Exploring the Non-Town of Meriden

The burg is full of surprises



photo by stillman rogers
Sculpture by Terry Lund at the Aidron Duckworth Art Museum

Driving south from Lebanon on Route 120, anyone who spots the tidy little crossroads and main street of Meriden might assume that the burg — with its churches, library and more than three dozen historic buildings — is a town. But it isn’t. Meriden is part of the town of Plainfield, whose center is to the west on Route 12A, and it’s been a thriving separate community since the late 1700s. In fact, several houses date from that century.

We were drawn to Meriden by something much newer, though. The Aidron Duckworth Art Museum is a showplace for the work of artist Aidron Duckworth, who left his studio (a former elementary school) and works as a museum and arts center. In addition to its collections of Duckworth’s drawings, paintings and sculpture, the museum mounts regular exhibits of contemporary New Hampshire and Vermont artists. Recent guest artists have included Michele Ratté and photographer Ann Clayton Barlow, and the museum offers art classes and workshops for the public.

Even newer, and just in front of the museum grounds, Poor Thom’s Tavern had only been open a few weeks when we visited. A table of local residents had already tried much of the menu, and agreed that we should order “anything with the bourbon sauce.” We did, trying The Smokehouse — an 8-ounce burger with Garfield bacon and melted Taylor Brothers cheddar — and braised pulled pork sliders on toasted brioche, both topped with the restaurant’s bourbon barbecue sauce. Can’t beat local advice.

Crossing Route 120, we took Main Street into the village center, following the Plainfield Historical Society’s map of the town’s historic buildings. These line Main Street as it rises up the hill and through the campus of Kimball Union Academy, founded in 1813 and one of the country’s oldest private boarding schools. From the 18th-century Cape Cod cottages and Federal homes to the impressive stone Romanesque Revival Meriden Congregational Church and handsome campus buildings, Main Street is a catalog of American architectural styles.

Along with the Aidron Duckworth Art Museum, Kimball Union Academy adds to Meriden’s rich cultural climate with frequent student concerts and performances at the Flickinger Arts Center. Here, we found the Taylor Gallery, which shows student works and changing exhibits of worldwide artists.

Kimball Union Academy students earned Meriden its place in wildlife conservation history. When naturalist author Ernest Harold Baynes came to Meriden in 1910 to study the bison in the nearby private game reserve of Corbin Park (now Blue Mountain Forest), he advocated building birdhouses and baths to attract and protect birds. Kimball Union students immediately took up the banner to save the bird populations, which were rapidly diminishing due to the popular fashion of feathered hats. The senior class donated $25 to purchase birdhouses for the campus, female students knitted suet bags, and soon they had the whole town engaged. The Meriden Bird Club, the first of its kind in the nation, was organized with a goal of establishing a bird sanctuary and encouraging others to follow this conservationist example.

Meriden’s activity resulted in more than 125 similar clubs across the country, which together lobbied for legislation to protect birds and end the feather trade. Largely thanks to Meriden’s model, feathered hats went out of fashion. Meanwhile, students and townspeople built the Helen Woodruff Smith Bird Sanctuary, again the first in the country. Artist Maxfield Parrish from the Cornish Art Colony designed the stone pillars and original sign, and other Cornish colony artists designed birdbaths. The sanctuary, off Main Street just past the campus, is still alive with birds (we picked up a sanctuary map at the Meriden Library, opposite Poor Thom’s Tavern). The Meriden Bird Club is still active and meets six times a year.

At the end of Main Street on Colby Hill Road is another Meriden landmark. The 1880 Meriden Covered Bridge is a multiple kingpost truss construction and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For a place that isn’t even a town, Meriden’s attractions kept us pretty busy.

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