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Two New England Small Communities I Have Fallen in Love With


Article and photos by Eric Hurwitz.
Page created on 8/26/17.

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Take all the slick brochures, appealing TV "You can have it all" advertisements and other aggressive tourist marketing campaigns and they mean nothing if you can't truly connect to a travel destination. While I have been blessed to come across several New England towns and cities that I have felt a meaningful connection with, these two communities stand out in my mind...

WICKFORD VILLAGE, RHODE ISLAND
Wickford Village, Rhode Island -- One of three northeast United States communities I have fallen in love with.
Wickford Village, R.I.

Those who want an alternative to visiting the same old places and avoiding stressful tourist traps in New England should consider visiting Wickford Village, Rhode Island as a travel destination savior.

A historic, coastal tree-lined, white picket fence village in North Kingstown dating back to 1709, Wickford Village impresses with its scenic waterfront views, historic large clapboard houses and majestic churches built right up against the brick sidewalks and a remarkable concentration of interesting owner-operated shops. Forty-plus storefronts on Main St. and Brown Sts. sell antiques, art, books, clothing, children’s items,  antiques, arts and crafts, home goods and furnishings, health and beauty merchandise, jewelry, and outdoor recreation. The layout of this hidden village is perfectly imperfect -- that is, narrow streets and waterfront pathways leading to, and sometimes meandering towards the main streets. It’s simply a great walking destination with its idyllic main streets and a harbor to watch the boats, the park-like paths with frequently colorful vibrant gardens, and kayaking for those who love outdoor recreation.

Walking in Wickford Village, Rhode Island
A walk along Main Street in Wickford Village.

Walking along the harbor in Wickford Village, Rhode Island
Strolling the waterfront in Wickford Village.

Once a major port and shipbuilding center with a still active waterfront today, tourism now stands primarily as the main attraction -- but not in a marketing sense. There’s a hands-off, laid-back feel to Wickford Village where many business owners seem to be as enthusiastic about visitors getting to know the village as much as shopping at their stores. Susan Smith, owner of Different Drummer at 7 West Main St. that sells American handcrafts, jewelry, pottery, cards, stained glass and “whimsy,” temporarily stopped her work day to take this writer on a detailed walking tour of Main St., en route to the Old Narragansett Church (more on that shortly) located down a path with memorial messages on walkway stones. She told stories of town wide seasonal events, people who have lived in the historic homes, and the old Avis building block (the location of her shop) where wives of sailors in the mid-1800s opened several stores on the first floor with that very tradition of all businesses being all women-owned and operated still a reality to this very day. Smith, who loves her job at Different Drummer, was in no hurry to get back to work, as her equal love for the town expressed itself through every step.

“It is such a nice place,” said Smith, “I just love it here. The events, the people, the history. That’s what we want visitors to get to know.”

The Wickford Village Association, Historic Wickford (HistWick) and North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce all have different roles, but collectively help keep the close-knit traditional coastal New England feeling of the area from ever going out to sea by bringing locals together to help preserve and humbly showcase the innate beauty, charm, events and neighborly relations of this special place.

Those two main streets, Brown and Main, have the unusual distinction of coming to dead ends, but this works to the Village’s advantage: the central district cul-de-sacs coupled with homes and businesses located right next to each other, make expansion virtually an impossibility. It almost seems like the biggest “sell-out” in the village are a few concrete sidewalks juxtaposed with the historic brick version.

Wickford Village, Rhode Island neighborhood
Historic Main Street in Wickford Village.

“Not a lot has changed here,” said Melissa Fisher, who has owned The Book Garden antique shop for 24 years. “It’s a community more than anything else. We take the time to get to know the customers better and everyone here in the Village knows each other.”

Smith also enjoys the neighborly feel of Wickford Village
 
“That Beauty and the Bath (bath and body goods for women and men) store next door to us? We are cut throat with them,” said Smith, jokingly about their retail neighbor -- and then pointing out that there is a close camaraderie and friendship amongst local business owners and residents in the village.

Many shops have been in business more than 20 years with the only chain store in the village being Rite Aid. Even the look of this national drug store chain fits into the Wickford Village historic template with more of a Colonial-looking exterior instead of the familiar 21st century chain store pharmacy appearance.

