Category Archives: Natural History

Snow Day

We aren’t open tonight, thanks to New England’s regular winter weather!

Contrary to the popular media of today and the breathless coverage, major storms are nothing new. Town Hill, and all the other hills, regularly got cut off in the winter, especially once the hills were open pasture.  The fields tended to create major drifts at any obstacle, such as a fence-line along a road.  One account states that the drifts reached 15 feet in height in 1873/4 and that some people didn’t leave their farmyards between January and March.

One of the best known winter storms was the Great Blizzard of March, 1888. New Hartford got 42 inches in that storm, which also had high winds.  See:,0,794681.story

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Notable Trees: Constitutional Convention Oak

In 1902, Connecticut held a General Convention to amend the state’s constitution. As part of this convention all of the towns received a Pin Oak.

New Hartford’s, although badly damaged by the October snowstorm of a few years ago, still stands.  It is located to the Northwest of the driveway between the Town Hall and the yellow house, which houses (among other things) several doctors’ offices, including Dr. Douglas Gerard.

A full list of these Pin Oaks can be found at:

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Who owns Greenwoods Pond?

We don’t tend to think much about who owns river bottoms, ponds, or lakes.  The body of law, riparian, surrounding these properties is massive, and the legal issues continue to be contentious.  However, for the general public they tend to fall into that somewhat grey area of being neither explicitly public nor private.  The Farmington River’s West Branch above the center of New Hartford definitely falls into this area.  This large floodplain is accessed by hikers, fishermen, hunters, and (of course) the innumerable canoers, kayakers, and boaters.

What appears to be a floodplain is actually an artificial lake bottom.  The Greenwoods pond was created during the 1800’s (the first dam was around 1816, by 1880 it was a thirty plus foot dam.) It failed in 1936 destroying a large portion of the industrial center.  The dam was never rebuilt.

The water rights to the dam and the pond, including the immediate watershed, totaled some 250 acres; the rights also included the rights to any power generated by the dam, which included the ability to control the flow of the river.  These rights had originally belonged to the Greenwoods Company, a large textile firm.  Following their departure from the area, the rights were passed through several companies until they ended up being owned by Landers, Frary, & Clark.

In the 1930’s the Metropolitan District Commission, the water company in charge of Hartford’s water supply, was in the process of purchasing as much land as was possible in the upper Farmington River watershed.  Most of their purchases were focused on the east branch and the Nepaug River, where the three main reservoirs were constructed, a fourth (Hogback) was later built on the west branch.  However, following the dam failure they were able to purchase what had been the Greenwoods Pond, as LFC had no interest in rebuilding.  Today the MDC continues to own the property.

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Ice fishing

In Southern New England, it is only really during January and February that pond or lake ice is thick enough to allow ice-fishing.  West Hill pond is the only major water body in town where ice-fishing still takes place and it has supported ice-fishing since the earliest days.  When it existed, Greenwoods Pond probably supported ice-fishing.  Ice-fishing, like all other forms of fishing varies between communal and solitary.  The village of Nepaug once supported a communal form of ice-fishing.  Once the Nepaug River was frozen, especially in the slow shallows near the church, a communal drive could take place.  These drives were aimed mostly at catching eastern or white suckers, a schooling, bottom feeder that once existed in great numbers, prior to the building of the Nepaug Reservoir (though its decline may not be causally connected).  The Nepaug fishermen used spears to catch these fish and caught them in sufficient numbers that an even distribution of the fish amongst the participants was a matter of course.  Although the sucker has numerous small bones, it is reported that these fish, being caught in the late winter, were a welcome addition to dinner.

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The Forests of New Hartford Part I

Thank you to everyone who made our eighth annual wine-tasting fundraiser an amazing success!

New Hartford, like much of Connecticut, is primarily a forest landscape, no matter how fragmented.  However, despite the ancient appearance of the forest, most of this is second or third growth forest for New Hartford’s landscape has undergone several massive changes in the last three centuries.

Prior to settlement in the 1730’s, most of New Hartford would have been forest but not all.  Like the rest of southern New England the forest was broken by swamps, beaver meadows, and clearings made by Native Americans, fires, and blow downs.  Although there is no record of permanent settlement by Native Americans in New Hartford, the region was used for hunting and for mining soapstone; it is probable that some clearing and management was done, especially in the areas near the soapstone quarries, mainly in Nepaug.  Both the Farmington and Nepaug valleys would have been swamps.  Swamps and beaver ponds would have also occurred on smaller streams; actual bogs could occur even on the tops of hills.  Driving on Rte. 219 between Dings and Carpenter roads a faint idea of what these swamps would have looked like is apparent: a mix of red maple, alder, and dogwood giving way to winterberry, blueberry, marsh grass, and then open water.  The photograph above is of this swamp, taken from Maple Hollow Road.  Bottom land, where seasonal flooding occurred (for example the Farmington below Pine Meadow) would have had silver and red maple along with sycamore; in other areas of the river sandy, glacial outwash soil meant that white and red pines dominated.  The hills would have been a mixture of American chestnut, oak, birch, beech, maple, ash, and pine.  Hickory, hemlock, tulip poplars, basswood, elm, and a multitude of other trees would have also been abundant.

