Local Businessmen Preserve History with Entrepreneurial Spirits
Photos by John Kane
For years, Roxbury and Bridgewater were among the state’s handful of dry towns. Bridgwater remained dry until 2014, and, until a few years ago, only six-packs of beer were sold in Roxbury’s market. But both towns are about to get much wetter, largely due to the impetus of two residents who have renovated historic buildings to house new businesses that sell alcohol. It’s a move that many residents hope will keep the area vibrant while preserving the Currier & Ives image.
Several years ago, Elliot Davis installed a hard-cider orchard on his 16-acre farm in Washington, where he and his wife, Karen, an interior designer, and his two children, raise sheep and heritage chickens and harvest maple syrup, honey, and heirloom apples. Davis initially wanted to bottle his own hard cider. But, as it turns out, hard cider is not quite as popular as hard liquor.
Now the venture capitalist-turned-distiller has renovated the historic Roxbury Railroad Station into the Mine Hill Distillery, preserving a piece of local history in the process. The four-acre property, once the town’s industrial hub in the 19th century, abuts the 450-acre Mine Hill land preserve, a National Historic Landmark that features remains of the iron-ore mine, donkey paths, a blasting furnace, and a quarry. After Davis purchased the property in 2015 for $210,000, he sold off a parcel to the Roxbury Land Trust, which renovated a former general store into its new headquarters.
Meanwhile, in the neighboring town of Bridgewater, financier Peter May’s new restaurant, Bridgewater Bistro, is set to open in October
inside the historic Bridgewater Village Store. The Victorian structure dates back to 1899 and was once Thompson’s Mail Order House, the first mail-order company in the country. The bistro will offer patrons an opportunity to imbibe May’s own Maywood Estate wines, as well as other beer and wine selections.
May bought the Bridgewater Village Store building—which also houses the post office—more than 25 years ago. Built from quarter-oak and featuring a 50-foot tower, the building is the town’s centerpiece and the original manufacturing site of Bridgewater Chocolate. But in recent years, May struggled to find a tenant for the store’s adjacent space, previously occupied by a bank. And, in 2013, he sent a letter to residents in town asking them for suggestions about how to reduce the store’s financial losses, which, he noted, amounted to almost $1.5 million at that time. Talk of a restaurant was bandied about, but without a license to serve alcohol, it went nowhere.
Then, in 2014, when the town passed a liquor ordinance, the restaurant became more feasible. “The response from the town has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Greg Bollard, who manages May’s properties in town, including the 1,000-acre Maywood Estate.
In Roxbury, Davis purchased Railroad Station, comprised of four structures totaling 15,000 square feet. But all of the buildings—a former 1850 cigar factory, coal shed, workshop, and the 1872 train station—were in deplorable condition. The restoration of the buildingss is striking, and residents have taken note.
Before the project, the cluster of ramshackle structures had been up for sale for nearly 12 years, with an original price tag of $3.2 million. Zoning restrictions, the lack of a well, and an inadequate septic system limited the property’s commercial use. For a while, it seemed a piece of the town’s history might be lost. But a drop in asking price and a change in zoning late last year allowed Davis to move forward with his distillery dream.
Once Mine Hill Distillery opens late this fall, it will mark the first time alcohol will since before Prohibition, when a saloon operated in town. The distillery will have a tasting room, offices, distilling area, and barrel storage for aging whiskey, bourbon, and rye. The railroad station, restored to its original appearance, will be used as community space for pop-up galleries and events.
The distillery’s larger mission is to help the community, says Davis, who is contracting local farmers to grow wheat, barley, and rye. “Our logo is ‘Still made in Connecticut,’” he says.
Restoring the railroad station also has been a godsend for preserving the town’s heritage, says Susan Payne, director of the Roxbury Land Trust. “The town is thrilled to see it coming back.”