In Tolland County on the border with Massachusetts, Stafford is an ensemble of small villages with a downtown at Stafford Springs, where the Middle River and Furnace Brook meet to form the Willimantic.
This place had long been frequented for its natural springs, and in 1771 a young John Adams spent some time here to partake of the waters.
Until the late-20th century the source of the Willimantic was a hub of industry, and you can discover the history of manufacturing at Stafford’s wonderful historical society museum.
Main Street Stafford Springs has a leftfield, arty character, with a restored vaudeville theater, eccentric little shops and a beloved craft cider brewery.
Let’s explore the best things to do in and around Stafford, Connecticut:
1. Stafford Historical Society Museum
The headquarters for Stafford’s historical society has a fitting home, inside an exquisite Victorian building constructed as the Stafford Mineral Waters Company’s bottling house in 1885. Over the last 135 years this has housed the Converse Woolen Company’s offices, Stafford probate judge’s offices and the town library.
On two floors the society’s museum goes into depth on local industries and companies, like B. Schwanda & Sons, which manufactured buttons using mother of pearl shipped over from Australia.
Also compelling is the contents of an early-20th-century pharmacy in Stafford Springs.
There’s information about the Podunk and Nipmuck Indians who used Stafford Springs’ waters, and the town’s time in the 18th and 19th centuries as a health resort.
One character you’ll learn about is Ephraim H. Hyde (1812-1896), who was Connecticut’s Lieutenant Governor in the 1860s and, amongst other things, had a hand in what would eventually become the University of Connecticut nearby in Storrs.
2. The Stafford Palace Theater
This rather nondescript-looking brick building on Main Street in Stafford Springs actually has a lot of history, having been founded as a stage for vaudeville in 1900. By the early 1940s the Stafford Palace Theater was playing movies but closed in 1960, becoming a bar/club.
Since the 2010s the building has been restored as a vibrant performing arts venue for live music, comedy, movie screenings and annual events like the Wicked Weekend horror market and film fest in December.
3. Stafford Springs Art Walk
What may strike you about Stafford Springs is just how much life there is in this remote rural village.
In the last decade Main Street has built a strong art community, and those 19th-century mill buildings create a backdrop for an assortment of studios, independent eateries and shops you won’t find anywhere else.
On the second Friday of every month shops here stay open until 20:00, and will normally be dedicated to a featured artists.
There will also be live music in a range of styles, and if you’re busy in the evening you can come back the next morning for the “Morning After Party”.
4. Crazy Cock Cider
Where almost every town in Connecticut has a craft brewery it’s refreshing in more ways than one that Stafford Springs is the proud home to a cidery.
Crazy Cock Cider is all about creative and fun hard cider, with a taproom on Main Street open Thursday to Monday for pints, samplers and growler refills.
For an idea of what’s in store, there’s Tea-Hee, brewed with chamomile, the chocolate-flavored Cock-O-Lot, Sweet Vanilla, Gingerade infused with ginger and Hot Cock, which packs a cayenne pepper punch.
If all these varieties sound a bit wild, Sanity is a classic semi-sweet hard cider with nothing but the taste of apples.
5. Stafford Motor Speedway
Long before it was a stop on the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series tour, this half-mile oval track was the Agricultural Park, opened in 1870. You might be intrigued to learn that the speedway follows exactly the same course as the track for horseracing 150 years ago.
The speedway is a 21st-century sports venue, with seating for 8,000 and facilities for national television coverage.
There’s racing every Friday night between May and September, and the NASCAR Whelen modifieds are in town three times during the season for the NAPA Auto Parts Spring Sizzler 200, the Stafford 150 and the NAPA Fall Final 150.
6. Rusty Wallace Racing Experience
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to get behind the wheel of a genuine NASCAR racecar or even just ride along you can find out on at Stafford Speedway.
Here the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience, endorsed by the NASCAR icon, offers driving experiences and ride alongs in a genuine stockcar.
Ride alongs are three to five laps, but if you want to take the wheel you can drive for anything from five to 50 laps for a full race day experience.
7. Shenipsit State Forest
Much of the land on the west side of Stafford is given over to the Shenipsit State Forest, which is spread in 11 parcels over this town, Ellington and Somers.
At the forest’s headquarters in Stafford there’s a great little museum about the Civilian Conservation Corps, which we’ll talk about next.
The forest is on the eastern cusp of the Connecticut River Valley, which gives peaks like the 328-meter Soapstone Mountain in Somers extra prominence.
At this summit there’s a lookout tower for astounding vistas of the valley, the Berkshires in Massachusetts and Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.
