The crunch of the leaves beneath your feet, pleasant weather and the thrill of seeing maple trees take on their first reddish glow are some of the things that make fall hikes irresistible, especially when you are lucky enough to live in New England.
Staying close to home, we decided to hike up to the famous Heublein Tower in Talcott Mountain State Park with the kids this weekend. The blue-blazed trail covers 2.5 miles of the 62 mile Metacomet Trail. The first half mile gains an elevation of 400 feet but rewards you with stunning lookout points and then becomes less steep as you get closer to the Tower. Our preschooler needed to be carried during the uphill part but the 2.5 mile loop was cakewalk for the ten year old.
The Tower was open and looked rather grand especially when you realize how long ago it was built. Gilbert Heublein, the scion of a prominent business family had promised his fiancée Louise Gundlach a ‘castle on the mountain’. A man of his word, he got Smith & Bassette to design one that could withstand 100-mile-an-hour winds – made possible by reinforced concrete and iron girders anchored into the bedrock of the mountain ridge. Thousand feet above the Farmington River Valley, the six-story Tower was a fancy summer retreat for the rich and famous. It was one of the first private residences to install an Otis Elevator during the Victorian Era.
Gilbert and Louise’s son Arthur became a doctor at Hartford Hospital and pioneered the use of X-rays and radium treatments for cancer patients. Among many other business ventures, the Heublein family manufactured the ubiquitous A-1 Steak Sauce and Gilbert’s grandson John G. Martin bought the rights to sell Smirnoff Vodka and Jose Cuervo tequila. Other acquisitions include Grey Poupon mustard and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Heublein, Inc was sold to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for 1.4 billion dollars in 1982.
The Tower remained in the family only until 1943, which is when Martin sold it to the Hartford Times. It had accrued nearly $70,000 in back taxes! Renamed the Times Tower, it hosted many a big name during those days. Noteworthy guests include actor Ronald Reagan, Admiral Charles Nimitz, General Omar Bradley, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. At one such celebration, a group of prominent Republicans asked Eisenhower to consider running for the Presidency of the United States in the upcoming 1952 election. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1962, the Hartford Times tried to sell the Tower to commercial real estate developers but neighbors intervened and that’s when The State of Connecticut’s Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) stepped in and purchased the Tower plus 557 acres around it. This happened in 1966. After seven years, the state began a restoration project and it opened to the public in 1974. Heublein Tower was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
By the way, I did all this research into the Tower for my ten year old who hasn’t met a historical fact he didn’t like. The walk back to the trailhead seemed faster and easier, although I didn’t care much for the gravelly path. Dogs and kids were plenty, there were water fountains and bathrooms near the Tower and masks were mandatory only inside the building. It’s a busy trail so if you want to avoid the crowds, get there early.