Thursday, May 22, 2014

Once Again: The Midd You Missed

This is an update of an article published every year around this time, written by Ed McKeon with contributions from other fans of Middletown.  The Eye sends it out to graduating Wesleyan seniors, and the alumni and  families visiting our city this weekend.

Say you're a graduating Wesleyan senior and you want to leave town (okay, no jokes), feeling you've seen everything you can see in Middletown. Or you're a graduating senior who wants to ditch the parents and send them off for a few hours over the weekend so you can hook-up with a friend for the last time. Or say you're a Middletown resident who spends too much time in the old cul-de-sac. You have probably had the best breakfast at O'Rourke's, the best coffee at Klekolo's, and the best tacos at Iguana Rana's, but have you really seen all that our city offers?

Below are suggestions for places you, or your parents, can visit before departing the Midd.  Enjoy!

No Strip Mall/No Wrecking Ball
Artwork by Kat Owens.
Just in case you missed one of the most prominent campus/community imbroglios of the year, here's a quick recap.  Members of Wesleyan's administration thought it wise to partner with a local developer to demolish three historic buildings on the block of Washington Street between Pearl and Washington, to build a bookstore, a Starbucks and a Chipotles, awakening the ire of students, faculty, staff and community members.  Much to their regret Wesleyan was caught in a contract with the developer.

Here today, gone tomorrow?
The fight went to the city's planning and zoning commission, where power and money prevailed, and the developer was able to alter zoning laws in their favor.  Currently, the matter is in court where neighbors have charged that the public interest has not been served and the Planning and Zoning crew abdicated their duty.  Check out the beautiful architecture on that block, and on all of the blocks north of Washington, which are threatened by the change in zoning law.  If the neighbors prevail, the view will be similar when you return for your next reunion.  If not, this may be the last time you see these gorgeous old homes.

UPDATE:  The original developer has dropped options on the purchase of these properties, but they are still for sale.  The case against the city has been dismissed by the judge who was hearing the complaint.  In addition, Wesleyan University biology professor, and local activist, Stephen Devoto, ran for a seat on the Planning and Zoning Commission and won.  Devoto was forced to primary candidates selected by the Democratic Town Committee.

Where the Coginchaug Meets the Mattabassett
Just North of downtown on the Connecticut River two rivers, the Coginchaug and the Mattabassett meet, then flow intertwined into the Connecticut. The rivers drain through parkades and suburbs then snake around the old landfill. The huge wetlands and watershed supports a huge diversity of avian and aquatic life, floating meadows, wild rice fields and miles of navigable (by canoe and kayak) waterways. The easiest and only way to tour the fascinating backwaters is to launch a canoe at the Middletown or Cromwell boat launch and navigate the Connecticut River until you reach the mouth of the Mattabassett. An interesting note, the Mattabassett were a tribe of native Americans who called an area from the Connecticut River and west to what is now Berlin, home. Mattabassett is the original, and native American name for Middletown. Wesleyan biologist Barry Chernoff, along with John Hall of the Jonah Center often organized informative paddle tours of the watery wonderland. It's a shame there isn't one being offered this weekend.

Wesleyan Potters
This prestigious and well-loved craft guild was founded in 1948 as a guild to foster the crafts. It continues to offer classes and its gallery displays juried pottery, glass and ceramics from the craftspeople associated with Wesleyan Potters and from artisans around the country. It's a great place to find a one-of-a-kind gift. But it's your bad luck that Bowlapalooza is next weekend (Friday May 29). It's a wonderful fundraiser with food, music and pottery in which your $10 admission entitles you to pick a pottery piece from the Bowlapalooza table. Wesleyan Potters is located at 350 South Main St.

Hindu Temple
The Sri Satyanarayana temple at 11 Training Hill Road is also known as The Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Society. It comprises the state's largest and most active Hindu spiritual community. Numerous daily temple services and weekly poojas revolve on an accessible schedule, and visitors are welcome to tour the beautiful grounds. The temple features a splendid setting and thoughtfully appointed deity statuary, as well as a warm and friendly atmosphere. Graceful, pristine white marble and delicate tapestries complement the open space and airiness of the building.

