More than a century after their silk empire peaked, I still can’t talk about Manchester without mentioning the Cheney family.
A big slice of the south of this city, east of Hartford, belongs to the Cheney Brothers Historic District.
There 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 magnificent high ground overlooking Hartford to the west.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Manchester:
1. Wickham Park
On both sides of the town line with East Hartford, this park is maintained by a non-profit private foundation, and charges a small fee for all vehicles.
I think Wickham Park is worth every cent of the price. I bet you’ll agree when you see this tapestry of gardens and leisure facilities spreading out over 280 acres.
Wickham Park has an arboretum with more than 250 labeled trees and shrubs. There’s also nine exquisite gardens, including a walled Irish garden, an Oriental Garden on a pond bordered by a torii archway.
Then at the highest point, the Cabin Garden & Amphitheatre is endowed with panoramas of Hartford.
Wickham Park also has an aviary, a nature center/museum, three playgrounds, a disc golf course, and facilities for a wide range of sports. You’ll also find 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 and a chestnut log cabin. Elsewhere, a stone bridge crosses the west end of Case Pond, and there’s a whole system of stone walls still visible.
Intrepid visitors will fix their gaze on the 740-foot Lookout Mountain. True to its name, it 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-comers. Because of its sharp terrain Case Mountain is my pick for the best mountain biking location in Connecticut.
3. Cheney Brothers Historic District
I think you have to explore the 175-acre Cheney Brothers Historic District to fully gauge the impact that one family made on Manchester in the course of 150 years.
This area has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since the 1970s. It 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. These are complemented by the schools, halls, churches and even a public bathhouse that served these communities.
As for the mills, these are mostly from the very beginning of the 20th century. They 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.
4. 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. It was built by the local volunteer firefighting force with funds donated by the Cheney family.
The Fire Museum is the base for the Connecticut Firemen’s Historical Society, with a marvelous inventory of firefighting apparatus and memorabilia laid out on three floors.
I saw communication equipment, paintings, colonial-era leather buckets, sprinkler systems, helmets, and 19th-century photographs. There’s also a wonderful display of engines, both horsedrawn and motorized.
A favorite of mine is the Ahrens Fox Pumper from 1921, still in working order, as well as the 1912 Seagrave Chemical Engine on the first floor.
5. 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 an excellent 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 I’ll cover in more detail below.
On the east side, look for the rather unceremonious Center Springs Falls. Long ago this was a gathering point for the indigenous Podunk people who would catch lamprey eels in the brook.
6. Charter Oak Park
This downtown Manchester playground has been spruced up in recent years with 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. When I was here last, the Gear and Bike Shop had just moved into the old warming hut.
In summer you can drop by to rent some wheels as part of the Yellow Bike & Scooter Program.
Charter Oak Park also has a generous grassy space, a baseball field and multiple basketball courts.
7. Lutz Children’s Museum
This museum just for kids always keeps things fresh, rolling out new educational exhibits every few months. The setting is a former school, with classrooms serving as galleries.
I was impressed with the reproduction of downtown Manchester from the 1940s, all on a child’s scale.
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. This rehabilitates small mammals before releasing them back into the wild where possible.
The attraction is very engaged in the Manchester community, scheduling special classes, workshops, concerts, and field trips. There are also many different programs at its offshoot, the Oak Grove Nature Center.
When I compiled this list the museum had just implemented an online reservation system for visits.
8. 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. This organization stages an appealing schedule of plays, musicals and live music performances.
I had a blast at Little Shop of Horrors recently, and I’ve already booked a seat for Legally Blonde. There’s also a lunchtime lecture series and programs introducing people to the craft of acting or the works of Shakespeare.
9. 2nd Bridge Brewing Co.
Hilliard Mills, America’s oldest woolen mill site, is the home of 2nd Bridge Brewing Co., a craft brewery established in 2015.
I fell in love with the taproom right away. It’s modeled on a cozy English pub, and even shows live soccer games, among other sports. There are ten beers on tap at any time. When I was here, I thoroughly enjoyed the Welmax (German Lager), and Orville’s (Oatmeal Stout).
The taproom is open Wednesday through Sunday, and you’re free to bring your own meals and snacks, or order in from a local restaurant with a delivery app.
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 on weekdays, and organizes tours, puts on compelling exhibitions and presents a series of lectures and programmes all year round. I’d phone ahead to make sure there’s a volunteer when you come.
There are plenty of reminders from Manchester’s heyday. For instance, the old Machine Shop has a display of Cheney silks, as well as two Jacquard looms.
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. This grand residence was raised by the famed clockmaker Timothy Cheney in 1785.
The brothers responsible for a world-famous silk empire were all born in this house 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. He was 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.
When I went to press it was possible to enter by appointment, or 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. The route linked 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 I discovered 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 trail. It’s a wonderful recreation feature for Manchester, 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. For a bit of history, I loved the stretch where you can see the original rails off Hilliard Street. Once you reach Center Springs Park there’s a fine, old steel bridge to check out.
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 programs. These are available for all ages, and deal with fields like natural science, history and art.
Of course, at any time you’ll be free to enjoy the preserve. This is open to the public from dawn to dusk.
I had a relaxing stroll on the main trail, which loops around a pond, and has interpretive signs letting you know about the preserve’s insect, plant and tree species. The trail leads you over 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 shopping, dining and entertainment enclave at the intersection of Buckland Road and Buckland Hills Drive.
The largest single property is the enclosed mall, the Shoppes at Buckland Hills. This is a mid-market shopping center anchored by six stores (with one under construction).
When I wrote this article these were Macy’s, Bob’s Stores, 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 many others.
Outside close by is The Plaza at Buckland Hills, for dining choices like Five Guys and Olive Garden. Head to slightly more upscale Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk for Sephora, L’Occitane, Apple Store, Old Navy, Gap and Pier 1 Imports.
You can make a whole day of it with a movie at the Buckland Hills 18 XD and IMAX theater.
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 AM, accepts runners of all ages and standards. It all takes 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. There’s also a blood drive every year collecting hundreds of pints.
Many runners take part to raise money, soak up the festive atmosphere and wear outlandish costumes (there’s a prize for the best one). But I also have to say that the Manchester Road Race attracts Olympians from around the world.