Northwestern Connecticut: where antiquers find a picnic

Vacationing in northwestern Connecticut can pleasurabley and profitably add dimension to the collecting of antiques -- a high-on-the- list pastime these days for many travelers.

Here, local historical societies and small museums offer an up-close look at artifacts and memorabilia that reveal much about New England's past life styles; broaden the knowledge of collectors of everything from farm tools to cradles, from paintings to porcelain; and provide enjoyable access to country inns, antique shops, rural picnic places, and out-of-doors flea markets.

The Litchfield-Torrington-Winchester area has an outstanding grouping of small museums and historical society headquarters -- all within a gas-saving 20- to 25-mile proximity for combining with other antique-oriented fare. One of the best places to begin sampling this fare is at the Litchfield Historical Society Galleries located on Litchfield Green.

As Litchfield was once a colonial cultural center, the galleries house an important assemblage of Americana -- Ralph Earl's portraits and his rare landscape of Sharon, Connecticut; Silas Cheney's cabinetry; the work of several early Connecticut and Litchfield silversmiths.

While in Litchfield "antiquers" might well enjoy visiting knowledgeable Tom McBride's Caledonian Market (conveniently next door to the galleries) with its appealing hodgepodge of vintaged wares, or stopping at Litchfield Hills Antiques where there is an elegant focus on 18th- and early 19th-century antiques. Afterward, take time out to picnic within the wooded beauty of White Memorial Foundation along Conn. 63.

More formal dining is about 5 miles away in Torrington at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a Torrington Main Street landmark since 1876.

Satisfying dining at the Pedlar (also an excellent place to stay overnight) should be followed with a visit to the Hotchkiss-Fyler House, the Torrington Historical Society headquarters, which is no more than a stone's throw away. A massive English-styled tower crowns this 16-room Victorian mansion, built in 1901. The home and its rooms permit an intimate glimpse of the long-ago life style of the Orsamus R. Fyler family.

The Fylers were "some of the wealthiest people in town" during years when Torrington sheltered a booming brass business and a trolley car made daily runs past this Main Street residence. Orsamus Fyler was one of the most powerful political figures in Connecticut during the late 19the and early 20th centuries.

The opulent turn-of-the-century, lived-in aura of the Hotchkiss-Fyler House is heightened by its half parlor with hand-painted ceiling and its abundance of art glass and of Sevre, Capodimonte, Staffordshire, and lusterware. A stop at the Hotchkiss-Fyler House usually prompts cordial guidance through it by its director Catherine Calhoun.

Before leaving Torrington enjoy the little- known treat of a visit to the impressive museum located in the Torrington Library. Librarian Esther Carey has supervised an extensive array of rare blown and Sandwich glass candlesticks (important enough to "outclass" many collections within major museums); blue and white Staffordshire; a colorful grouping of tumblers (The Virginia Weston Brooks Collection) which includes examples of agata, amberina, Mount Washington and other Victorian period glasses; choice Oriental porcelain pieces, and John Brown (a Torrington native) memorabilia.

Many of this museum's delights, including lovely pieces of 19th- and early 20 th-century Venetian jewelry, were gathered by townspeople of other years who were wealthy enough to afford such jewels or who acquired them during their "grand tours" of Europe.

Winsted's Historical Society is quartered within the architectural loveliness of the pillared Solomon Rockwell House (once often called "The Temple") on Prospect Street. Built in 1813, the interior of this stately mansion reflects "upper class" living of the early 19th century. Among its holdings is a kingly cache of paintings by an early 19th-century painter, Erastus Salisbury Field.

A short distance away in Riverton, there is the opportunity to view at the John Tarrant Kenney Hitchcock Museum an extensive collection of painted and decorated furniture of Lambert Hitchcock and other early furniture makers, as well as featured changing exhibits.

There's so much to do in Riverton for antique collectors, they may find themselves tossing coins while there to see what to do first. High on the list here is Elizabeth Windsor McIntire's antique shop housed in a large yellow Victorian home. It brims to the eaves with an enticing melange of antiques of various periods, including a hard-to-resist "family" of dolls waiting to be bought by appreciative collectors.

Next door, Sarah Putnam offers an enticing combination of antiques and herbs. And across the street is the fun of lunching at the Catnip Mouse, where indulgence in home- made pies is entirely satisfying. Those who crave a heartier luncheon may prefer to dine at Old Riverton Inn. The inn's new owner, Mark Telford, has preserved the inn's New England ambiance. Staying overnight here is a pleasurable experience.

If you visit Riverton on a pleasant day, you may prefer the rural fun of picnicking there beside the Farmington River. There are numerous attractive picnicking places along the river, including a small one opposite the Hitchcock Chair Sales Rooms, which may also be visited.

The hours spent visiting the small museums and historical societies of northwestern Connecticut surely will leave the visitor with one salient impression -- this section of the state is indeed a repository of New England history, a mixture of the erudite and the rural, a treasure trove of knowledge, and for the antique fancier, pleasurable browsing and perhaps a treasure.

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