The Other College
Middlesex Community College, is also on Training Hill Road, in the hills on the South side of town, and sometimes referred to as MxCC, it's part of the state's community college system. A two-year college, it offers a variety of degrees, is a feeder school for four-year universities, and it also offers certificate programs in accounting, television broadcasting, early childhood development, web development, hazardous waste handling and several other disciplines. It also offers weekend and evening courses for adult learners. The grounds, on one of the highest hills in town, looks out over the Connecticut River valley, and is the site of ArtFarm's summer drama festival, Shakespeare in the Grove, which presents The Taming of the Shrew this year.

Meadow Meat
After a year or two on campus you've likely found Stop and Shop, Waldbaum's and now Aldi. But you're not likely to have stumbled on this hidden ruby. Sure to offend any vegetarian or vegan, Meadow Meat is an old-fashioned wholesale and retail butcher shop, where the day's cuts and catches are posted on a blackboard, and you make your purchases by stepping directly into the meat locker where you'll find a counter surrounded by cuts of chicken, beef and pork. The prices are very reasonable, especially if you're buying in quantity, and the advice is expert. Want to know how to cook a spoon roast? Just ask. On the days leading up to summer holidays like this one, the lines can be very long, winding down the concrete loading-dock stairs. And don't wear a sleeveless shirts and shorts. When it's time for you to squeeze past the plastic curtained doorway, you'll find a shorter queue inside, but you're likely to experience hypothermia if you're exposing too much flesh. You can find Meadow Meat by traveling East on River Road, making a right when you have to on Eastern Drive, going under the railway trestle, and it's the non-descript industrial building on the right painted, appropriately enough, blood red.

Miller's Pond
While not technically in Middletown (we're only talking a matter of yards), Miller's Pond State Park is a beautiful freshwater site that's perfect for picnics, gentle hikes and swimming. It's not an official state swim site, so there're no lifeguards, and lots of sub-surface boulders, so divers need beware. It's also not a site that all of you have missed. Miller's is known at Wes as a place for an impromptu picnic - bread and cheese and the appropriate mind-altering substance - and then a swim, often sans suits. So you had your skinny dipping fun, why not recommend it to your parents, and your roomates parents as a way to cool down. And if the thought of that is too disgusting to bear, tell them to head out Millbrook Road, continue onto Foothills Road, and settle in for a late afternoon "picnic."

Vecchito's Italian Ice
Tucked away on DeKoven Drive, about a block north of Washington Street, is the most authentic provider of sweet cool goodness west of Sicily. It is an unpretentious, family business where you are as likely to see a sixth grader talking to the kid behind the counter about soccer practice as you are to see the mayor talking to the state rep about the education bill.  I always go for lemon, but others swear by the almond, lemon-lime, cherry, or watermelon.
With just a little imagination, you can imagine the Italian immigrants living in this part of the city going to Vecchito's for an ice and then going about 50 yards for a walk (or a swim) along the river to get away from the heat.  Now, if only one of you recent graduates can arrange to move Route 9 out of the way so we can do that walk by the river again....

The Airline Billy Joel Took
The beautiful old swing railroad bridge over the Connecticut River was once a part of the Airline Railroad. While "airline" and "railroad" seem not to go together, the Airline Railroad was a line which ran from Middletown to Providence for the Providence and Worcester Railroad along a rail built through the hills on a series of trestles. The rail bed still exists and is called the Airline Trail and is used for hiking and biking, and is accessible in East Hampton. Billy Joel used the railway bridge across the Connecticut for his music video of the song River of Dreams.  Walking on the bridge is prohibited, but you can get a close look at it just off deKoven Drive.

Mount Higby
Mt. Higby is a beautiful example of the traprock ridges that run north-south the length of our state. Higby Mountain, at 892' is the highest point in Middletown, and offers spectacular views all along the ridgeline.

