The Rockfall Files
Middletown (Google Maps location)
May 15, 2011
Perhaps you’re not old enough to remember the show that my title alludes to, but if not I have a slightly newer pop culture reference for a secondary title: “Trees Glorious Trees!”
Remember those “Cheese, Glorious Cheese!” commercials from the 80’s? If not, here’s a reminder. Now sing that song with “trees” instead of “cheese” and let that infect your brain for the next few minutes. (And I guess that song is from “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens which is a tad older than The Rockford Files, and… oh never mind.
Mmmm, cheese. Okay. Go grab some and enjoy it while I tell you a story.
Back in 2008, while I was still working in Middletown, I completed the Middletown Heritage Trail. Along the way, one of the stops was The deKoven House. I took my pictures and wrote up that page and for some reason its story resonated with me. What was this Rockfall Foundation and boy of boy did this large brick building have an interesting history.
But I sort of forgot about it for a couple years. Then in August 2010, I went to the Wadsworth Mansion at Long Hill Estate where I learned about Colonel Clarence Wadsworth and how he not only lived over at the deKoven House for a spell, but also how he started the Rockfall Foundation. “Hm,” I thought, “that’s slightly interesting.”
Then I checked out Wadsworth Falls State Park and made my way back towards central Middletown. On my way, I passed a rock with a plaque on it at the intersection of Wadsworth Sreet and Long Lane with a plaque on it. “Hm,” I thought, “that’s slightly interesting.” So I stopped my car, hopped out and read the plaque. (Yes, readers, I’m that guy. My wife totally loves that about me.)
And this is what I saw:
Did you read it? Especially the part about “in celebration of his generosity in planting this magnificent living museum or northeastern U.S. forest trees for the citizens of Middletown?” Forgetting for a moment things like marriage, my sons hitting their milestones and the Eagles ever winning a Super Bowl, stumbling upon previously unknown museums makes me happier than anything else.
The Ealges won the Super Bowl in 2018. I still can’t believe it.
Not having any time to explore, I snapped a couple bad pictures and continued on with my meticulously planned day. Besides, I realized that a visit to the “living museum” would only work if I had a complementary visit to Rockfall planned as well.
So I reached out to Rockfall to get a better idea of what they were all about – and what the deal was with the arboretum. “After a visit to the Wadsworth Mansion, I drove up Long Lane and noticed a nice plaque installed by you folks. It mentioned that you consider the old trees along the road a “living Museum” among other items. I’m curious if you have any literature on the trees, the species, and/or any history of the plantings.”
I received a response that very day from the Vice President of the Rockfall Foundation, Jane Harris, that only piqued my interest further:
Currently, the Rockfall Foundation acts as a liaison among the entities that own and manage the Arboretum. They are: the City of Middletown, Wesleyan University and the State of Connecticut. The status of the Arboretum land has been somewhat in limbo for several years, because Wesleyan bought the property known as Long Lane from the State when the State closed the Girls’ Training Facility there. Then there was a glitch in the deeding of the property, because parts of the old campus had some contamination which needed abatement. None of that contamination was on the Arboretum land, but the transfer was delayed, and I don’t know at this time whether Wesleyan or the State technically still holds the property. There is a dividing line that runs linearly down the Arboretum which separates City land from Wesleyan/State land.
Wesleyan, fortunately, has been diligent about maintaining the grounds of the Arboretum, and the City of Middletown’s Urban Forestry Commission and Public Works Department have managed the removal of trees that were deemed hazardous. The Middletown Garden Club adopted the Arboretum a few years back as a project, and worked with my company, Allan’s Tree Service, to get some much-needed pruning and replanting done.
A back issue of the Rockfall Chronicle (2008?) has an interesting article by Edward Richardson, the State Notable Tree expert, discussing some of the major plantings in the “collection.” There has also been talk of submitting the Arboretum to the National Register of Historic Places; a Redding landscape architect was working on this project a few years back. There are also botanical tags attached to 50 or 60 of the trees that were considered to be representative examples of their species; these were donated by Rockfall as well.
Let’s hear it for cooperation amongst (essentially) volunteer organizations!
