The demoiselle crane moved delicately across the field, arched her long, silver-grey neck and offered an elaborate bow. Then the bird, a native of Eurasia, flapped and hopped and danced over the grass in a courtship ritual that was all the more extraordinary because of where it took place — off a rambling country road a mile from the center of this Northeastern Connecticut town.
The Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy — 16 acres of beautifully landscaped aviaries and ponds — is home to hundreds of birds from around the world, including many rare and endangered species. For years the conservancy, which was founded by famed ornithologist S. Dillon Ripley in the 1980s, shunned publicity, though visitors are now welcome on weekends.
Still, the bird sanctuary remains one of the secret treasures of Litchfield County, a place of picturesque villages and historic inns, saltbox houses dating to the 1700s, soaring white clapboard churches, and seemingly endless rivers, lakes and meadows carpeted with wildflowers.
“Litchfield County is full of hidden gems. You just have to know where to look,” says Dixie Delancy who, with her brother Dan, sells hot dogs and pulled pork sandwiches on the shores of Lake Waramaug in New Preston. The pair are a font of local knowledge and history and happily direct bikers, kayakers, fishermen and history buffs to the best spots.
Delancy, an avid hiker and kayaker, writes a blog at LakesideLunch.com called “Hot Dogs and Tourism” that’s as good as any guidebook, detailing spectacular fly fishing on the Housatonic River, the old-world charms of a covered bridge in West Cornwall and the natural wonders of a 250-foot waterfall at Kent Falls State Park.
Another local wonder, though distinctly man-made, can be found just south of the falls among the rambling gardens and 18th century barns that make up artist Denis Curtiss’ studio and home. The massive steel panthers, elephants and giraffes that loom among the trees provide a startling sight for visitors motoring along Route 7. Curtiss, 66, a retired teacher from Cornwall, has been making the unique, cubist-style structures for decades (he says one of his biggest clients was the late singer, Andy Williams, who shipped more than 20 pieces to his home in Missouri). When home, Curtiss welcomes visitors for free tours of the place he calls “Sculpturedale.”
In the heart of the county is the charming town of Litchfield itself, with historic buildings, galleries and restaurants laid out along a 1770s green and dominated by the towering white First Congregational church and stately granite courthouse.
In 1978, Litchfield was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today members of the local historical society lead walking tours through the village, which features dozens of historic sites, including the Tapping Reeve Law school (founded in 1784, it was the country’s first law school), the Ethan Allen house and the Sheldon tavern where Washington supposedly once slept.
The early 19th century was Litchfield’s “Golden Age,” when the town was a thriving urban and cultural center, home to the law school and the Litchfield Female Academy, one of the earliest schools for girls in the United States. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who grew up in Litchfield — her father Lyman Beecher was a minister at the Congregational church — was one of its most prominent alumnae.