Welcome to a piece of Vermont that got lost in Western Connecticut during the last of the Great Ice Ages. People who walk our trails, feast at our table, sleep in our guest house, and devour our raspberries often say, “This is a Magic Kingdom.”
“Surprise! You are still in Harwinton, Connecticut, but there is magic here.” I chuckle, loving their familiar reaction.
I watch first-timers walk toward the stone cottage in front of us, then turn their eyes toward the gray studio and the red and green cabin down a stone path to our left. To our right where their car is parked, they turn to gaze at a red Adirondack style building— our garage, attic, workshop, studio, and guest room, with a porch overlooking the marsh.
“Are all these buildings yours?” they ask.
“Yes, but they did not look like this when we found them almost thirty years ago,” I say.
Nothing looks the same, not the buildings or the land or me.
I may be greeting a friend, or a stranger delivering packages or propane or coming to repair the cable connection, but the reaction is always the same. As we walk, their heads turn right to left, right to left.
“Look! Is that a brook down there? Oh my, you have a pond, too?”
“Yes, yes!” I say.
The serious visitors, those with more time, will go on the same walk I take most days upon waking. I follow my dogs who follow their noses. By one route or another, we head to and from the granite slab at the top of our field where we greet the day. Along the way there are hammocks and hummocks and stumps and boulders. There is Leonard’s Rock at the side of the pond. The Sleeping Lion is in the clearing to the south. Indian Rock sits on Hickory Hill. Compassion Rock, Flat Rock, Tom’s Rock and others stand vigil along our trails through wetlands and forest. There are wildflowers and ferns, beeches and birches, conifers and laurels. In winter, there are sap buckets on the maples while the carriage house porch is steamy with cooking sap.
“How did you find this?” they ask.
“How much time do you have? We can sit by the pond while I tell you.”
FINDING OUR PIECE OF VERMONT IN CONNECTICUT
Five words in the Sunday real estate section catch my eye. Newspaper in hand, I grab two beers and head out to look for my partner, Neville, but the kitchen door is blocked by a sleeping dog.
“Joe, Joe!” I coax. He must move for me to open the door. “Let’s go walkies! Find Neville?” I kneel to reach for his chest and tummy. He rolls over for his obligatory wake up tickle.
“Okay little guy, here you go.”
Ready for action, he pushes through the screen door. Joe is a Dandy Dinmont, an increasingly rare breed. A low to the ground, long bodied tough terrier, bred from the border breeds of Scotland in the 1700’s, whose job was to ferret vermin out of their tunnels. Dandies come in two colors, mustard or pepper. Joe’s papers list him as mustard. Instead I think dirty white.
PHOTO OF JOE
Joe bounces along beside me through the kitchen door, into the sun-warmed late fall back
yard of my 18th century house in Farmington, Connecticut. Ten years ago, after a divorce, I continued to live here to provide a home for my three children, now almost all grown. Neville joined us a year ago. Joe-dog is our “child.”
Joe-dog and I scuffle through the dry, fallen leaves of a venerable apple tree on our way to a small garden. Here, the drying seed heads of black-eyed susans and zinnias stand amidst the frostbitten petunias and mums. Not knowing where Neville is, I pause for a moment and then a motor starts up, telling me I’m headed in the right direction to find my man. Wherever he is, there is always a gas-powered roar, or to my ears, a groan. Sometimes it’s a leaf blower, other times a lawn mower, later a chainsaw or a tractor. I hate these disturbances of the peace, especially when they assault my quiet Sunday afternoon. I follow the loud whirr-whistle of the chain saw to the grape arbor where we find Neville, his back to us, reaching with his leather gloved left hand to part the twisted old vines.
“Oh no, stop, stop. Don’t cut. No!” Several thick old vines stand at the mercy of his power saw. I do not want them cut because their arbor provides shade. Now I MUST get his attention.
“Neville!” I hold our barking Joe-dog and call out, again. “Neville!” I dare not come closer until the chain saw stops. I want him to turn around, stop the racket, stop damaging the venerable vines and to say hello to his little family standing next to him on this unexpectedly warm autumn day.
Finally, Joe’s barks become louder and more insistent. Neville turns around. He does not smile. Experience has taught me he hates to be pulled from whatever he sees as his work. He is a one-track man whether reading, pruning, or listening to Schubert, Benny Goodman, or Randy Neuman. He tends a project until it is complete. I know by now to carefully pick and choose my interruptions. In contrast, I frequently begin two or three books during a week. I might stop to rearrange an entire room on my way to make a bed, or fail to move clothes from washer to dryer because I go off for a long walk with Joe-dog.
He turns to us. We’ve got his attention, for better or worse. Waving today’s paper at him, I sit down at the picnic table. He frowns but stops the saw, his eyes not on the paper but on the cold beer I am offering. Ah, silence.
