Chaplin: A Village Suspended in Time
In preparing for this article I perused the Town of Chaplin website. A section about the town’s history starts with this sentence, “An extraordinary early 19th century building boom and a 20th century road improvement project created Chaplin, a village suspended in time.”
I first visited this village suspended in time in 1980. I had driven the 20th century improved road (Route 198) from my home in Woodstock Valley to Willimantic, and in Chaplin, I turned onto Chaplin Road for a bit of exploring. What I discovered was a quintessential New England village with a white church and several Federal and Greek revival style historic homes dating to the early 19th century. Built on the wealth of the town’s early industries — including silk production, finely crafted calfskin boots, a sawmill, gristmill and a large paper mill — the buildings became part of a National Historic Register District in the early 1970s.
Despite the antique architecture along Chaplin Street, time has not really stood still in the town. In fact, it is on the cusp of its bicentennial celebration. Chaplin was founded in 1822 from land within the towns of Mansfield, Hampton and Windham and was named for Deacon Benjamin Chaplin who had built his homestead near the Natchaug River. In 1795 he bequeathed $1,500 to build a new church meeting house and form an ecclesiastical society, and between 1812 and 1815 the church was built. A village of homes and shops grew around the church, and soon the residents negotiated with bordering towns to incorporate the town that would take the name of its benefactor.
The 2010 census lists a population of 2,300 in a town of 19.6 square miles. The town has a total of 12,557 acres of land with 89.4 percent of that in forests (11,247 acres), making it one of the most forested towns in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Three of Chaplin’s bordering towns of Hampton, Eastford and Ashford are also rich in forested land in large part due to thousands of acres of Natchaug State Forest that encompasses much of these four towns.
Natchaug is a name given by the Native Americans of the region, meaning “land between the rivers” and refers to the land at the junction of Bigelow Brook and the Still River which join to become the Natchaug River. The Natchaug River runs the length of town, and both as a historical and a natural resource, it, in many ways, defines the town. A drive along Rt. 198 between Eastford and Chaplin is to catch glimpses of this sparkling and clean river, popular for anglers, campers and paddling enthusiasts.
If you want to dive a bit deeper into the history of Chaplin here are two website links for a quick read.
- Town of Chaplin website and section on history of the town:
- The Last Green Valley’s publication “For the Common Good: A Guide to Historic and Scenic Town Commons & Greens of The Last Green Valley.” Chaplin is listed on page 7:
Over the years I have gotten to know two long-time residents of Chaplin who have been very active in the civic life of the town. I contacted them to gain an understanding of why they like living in Chaplin.
Rusty Lanzit, former Chaplin First Selectman, is an active outdoor enthusiast and Walktober leader for many years. He said, “I’ve lived on the Natchaug River for almost 40 years now, and every day it’s something new to appreciate. The river is up or down, or full of ice; always some new bird or plant to discover. We’ve had bald eagles just about every year, and we always have a family of ospreys around. When the river is up, we enjoy seeing kayakers heading downstream in the swift water. Downstream is Diana’s Pool, a beautiful spot that was actually purchased thru the efforts of James Goodwin, back in the 1930s. We take pride in our town, and people are always helping one another. During the recent storm, when nearly everyone was out of power, people checked in on neighbors and made sure everyone was ok. We love hiking in the nearby state forest, and cross-country skiing in the winter. We love living here and would never consider living anywhere else.”
Warren Church, Vice-Chairman of the Chaplin Historic District Commission, said
“I was born and brought up on the family farm on Tower Hill. The land was acquired by my ancestors beginning in 1834 and is now permanently preserved through a conservation easement held by Joshua’s Trust and a Forest Legacy easement. Chaplin has always been near and dear to my family, and my wife. Peggy and I moved to our current home in Chaplin’s Historic Village, which is the same close-knit friendly community that I remember growing up in town. In 2022 Chaplin will be celebrating our 200th anniversary in Town. Plans are well underway for a year of festivities, including a recreation of the first Town meeting, planting bicentennial trees, numerous walks and tours, a history scavenger hunt and a number of other events. It will be capped off by a giant fireworks display at Garrison Field and a drone photograph of current and past residents positioned in the historic district where they live.”
We live in a beautiful region called The Last Green Valley comprised of 35 towns within the Thames River watershed. Some of our towns are larger with more than 30,000 residents and some smaller with less than 3,000 residents. Each is unique in its own historical, cultural and natural resources, and yet united by the commonality of being within a region that remains 88.6 percent undeveloped – green during the day and dark at night. I look forward to celebrating the Bicentennial of Chaplin, the town “suspended in time,” and hope you do too. Together let us care for our beautiful region, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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