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28 October 2014
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Essex - Connecticut

Image: Essex Connecticut
Essex Connecticut

Image: Linda Brughelli
Words by Linda Brughelli
Sip a cup of tea with me and I'll tell you about the best small town in America. The first thing one notices upon entering the township of Essex, Connecticut are the homes lining the road that curves its way into the main street of the village.

They are mostly two-story wood structures that evoke the 18th century and typify the image most Americans have of colonial New England homes. Each is unique though they belong to a similar architectural past that is altogether pleasing and familiar. They are well cared for and beckon the visitor to discover what lies beyond.

The village reveals itself around a bend where a small white pillar surrounded with seasonal flowers marks the entrance to Main Street. The street of shops, restaurants, homes, and the historic Griswold Inn culminate at the end of Main Street at the Connecticut River and the River Museum.

Image: Road in Essex
Road in Essex, USA

It is a simple white building overlooking the river and it houses artifacts of the historic river and exhibits about the communities that settled along its banks almost four hundred years ago.

From this vantage point, one can see the Connecticut River flow by, its 660 kilometer journey from its source at the Canadian border nearly at its end.

Just eight km to the east, the river's mouth meets Long Island Sound between the colonial era settlements of Old Saybrook and Old Lyme at the shoreline. The impression is of a village that sits snugly by the river, a tea cozy of a town.

Essex has a population of 6,500. More than half have roots in England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was first settled in 1637 as part of the Saybrook Colony, referred to then as Potapoug Quarter.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, it was a shipbuilding center and played a role in the American Revolution when the colony's first battleship, the Oliver Cromwell, was constructed there in 1775. The history of the village is a suitable reference for students of colonial and early American history.

Today, Essex is a popular tourist attraction, although it manages to maintain an air of undisturbed decorum. American author of "The 100 Best Small Towns in America," Norman Cramptom, declared Essex the best of all based on statistical indices.

To my mind, he is correct; in all my travels I have never visited a town that outshines it, but for other reasons that statistics do not reveal. Nevertheless, I owe Mr. Crampton a debt of gratitude, for his finding is what drew me to visit Essex in the first place. That visit marks the origin of my infatuation and why I have a home there now.

In the summer of 2001, my daughter wanted to tour the campuses of several colleges on the east coast. It is a time-honored tradition in the U.S. for high school students to visit colleges before they make their decision to apply for admission.

With a map and a list in hand, we flew from California to Boston, Massachusetts and began a driving tour of east coast colleges in New England. Accompanying us was my cousin from Switzerland, where my family is from.

Our trip was intended to be a holiday as well, and we spent several days along the Connecticut shoreline between visits to the schools. I have traveled many times over the years to New England and have family members in Rhode Island and New York.

Yet I am devoted to the latest guidebooks and dutifully take note of new information and historical sights to see in areas I will be visiting. And so I came across the reference to Essex, Connecticut in a guidebook and its claim to fame.

How could I not visit the best small town in America? It lies just a few kilometers off Route 1, the Boston Post Road. This historic road was mapped out by order of King Charles II to promote communication among his colonial governors from Boston to New York.

And there we were, minutes away from Essex on our map, but with only a half hour to spare to get to the airport on time for our flight. In the face of my daughter's exasperation--knowing all too well her mother was not capable of making any visits to famous sites in under an hour's time-- I determinedly turned the car in the direction of Essex. Little did I know I was about to fall in love.

Find out why Linda fell in love with Essex, in part two of her article>>>

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