The Real History that Inspired Stars Hollow: An Interview and a Getaway, Gilmore Girls Style

View of Town Hall from Hickory HIll Washington, CT

View of Town Hall from Hickory HIll Washington, CT

If you are a serious fan of the show Gilmore Girls you already know that the fictional town of Stars Hollow was inspired by the real town of Washington, Connecticut.  That’s the spot where show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino spent a magical weekend dreaming up the culture, characters and community of all things Gilmore.

At the time of her visit in the late 1990’s, Amy was in a little bit of a tricky spot. She had just pitched five television show concepts to a major tv network all during one meeting. The network passed on the first four – but in a last ditch effort to end the meeting on some sort of satisfactory and productive note, Amy threw out a vague concept about a show she was still muddling about in her mind. “There is this single mother and her daughter who act more like best friends than parent and child.”

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“Okay great. That’s interesting. We’ll take that one, ” said the network (in a simplified nutshell). And then Amy panicked. She had no formal flushed out material for this snippet of a show idea. She didn’t know where it took place and at what time period. She didn’t know who the supporting characters were or the dynamics of these two feminine lifestyles. All she had was this mother and daughter jumping up and down in her head. The script was needed by the network ASAP. So she fled to Washington, CT  – a place she had never been – for a quiet weekend of major thinking.

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In a stunning stroke of serendipity, Amy saw Washington and then she saw her setting. Thanks to this 237 year old town with its historic villages, convivial atmosphere and captivating residents, this think-tank weekend laid the foundation for the show’s central cast of characters and the community in which they all circulated. Luke’s Diner, The Dragonfly Inn, Doosie’s Market,  Chilton, the Town Square along with a host of other well-loved landmarks in and around Stars Hollow were all inspired in part on the equally charming real life landscape of rural Litchfield County, Connecticut.

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Throughout all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, town history has played an active role in the show with storylines that ran the gamut from quirky to sentimental.  In today’s post we are chatting with Louise Van Tartwijk,  museum director at the Gunn Historical Museum in Washington, Connecticut to learn more about the real history of her enchanting small town,  the Gilmore Girls impact upon it and what it means to work as a modern day gatekeeper to the past.

Meet Louise - along with Gunn Historical Museum curator Stephen Bartkus (on her left) and Museum Council member Nicholas Solley (on her right)

Meet Louise , pictured here along with Gunn Historical Museum curator Stephen Bartkus (on her left) and Museum Council member Nicholas Solley (on her right)

Tell us a little bit about yourself.  Are you from Washington, CT? If not, what brought you there? How long have you worked at the museum? 

My husband and I moved to Washington, CT, in 2010, from the Netherlands in order to give our four daughters an American prep-school education. I am American-born, but married a Dutchman, and we lived together in the Netherlands for 25 years where our children were born and spent their earliest years. Subsequently, our girls have attended the Westover School in Middlebury, CT and The Gunnery School here in Washington.

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The Gunn Historical Museum, Washington CT

Tell us a little bit about the history of your town and the museum’s role in it.

Washington has a rich and multi-layered history. There is archaeological proof that Native Americans lived in the area along the banks of the Shepaug River, over 10,000 years ago. The first Europeans settled in the region in the early 1700’s and named the town Judea. Early Washington was largely a family-farming community, small mills developed along its streams and rivers, small businesses populated the center of town that was known at that time as “Factory Hollow.” The Congregational Church, the institution that founded the town, sat prominently up on the top of the hill, on the Green, together with The Gunnery, a school begun by Frederick Gunn in the mid 1850’s.

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When the Shepaug Rail Road brought the train to Washington in the 1870’s, Factory Hollow became Washington Depot. The arrival of the train suddenly connected Washington with New York and other regions, and with this came the arrival of wealthy, artistic and community-minded summer residents from Brooklyn; and the rise of a local dairy farming industry.

Railroad Depot, Washington CT

Railroad Depot, Washington CT

The flood of 1955 devastated the town and as a result of the subsequent rebuilding, Washington Depot has the more modern yet quaint look that it has today.

Flood of 1955, Washington CT

While the train has not run in Washington since the 1940’s, New Yorkers are still drawn to Washington as a popular “hidden” weekend and summer retreat; and Frederick Gunn’s school still sits on the Washington Green together with the Congregational Church.  Today, education is the main “industry” of Washington.

At the Gunn Historical Museum we see ourselves as the custodians of this rich history; keepers of the town’s past, responsible for the preservation of its archives, artifacts, photos and personal stories. This is a responsibility that we take very seriously because we know that understanding Washington’s past is the only way to truly understand what makes our town so unique today.

We know from the stories behind Gilmore Girls that Amy Sherman-Palladino modeled Stars Hollow after Washington and the experience she had there while writing the script. Do you feel the spirit of Washington translated to the TV show? 

