New England Oddities A to Z

A Guide to Weird, Strange, Wacky and Odd Attractions in New England

Gillette Castle Odd Attraction in CT
••• Didn't expect to find a castle in Connecticut? Gillette Castle is one of New England's coolest oddities. © 2003 Kim Knox Beckius

When you think of New England, you probably instinctively see white-painted, steepled churches; recall such patriotic events as Paul Revere's historic ride; taste the succulent flavor of lobster drowned in butter; and envision winding country roads splashed with the wondrous colors of fall. But--New England also offers its share of oddities. I'd never want to spoil your pristine visions of the region that gave birth to our eclectic nation, but if you're looking for a slightly different side to New England, here is your A to Z guide to some of the region's weird, strange, wacky and odd attractions

America's Stonehenge - And you thought you had to go to the "old" England to see a prehistoric archaeological enigma! No! Just head about 40 miles north of Boston to North Salem, New Hampshire, where you can explore 30 acres of cavelike dwellings, astronomically aligned rock formations, a sacrificial stone and other mysterious structures left behind by an unknown people. Call 603-893-8300 for more information.

Barnum Museum - Phineas T. Barnum, the crown prince of oddities and founder of "The Greatest Show on Earth," was born in Connecticut. The Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, pays homage to the creativity of this genuine American entrepreneur and his cast of characters, including General Tom Thumb: the "smallest man alive." General information, including admission prices, hours and directions, is available at the museum's Web site, or call 203-331-1104. 2016 Update: The Barnum Museum is closed for restoration due to damage sustained in a June 2010 tornado.

However, the attraction has several events planned and has reopened its People's United Bank Gallery two days each week, Thursday and Friday, for visitors interested in seeing Envisioning the Future! This exhibition features artifacts from the collection including the newly acquired Centaur of Tymfi.

Admission is free.

Center Church Crypt - Here's something you don't expect to find in the basement of a church: tombstones that date to as far back as 1687! Venture down to the low-ceilinged space beneath Center Church on the green in New Haven, Connecticut, though, and you'll discover a remarkable crypt that is the final resting place for a number of notable people including the city's founder, Benedict Arnold's first wife and the grandparents of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes. For information about crypt tours, call 203-787-0121.

Desert of Maine - New England's not exactly known for its deserts, but thanks to a glacier that left behind a large deposit of sand some 11,000 years ago, Freeport, Maine, is now home to a genuine desert which visitors, tired of New England's babbling brooks and verdant hills, can tour. The desert is open from early May to mid-October. Call 207-865-6962 for more information.

Equinox - The Equinox is a historic hotel in Manchester Village, Vermont, that has hosted many famous guests since it opened in 1769. According to stories, one guest who hasn't checked out and who continues to haunt the hotel is Mary Todd Lincoln, a frequent guest of the hotel following the assassination of President Lincoln.

To book your stay with the spooks, call The Equinox toll free at 800-362-4747.

Fabulous Fixtures - Are you into plumbing fixtures? Well, golly, then you're in luck! Watertown (how appropriate!), Massachusetts, is now home to the Plumbing Museum (formerly the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum in Worcester). You'll find everything here... including, uh, the kitchen sink! The museum is open to the plumbing-appreciating public Monday through Friday by appointment only. Call 617-926-2111 for information.

Gillette Castle - Actor and Connecticut native William Gillette, known for his portrayals of Sherlock Holmes on stage, spent more than $1 million, quite a fortune at the turn 20th of the century, constructing his castle in East Haddam, Connecticut. Now a Connecticut State Park, the castle and all of its intricate hidden mirrors and creative decor is open for visitors to explore.

Admission to the grounds is free, and there is a charge to tour the castle. For more information, call 860-526-2336.

