Windsor (Google Maps Location)
April 7, 2007
[Don’t be confused – this is the same report as Number 36 because of the combined nature of the Nature Center and Tobacco museums.]
Connecticut MuseumQuest co-founder EdHill moved to Washington DC in mid-March 2007. I vowed to continue the quest despite this rather consequential blow. I would drag my family and other friends along with me to spread the fun of learning about Connecticut history and ephemera. Then a funny thing happened; EdHill insisted on making museum visits with me as much as he could. He was/is so dedicated, in fact, that he drove the 350 miles or so on Easter weekend in order to learn about the rich history of tobacco farming in the fertile Connecticut River valley at the Luddy/Taylor Museum in Windsor! EdHill, in a word, rules.
Luckily for him – because he really wanted to hit this particular museum (seriously, after I soloed the Edward E. King Museum of Tobacco and Aviation, he mentioned that he wanted to be sure to see the other tobacco museum in the state) since a previous visit without him to the park where the museum stands was a partial failure.
Once again I was happily surprised to find another hidden gem not too far from my home. On a sunny Sunday in March, I loaded up the family and headed north about 15 minutes to something called Northwest Park in Windsor. I knew the museum was there, and I figured there would be a grassy knoll or two, but I was shocked at what this well-kept secret held. Tucked away deep in the suburbs (which included a rotary causing Hoang to yelp, “Just like France!” Or New Jersey, take your pick. Same thing.) the park is HUGE and contains many miles of trails and a river walk and acres or forest and soccer fields and horse fields and all sorts of cool stuff.
Cool stuff like a Maple Sugar House! On the day we visited, it was in operation as some guy was boiling sap to make syrup – and was kind enough to bore everyone with the details of how one goes about making syrup. I only half listened but did pick up that only 3 types of trees make viable syrup – the sugar maple, the coconut palm, and some birch tree out in Alaska I think. Good stuff. However, Damian was with us and quite frankly, he doesnâ€™t know what syrup is yet so he didn’t so much care.
The next building in the row housed a rather impressive menagerie; turkeys, goats, ducks, chickens, sheep, a burroâ€¦ Damian was a bit taken aback by it all, but Hoang and I were excited to find a cool place to bring him too when he’s a little older. Outside, we found a Scottish Highland Cow, which looks more like a yak, and some horses to stare at. Damian took more of an interest in the cow, and even attempted to pet her through the fence.
“Aye laddie, moo, I say.”
After the animals, the next building over was the Nature Center and gift shop – I’m telling you, this place was quite large and interesting! Inside the nature center were the typical New England woodland critter displays, geologic history diaramas, and child friendly playscapes. And oooooh, Hoang’s quest to see a live wild bear took another step closer, with a large stuffed black bear that she was so happy and proud to present:
She’s only sad because it’s not alive
Damian, fully capable of taking down the bear by himself, was more interested in a more dangerous predator – a raptor of some sort! He even tempted fate and taunted the beast by sticking his hand in his mouth and laughing about it all. No fear in this kid, no fear.
“Feed the doggie,” he says.
After the Center, we made our way over to the next building – The Luddy/Taylor Museum. The Barn was locked so we tried the glass doors to the more museum-y part of the place. We noted the large playground just behind the museum building, covered with kids. Hoang opened it and was confronted by a tiny elderly lady who seemed a bit surrpised to have visitors. It was about 3:15 or so and the museum would close at 4, but the kindly woman explained that she was quite tired and besides, the tour would take an hour and we were too late. But, “Don’t you dare not come back here,” she implored. I chuckled to myself and thought, “Oh lady, don’t you dare even think I won’t be back! I’m not an ass! This is!”
And so there we were – Damian and I, just a few weeks later back at the Museum. This time, Hoang had better things to do (go to the mall) and CTMQ co-founder EdHill was with us instead. We made a quick cursory run-through of the petting zoo again, if only to show Ed the antique farm implements hung on the walls:
It was like a hanging museum before we even got to the museum!