By the mid 1700’s, however, adventurous loggers had already mapped the area, staking the Crown’s claim to the highest quality lumber for use by the Royal Navy.  The early name for the Farmington river valley west of the center of town, Mast Swamp, dates from this period.

In the colonial era wood was a critical resource used not only for building houses, but for fences, tools, household items such as buckets, for making dyes and medicines, and for use as charcoal and fuel.  Charcoal is often overlooked, but it was required for the making of iron and gunpowder.  A productive iron furnace could use well over a thousand acres of wood each year.  Almost every type of wood was used, each suited to a specific task: oak for framing, pine for siding, cedar for fences, chestnut for flooring, birch for charcoal, and so forth.

The clearing of the forests would have begun on the hilltops, especially on Town Hill, which was the first settlement.  High quality lumber, such as the white pine of Mast Swamp, would also have been cut.  The last areas to be cleared would have been the steep, rocky hillsides such as the Ledges of Satan’s Kingdom and in the true swamps: the difficulty in access and the relatively poor quality of the lumber would have meant that there was little incentive to go there.  By 1800 it is estimated that nearly 90% of Connecticut had been cleared.

This did not mean, however, that trees were not in evidence.  Woodlots and hedgerows were used to ensure a continued supply of lumber.  Land that was unsuitable for even grazing was often turned into these woodlots.  Fast growing species such as ash, poplar, and birch would have been primary species in these areas.  Elsewhere trees were planted for other purposes.  Sugar maples were planted to shade roads and to provide maple syrup, the primary sweetener until the Caribbean molasses trade took over.  In New Hartford only a few of these maples remain.  Most of the giant sugar maples on Town Hill, West Hill, Holcomb Hill, and scattered elsewhere date from the early to mid 1800’s.  Some may have been planted even earlier.  These trees, so symbolic of the New England landscape, are now in decline; and each year’s storms take down a few more.  Other trees, especially nut trees such as hickories, chestnuts, and butternuts, were planted to mark boundaries; many old deeds record a property corner as being, ‘the big chestnut’.

After 1800, economic and demographic shifts were also reflected in the fate of the land….

To be continued.


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On Roads

The geography of a region helps to shape its history, determining the types of industry and agriculture, over generations shaping cultural markers ranging clothing to houses to holiday traditions. One of the clearest ways in which geography affects history is in transportation.
New Hartford’s roads record this. While neither of the two rivers were suitable for navigation, the Farmington and Nepaug valleys were associated with two of the early roads: the Albany highway and the Litchfield Turnpike. The Albany postroad, also known as the Old North Road, ran from Hartford to Albany. As it passed through New Hartford it ran first on the northeast side of the Farmington, along what is now the Farmington Turnpike. This would have been fairly easy going, as it was flat, flood-plain forest, which in summer is dry and fairly open with few rocks. Near what is now the center of town it crossed a ford, started up Town Hill, turned off on West Hill, and then travelled along Burgoyne Heights, coming out in Barkhamsted behind the dump where there is now a cell tower. The name of Burgoyne Heights does come from the fact that it was a Revolutionary War route, used by at least some of General Burgoyne’s forces.
Why, you might ask though, does it angle up the hill? The answer refers back to the problem of geography. As I mentioned last week, west of the center of town lay a large swamp. Like narrow gorges, swamps were close to impassable and so the road went around it. By going slightly farther up the hill, the road takes advantage of a ridgeline, preferable to trying to travel across a slope which is slow and energy consuming. Using a ridgeline meant climbing a hill, but they are generally dryer, slightly less rocky, and more open than hillsides.
The stretch between the center of town and Burgoyne Heights also shows its age in the alignment. It consists of tight, climbing curves. Because of the grade, nearly 9%, these curves would give better control over wheeled vehicles as well as being easier for both the animals and men than larger curves or straight alignments.


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Landscape Gardening

In the nineteenth century, landscaped parks and public areas were increasingly common. This was part of the craze for urban redesign, at the time the most famous was the complete rearrangement of Paris. However, for the American public, the apparently natural but actually designed landscapes of the great English estates were even more popular. This was due in no small part to Frederick Law Olmsted, whose designs for New York’s Central Park, Boston’s Fens, and Montreal’s Mont-Royale were all well-known. The desire for these parks was largely a response to the increasing size of the cities and the vanishing forested landscape, the rarity of which increased its romance. One of the main elements of these parks was the carriage drive. These were designed so that carriages could be comfortable driven through the interesting areas of the parks. They tend to have fairly gentle, steady grades and curves whose radii are designed to handle a four-in-hand coach at an easy trot, or for a little more fun, a pair of horses at a faster pace. But never so tight as to jostle the passengers. Another element is the use of uncut stone, a natural look, for bridges, walls and culverts.

The landscaped park through which one could happily drive a carriage was not confined to the great cities, however. Private landowners also wanted to build carriage drives and landscaped estates. New Hartford is privileged to have access to a property which has such a carriage drive: Jones Mountain. Today the carriage drive is only used for people on foot, but its presence is a reminder of the nineteenth century and the beginning of people’s interest in natural recreation.

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