In Litchfield County and close to the city of Bristol, Plymouth may be a minor town today but played a major role in the history of American manufacturing.
What is now Plymouth was first settled in 1720 on land acquired from the Tunxis Indians.
At the end of that century Eli Terry started a clockmaking business that would revolutionize the industry by introducing mass-production for the first time.
His three sons continued in this craft, and one, Eli Terry Jr. later branched out into lock-making.
He established the Eagle Lock Company, which would control the world lock market for decades.
There are museums for both trades, here and close by in Bristol, as well as curious hints of what came before in the Terryville section.
Let’s explore the best things to do in and around Plymouth, Connecticut:
1. American Clock & Watch Museum
This attraction is actually a few short minutes away in Bristol, but documents an important part of Plymouth’s heritage at the historic heart of the American clockmaking trade.
As well as being the world’s leading resource on this topic, the museum is distinguished by its complex of fine old houses, including the 1728 Barnes Homestead.
In eight galleries, the main thread at the American Clock & Watch Museum is on Eli Terry (1772-1852), who set up shop in Plymouth’s Greystone section and pioneered mass-production methods in the field of clockmaking, introducing interchangeable parts for the first time.
On display are clocks and timepieces from all periods and all corners of the globe, but with a special attention paid to the Bristol-Waterbury area.
Whenever you come, make sure you’re here on the hour when all the pieces chime at once.
2. Lock Museum of America
Another historic pillar of Plymouth’s economy is revealed at this museum in the town’s Terryville section.
Terryville is named for Eli Terry Jr. who established the Eagle Lock Company here in 1833. At its peak this was the largest trunk and cabinet manufacturer in the world, and today, some 45 years after the company collapsed, four of the original 50 buildings are still standing.
Opposite the site at the Lock Museum of America there’s an entire room filled with 1,000 Eagle locks manufactured between 1854 and 1954, while the Yale Room has locks manufactured by this other famous brand from 1860 to 1950. A noteworthy piece is Linus Yale Jr’s Mortise Cylinder Pin Tumbler Lock patent model from 1865. Elsewhere you can pore over safes, padlocks, door locks, safe locks, keys, early time locks and handcuffs from all over the world.
The museum also has its own escape room, titled “Lock Museum Adventure”.
3. Self-Guided Walking Tour of Plymouth Center
On the National Register of Historic Places in Connecticut, the village of Plymouth Center is a place where you can get out of the car and do some investigating on foot.
The Plymouth Historical Society organizes regular guided walks but also publishes a copy of the leaflet on its website.
On this intriguing little odyssey you’ll happen upon the graves of 38 Revolutionary War soldiers at the Burying Ground and can decipher the symbolism of their headstone carvings.
You’ll see the Greek Revival Congregational Church (1838), which has wooden clockworks designed by Eli Terry, as well as the Old Plymouth Town Hall (1850), now part of an antiques store.
Some other compelling sights are a house stayed in by George Washington and a house that was on the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses used by escaped African-American slaves in the first half of the 19th century.
4. Eli Terry Jr. Waterwheel
A wonderful holdover from Terryville’s lock-making heyday is preserved at the western bank of the fast-flowing Pequabuck River.
What you’ll see here is one of just three remaining industrial waterwheels in Connecticut, and most likely dating to 1851. Sitting in its original wheel well of rubblestone, the waterwheel is made from pressure-treated wood and iron, and measures 6.7 meters in diameter and 2.1 meters wide.
You may get a little thrill to think that this very wheel helped supply power to a factory that produced many millions of locks, and turned until 1940 when the rest of this particular factory was demolished.
5. Alley House Museum
The main office and museum for the Plymouth Historical Society is at this Greek Revival house at 572 Main Street, open for meetings every last Saturday of the month at 13:00, as well as during an open day in June and by appointment.
The Alley House dates to 1853 and was built by the prominent local businessman, Augustus C. Shelton (a partner at the Shelton and Tuttle carriage shop) as a gift for his niece.
Inside you can browse an interesting collection of Plymouth Memorabilia including a beautiful working Silas Hoadley grandfather clock from 1815.
6. Toll House Museum
Easy to miss from the road, this historic building is on the same site and dates from the beginning of the 19th century.
This was the simple home of the tollkeeper, taxing travelers on the Hartford Turnpike, a much trafficked road between Litchfield and Hartford.
By the entrance there’s a board advertising a list of actual toll charges here in 1834. The Toll House now holds the restored Woodruff and Beach steam engine that drove the machines at the Shelton & Tuttle Carriage factory from 1852. You can visit to see this industrial wonder turning during the Open House in June.
7. Dorence Atwater Monument
This memorial for Plymouth’s war hero is found at Baldwin Park in Terryville.
Dorence Atwater (1845-1910) led a fascinating life, enlisting in the Union Army at just 16. He was captured early on and was sent to the Confederate Army’s infamous prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, wherehe kept a secret record of the many Union Army soldiers perishing around him, which after the war made it possible to mark the graves of many soldiers who would otherwise have stayed unknown.
