If you want to include art and culture in your holiday shopping, the oddly picturesque town of Clinton is worth visiting.
Located on the Wachusett Reservoir 45 minutes west of Boston, Clinton was once the world’s largest producer of gingham cloth and home to both Lancaster Mills and Bigelow Carpet Co. At 6 square miles, it is a small, walkable, unexpected treasure of a New England town.
A behemoth of wealth and commerce in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, Clinton went bust many times after that, including during the Depression in the 1930s and most recently during the 1950s, when its remaining mills moved south. But the town has always resurrected itself and is a surprisingly interesting destination - culturally, historically, and architecturally - as are the neighboring towns of Harvard and Boylston.
Clinton was incorporated in 1850. ‘‘The town was once wealthy and it has had many famous visitors, from Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass to President Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and, most recently, President Jimmy Carter, who scheduled his first town meeting here in 1977,’’ says Kent Russell, CEO and curator of the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, which is said to house one of the finest collections of sacred Russian art outside Russia.
Russell said the museum was established six years ago and now draws over 16,000 visitors a year to this town of 15,000 people. It is housed in what was once a red-brick library, an adjacent post office, courthouse, and basement-level town jail. The museum offers docent-led tours and lectures on Russian history and sacred art and includes a newly opened Russian tea room, beautifully curated gift shop, art classes, and space for concerts and lectures.
“Celebrate the Seasons: Icons of the Nativity’’ is a new exhibition running through Jan. 28. Later this month, the museum, which is open year-round, will host an evening of Russian opera, a family day of art-making, Russian folk tales and refreshments, and a concert by a men’s chorus from St. Petersburg.
Russell was largely responsible for a creative partnership recently forged with two nearby cultural treasures: Fruitlands, former home and farm of Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott and other 19th-century social reformers seeking to form a communal utopia in the picturesque town of Harvard, and Tower Hill Botanical Gardens in Boylston. Although the farmhouse at Fruitlands is closed in winter, there are ongoing activities there including sledding, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing on 200 acres of trails with stunning views of the countryside. Tower Hill offers year-round activities including art-making and gardening lectures, and in season has acres of extraordinary plants and trees plus indoor greenhouse settings such as an Orangerie planted with fruit trees.
“Retreat, contemplation, and spiritual connection are themes that the visitor can find in all three places,’’ Russell added.
The Russian Icon Museum was established in 2005 by a quirky local multimillionaire named Gordon B. Lankton. A native of Peoria, Ill., and Cornell University engineering graduate, he rode his motorcycle around the world before ending up in Central Massachusetts, where he made his fortune with Nypro, a plastics molding company with offices in cities around the world, including Moscow. Lankton has lived here for 50 years and Nypro is still headquartered in Clinton and employs 1,000 local workers.
Lankton, 80, the former CEO and now chairman of the board at Nypro, said he started collecting Russian art years ago and his collection includes over 500 paintings. “Clinton has been good to me,’’ said Lankton, who still works at Nypro every day before walking a few blocks to his second shift at the Icon Museum. “I could have put the museum in New York City or in Boston, but after some thought, I decided to put it right here in Clinton.’’
Across the street from the restored red-brick buildings housing the museum, on Clinton’s well-manicured Central Park, is the Foster Fountain, which was purchased in 1880 at the Paris Exhibition. Across the park is High Street, where Irish and Greek millworkers once filled the pubs and shops between shifts. Now High Street and its cross streets house many small, locally-owned shops and businesses - an African art gallery and some good restaurants including an Italian ristorante with an owner-chef from Rome and an Irish pub and restaurant. Shops worth exploring include Sunrise Boutique and Tinker’s Cart - all on High Street.
During the 1890s, water requirements for an ever-expanding Boston population continued to grow and to stave off acute water shortages, the Metropolitan District Commission was formed. Its first act was to seize property along the Nashua River in Clinton and nearby towns to build the huge and picturesque Wachusett Reservoir. Visitors can still enjoy the scenery overlooking this huge body of water, including the Wachusett Dam, which when it was built in 1910, earned fame as the largest hand dug dam in the country.
Clinton also has interesting architecture such as the Holder Memorial, a majestic American Colonial building downtown that houses valuable historical archives, a library of the history of the Industrial Revolution, and the Clinton Historical Society.
If you go...
What to do
The three cultural institutions (below) in Central Massachusetts have formed a partnership called “3 Museums 1 Great Day’’ (www.3museums.org). Check the website for special programs and events year-round.
Museum of Russian Icons
203 Union St., Clinton
Open year-round. Admission $5. Over age 59 free.
102 Prospect Hill Road
Open April to November, but the off season is a fine time to walk, snowshoe, or cross-country ski over the museum’s 200 acres of trails.
Tower Hill Botanic Garden
11 French Drive, Boylston
Open year-round. Adults $10; seniors $7; children ages 6-18, $5; members and under 6 free.
Maria Karagianis can be reached at maria.e.karagianis@gmail .com.
In an earlier version of this story, Clinton’s incorporation date and the name of Sunrise Boutique were incorrect.