Connecticut's New Historic Barns Trail Showcases Agricultural Treasures
Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation
Bill Hill Road cuts a scenic swath through the countryside in Lyme, through tall trees sheltering buttoned-up farmhouses, until it opens up to reveal wide, canvas-worthy pastures dotted with cows, and miles of low stone walls.
The barns at Ashlawn Farm, on the left if you’re driving north, serve as a reminder that people worked this tranquil land for centuries . . . long before the shoreline became chi chi, shoppers swarmed the nearby outlets and casino traffic consistently clogged I-95.
Architectural historian Todd Levine is sitting in his red Jeep in front of a tiny café at Ashlawn, in what used to be the milk house attached to the main barn, back when the place was a working dairy farm. An unrelenting summer rain pelts his windshield while he sips hot coffee from the café, and waxes poetic on the appeal of barns.
“People love barns, and sometimes they don’t even know why,” he says, bringing the cup to his lips, his eyes fixed on the red buildings with white trim in front of him. He smiles. “It’s a romantic notion, I think, something that reminds us of a much simpler time.”
It’s that attraction, that along with “the purity of the buildings,” Levine says, that put Ashlawn, along with dozens of barns statewide, on the map: the Connecticut Barns Trail map, to be precise.
Levine, with Helen Higgins, executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, was instrumental in developing what he believes is the nation’s first barn trail. It came to fruition as part of the “Historic Barns of Connecticut” project, a statewide survey. Barns large and small were documented by hundreds of community volunteers who traversed the state, clipboards and cameras in tow. The project was funded by the State Historic Preservation Office, the Connecticut Office of Tourism and private donations. “It’s a good thing people love barns,” says Levine. “I can’t imagine we would have had such an enthusiastic response if we wanted to count, say, industrial buildings.”
Our enchantment with barns is deep-seated; even those in disrepair (or perhaps especially when they have seen better days) remind us of the vital role they played in our state’s history and agrarian culture. They epitomize the architectural tenet of form following function. They were meaningful buildings, says Levine. “People gathered in them to celebrate, couples were married in them, and they were by far the most important tool on the farm.”
As the rest of the world changed, the barn remained a constant.
The painter Eric Sloane, a prolific master of landscape realism, fell in love with Connecticut’s barns in the mid-’50s (he lived in Warren until his death in 1985). He captured their permanence in his art and in his folksy, illustrated history, Eric Sloane’s An Age of Barns. He wrote: “I once bought an abandoned farm with the intention of remodeling the barn and reviving the farmyard. Although the house had been built in pioneer days, there was a sense of its having been lived in during a more recent yesterday, for at least a dozen families had left their marks. The barn, on the other hand, gave the feeling of never having been changed since the time it was raised.”
Markham Starr, a photographer who lives in North Stonington, spent the better part of a year crisscrossing the state, shooting barns he found particularly appealing. His book, Barns of Connecticut, featuring more than 100 color photographs, will be published by Wesleyan University Press in the fall.
Starr found most of his subjects through the historic barns site, he says, “but spent a lot of time driving down country roads discovering even more.” As an artist he appreciates the barn’s plainness and lack of adornment. “They’re very simple looking structures, but they’re perfect to a T,” he says. “They’re both utilitarian and elegant—and they’ve been that way for hundreds of years.”
Back to the future
Levine estimates there are easily 10,000 barns in Connecticut. The website connecticutbarns.org includes more than 8,500 in its database, with photos of most of them.
The enhanced public awareness engendered by the site and trail is a boon to historic preservation, but the bottom line is that it takes money—and often, legislation—to save old buildings and to effect their adaptive reuse.
Since 2008, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation has awarded $400,000 in grants to 100 barn owners throughout the state. The grants, ranging from $1,500 to $8,000, are designated for condition assessments; reuse feasibility research; and construction and repair. Levine says the grants have leveraged some $6 million in economic growth, as most barn owners spend about $4 for $1 given to them.
