(article & shortened versions thereof originally appeared in the Observer newspapers on July 10th, 2015)
I grew up in and around Bristol. Plainville, being the next town over, always served as a fun place to go swimming, ride bikes or visit some farms. We also always drove from New Britain to Bristol on Camp Street prior to the new highway extension opening in my college years.
On Camp Street, there is a familiar area attraction that all Bristol and Plainville residents know exists, but at the same time, know very little about. That area is the Plainville Campgrounds. It’s known by its candy-colored cottages and upbeat décor, but the history and present of the Campgrounds is much more surprising and delightful than I could have imagined.
As I spent two hours walking the grounds and talking to residents, I could hardly believe that I was in the middle of Plainville, and not in some quiet lakeside retreat in Vermont. Even the cars whizzing by on Camp Street faded into the background as I sat, surrounded by trees and friendly neighbors walking dogs (and cats!)
If you look in our Plainville edition (www.plainvilleobserver.com,) you can find a more in-depth history of the campgrounds. There is also an exhibit going on My column this week focuses on these charming cottages as the homes they are, and the people who call them home. For brevity’s sake, the story goes that 150 years ago, the camp began when various Methodist churches (beginning with the New Haven District) each built cabins for outdoor revival, retreat and fellowship. You can still see the original placards announcing town & street names of the parent churches on many of the cabins. The tabernacle (pavilion), chapel and dining hall all still exist in nearly original forms. Since the 1950s, the campgrounds have been privately-owned and are a seasonal residential community focused on preserving the architectural history and social community, including through non-denominational worship services.
Greta and Albert Pelletier bought their cottage 12 years ago after renting briefly for a couple of months to see what the area was all about. They live on the campground from May through October and spend the rest of their year on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. They are a vivacious, affectionate couple who are very involved in the campgrounds’ community.
“When we first came here and rented, it was because we’d just sold our large colonial home up on Chippens Hill,” Greta said. “My mother had passed away and we went back to Florida, but our children all still live within five miles of here. We wanted to come be near them in the summertime, so I put an ad in the paper to find a place and my daughter was contacted by the then-president of the campground, who said he might have just the place for her parents.”
“When she told me where it was, my reaction was, Sharon, what did I ever do to you as a child that you want me staying there?”
“Living in Bristol,” Albert said, “We had all those same thoughts of lore and oompa loompas that people spread about the campground.”
Greta and Albert love that the camp’s Chaplain organizes worship services in July and August. There is also a homeowner’s association that collects dues that pay for the road and green space maintenance of the grounds. Residents get together to help with other duties like garbage collection (one of Albert’s jobs). Residents can work on their cottages on their own or hire in help but cannot change the architectural integrity of the buildings or add to the footprint of their homes in any way.
The great majority of residents in the campgrounds are retired, but some younger folks are coming in or spending weekends there.
“This house sure feels like original construction,” Albert laughed. “If you look around, you can see the exterior wall is on the interior. The cottage is covered in some masonry-type compound.”
“I just sit here and say to myself I love our cottage. I’d describe it as warm,” Greta said, smiling.
The Pelletier’s cottage, which I had a chance to tour after we talked, is decorated with lots of Americana items and special personal memorabilia. There are three screened-in porches (Greta’s favorite part) including one hidden off the loft-like bedroom upstairs, under the dormer of the roof and behind delicate lattice woodwork.
“It takes a little more time each year to clean up and clear the cottage out when we get here the older I get,” Greta laughed. “Some folks here have cleaning people, I hired someone to wash the windows.”
“The awesome part of it to me, even after being here for 12 years,” Albert said, “is to look out here over the walkway, or what we call Bristol Green, or to walk down to the circle and just sit there and look at all the structures that were originally put up for the ministers who would visit. Some of those are huge, of course. Some of the congregations would stay there too.”
“I’m quite active in the showing of cottages for sale,” Greta explained. “As I’m taking them through, I explain that they’re buying a piece of history but also a lifestyle. You don’t find this in too many places anymore. I’d describe it as very caring and loving. We take care of one another. We genuinely like one another!”
Greta and Albert weren’t the only ones to share their love of the community activities, especially pizza night on Fridays, Wednesday potluck, exercise classes and even Wii Bowling.
The Pelletier’s cottage is tan now, but was Barbie doll pink when they bought it. This wasn’t lost on their granddaughter, of course. They had it painted after about five years. Many of the cottages, by tradition, have three colors on the exteriors. There aren’t many campgrounds like Plainville’s anymore, but several residents mentioned a similar area on Martha’s Vineyard.
Other quirky features of the cottage include a precariously-short stairway up to the bedroom (for a 5’11” Observer writer anyway) and an attic storage space that used to serve as a tunnel for the grandkids to crawl from the bedroom to overlook their grandparents in the kitchen.