A few months went by and in mid-May 2011, I found myself in Middletown for a rare open house at Wesleyan’s Japanese Garden, Shoyoan Teien. It was a rainy Sunday, but being in the mood for trees, I ventured out to Long Lane again to take in the “C.S. Wadsworth Living Museum” as I like to call it.
As noted above, many of the trees have tags on them noting their species. The dilapidated Long Lang Training School that borders the arboretum cannot be ignored, but the avenue of trees is one of the incongruous cool things that thousands of people pass by and probably never notice.
Three days after visiting the arboretum, it happened to be my 2011 full weekday of CTMQ’ing around the state. I had made arrangements to spend some time at Rockfall across town and that’s how we came to this page. While the Rockfall Foundation isn’t a museum per se, it is housed in a historic building with deeply interesting historic roots and certainly does contain a wealth of information for nerds like me – and you if you’re reading this.
The Rockfall Foundation was founded in 1935 by Middletown philanthropist and conservationist Clarence S. Wadsworth, “to establish, maintain and care for parks and forests or wild land for the use and enjoyment of the public…” Named for the waterfalls in present day Wadsworth Falls State Park, it is one of Connecticut’s oldest organizations committed to promoting natural resource conservation, sustainable development and environmental education in Middlesex County.
And what about the building itself? As I’ve mentioned earlier, it has quite a history – and its typically confusing as is necessary in Connecticut:
The deKoven House, a stately Georgian brick mansion overlooking the Connecticut River, was built between 1791 and 1797 by Captain Benjamin Williams, famous as a trader to the West Indies. During a visit to Middletown he met and married Martha Cornell. Since Middletown was the chief port for West Indian shipping, the Captain decided to settle here. He purchased five acres of land, bounded at that time by Main Street, Washington Street, and the Connecticut River, for “thirty pounds of lawful money” from John and Rebecca Cotton, whose ancestor William Cornwell acquired the land in 1650 as one of Middletown’s original settlers.
On Captain Williams’ death in 1812, the property passed to his four children who, six years later, sold it for $3,600 to Henry L. deKoven who was active in the China trade. In 1900, the deKoven House was passed to Clarence Seymour Wadsworth (1872 – 1941) by his mother, Cornelia deKoven Wadsworth through her sister Margaret deKoven Casey.
The Clarence S. Wadsworth family occupied the house for a number of years along with their various residences in New York City, Maine and Florida, but after their mansion at “Long Hill” in Middletown was completed in 1917, deKoven House became Colonel Wadsworth’s business office. He bequeathed it to the Rockfall Corporation in 1941. Gifts from the Colonel’s widow Katherine Fearing Hubbard Wadsworth, in cooperation with the Rockfall Corporation, made possible restoration of the house and grounds and establishment of the deKoven House as a Community Center in 1942.
The Memorial Rooms, maintained in tribute to Colonel Clarence S. Wadsworth , hold some of the original deKoven family furnishings. Through the years, two additions have been made to the original house. In 1882 a two-story brick ell was added and in 1957, a large Meeting Room was built …
It continues on, but I think you’ve read enough background. I found my way inside the large building and passed by some gathering of Girl Scout leaders in one room and before I knew it I was alone in one of the Wadsworth Memorial rooms. This building is funny – there are some beautiful pieces scattered about and the only way you’ll find them is if you are really nosy and not afraid to poke your head into various dark rooms.
(Or, I suppose, you could always ask someone who works there for a little tour of some sort, but that’s what normal people would do.)
I found my way upstairs and into the actual Rockfall offices where I was met with a smile and the report promised to me about the arboretum. Cool! I was hoping this book would tell me the species of every single tree I enjoyed a few days prior in the rain.
It sort of did, but not 100% accurately. However, I wasn’t dismayed at all as I was doing far better than most people do when they notice the plaque on Long Lane – oh, who am I kidding. It was obvious that I was the once per year person who went to these lengths regarding the trees.
Oh the lovely, lovely trees. I was able to read Ed Richardson’s handwritten notes about the specimens he found particularly interesting or important. There were some notes from the original layout from Wadsworth and Olmstead. I was happy. I only wish I was allowed to make a copy of the report but alas, I was not.
After returning the report to the Rockfall lady, I continued to wander the building a bit. There are a whole host of great organizations that call the deKoven House home. There are a ton of environmental and outdoors focused groups that are headquartered here.
