Beyond The Trees

...There's A Gem Of A Town Called Clinton

Driving north or south on Interstate 95 in Connecticut, Clinton is just a name on a road sign half-way between Boston and New York. Except for a few commercial back yards, an old quarry and a glimpse of the south end of the famous Clinton Crossing Premium Outlets, an endless line of trees is all you see: not a clue about the gem that lies beyond them.

Passengers on trains passing Clinton don't see more than trees either, except for a better view of the beautiful marshes along the Hammonasset River as you cross the line between Madison and Clinton.

Even the shoppers who constantly fill the outlets via the easy-off easy-on highway ramps, see little of our marvelous town.

From the Interstate exit to the outlets and back again, only our world class Henry Carter Hull library, Morgan School and a few stores are visible. Even if they occasionally stop in the small strip mall adjacent to the interstate for ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery or coffee at Dunkin Donuts, little of our home is in view. Not even the river and dam a few feet behind the Dunkin Donuts. Few stray from their route before getting on the road and returning home, their shopping accomplished.

But if they did...delightful exploration awaits. Head south over the Interstate and a scant half-mile down High Street under the railroad bridge, is the narrowest place on US Route one between Maine and Florida. At the traffic light, you are looking at Malones Coffee shop, one of the popular meeting places in town. It used to be the town library, but now has large overstuffed leather chairs and couches surrounded with the work of local artists (for sale) next to bookcases overflowing with reading materials.

Next door to the left is our post office which serves for many in Clinton as the place to catch up on local gossip.  It is our version of the pot-bellied stove in the general store where our ancestors gathered to interact and pass the time. Residents coming to mail items or collect mail from their post office boxes gather on the street or in the lobby to chat. What's going on in town hall? Do you know what that building is going up next to the police station? Does anyone know who owns that huge house being built at the foot of Commerce Street? Or, I haven't seen so and so lately? Have you? Are they okay? It's the one place in town nearly everyone comes to at one time or another so it is defacto the town's gathering place. Gives one a really nice feeling.

Uh oh, the lights changing, we'd better move on. Straight ahead and you're on Library Lane bending around to the left to meet Commerce Street, where you are facing the Methodist Church. The steeple, whose now electronic bells[1] are beautifully chiming, if you are lucky, was recently erected after the congregation restored it to its rightful place after one hundred twenty two years[2]. Removed for safety reasons  in 1887, this well-known landmark, though half a mile from the water, was seen by approaching ships and was in its early days used by many as a navigational aid: that was of course before Wharf Avenue, as Commerce Street was called, was lined with the houses and trees it now accommodates.  It was also after the church was at its original location at Grove and East Main street and after the original building was moved to Cow Hill Road in Killingworth before Clinton actually existed. By now you should know that if you scratch the surface anywhere in Clinton, its history will amaze you.

A quick right and you are headed to Long Island Sound, on one of the quaintest streets in town and perhaps in New England. At the water, where Commerce and Grove Streets meet in a "v" is Lobster Landing, famous in these parts. It's a great place to sit outside, enjoy tasty lobster rolls and watch the harbor comings and goings. A block to the west of you is the recently renovated boat launch ramp and the brand new bulkhead, benches, tables, excellent snack shop and promenade.

Many residents and non residents spend time here enjoying the view of the boats at the town slips, or fishing off the floating docks at the west end. Known as the bluefish capital of the world, Clinton's smoked bluefish are a delicacy I personally enjoy.

Continuing west are three more marinas and boat yards. If seeing the lobster rolls didn't make you hungry or it's not your cup of tea, pardon the mixed metaphor, a few steps from the town dock is Rocky's Aqua, a terrific place to have a full meal overlooking the water, sit outside (in the summer of course) for light fare and a drink, or relax inside at the ample bar.

Clinton doesn't lack for places to dine. A foodie like me finds them all. Heading back up Commerce Street to Route One (Main Street) there's food accommodations for every taste. From breakfast at Aunt Shirley's, McDonald's or Coffee Break with more Flamingos inside than Florida, to Taste of China on East Main voted the best Chinese Cuisine in Connecticut.

In between you'll find Grand Apizza and Log Cabin for Italian food, Chips Pub III for burgers, bread bowls of chowder, sports TV and drinks, and Sarba Cafe, a place to eat among the extraordinary artwork of Marek Sarba.