Last year, the trust backed a bill that would offer additional tax relief to homeowners who took steps to preserve the barns on their property. The bill didn’t pass, but Levine says he’s hopeful it will be reintroduced next year.
Ed Cady of Roxbury has been saving barns in unique fashion for more than half a century. A carpenter and contractor, he established East Coast Barn Builders in 1960 to preserve English- and Dutch-style barns by moving and transforming them into custom homes. It seems there’s a serious market for upscale barn-style homes—Cady (and his two sons) are now the largest movers of antique post-and-beam frames in the country—but they don’t come cheap. Cady barns are priced well upward of $1 million.
When aging barns are fortunate enough to be restored, they most often find new life as residences, says Levine. Other common uses include art studios, museums, office space, pool houses, even theaters—and in the case of dairy barns, ice cream shops, of course.
Mapping the Trail
The Connecticut Barns Trail map features both primary and secondary stops along seven routes, based on the state’s tourism regions. A primary site is one that is open to the public; visitors are invited to set and stay awhile in these barns as many of them have been repurposed into commercial ventures, including farm markets, shops and museums. Secondary sites are private barns listed for historic and photo-op purposes only; sightseers are advised not to trespass or otherwise disturb their owners.
Following are highlights of the seven routes:
• The Northwest Hills: This is a long, scenic loop that starts and ends at the Bellamy-Ferriday House in Bethlehem, wending its way past the Bunnell Farm in Litchfield, the Wildlife Foundation in Goshen, Old Farm Nursery in Salisbury and finally, the Hunt Hill Farm and Sullivan Farm in New Milford.
• Fairfield County and the Western Shore: This route zigs and zags from its start at the Museum of Westport History past barns in Weston and Wilton, over to the Keeler Tavern Museum and Garden House in Ridgefield, down through Easton’s Sherwood Farm and up to the Jones Family Farm and Winery in Shelton.
• New Haven and the Shoreline: Beginning at the Brewster Estate in New Haven, this trail takes you over to Rose Orchards in North Branford, down to Madison and over to Guilford, whose sites include Dudley Farm, Lakeside Feed and Llamas and Bishop’s Orchards.
• The Connecticut River Valley South: This route starts in Wethersfield at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, then heads south along the river through Glastonbury to several historic houses in Old Lyme and up to the Deep River Historical Society.
• The Connecticut River Valley North: This long, jagged trail starts in East Hartford at the Burnham Blacksmith Shop, heads upriver to a rare brick barn in Windsor Locks, over to the Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum in Windsor, down to The Garlic Farm in West Granby Garlic, along several homesteads in Simsbury and finally, to Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington.
• Thames River Valley and New London County: Starting in Stonington at the Denison Homestead Farm Market, this route heads to a cider mill in Groton, turns north to a farm tool museum in Ledyard, the Heritage Trail Vineyards in Lisbon, then due west to the Zagray Farm Museum in Colchester and up to Lebanon’s Wadsworth Stable.
• The Quiet Corner, Northeast Connecticut: This lovely route enjoys a fairly direct northeast route, from the Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, to the UConn barns and Dairy Bar in Storrs, up through Buell’s Orchard in Eastford, and finally to Roseland Cottage in Woodstock.
Todd Levine was vetting the Connecticut River Valley South route when he discovered Lyme’s Ashlawn Farm, now home to a coffee-roasting facility—and its Lilliputian café. While it isn’t on the printed map, Ashlawn did make the iPhone app, and that’s a good thing, because not only are the barns a delight, but the coffee is delicious.
“That’s the beauty, the adventure of this trail,” he says. “We wanted people to be able to take daytrips, make discoveries. The thing about Connecticut is that it has so much history, so much depth. You never know what you’ll find.”
Find out where to get a trail map, download the iPhone app and learn more about Connecticut’s barns at connecticutbarns.org. For information on preservation efforts throughout the state, visit cttrust.org.