Thursday, February 4, 2016

Stealing Back Into the Past of My Hometown

From Dave Brigham:

My hometown, Simsbury, Connecticut, is about 34 square miles in area, or almost twice as large as my adopted hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. Newton, however, has more than three times the population. As a kid, I rarely thought about Simsbury as a whole, instead focusing on the Weatogue section where I lived (see September 20, 2011, "In Search of President Little"). In high school my friends and I cruised around to parties, and I got a better idea of how much land the town covered.

Even still, I never explored the history of my town much beyond the small confines of Weatogue -- Talcott Mountain, Boot Pond, Louis' Market, the softball field/carnival grounds, the railroad tracks, the woods behind Latimer Lane School. So in recent years I've spent just a little time digging into areas of town I ignored at a young age (see December 29, 2012, "Exploring Back Home").

Just prior to this past Thanksgiving, I polled the members of the Facebook group dedicated to those who grew up in Simsbury, looking for another cool place to check out. I received many great suggestions -- an old cemetery, an abandoned church (which might actually be over the line in Granby), an old canal house (occupied) and remnants of walls from the Farmington Canal, a waterworks foundation.

But the one that resonated with me was Pilfershire.

First, there's the name, which simultaneously conjures up images of small-time thieves and some grand estate in Great Britain. Pilfershire is located along the Westledge trail leading into the McLean Game Refuge, which spans Simsbury, Granby and Canton. According to the Town of Simsbury web site, the trail "partially follows a 1700s stagecoach route from Hartford to Albany (along the 'Garrett Stairs')...Along the way you will pass stone foundations, all that remains of the once thriving village of Pilfershire and once the site of up to fifty homes."

According to this 1995 Hartford Courant article, the settlement also included a school, a dye house, a cider mill, a distillery, a buckle house and a rubber shop.

Over the years, there were several fires in Pilfershire, including one allegedly caused by a drunken homeowner sneaking in through his own window and kicking over an oil lamp, as well as Indian raids, according to the Courant article.

I couldn't help but think of another long-abandoned settlement in the woods: Dogtown, located in Rockport, Massachusetts. I mountain biked in Dogtown many years ago and loved the challenge, but my girlfriend (now wife) and I weren't happy when we began to run out of energy and found ourselves carrying our bikes over large boulders and trying to find our way back to our car.

I'm fascinated by local lore such as this. As a kid if I thought of people in the Colonial era at all, I imagined them exclusively as hard-working people of high morals. I never imagined them getting loaded and mistakenly kicking over lamps and setting their own houses on fire, or stealing things or fighting or having sex.

After just a few minutes on the trail, my family and I spied our first set of ruins from this once rough-and-tumble little town.

This was certainly a cool find, but the next one was so much better.

We spotted a few wells, too, including this dangerous looking one.

There were numerous rock walls along the route, some of which might have once defined grazing meadows or planting plots, I suppose.

Reading about a place, or watching a YouTube video such as this presentation by Simsbury Land Trust President Fred Feibel on Pilfershire, is helpful, but not as much as walking the roads, sitting in the cellar holes, closely examining rock walls and old wells. I like the fact that my hometown, which has developed into quite the well-to-do bedroom community in the last 50 years, has some sordidness in its past.

For more about Pilfershire, check out "The Homes of Pilfershire," edited by Jeff Bush. I haven't read much of this document, nor have I watched much of the video, but if you find out any interesting tidbits, let me know.

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