A town with many exciting tales to tell, Coventry in Tolland County gave Connecticut its state hero.
Nathan Hale, who was killed on an intelligence mission in the Revolutionary War, is thought to have uttered the words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”, before his execution.
His birthplace is open as a museum in spring and summer, and is significant as an early piece of historical preservation in Connecticut, by the historian George Dudley Seymour.
A large patch of Coventry is taken up by the magnificent Wangumbaug Lake, and the town maintains a beach here at Patriots Park, while the historic settlement of South Coventry leads away from its eastern shore.
Let’s explore the best things to do in and around Coventry:
1. Nathan Hale Homestead
Coventry is the birthplace of Connecticut’s state hero, a soldier and spy for the Continental Army, executed by the British at 21 during the Revolutionary War.
The current Georgian-style house was built in 1777, a year after Hale’s death, so although this is not the exact building of his birth the location is the same.
What’s especially enthralling about the homestead is the number of artefacts relating to Hale.
On learning of Nathan’s death his brother was handed a trunk of his belongings, and this trunk has been preserved at the house, along with a host of other family possessions.
Some of these were gathered by George Dudley Seymour, the antiquarian who restored the homestead to its 18th-century appearance after purchasing it in 1914. The museum is open for tours between April and October.
2. Wangumbaug Lake
A real point of pride for Coventry is this lake, 373 acres in size, and with quiet residential communities tucked into the mixed woodland on its shores.
The most built-up area is South Coventry on the east shore, with a clutch of restaurants and a historic district which we’ll talk about below.
Wangumbaug Lake (aka Coventry Lake) is natural and fed by springs, but was raised by a dam to power mills along Mill Brook in the 18th century.
There are two beaches, one of which is open to the non-residents, at Patriots Park.
This is a bass management lake, with a fishing season that lasts from around mid-April to the end of February.
Occasionally the surface freezes in winter for ice skating in one of the most picture perfect places in the state.
3. Patriots Park
Non-residents visiting Coventry can use the beach (for a parking fee) at Patriots Park off Lake Street on the east shore.
The sandy beach is small but well looked after, and is bordered by a grassy space shaded by trees for picnics and cookouts.
There’s a playscape for children, a basketball court, and in summer the Patriots Park Boat House rents out canoes, kayaks and paddleboards on a first come, first served basis.
At the end of June Patriots Park is the venue for CoventryFest, one of the big events on the town’s calendar thanks to its show-stopping fireworks display.
4. Strong-Porter House Museum
Practically opposite the Nathan Hale Homestead on South Street is a farmhouse built around 1730 by Hale’s maternal great-uncle, Aaron Strong.
The lean-to at the rear of the Strong-Porter House came later, by 1777. George Dudley Seymour lived at this property and restored it while he was working on the Nathan Hale Homestead, which makes it one of the first colonial-era residences to undergo formal preservation in Connecticut.
On a wood frame structure the house is on 2-1/2 stories, five bays wide and with two interior chimneys.
This beautiful building is the museum for the Coventry Historical Society, along with its outbuildings including a barn, carriage sheds, a blacksmith shop and carpenter shop.
5. South Coventry Historic District
On the east shore of Wangumbaug Lake, South Coventry was the first part of the town to be settled by Europeans, at the very beginning of the 18th century.
You can get a feel for South Coventry’s heritage at this historic district on Main Street and the adjacent streets, which have all held onto their character.
Over these 250 acres there are almost 180 contributing buildings, in styles ranging from Colonial through Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne to Colonial Revival.
There are beautiful traces of South Coventry’s industrial past, at six preserved buildings along Mill Brook, which flows parallel to Main Street.
The village green, now Veteran Green, is wedged between Lake Street and High Street, and served as a militia training ground and muster ground during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and the Revolutionary War (1775-1783).
6. Cassidy Hill Vineyard
At the crest of a picturesque hill in the north of Coventry is a vineyard blessed with beautiful panoramas of the Connecticut Hills, and a tasting room in a rustic log cabin.
From sweet to dry, Cassidy Hill produces wines of many different profiles, made with estate-grown grapes like Catawba, one of the earliest native American grapes to be used for wine.
You can relax in a rocking chair on the porch or wander the vineyard, lingering at the bench under the “Thinking Tree” a lone maple that appears on Cassidy Hill’s logo.
The tasting room is open Fridays and weekends from April to December.
Pack a picnic on Friday evenings in summer as there’s a program of live music from the porch.
7. Museum of Connecticut Glass
The Coventry Glass Factory Historic District is found where the Coventry Glassworks used to be, and most of the Federal and Greek Revival houses have some connection to the factory.
The town’s glassmaking industry took flight in the 1810s after the War of 1812 cut off supply from the UK.
It thrived until the middle of the same century, producing small bottles and inkstands as well as flasks, including the famous “portrait flask” with a depiction of the Marquis de Lafayette to commemorate his visit to America in 1825. The setting for this museum is noteworthy, at the Captain John Turner House (1813) whose namesake was one of the first owners of the Coventry Glass Company.
