Cross My Hart
Mill District Nature & Bassett-Kell Preserves, Hartland
The first clue that you’re in deep woods in northern Connecticut is the fact that you’re in Hartland. It is, after all, our little slice of New Hampshire.
The second clue is when you approach the trail kiosk and see that the photographs of the animals you may encounter include moose and fishers. That’s the way it is up here, and that’s they way they like it.
And it’s the way I like it too. (A nearby bear-baiting outfit – for photography purposes – has been thankfully shut down. But after a year of essentially feeding wild bears like a zoo, they’re pretty common here; I happened to see one on this hike from afar.)
The trailhead, somewhat ironically I suppose, is on relatively busy Route 20. There’s a parking area and once on the trail, you are plunged into the woods. Hartland doesn’t mess around. You come here to hike, you’re going to hike.
And if you come here to hike, you’re going to hike two separate parcels: the Mill District Preserve and the much smaller Bassett-Kell Preserve. Each contains a loop trail and on the western end of the adjoined property, both abut an Audubon preserve. When I hiked here in early 2023, there was no public access to the Audubon parcel, but that may change in the future.
Are you from the future? Can you let me know? Thanks.
HLT’s Mill District Nature Preserve is a 117-acre parcel in West Hartland that adjoins HLT’s Bassett-Kell Preserve, Audubon Connecticut’s Pasquariello Wildlife Sanctuary and a portion of the upper Tunxis State Forest block. The Preserve was obtained in 2019 and 2020 by HLT with funding awarded through the Audubon CT In Lieu Fee Program grants as well as assistance from the Farmington River Coordinating Committee.
I’m constantly being reminded just how many organizations have land rights and ownership in our little state. It’s a bit ridiculous to say the least.
The Mill District Nature Preserve is “a mosaic of upland to lowland mixed woodlands, marsh and shrub swamp, vernal pools and seeps, brooks and mountain laurel stands in the Transition Hardwoods Zone. It lies on the watershed divide between the East Branch and West Branch of the Farmington River, a National Wild and Scenic River.”
That was according to ecologist Harry White. Not that I thought you thought I came up with that description. No, as you’ve already read above, I tend more towards saying things like, “these are woods, man… woodsy woods.”
I set off counter-clockwise through the Mill District Preserve, crossing a few little streams. The two main waterways in this property are named “Upper Brook” and “Lower Brook.” I guess, when coupled with “Mill District,” this place was all business back in the day. A tree was a tree, a brook was either upper or lower based on its position on the hill, and the district was a district because there was a mill there operating on one or both of the brooks.
Hartland has always been a simple place.
After a quarter mile or so, the trail takes a hard left onto an old logging road which took me down the gentle slope to Lower Brook and the Bassett-Kell Preserve.
Although it’s much smaller in size, this separate (but seamless) parcel packs a punch. (You cannot access Bassett-Kell without hiking through Mill District. Nor would you want to.)
The Bassett-Kell Preserve, a 22-acre parcel on Mill Street in West Hartland, HLT’s first land acquisition, was a gift from the two families to HLT in 2011. The Bassett and Kell families vacationed on and stewarded this land for four generations. When Charles Bassett, a schoolteacher, died in 2012 his family said that his summer home in West Hartland was “the place on earth he loved above all others”.
I love Hartland. You know I do. But a century of vacationing here? That’s dedication. As I’ve now noted many times on this page, Hartland is a simple place. And, it’s safe to say, some Hartlanders are a simple people.
In Mr. Bassett’s defense, this little slice of Hartland is beautiful. As pristine as it gets around here. Granted, the woods were felled a few of those vacationing generations ago, but the trees here are still likely 2nd growth hemlock, white pine, maple, and oak. Old stone walls denote the property’s past agricultural use.
When I wrote about Hartland Land Trust’s other property, the Charles and Lois Beach Nature Preserve, I included a heartfelt essay by the donor’s son. There seems to be theme here in Hartland, as the Trust’s website includes a heartfelt essay by Emma Kell, Mr. Bassett’s granddaughter.
My grandfather, the Reverend Mr. Edward D. Bassett, bought this land in 1901. He was a Methodist minister, and as such moved about from parsonage to parsonage, never having a true home of his own. He purchased this old farm of approximately 35 acres hoping to establish here a permanent summer home for his family. His plan worked. Since that time Hartland has been the summer gathering place for generations of our family and friends.
As a child, I would walk through the woods, identify all sorts of wildflowers and mushrooms, play in the brook, pick berries, and run the stone walls. My brother and I were charged with hauling water from the Big Spring—a spring that never ran dry. In the evening, the family would sit around the kerosene lamp at the table while my mother read stories aloud.
Many important family events have happened here, including my daughter’s wedding which was held in the lower meadow. Six generations of Bassetts and two generations of Kells have loved this, our spiritual home. For reasons of distance and poor health, neither my brother nor I could be with you this afternoon. Yet I’m sure I speak for Bob as well as myself when I say that this is a most happy occasion for us. We can now be assured that our beloved piece of Hartland will be protected forever in its natural state, and that in the future others will be able to enjoy it as well.
Two land trust properties, two touching essays by progeny of the donors. Perhaps Hartland is far more magical than I’ve given it credit for?
After completing the little loop, it was back out to complete the larger Mill District loop. As I mentioned, this western edge of the property abuts an Audubon property. For now, I simply followed the blazes to the beaver pond.
Beaver ponds always have an apocalyptic look to them. Especially on gray winter days like the day I rattled around the woods here. And I find a certain beauty in these scenes. So much so that I followed the little spur trail to the other side of the pond. Just because it’s there.
After that, it was a straight shot back up the hill and out to my car. These two preserves live up to the name “preserve” in every sense. They offer a really nice walk through the woods and a good chance of seeing things like bears, foxes, beaver, bobcats, fishers, and moose. I will never make fun of Hartland woodsy vacations again.
Promise. Cross my Hart.
Hartland Land Trust
CTMQ’s Hartland Land Trust Trails
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