Among the many historic taverns and inns that line Route 44, Dyer’s Inn and Tavern in Canton, near the Route 179 intersection, comes to life in the imagination more easily than most.
Dyer’s is still a rambling house, built in several stages over the years, and it also still sits on its original farm compound – once 23 buildings, now eight or nine, depending on how you count. The compound includes a large barn, a smokehouse that was reconstructed by the current owner, Ed Herbert, and a stone distillery building that’s the subject of legend.
Dyer’s isn’t on Route 44 at all – it sits on Dyer’s Cemetery Road, a curved offshoot of the main road, running for several hundred yards. As in many places along Route 44, this was the main road back then. Separated from the busy highway by a stand of trees, the Dyer’s property enjoys the sort of tranquility that must have been more the norm back in the day.
But there was plenty of hubbub at times, such as when the inn hosted the annual Canton Agricultural Fair. Dyer’s, operated by Zenas Dyer from 1823 to 1851, alternated years with Abraham Hosford’s Inn for that honor, according to “Lions & Eagles & Bulls, Early American Tavern & Inn Signs from the Connecticut Historical Society,” edited by Susan P. Schoelwer. Zenas’ great-granddaughter, Margaret, later ran a fudge and salted nuts business.
Schoelwer cites an 1834 article in The Courant for some of the history. And the book describes the original sign, now in the historical society’s amazing collection. It shows a beehive, indicating industriousness, and the words “Hold or Drive,” from Ben Franklin’s quip, “He that by the plow would thrive, himself must either hold or drive.”
Today the house and an adjacent building are divided into six apartments. I dropped by to see Herbert, who bought the place in 1967, with my friend, Jim Bond, who lives in the adjacent Cantonbury condominiums.
Herbert tells stories, passed down through the years, of a family member showing up at an auction with jars of cash to buy the property after it fell into bankruptcy. And the still stayed open through prohibition, Herbert said.
“They had a license. A lot of doctors wrote prescriptions, just like pot now,” he said.
Back in the days of the Pope automobile factory a century ago in Hartford, the story goes that the company would take each and every car for a checkout ride. Dyer’s still was one of the destinations, apparently, as there may have even been a machine that spun the cars’ wheels out in the yard. “The rumor has it, a lot of the miles were spent in the yard,” Herbert said, “while the drivers were inside drinking.”
It’s easy to envision the life of this compound, with its swimming pool built into the foundation of an old silo. At Cantonbury, Bond and some other neighbors cleared the area around an old dam, adding more fuel to the imagination about this lively world just off the main road.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect relation between Zenas and Margaret Dyer.