Simsbury’s heart beats here
Here come the hikers, cyclists, photographers, artists and birdwatchers. Mothers sit and visit, children explore, families picnic, businesspeople meet clients, senior citizens mingle. Dogs step out with their humans. Yoga and Tai Chi classes flow. The community green space at the Old Drake Hill Flower Bridge and adjacent Hop Brook Landing Park is a great meeting spot.
This year, 2021, marks a quarter century since an iron bridge was transformed to become the Flower Bridge we celebrate today. Happy Silver Anniversary to Old Drake Hill Flower Bridge!
On the bridge: color, movement and memories
A succession of 72 flower boxes and 32hanging baskets bloom along the bridge in colors as varied as royal purple and lime green. An additional 14 column baskets adorn Hop Brook Landing Park, and a cottage garden thrives at the east end of the bridge. River breezes and vibrant blooms engage in a swaying dance. Each container includes an engraved plaque, nestled within the foliage. Plaques are personalized by their sponsors with a family name, in honor of a loved one, or with a quote.
“The earth laughs in flowers.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
– Lady Bird Johnson
Some plants are chosen for those with limited vision, using flowers with vibrant colors and distinctive textures. Parrot’s beak (Lotus berthelotii) is a stunning tropical plant with red, orange and yellow blooms specially chosen for its soft textured foliage. Lamb’s ear (Stacys byzantina) is well known for its wooly, velvety leaves.
Often, birds build their nests in boxes, baskets and in the bridge’s girders. Butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, wasps and beetles love this stop on the pathway for pollinators. Great blue heron fish in view of the bridge, visiting from the rookery downriver. Bald eagles make regular flyovers and ducks paddle along. It’s a symphony of flora and fauna.
Looking back to 1892
The iron bridge seen today was constructed in 1892, with a narrow one-lane roadway designed in an age before motor vehicles.Once cars began to cross the bridge, long-time Simsbury residents remember that etiquette was “first come, first served.” Stand-offs occurred when a driver started across the bridge out of turn. No doubt some interesting negotiations took place when two vehicles met in the middle!
The design, manufacture, and construction of the 1892 bridge, described as “a unique example of 19th century metal-truss bridge construction,” wasoverseen byJohn E. Buddington, an engineer from New Haven. Of note, Buddington was a controversial figure. He was known to criticize the work of other engineers, who in turn described his designs as “eccentricities.” Despite this long-ago drama, Buddington’s 129-year-old bridge still stands today. It spans 183 feet with a 12-foot roadway, and is suspended 18 feet over the Farmington River.
A town struggling with change
The bridge became impassable in 1955, following the historic flooding caused by hurricanes Connie and Diane. Once waters receded, it required ongoing repairs. Simsbury residents began to debate the future of their bridge: To renovate the old bridge or to build a new one? Simsbury was proud to be incorporated as Connecticut’s 21st town in 1670, but also knew that modernization was key to growth and prosperity. Would a new bridge support the needs of the growing town or forever alter life in this historic community?
Discussions continued for decades until finally, in March 1983, taxpayers voted to approve the expenditure of local funds for a new bridge.In 1992, the new Drake Hill Bridge, just a few hundred feet north of the original bridge, was opened to 20th century traffic.
Saving the old bridge… and restoring it
Now a different debate arose, as citizens grappled with what to do with the old bridge. Some felt that it should be demolished. Others, with wise foresight, submitted an application on behalf of the bridge to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The bridge’s protection was ensured in 1984 when the NRHP deemed it a “historic place worthy of preservation.”
In the 1990s, Anita Mielert, a Simsbury selectman at the time, secured a government grant to restore the bridge. The Federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Act of 1991 stipulated that, if the town paid 20 percent of the cost, its grant would cover the remaining 80 percent.
The restoration took place in 1995. Lead paint was removed and bracings were replaced under the bridge. The structure was given a fresh coat of paint and a new wooden deck was installed. The full cost for restoration was $472,000. Happily, the bridge re-opened to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, but this was not the end of the story!