The museum documents all of the historic glassworks around Connecticut.
When we compiled this list in 2019 the museum was in the process of restoring the Captain John Turner House, and opened to the public for periodic events and by request.
8. Nathan Hale State Forest
The reason the Nathan Hale Homestead has such an historically appropriate rural character is partly because it is enveloped in the 1,500-acre Nathan Hale State Forest.
This was established after a bequest by George Dudley Seymour in 1946, and is stands as both a source of timber and a renewable habitat for wildlife.
A 200-acre parcel here has also been left unmanaged.
If you’re ready for an adventure after visiting the museum there are hiking trails throughout, and dog walkers can make the most of a designated space.
Be sure to wear bright clothes during hunting season in autumn and winter.
9. Creaser Park
Attached to the Nathan Hale State Forest, and sitting not far west of Wangumbaug Lake is a 57-acre park maintained by the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection.
In the 20th century this parcel was a dairy farm before being turned into a summer camp for young people with developmental disabilities.
Creaser Park is a place for passive recreation, on four blazed trails, one leading along the bank of the Skungamaug River, which has plentiful trout for anglers.
The park’s pond is also well stocked with large and smallmouth bass, sunfish, bullhead, shiner and pickerel, and also has a small beach previously used by the camp.
Another holdover from the days of Camp Creaser is the pavilion, surrounded by picnic tables and one of two buildings at the park that can be rented.
10. Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts
The University of Connecticut’s main campus is a stone’s throw away in Storrs, and in little more than a few minutes you can be at this premier venue, which was inaugurated in 1955 and can seat more than 2,600 people.
The program at the Jorgensen Center is very diverse, studded with important ensembles for jazz and classical music, acclaimed dance and theater companies and well-known comedians.
There are lectures by figures from a wealth of fields, children’s performances and much more besides.
Some past performers include Duke Ellington, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Philharmonic.
Also at the center is a gallery space, and the smaller Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre.
The latter is used for two productions a year by the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, a professional company run by the Department of Dramatic Arts.
11. Mansfield Drive-In Theatre
The largest of the surviving drive-in movie theaters in Connecticut is five minutes from South Coventry.
With three screens, the Mansfield Drive-in Theatre has been playing movies in the open-air since 1954. There’s space for 950 cars here, and the original main screen is 33.5 meters wide.
The season runs from April to October, playing seven days a week in summer and on weekends in spring and fall.
For an added dose of nostalgia, these are all double bills, and you can listen via an FM transmitter or speakers that are provided.
Pick up snacks and classic theatre treats at the brand new snack bar.
Every Sunday from 08:00 to 14:00 this is the site for the largest flea market in Eastern Connecticut with vendors both inside and out.
12. Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum
The showpiece at this attraction in Willimantic is a faithful reproduction of the Columbia Junction roundhouse, raised in 2000. The original was built in 1892 and then torn down in the 1930s, and the replica is on the same foundations.
Some of the other highlights of the collection are four locomotives, an entire historic train station from 1872 for the town of Chaplin and 12 diesel-electric trains.
Touring the yard you’ll happen upon some other exciting pieces of railroad heritage, like a telegraph shack, the Groton freight house and the Willimantic section house.
The museum is open on weekends May to October, and it’s worth checking the museum’s website for details of special events.
13. William Benton Museum of Art
Another great excuse to visit the UConn campus is for this excellent art museum housed in what used to be the university’s dining hall, built in a Collegiate Gothic style in 1920. The museum opened here in 1967 and is noted for its rich inventory of American art, by Childe Hassam, Ellen Emmet Rand, Charles Harold Davis, Rembrandt Peale, Fairfield Porter, Henry Ward Ranger and many more.
These are set off by a small but strong collection of European art, featuring renowned names like Gustav Klimt, Georges Braque and Käthe Kollwitz, the latter is represented by more than 100 prints and drawings donated by the geneticist Dr. Walter Landauer.
14. Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry
UConn is responsible for the first undergraduate and graduate programs in puppetry in the United States.
The man to thank for this is Frank W.
Ballard (1929-2010), who first taught classes in puppetry here in the 1960s.
Since then there have been over 400 student puppet productions at UConn.
At the institute’s headquarters on Royce Circle you can witness one of the three largest collections of puppets in the United States, as well as the largest media library relating to this artform in the country.
The puppets are the stars, and there are more than 2,500 from all over the world, among them rod puppets, marionettes, glove puppets, body puppets, shadow puppets, together with a multitude of stage materials.
15. Eagleville Pond
On the line between Coventry and Mansfield is another rather large body of water where the Willimantic River was impounded to power the Eagleville Mill.
This was established in 1814 by the Willimantic Cotton Manufacturing Company and manufactured rifle parts during the Civil War.
The parking lot for the Eagleville Preserve on the south shore is on the mill’s foundations.
Venturing through the preserve you’ll see the remnants of the mill race, as well as the intact dam (with waterfall) and vestiges of former farmland.
The pond itself, with a DEEP boat launch is a treasured fishing location and also frequented by kayakers.