“I like the close neighbors here,” Albert said. “When we first lived here, I’d collect the money for pizza night and go get the pizza. It was a good way to get to know all the neighbors.”
“The house next door is like a gathering place sometimes,” Greta said. “If he’s sitting outside, we don’t have to wait for an invitation. We just go sit and talk and the crowd grows bigger.”
“You can rent the dining hall here,” Greta said. “One of my favorite stories is that our children gave us a 55-year wedding anniversary and 75-year-old birthday party there, all in one big party.”
“When we first came here, I wanted to buy,” Albert said. “She told me, go ahead. I could feel it in my heart!”
Donna and Ted Kornasiewicz just bought their cottage last fall. “Our son lives in West Hartford,” Donna said. “We wanted to be close to him. We would always come up and rent a place with our family each summer. So last year I went online and searched for ‘Connecticut campgrounds,’ and this came up. We decided to take a closer look and thought why not buy it? It was economical to do to spend the summer here.”
The Kornasiewicz’s spend their winters on the Gulf Coast of Florida. They describe their cottage as rustic and small but comfortable. “The cottage is pretty much the way we bought it,” Ted said. The couple just had to buy their furnishings, which they did largely through thrifting and estate sales to match the period of the home. “We did repaint the porch and pressure wash the deck,” Ted said.
“We didn’t have to restore the place,” Donna said, pointing out details like the lovingly-replaced stained-glass window and original rounded-top wooden doors, almost church-like in their size and detail. There is a large, vaulted living area and kitchen, a small, efficient bedroom, and a bathroom, as well as porches on both the front and back.
“I love that the cottage is in a wooded area,” Donna said. “It feels like you’re in the country but you’re so close to the stores and the main roads. Everyone here is so friendly. We just love sitting on the porch and enjoying the fresh air. It’s too hot to sit out when you’re in Florida in the summer. There are so many birds and it’s quiet.”
“There are also a lot of places to go around here,” Ted added. “We love to hike on all the trails around here and we like to tag sale.”
Pam Burbank is no stranger to the Plainville Campgrounds. Her grandfather owned the cottage on Circle Street many, many years ago. “I have a register that shows I was here as a little girl in June of 1952 with my parents,” Pam said. She showed me the register itself as well as a large binder, chronologically filled with land and building records, photos and other notes about the cottage and campground, that her grandfather and then her family have kept.
“The West Haven Church built this cottage in 1898. I think that a lot of the people who came to stay here were youth. The boys stayed downstairs. [Pam showed me a knothole in the wood where a mischievous boy had hidden his name on a scrap of paper.] At the top of the stairs is a chaperone’s bedroom, with originally the only double bed. There were five other rooms where girls slept. They were like cubicles. They just had a single bed, a dresser, a chair and room to walk to the window. There was a hallway down the middle leading to the upstairs porch. Those girls were safe, I’ll tell you.”
“When my grandfather bought the cottage from the church, we came up every summer, especially for church conference. We knew a lot of the other families who came. Over time, the camp grew away from church-specific and became more like summer homes for retired couples.”
“This cottage was owned by several people and it came up for sale last summer, so I found out about it and bought it.” Pam spends just a few weeks in the summer at the cottage, then goes back to her work teaching in Texas. Cottages for sale tend to be in the $25,000 – $35,000 range. This depends on how much renovation has been done to each. Each owner gets accepted as an association member before they move into the community.
Pam describes her cottage as an evolving place. “When they opened the cubicles all up, it made a master bedroom. My grandfather was a carpenter. He’d always change the walls up their and you never knew what it would look like! I bought the house with the purple trim like this. My husband Michael loves the color too.”
“My sister also lives here in the summer, so it was nice that I could buy this and make it available to share with family.”
“I love the master bedroom and the upstairs porch. I feel like I’m sitting in a tree house up there,” Pam said smiling. Her house overlooks the chapel and one of the main roads. “I remember the big meetings in the church and tabernacle. There were big group meetings for youth in the dining hall too. We used to run around and play hide and seek between the cottages so maybe they organized those events to keep us from bothering all the little old ladies at night!”
Another longtime resident is Julie Gagliano. She bought her cottage in 1992. She describes it as comfortable and Victorian style. Her late husband and she picked the colors blue, pink and cranberry together to paint the outside. “The true friendship of so many residents and my front porch, looking out on the ‘circle’ where friends drop by for a drink, be it ice tea or other drink, are my favorite parts of the campground,” Julie said.
“When we bought the cottage, my brother commented, ‘you’ve got to be crazy.’ It was truly horrific inside. There was an abundance of raccoon ‘doo’, buckets of nails, cans of broken glass, oil stained floor, old benches and a lot of other non-usable trash. There was.no electricity, water, sewer or septic system. But we had vision and with hard work and my husband’s talents, we transformed, the cottage, as so many others have, into a lovely home.”