- Associated Press - Sunday, July 19, 2015

PLAINVILLE, Conn. (AP) - Growing up not far from the colorful, quirky little cottages that make up the Plainville Campgrounds, Bob Simone wondered about the truth of widespread talk that “they had Munchkin people living there.”

Longtime campground resident Arthur Pope, who’s written a history of the 150-year-old community off Camp Street, said lots of people used to think midgets lived there.

It turns out, though, that the original inhabitants were just Methodists.

Still, it’s an extraordinary spot.

On Saturday, residents, including Bob and Barb Simone, opened their community and often their homes to visitors for an open house that drew scores of curious onlookers in to take a look around at the wooden summer cottages that sprung up between 1880 and 1925, nearly all of them during the 19th century.

Brightly painted and in surprisingly good shape - something that wasn’t always the case - many of them are organized in a circle facing a 1902 auditorium to create a sort of amphitheater that once attracted thousands of people to listen to preachers, lecturers and others.

Half a dozen small streets radiate outward from the center, lined with more cottages with gable roofs, broad porches and fanciful woodwork.

Esther Rausch Pope, who’s spent her summers there for more than six decades, said her parents brought the family to the camp from their home in New Haven where they had nowhere to play. In Plainville, she said, they could race through the woods, watch the cows “and ride our bikes like maniacs.”

At the time, Esther Pope said, some of the cottages were unoccupied and deteriorating.

In the years since, though, people have bought up all 87 of the cottages - listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980 - and carefully restored nearly all of them.

Hugh Murphy said that after he retired, he moved from Waterbury to Florida with the intention of staying there. But he heard about the campgrounds from one of the many Barefoot Bay residents there who kept summer cottages back home in Connecticut.

Ultimately, he and his wife, Terri, joined them by purchasing a cabin once housed Bloomfield campers attending the Methodist camp.

“It’s kind of a special place,” he said, with lots of nice people who gather regularly for potluck dinners, pizza, Wii bowling and non-denominational Sunday afternoon church services.

“The people are just awesome,” said another resident, Ron Regan.

“It’s fun. It’s peaceful. You feel like you’re on location here,” Barb Simone said.

Arthur Pope said, “This is really a time warp. You might as well be in the 19th century,” looking out at the old buildings, listening to the birds and relishing the old-fashioned feel of a place that hasn’t changed much despite the years.

Regan said the cottages are unique. Because they were built with used lumber without real foundations, he said, “Nothing is level.”

The campground began right after the Civil War, a spot for members of Methodist churches in the region to gather in a place of rural splendor and to focus on religious matters.

At first, congregations from different towns would erect big tents around the center spot, but over time they became small cottages with wide doors and verandas where people could also see and listen to the speakers, providing an open, communal environment all around.

Arthur Pope said that at its height, the venue also attracted speakers ranging from Booker T. Washington to a Yale professor who gave a whole series of lectures on ferns. Thousands came on trains to the now-demolished Camp Street station, where farmers would haul them the last mile on carts.

Other major events were sponsored by temperance advocates, veterans of the Union army and more.

By 1957, the Methodist camp had fallen into serious decline, with most congregations failing to pay dues to keep it up and cottages falling apart. A minister quoted in Pope’s book said the place could not compete with Lake Compounce amusement park, race tracks, television, radio and other diversions.

A new association bought the property for $14,000 that year and set it on a new path that has proven its value with the preservation of what is now a thriving community.

Residents, mostly retired people or those approaching retirement, own their cottages and lease the land from the association. The campground shuts down from late fall until spring.

For Murphy, it’s a great spot to see make sure he can see grandchildren during the warmer months.

He said he could not have afforded to have a house in Florida and in Connecticut, but could manage to have the cottage, a much cheaper option.

“It doesn’t get much better,” he said.

The Plainville Historical Society is hosting an exhibit featuring the campground at the Plainville Historic Center, 29 Pierce St., that will run through August on Wednesdays and Saturdays from noon to 2:30 p.m. The suggested donation is $2.

Other anniversary events will include a service in the Auditorium of the Plainville Campgrounds Association, 320 Camp St., at 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 19 and a tag sale at the campground from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1.

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Information from: The Bristol Press, https://www.bristolpress.com

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