After the war, following a brief spell in prison under Andrew Johnson, he was sent to the Seychelles as a consul, later relocating to Tahiti where he married, started a successful shipping company, helped lepers and is still remembered fondly as “Tupuuataroa” (Wise Man). Atwater lived to return and see the cannon and plaque placed here in his honor in 1907, and in front is a pair of modern interpretive boards.
8. Railroad Museum of New England
Take Main Street down to the Naugatuck River and you can go on a train ride to remember, at the Railroad Museum of New England.
As well as boasting one of the largest collections of historic railroad equipment in the region the museum operates the Naugatuck Railroad.
This 20-mile heritage line was laid down in 1845 and later leased to the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad.
After you board a vintage carriage at the restored Thomaston Station from 1881, the train will whisk you by the Naugatuck River, through the Mattatuck State Forest, past historic brass mills and along the top of the Thomaston Dam.
This is the only train journey in the United States to traverse a dam in this way.
The line operates from March to December, with special seasonal services like Pumpkin Patch Trains in fall.
9. Mattatuck State Forest
This state forest is on 20 different blocks adding up to 4,673 acres, some of which lies in and near Plymouth.
As a whole the forest is known for its interesting topography, high overlooks and the diversity of its wooded habitats.
In Plymouth the easiest way to experience Mattatuck State Forest is by the namesake Blue-Blazed trail, which connects many blocks on its 36-mile course through seven towns including this one.
In the parcel on the western bank of the Naugatuck River you can hike to the Leatherman’s Cave.
This shelter was on the course of an annual 365-mile loop taken by an eccentric 19th-century vagabond known as the Leatherman.
He would hike perpetually through eastern New York and western Connecticut dressed in a heavy suit of leather and staying in caves like this one in Watertown.
10. Buttermilk Falls
Hiking the Mattatuck Trail to the south-east of the state forest you’ll arrive at a natural monument considered one of the highlights of the walk.
You can also park close by on Lane Hill Road, and reach the falls in a matter of minutes, passing a pair of caves in overhangs along the route.
The waterfall is a majestic, shrouded in verdant hemlock woodland and traced by moss-coasted rocks, ferns and wildflowers in spring.
Dropping a total of 16.7 meters Buttermilk Falls comprises horsetails, slides and cascades, and is best admired from its foot, which requires a careful scramble down the rocks.
11. Whitestone Cliffs Trail
At just 1.7 miles long there’s a short but very scenic Blue-Blazed loop through a section of the Mattatuck State Forest in the south of Plymouth.
The name of the trail comes from the unusually pale bluffs along the way, which appear almost white from Connecticut Route 8 and the Naugatuck River.
In the course of these 1.7 miles you’ll surmount rocky knolls, cross wetlands and streams and climb to an overlook with glorious vistas of the Naugatuck Valley.
12. East Plymouth Historic District
What is now called East Plymouth at the crossroads of East Plymouth Road and Marsh Road, was settled following the Revolutionary War and is on the National Register of Historic Places for its concentration of architecture from the early to mid-19th century.
These are typically in the Federal and Greek Revival styles, and one older, head-turning monument is the St Matthew’s Church (1792). This is among the oldest Episcopal churches in Connecticut, long since converted into an unusual residence.
The district’s value is as a showcase for vernacular building styles in what was then a modest village in rural Connecticut.
13. Terryville Lions Country Fair
Friday to Sunday on the fourth weekend of August the Terryville Lions Country fair for the local Lions Club.
The site is enormous and has something to keep people of all ages diverted.
For the shortest summary there’s tractor pulling, farmyard animals, old-time carnival games, amusement rides, live music, all sorts of children’s activities, an “ATV rodeo”, a demolition derby, logging displays and a lot more than we could list here.
The Plymouth Historical Society has a presence every year, with an exhibition of historic tools, machinery and pins.
14. Black Rock State Park
Cross the Naugatuck River and you’ll enter an unofficial region known as the Western Highlands, recognized by its tall rolling hills.
In five minutes flat from Plymouth Center you can be at the parking lot for Black Rock State Park, which gets its name from a lofty sheer rock face.
Atop the Black Rock you can savor a painterly view encompassing Thomaston, Watertown and pieces of Waterbury.
Black Rock Pond here is cupped by tiers of rocky ledges blanketed in oak, hemlock and pine woodland.
Swimming (in summer) and fishing are available here, and there’s a campground at the park with 78 campsites.
15. Lake Winfield Recreation Area
This cherished summer spot in Plymouth had fallen into decline by the 2000s, but clean-up efforts over the last five years or so have brought Lake Winfield back to life.
The narrow lake is about a half a kilometer long, and is encircled by a town park with a walking trail, tennis courts, a boat launch, a children’s playground and a newly revitalized beach area.
New benches have been installed along the waterside path and there’s a concession stand that opens in the summer.