Even more than a century after their silk empire was at its peak, you can’t talk about Manchester without mentioning the Cheneys.
A big slice of the south of this city, east of Hartford, belongs to the Cheney Brothers Historic District where you can see the great brick-built mills accompanied by 19th-century worker communities designed according to the Cheneys’ principles of “welfare capitalism”. Cheney Hall here is still a pillar of Manchester’s arts scene, and the silk mill’s old machine shop houses the Manchester Historical Society.
In other parts, Manchester is a city with a surplus of parkland, at Case Mountain and the sumptuous Wickham Park, both of which have high ground overlooking Hartford to the west.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Manchester:
1. Wickham Park
This park on both sides of the town-line with East Hartford, is maintained by a non-profit private foundation and charges a small fee for all vehicles.
You’ll agree that entrance is worth every penny of the price when you see this tapestry of gardens and leisure facilities spreading out over 280 acres.
Wickham Park has an arboretum with more than 250 labelled trees and shrubs, as well as nine exquisite gardens, like a walled Irish garden, an Oriental Garden on a pond bordered by a torii archway, and, at the highest point, a Cabin Garden & Amphitheatre endowed with a panoramas of Hartford.
Wickham Park also has an aviary, a nature centre/museum, three playgrounds, a disc golf course, facilities for a wide range of sports and concessions on weekends and holidays.
2. Case Mountain
The Case Family, who were also prominent Manchester manufacturers, operated a paper mill on what is now an inviting open space covering 640 acres and shrouded in hardwood forest.
Among the remnants from the late-19th century there’s a carriage path, a chestnut log cabin, a stone bridge over the west end of Case Pond and a whole system of stone walls.
Intrepid visitors will fix their gaze on the 227-metre Lookout Mountain which, true to its name, commands distant vistas of downtown Manchester, downtown Hartford and the peaks of the Metacomet Ridge far to the west.
There’s a big network of trails all through the park, to suit all comer and because of its sharp terrain Case Mountain is billed by those who know as the best mountain biking location in Connecticut.
3. Lutz Children’s Museum
This museum just for kids always keeps things fresh, rolling out new educational exhibits every few months.
In 2019 the headline was the Main Street exhibit, immersing children in the sights and sounds of a shopping thoroughfare from 1943, when FDR was in the Oval Office and Glenn Miller was on the radio.
The Farm Exhibit meanwhile lets kids experience life on a farm in the 1800s, milking cows, collecting eggs and playing in the hay loft.
The Lutz Children’s Museum also runs an animal sanctuary, rehabilitating small mammals before releasing them back into the wild.
The attraction is very engaged in the Manchester community, scheduling special classes, workshops, concerts, trips and all sorts of programmes at its offshoot, the Oak Grove Nature Center.
4. Cheney Brothers Historic District
Exploring the 175 acres of the Cheney Brothers Historic District you can fully gauge the impact that one family made on Manchester in the course of 150 years.
This area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and encompasses the Cheney Family Homestead, several mansions to the east built for members of the family, as well as all of the surviving Cheney Brothers silk mills.
Added to these are hundreds of homes built by the company for workers, along with the schools, halls, churches and a public bathhouse that served these communities.
As for the mills, these are mostly from the very beginning of the 20th century and have a functional but attractive design with cornices, corbels and pilasters on the corners.
The Cheneys sold the business off in 1954, but silk production continues on a smaller scale at the factory complex.
5. The Fire Museum
Surrounded by the handsome red brick buildings of the Cheney Brothers Historic District, this lovable museum is in a firehouse from 1901 built by the local volunteer fire-fighting force with funds donated by the Cheney family.
The Fire Museum is the base for the Connecticut Firemen’s Historical Society, and its marvellous inventory of fire-fighting apparatus and memorabilia is laid out on three floors.
Along with communication equipment, paintings, colonial-era leather buckets, sprinkler systems, helmets, 19th-century photographs there’s a wonderful display of engines, both horse-drawn and motorised.
A favourite is the Ahrens Fox Pumper from 1921 and still in working order, as well as the 1912 Seagrave Chemical Engine on the first floor.
6. 2nd Bridge Brewing Co.
A striking brick-built factory at Haillard Mills, America’s oldest woollen mill site, is the home of 2nd Bridge Brewing Co., a craft brewery established in 2015. There’s an ever-changing selection of unfiltered brews on tap, but when we compiled this list in July 2019, the taproom had a selection of eight.
Some of the picks were Ophilia’s Choco Stout, North London (English-style ale), Farmtree Ale (a French-style saison) and Hey Little Buddy (a peach/mango session IPA). The taproom is open Thursday to Sunday, an you’re free to bring your own meals and snacks, or order in from a local restaurant with a delivery app.
7. Center Springs Park
An urban oasis, Center Springs Park is on the banks of the Bigelow Brook, which is dammed to create a pond on the east side.
There’s a rippling landscape here, with little knolls, all framed by the moderate slopes of a gorge sculpted by the brook.
Just north of the pond is a well-maintained nine-hole disc golf course, and winding along with the course of the brook are walking and cycling trails on both sides.
To the west, the park links with the Cheney Rail Trail, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
On the east side, look for the rather unceremonious Center Springs Falls, long ago a gathering point for the indigenous Podunk people who would catch lamprey eels in the brook.