Enough already, let’s learn about tobacco farming! We were once again greeted by the same sweet curator who seemed quite eager to give us the tour. She didn’t care that we had a one year old with us; we were going to get the full explanation no matter what. One is never too young to learn about the rich history of Connecticut’s relationship with shade tree tobacco, right?
Right. The woman’s name was Marian Nielsen and she was wonderful. (Just look at the enjoyment here on Damian’s face.) The Luddy/Taylor Museum was more or less hers to run and keep up, and her pride was evident at every display. The one room museum area had multiple displays tracing tobacco farming from colonial days through today. Way back in the colonial days, farmers here grew nasty ol’ broadleaf tobacco plants, which was fine for smoking back then I guess. Then one day, someone noticed the plants grown on Sumatra were much nicer and they planted those seeds in the fertile CT River Valley.
When they grew, the leaves got sunburnt and thick and veiny and the tobacco wasn’t good at all. Hmmm, what to do. Someone thought to cover the plants in cotton cheesecloth after noticing the growing season in Sumatra was cloudy. Voila! Not only did the covering protect the plants, but it raised the humidity under the tent and kept out bugs – basically mimicking Sumatra without the pests. The plants grew beautifully and the leaves were supple and perfect.
The Connecticut shade tobacco industry was born on River Road in the Poquonock section of Windsor. John Luddy made a fortune selling the cheesecloth for the tobacco farms and even got a museum partially named after him. A museum that EdHill, Damian, and I were enjoying very much. Who knew there was so much to know about tobacco farming?
The rich valley initially stretched from Portland, CT up to Brattleboro, VT, but over time the size has diminished greatly. The process to grow this stuff is very costly (about $30,000 per acre) and labor intensive. And yet, even today, CT shade is still considered the finest wrap tobacco in the world, fetching up to 4 times more money than the next best type. Today in Connecticut there are still about 2000 acres of tobacco farmland left – as any visitor who flies into Bradley Airport can tell you. All around the airport in Windsor Locks the signature billowing white tenting can be seen from high above (it’s synthetic today, but the principle remains).
Those are tobacco seeds which grow to be 12 foot tall weeds in just a few months. And that’s an amazed little kid below, which grow to be 6 feet tall in about 16 years.
While Ms. Nielsen schooled Ed on the various immigrant and child labor classes that have come and gone to work the CT fields, I tried to occupy and entertain Damian. He was being very good and took to reading some magazinesâ€¦ And what one year old doesn’t enjoy a nice issue of “Cigar Aficionado?”
None that I know of, that’s for sure:
We all learned about the incredibly tedious process of tobacco farm tenting. The plants themselves are incredibly easy to grow – tobacco is a weed. The seeds are nearly microscopic and the rate of growth is simply amazing. These plants can grow up to 4 inches a day when conditions are right – they go from an inch or two high to 10 feet in a matter of 3 months or so. The tents are still put up by men, and each individual plant is still tied up by men. They must be spaced perfectly and protected from everything from hail to bugs to sunlight to dryness to people touching the leaves.
The museum’s model of a tobacco field and barn…
…Which is kind of silly when the real thing is on the road to the museum.
I can’t think of a much worse job in the world to be honest with you. Marian went on to explain more about the harvesting and the evolution of the implements used to do so. I tuned out at this point and wandered off with Damian for a little while. I found a little anteroom which housed the Francis M. Lutwinas Memorial Book Collection. Apparently this Lutwinas character really enjoyed books about tobacco, because that’s all that was there. Geeze, talk about a specialized interest.
Does anyone want to play ‘Spot the Nazi memoribilia?”
In the same room was a little TV and VCR set up. We could have watched a 30 minute video about the Windsor area’s tobacco farming. No thanks, I think Marian is doing a mighty fine job of it. Hmmm, I wondered what Ed was up to out there? (I could still hear the tour fine, mind you.) “Gordon Taylor ran the Agricultural Experiment station in town and in his retirement helped to prepare the displays at the museum which opened to the public in 1992,” Marian was explaining. Ah, so now we’ve learned the second identity of the Museum’s namesakes. Good, that question was eating me up – and I know you as well.