Soapstone Mountain is the highest point on the Shenipsit Trail, which wends its way south, roughly parallel to the Connecticut River for 50 miles.
The North section can be joined at Greaves Road in Stafford for an epic trip through the forest, traversing Soapstone Mountain and other tall peaks like Bald Mountain, Perkins Mountain and Rattlesnake Mountain.
8. Connecticut Civilian Conservation Corps Museum
If you visit the Shenipsit State Forest on a weekend in summer there will be an enlightening museum about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work relief program during the Great Depression.
CCC projects provided unskilled manual labor jobs for job-seeking, unmarried men between the ages of 17 and 28. The museum, at 166 Chestnut Hill Road, is in the only surviving CCC barracks building in Connecticut, and chronicles this organization with tools, documents, photographs, memorabilia and personal accounts sourced from all over the Northeast United States.
9. Stafford Library
The sort of amenity that most small towns wish they had, Stafford Library is more than just a place for Stafford residents to loan books, magazines and DVDs.
There’s a wealth of programs for people of all ages from summer movie screenings outside to storytimes, open art studios, book clubs, interesting talks and events like a Halloween party for kids.
If you’re just passing through, Stafford the library can be a valuable place to get your bearings, with material about the region, computer access, free Wi-Fi and helpful, welcoming staff.
10. Holt Memorial Fountain
There’s a rather curious sight at the junction of Main Street and River Road in Stafford Springs.
This fountain under a granite canopy supported by four pillars is for Charles Holt, who owned the Phoenix Woolen Company and president of the Stafford Savings Bank.
He died in 1892 and the monument was erected two years later, donated by Holt’s wife, Joana and daughter, Celia.
The low, outer basin is often bedded with flowers, and the fountain forms a roundabout.
In 1990 there was a proposal to shift the Holt Memorial Fountain out of the road to help traffic flow, but this was firmly opposed by the town.
11. Peaked Mountain
For more staggering natural scenery, Peaked Mountain is a nature reserve a few minutes across the state line in Monson, MA.
These 2,000 acres of former commercial forest encompass the summit of the 374-metre Peaked Mountain, which afford jaw-dropping views of the New England countryside, 60 miles north to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire and south back to the Shenipsit State Forest.
At the Valley View vantage point you can gaze west to Springfield and Boulder Hill.
Hiking from the reserve’s main entrance there’s an elevation gain of more than 140 meters, so you’re sure to get a good workout on a 90-minute round trip.
On your hike you may spot birds like cardinals, blue jays, warblers and thrushes, as well as raptors like owls, hawks and turkey vultures.
12. Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary
In the same upland region known as the Quinebaug Highlands there’s another sweep of protected nature against the state border in Monson.
The Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary was founded by one Arthur D. Norcross in 1964, and over time a 100- acre woodlot has burgeoned into 8,000 acres of meadows and forests for the protection of New England’s native plants and animals.
There are 2.5 miles of trails, and the foundation is keen to engage the public with lectures, guided walks, indoor classroom programs and in setting up bluebird nestboxes with children on Saturdays in January, February and March.
13. Queen Bee Vineyard
With views for miles in the rugged south Massachusetts countryside, Queen Bee Vineyard is a boutique winery opening for tours, tastings and purchases on weekend afternoons.
Planted here are mostly French and American hybrid grapes that do well in the vigorous New England climate and go into mostly single varietal wines.
Among the whites are Aurore, Chardonnay, Edelweiss, La Crosse, Traminette, Vidal and Vignoles.
And reds include Frontenac, Chancellor, Marquette, Vincent and Chambourcin.
The wines available at the tasting room will change with the seasons.
When we put this list together in autumn 2019 there was a fruity La Crosse, an aromatic Traminette and a full-bodied Vincent.
14. Nipmuck State Forest
Scattered over Union and Ashford, this 9,000-acre state forest has a south parcel right next to Stafford Springs.
It’s important not to confuse this 900-acre parcel with the one in Union by Bigelow Hollow State Park.
In Stafford’s south-eastern corner you can hike in peaceful mixed woodland along the Bradley and Murray Trails.
The trails intersect close to a spur on Stone House Road, and the Bradley Trail heads east while the longer Murray Trail continues south as far as Polster Road in Willington.
15. Staffordville Reservoir
This long and narrow body of water extends north from Stafford’s Staffordville section, covering a little under 150 acres and with homes all along its eastern shore.
If you’re a Staffordville resident, tenant or are visiting someone who lives here you’ll be able to use the little sandy beach at the south end, with a satisfying view up the length of the reservoir.
Motorized boating is also permitted at the Staffordville Reservoir (subject to strict rules), and kayakers and paddleboarders are a common sight in the warmer months.