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Farmers Markets for the Soul


Connecticut’s shoreline is rich with farmland, orchards, and educated farmers who are proud of their harvests. Farmers’ markets along the coast attract vendors for all kinds of things. They set up booths in parking lots and on town greens. They sell healthy food to those who seek it, often along with live music, local artisans, and maybe a guy making nifty balloon animals.

But Connecticut has more to offer than homemade cuisine and free-range eggs. The shoreline has a deep connection to the rustic past that every farmers’ market hopes to evoke. This is the area where, hundreds of years ago, the insanely brave came to make a new home in an unknown land.

Like today’s health-conscious farmers, early coastline settlers baked their own bread and grew their own vegetables. To do that, they had to chop down trees, dig out the roots, and excavate boulders. They planted hardy fruit trees. They had to hack out root cellars from rocky earth, and make planks with an axe for their floors. With primitive tools and stubborn Yankee vigor, they built magnificent homes and sturdy barns.

Many of those rugged homesteads still exist today as popular farmers’ markets. They offer an experience that can’t be duplicated by even the finest in-town markets.

The Dudley Farm is as much a museum as it is a farm and market. Erastus Dudley, a prosperous North Guilford farmer, gristmill and tannery owner, built the farm in 1844, and the family farmed the land for 300 years in total. When the last Dudley passed away in 1991, the North Guilford Volunteer Fire Company purchased the property, with the intention of preserving part of the town’s history. The Dudley Foundation maintains it as a 19th century farm museum. The house, barns, and gardens have been restored to their original rustic grandeur, and are open for leisurely tours.

Dudley Farm Museum maintains a collection of period clothing, quilts, and wedding dresses. Also on display are kitchenware, tools, furniture, and seemingly endless opportunities to learn about what life was like for New England families in the 19th century.

On market days, local vendors each become a kind of docent, explaining organic gardening and farming methods, their handicrafts, materials, and methods of production. The mission of the Dudley Farm is to connect the community to their history, while creating a learning experience—serving up good eats, and offering an introduction to local artisans.

Like Dudley Farm, the Denison Homestead in Mystic exudes a passion for hospitality. The family home and grounds are open to the public, a custom started in 1930 by the last resident and owner of the Homestead, Anne Borodell Denison Gates. That summer, she threw a picnic for hundreds of Denison descendants. She announced that she would like the family house, barns, and acreage to be a place where people would continue to experience what her family had enjoyed for nearly 300 years. The land was granted by the governor to Captain George Denison in 1654 for his service to the militia. The main house, Pequotsepos Manor, is a traditional saltbox built in 1717 and restored in 1946 by J. Frederick Kelly, a noted New England Colonial Revival architect. Each room represents a different era of Denison family life—a historical visit through the three centuries years they lived in the house.

According to writer and local talk-show host Lisa Saunders’ charming book Mystic Seafarer’s Trail, some of the Denison family may still be hanging around. A paranormal investigation in 2012, complete with electromagnetic frequency meters, temperature gauges, infrared gear, surveillance cameras, and motion alarms, revealed melodic humming, repetitive footsteps, and a voice crying, “Fire!” The current house was built on the site of a previous one—which was destroyed by fire. Wood from the burned home was salvaged and used to construct the new one. Visitors can decide for themselves.

Every Sunday from June through October, you can visit the house and the grounds and shop the booths of dozens of local vendors, all while being serenaded by happy guys playing fiddles. On days you’re not in the mood to shop, you can hike miles of trails or visit the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center.

The mention of “historic farm” conjures up images of draft horses and henhouses, but seldom coffee roasters. Carol Dahlke fixed that at Ashlawn Farm.

Ashlawn was once Senator Ray Harding’s dairy farm. He bought the 100 acres in 1909, with its 200-year-old, 15-room farmhouse and six barns, and supplied milk and eggs to his neighbors in Lyme. It was home to the Hardings for decades. When Ray and Helen Harding passed away, their son Sam and his wife continued to work the farm.

The property was beautiful and the structures historic, but maintaining the farm was especially hard work for Sam after he was widowed. He had no children to take over, and modern economy was not kind to an old-fashioned dairy farm. Sam’s nephew Chip Dahlke, who never imagined himself a farmer, stepped in and bought the farm in 1996. He moved in with his wife Carol.

Today, Sam is gone, beef steers have replaced the dairy cattle, and the milk room has become (to the delight of shoreline caffeine lovers) a coffee roastery. Ashlawn Farm Coffee is served at the Farm, and just recently, Carol opened Ashlawn Farm Coffee in Old Saybrook.

In addition to the usual collection of purveyors and craftsmen, garden tours, and farm animals, the weekly farmers’ market at Ashlawn provides a darn good cup of joe.

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