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Simsbury, Connecticut: just the place for a relaxing getaway and an adventure in history

A party invitation drew us to Simsbury, a charming town in a river valley just outside Hartford, Connecticut that was named one of the best places to live in America by Money magazine. We decided to turn the evening into a weekend getaway. Little did we know it would lead to an immersion in American history.

The Simsbury 1820 House: walking in the footsteps of two centuries of historymakers

Our online search led us to the Simsbury 1820 House, appropriately described as an elegant country inn and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was walking distance from the party at the restaurant, Metro Bis, online reviews were consistently excellent, and a continental breakfast of cereals, pastries and fruits was included. Just what we were looking for. 

We arrived just in time for the complimentary wine available from 4-7pm in the foyer. We sipped it leisurely in a quiet spot by one of the  hanging baskets of flowers on the porch, enjoying the gentle breeze. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, water and newspapers are always available and also complementary.

Each of the guest rooms is individually furnished with 19th century antiques and reproductions to reflect the original style of the house. Modern amenities like Belgian linens with goose down featherbeds and comforters, complimentary wifi, TV, and phones with computer ports ensure a comfortable stay. Bicycles are available, free, to guests, ideal for exploring the nearby wooded bicycle pathway or points of interest around town.

The story begins

With time to relax before the party I picked up the booklet on the nightstand, “The Dowager Duchess of Simsbury” by Richard Paul Bremkamp. It is a colorful “fictionalized story based on historical facts” about the life of Antoinette “Nettie” (Eno) Wood, the widowed aristocrat of this grand house.

The account of romance, ghosts and mysteries surrounding a piano bench in the parlor is entertaining, even to those of us who do not take stories of apparitions seriously. It made me curious about the people who had lived here, and with time to do a little online exploration I became absorbed in the tales of patriotism, politics, and philanthropy surrounding the influential family that had owned this house.

I discovered that we we were in the midst of centuries key figures in American history. We were walking in the footsteps of a Revolutionary War hero and a suffragette, a Manhattan real estate magnate, a pioneering conservationist and more.  If those walls could talk! 

Antoinette “Nettie” (Eno) Wood was the great-granddaughter of Major General Noah Phelps (1740-1809), a member of the Continental Congress. During the Revolutionary War he managed to make his way into Fort Ticonderoga under false pretenses and gathered information for General Ethan Allen that led to the capture of the fort. Phelps also helped finance and organize a militia assigned to his friend, General George Washington.

In 1771, Noah Phelp’s brother Elisha built a house two blocks south of the inn. It is now the Phelps Tavern Museum and Homestead, part of the Simsbury Historical Society’s two acre collection of structures of historical significance.

Noah Phelps gave a carriage house and about 200 acres of land to his son, Nettie’s grandfather, Elisha Phelps (1779-1847), who built the main house of what is now the Simsbury 1820 House. He, too, was a member of Congress. Their son John (1814-1886) was a Civil War Brigadier General, Missouri Governor, and U. S. Representative from Missouri. 

Their daughter, also named Lucy (1818-1882), married, Amos Eno (1810-1898. Real estate developer Amos Eno owned the Second National Bank of New York and the Fifth Avenue Hotel (1860), New York City’s first grand hotel, and then the city’s largest skyscraper. He endowed the Simsbury Free Library and donating a farm to house Simsbury’s poor. The home was enlarged to over thirty rooms to accommodate their family.

Their daughter Nettie (1842-1930), married Charles Wood (1822-1889), whose family owned Wood Brothers Carriage Manufacturers of New York. Widowed at age 47, she never remarried, but remained prominent in Washington, D.C. social and political life. She enjoyed her close ties to Presidents, politicians, diplomats and other world figures and also served as the official hostess in Washington, DC for her cousin, Senator George McLean of Connecticut. In 1932 McLean established the Simsbury’s McLean Game Refuge. This over 3,000 acre wildlife sanctuary has twenty miles of hiking trails and cross-country skiing in winter. 

Books in the inn’s parlor reminded us that Nettie’s nephew, Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), was born on this site. As well as being Governor of Pennsylvania and a pioneering forester he was the first Chief of the U. S. Forest Service under Theodore Roosevelt, helped found the Yale School of Forestry and is known as the “Father of American Conservation.”

