In my little (Volun)town
If, when the pandemic ends and you resume attending parties – cocktail, garden, birthday, holiday, surprise, tea, whatever – your conversational skills may have atrophied and need a boost. So here is a bit of timely trivia to use, a fact that celebrates the Nutmeg State as it emerges from the restraints of the virus:
What are the four towns in Connecticut that have the word “town” in their name?
Three are easy, one is hard: Middletown, Newtown, Watertown.
Where? If you place your finger on a map of the southeast corner of our state, straddling our boundary with Rhode Island, and work your way north, you will trace Stonington, North Stonington, and then Voluntown. The name is a contraction of volunteer-town because in 1721, after the King (of England) had granted plots of land to those who had fought against the native population in King Philip’s War in the 1670’s, the grantees incorporated as a town.
Those of you with keen powers of observation have just detected why this trivia question is timely: Voluntown turns 300 this year.
Now, predictably, those in Wethersfield and Windsor, if they will take a moment from their interminable bickering about which town was Connecticut’s first, are looking down the end of their colonial noses as their towns approach 400 a few years from now. But both numbers need to be put in perspective. In 1971, Voluntown celebrated its 250th year. I was 14. My father was on the organizing committee, which sponsored summer-long festivities – a polka festival, a beard-growing contest, Revolutionary War re-enactments, proclamations, and the like. A few months later, Dad was in Germany on business, and made the mistake of bragging to his host about his little town in Connecticut turning can-you-believe-it 250 years old! The host replied, “Ah yes, vee did za same theeng. Eet vas our two thousandth anniversary!”
So Voluntown may not be as old as others, but it’s still worth celebrating. First, it has that small town attribute of appearing to outsiders to be tucked away and perennially quiet, but feeling vibrant and engaged to its denizens. That is, the town is sparsely populated woods, with one of the smallest populations in our state spread out with one of the largest land areas (thanks to the expansive Pachaug State Forest), yet bound by the customs of the Finns and Swedes who migrated to the town starting a century ago,
Institutionally, it’s bare bones and sometimes hard to explain. Voluntown has a volunteer fire department, one restaurant, one liquor store, one hardware store, one alpaca farm, two gas stations, one supermarket, and three churches. There is actually a street named Hell Hollow Road and a scenic vista called Mount Misery.
The town enjoyed international media attention for one day, in 1968, when a group of residents objected to the presence in town of a household known as the Committee For Nonviolent Action (still in existence, as The Peace Trust). The local objectors instigated an armed confrontation with the state police at the property, with several injuries. In relative terms, however, not much has happened since, unless you count the town’s cameo on Extreme Home Makeover in 2008.
A recent and remarkable fact is that Voluntown demonstrates how technology has made small towns even smaller. The Facebook Group “Dwelling in Voluntown” has about 2,300 members – approximately 90 percent of the population. In recent weeks, posts have included, “Can anyone babysit my kids tonight?” and “Has anyone seen my Amazon package?”
The populace also has an attitude. Not long ago, a widely displayed bumper sticker was, “Voluntown doesn’t take sh*t from anybody.”
The town is home to the Gallup Farm, now run by its 13th generation. The family first arrived in Boston in 1630, and its lineage includes both Presidents Bush. Buried on the farm is Hannah Gallup, 1702-1798, who besides being born an English subject and buried as a newly-minted American citizen, must have been the oldest person on Earth when she passed.
Though I may have missed a few nuggets, this exhausts the list of facts that can be used to expand upon why the trivia question with which we started. In sum, Voluntown is everything we treasure about our hamlets, villages, bergs, villes, burys, fords, and boroughs: historic, sleepy, uncomplicated, a little weird, perhaps underestimated, civically engaged, proud of being old, wistful about the past, and happy to engage its present, one day and one neighbor at a time.
So if you find yourself, post-virus, in a group, drink in hand, raise a glass to Voluntown, tucked in the corner but worth celebrating as emblematic of the threads that enrich the tapestry that is Connecticut.
Tim Hollister has been hanging around Voluntown since 1959.
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