I got some funny looks as I zig-zagged from office to office, but everyone was pretty nice. I spent some time talking with the woman in the Connecticut River Coastal Conservation District office and was given a cool laminated map of the Mattabessett Canoe/Kayak River Trail. Yup, it’s been added to a list somewhere on CTMQ to do someday.
Before we get back to the trees, here’s a last bit about Rockfall:
Through its education and conservation programs, symposia, public forums, leadership meetings and informal networking groups, Rockfall seeks to help build consensus around environmental issues and policies. The foundation also holds and maintains open-space properties in the county that serve as models for forestry management practices. Each year the foundation awards grants to nonprofit groups, municipalities and educators to help launch and support environmental sustainability and outreach projects throughout the county. Rockfall is especially committed to initiatives that engage children and college students.
What they are trying to say and I’m trying to drill home is that Rockfall is pretty awesome. They are matched only by the majesty of the C.S. Wadsworth Arboretum thing out on Long Lane.
Many trees have signs, but more do not. I did my best to note the trees that I found most interesting in an effort to match it up to the key at Rockfall, but since I’m writing this many months later, and since the key didn’t match as well as one would hope, I can’t do as I wished.
They do have (though unfortunately, if you keep reading, I probably should use the past tense on a lot of these) a bunch of chestnut hybrids planted, perhaps, in an effort to replace the original American chestnuts that Wadsworth surely planted. I have a bone to pick with Wadsworth though – he wrote that he was planting North American forest species, but there are a bunch of non-native trees here – the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) for one and a nice katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicium). Both are beautiful – but both are from China.
But there are (or were) some great specimen trees from a shagbark hickory to a linden to a Kentucky coffee tree. There is a paved path running almost the length of the arboretum and I suppose you are allowed to park in the lot at the old defunct Long Lane Farm. Speaking of which…
The place is abandoned, but there’s a random Port-a-Potty in the lot. See, here:
I used it (just standing up) and it was very well maintained. So I’m in there, in the pouring rain doing my thing in this empty lot in front of an empty building on a Sunday afternoon. Guess what happened? A CAR PULLED UP TO IT AND A PERSON CAME TO USE IT! It was just so odd, neither of us said a word upon my leaving. (That’s their car in the picture.) Anyway…
One last note about the trees: Although southern Middletown was on the extreme southern edge of the apocalyptic Halloween 2011 snow storm we suffered, there was apparently a lot of damage. (Where I live, in northern West Hartford, the damage was inexplicable and I lost power for 8 days and every third tree came down.) The arboretum is also on the northern edge of a huge tropical storm as well.
From the Hartford Courant:
Tropical Storm Irene in August and the Oct. 29 snowstorm caused $128,400 in damage to the Wadsworth Arboretum, according to a report by city arborist Dana Whitney.
At an Urban Forestry Commission meeting Thursday afternoon, Whitney said the damage estimate is an appraisal of the costs necessary to prune, remove or replace the trees in the arboretum on Long Lane.
The arboretum includes about 250 trees. Many of them were planted by Col. Clarence S. Wadsworth, an environmentalist who founded the Rockfall Foundation in 1935. Wadsworth is also the namesake of the Wadsworth Mansion at Long Hill.
Jane Harris, president of the Rockfall Foundation and a member of the commission, said after Tropical Storm Irene that among the losses were a huge rotting ash tree that splintered during the storm, a black oak near Wadsworth Street, a shagbark hickory, maples, lindens and a young copper beech.
About 20 trees were toppled under heavy rain and fierce winds in August, and the snow in October littered the arboretum with downed branches.
“The hurricane gave the first punch, and the snowstorm gave the second punch to the arboretum,” said Public Works Director William Russo. “It really took a beating. Harris said it may take four years to plant replacements for the trees lost at the arboretum this year.
This bums me out so much. (The same article also noted a huge magnolia at Middletown’s Historical Society also was destroyed. My own little magnolia tree was also severely damaged but I think it’ll bounce back.)
Mr. Richardson also passed away in December 2019, which also bummed me out.
I’m very glad I happened to visit this place when I did and not earlier before the restorative work was done and not later when who knows how much of it was ruined.