About Deer Lake
A History of Deer Lake
For thousands of years before European colonists arrived in New England, the land now known as Deer Lake was cultivated and inhabited by Indigenous Nations, including the Wappinger, the Hammonasset, the Mohegan, and the Quinnipiac.
1644 to c.1864
"The Deer Lake property is a portion of the original Buell Homestead. Samuel Buell (1641 to 1720) born in Windsor, in 1662 he became one of the original pioneers and proprietors of Killingworth (“Kennilworth”). In […] June 1680, Samuel Buell bought 250 acres from Mohegan Chief’s second son Owaneco. In 1669 he joined other[s] to purchase all the lands in the township not having previously been sold to George Fenwick Esq., from the Mohegan Chief Uncas and his son Joshua." (Welles, Albert. History of the Buell Family in England from the Remotest Times Ascertainable from Our Ancient Histories and From American Town, Parish, Church and Family Records. New York, Society Library, 1864)
The Lagoon, which is used by the summer camp for swimming and boating, is a kettle formed by glaciers. In the 1700’s, colonists dug the lake to feed the races of the Elba Paper Mill, for which the road is still named.
Local belief is that this paper mill produced stationary used by General George Washington and his commanders during the Revolutionary War, due to its strategic location between New York and Boston, and its ability to produce paper imbued with a unique watermark, the fleur-de-lis, which enabled Washington’s forces to verify the authenticity of their communiques.
The record shows that the property was still in Buell hands until the compilation of the book in 1864. The house at Deer Lake was built in 1815, probably by a member of the Buell family going by the list of bequeaths registered in the cited source.
The mill burnt down in the late 1800’s, and the dam was abandoned; neither were rebuilt.
1920’s to 1959
In 1930, the property was held by Henry Opp, who also owned Madison Lumber. Mr. Opp operated an illegal still on the property, which was seized by revenuers when discovered.
In 1933 Ralph and Elizabeth Hill, who were looking for a place for Mrs. Hill’s mother to live, bought the property, which was then called Allison’s Pond. The Hills re-dammed the river and renamed the newly flooded valley Deer Lake.
Born to a family of farmers in Iowa, Ralph Hill worked as a missionary abroad before returning to the U.S. and studying under John Dewey, the philosopher and educator best known for his work “School and Society”, published in 1889.
Elizabeth Hill was a teacher and co‐director of the Walden School from 1924 to 1930, and director/psychologist from 1930 until 1939. She is referenced in the book Founding Mothers and Others – Woman Educational Leaders During the Progressive Era by Alan R. Sadovnik and Susan Semel, and in America’s Early Montessorians by Gerald Gutek and Patricia A Gutek.
Inspired by working at a summer camp in Massachusetts, the Hills decided to open their own camp on the property.
It is possible that Mr. Hill informed the character of Dr. Doolittle, as its creator, Hugh Lofting, lived just down the road from Deer Lake. Mr. Hill was known to leave scraps of food outside for the local wildlife to eat, and could often be found sitting outside surrounded by forest animals. It was not uncommon for deer, raccoons, chipmunks, and squirrels to follow Mr. Hill as he walked the trails at Deer Lake.
In a 1977 Branford Review article, Mr. Hill described Deer Lake as “320 acres of meadow, woodland and that magnificent lake fed by a stream from the eastern branch of the Hammonasset River.”
The Hills opened the camp in the summer of 1933 with twelve campers and very little money, building all of the cabins themselves. Since its inception, Deer Lake was racially integrated, as Mr. Hill “always held that all races are equal.”
1959 – 1978
In 1959 the Hills sold the property to the Boy Scouts but included a clause in the deed which allowed them the right to “enjoy Deer Lake’s beauty”.
Throughout both the Hill and Boy Scout tenures, Deer Lake has operated as a summer camp and a community hub, hosting water safety programs, CPR/First Aid and lifeguard certification programs, and public town events like picnics and iceskating. But with the departure of Ralph and Elizabeth Hill in the 1960’s, the property began to fall into disrepair.
Scout troops still used the reservation on the weekends, but without a full-time ranger to maintain the grounds, vandalism and the elements caused widespread damage to the buildings and facilities. In fact, by the late 1970’s, a plan was considered that would tear down the remaining structures as they were considered “beyond repair”.
1978 – 2021
In 1978, Mark Clifton took a position with the Boy Scouts as a volunteer ranger and moved to Deer Lake. By 1982 he was elevated to a paid employee, and dedicated himself to salvaging the houses, barns, and cabins.
It was at Deer Lake that Mr. Clifton met his wife, Patty, and the couple raised their two children on the property while maintaining the grounds, running programming, and restoring the property’s original buildings.
On June 2, 1982, fourteen inches of rain fell on Killingworth in twelve hours, which caused the dam to breach, and sent the entirety of the lake downstream.
This event marked the start of a renaissance at Deer Lake. During the repairs to the dam, the Lagoon was dredged, removing organic material from its basin. Sand and gravel were also removed, which used to help build the Stop & Shop in Clinton.
The Cliftons were working hard to restore the buildings on the property, the Lagoon was transformed into the recreation-friendly state we know today, and according to a Boy Scout handout on the the history of the reservation, “[a] long range forestry plan was implemented and soil and water conservation practices were put into place.” The State of Connecticut also issued a grant to help with the repair of the dam.
In 1985, local ornithologist and philanthropist Richard English donated money to the Scouts to establish the Richard English Bird Sanctuary at Deer Lake. To this day, avid birders make the trip to Killingworth to observe the many species of birds that inhabit the reservation. After Mr. English’s death in 2011, he made an additional gift to the Connecticut Yankee Council amounting to approximately $100,000 annually.
A number of organizations have taken turns running summer camp programs at Deer Lake, including local YMCAs, the Shoreline Foundation, the Boy Scouts, and Pathfinders, Inc.
Pathfinders is a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 1997 as a means of facilitating inclusive programming at Deer Lake. At the time, girls over the age of 14 could participate in Scouting programs such as Explorer Scouts and Venture Scouts, but access to other programs was denied to those younger than 14.
Following the progressive lead of Ralph Hill, Pathfinders has been dedicated from its inception to making its services available to all children, including girls. When the Connecticut Yankee Council announced its decision to sell the property, Pathfinders took the lead in the effort to prevent a sale to a developer.
2021 – present
In 2021 The Board of the Connecticut Yankee Council (CYC) announced their intention to sell Deer Lake.
The CYC received bids on the property from Margaret Streicker, who sits on the CYC’s own Executive Board and who owns a development company called Fortitude Capital, The Trust for Public Land, and Pathfinders Inc. The CYC rejected the latter two bids in favor of that offered by Ms. Streicker but stated that they would accept a “superior offer”.
Pathfinders has signed a lease with the CYC for the 2022 summer season, to ensure that camp can run for at least one more year.
The Pathfinders board of directors currently consists of nine members, all of whom serve on a volunteer basis.