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Please select an itemTOWN

Back in the 17th century, most of Essex, Deep River, and Chester were known as the Potapoug quarter of Saybrook Colony. Only in 1854 did Essex become a separate town, later adding the villages of Centerbrook and Ivoryton — and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Essex began to emerge as a shipbuilding center. By the time the Civil War ended, more than 500 vessels had launched from the town’s wharves. After the British sank its shipbuilding industry, Samuel Comstock saved the day, creating an enormous ivory industry here. Some 90% of the raw tusks imported from Africa to America passed through Ivoryton and left the town in some other form, as Comstock, in partnership with George Cheney at Comstock, Cheney & Company, built piano actions and keyboards, along with ivory toothpicks and other such goods.

These days, the warehouses and factories are empty of whale ivory. Instead, yacht brokers share space at the riverside, where four marinas are filled with recreational vessels of fancy proportions — and the restaurants serve patrons with whales on their corduroy pants.

But Essex is also a community of stalwart Yankees, who cleave to old-fashioned notions of fellowship and history — a place where school board meetings top the to-do lists of active young parents and the planning commission discusses preservation at least as much as economic development. Throughout town, this penchant for paying attention to both customary and contemporary expectations is apparent in diverse entities. The Connecticut River Museum highlights the historic heyday of the river, as well as its current challenges; the Community Music School welcomes chamber quartets and jazz bands. Ivoryton’s Incarnation Camp, having offered outdoor education since 1886, now incudes in its list of activities both classic fire-building skills and scuba diving lessons.

Not one to languish in faded glory, The Copper Beech Inn shines like a freshly minted penny, revived and restored by new owners who have retained its finest features while creating a superior menu. Similarly, The Griswold Inn continuously refines its centuries-old practices of hospitality (you can still head to “the Gris” for a sea-chantey sing-a-long) but you might also enjoy its sophisticated wine bar. The Black Seal Seafood Grille still serves up Rhode Island clam chowder and great seafood dinners, along with great burgers — and many a tall tale — at the always friendly bar.

In all three of Essex’s villages, in fact, a charming mixture of shops provide artfully chosen goods and services not always found elsewhere. Citizens have counted for decades on the tasteful wares and services offered by Talbot’s at the top of Main Street, and onward down the main lane to The Peddler, Silkworm and J. Alden. Generations of parents and grandparents have relied on the choices offered at Toys Ahoy and the Red Balloon, and probably everyone in town or passing through town has stopped at Sweet P’s for ice cream.

Some visitors find themselves so fond of Essex, that they not only head home with snapshots, good memories, and a small souvenir or two but with one or another regional scene from among the paintings offered at the Essex Art Association or the Gunn Gallery. Of course, their desire to make a bit of Essex their forever own is no surprise to local residents. The essence is the lifestyle, they would tell you.

 

Al Ferreira Photo