You are not likely to hear the words “must-see,” “quaint” and ”off-the-beaten path” pitched to visitors. Rather, the locals let Wickford Village speak for itself with the pleasing harbor and one of the highest concentrations of 18th century dwellings in the northeast United States. More than 100 houses, churches, industrial and marine buildings, and commercial stores are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A prominent example: the Old Narragansett Church, dating back to early 1700s and the oldest Episcopal church building in the northeastern United States. Services at St. Paul's Church are held at the Old Narragansett Church during the summer and the Meeting House is open and staffed by knowledgeable docents in July and August daily, Thursday through Sunday, according to the St. Paul’s Church web site. St. Paul’s Church, at 55 Main St., is also a historic gem in its own right as an active place of worship going back three centuries and also providing the “skyline” for Wickford Village with its majestic, tall spire above the Romanesque Revival structure.

“I have lived in some of the houses on Main Street,” said Charlene Davoren-Harvey, who also works at Different Drummer. “Those homes haven’t changed and that’s a good thing. The history remains and we like it that way.”

Wickford Village, Rhode Island
Brown Street in Wickford Village.

At the end of Main St. leading to the water, Gardner’s Wharf Seafood is located right off Narragansett Bay where fishing and lobster boats deliver locally caught seafood -- including fresh fish, Live lobsters, clams (littlenecks, cherry stones, quahogs, and steamers), mussels and oysters -- at the back door. During the warm weather season, Gardner’s serves lobster rolls, clam cakes and New England, Rhode Island and Manhattan chowders to the public with limited outdoor waterfront seating.

Gardners Seafood in Wickford Village, Rhode Island
Gardner's Wharf Seafood in Wickford Village.

Scenic park at the end of Main Street in Wickford Village, RI
Nice, small coastal park near Gardner's Wharf Seafood.

Unlike most tourist towns, Wickford Village does not have any lodging, nor indications of being a “foodie” destination as its dining options are limited. What restaurants and cafes reside in Wickford Village, however, have wonderful appeal. The Beach Rose, at 85 Brown St., offers casual, waterfront dining for breakfast and lunch with an accent on making homemade foods from scratch. Whether from the sunny interior or the outdoor deck, the Beach Rose offers some nice views of Wickford Harbor.
Dining at the Beach Rose in Wickford Village, Rhode Island
Outdoor dining at the Beach Rose in Wickford Village.

Tavern by the Sea, at 16 West Main St., also has scenic harbor views from inside, as well as from the rustic, cozy outdoor deck. The Tavern features steak, chicken, seafood, burgers, grilled pizza, pasta, salads and soups for lunch and dinner, as well as a gluten free menu and wines and cocktails at its granite bar. The seafood is fresh and phenomenal, especially the fish and chips, baked sea scallops from New Bedford and grilled Atlantic salmon. The Tavern by the Sea also makes a terrific lobster roll and also specializes in Greek foods like chicken souvlaki and grilled gyros. Tate’s Italian Kitchen is a relative newcomer, taking over the former Wickford Diner spot at 64 Brown St., and specializing in homemade Italian cuisine and desserts and selections of Italian wine and beer. Shayna’s Place, at 45 Brown St., pleases all ages with its breakfasts, sandwich selection, ice cream parlor and juice bar.  The Place, at 95 Brown St., hits the spot for those who love pizza and subs.

Tate's Italian Kitchen in Wickford Village RI
Tate's Italian Kitchen in Wickford Village.

The retail stores have a one-of-a-kind presence. Shifting from a service-oriented shopping district to more of a tourist one (without being tacky), the local business spirit remains. Some standouts in addition to the aforementioned Different Drummer, The Book Garden, and Beauty and the Bath: The World Store, at 16 West Main St., sells Rhode Island souvenirs, tees, bird feeders, bat houses, science kits and fossils. The ImPressed Olive, at 4 Brown St., offers high quality artisanal olive oils, balsamic vinegars and sauces. Spring Pottery, at 14 Brown St., has many functional pottery items including many styles of bowls, large and small vases, pitchers, brie bakers, pie and baking dishes, wine coolers, lamps, platters, and mugs.

Different Drummer in Wickford Village, RI
Different Drummer in Wickford Village.

Wickford Village, Spring Pottery
Spring Pottery in Wickford Village.

The Kayak Centre, at 70 Brown St., stands as the largest business in Wickford Village and a relevant one with instruction, tours, rentals and sales. Kayakers can regularly be seen navigating the waters around Wickford Village as the area is a haven for outdoor coastal recreation.

Kayaking in Wickford Village RI
Kayaking in Wickford Village.

