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Please select an itemTOWN

Back in the 17th century, most of Essex, Deep River, and Chester — all set along the banks of the Connecticut River — 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.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Essex began to emerge as a shipbuilding center, and by the time the Civil War ended, more than 500 vessels had launched from the town’s wharves. As shipbuilding waned, Samuel Comstock saved the day, creating an enormous ivory industry here. In fact, 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 local restaurants thrive on the crowds of boaters and tourists who simply want to pull up a chair and spend as much time as possible in this superb little village.

Not one to languish in faded glory, The Copper Beech Inn shines like a freshly minted penny, revived, restored, and featuring a superior menu. Similarly, The Griswold Inn — or The Gris — continuously refines its centuries-old practices of hospitality, including its sea-chantey sing-a-long. But you might also enjoy its sophisticated wine bar. And 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.

A charming mixture of shops provide artfully chosen goods and services not always found elsewhere. Citizens have counted for decades on the tasteful apparel and services offered by Talbot’s at the top of Main Street, and onward down Main Street are 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 it’s fair to say that no one living in Essex or simply passing through has ever failed to stop at Sweet P’s for ice cream. If you’re staying a while (and even if you’re not), stop by Riggio’s Garden Center, which is also home to the Essex Flower Shoppe. And some visitors even 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. But then, making a bit of Essex theirs forever is understandable to local residents, whose passion not only for the town but its values is obvious.

Essex is 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. And in nearby Ivoryton, Incarnation Camp, which has been offering outdoor education since 1886, now incudes both classic fire-building skills and scuba diving lessons in its list of activities.

 

Jennifer Cardinal Photo