8. Charter Oak Park
This downtown Manchester playground has been spruced up in the last couple of years with brand new features like a large woodland-themed playground for children.
There are two playscapes within this space, one for toddlers and smaller children, and some more challenging equipment for children up to the age of 12. The entire playground is laid with soft rubber in case of mishaps.
Elsewhere there’s a little brook with frogs in summer, and a clever sensory garden installed with playable percussion instruments.
Charter Oak Park also has a generous grassy space, a baseball field and multiple basketball courts.
9. Little Theatre of Manchester at Cheney Hall
Cheney Hall, in the Historic District, was constructed by the Cheney Brothers for community gatherings and entertainment in 1867. It’s a beautiful building with three round-headed arches in its porch, and a steep hipped roof above.
The resident Little Theatre of Manchester, run by volunteers, has been based at the hall since 1960 and stages an appealing programme of plays, musicals and live music performances.
On the menu in the 2019 season was The Dixie Swim Club, Kiss Me Kate and Mamma Mia! There’s also a lunchtime lecture series and regular workshops, introducing people to the craft of acting or the works of Shakespeare.
10. Manchester Historical Society
The striking former machine shop for the Cheney Brothers’ Silk Mills, dating from 1895, is the apt setting for the Manchester Historical Society.
The History Center here is open Monday to Friday, 10:00 to 14:00 and organises tours, puts on compelling exhibitions and presents a series of lectures and programmes all year round.
At the old Machine Shop there’s an exhibit of two Jacquard looms taking you back to Manchester’s heyday, as well as a display of Cheney silks.
Also worthwhile is a little exhibition about Manchester’s old Russell barber shop, elaborated with vintage barber tools furniture and a barber pole.
11. Cheney Homestead
Managed by the Manchester Historical Society and set in the Cheney Brothers Historic District is the Cheney Homestead, put up by the famed clockmaker Timothy Cheney in 1785. The brothers who created a world-famous silk empire were all born in this house at the turn of the 19th century to George Cheney and his wife Electa Woodbridge Cheney.
Electa gave birth in what is now the study, while the pine-clad living room downstairs has some Cheney family mementos.
The tall clock here was built by Timothy Cheney, and the image of Lake Pepin is the work of Seth Cheney, a member of the clan who eschewed the silk trade to become an artist.
The house is decorated with lots of stately 18th-century furniture, acquired in Philadelphia by John Cheney, another brother who became a renowned engraver.
You can normally take a look inside in the afternoon on the second Sunday of the month.
12. Cheney Rail Trail
The South Manchester Railroad was a short-line railroad operating in the town from 1869 to the 1980s, linking the Cheney Brothers silk mills to North Manchester.
At just 2.25 miles it was America’s shortest freight and passenger line, but by that token it was also the longest private railroad in the country.
In 2005 the Manchester Land Conservation Trust bought a mile-long piece of the line to turn into a walking trail, furnished with benches as well as historic railroad markers.
Running north to south the path is shaded in by foliage in summer and mostly level, and you can see the original rails off Hilliard Street.
Once you reach Center Springs Park there’s a fine, old steel bridge.
13. Oak Grove Nature Center
The Lutz Children’s Museum takes care of this 52-acre nature preserve in partnership with the Town of Manchester.
The Nature Center building opens for the museum’s programmes, which are available for all ages and deal with fields like natural science, history and art.
At any time you’ll be free to enjoy the preserve of course, which is open to the public from dawn to dusk.
The main trail loops around a pond and has interpretive signs letting you know about the preserve’s insect, plant and tree species.
The trail runs through a sweet covered bridge, into groves of cedar and hemlock, and across a small wetland area.
14. Buckland Hills
On the north side of Manchester there’s a cluster of malls and stand-alone stores all on one hilltop; a shopping, dining and entertainment enclave at the intersection of Buckland Road and Buckland Hills Drive.
The largest is the indoor mall, the Shoppes at Buckland Hills, a midmarket shopping centre anchored by seven stores including Sears, Macy’s, Barnes & Noble, JCPenney and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
For an idea of what’s on offer at the mall, you’ll find Foot Locker, H&M, Hot Topic, American Eagle and Victoria’s Secret among others.
Outside close by is The Plaza at Buckland Hills, for dining choices like Five Guys and Olive Garden, and the slightly more upscale Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk for Sephora, L’Occitane, Apple Store, Old Navy, Gap and Pier 1 Imports.
Make a day of it with a movie at the Buckland Hills 18 and IMAX theatre.
15. Manchester Road Race
Since 1927, thousands of people from all over America have descended on Manchester every Thanksgiving Day to take part in the Manchester Road Race.
This event, starting at 10:00, accepts runners of all ages and standards, taking place on a relatively short course, at 4.748 miles long.
Proceeds from the race are donated to Muscular Dystrophy research, and almost 20 other charities, and there’s also a blood drive every year collecting hundreds of pints.
While many runners take part to raise money, soak up the festive atmosphere and wear outlandish costumes (there’s a prize for the best one), the Manchester Road Race attracts lots of first-class competitors.
The 2018 event was won by former NCAA Cross Country Champion Edward Cheserek in a record-breaking time, and the women’s champion was Kenyan Olympian Celliphine Chespol.