Leisure & Recreation in Guilford: Then & Now

by  Lisa Calderone-Perrelli

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Just imagine. When the 25 men aboard the Saint John that sailed from England to New Haven signed the Plantation Covenant in June 1639 to join together to “plant [themselves] in New England,” they had one thought in mind: survival. Little did they know that 375 years later, the land they planted themselves in – Guilford, Connecticut – would be so much…fun! Leisure and recreational activities may have taken a long time to hit our town, but the last 40 years have certainly put Guilford on the tourist map, for locals and travelers far and wide.

So what does “fun” look like in Guilford today? How’s about 319 acres of preserved parks and beaches that include: Jacobs Beach, Lake Quonnipaug, Bittner Park, Peddlers Park, Chittenden Park, Mill Pond, Chaffinch Island, Long Hill Park, the Guilford Marina, Grass Island, Shell Beach, and the Guilford Green. Or 1,435 miles of hiking trails – a breathtakingly large amount of open land space for any New England town – winding through the Timberlands, Northwoods, and Westwoods trail systems.

“There wasn’t much to do in Guilford when I was growing up in the 70’s. Trust me on that. Guilford was an agricultural town, and recreation as we think of it now didn’t exist too much for most of its history, except maybe for those who rowed the Lake or sailed the Sound (cover photo) as part of the summer community. We were always 50 years behind New Haven. I remember when Friendly’s and McDonald’s first came to town. We were like, ‘Ohh, ahh, we’ve arrived!’ Now we had somewhere to go after the one movie theatre in town. In North Guilford, we worked around the farms, picking corn for a buck a bag, bailing hay, then stopping at The Little Store for penny candy. Organized recreation didn’t really take shape until the end of the decade – when the 39-mile Westwood Trails system started picking up traffic, and Parks and Recreation acquired Jacobs Beach and Lake Quonnipaug. They’ve been building out ever since.”

– Edwin Bartlett
lifetime Guilford resident
and producer of CTOutandAbout.com

In the fall you can pick your own apples and pumpkins at Bishop’s Orchards, and in the winter you can warm up with a tour of the largest single-span greenhouse in America at Roses for Autism at the Pinchbeck Farm. There’s the annual Christmas Tree Lighting on the Green in December, and the Annual Shoreline Jewish Festival in August. The historic Guilford Green is also the site where lawn chairs (and people in them) line up for Shakespeare on the Shoreline on summer evenings, and Guilford Art Center’s Craft Expo, one of the oldest and finest outdoor crafts shows in the Northeast, takes place every July.

In autumn, the circus comes to town (now how many towns can say that!) for the Guilford Fair – the second oldest agricultural fair in Connecticut. This year marks 155 years of the Guilford Fair, which has been a celebration of the harvest since 1859 and remains one of the major social events in town. You may have also visited the Guilford Fairgrounds during the Shoreline’s first Oktoberfest, and for Guilford’s annual Robin Hood and Taste of the Shoreline festivals.

Prefer an educational twist to your spare time? Guilford’s renown Historic Walking Tours follow two miles, with stops at the home site of a popular 19th century poet, six homes on the National Register of Historic Places, and tales of Indian Wars, New England slavery, abolitionists, and religious revolts all along the way. Guilford has preserved the most pre-Revolutionary War homes in the Northeast, including the oldest stone house in New England, the Henry Whitfield House.

And finally, there’s always the arts – pastimes that are timeless. Poetry readings. Local art exhibits adorning local coffee shops. Summer concerts on the Green. Plus Quilting Bees and Spelling Bees. Parades. Fireworks. Church Dinners. And more. Always more.

This year, there are two extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime spring events you won’t want to miss in celebration of Guilford’s 375 years since the signing of the Plantation Covenant aboard the St. John:

  • First, there’s Guilford & the Civil War on May 31, when a town-wide re-enactment of Civil War life (not War, Life!) will take place on the Green, complete with an encampment, orators, horse rides, period music, and a dynamic evening concert.
  • Then the following weekend, celebrate the signing of Guilford’s original covenant (June 7) and the Dedication of the New England Trail’s Southern Gateway (June 8) on Covenant/Trail Weekend, when hikes, historic walks, the annual Little Folks Fair, and much more will welcome Spring to the Green in 2014!

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