Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I Make Fun of State Quarters: Connecticut

All right, back on track after that alphabetical snafu.

A long, long time from now, whenever I get up to the N states in the alphabet, I'm going to have to make fun of New Hampshire for choosing a state symbol that unexpectedly disappeared three years after the state's quarter was issued. For now, I'll have to content myself with making fun of Connecticut for selecting a symbol that vanished 143 years before the state quarter came into being.

Behold, a tree! It's about as exciting as Connecticut gets.

All right, full disclosure: I live in Connecticut, and I have for three-and-a-half years. Its politics are ridiculous, its mountains are hills, and of all the New England states it's the one with the most obvious identity crisis. Half the state roots for the New York Yankees, for God's sake. But I've still met some wonderful people here, there actually are quite a few lovely attractions, and I can't help but marvel at how devoted people are to local history.

So it's no surprise that Connecticut opted for the historic angle in choosing the Charter Oak for its state symbol. Though there's no denying that the fellow who designed the Connecticut quarter, one T. James Ferrell, did a bit of airbrushing when he etched out this portrayal of the Hartford tree. Take a look at the sexy flowing branches of the final design, then compare them to this alternate proposal:

Yeesh. Looks like the Charter Oak was grown from a scion of the Ugly Tree and replicated every branch on the way up.

Most portrayals of the oak show it as a scraggly runt, so apparently the above design is closer to the truth. But it's nothing that will win any beauty contests. They would run off more than a billion of these coins, so clearly they couldn't make it some gnarled old maid. They needed to make it the Summer Glau of trees.

Welcome back to my blog references, Ms. Glau! (Source)

So what's the story with the Charter Oak, anyway? Well, according to the lore, the 1662 charter granted to Connecticut by Charles II allowed it a great deal of autonomy within the British empire. When James II took over the throne, he looked to put an end to such tomfoolery and sent an emissary to demand the surrender of Connecticut's charter. Everyone sat together at the table when lo, the candles were snuffed! Captain James Wadsworth spirited the charter away to hide in a nook in the one tree on a nearby Hartford hill. Somehow, the British failed to find it.

So there you have it. Connecticut's greatest accomplishment wasn't Mark Twain, it was a magic vanishing act. Granted, the Charter Oak is a more interesting story than the one that led to the "Constitution State" nickname, namely that the Fundamental Orders of 1638-39 might be considered the first constitution in the American continent. There's also the "Nutmeg State" nickname, but Connecticut can't really be too proud of the idea that its citizens of yore were clever enough to sell counterfeit wooden nutmegs to gullible bumpkins.

I've learned a fair amount about New London history in my time here, namely that the city was burned down by both Benedict Arnold and a hurricane and that a harebrained scheme to steal a submarine included the possibility of obliterating the place with a nuclear weapon. If I'd arrived here way back before the quarter design was finalized, I might have argued for it to portray the story of how an early Revolutionary War mission raided a British armory in the Bahamas to obtain gunpowder and munitions for the colonials before taking the booty to New London. It's pretty awesome that part of the city's history is pretty much the same as one portion of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.

Exactly like this, but in Nassau. (Source)

It would be nice if the Charter Oak was still standing but alas, it was blown over in an 1856 storm and survives only in a few pieces of furniture in the state legislature. But both the storm and the power outage of the original Charter Oak heist are still commemorated to this day. Whenever a storm is powerful enough to knock out electricity, Connecticut Light and Power takes a symbolic two weeks to restore it.

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