Visiting Many-Sided Tolland Turnpike
by Susan Barlow, Manchester Historical Society

Tolland Turnpike illustrates a paradox of Manchester. It has strip malls and car dealers, yet it also has several gracious historic houses and an entrance to the serene Wickham Park. These vastly different sites coexist fairly peacefully, and some of them help Manchester continue to retain its nickname City of Village Charm.

Tolland Turnpike started out as a footpath, long before recorded history. The Podunks used the trail to go to Shenipsit Lake. During the eighteenth century, and still before it was called a turnpike, the route saw horse and carriage travel. Where the road crossed the Hockanum River (near I-84 exit 63), a paper mill was established in 1784. Remains of the Oakland Mills stand there still, and hikers on the Hockanum River trail can see them up close. To find information on this and other Hockanum River hiking trails in Manchester, see Oakland Trail or Hockanum River Trails respectively; or pick up trail brochures at the Customer Service Center at Town Hall. Here again we encounter a contrast � trails right near the interstate highway.

Road Becomes a Turnpike

It was in 1801 that the route became Tolland Turnpike. Manchester was still Orford Parish at the time, and Connecticut's General Assembly chartered a company to build a toll road from Tolland to Hartford. The tollgate, near today's East Hartford town line, collected four cents for each horse and rider, 12.5 cents for a loaded cart, and 25 cents for a four-wheel carriage. There was no charge for persons going to church services, funerals, town meetings, or gristmills. Farmers using the road in the course of their work also traveled free.

The Marquis de Lafayette was a famous traveler on Tolland Turnpike. At the age of 67, and on the Golden Anniversary of his assistance during the American Revolution, he made a pilgrimage to the United States at the invitation of Congress. For over a year, he traveled around the country, receiving enthusiastic welcomes from crowds of grateful Americans, who viewed him as a hero in the fight for freedom.

Manchester Becomes an Independent Town

Manchester became a separate town in 1823, partly due to the efforts of famous resident John Olds, Esq. (1753-1831), who lived in the lovely farmhouse at 669 Tolland Turnpike, built circa 1776, and still standing at the corner of Slater Street. Spiess & Bidwell, on page 74 of their comprehensive History of Manchester, Connecticut, refer to him as The Father of Manchester, and "the leader in the movement to incorporate a separate town by the name of Manchester, on April 9, 1812."

Another famous resident of that very house, Alan Olmstead (1907-1980), worked at The Manchester Evening Herald for three decades, serving as editor, editorial-page editor, and columnist. He wrote about the house, its gardens and wildlife, and his farming efforts there. Olmstead's essays were published in The Herald and The New Yorker. He also wrote three books, one about his experiences as a war correspondent in Europe in the 1930s.

In his 1977 book In Praise of Seasons, he said, "This has been a season in which the humblest vegetable patch in the countryside hereabouts could produce peas that tasted as if they had been grown in France, when carrots came out of the ground early, in uniform size and untwisted shape, as if they had been intended to be props for a still-life painting, and when the crispness in the sink of successive crops of string beans made housewives remember again that they are also called snap beans�Peppers crowded together in the center of their bush, handsome in size, uniform, glossy�Sweet onion swelled out to the circumference of a hamburger. Corn and lima beans grew on the same schedule. There was nothing one could ask for that was not there."

In another essay in the book, Olmstead says, "The Toscaninis of the August night are never podium-bound. They leap from thicket to thicket, from the brocaded shadow of the elm to the bright spotlight of the young maple standing clear in the moon�It is the most indefatigable of symphonies. The hotter the night, the more sweltering the pit, the more zealous the performance. And even though it sometimes sounds and surges like a fever, it ends up, always, playing everything else to sleep."

A colleague at The Herald, Phineas Fiske, said that Olmstead "used to rail, in person and in print, against excessive development � particularly against big highway projects. 'If you pave the world over,' he more or less said, 'then there will be nowhere left to go on the fancy highways you've built.'"

Development and History

As it happens, the historic house where Olmstead lived is surrounded today by development, including Waterford Commons, a large apartment complex. However, it still maintains quite a bit of green lawn and has escaped the vinyl-siding craze that has detracted from the beauty of many historic houses. [Ed. Note: For the past couple of years, this house has been threatened with demolition by its current owner, the developer of the apartment complex. � Susan Barlow, October, 2011.]

Buckland Cemetery, high on a rise above the Turnpike, is a windy and beautiful spot to observe the contrasts of this area of town. John Olds is buried there, along with members of families who quarried sandstone, farmed vegetables, and grew tobacco nearby.

Another wonderful house sits at 1632 Tolland Turnpike. Its Italianate roof is enhanced by graceful cornice brackets. Its porches invite the fresh country air, and its large windows bring sunlight into its commodious interior.

I recall visiting this house to see Miss Jeanne Low, my former French teacher at Manchester High School and later a friend. She lived for a time during the 1960s at this house, which was owned by her friend Mrs. Myrtle Williams. The house struck me as a throwback in time to its farmhouse roots. It had a soapstone sink in the kitchen and many ancient artifacts and furniture, presenting overall a scene of peace and harmony. Today, despite the traffic and commercial encroachment, it still has its dignity around it. Myrtle Williams donated a large amount of land to Wickham Park (which owns the house today), another treasure of Tolland Turnpike, but a long story all on its own, and one that will have to wait for another day.

Meanwhile, consider a visit to the northern side of Manchester, and enjoy some examples of preservation amidst development.