Published July 29. 2013 4:00AM
Connecticut has another historic first: the nation's premier barn trail.
It started as a survey of historic barns across the state. Over the past two years, the CT Trust for Historic Preservation has been working with historical societies, historic district commissions, land trusts, barn owners, volunteers and history buffs to identify close to 8,500 historic barns here. Of these, it has amassed more detailed history, architectural style, past and current uses for 2,000 of the structures, and is nominating a select group of 200 barns to the State Register of Historic Places. That gives these previously unrecognized structures an added layer of historic preservation.
All of this information is catalogued on the Historic Barns of Connecticut website, or www.connecticutbarns.org, maintained by the Trust.
"The purpose of the 200 barns was for the greatest amount of history, the greatest quality of barns, and to get a variety of the different historical periods, from the 1700s to the 1940s," says Charlotte Hitchcock, lead barn researcher on the project. "We could have easily picked another 200 from the thousands of barns identified, but these are what we can do with the current funding from the state Historic Preservation Office."
This isn't just an effort to catalogue musty old farm buildings before they fall down or are demolished, although Hitchcock says at least a hundred of the buildings catalogued have disappeared since the survey started. The trust also accepted historic photos and information on barns that already had been lost, because it is valuable history to be archived, and it continues to accept photos and data on barns.
While the historic cataloguing and research are winding down, another phase of the barns celebration - one that involves the public, tourists and iPhone apps - is in high gear.
That's the CT Barns Trail, seven maps of destination barns that people can explore up close, perhaps tour, and see how they are being used today. Collectively, there are 50 barns listed; each map features five to 11 along a scenic tour in a different part of the state. Some of the destination barns are on historic properties; others are part of working farms, farm stands, orchards and wineries.
Two of these trails traverse New London County. The Thames River Valley trail has seven barns, including Clyde's Cider Mill on North Stonington Road in Old Mystic (the oldest steam-powered cider mill in the United States with a winery scheduled to reopen in September), the Nathan Lester House and Farm Tool Museum in Ledyard, Heritage Trail Vineyards in Lisbon and the Zagray Farm Museum in Colchester.
The Connecticut River Valley South trail includes two East Lyme historical treasures: the Smith-Harris House and East Lyme Historical Society's Thomas Lee House.
The other trail regions are the Northwest Hills, Fairfield County and Western Shore, New Haven and the Central Valley, and the Connecticut River Valley North.
"The purpose of the barn maps is to get people out and about on tours along the scenic routes," says Hitchcock, who recommends downloading the iPhone app that shows not only the destination barns but also a user's proximity to many more historic barns on the survey that aren't open to the public but still visible from the designated trail. The iPhone app also works on iPads.
Look for the colorful, informative print maps at the state's tourism centers or at any of the destinations on the maps. Or, call the CT Trust for Historic Preservation at (203) 562-6312 in Hamden, or fill out the online form at www.connecticutbarns.org to request a copy. The trust also will ship maps to libraries, town halls and historical societies on request.
In addition to historical information about each of the tour barns, the print map includes a primer on multiple barn types and purposes. Hitchcock says the most historically characteristic barn is the straight-sided English barn, the earliest style built by the colonists. Gambrel barns, with the characteristic curved roofs, became popular earlier in the 20th century as dairy farming surged to meet the urban demand for fresh milk.
One thing we won't see yet is a series of CT barns trail signs, similar to the state's wine trail, but Trust staff are hopeful for funding to design and produce them.
Have the "barn again" fever? Listen to Suzanne's radio show, "CT Outdoors," tomorrow to hear Helen Higgins, CT Trust for Historic Preservation executive director. Listen live from 12:30 to 1 p.m. at 1420 AM, 1150 AM or streaming online at www.wliswmrd.net on Tuesday, July 30; listen any time after that from the On Demand archives on the website.