This is the first post in an occasional series I’m calling Just Passing Through. These posts feature Connecticut locations that might not be large enough warrant a day trip, but are decidedly worth visiting if you’re in the area.
Stafford Springs is one of many villages that make up the town of Stafford. As the most urban area, with a compact and walkable Main Street and an eclectic collection of businesses, it functions as sprawling Stafford’s downtown. (From 1873 to 1991 it was an incorporated borough.) Its fortunes have risen and fallen on the booms and busts of mineral springs, textile mills, and train routes; today it is a mix of artsy small city, old-fashioned all-American town, and erstwhile manufacturing center. Different facets of Stafford Springs might be described as industrial, ornate, gritty, humble, and sophisticated – a grab-bag of adjectives that somehow all come together to create a cohesive whole. With its rivers and mill ponds, train tracks and storefronts, stately municipal buildings and imposing old mills, it is at once very typically Connecticut and vaguely reminiscent of somewhere far away: the Midwest, perhaps, or the Mountain States, or Appalachia – or maybe it simply has an atmosphere that’s all its own.
Start at the little roundabout that funnels cars around the Holt Memorial Fountain. In one direction is the town hall; in another is a 19th century train station, which once served passengers on the Central Vermont Railway. (It’s now the police station.) Walk up Main Street and you’ll find Stafford Coffee Company (42 Main Street), a cozy local staple in an eye-catching former bank building wedged between the railroad tracks and the incline of Main Street. Across the street, it’s hard to miss the paintings displayed on a brick wall next to a small park-slash-amphitheatre called Haymarket Common. (This is a nice place to sit when it’s warm out.) Continue up Main Street to see the murals, based on local sites, in a parking lot at the top of the hill. Inside the sturdy brick buildings on this block, some surprising businesses are thriving. Artisans at Middle River (60 Main Street) is a bright and pretty space full of goods made by local artists. Over 30 artisans from Connecticut and Massachusetts are represented here, and their wares range from soaps to candles to kitchenware to honey to artwork to jewelry. Rustology (21 Main Street) is like an eccentric collector’s large and slightly musty attic, full of oddities and a few hidden treasures. Stafford Cidery (86 Main Street) is the colorful fowl-themed taproom of locally-made Crazy Cock Cider.
Turn off of Main Street onto Spring Street, where the Middle River flows under a pretty stone arch bridge. Just beyond is the Stafford Historical Society (5 Spring Street), housed in the 1885 bottling house of the Stafford Mineral Waters Company. The “waters” came from the mineral springs which gave the village its name. Native Americans who lived and traveled in this region had long claimed that the springs had restorative properties, and Europeans soon saw the commercial potential; in the 19th century, the area grew into a resort town, and people came from all around to soak in – or drink – the iron and sulfur water touted as the cure for a variety of ailments. The Historical Society has limited seasonal hours, but visitors can always walk around the back of the building to see one of the two springs (look for the rust-colored stains on the stone steps below the whimsical well house.) You’re now right beside the entrance to Hyde Park, a hilly green space that was once the estate of the Converse family, which owned the springs and a grand hotel. The park offers trails for riverside or ridgetop walks, as well as a place to simply relax. Walk or drive along Highland Terrace, the road that borders the park, to see some historic homes and views of the town below.
From the roundabout, you can also walk down Furnace Avenue, where you’ll find the elaborate little storefront of Inspiration Station (13 Furnace Avenue), a throwback of a shop with shelves full of scrapbooking supplies and rubber stamps. It’s surrounded by rows of distinctive old brick mill buildings that evoke a world built around a now-abandoned industry. But look closely and you’ll see that textile manufacturing lives on in Stafford Springs: some of these brick structures are occupied by the American Woolen Company, which is reviving this rich New England tradition.
Stafford Springs businesses tend to be a little quirky, with hours to match – especially in the winter – so if you want to go to a particular store, check to make sure it’s open before you show up.
Street parking is plentiful here, especially in the colder months, but there’s also a large public parking lot just off of Spring Street.