Visitors could spend an entire day getting to know each store and its owner(s), but Smith recommends seasonal events as one of the best ways to connect with the village. The 2017 Garden Tour’s “Wickford in Bloom” takes place on June 24 from 10 a.m. -4 p.m. This self-guided garden tour of private and public gardens begins in the center of “Wickford Village at Updike Park and will enable participants to experience and explore an exemplary selection of 12 enchanting gardens,” according to the WickfordVillage.org web site. Check out http://historicwickford.org" for more information.

The Wickford Art Association’s annual Wickford Art Festival traditionally takes place the weekend after the 4th of July. The Wickford Art Festival features over 200 artists from New England, the rest of the United States and beyond. Admission is free for visitors. The Providence Journal has called the Wickford Art Festival the ”Finest collection of artists found anywhere on the east coast,” while USA Today once hailed it as ”A must-see show in a charming village.” For more information, log onto http://wickfordvillage.org/2015/07/50th-annual-wickford-art-festival.

The 2017 32nd annual Festival of Lights takes place from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3 and features a tree lighting ceremony, Santa Claus arriving by boat, an Elf Parade “for elves of all ages,” hayrides by horse with St. Nick, carolers and other music entertainment, a nativity scene at St. Paul’s Church, and ice sculptures. More info on this special event can be found at http://wickfordvillage.org/2016/12/27th-annual-festival-of-lights/.

No matter what time of the season, Wickford Village feels like the quintessential New England village that nobody know about -- but loved by locals and those who take the New England travel road less taken.

“People who visit here really seem to enjoy our little village,” concluded Smith. “There is a lot to like.”

For more information on Wickford Village log onto Historic Wickford Village site at  http://wickfordvillage.org" and HistWick at  http://historicwickford.org".

Flowers along the coast in Wickford Village RI
Flowers along the coast in Wickford Village.


WEST BROOKFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS

West Brookfield, Massachusetts town common
West Brookfield town common.

One of the best ways to experience the joys of a small Vermont town is by staying right here in Massachusetts.

Taking a 90-minute drive from Boston to West Brookfield, Massachusetts affords visitors many of the travel tenets that make many of Vermont’s small towns so charming, quaint and full of rural, restful appeal. Tucked away in the Quaboag Hills in Central Massachusetts halfway between Worcester and Springfield, West Brookfield feels sheltered from the world -- a place where you could hear that proverbial pin drop. Further validating the quiet, somewhat isolated nature of the area: Bordering East Brookfield has a section of town once named Podunk,  which is better known as a term traditionally symbolizing the “boonies.”

That’s not to say, however, that West Brookfield lacks anything interesting to do. On the contrary, one could spend a day or more in West Brookfield without ever worrying about discovering the travel cure to insomnia.

Driving Route 9 west for a few miles from Route 148 north makes one wonder, however, if West Brookfield will just remain another town with lots of trees and winding country roads, and no more. Upon entering the West Brookfield Center Historic District, however, something incredible starts to happen: Playing every bit the role of a small Vermont town, a beautiful six-acre town green instantly creates a wonderful New England scene with many old Federal and Greek-style homes surrounding the common and locals either out for a walk or on their front porches enjoying the precious moments and Norman Rockwell painting-like scenes.

“West Brookfield was where I was born and raised,” said Dee Dolan. “Growing up I always felt safe, and looked forward to the bonfires on the 4th of July. A tradition that has been going on for many years. The sense of community and close-knit neighborhoods really make West Brookfield a beautiful place to live. I always thought that I wanted more, wanted to live in a city near civilization, but now in my adult years I find small towns that resemble West Brookfield to be more like home. Something about small towns builds certain character that large town and city folk just don't understand.”

At first, it’s hard to decide whether to walk the sidewalks outside the town green to gain broad-view sustenance from the historic common and homes at every angle, or to enter the huge parcel of land to make further discoveries.

West Brookfield Town Common
A classic New England look in West Brookfield.

Either way serves as a great introduction to West Brookfield before visiting other parts of the community for food, drink, shopping and many fun attractions. Starting within the town common, the 1886-built Rice Memorial Fountain graces the center of the town common with its stunning 23 ft. tall “Lady Atop the Fountain” statue and a bright blue-green color. Former Massachusetts Senator George Rice gave the fountain as a gift to the town in memory of his parents, Samuel and Abigail Rice.

The Helen Paige Shackley Bandstand, located on the east side of the common, might date back only to 1972 but its old-style look fits in well with the town green. The Bandstand is primarily used for the Summer Concerts on the Commons held every Thursday in July and August. From June to October, the West Brookfield Farmers' Market takes place every Wednesday from 3 until 6:30 p.m. with some fabulous produce being sold by local farms.