But Damian has always enjoyed books more than TV anyway.
There was a display of so-called tobacco flannels in the little library room, which were put in cigar boxes 100 years ago or so to lure more woman buyers. It wasn’t until later that tobacco companies learned that children is where the real money is I suppose. Speaking of kids, Damian was getting fidgety so we returned to the tour and enjoyed an old humidifier, as well as some old cigar rolling tools which Marian described as, “I have no idea how these things work.” That’s fair, the poor dear can’t know everything!
As we wrapped up the first part of the tour, we learned some of the cigar brands that use CT shade tobacco today. I wouldn’t know one from the other, of course, but I’m sure it’s an impressive list. “The best in the world,” we were told. Which reminds meâ€¦ Anyone who thinks for some reason that Cuban cigars are somehow better than say, Dominican cigars is nothing more than a sucker for the cache of the illicit nature of Cubans. They are grown in the same exact climate on the same exact soil type people! And besides, the good Dominicans use CT shade, so stick with what’s legal anyway.
We made our way over to the drying barn which was filled with old and new farming tools and machines. The Luddy/Taylor Museum is very well put together and much, much more varied and interesting than I’d ever thought. Marian showed us how the barn had side flaps built into it that allowed a breeze to help dry the tobacco leaves – a pretty cool trick I thought.
Flap on! Flap off!
There’s only so much that can be said about old farm equipment (which is why the nearby farm implement museum has gone belly-up, I suppose) so we quickly made our way through the barn. Not that it wasn’t impressive – it was! But it wasn’t heated and Damian was starting to get a little fussy at this point. And what do we do with Fussy Gussies? Why, we pull them in sleds and call them Li’l Tobacky Leaves, that’s what:
The shed had some real tobacco drying but it was from last summer. In other words, it crumbled to the touch, but it was neat to see the process and to learn that a working shed would be filled floor-to-ceiling with the giant drying leaves. The best part of the barn section was when Ed’s brother text messaged him asking about his whereabouts. Because, y’know, he lives in DC now and was up to see ostensibly see the family and all. “Where are you?” asked Kevin. “At the tobacco museum,” Ed texted in reply. This, of course, caused Kevin to reply, “LOSERS,” and that was that. Am I the only one who detects a hint of jealousy? After all, this was highly fascinating stuff, just look at Ed learning about some rickety old tractor thing:
Don’t believe me? Using the latest technology, I zoomed in on Ed which shows just how fascinated he was:
Once done, it was almost as if Marian didn’t want us to leave. I will never not appreciate how much these museum-folk care about their collections and thrive on passing their knowledge along. That left only one question: So Marian, do you smoke? “Nope, never in my life.” That’s niceâ€¦ but unfortunately, she did such a good job and her tour was so informative and entertaining that she convinced one participant of the smooth pleasurable enjoyment of a a nice Macanudo:
Please note, no children were harmed in any way in the taking of this picture.
Cost: Free – not even a suggested donation
Hours: Tue – Thur and Saturdays; Noon to 4, March – mid December
Food & Drink? Bring a pretentious picnic to enjoy along the water followed by a luxuriating cigar smoke
Children? Yes! (for the park), No! (for the easily peer-pressured)
You’ll like it if: You’ve ever been curious about all those white tents
You won’t like it if: Cigars gave you cancer
Freebies: You can totally pocket some tobacco seeds
For the Curious:
Northwest Park in Windsor
The CT Valley Tobacco Historical Society
Very interesting article about Windsor tobacco farming
All you ever wanted to know about CT shade tobacco
The chemistry and various types of tobacco
Children picking tobacco in CT
More child labor pictures
Tobacco flannel history
Cigar Box Art Collection
Cigar smoking and cancer. Enjoy!