To the north is Lamentation Mountain (also partly in Middletown), due west is Chauncey Peak (in Meriden), and to the southwest is the valley containing Meriden, Wallingford, and other towns along I91.

There are three different access points to the Higby Mountain Trail (with a car or bicycle shuttle, you can do a nice one-way trip). The nicest place to start is at Tynan Park, on Higby Road at the intersection of Sisk Street. A well-worn trail leads from the dirt parking area into the forest, across some hayfields, and onto the slopes of Higby Mountain.

Another access point is at Guida's restaurant on Route 66 (itself a  destination, for the very best milkshakes in the area). They have a big parking lot at the rear. The trail starts very close to the highway, on the west side of Guida's. Finally, Mt. Higby can be accessed from a turnout on Country Club Road, about 200 yards east of the I91 on-ramp. Look for a dirt road on the south side of Country Club (there is a for sale sign there). Follow the dirt road, which is called Massatom Road (no signs though), up the mountain, and then follow the blue-blazed trail markers along the ridge.
Speaking of Guida's, on the other side of town, the Guida Family Preserve at the end of Coleman Road, offers a short an lovely loop hike through former farm pastures, meadows and woodlands.

Henry Clay Work House.You'll find a bust of this relatively unknown songwriter of the Civil War era, appropriately enough, in Union Park on the South end of Main St. The composer of such classics as Grandfather's Clock, and Marching Through Georgia was born in Middletown but lived much of his life elsewhere. A printer by occupation, Work came to songwriting by avocation. Biggest little known fact: the tune of his song, The Ship That Never Returned was used for the classic country music song (in fact the first million selling record, ever), The Wreck of the Old 97, recorded by artists as diverse as Vernon Dalhart and Johnny Cash. The same tune was used for a hit song of the sixties, M.T.A. by the Kingston Trio. The Henry Clay Work house still stands on Mill Street.

Last year, a popular compilation of music from the Civil War era, "Divided and United" featured young Americana music peformers Pokey Lafarge and Old Crow Medicine Show performing songs written by Henry Clay Work.

A hotly debated section of town for many years. Recently, it's been in the news because a new gas-fired energy plant (Kleen Energy) was built there, and because the Army proposed building an Army Reserve Training Center there (which is now in Cucia Park, on the Eastern border of town). This Southeastern corner of Middletown (a section as large as neighboring Cromwell), is mostly wild, rugged and beautiful as it hugs a broad turn in the Connecticut River. But it's also home to a power plant, a jet engine manufacturing plant, and an old feldspar quarry.

You likely read about Maromas when tragedy struck the Kleen Energy power plant there in February 2010. An explosion at the plant, resulting from a purging of pipelines with natural gas, destroyed the plant and killed six workers and injured many others.  The plant has been completed and is operational.  Most every morning you can see evidence of it on the Eastern horizon as the sun attempts to rise through the huge steam plume emitting from its cooling tower.

Maromas is eminently hikable, and if you're lucky you stumble on the rock shelter that was used by native Americans, and in the 19th century by the famous hobo, the Old Leatherman, who was made famous most recently in a Pearl Jam song, and received new acclaim in a volume published by the Wesleyan Press and written by Dan Deluca. You may also read an ongoing serialized novel about the Leatherman here (full disclosure, Eye founder and contributor Ed McKeon is the author).

The "Insane Asylum"
The other institution on a hill in town is located to the East of Wesleyan, and visible from there. Legend has it that occasionally parents have mistaken Connecticut Valley Hospital for Wesleyan and have dropped their young student there. It's the hospital currently known to locals as CVH. Connecticut Valley constitutes the only state hospital dealing exclusively with mental health issues in the state. It's a huge campus, and the older, unoccupied buildings are a frightening example of "insane asylum" red brick Victorian architecture. But don't take any pictures, because you might get arrested.