If you come very early in the morning you might be lucky enough to get a lemon stick at the Beach Donut shop on East Main. Indescribably good, at least to me.

While driving along Main Street you can't help but notice our town hall. Donated in 1935 by William Stanton Andrews, it is a magnificent 40,000 square foot structure with a theater and Masonic Temple.  None of the things I've been describing are visible from the highway or the train.

If you are a history buff, know that Clinton is the place where Deputy Postmaster General of the Crown Colonies, Benjamin Franklin, placed a stone marker indicating the distance (25 miles) and direction (West) to New Haven. It is right on Route 1, where it can still be seen surrounded by a small fence and plaque, in front of what has come to be called the Milestone House: the original home of Jared Eliot, noted physician and minister of the early colonies.

According to legend, Benjamin Franklin often read while riding his horse and one day in the 1700s, looked up from his book to find himself in the front yard of Jared Eliot's house.

He asked Jared, who was on his way out, "Where am I and how did I get here?" to which Jared supposedly replied "I used to own that horse and he knows the way."

Of course it wasn't Clinton back then, and wouldn't be for nearly another century. It was just a waypoint on the Post Road, the place where Franklin would later place the famous marker, as he had in other locales. The markers served multiple purposes: they took the place of slashes in trees to mark the way at night and also served to help calculate distance for postal charges, but of course you can't see any of this unless you get beyond the trees. You might even know about the 140 homes on the historical register, some of which are haunted and some belonging to the famous pioneers whose families still live here, quietly, but you can't see them from the highway...you just see the trees.

A trip to the town beach and the viewing platform looking out over the navigable harbor and marshes, particularly during a sunset, might give you a clue that this is a special place.

You might want to grab your camera and photograph the scene, or if an artist, wish you had paint and canvass at hand.

Returning to down town, Clinton Landing on the Indian River behind town hall, is where you'd likely see several Plein Air painters hard at work. That should reinforce the feeling of specialness. There is a very large artist community here. You won't find them advertised on signs, but you will see their work displayed at the annual Clinton Art Society show, Sarba and Sylvan Art Galleries as well as displayed in local restaurants. Living and working quietly in Clinton are some very well known artists, their work prized by locals, myself included, hung and admired in homes throughout the town.

An example would be the work of marine artist Victor Mays who lived here for 50 years until recently moving to a nearby town. His work does not stay unsold for even a day after showing, not even his work product sketches, which at a recent one-man show sold out in hours.

Another well-known marine artist whom I mentioned earlier, Marek Sarba, paints powerful scenes from his memories of 27 years on the water as a merchant seaman.

David Townsend's work has graced the cover of the annual Town Report and has been the subject of a limited edition print series of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce. There are many more artists than the three I named to whet your appetite.

If shellfish is your interest, you might know that Clinton once was the second most productive shellfish area in the state and today efforts are being made to reinvigorate that industry through seeding and active management of the budding shellfish beds. A very dedicated Shellfish Commission is hard at work, literally, making that happen. All volunteers of course.

I could go on, but you really need to see Clinton for yourself. In the north we have rolling hills, streams and gorgeous countryside and of course in the south the shoreline with its navigable harbor and beautiful vistas I have been telling you about. In addition, this is a town with a beautiful soul, but that is a tale for another day. We believe Clinton is the gem of Connecticut's shoreline, but to experience it... you must go beyond the trees.

Until next time,

Arthur Isaacson


[1] The original bell, purchased in 1870 is too heavy for the new replica steeple and has been placed prominently out in front of the church

[2] Church information courtesy of Roy and Sue Alexander of the Methodist Church

Andrea Reu May 06, 2011 at 01:28 PM
With all these hidden gems, why is it that we cannot revitalize our downtown. I have heard a million excuses and reasons, but the fact remains that too much of our downtown is more than embarrassing. The owners of the properties need to move on or fix them up. Let's get and support some cute little stores, cafes, etc. We will never grow Clinton until we deal with the deplorable impression we make when people pass through on their way to a better destination, missing all the gems Arthur has shared with us here.
Jeff Morse May 07, 2011 at 11:02 AM
Arthur...great summation. Add one more...."Hanami Japanese Restaurant!" Thank you for sharing some of the highlights of our town....sure, there's room for improvement along patches of the Route 1 corridor, but that doesn't overshadow the reality of our diamonds-in-the-rough.


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