His Aunt Nettie remodeled her summer home in the fashionable gambrel roofed Colonial-Revival style and named it “Eaglewood” as a tribute to the national bird and her married name. The Olmstead Brothers landscaped the grounds.

Katherine Houghton Hepburn, mother of actress Katharine Hepburn, was a guest at a meeting there for the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage League. Nettie was a major donor to suffragette groups and active in the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

She is fondly remembered in Simsbury for hosting an annual Fourth of July Ice Cream Social for the entire town. There was band music, dancing and, a real treat back then, unlimited ice cream. She died in 1933, leaving money for the Eno Memorial Hall in remembrance of her parents and large bequests to the Congregational church as well as to family members, charities and other organizations. Her mausoleum is at the top of the hill in the Simsbury cemetery. 

The house was willed to a young nephew who lived a distance away and took little interest in it. He sold it in 1948 and it became a restaurant called The Simsbury House. The developer who purchased it in 1960 built on much of the 200 acres. After he began selling mantles and other architectural details from the inside of the house, the town bought the property for the Bicentennial. It was eventually restored to replicate its former appearance and became an inn, the Simsbury 1820 House.

Dining—for a special night out

There are many fine restaurants in the area. Here are two that we experienced and can recommend.

Metro Bis is in the historic Joseph Ensign House, the home of Joseph Ralph Ensign and his wife, Mary Phelps Ensign from 1905-1910. Indoor and patio dining is offered. Chef owner Christopher Prosperi and wife Courtney Febbroriello’s Metro Bis ranked top five in Connecticut for American food. The cuisine lived up to its reputation. A two-course lunch menu and three course dinner tasting menu is available.

The New York Times noted “Prosperi is a technical master, an original American chef whose restaurant is worth traveling for.” He is a recipe columnist for the Hartford Courant, weekly chef on NBC30, television host of “New England Cuisine,” senior contributor on“The Faith Middleton Food Schmooze®” and teaches international cooking. 

The Joseph Ensign House was built in 1906 local red sandstone. It served as Joseph Ensign’s office and part-time residence for Joseph, Mary and Polly Ensign as well as a place for meetings and entertainment and guests. Polly Ensign Lovejoy sold it in 1955 to the church across the street, which added the annex. It was sold again in 1985 for use as a bank and offices before its current use.

Millwright’s. The hallway of this popular farm-to-table restaurant on the banks of Hop Brook is lined with Chef Tyler Anderson’s decade of James Beard Foundation awards for Best Chef: Northeast.

The main menu is served in the wood-ceilinged dining room and heated outdoor seating area, both of which offer scenic views of the waterfall. A Chef’s Tasting Menu is served indoors. The cozy tavern below has a unique fireplace. The main menu is served here, as well, along with beer, burgers and more.

The mill served as a 17th century gristmill and sawmill and a 19th century hemp spinning site for the manufacture of safety fuses for what grew to be Ensign-Bickford Industries. Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense is just south of inn.

Other points of interest

The Old Drake Hill Flower Bridge was built in 1892 and rehabbed a century later for pedestrians and bicyclists. Decorated with flower boxes, hanging baskets and flower columns and maintained by volunteers, it was inspired by the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. As one of three surviving steel Parker truss bridges in Connecticut it is on the National Register of Historic Places and is less than half a mile from the inn.

Talcott Mountain State Park is about three miles from the inn. Follow the quarter mile Tower Trail to the landmark Heublein Tower, built in 1914 on the nearly 1000’ tall Talcott Mountain as a summer home for the eponymous beverage and A-1 Steak Sauce magnate. Enjoy breathtaking views of the Farmington River Valley from there. On a clear day New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, the Hartford skyline, the Berkshires and Long Island Sound can be seen. 

The over 100’ high Pinchot Sycamore is estimated to be 400 to 500 years old, making it the oldest tree in Connecticut and perhaps New England. It’s on the Farmington River in Pinchot Sycamore Park,at the bridge on Route 185, just over 2 mile south of the inn.

In the 1940s Martin Luther King Jr. and other Morehouse College students earned tuition money by working summers at the Cullman Brothers tobacco farm in Simsbury. It was his first experience outside the segregated South. King wrote in his theological school application that it was this awareness of better treatment of Black people that compelled him to become a minister and civil rights activist. 

That land was purchased  in 2021 to preserve its agricultural and cultural legacy. It is hoped the two acres allocated to historic preservation will be added to the Connecticut Freedom Trail. 

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