Debut of the Flower Bridge
In 1996, Simsbury resident Dominique Avery energized town officials, local businesses and citizens with her passionate call to develop a community garden on and around the historic Old Drake Hill Bridge. A visit to the acclaimed Shelburne Falls Bridge of Flowers, planted in 1929 in northern Massachusetts, inspired Avery to similarly beautify the old iron bridge back home in Simsbury.
“She [Avery] contacted all the town organizations that had anything to do with gardening and tourism, the relevant town agencies and local garden center for an exploratory meeting. She outlined her vision: “… a veritable ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ with thousands of flowers spilling from window boxes and hanging baskets.” (Flower Bridge records, 1996)
In the summer of 1997, the first phase of Avery’s vision took form with just four flower boxes. From the start, this was a shared community project, with Simsbury high school students constructing the boxes, local garden centers donating flowers, and volunteers planting them.
Since that first summer, the Flower Bridge has grown exponentially and now boasts 118 containers. Flower Bridge co-chairs Deeg Mackay and Sharene Wassell note that there is a waiting list for future sponsors. But Avery’s vision has been realized with every available space filled with stunning flower boxes and baskets.
How does it all work?
Jan Lintner is the lead designer for the 104 flower boxes and baskets on the Flower Bridge and has held this position for 12 years. Marilynn Palmer designs the recently added 14 column baskets in Hop Brook Landing Park.
Each fallLintner presides over a design review to assess each plant’s bloom time, color and adaptability to bridge conditions. It is interesting to note that the same plant may respond differently depending on which side of the bridge it is growing, due to varying wind and sun conditions. During these reviews, decisions are made to phase out some plants and introduce others. In 2020, petunias were retired because they are difficult to maintain. This year, strawberries were introduced – a success story! Little red fruits peeking from the foliage of companion plants give visitors a cheery surprise.
As winter approaches, the bridge takes on a festive air, when evergreens and red bows take center stage for the cold months ahead. In December, Lintner orders next summer’s plants from Pickin’ Patch, a 350-year-old family-owned and operated farm in Avon. Baskets are planted at the farm in April, where they stay for two months to get a head start in the shelter of a greenhouse.
On Memorial Day weekend, the pre-planted baskets and individual plants for the boxes are transported to the bridge for installation. The Flower Bridge is in its full glory throughout the summer, and on into September or even October, depending on the timing of the first hard frost. Dedicated volunteers come every day to keep the containers and cottage garden impeccably maintained and photo-ready for the newly engaged couples, wedding parties, and everyone who visits.
Once upon a time, in a small town called Simsbury, there was a river. As often happens with river towns, people lived on both sides. A bridge spanned the river, connecting people with each other and with their town. As time passed, the bridge grew old and its future was uncertain. But the town worked together to save the bridge and create a new kind of connector: a place full of life with deep roots, open skies and framed in flowers.
Connections are powerful life supports. Make a call or send a text this week to a special person in your life. All you need to say are five little words, “Meet me at the bridge.”
Burgers on the Bridge
Wednesday, Sept. 8 4-6:30 p.m. (rain date Sept. 9)
This community cookout, catered by Fitzgerald’s Foods, is the annual fundraiser for the Flower Bridge. Tickets are sold on-site. Burgers, hotdogs, veggie burgers, beer, wine, soda, and water are available. Desserts are served on the bridge itself. What a fabulous way to hold a fundraiser: friends, food and flowers!
Old Drake Hill Flower Bridge (ODHFB), Inc. is a tax-exempt non-profit corporation under Section 501(c) (3).
Find the Flower Bridge: 1 Old Bridge Road, Simsbury, CT 06070 simsbury-ct.gov>>Visit<<Old Drake Hill Flower Bridge
Reserve use of the bridge for a special event: Contact the Simsbury Culture, Parks and Recreation Department at 860-658-3836. Fee: $50.
Become a volunteer: Contact Jan Lintner at 860-651-0180 regarding gardening and administrative opportunities.