In Greater Hartford lies what is thought to be Connecticut’s oldest permanent European settlement, founded in 1634. Testament to its age, Wethersfield is represented on the Connecticut State Flag as one of the three grapevines, alongside Windsor and Hartford.
Over the next 200 years Wethersfield would grow as a port on the Connecticut River, bringing in rum and sugar from the West Indies.
Appropriately, the town now has the largest historic district in Connecticut. This comprises some 1,100 buildings, a large portion of which were standing before the Revolutionary War broke out.
I hardly need to tell you that historic house museum tours feature heavily, most with captivating stories to share. Out and about, the town has laid out a 22-stop Heritage Walk, revealing titbits from Wethersfield’s long history.
1. Old Wethersfield
Like a living museum, Old Wethersfield encompasses Connecticut’s first permanent European-American settlement, set up almost 400 years ago.
The land was acquired from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and relied on the Connecticut River for trade, becoming a vital port out of Wethersfield Cove.
The Old Wethersfield Historic District was officially delineated in 1970 and is bounded by the Hartford and Rocky Hill town lines, I-91 and the railroad tracks.
Most of the things to do on my list are in Old Wethersfield. Amazingly, some 50 of the buildings in the district date to before the Revolutionary War.
The Keeney Memorial Cultural Center is the ideal introduction to Old Wethersfield, and I’ll cover the museum inside in more detail below.
Not covered below is the idyllic Town Green. This is hemmed by brick and frame houses constructed by sea captains and shipbuilders.
A short walk to the north, the First Church of Christ is from the 1760s, but with a cemetery established more than a century earlier.
2. Webb Deane Stevens Museum
There are three historic buildings in situ and ready to be admired at 211 Main Street.
The Webb Deane Stevens Museum is centered on the Joseph Webb House, raised in 1752. Its most significant moment came in 1781 when George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau convened here to plan the victory at Yorktown. For me, it’s the must-see in the ensemble.
The Silas Deane House (1766) was the home of the first foreign diplomat from the United States to France. The interior is decorated with original furniture belonging to Deane and contemporaneous portraits of Deane and his second wife, Elizabeth.
The tone changes a little at the Isaac Stevens House (1788). This captures the lifestyle and taste of a middle class family in the 1820s and 30s.
The top floor of this building is entirely devoted to younger members of the family. On show are child-sized furniture and the Colonials Dames collection of antique toys, dolls and doll houses.
3. Wethersfield Heritage Walk
If you don’t know where to start at the largest historic district in the state you could head to the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center on Main Street. There you can pick up a brochure for an informative three-mile walking tour.
There are 22 markers highlighting points of interest and telling the stories of people from days gone by.
I found out about enslaved people, sea captains, diplomats, shipbuilders, patriots, and early settlers. There’s also compelling info about the Native American Wangunks who had lived in Central Connecticut for millennia.
You’ll follow Wethersfield’s evolution from colonial settlement to thriving port. As you go, you’ll track its development as the cradle of the American seed industry, a suburb for Hartford and a reference point for historical preservation.
Some of the many compelling stops include the site of the first English settlement, the old State Prison, Millionaires’ Row, and a setting caught up in the Pequot War (1636-1638).
4. Cedar Hill Cemetery
Overlapping with Hartford and Newington is a 19th-century burial ground. Cedar Hill Cemetery was landscaped by Jacob Weidenmann (1829-1893), the man who designed Hartford’s Bushnell Park.
The property is furnished with many striking monuments, carved by renowned artists like Ferdinand von Miller, Carl Conrads and Randolph Rogers. I think this splendor makes the cemetery ripe for a tour.
One of the outstanding works is the pyramid for Mark Howard (1817-1887). He was president of the National Fire Insurance Company of Hartford.
Among a slew of famous burials is none other than Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003). Her site is close to her mother, the feminist and social reformer, Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn (1878-1951).
The inventor of the colt revolver, Samuel Colt (1814-1862) is also interred here, as well as financier and banker John Pierpoint Morgan Sr. (1837-1913) of J. P. Morgan.
5. Buttolph–Williams House
Away from the main site on Main Street the Webb Deane Stevens Museum cares for another fine old property, at 249 Broad Street.
The Buttolph–Williams House was built in 1711, with three bays across and one deep, and with a steeply pitched side gable roof.
Along with the diamond-pattern leaded windows, something you’ll notice are the corbels framing the entrance. I learned that the house’s overhang is actually for decorative rather than practical reasons.
This property has been open to the public since 1951 and every room is decorated with a remarkable collection of 17th-century decorative arts. Among these are wonderful examples of New England Pilgrim furniture.
6. Dinosaur State Park & Museum
Old Wethersfield is under ten minutes north of one of the largest dinosaur track sites on the entire continent.
Found in a sandstone quarry, these fossilized tracks were left 200 million years ago by a carnivore closely related to a dilophosaurus. At that time this parcel was on the sandy shore of a lake.
There are around 2,000 tracks in the park, 3/4 of which have been left buried, while another 500 are on show under a geodesic dome.
Inside you can check out this trackway and kids can interact with hands-on exhibits and cast their own dinosaur footprint to take home.
In terrariums are live animals like Madagascar hissing cockroaches and lizards. Meanwhile outside you can venture through an arboretum planted with 250 species and cultivars of conifers. These all help to evoke the woodland from the Mesozoic era.
7. Mill Woods Park
A great amenity for Wethersfield, Mill Woods Park is packed with things to do for people of all ages, all year. Locals have been coming to this space for generations.
In more than 120 acres there’s a wide range of active and passive amenities. On my last look there was a skate park, a little league stadium, softball fields, four floodlit tennis courts, and bocce courts.
