With quintessential New England charm and all the modern amenities, “old” and “new” blend harmoniously in Glastonbury.
If you judged the town by its picturesque town green, which features a fountain and benches framed by Colonial-style buildings, and it’s traditional white churches, you’d know only part of its story. There’s also a bustling retail scene with trendy shops and a local passion that supports the arts, commerce and education.
“This is an amazing town. People really participate,” says Mary Ellen Dombrowski of the chamber of commerce.
Glastonbury was founded in 1693 by settlers who crossed the Connecticut River from Wethersfield. The oldest continuously operating ferry in the country, dating to 1655, still transports passengers between the scenic shores of Glastonbury and Rocky Hill.
The town grew slowly but surely, and by the time of the Revolutionary War, several homes were being used for Yale University classes, attended by Noah Webster, the education and textbook pioneer, who later served as a teacher at one of Glastonbury’s one room schoolhouses.
An early center for shipbuilding, the town’s primary business focus began to shift in the early 1800s, and by the 1830s, farming dominated.
When James Baker Williams moved his soap factory to town in 1847, Glastonbury became known around the globe for its commercial manufacturing success.
Other notable figures include John Howard Hale, an orchard owner in the late 1800s who developed a peach that could withstand the harsh Connecticut winters. His partner and brother, George, is credited with starting the legendary peach industry in Georgia.
Particularly fascinating is the legacy of the five Smith sisters – skilled in music, horticulture, art and foreign languages – who became activists in the late 1880s as abolitionists and who also fought for women’s rights and stood up to local government over taxation issues. The sisters made headlines in newspapers from Boston to Chicago. Their home on Main Street, called Kimberly Mansion, is a National Historic Landmark (it’s privately owned).
There are reminders of Glastonbury’s past throughout its 52 square miles. For example, the Old Cider Mill in South Glastonbury still delights locals (the town’s population is about 35,000) in the early autumn with fresh drinks, apple fritters, a petting zoo and farmers market.
The original town hall, now the Museum on the Green, details Glastonbury’s storied past, while another museum, the Welles Shipman Ward House in South Glastonbury, is a scenic Connecticut River Valley mansion, dating to 1755.
The town’s businesses are anything but historic, but some have a traditional feel.
Drive down Main Street and find the traditional Katz Ace Hardware Store, run by the same family for 90 years, not far from the sprawling Shops at Somerset Square, filled with a modern variety of stores and restaurants, such as Lux, Bond & Green, Ann Taylor, Munson’s chocolates and Max Fish.
With this mix of “mom & pop shops” and big chains, Glastonbury can live up to a claim of having it all. The Silver Dahlia is a boutique featuring unique brands of clothing, gifts and jewelry. Sweet Frog Premium Yogurt draws a family crowd, while Daybreak Coffee Roasters attracts customers to its outdoor tables, cooled by colorful umbrellas.
The owner of the Mustard Seed Cafe, a busy spot for breakfast and lunch, says that Glastonbury is fast becoming a culinary destination.
“It’s got a little bit of everything here,” Todd Lankton says. “It’s quiet and scenic and has a nice, small-town feel.”
Small-town, while still offering broad choices, the town eateries include Ken’s Corner for breakfast and lunch, while popular evening restaurants include Bricco for Italian, Hanafin’s Public House with an Irish pub atmosphere, Sakura Garden for an Asian inspired menu and J Gilbert’s, a widely known steakhouse.
“We’re all in this together,” says Lankton, mentioning Pazzo Italian Cafe and Max Amore. “It’s a team effort.”
New, as well as vintage, homes dot Glastonbury streets, some favored with views of the Hartford skyline. Routes 2 and 3 are major thoroughfares in and out of this town, which includes portions of Meshomasic State Forest, which offers opportunities for fishing and hiking. Interestingly, timber rattlesnakes are still spotted from time to time in an area called Rattlesnake Mountain.
With 12,000 households, Glastonbury’s well-respected public education system has six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school with slightly more than 2,000 students.
Residents, who pride themselves on helping create a rich cultural feel, look forward to Strawberry Moon, an event featuring a “taste” of Glastonbury’s food every June, while July brings the annual Riverfront Music Festival, a free summer concert series.
“If it’s nice out, we get 3,000 to 4,000 people. It’s awesome,” says Dombrowski, of the chamber of commerce.
The Apple Harvest Festival in October, with rides, food vendors and craft booths, also draws a large crowd.
The yearly Glastonbury Art Walk, started by a group of volunteers, highlights the “walkability” of the town, as people stroll around, gazing at paintings and sculptures displayed in shop windows.
Families frequent Glastonbury’s traditional orchards and “country” landmarks, such as Rose’s Berry Farm, to grab “pick-your-own” natural treats in the summer and pumpkins in the fall.
While residents have known and enjoyed Glastonbury’s gifts for centuries, Lankton sees an even brighter future: “It’s definitely growing and starting to thrive.”