“I love how West Brookfield makes it so easy to become part of the community with all the activities at the common... It's a quiet town with tons of personality,” said Shannon MacPherson Carlson, a West Brookfield resident.

The War Memorial Plaza, on the west side of the common, reflects the town’s steadfast dedication to locals who served and paid the ultimate price for protecting our freedoms. Beautifully conceived and maintained, the War Memorial Plaza is one of the best examples of a town common dedication site in Massachusetts as it pays respect to soldiers without over saturating the innate beauty and wide open spaces of the town green.

West Brookfield -- settled in 1665 and officially incorporated in 1848  -- also has an interesting historical background. It’s part of the original settlement known as "The Quaboag Plantation," the home of Jedediah Foster (one of the forgers of the Massachusetts Constitution, the model for the United States Constitution) and home of Lucy Stone, champion of women's rights, according to Town of West Brookfield web site at http://www.wbrookfield.com/.  There’s also a “Franklin  Mile Marker” on the town common, originally used as part of directive from Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin to indicate the miles to Boston through stakes -- and eventually replaced by stone markers. One of those stone markers resides next to the old Boston Post Road sign just off Route 9.

The Town Common remains the pulse of the community with little league games being played there in the warmer weather and seasonal events bringing in people from all over New England. In addition to the West Brookfield Concerts on the Common and Farmers Market, the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony is held during “White Christmas in West Brookfield,” which takes place on the first Saturday of December and features open houses, horse-drawn carriage rides, an elf hunt for the kids, caroling, and more. The traditional Asparagus and Flower Heritage Festival is usually held the third Saturday in May and offers plants for sale, garden items, pony rides, and raffles. Food dominates the scene with many asparagus-inspired dishes, as well as burgers, hot dogs, and baked goods.

“West Brookfield is a great town and has one of the most beautiful town commons,” said Lenny Weake, president of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce in Palmer, Massachusetts. “The town is like a fuzzy warm going back in history type of place with some amazing people who live there. It’s a very welcoming town and the people utilize the town common beyond belief -- the  Asparagus festival, White Christmas... War Memorial. The town common is truly the center of activity in town.”

Outside the town common brings more small town appeal that belies West Brookfield’s presence as a community with just under 4,000 residents. A remarkable 200-plus houses, barns, outbuildings and stores are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Some examples of the one-of-a-kind architecture include the Town Hall built in 1859; the Merriam Gilbert Library dating back to 1880; the Ye Olde Tavern still operating today for food (great burgers), drink, and functions from 1760; and Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church, built in 1889.

While the Ye Olde Tavern, at 7 East Main Street, serves as a nice, informal lunch and dinner destination with fine New England ambiance, the Haymakers Grill, at 8 East Main Street, is also a worthy stop with a small town diner-like ambiance for breakfast and lunch. Everyone here seems to know each other here -- and with coffee and pancakes seemingly continuously consumed.

Ye Olde Tavern, West Brookfield, Massachusetts
Ye Olde Tavern in West Brookfield.

The downtown district also features craft and antique shops, including the Purple Onion -- a renovated hay barn selling gifts, furniture and home accessories. For book fans, the Book Bear, at 80 West Main Street,  is a fascinating stop as the warehouse look offers 90,000 used, rare and out-of-print books.

Just outside the town center resides two landmark dining spots with distinctively different personalities from each other: the Salem Cross Inn and Howard’s Drive-in.  The Salem Cross Inn, at 260 West Main Street, impresses as a beautifully restored 18th century farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Salem Cross Inn, West Brookfield MA at night
Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield.

The restaurant and  pub offers a classic traditional New England dining experience set on 600 beautiful acres. With hardwood floors, post-and-beam ceilings, roaring fireplaces, antique furnishings, serene candlelight glow, and gracious, old-fashioned “New England” waitresses dressed in Colonial apparel, the Salem Cross Inn overflows with cozy charm. The locally-sourced New England fare is outstanding, particularly the delicious prime rib -- slow roasted on open-hearth fireplaces.

Prime rib raosted on an open fire from the Salem Cross Inn, West Brookfield, Massachusetts
Prime rib roasting on an open fire at the Salem Cross Inn.

The Salem Cross Inn creates its seasonal, traditional New England and contemporary cuisine fresh on a daily basis and by incorporating heirloom vegetables and herbs grown in its own gardens. Also, save room for dessert, especially the phenomenal deep dish apple pie, pecan pie, Indian pudding, pecan custard bread pudding, maple pumpkin cheesecake, cinnamon and brown sugar pie crust with cream cheese fondue. Many of the baked goods are created in a restored 1699 Bannister Tavern beehive oven.

