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Quaint US Village Keeps Simple Traditional Lifestyle - 2002-08-29

Beside the scenic Farmington River in Northwestern, Connecticut, sits a little town founded soon after the United States itself. Although the nation has changed a great deal over the past two centuries, Riverton has not.

Just a short drive off the busy Interstate highway in Connecticut is the village of Riverton. A few storefront businesses line its main street; some like the Riverton Inn are over 200 years old.

"It was a stagecoach stop on the Hartford to Albany route built in 1796. There was a barn on the property where they housed the horses, and they had a dance floor up above," said Innkeeper Mark Telford. He says the trout-filled Farmington River draws people to his colonial inn from all across the country.

"We get people who fly in from New Mexico or Texas or California. They come just to do fly-fishing. There are guides that you can get on the river," he noted.

Bob Flanagan and his wife only have to drive a half-hour north to reach Riverton. "From where we're standing right now, probably 30 or 40 yards down from where we are, they've been jumping all day long, but nothing's biting," said Mr. Flnagan.

They enjoy spending the day watching wildlife and fishing. "It's supposed to be the cleanest river in New England and fishing-wise it's supposed to be the best," he said. "A fellow I talked to before told me that just two days ago a fellow pulled a 12 1/2 pounder out of here, rainbow trout. There're some record trout in here. The scenery is just beautiful."

But not everyone who comes to Riverton comes to fish. Some come to shop for antiques and crafts, others to see beautiful colonial homes.

Many come to visit a three-story white brick building built here in the early 1820's. The Hitchcock Chair Factory was founded by a young carpenter named Lambert Hitchcock. He set up shop here because there was waterpower, an unlimited supply of wood from the surrounding forests and a stagecoach stop. Mr. Hitchcock's first chairs sold for 49 cents.

Local historian Marilyn Crampton says the town actually took on his name, Hitchcocksville, though in 1866 it became Riverton. "He started off with a do-it-yourself kit and he'd send them out and people, when they arrived, would put them together with instructions," she said. "Later on, as he had more help, he did finally in a very short time have a hundred people working for him."

She enjoys showing off Mr. Hitchcock's furniture in the Hitchcock Museum housed in an old church down the street from the original factory. Included in the collection are miniature half-meter high wooden chairs.

"They were the original Yankee Peddler samples that Hitchcock would take with him on his route that he did by stagecoach. And he would be gone about 3 or 4 months," she said. "He went from Hitchcocksville to Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis back to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City and swing around to Hitchcocksville."

The Hitchcock Chair Factory is still in business and still in Riverton. The 1820's brick factory is now a show room and store. Chairs as well as beds, dining room tables, bureaus and nightstands are sanded and finished in a new factory across the street.

What makes Hitchcock furniture distinctive is the stenciling. Hundreds of stencils are used to decorate the pieces. The designs vary from classic ornate patterns to fruit and floral images to holiday scenes, and each piece of furniture has "L. Hitchcock. Hitchcocksville, Conn." stenciled on it before it leaves here.

Lori Sokolik designs and cuts the metal stencils and trains others in the art. She says their stenciling technique isn't much different from the way it was done in the 1820's.

"Today we use airbrushes and metallic paints," she said. "Back then they just had metallic powders and velvet and you would dip the velvet into the powder and rub it onto the stencil. The stencils were still the same. They may not have been made out of brass or metal. They were out of paper. But it's still the same kind of look, the same process. It's just a little bit easier to do."

While stenciling decorates the front of the chairs, there is no ornamentation on the backside, just as in the olden days. Mr. Hitchcock didn't want to waste time or money on something that rarely would be seen.

Although the Hitchcock Chair Factory, the Riverton Inn and the Farmington River attract plenty of visitors, Riverton keeps its simple, quiet lifestyle. Surrounded by protected state forests, the town can't expand. Filled with historic homes and buildings, it can't forget its past. The few hundred people who call Riverton home say they like it that way.