Holy Land USA - Perched on the hill overlooking Waterbury, Connecticut, this now-defunct but still often visited miniature Jerusalem with its Hollywood-style sign and towering steel cross was a legitimate tourist attraction in the 1960s and 1970s. Closed since 1984, it is still a Waterbury landmark and a lure for the curious and the pious. As of 2016, funds are being raised to reopen Holy Land USA.

Isinglass Mountain near Grafton, New Hampshire, is home to Ruggles Mine, where you can spend all day hammering away and searching for your own semi-precious gems! The oldest mica, feldspar and beryl mine in the U.S. is open daily from mid-June to mid-October and on weekends earlier in the season. Call 603-523-4275 for directions and information.

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New England has many offbeat attractions to offer. Our A to Z guide to New England oddities continues...

Jumbo's Ashes - P.T. Barnum's promotion of Jumbo as the "Largest Elephant on Earth" made him a legend among pachyderms. Tragically, at the height of his circus career, Jumbo was run over by a freight train. Thanks to the wonders of taxidermy, Jumbo's 1,500+-pound carcass was stuffed and displayed at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

Ah, but tragedy struck again, and a 1975 fire destroyed the over-sized stuffed animal. Jumbo's charred remains are now safely locked away in a peanut butter jar in a safe at the University's athletic department. If you visit Tufts, you can see a small statue of Jumbo in the Quad.

Kennebunkport, Maine's Captain Lord Mansion is a bed & breakfast inn with a bonus: a ghost! Built in 1812 by shipbuilder Nathaniel Lord, the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features an octagonal cupola, a four-story spiral staircase and 14 fireplaces. No wonder his widow, Phebe, doesn't seem to want to leave! To book your haunted getaway, call 207-967-3141.

Lizzie Borden Murderabilia - Massachusetts' Fall River Historical Society is the proud keeper of all of the great artifact clues in the 1892 mystery of whether Lizzie Borden really whacked her folks, including Lizzie's hatchet, Ma and Pa Borden's stomachs, pillow shams dotted with blood, locks of the victims' hair and crime scene photos.

If that's not creepy enough for ya, stay in the house where it all took place--now the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast! The Historical Society is at 451 Rock Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, and the Lizzie Borden B&B is at 92 Second Street. Call 508-675-7333 for B&B reservations.

Mummies in New Hampshire - North Woodstock, New Hampshire, is home to an intriguing rock formation known as "The Mummies." It used to be a roadside attraction, but now it's more difficult to access.

These photos from Strange New England will give you a glimpse of this mysterious site.

Nut Museum - Old Lyme, Connecticut, was once home to the Nut Museum... and the Nut Lady, the late Elizabeth Tashjian, who you may have seen on Letterman and other television talk shows. The nation's only shrine to nuts housed the world's largest nut (a 35-pounder!), nut crackers, nut art, nut music and more. In 2003, however, the Nut Lady was found unconscious and was relocated to a care facility, and her home was sold at auction. Her nut collection, however, was adopted by the Museum Studies program at Connecticut College in New London. For more information, contact Christopher Steiner at 860-439-2797.

Orgonon - The Rangeley, Maine, home and laboratory of Wilhelm Reich is now a museum. A student of Sigmund Freud, Reich claimed to have discovered a previously unknown form of energy--orgone--and he even developed the Orgone Energy Accumulator, later labeled a fraud by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to make it accessible to people who needed a boost. The museum and the Orgone Energy Observatory are open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. in July and August and Saturdays only in September from 1 to 5 p.m. Private tours are available year-round by appointment.

Call 207-864-3443 for more information.

Phantom Fires - Anawan Rock, located in Squannakonk Swamp off Route 44 in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, is the reported setting for a number of phantom fires. A sign on the rock identifies the location as the spot where Wampanoag Indian chief Anawan surrendered during King Philip's War. Neighbors have reported seeing and smelling smoke in the area, without any accompanying signs of fire.