The Salem Cross Inn has also featured special dining events including multi-course fireside feasts, apple pie contests, herb sampling, fireplace pit roasts, a Murder Mystery Dinner Theater, and hayrides and sleigh rides at various times of the splendid New England four seasons. Call (508) 867-2345 for a schedule of events.

Howard’s Drive-in, at 121 East Main Street, is a seasonal roadside food stand with picnic groves to enjoy the comfort foods. Recommended: barbecue chicken, baby back ribs, hot dogs and burgers, onion rings, fried seafood platters, New England clam chowder, lobster rolls, and the tasty soft and hard serve ice cream flavors served in large portions at low prices. Howard’s has been in business since 1947 and almost seems like a rite of passage into a West Brookfield summer.

Howard's Drive-In, West Brookfield, Mass.
Howard's Drive-In in West Brookfield.

BBQ chicken ay Howard's Drive-in, West Brookfield MA
BBQ chicken from Howard's Drive-In in West Brookfield.

The town does not have any inns or bed and breakfasts, but Sturbridge -- home of the famous Old Stubridge Village-- has many within 15 to 20 minutes of West Brookfield.

The 21-square miles that extend from the center of West Brookfield create stunning rural New England scenes set to gentle rolling hills, apple orchards and the beautiful 320-acre Lake Wickaboag.

Lake Wickaboag in West Brookfield, Massachusetts
Lake Wickaboag in West Brookfield.

“It's a small rural town with some stunning views and hidden areas that are still untouched by any developers,” said Laurel T. Shaw Leslie, of West Brookfield.

Lake Wickaboag features a Fourth of July boat parade and house decorating contest, and winter ice fishing derbies, according to the West Brookfield web site. Rock House Reservation, on Route 9 at the western part of town, is a 196-acre site owned by the Trustees of Reservations, offering more than three miles of trails and woods roads. Rock House Reservation is best known for its 20- to 30-foot-high rock enclosure with scenic views of man-made Carter Pond. For more information, log onto http://www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/central-ma/rock-house-reservation.html.

If you love farms, the West Brookfield area has plenty with Brookfield Orchards, at 12 Lincoln Road, in North Brookfield being one of the best for fall apple picking with its vast fields of apples, an annual Apple Harvest Fair (this year on Sept. 9 and 10) and snack bar specializing in hot apple dumplings with ice cream or cheese (available year-round) and homemade chili and mac and cheese.  A fifth-generation operation, Brookfield Orchards is beautifully situated in the hills and also features a wonderful country store that sells candles, antiques, collectibles, candies, jams, maple products, books, crafts, maps, toys and Vermont Cheddar Cheese.

Brookfield Orchards, North Brookfield, Massachusetts
Brookfield Orchards in North Brookfield.

West Brookfield seems bereft of the modern day tourist destination culture of t-shirts, trinkets, bumper stickers, glaring hotel signs, profit-making kiosks, and high-admission attractions, but locals and visitors would have it no other way. For many, the chance to see a Vermont-like small town without traveling the distance for fresh air, friendly people, traditional New England joys and some marvelous regional fare becomes a priceless entity that begs for many return trips. It’s really a timeless, trip-back-in-time travel experience that never gets old.


For more information on West Brookfield log onto the Town of West Brookfield web site at http://www.wbrookfield.com/ and the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce site at http://qhma.com/.


Rural scene in West Brookfield, Massachusetts
Beautiful rural scene in West Brookfield.


Interested in your local business becoming part of our New England community? VisitingNewEngland business partnerships started on Jan. 30, 2017, and differ than feature articles previously posted on VisitingNewEngland. Businesses pay a small, one-time fee to have pages like this appear, and first must be accepted by VisitingNewEngland.com editor and publisher, Eric Hurwitz, as a business he approves as part of "real New England travel" to keep the integrity of the site. Businesses that sign up for business partnerships receive priority by receiving more social media exposure and link placement on VisitingNewEngland.com. Contact me if interested in forming a business partnership.

Books by VisitingNewEngland.com Publisher Eric Hurwitz

Massachusetts Town Greens -- Discover New England's first travel attractions: town commons (includes a chapter on West Brookfield!

The Best Diners in New England -- If you love classic diners, New England has them! In my book, I write in detail on 50 top local diners.

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