“Hey sweets. Please stop cutting the vines. It’s not right for them this time of year. Besides you must use a small quiet, hand saw. But come here, look what I found.” I hold the paper up to him. “Look at this!”
He sits down next to me. Joe crawls between our feet under the bench. I blurt out the five words that caught my eye, “Piece of Vermont in Connecticut.” I push the paper in front of him. “Here, you read for yourself.” He scans the rest aloud: “Stone cottage, streams, pond, studio and other buildings, 18 acres of marsh and forested land.”
“Why don’t you go call. I’ll wait here.” He smiles, taking a gulp of beer.
“Aye, aye.” I salute, smiling my way back into the house, our little dog trotting along with me. We’ve already looked at a few properties in other towns, hoping to find a smaller place near some flowing water. Recently, we decided to stop looking and, instead, to renovate my house. But on this day, the idea of a piece of Vermont in Connecticut cries out to me. My post-divorce dream has been to live alone in the woods, by a stream, in a small, easily maintained cabin with wild animals nearby at my feeder. Where will Neville fit in my dream?
While I’m on the phone, he waits, chilling under the arbor, drinking his beer and mine too. When I return with a glass of water for him, he is stretched out in a lounge chair. He smiles easily now.
PHOTO OF NEVILLE
“I just talked with an agent, a guy named Frank. The property is in Harwinton, only twenty-five minutes from here. That’s only thirty-five minutes from your office. It’s vacant, so we can go out now to see it. What do you think? Can you stop your trimming?”
He nods. “Hmm,” he asks, “where exactly is Harwinton?”
“I once looked at a small cabin there on two acres near a brook. I know it well.” I smile.
An hour later we drive west to “meet” the land and Frank, somewhere in Harwinton. We leave Joe-dog at home.
A quarter mile driveway of ruts and rocks climbs to an open area bordered by two sheds and a glimpse of a stone cottage. We get out of our car wondering about the stone cottage. But Frank is wise. An agent for forty years, he does not show us the house first. He parks at a lower level.
“Hey folks, down here. Let’s walk toward the pond before we go inside the stone cottage,” he offers.
PHOTO Ency and Frank
We walk down to where Frank waits. He is short, rosy cheeked, with curly gray hair. His waist length, olive drab, jacket suits spending time in the woods. We three walk together below the stone cottage, past the boarded-up brown studio and alongside a weathered gray shack, its rusted screens askew. We approach the pond. It must be about two acres wide, surrounded by hemlocks, white and red pines, Douglas firs, oaks, maples and two cherry trees. A zip line crosses it with one end attached to a mighty oak at the front of the house and the other to a strong hemlock at the pond’s southern end. A trapeze dangles by only one rope from the middle of the line.
We follow the pond’s uneven bank to a prominent boulder that sits on its eastern edge. “I suggest you climb up to look around,” Frank says, pointing to a flat space at its top. The gray rock rises at least seven feet above the waterline and extends fifteen or thirty feet from the bank into the pond. It is a mammoth boulder of granite, large enough to climb and slide down into the water, or onto ice in winter.
PHOTO OF ROCK
I survey from atop the rock. In front of me, yew bushes nearly hide the stone cottage, its wire-latticed burglar proof doors barely visible. PHOTO? On my right, disheveled and forlorn, outbuildings wait. Water seems to be everywhere. The pond surrounds me on three sides while Lead Mine Brook flows slowly, visible fifty feet away. The wetlands of the marsh surround the brook, creating a watershed for wildlife. A fifty-foot beaver dam crosses the brook. I imagine mallards floating above it in spring. I observe the zip line stretched across the pond and wonder what stories of daring were carried along its length.
Near the brook there is a pen, with chicken wire fencing on all sides and across the top. Inside sits a small four-sided shelter of wood with an opening on one side. Perhaps for dogs, ducks, chickens, or kids at play. A gnarled apple tree grows inside the pen to rise through a hole in the wired top. I muse about former owners who must have had fun with this property once upon a time. What does its future hold? Will it continue as abandoned shacks on fallow land, or be sold, restored, or reimagined? I sit on the rock and wrap my hands around my knees. I’m smitten.
I think I just might want to buy it. But, silly woman, we haven’t so much as peeked inside the house. I look around for Neville. I give a “woop woop.” He “woops” back. I see him by the pond’s edge looking at some stone steps leading into the water. I clap my hands. He smiles and walks toward me. My eyes are wide with questions. I mouth what do you think as he extends a hand to help me down from the rock.
“Hey I’m over here. What da ya think?” We turn toward the sound of his voice. It comes from the far side of gray shack. He waves. “Do you want to go inside the buildings?”
We look at each other. Do we want more? We walk toward him. We are blind, enthralled, feeling our way with our hearts.