Quabbin Reservoir - Built in the 1930s, the Quabbin Reservoir is one of the largest man-made reservoirs in America. Beneath its tranquil surface lie the "lost towns" of Dana, North Dana, Greenwich, Enfield and Prescott, Massachusetts, all flooded and destroyed so that metropolitan Boston could have additional water supply. Though the towns no longer exist, their history and fate is preserved by the Swift River Valley Historical Society at the Whitaker-Clary House in New Salem, Massachusetts.

For information, call 978-544-6882.

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Next Page: Oddities R-Z

You've probably heard about New England witches, but what about vampires? Learn about both as our look at New England oddities A to Z reaches the end of the alphabet.

Rhode Island Vampire - Wanna see a vampire's grave? Head for Exeter, Rhode Island, where the famous story of Mercy Brown took place. According to stories, Brown died in 1892 at the age of 19, shortly following the deaths of her mother and eldest sister.

At the time, her brother, Edwin, was terribly ill, and in an effort to save him from what appeared to be a curse on the family, the women's bodies were exhumed. Ol' Mercy's body had moved inside the coffin, it appeared, and blood was present in her veins and heart, the latter of which was burned upon a nearby rock before the poor girl was reburied. Feeding poor Edwin the heart ashes dissolved in medicine, alas, did not save him: He died two months later. But, Mercy's legend lives on as one of Rhode Island's best-known vampire tales.

Salem Witch Museum - A decidedly disturbing display of dioramas depicting the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, both entrances and horrifies visitors to the Salem Witch Museum. Sit on the floor in the darkened theater as the tale of accusations and executions is told via a recorded narration and life-size figures, eerily illuminated around the theater's perimeter.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily with extended hours to 7 p.m. in July and August. For more information, call 978-744-1692.

The House of Seven Gables - Immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne and occupied for many years by his Salem, Massachusetts, relatives, the House of Seven Gables, one of the oldest surviving 17th-century wooden mansions in New England, is open for visitors to explore its nooks and crannies and even a secret staircase!

The site is open daily year-round except the first two weeks of January. For more information, call 978-744-0991.

U.S. Battleship Massachusetts - Admit it! You've always wanted to stay overnight on a battleship. Well, now you can run amok aboard the Battleship Massachusetts, docked at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts. For details on overnight programs for youth organizations and families, call the Group Sales Manager at 508-678-1100, ext. 101.

Vermont's Old Stone House Museum - According to lore, when the Reverend Alexander Lucius Twilight, the U.S.'s first black college graduate, asked the Board of Trustees to build a dorm for the students of the Brownington Academy, they refused. So, he built one himself using extraordinary methods, including a staging platform which rose as an ox turned a treadmill. As the building rose, so did the ox and the treadmill. And, since there was no way to get the ox back down when the building was completed, it was slaughtered for a great feast of celebration. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. mid-May through mid-October. Call 802-754-2022 for more information.

World's Largest Bug - At 58-feet long, "Nibbles Woodaway," the world's largest bug, is 928 times the size of an actual termite.

He's perched atop the roof of Big Blue Bug Solutions (formerly New England Pest Control) in Providence, Rhode Island, and, you'll be quite pleased to know, Nibbles is the world's only hurricane-proof giant insect. You can see Nibbles from highway I-95 near Exit 19.

WaX Museum - Wax nostalgic about one of the most gruesome events in American history as you witness a multi-media presentation starring realistic wax witches, victims of the hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The Hysteria Pass (not available October weekends) gets you into the Salem Wax Museum and the Salem Witch Village. Call 978-740-2929 for information and directions.

Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park - Tourists who are smarter than the average bear know that Jellystone Park isn't just a cartoon location, it's an Ashland, New Hampshire, vacation destination.

Camp or rent a cabin or RV, and take part in a variety of family fun activities. For reservations, call 603-968-9000.

Zombies and Other Film Ghouls - If you're a fan of zombies, ghosts and other screen ghouls, you'll find the annual Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival eerie-sistible. The week-long horror flick fest is held in Providence each October.

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