About 15,000 years ago, toward the end of the last ice age, a large glacial lake (Lake Hitchcock) covered much of the Connecticut River Valley, from central Connecticut to northern Vermont. The fine layers of silt, sediment, and sand deposited on the lake floor—and later sorted and sculpted by wind and glacial meltwater streams—form the base of the sandy loam soils that still line the Connecticut River Valley today.
It was the presence of these fertile “Windsor soils” that turned the valley into a hub of shade tobacco production for use in cigars, and ultimately what brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Connecticut as a teenager. In one of his first extended trips away from Georgia and his family, King and other students from Morehouse College worked summers on a tobacco farm in Simsbury, Connecticut, in 1944 and 1947 to earn money for tuition.
The Operational Land Imager-2 (OLI-2) on Landsat 9 captured this image of Simsbury on September 15, 2022. The tobacco farm where King worked—Meadowood—is located west of the Farmington River, a tributary of the Connecticut River. The photograph below, taken by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, shows aging tobacco barns on the edge of the Meadowood property.
While the tobacco industry has largely disappeared and housing developments have spread, plenty of farmland and tobacco barns remain, including some that are visible in the Landsat image. In recent years, a large solar plant located on nearby farmland has started to generate power. A nursery north of Meadowood has large numbers of greenhouses and row covers, which have some parallels to the shade coverings that would have been common when King spent time in the area.
King’s time in Connecticut impacted his outlook and trajectory as a minister and civil rights activist, according to King scholars. It was his first experience away from the strict segregation of the Deep South. “On the way here, we saw things I never anticipated to see,” he wrote in a letter to his father after arriving in Simsbury. “After we passed Washington, [there] was no discrimination at all. …We go to any place we want to and sit any where [sic] we want to.”
In a letter to his mother, King wrote about the simplicity of a trip to nearby Hartford: “I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we ate in one of the finest restaurant[s]. …And we went to the largest shows there.” It was during his first summer in Simsbury that King first took a leadership role in church, leading Sunday services for the 107 other students in his dorm and the place where he resolved to pursue a career as a minister.
The taste of desegregation stayed with King. “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation,” he later wrote in his autobiography. “It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation’s capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta.”
For decades, little was known about King’s time in Simsbury. A group of Simsbury high school students helped bring it to light by conducting local historical research and producing an influential documentary that was released in 2010. In 2021, the town of Simsbury, with the support of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other partners, acquired the farmland where King worked and plans to preserve it.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Photo by Tricia Andriski (USFWS). Story by Adam Voiland.