An Authentic Italian Meal
While in town you may have visited the famous Main Street Italian Restaurants, but Middletown's best Italian food requires entering a hidden gem on Court Street. In the basement of the Italian Society club is the Cantina. The Cantina may not have the atmosphere of a Main Street outdoor patio, but the restaurant serves what many feel are the best Italian dishes in town. If you go, be prepared to linger for several hours enjoying your food. You will get several courses of genuine slow-cooked, delicious food.

The Noiseless Typewriter Factory
Middletown was once heavily industrialized, shipping everything from rubber banding to fertilizer from its deep water port (and importing opium in the "China trade.") One of the things manufactured here was the Noiseless Typewriter. The Noiseless company was bought by Remington, which became Remington Rand. The company was the site of a bitter labor dispute in the thirties, and the company later was involved in early electronic development, including creating a television camera designed to aid in the launch of guided missles. Today, the city of Middletown owns the site, after another attempted sale fell through this year due to its status as a brownfield, and it is the home of a number of small companies. Interesting current occupents are a craft coffee roaster (Zen Roasters), and a craft brewer (Stubborn Beauty), who have begun to brew,and sell their beer.  Go to the North end of High Street, then turn right onto North Main and you'll find the gate to the old factory.

An addendum from Beth Emery

The Noiseless Typewriter company was originally the Keating Wheel Company established in 1897. They manufactured bicycles and then motorcycles. I knew this to be part of the history the building and went online to see if I could find dates. From The Salafia Property report commissioned by the Jonah Center for Earth and Art in 2006, I found out the following information. ( The company did not last long, as the bicycle craze of 1890's was coming to an end just as this facility was being established. In 1903 the facility was operated by the Eisenhuth Horseless Vehicle Company which manufactured automobiles, before becoming the Noiseless Typewriter Company.

UPDATE: The Stubborn Beauty Brewery has opened a tasting room in the Remington Rand Building. The tasting room serves free samples of beer brewed on site, and sells growlers and semi-growlers of the local beer.  The tasting room is open Saturday from 1-4 PM


joseph getter said...

The Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple has changed their website, and the links in this article are no longer working. This is their website:

Gary Keating said...

I forgot to mention that my brother Rob is currently putting the finishing touches on a Biography of Robert M. Keating's life and accomplishments and working with several publishers.

newpawta said...

Thanks! As a still-newish resident, I love the history and info! I think I remember reading about the leather man when I lived in Westchester, NY. Small world. Hmmmm - haven't I heard that Waldbaum's was replaced by another store (perhaps the now-defunct A&P)?

Gary keating said...

Second time I had to enter this !!! Below are two of the best sites for information on the Keating Wheel Company. Middletown is missing out n a big piece of its history by not recognizing Robert M. Keating's innovations, contributions, and genius. Take a look at this mans inventions and manufacturing history!

cybermom said...

Before leaving Middletown you should take a look at all the wonderful hiking here. Take a look at this website listing Middletown's Trails.

Lynn Baldoni said...

Don't forget the Godfrey Memorial Library - a genealogical treasure on Newfield Street.

Anonymous said...

These are great places and suggestions. But was it really necessary to try to slip in ed's personal crusade in under the guise of great places to visit? It politicizes and otherwise diminishes the piece.

Ed McKeon said...

Yeah, anon 12:55, sweet, isn't it?

Catherine said...

I love the graphic, and looked the artist up just because of the article. Nice job, Kate! Do another!

Anonymous said...

Wadsworth park for the great hikes and the falls and the mansion grounds and building. Also the Meditation Man and his hour plus weekday meditation retreat offerings are a couple of other treasures

Carolyn (Lyn) Shaw said...

THANK YOU, ED!! Once again I'm reminded, by your terrific writing skills and photos, of the many, many reasons I've loved Middletown since coming here in 1969. And it's a special joy to see/hear Billy Joel's music video, swaying to the beats, recognizing backdrops... early on this Sunday morning:-)

Anne-Marie Cannata said...

Did you know ? ... Millers Pond and Billy Joel's video have more in common than both just being in this article. The kids jumping off the rocks are AT Millers!

Liz Warner said...

Truly, a fun read, Ed! It was like popping in at home for a spell.