Old Connecticut Path
By Brian Karlsson-Barnes
Everything Is Connected. Native trails first led westward from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the Connecticut River Valley. Old Connecticut Path was first of North American routes west from the seacoast settlement that is Boston, founded 1630. From the Hub, everything was connected, land and sea.
The word Connecticut has little to do with our verb of connection, however; it is derived from anglicized spellings of Quinnetuket, a Mohegan-Pequot word for the state’s “long tidal river”.
Indians already knew the efficient trails, skirting wet meadows of river bottoms, crossing streams at the easiest fords, and walking the ridges. When Bay colonists were short of grain in the early 1630s, Nipmuc farmers in Connecticut took surplus maize along this familiar route to the mouth of the Charles River, trading food for metal goods and woolen cloth (and unintentional disease for which no immunity).
1635 Watertown settlers took this route moving to Wethersfield, Connecticut. In 1636, Hartford was founded when Congregational minister Thomas Hooker (advocate of universal Christian suffrage who disagreed with the Puritans) took a hundred of his dissenting congregation on a two-week trek with 160 cattle along the Path to the Connecticut River, a place called Saukiog, meaning “blackness of earth”. Early colonists driving cattle made the Path wider.
By 1643, Sudbury Village in Massachusetts, documents called this trail “Old Connecticut Path”. With a postal system in 1672, “The Great Trail of New England” became the first colonial Post Road. The Path crossed the Blackstone River, crossing known as North Bridge, and the Quinebaug River crossing was South Bridge, thus naming Northbridge and Southbridge. The Path still partly follows Routes 9 and 126.
The ease of growing corn led to small grist mills on waterways throughout the region, as in Gurleyville near Storrs, dating to about 1749 on the Fenton River near Mansfield Hollow and the Nipmuc Trail.
GARDEN PATH Everything Is connected. Moving to Boston in 2004, I often drove Route 9 from Jamaica Plain to Hopkinton’s Weston Nurseries, my first connection to the Path. JP is also home to Arnold Arboretum, nature’s solace for many, where I was a volunteer docent. In the1970s, architectural studies at the University of Minnesota connected with spatial work at Bachman’s Garden Center in Minneapolis, and Dundee Nursery in Plymouth MN.Unitarian-Universalism taught its 7th Principle:
Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part.
Centuries before European settlement, Old Connecticut Path led west from Massachusetts Bay along the north bank of the Charles River … to Cambridge (New Town) and newly settled Watertown, through now-Waltham and Weston… curving south to Wayland where Route 126 still bears the Old Path name. (Wayland, where “Bay Path” diverged from Connecticut Path to head straight west through Worcester to the Connecticut River from Mass Bay.)
Southwestward, Connecticut Path passed along the north side of Cochituate Pond to cross the Sudbury River in now-Framingham (Route 126 also retains name), then threaded between the Charles and Sudbury Rivers. From Framingham, Old Connecticut Path ran south through Ashland (Megunko, where I later lived on Sudbury headquarters) through Hopkinton (Quansigamog) into now-Westborough.
Native Indians were coerced to settle in “praying towns”, instructed in European customs and converted to Christianity. Trekking over Fay Mountain to Grafton, known as the praying town of Hassanamesit / Hassanamisco, the Old Path led through Sutton woods to Connecticut. It entered at the praying town of Mannexit, now Thompson, continued into Woodstock and crossed the Quiet Corner through Eastford, Ashford and Willington.
Today, travelers in the Quiet Corner can walk Old Connecticut Path in Fenton-Ruby Park (Willington) and along the Nipmuc (aka Nipmuck) Trail north from Mansfield Hollow (Windham) to Bigelow Hollow (Union) at the Massachusetts border.
NIPMUC TRAIL A west branch starts on Puddin’ Lane in suburban Mansfield, and the east branch extends north from Mansfield Hollow State Park (Windham), through the Natchaug / Nipmuck State Forests and Yale Forest, into Bigelow Hollow State Park (Union). The 45-mile trail hikes woods, open fields and ridges, to which many other trails connect town and conservation lands, notably Joshua’s Trust.
Westward, the Old Path crosses Tolland, Vernon and Manchester to arrive at the Connecticut River.
GARDEN PATH Working in Hopkinton, Weston Nurseries’ vast inventory of plants instructed me. Better than a graduate degree. Working at Bachman’s and Dundee Nursery in Minnesota, had converted me to Horticulturalism, but WN enhanced my sense of landscape design and my earlier experience with plants suitable to Minnesota’s bitter winters.
My mantra: Suit the Site, Fit the Space, Then Seek Beauty
Master gardening was most instructive. This interconnection of all things horticultural was studied at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society at Elm Bank, Wellesley, as I began KB garden design in Jamaica Plain.
2018 My path arrived in the Quiet Corner at a 1750 farmhouse in Chaplin near the Natchaug River with a scary basement and two wooded acres. Over sixty more trees, many flowering, and many more shrubs and herbaceous perennials have been planted, coexisting with glorious weeds. Love the wild landscape.
What I most want to take root, however, is the notion of horticultural interconnection. Spiritual respect for the environment assists book and field learning. Key for me was master gardening training with MassHort.
Locally, the UCONN Master Gardening Program is in Storrs. Volunteer to learn more. Arnold Arboretum taught me more about mature growth and landscape design; in New London, learn from ornamental and natural habitats at Connecticut College.
Master Gardener is an amateur designation; Horticulturist is a professional one. Skill and passion overlap, and becoming a Master Gardener doesn’t replace a professional degree or working as a project manager at a “design-build” nursery, but master gardening connects many variables. Gardening benefits all landscape designers. Nothing beats experience, except imagination.
Dedicated to the memory of Ryan Lefsky who died unexpectedly in October, a hard worker with overwhelming family responsibilities who loved walking the woods of Sutton, Mass.
Brian Karlsson-Barnes, Master gardener/designer, Chaplin CT