By Steve Bergsman
Walter Cronkite, who was the dean of American television journalism and often referred to as the most trusted man in America, recorded his CBS news show in New York City, but at leisure times he would board his yacht and sail it north into the Long Island Sound, finally docking at the town of Mystic, Connecticut. Cronkite collected scrimshaw (carved bones and tusks of sea creatures) and would often acquire such objets d'art at a gallery in Mystic.
He wasn't the only well-known boater to use the Mystic marinas. The Kennedy clan would sail south out of Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, finally coming into Mystic. The story is told that when the Kennedy boys were young Mystic sailing schools were very popular and always had long waiting lists. When future Sen. Ted Kennedy wanted to attend, however, he was moved to the front of the line.
Mystic stories are long and legendary as the town has been a seaport since the 1700s.The village became famous in the late 1980s, not because of anything to do with fishing or sailing but because of the movie "Mystic Pizza," in which a young Julia Roberts playing a waitress lit up the screen. The film launched her career. Today, an eatery on Main Street calls itself Mystic Pizza, and despite Mystic's famous seaport, the most popular photo tourists are sure to include is of a wife, girlfriend or daughter, standing underneath the Mystic Pizza sign. Indeed, I took that exact photo with my wife in pose, trying for the Julia Roberts vibe.
Most people go to Mystic to visit the Mystic Seaport Museum, 17 acres along the Mystic River dedicated to historic ocean pursuits. It's the largest maritime museum in the country.
However, before we get there I want to take you back to Main Street because downtown Mystic has been revived and today is a wonderful spot for walking, shopping, eating or drinking. It's only a couple of blocks long, with a fair amount of stores simply for tourists. I found it all pleasant eye candy, however, and my wife, who supports independent retailers, discovered a small clothing store where she bought a pretty blouse. At lunchtime we wandered into a small bakery and sandwich shop called Sift to have a bite to eat. About 15 minutes later we bumped into another couple who looked like they were seeking a lunch spot. When we described the eatery we had come from, they immediately said, "Sift!." Obviously, they already knew about it.
When I was in college I traveled with a friend to Mystic Seaport, which I remembered as a small tourist spot with a handful of old buildings and retired boats. So I was surprised to see what a large enterprise the seaport had become. One could easily spend a few hours here and not see it all. In fact, my wife and I were there on a hot summer day and nearly wore out before seeing what we came there to see, a show in the exhibition building.
The concept is simple: to illustrate the various activities, shops and structures that would have been found in a traditional seaport from the age of wooden ships into the early 20th century. This would include barrel makers, cordage manufacturers, fish processors, school and bank, and even the ubiquitous oyster shop (the oyster was America's original fast food). There are also numerous small museums such as the one I found interesting with wooden pleasure crafts. With their polished moldings and classic nautical lines, I found these small boats to be works of art.
Not to be missed is the whaling exhibition, covering the history of the industry that coincides with America's global ambitions going back to the 1700s. This is really a museum in and of itself. Along with the artifacts are audio-visual presentations and hands-on activities for kids. All this leads to the highlight of the seaport, an actual wooden whaling vessel, the last of its kind in the United States. Anyone can board, and it is instructive as well as fun to tour. The thing that catches everyone's eye is the sleeping quarters for the sailors — small bunks slammed together in the tiniest of living quarters. Hard to believe so many men would spend so many months or years living in such a small space.
While kids enjoy the seaport, there are a number of exhibits and activities for the adults, including book signings, Dixieland jazz cruises and art exhibits. Also offered are various educational endeavors such as basic blacksmithing.
The Kennedys who would sail down from Hyannis Port gave back, becoming large benefactors to the seaport. Cronkite died in 2009.
WHEN YOU GO
Mystic is just off Interstate 95 in Connecticut, closer to Boston than New York City: www.ctvisit.com.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Lobster traps wait on a dock in Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.