As tired as they perhaps were of wearing scratchy animal skin clothes, the Mattabesec Indians could have used some advice from the Canarsee. Their sale of Staten Island is well-documented: the Dutch ponied up 10 boxes of shirts, about 10 yards of red cloth, 30 pairs of socks, and two pieces of duffel. But the Canarsee also got some useful items, like muskets and gunpowder, awls, adzes, kettles, and knives (high-end technology at the time).
But the Mattabesec? For the land along the shore now known as Branford, they got a mere eleven coats of “trucking cloth” (whatever that is) and one coat “made in the English manner.” But the deal must have worked for both parties, because there is no record of bloody massacres, thank goodness. The European settlers trundled ahead through the next few hundred years, happily farming, fishing, and procreating. They named their new home after the Town of Brentford, England. The original spelling was lost.
The early settlers must have been enchanted by the Thimble Islands scattered offshore, with their timber and ivy and basking seals. The beaches and marshes were beautiful, the fishing plentiful, and life was good.
In the evening when the sky is fiery, snag a table at the Stony Creek Market on Thimble Island Road. Their pizza is famous, but the view across the water—the Thimble Islands just visible to the left—competes with anything. Hundreds of years ago, the Europeans, smug with their purchase, admired pretty much the same view. Like the one from the deck at Lenny’s seafood restaurant in Indian Head.
Branford has a countrified charm. People plant roots here. Valerie and Greg Wilkins have owned the Stony Creek market for 23 years. The Conlins have run Lenny’s for over 50. A few miles away, on Main Street, there’s the Branford Book & Card Shoppe, owned and run by the Esposito family for over 40 years, and so attuned to the habits of its customers that they open at 5 o’clock every morning.
“People come in for their newspaper, a lottery ticket or cigarettes before they go to work,” says Salvatore Esposito. “They pick up a coffee at Common Grounds down the street and come here. We talk politics; we talk about the weather. It’s a little community.”
Branford is a little American Heritage Magazine and a little Saturday Evening Post. There’s the all-male Stony Creek Fife & Drum Corps, established in 1886, and the plucky all-female Totoket Ancient Fife & Drum Corps. There are over 20 historic homes in the town’s 22 square miles, and there’s the lingering legend of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure. People are literally, actually still looking for it.
Norman Rockwell would be at home at the annual Father’s Day festivities in Branford, or wandering the town green when the locals gather to celebrate major holidays. It’s a family-centered town. It’s rock-solid: beneath the gentle hills and neighborhoods, there’s a heart of stone. Granite, to be precise.
Not far from the harbor in Stony Creek, workers blast colossal blocks of blush-colored stone from a two-hundred-year-old quarry. Cut and polished, they become monuments and staircases, plazas and sculptures. The pedestal of the Statue of Liberty is made from Stony Creek granite. The Battle Monument at West Point, reputed to be the largest monolith of polished granite in the western hemisphere, is cut from a single block of it. Granite from Stony Creek has found its way to projects all over the world, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Sydney, Australia.
A brisk hike through the 450-acre Stony Creek Quarry Preserve and you might be able to watch workers at the active quarry site pull tons of granite free from the earth, where it’s been baking for 600 million years. In fact, a visitor could spend a whole day admiring our planet’s crust in Stony Creek. After viewing the quarry sites, one can take a 45-minute boat tour around the Thimble Islands’ private residences built, some precariously, on the granite outcroppings near the shore.
Realtor Tricia Cyr is happy to rave about her hometown. “The town green is my favorite place to walk around,” she says. “There’s the historical Blackstone Library; there are stores and coffee shops. There are people just walking around enjoying the day.” There’s an active local art center just off the green on Main Street. Cyr recommends a visit to any of Branford’s three craft breweries, and she loves the Branford sections of the Shoreline Greenway Trail for leisurely walks and bike rides.
All of this was enough to make New Yorkers Roy Ip and his wife Winnie fall in love with Branford, buy a tiny restaurant on Montowese Street, re-name it Le Petit Café, and delight their new hometown with French food. It’s been a culinary triumph in Branford town center green. Then again, the whole place is a quiet victory for the shoreline lifestyle—a gateway to coastal Connecticut.