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.
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.