“YES!” I call.
“Of course we do, we must,” offers Neville as we come to face Frank.
Once again, the consummate agent plans his “big show” with care. He continues to wait before showing us the main house, a stone cottage on the rise above the pond. He walks us around the small derelict gray cabin saying, “That one is a wreck, probably a tear-down.”
Frank stops at the now open door of the brown cabin, the shutters of its two front windows pulled to the side. Even with the door and windows open, the building is not inviting as we approach the front step, making our way through over grown dried grasses, pricker bushes and piles of wind-blown leaves. One lone fluffy white pine stands guard.
TWO PHOTOS ONE WITH DOORS AND WINDOWS CLOSED ONE WITH OPEN
“This cabin was built as an art studio for the wife of the former owner. Great for a guest cottage too,” offers Frank the optimist salesman.
He watches us, knowing the studio holds a surprise, a small one, but a possible selling point. Entering, we face two beautiful walls of raised cherry paneling. The wall at the north end surrounds a brick fireplace. The paneling wraps around to the east wall, where its two double hung windows provide overgrown views into the woods. Gray clouds hover above the four foot skylight. We turn to look at Frank, our eyes wide with questions.
“The owner was a partner in a law firm in Hartford. He retired and removed the cherry paneling from his office to use here.”
However we also notice the south and west walls of vertical faux oak paneling, typical of the 60’s, are weary. The ceiling and one of the walls show several marks from water leaks. Both are stained with mildew. There is not much to recommend this house. The interior is 24 by 24. There are six double hung windows four over four. There are four plugs and one wall heater. That’s it, the future is up to the imagination. But let us not forget the cherry paneling!
PHOTOS OF INTERIOR
What might this one empty room become if we buy the property? Perhaps with a kitchen, a bathroom, lots of Clorox and paint it becomes a home for my Florida parents to visit during summer? This will be a dream fulfilled. My father is a knowledgeable naturalist. He will fit right in here identifying trees and shrubs. Mother will love the views.
PHOTO OF SOMETHING/
Now, at last, Frank directs us to the stone cottage. Coming up to the front of the house, our backs to the pond, we pull back the branches of the overgrown yew bushes to follow him through the wire covered French doors. French doors always sound grand but this cottage was not posh. Small, dark, maybe one hundred feet long by sixty feet wide, with brown rafters, interior walls of stone, no lights, a cave-like cottage in the woods. Still, to my mind, it was cozy charm with convenience. Remember I was already smitten.
With the light from the open doors we see built-in bunks at each side and a floor to ceiling stone fireplace with blackened walls facing us. The stone fireplace divides the one large main room from the smaller spaces of the rest of the house. We walk through to open a back door for more light. Warped, it stays open. There is a two-burner stove with oven, a sink, refrigerator, and a couple of knotty pine cabinets creating a serviceable kitchen behind the fireplace. A metal stall shower on a glassed-in porch has hot and cold water taps. A small stone-walled room behind the kitchen with two windows and a tiny fireplace might be a bedroom or storage space. A toilet and small sink behind a sliding door complete the original amenities.
I see this cottage has everything I might require for a simple hideaway in the woods.
But am I crazy to think this way?
PHOTOS OF THREE BUILDINGS
It is getting dark as we walk outside to our car, but not too dark to still see what there is to see. When we arrived on the property earlier, Frank had quickly called to us to join him in a walk along the pond. Now, after walking the land, and seeing inside the buildings, we return to the car park to notice we had not seen the extent of the junk left behind from the previous owner and his handymen: car parts, tires, unevenly stacked piles of bricks, torn screen doors, small metal chairs, and more unidentifiable rusting, broken junk abandoned over the years.
PHOTOS OF MESS
Frank tells us a new owner will have one year to build a new driveway to enter from Lead Mine Brook Road instead of North Road. In addition, the electrical poles have to be moved along this new driveway.
“Oh by the way I have a young couple in East Hartford interested in buying the place if they can sell their house. You might want to think about that,” he smiles.
“Frank, is there a septic system here?”
“I assume so,” he says. We let it go at that. But he goes on with,
“I live in this town, I’ll be seeing you after you buy, we will be friends. I have to be honest with you for that reason.” *
“Oh right” one of us says.
At this point, a questionable septic system, worn out buildings, dampness, rotten screens, or long driveway, could close our hearts to this land. I recall, after leaving Frank, Neville and I discussed how to make these seventeen acres ours. My dream was apparently his now too.
*For the reader’s information.
We did become the new owners. The septic system turned out to be a rusted barrel sunk in a sand bank between the west side of the house and the brook. The barrel had holes in its sides and a pipe running to it from the toilet.
If it ain’t broke, don’t mention it, came to mind when we found the barrel while putting in a substantial septic system for both houses.
We never saw Frank again.