On the set with Gilmore Girls - the Stars Hollow town green

On the set with Gilmore Girls – the Stars Hollow town green

I don’t feel qualified to speak about how Washington was an inspiration for the Gilmore Girls, as I haven’t seen enough of the show. But, I do know, that this is a very unique town, as anyone will tell you who lives here. Washington is a very eclectic, talented and interesting community of friendly and very civic-minded people.  The town has a very special subtle magic that draws people to it and makes them feel at home in a way rarely found anywhere else.

We all know each other in town, and to give you an example, there have been times when I am going into the Washington Food Market accompanied by my youngest daughter who in all seriousness instructs me outside the store to,”Not talk to anyone.” This is because she knows I will know nearly everyone in the store and suddenly a 4-minute grocery run will turn into an an-hour-long social event.

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To give you another example of what it is like to live in Washington, my husband and I recently found a letter in our mailbox simply addressed to us as “Hans and Louise, Washington, CT 06793” (no last name and no street address). It made it easily to our mailbox!

There are some people who refer to Washington as “The secret center of the Universe” and others who refer to it as “Brigadoon.”

Are you, yourself a fan of the show? If so, who’s your favorite character?

To be honest, I have maybe only seen one or two episodes. So I can’t claim a favorite character yet. But what I do like about the show is its quirky humor.

The complete cast of Gilmore Girls

The cast of Gilmore Girls

Have you ever met Amy Sherman-Palladino or any of the gang from Gilmore Girls?

No. But I would love to.

Has Gilmore Girls impacted tourism to your neck of the woods and, if so, how? Has the museum benefited from such attention?

The Gilmore Girl impact has not happened yet, although we are anticipating substantial impact on the town for that weekend. {Note: Louise is referring to the Gilmore Girls Fan Festival which was just held in Washington, CT Oct 21st-23rd, 2016} The Museum was not included in the main GG tour. However, we do resemble the Stars Hollow Museum in the episode “Live or Let Diorama.” We are just the kind of small New England museum that people associate with the show and idyllic concepts of the American small town.

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A screen capture from the Gilmore Girls episode Live or Let Diorama.

For the Gilmore Girls weekend, we will have a preview of our upcoming exhibit, “Washington Speaks,” a history of Washington. There will be guides and docents on hand to walk people through the exhibit on that weekend.

We received a $100,000 grant from the State of Connecticut last year to create this exhibit. We are very excited about this preview of the exhibit and will use the Gilmore Girls weekend to show off what we are doing.

History states that George Washington traveled through Washington on several trips. Do you have any artifacts or items in your museum collection from his journeys? 

No we don’t. But he did actually pass through the town and stayed a night at the Cogswell Tavern here in New Preston, one of Washington’s five “villages.” The General recorded this visit in his diary.

N.C. Wyeth painting of George Washington from the February 1946 edition of the Saturday Evening Post

N.C. Wyeth painting of George Washington from the February 1946 edition of the Saturday Evening Post

What is your most favorite piece in the museum today and why?

We have any number of very interesting artifacts that become even more interesting when you get to know the town and the stories of the people who have helped shaped Washington over the centuries. At the present, my favorite artifact is the Jonathan Farrand Revolutionary War musket that was donated last year by his descendants. Farrand was an early Washington resident, back when the town was named Judea. He was a farmer, soldier, businessman and town official. He had seven slaves. I find that interesting. People do not know that the North had slaves. One of Farrand’s slaves, Jeff Liberty, fought in the Revolutionary War and became a free man. The Farrand musket is a beautiful artifact, full of symbolic significance. It will feature in the “Washington Speaks” preview at the Museum on Gilmore Girls’ weekend, as will the stories of Jonathan Farrand and Jeff Liberty.

What is one part of Washington, CT’s history that has most surprised you? 

Probably the slavery issue. No one ever thinks of New Englanders having slaves.  Several families who were among the town’s first settlers in the 1700’s had slaves, as did people in other Connecticut towns. And even in the 1840’s, while slavery no longer existed in Connecticut, abolitionism was not popular.

Frederick Gunn, who founded The Gunnery school here in town, on the town Green, was an abolitionist and as a result was forced out of the Congregational Church and even had to flee town for a while because of his abolitionist opinions.

Bill of Sale of a man named Peter in 1762 in Woodbury, CT. Image courtesy of the Mattatuck Museum. For a detailed timeline of slavery in Connecticut from the 1600's - 1800's click here.

Bill of sale for a slave named Peter in 1762 from Woodbury, CT. Image courtesy of the Mattatuck Museum. For a detailed timeline of slavery in Connecticut from the 1600’s – 1800’s click here.

Tell us about a typical day in your life as the museum director.

For over 100 years The Gunn Historical Museum has been a part of the Gunn Memorial Library. In 2015, the board of the Gunn Memorial Library and Museum decided to transition the Museum into financial and managerial independence, so as to allow it to become an independent 501(c) 3.

Gunn Memorial Library in the early 1900's (left) and pictured today.

Impressive in its sameness. On the left, The Gunn Memorial Library pictured in the early 1900’s and on the right, as it stands today.

