall and twin staircases leading to the gallery with a rope that operates the bell, forged by Paul Revere.
I could imagine its sound while I stood in the hilltop cemetery behind the Meeting House. Here, I noticed a grave marking the eternal reunion of Mother, Father and Lizzie. The placid surface of Norway Pond below threw back a reflection of the town swimming beach, where firecrackers are launched on the Fourth of July.
By then people were chatting in front of the post office and claiming copies of the Boston Globe at the general store. A man was mowing around the gazebo on the green, where I inspected the monument to Hancock's fallen soldiers, beginning with men who gave their lives fighting in the French and Indian War.
The village retains its quiet, time-locked air because it was bypassed by Route 202 and stayed separate from nearby textile-producing centers such as Harrisville, about a dozen miles down the road, home of the Cheshire Mills, in operation from about 1850 to 1970. With the factories silent now and part of a National Historic District, Harrisville makes a good excursion, especially if you take Route 137 south and then turn west on Hancock Road. The back way into Harrisville, it delves through forests that reclaimed farm fields when agriculture yielded to industry in the early 1800s. In the shady depth of the woods, the remains of dilapidated stone walls, preserved by law in New Hampshire, mark old boundary lines.
There's a lake in Harrisville surrounded by summer houses with private docks, a Knitting and Weaving Center, two defunct train stations, a workers' quarter called Peanut Row and a general store for picnic provisions. Long gone are the spinners, carders and dyers, of course. But even here you can hear echoes of the Stage Manager postulating that "something is eternal" in the last act of "Our Town."
An old friend grew up in a house on the Cohasset green. She's a flinty Yankee, but she goes all sentimental whenever she talks about her hometown. Now that I've been here, I see why.
Cohasset, established around 1700, is one of several villages along Massachusetts Bay about 25 miles south of Boston. It has a tidy business district showcasing architectural styles prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries, from Second Empire to Cape Cod Cottage.
There's a train for commuters, and on a clear day you're supposed to be able to see the Boston skyline from the top of Turkey Hill. Quincy National Historic Site, home of John and Abigail Adams, is just north and Plymouth Plantation south, but few tourists stray into Cohasset. Those who do get a warm welcome and a handful of brochures at the historic society.
I read mine on the deck at the Old Salt House over a dinner of fried clams with juicy bellies — very bad for the arteries, very good for the soul. The restaurant is right on Cohasset's snugly protected harbor, where fishermen once harvested 23,000 barrels of mackerel a day and tall-masted beauties were built during the Great Age of Sail. A monument here marks the place where Capt. John Smith came ashore on a 1614 mapping expedition and nearby Government Island Park has a replica of the copper-topped watch room from the original Minot Ledge Lighthouse, blown down by a gale in 1851.
Across the harbor the funky old Cohasset Yacht Club, founded in 1894, has charts that show Brush, East Willies and other islands close to shore. From the porch you can see the entrance to the Oaks, a 9-acre estate with a deep-water dock, private beach and 45-room Georgian Revival mansion built in 1930 by Clarence Barron, who owned the Wall Street Journal. Together with other properties on the harbor, the estate is up for sale, asking price $55 million — though a waiter at the Old Salt House told me they'd probably take $50 million now.
It's one of many summer "cottages" built by rich city people who found Cohasset around 1900 and settled into the area along oceanfront Atlantic Avenue, where I walked the next morning. Cohasset's Gold Coast, as it's called, passes Sandy Beach. Owned and maintained by a local civic group since 1917, it's a good place to inspect tide pools and watch Minot Light, still warning ships away from perilous rocks.
Little Harbor fingers inland from there, surrounded by silent, reedy wetlands. Turning back toward town, I found Cohasset Central Cemetery with its old slate tombstones dating back to 1705 and Celtic cross commemorating 99 immigrants who died off the coast in the mid-19th century wreck of an Irish ship.
Cohasset Common, very much the land of the living, is just up the hill. It has a tall flag pole, duck pond, town hall and three churches: the first Meetinghouse, a Unitarian dating from 1747; the Second Congregational built by break-away Protestants in 1824; and a Gothic Revival Episcopalian that opened its doors chiefly to summer people in 1900, with a 57-chime carillon that sang to my old friend when she was a girl.
I could get goose bumps standing on the sidewalk here, even though I grew up far away in a German-Italian family with comparatively shallow roots. There was no white steepled church or common at my door. But in a way Cohasset belongs as much to me as to my friend. Like so many other villages in New England, it's an American symbol. It's everyone's hometown.