This was all complemented by a fishing pond, walking trails, picnic areas, a playscape and an outdoor swimming pond with beach.
You can bring your hound and let him go off-leash in the dog park. Lastly, during the cooler months there’s an outdoor skate park when it’s cold enough.
8. Wethersfield Historical Society
You can take an inside look at a few more of Wethersfield’s many historic properties with the help of the Wethersfield Historic Society.
They maintain a museum at the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center, which I’ll talk about below. But they also have three house museums in the town, normally open for tours on weekends May through October, or by appointment.
The Hurlbut-Dunham House at 212 Main Street is Georgian from the 1790s, but with Italianate flourishes added in the 1860s.
In the early 20th century it was home to the Dunhams. They were keen antiques collectors and preservationists, who left behind rich decor and tons of intriguing pieces.
The Cove Warehouse Maritime Museum in Cove Park documents Wethersfield’s trade with the West Indies from the mid-17th century to 1830.
Meanwhile the Captain James Francis House (1793) at 120 Hartford Avenue was built by the master builder James Francis for himself.
It was occupied by his descendants for almost two centuries up tol 1969. Each room here is decorated to evoke a different period from the building’s past.
9. Keeney Memorial Cultural Center
The main address for the Wethersfield Historical Society is 200 Main Street, home of the Wethersfield Museum.
Open Tuesday to Sunday, the museum has riveting exhibitions drawing you into all aspects of the town’s history.
When I put this article together there was a show covering the history of consumer beverages in Wethersfield. The show touched on intriguing periods, from Colonial taverns to Prohibition.
“Legendary People, Ordinary Lives” is an ongoing exhibition diving into six aspects of Wethersfield’s past. These are Agricultural heritage, architecture, historic preservation, suburban and social development, and entrepreneurial spirit.
The displays brim with authentic artifacts from portraits to period costume, maritime tools, signs and locally made furniture. It’s all livened up with plenty of interactivity that kids will enjoy.
10. Wethersfield Cove
Wethersfield’s natural harbor is an inlet on the Connecticut River. Now, Wethersfield Cove is given over to nature, and a popular place for boating in the summer.
But it’s also suffused with history. I get chills to think that the very first ship built in Connecticut, the Tryall, was launched right here.
Up to the mid-19th century Wethersfield Cove was a port heaving with ships. Unloaded onto these docks were molasses, rum and sugar, while onions, grain, pork, fish, salted beef and lumber were all exported.
There’s a marina here with 51 berths, and if you’re on foot you could come to pause with a book by the water, or watch the waterfowl.
11. Quarry Park
The rise that gives its name to the town of Rocky Hill is the site of an old basalt quarry. This was worked from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.
A narrow slice, half a mile long was hewn from the hill’s eastern slopes, creating many different levels and sheer rock faces of up to 67 feet.
Quarry Park is state owned and managed by the town of Rocky Hill. For me, the reason to go is for the views, taking in Hartford, the Connecticut River, and Glastonbury across the water.
On the park’s east side is an abandoned, overgrown railway property. On a walk you’ll come across atmospheric decaying industrial buildings.
12. Old Wethersfield Country Store
A linchpin for Old Wethersfield is one of the state of Connecticut’s most beloved stores. The Old Wethersfield Country Store is a treasure trove of regional treats and arts and crafts.
In the selection are more than 300 different fine chocolates and candies, as well as 70 cheeses, local honey, jellies and jams.
I was astonished by the array of handmade scented candles, soaps, beauty products, clothing, accessories, cards and loads more.
In summer I can’t resist getting a scoop or two of luxurious Grass Roots Ice Cream. This has flavors like Honey Lavender, Deep Dark Chocolate Mousse, and Coffee Caramel Cup.
13. Lara’s Labyrinth
Wethersfield has its very own escape room center. Here, teams of between four and eight have to work together and put on their problem-solving hats to find their way out of a room within a one-hour time limit.
The Lara’s Labyrinth brand has been a huge success, with locations both here and down on the shore in East Haven.
What sets this attraction apart from other escape rooms in Connecticut is the intricacy and detail of the puzzles. Many of which come with mechanical components, making them extra satisfying to solve.
The Wethersfield branch has four immersive and imaginatively conceived rooms. When I came, these were Cell Block 4 (2-10 players), Curse of Osiris (2-8), BeWitched (2-8), and Heart of Bastet (2-7).
14. Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry
The oldest continuously running ferry service in the United States crosses the Connecticut River a few short miles downstream from Wethersfield.
Operating May through October, the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry has a history that can be traced back to 1655.
Even now it’s a valuable service, as this is the only crossing available for pedestrians and cyclists between Hartford and Middletown. I find it reassuring that almost 400 years later, it saves a detour of up to 13 miles.
The ferry, the Hollister III is an open flatboat hauled across the river by the Cumberland towboat.
When I last crossed, the cost was still just $5 for a vehicle on weekdays ($6 on weekends), and $2 on all days for pedestrians and cyclists.
Downtown Hartford is barely ten minutes north of Old Hartford, and Connecticut’s state capital has lots to pique your interest.
For culture, the Wadsworth Atheneum shines for its exquisite decorative arts, American art and works by European masters, from Caravaggio to Monet.
The Mark Twain House & Museum to the west is up there with world’s best writer’s house museums. In this elaborate Gothic Revival home where Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Check out world-class comedians, Broadway shows or musicians on tour at the Bushnell Center. I love hanging out in the namesake park, where there’s a carousel crafted in 1914.
Children can ponder the universe’s big questions at the Connecticut Science Center. Finally, the 18th-century Old State House takes you back to the very beginnings of democracy in the state.