The arrival of the railroad drastically altered the face of Kent. Whereas the town center had originally been located in Flanders, about two miles north of the present Main Street, the establishment of the railroad in the flat river valley brought new life to the area formerly known as the “Grate Plain,” once used as grazing ground. The lovely Victorian houses that still line Kent’s main streets were built as a result of the railroad, and Flanders became a sleepy little hamlet of stately Colonial homes.
The iron industry waned in the late 1800s, but Kent did not skip a beat. Farming, always practiced on a subsistence level, began to fill the gap left by the iron industry. With the hillsides clearcut by the voracious need for charcoal, dairy farms proliferated, along with tobacco, corn, hay, wheat, rye, chickens, goats, sheep and pigs!
There are still a few farms left in town, although nothing like the eighty or ninety that dotted the landscape in the days before the mega-farms and mass transit put them out of business. Population dipped. But this mass transit brought another boon to Kent. The newly arrived trains began to bring a fresh resource to the town – tourists.
Not long after that, the invention of the automobile increased access to our area. The “Great Trunk Road,” now Rte 7, was built, allowing many city-bound people to escape to the fresh air of the country. The covered bridge at Bulls Bridge gorge and Kent Falls just north of town quickly became new tourist attractions that are still popular today.
About this time, a scion of Danbury’s famous White family, Alain White, began to recognize the threat to the area from all this increased visitation. He and his sister May quietly started buying up land, which they gave to the state for public parks, including both Macedonia and Kent Falls in Kent. Mr. White also donated land in other towns, and eventually established a foundation to preserve his own beloved home in Litchfield – The White Memorial Foundation.
The bucolic setting of this little rural town with its farm fields and rolling hills captured
the attention of a number of talented landscape artists, primarily from New York. According to Robert Michael Austin, author of the recently published Artists of the Litchfield Hills, “Kent attracted the most permanent colony of artists and developed the only artists’ organization that survives today.” The Kent Art Association celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2004. Its founders included George Laurence Nelson, Robert Nisbet, Spencer Nichols, Willard Paddock, Frederick J. Waugh, Rex Brasher, F. Luis Mora, Eliot Clark, and Floyd Clymer. All these men, along with other friends and family members in the colony, were extremely skilled, highly respected artists whose work is still in great demand.
Laurence Nelson’s 1751 Flanders home now belongs to the Kent Historical Society and is open to the public during the summer. On display are many of his finest works. Also in the house, though rarely on display, are two portraits by an earlier, also famous, local artist – Ammi Phillips. Were it not for Laurence Nelson and his wife Helen’s arrival in Kent, Ammi Phillips’ identity might never have been known.
Helen Nelson was an art critic who had developed a keen eye for her subject. As she began to socialize with area residents, she noted many unsigned portraits, the quality of which quickly attracted her. She recognized them as all being done by the same primitive but talented hand, and set about to discover his identity. She staged an exhibit of his works in Kent, and in the March 1925 issue of International Studio, wrote a fascinating article about the yet unidentified “Border Limner” or “Kent Limner,” as Phillips came to be known.
Tirelessly promoting his work, through exhibits, speeches, and articles, Helen continued her search for his story, and was soon joined by other detectives. Eventually, a signed painting was discovered, and finally in 1959, Barbara and Lawrence Holdridge were able to conclusively prove his identity. Today, Phillips’ portraits are considered to be exquisite examples of early American Primitive art.
Another artist of world renown was a resident of nearby Warren – Eric Sloane. Sloane left a huge legacy to the town of Kent through his donation of the defunct Kent Iron Manufacturing Company lands to the state of Connecticut for the establishment of a museum there. Through this benevolent gesture to the town he loved, Sloane really managed to tie together many important elements of Kent – the iron industry, farming, art and tourism.
The Sloane-Stanley Museum grounds are on the site of the Kent Iron Manufacturing complex, the furnace of which has just been restored by the state. The main building of the museum houses Sloane’s extraordinary collection of farm tools. His studio from Warren is reconstructed in the building, along with a gallery featuring many of his finest works.
The complex itself is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in town, rivaling nearby Kent Falls as a destination for folk from far and wide. From the museum grounds in the heart of old Kent, a visitor may gaze across the Houstaonic to the controversial Western Lands, and then head south to stroll down the Main Street of a quintessential New England town.