I grew up and aged to 50 in Waterbury. Yes sir, I am a city boy. I have had my car stolen twice and I have been robbed, burglarized, argued with, ignored, propositioned, pan-handled to, over-charged and food-poisoned. That’s the city life.
The sounds of sirens, screams and extremely ear- shattering, stomach-pulsing, distorted bass salsa is a daily staple. And I knew I wasn’t going to miss all this when I moved to the little town of Bethlehem.
In the year 2000, there weren’t even 3500 people living here. Named 272 years ago, in 1739, after the biblical town, Bethlehem wasn’t incorporated until 1787. And in case any of you wisenheimers are wondering, we do have electricity, indoor plumbing and shoes.
It feels good to say “we”. I have been here not quite a year and I am happy to call this hamlet home. It has its drawbacks, of course. Most stores, hospitals, malls, restaurants, franchises, bowling alleys and heavy civilization is 20 minutes away. That can be seen as a pro, too (except the hospitals, of course). I am relieved to NOT see a McDonald’s or a Dunkin Donuts.
Technically, though, we have everything we actually need right here in town. There’s a hardware store where I can buy pretty much anything to fix my house or garden. A drug store, Town Apothecary (Who uses the word “apothecary in the big city?), is almost right next door. On the same street you’ll find a printer (who will print your digital photos, too) and a tiny gas station/grocery store called Sunny Ridge. This little establishment is where you would go when you don’t feel like driving all the way to the city for milk, eggs, deli meats or any pseudo-staples that you feel you must have. Thankfully, there’s no painful “convenience fees”.
Right across the parking lot stands The Painted Pony, Bethlehem’s most famous restaurant that serves some killer food including an absolutely majestic, mouth-watering Mushroom Swiss Burger with a special sauce on the side. Here, on any given night, there is a bunch of folks throwin’ back some cold ones at the bar. The crowd is mixed and seems to only get slightly rowdy on St. Patrick’s Day where many of us go for a great corned beef feast. Their holiday buffets are made up of hearty dishes and, believe me, you’ll want to sample every one.
There’s the Little Towne Deli if you want yourself a good sandwich and Nick’s Country Kitchen that serves some gratifyingly scrumptious breakfasts. I believe someone will start a religion, eventually, based on their blueberry pancakes. I’ve never been disappointed here and their lunch and dinner menus contain everything from burgers to grinders to full dinners that may require a doggy bag.
In the former old post office is Theo’s Pizza serving some pretty decent pies and Italian dinners at great prices. The specials are easy on the wallet and delightful in the belly.
Bethlehem can boast about a few things that are found only here. People come from all over around Christmastime to our little post office to hand stamp their envelopes with the several rubber stamps provided that say things like “Bethlehem, CT: Christmas Town” in green or red. I did it for the first time this year and impressed all my friends. Well, they said they were impressed.
And don’t forget our sisters at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, founded here in 1947. Frequented by the late Patricia Neal and inhabited by a community of contemplative Benedictine women (including Hollywood’s ex-actress, Delores Hart), they are dedicated to the praising of God through prayer and work. And the proof of that dedication is in the theatrical performances, leather goods, delicious herb mixtures, abbey-made cheeses and other delights you can experience there.
There is also the wonderful Bethlehem Fair every September that includes blue ribbon contests for animals and vegetables, livestock exhibits, tractor pulls, woodchoppin’, hollerin’, fiddlin’ and that wonderful fair food. Yummy. The fairgrounds also host a number of other events throughout the year like an Antique Truck Show, a farmers market and the fast-growing Garlic Festival. You gotta really like garlic to try the garlic ice cream.
We have our own Town Hall, Public Library, Public Works, resident trooper and a beach at Long Meadow Pond. In fact, many people have their own ponds and fishing spots are plentiful. Great trout and bass are abundant. And that fact allows me to segue into my favorite reason for living here.
I love the wildlife. In Waterbury, I’d see pigeons, squirrels and the occasional possum, raccoon or feral pit bull, but here in Bethlehem the list of fauna is huge.
Driving around, I have spotted colorful birds, graceful deer, rabbits, pheasant, turkeys, ducks, geese and foxes. I have heard the coyotes and learned to make sure the cats and the dog are safely indoors at night.
The farms are home to cows, bulls, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs and horses and if you are an omnivore, the local meats and eggs are as fresh as you can get them. Fresh eggs are available all over town from people who raise free-range chickens for about three bucks a dozen. Places like Percy Thomson Meadows offer everything from all natural roasting chickens, thick cut nitrite- free bacon and hot Italian sausage to filet mignon, hot dogs and liverwurst, if that’s your cup of meat.
If you love fresh vegetables, then this is the place, Baby! Every farm offers a great selection and wide variety of vegetables all summer long like bright red tomatoes, enormous onions with a kick and peppers of every color and size. I am drooling now thinking of the fresh sweet corn, hot, salted, and dripping with homemade butter.
For great fun and fresh fruits and vegetables, what better place to spend a morning or afternoon than March Farm? Here you can bring the kids and, depending on the season, pick your own strawberries, blueberries, peaches and apples. There’s a farm market where you can browse for vegetables, fruits and berries and choose from regional food specialties like Dean’s Beans Organic Coffees and Holly’s Au Natural Oatmeal. Of course there are the selections of jams, jellies and salad dressing and in the bakery you can pick up fruit pies and cider donuts. Bring a picnic lunch and head down the street to their Hayloft Playscape with slides, a climbing wall and a large track where the kids can ride the provided tricycles, mini-tractors and wagons. And before you leave, say hello to their friendly menagerie of goats, calves, sheep and llamas.
Drive around to see all the residents who have hung out a shingle promoting their in-house businesses like saw-sharpening, horse-boarding and dog grooming. Everybody’s zoned!
This June, we’re getting four chickens so I’m going to have to make an attempt to build a little coop without severing a finger or nailing my foot to a two-by-four. I’ve already built a “cold frame” to start our own plants early and, although I use only six fingers to type this, I, thankfully, still have all ten available. I read “The Idiot’s Guide to Raising Chickens” (yes, really) and I am far from an expert but this is one project that the condo association that oversaw my unit in Waterbury probably wouldn’t approve.
I wake up to different sounds here—no police sirens to jar me from my slumber. I hear the hungry woodpecker tap-tap-tapping on a not so distant tree echoed by another woodpecker click-click-clicking a little closer. They still wake me (and are not as “cute” as when I first moved here) and I might hear a gun shot in the distance. I know it’s not from a liquor store robbery but rather from a neighbor trying to take down a deer. Although I am not a hunter and I don’t have that instinct in me to shoot an animal, I am glad that our local liquor store owner is probably safe and sound. That makes me happy. That and the fact my neighbor may soon offer me a few venison burgers.
It sure is different out here and the living may not be for every transplanted city slicker. The nights are quiet except for the crickets or peepers or the cicadas.
The days can be filled with yard work or walks along the roads with your dog. Cars will pass you every so often and the drivers will slow down and wave. Everyone respects the animals and they’ll slow down to ogle a turtle, gape at a turkey or take in the graceful beauty of a small family of deer. I’ve been in a small line of three or four cars waiting for a few cows to cross to the next field. No one gets angry and no one honks at them. Such are the people of Bethlehem. The big city is slowly being exorcised from my veins but I still go back for movies, gatherings of relatives and friends, shopping and nights out on the town. I still love the city. But I am developing a small town heart and this is where I now hang my no-longer-so-proverbial hat.