Road Trip: Day 10—Wethersfield and “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” (Part One of Two)

Day 10 (Sunday, May 20) was … sad and magical.

The sad part was leaving Katie. But it wasn’t that sad because I’ll be back. ;-) Plus, we’re kind of used to it by now! We had breakfast at a diner that was OK. Again, not good service—is that a New England thing? Or a Rhode Island thing? But it wasn’t as bad as Chan’s. NOTHING is as bad as Chan’s. I think we will spend the rest of our lives comparing terrible things to Chan’s. Genocide and cancer: I think those are the two things that are worse than Chan’s.

Anyway, after breakfast I went on my merry way. I had plans, you see. I had booked a hotel in the Scranton, Pa., area, but before that I was planning a stop in Wethersfield, Conn. Why? Because when I was about 13 I read the book The Witch of Blackbird Pond for the first time, and it became not only one of my favorite books of my child/young adulthood, but of my life. Kara and I bonded over it in college, and even wrote a fanfic about it. (Yes, I’m linking to it. Because it’s that good.)

I was a history geek long before I turned 13. Not only did I fall in love with the American Girl books at the age of eight, but my parents also took me to a lot of historical places on our family trips, and I grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio, under the shadow of Fort Meigs and Oliver Hazard Perry, so it was natural that I would learn to love the past—not to mention ships and naval history and nautical themes. So when I read WoBP at 13 (maybe 12? but I really think it was 13) I was determined, someday, to travel to Wethersfield, Connecticut, the book’s setting, and see the historical locations that remained.

Thirteen + years later, that dream came true.

My trip already planned, this is what I found online last night as a cherry on top:

Wethersfield, then and now

(Click here to get the full brochure)

Turns out, it was indispensable for my trip.

So I got to Wethersfield and was a little wary, since I got a few weird looks from some very unfriendly seeming locals. But then a woman working at her gardening said hi to me when I walked by her house, and a girl smiled and said hi when she jogged past me, so that made up for it. I strolled around a little bit and took some pictures, and then I went to look at the Buttolph-Williams House, which was part of the inspiration for WoBP. Pictures below:

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After a look around the town to get my bearings, I was dismayed to see this sign at the house:

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But when I went to that museum, it was 12:30 and the place didn’t open until 1:00. So, to pass the time, I took the trusty map that I had printed out at Katie’s and walked north along Main Street to the Cove.

As you can see from the map, the river looks different from the time that WoBP is set. Apparently there was a hurricane in the early 1700s, and the Connecticut River’s regular, seasonal flooding became extreme, to the point that the river itself altered course and the town’s geography changed as well. Part of the river became what is now the Cove, which is still attached to the river. When it was still part of the river, the Cove’s southern bank was the docking area for trade ships arriving in Wethersfield. I reached the southernmost point of the Cove and walked along this shore—where Kit Tyler would have disembarked from the Dolphin to arrive at her new home in Wethersfield.

Southern part of the Cove, looking north…ish

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Looking eastward

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Looking west

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A colonial-era warehouse, still standing where ships would have unloaded their wares at Wethersfield. Cargo from the “Dolphin” might have been stored in a structure such as this.

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By the time I walked back to town, it was past 1:00 and I was able to get into the museum/gift shop. Tourism was slow that day, so I paid $5 to get what amounted to a personal tour of the Buttolph-Williams House. Technically photos weren’t allowed inside, and although the guy said I might sneak one or two, I decided to be respectful and forego it altogether. But the museum’s website has some decent photos of the interior.

The house, my tour guide told me, was set up in a way that was not quite historically accurate. There are more possessions, and some of them fancier, than the original owners would have had, only to give examples of the period, such as too many portraits on the wall, fine china on display, or overly lush bed hangings. So the house is half re-creation, half museum. But they also have items specifically in reference to WoBP, mostly for the sake of school groups that come to the house after having read the book in class. They have crutches like the ones Mercy Wood would have used, they have a bowl of popcorn on the table because the book mentions the family eating popcorn one evening, they have the massive plates (trenchers) they’d have eaten off of, and machinery for spinning wool. They have a trunk manufactured by someone whose name I forget but he was mentioned in the book and he actually lived and made furniture.

Author Elizabeth George Speare lived in Wethersfield when the house, which had been made into apartments, was being renovated in the 1950s to restore its original appearance. Apparently that’s part of what inspired her to set it there (although the real Buttolph-Williams House isn’t actually located where the fictional Woods’ house would have been).

Another interesting tidbit that my guide told me was that Gershom Bulkeley (or Bulkley), a minor but important character in WoBP, was not only a real man, but very influential. It seems that Wethersfield had its own witch trials before the Salem hysteria, but they were much more low-key. Part of that is because Bulkeley (and another fellow whose name escapes me) required at least two witnesses to provide the same “spectral evidence” of witchcraft. The trials in Salem considered anything from any one person—meaning that one girl could claim she saw a woman fly away on a broom or turn into a toad, and they would consider her evidence—but in Wethersfield the same exact evidence would have to have at least two witnesses for it to be considered valid. Hence, the Salem trial allowed anything, and got totally out of hand, and the Wethersfield trials fizzled out more gracefully (presumably with fewer deaths).

Gershom Bulkeley was also buried in the cemetery across the street. And I found his gravestone. However, that picture—and many others—are for another blog post, because I want to post this tonight but I have many, many more photos to share.

So keep an eye out for Wethersfield: Part Two!

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