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Deep Dive

Bantam Lake and its past

At 948 acres, Bantam Lake is Connecticut’s largest natural lake. If its shoreline could talk, here is what it would tell you about its history. At the end of the 18th century, the land surrounding Bantam Lake was used for farming and agriculture. Most of the land was cleared for this purpose, save a single pine tree on a hill above the east shore, aptly named Lone Pine Hill (now known as Apple Hill). This was the site of a grand picnic party for upwards of 400 attendees in 1859, to celebrate the town of Morris “setting off” (incorporation).

The turn of the 19th century brought multi-passenger transportation (via the Shepaug Valley/Housatonic Railroad). The “pure air and healthful outdoor surroundings” became a highly sought-after respite for “overworked businessmen, tired mothers, and children pale for the want of exercise.” Fortunately, Bantam Lake offered a smattering of inns and hotels waiting to provide first-class accommodations. The Bantam Lake House served as a lakeside retreat for guests of the Hotel Berkshire (currently the site of Center School). Guests could go swimming, fishing, boating, or lunch in the grill room, where the chef was of “acknowledged reputation.”

The shores of Bantam Lake became home to many summer camps. The first camp on Bantam was Wonposet, established in 1906, providing an escape from NYC’s blistering summers and unyielding Polio epidemic (in 1951 it was sold to the White Memorial Foundation). Other camps were Agaming, Birchmere, Chinqueka, Lenox Hill Camp (became Sheltering Arms; today it is Camp Hope), Quarta, Sepunkum, and Sagawatha Lodge (became Camp Awosting in 1933, still operating as a camp for boys ages six to 16).     

To learn more about the fascinating history of Bantam Lake, I had the pleasure of speaking with 82-year-old Wes Jensen who has enjoyed all his summers on the Lake, since the age of two.

Wes’ grandparents were avid campers visiting various Connecticut campgrounds every summer. This required set up and tear down of their tent and platform. Growing weary of the arduous process, they were eager to find a lake to set up for the entire summer. In 1937, they approached Alain White, co-founder of the White Memorial Foundation. The foundation, established in 1913 by May White and her brother Alain, oversees and protects close to 4,000 acres surrounding Bantam Lake, including 60 percent of its shoreline. White agreed to their proposition and took them to a great spot on Marsh Point (there was no road, requiring a great slog through the woods with their gear). To their delight, they established the family’s summer retreat. Each winter they disassembled their tents and platforms, loaded them on sleds and glided everything over to Point Folly for winter storage. It bears mentioning, Wes Jensen’s current cottage is built on the very plot where his grandparent’s tent once stood. The good news is, there is a road now.

Wes explained the emotional toll and associated sacrifices of WWII lead to a lull in recreational activities on the lake. But when the war ended, spirits lifted, and a resurgence of campers returned to Marsh point, and they built seasonal cottages to replace their tents. As the property was and is still owned by White Memorial, one-year land leases for each parcel are required with a no obligation to renew caveat. Renters understand the rules and have a vested interest in maintaining them: if you respect the property and your neighbors, your lease will be renewed every year.

Another person with long-established ties to Bantam Lake and Marsh Point is local realtor Jessica Travelstead. Jessica grew up enjoying the lake and spent every after-school minute canoeing in the lake and Bantam River. Her mother had the foresight to buy a cabin on Marsh Point in the early 1990s, which is also encumbered by a land lease with White Memorial. To upfit the property with modern plumbing the original cabin had to be razed and relocated further away from the shoreline before a new cottage with a similar footprint was built. All of this was done under the careful observance of White Memorial, working vigilantly to protect Bantam Lake and the surrounding land it owns. Strict rules and regulations are in place for every lessee wishing to augment their structure in any way on land owned by White Memorial.

Most of the cottages on Marsh point remain seasonal with a few exceptions. Jessica’s family enjoys the cottage regularly, so when a neighboring Marsh Point cabin became available, Jessica’s mother bought it for extended family use. It comes complete with lake water plumbing and an outhouse—giving its visitors an authentic rustic experience.

Established in the 1920s, The Music Box was another popular spot on the south shore. This dance hall featured popular acts like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. As the big band era faded, the Music Box was repurposed as a roller-skating rink and teen hangout. The Music Box was purchased by Edward and Beverly Digimas in 1961. They painted it red and changed the name to Beverly’s in the 1970s. It became a band and dancing venue again, this time drawing acts like Arlo Guthrie, NRBQ, Chubby Checker, and the Guess Who. In 1991, Beverly’s ceased operation and the property sat vacant until it was razed in 2013 (now the Morris boat launch).

While it is named Bantam Lake, not a bit of lake water is technically in Bantam. Much of the lake sits in Litchfield. From Marsh Point and North is Morris. It was rumored there was a stone marker (date of origin unknown) engraved with the Litchfield Morris Line and the letters L and M, at the end of Marsh Point. Even after questioning Marsh Point residents, I was told there was no such stone. Three visits later, I found it. It is on White Memorial property and visitors are welcome. It is a rock in the woods. Enjoy your hunt! n

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