This past year has consequently been a very busy one for me as we are moving into unchartered territory. A typical day for me involves, working with our curator and volunteers to oversea the work on our collections inventory, and work on our new permanent history of Washington exhibit. At the same time, I find time to do things such as writing for our Museum publication, heading up our Friends of the Gunn Museum membership drive and working on fundraising initiatives, which have become rather important given our push for independence from the Library.

A sampling of items in the museum's collection including a drum owned by revered local New England architect (and local Washington resident!) Ehrick Rossiter,, an old-fashioned seed spreader, antique photographs of local residents and buildings. Pop-up exhibits around town help keep history in the spotlight.

A sampling of items in the museum’s collection including a drum owned by revered local New England architect (and local Washington resident!) Ehrick Rossiter, an old-fashioned seed spreader, antique photographs of local residents, buildings and events. Pop-up exhibits around town help keep local history in the spotlight.

What are some of the challenges you face as a museum director in today’s world?

The expectations of sophistication and modernization. We want to move forward and yet, we want to keep our authenticity to the town and its inhabitants who’s world we preserve and reflect. The challenge is to find a good medium between keeping small-town charm, informality and coziness while accommodating the possibilities that keep unfolding before us in the fast-paced technological modern world.

If you could acquire one artifact from history (with expense not being a factor) what would you acquire for the museum and why?

Cogswell Tavern, New Preston CT

Cogswell Tavern, New Preston CT

Well, we can only acquire artifacts that have a tie to the town of Washington; so, I would follow-up on the rumor that the chair that George Washington sat in when he visited the Cogswell Tavern during the Revolutionary War, is still in the possession of a descendant of the Cogswell family. That would be great to acquire!

What museum events do you have coming up in the next year that will appeal to history lovers? Does Washington have any celebratory plans for the November release of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life? 

At the Museum we are anticipating the opening of our permanent history of Washington exhibit. We have no opening date as of yet however. In the meantime we will continue to have smaller pop-up exhibits in town and museum programs dedicated to different aspects of the town’s history.

Gosh, I don’t know about the town’s plans for the November release.

If our readers visited Washington – what are the first three things they should do (other than visiting the museum of course!). 

Hike in Steep Rock, our beautiful land trust. Have a coffee at Marty’s Cafe, a true town ritual. There are people in town who even have their “claimed” morning spots at Marty’s Café, and everyone knows this and will leave those spots open.  Attend a Gunnery school ice hockey game at the Linen Rink on campus and share in the excitement at Mr. Gunn’s School.

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Clockwise from top right: Marty’s Cafe, the Gunn Historical Museum, Steep Rock and Gunnery School ice hockey.

One last question… if George Washington rode into town today do you think he’d recognize it?! 

Yes, I do.  Probably the biggest difference besides telephone poles, cars, paved roads, and a few more homes, is that we have more trees and less open farmland.

Washington, CT tucked among the trees.

And there you have it, dear readers.  A small town in rural Connecticut that has been inspiring both locals and out-of-towners for centuries from the Native Americans who first settled there, to U.S. Presidents who journeyed through, to Emmy Award-winning writers who captured its colorful spirit and to Louise who protects its significance and integrity every day.

Get caught up in the magic of this small town yourself by following Louise’s lead and visit: Steep Rock (a 2700 acre preserve made for hiking and camping in the bucolic Shepaug River Valley); Marty’s Cafe (where you can channel your inner Luke Danes) and the gorgeous Gunnery School campus where you can pretend you and Rory are heading off for a day at Chilton.

Pictured clockwise from top left: Hopkins Vineyard, Arethusa Al Tovolo; The Mayflower Grace;

Pictured clockwise from top left: Hopkins Vineyard, Arethusa Al Tovolo; The Mayflower Grace; White Silo Winery and Haight-Brown Vineyards.

Additional area suggestions from two of our blog readers who just road-tripped to Washington in early October include: wine tours and tastings at these three local spots- Hopkins Vineyard, White Silo Winery and Haight-Brown Vineyards (raise a glass to Richard and Emily Gilmore while you are there!);  dinner at  Arthusa Al Tovolo  farm-to-table restaurant (Sookie would totally recommend this place and Jackson would be happy that you supported local farmers) and indulge in an overnight stay at The Mayflower Grace (we know how a few nights  there turned out for Amy Sherman-Palladino – just imagine what it could do for you!).

And of course please stop in at the Gunn Historical Museum and say hello to Louise!

Early 1900's postcard of Washington, CT

Early 1900’s postcard of Washington, CT

Additional photo credits: R. Burns, Gunn Historical Museum, Gunn Library, Mattatuck Museum. 

 

3 thoughts on “The Real History that Inspired Stars Hollow: An Interview and a Getaway, Gilmore Girls Style

  1. Pingback: Stories & Souvenirs from Ancient Sparta: Enter to Win Olive Oil & Oregano from Greece! | msjeannieology

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