When the board of directors of Pathfinders, Inc., the nonprofit that bought Deer Lake, met last week, it didn’t know how many people to expect for its open house Sunday. One member said 250. Another estimated 300. Nobody went higher.

“I just hope people show up,” someone said.

They did.

In droves.

From beginning (10 a.m.) to end (4 p.m.) Sunday, hundreds appeared at the 255-acre Deer Lake property to join a celebration of donors who contributed to the $4.75-million sale and experience the beauty of an environment that state Sen. Christine Cohen accurately described as “magical.”

“I was shocked,” said Patty Clifton who, with husband Mark, runs the Deer Lake summer youth camp. “When the parking people came over and said they were running out of space, I couldn’t believe it.”

She can now.

Estimates for the event ranged anywhere from 800 to 1,000 persons, though no one is certain. There was no admission, no tickets and no crowd count. What is known, however, is that the occasion was an unmitigated success.

“It warmed my heart,” said Mark Clifton, “to have people I haven’t seen in 40 years come by to support the camp. I was gratefully surprised.”

The weather was glorious, a sunny afternoon with temperatures in the 60s. The stream of visitors was continuous. Interest was keen, with dozens of persons offering to volunteer for future projects or inquiring about donations. And the sale of concessions, walking sticks, Deer Lake water bottles, Deer Lake sweatshirts, Deer Lake Swag … you name it … was brisk.

“It was beyond our expectations,” said Ted Langevin, president of Pathfinders. “It was very positive.”

That sentiment was echoed by all who were there -- from the Boy Scouts who parked cars … to the Cub Scouts who ran the concessions… to Cohen, who showed off Deer Lake to friends unfamiliar with it … to conservation groups and naturalists at information booths … to vendors who sold their wares … to those who joined guided hikes or rode a hay wagon that toured the property … and to all in and around Pathfinders who planned and coordinated the event immediately after the Sept. 16 purchase.

“My biggest takeaway?” said Patty Clifton. “That people care. They wouldn’t have come out here if they didn’t care.”

The occasion was meant to serve two purposes: 1) Celebrate donors who made the Deer Lake purchase possible and 2) expose the property to those who were unaware of it. When Pathfinders bought Deer Lake, it borrowed $1.8 million in low-interest loans to complete the deal. But it can’t retire that debt without more donations, and that’s unlikely to happen if potential contributors don’t know what they’re asked to save.

Sunday was that opportunity.

The most asked question Langevin said he heard was, “Is Deer Lake open to the public?” The answer is yes. Some wanted to know if there is weekend camping. Again, the answer is yes. Others were interested in potential retreats, wedding and reunion possibilities, dining-hall rentals, dog walking, overnight cabin stays and, yes, possible Lumberjack Days.

Then there were those who showed up out of curiosity, with Langevin estimating that 20-30 signed up to volunteer for future projects. Others inquired into donations, asking how they could add to the Save Deer Lake fundraising campaign. The interest was sincere, and the passion was genuine.

“I was so impressed with how supportive the community is,” said Langevin.

Most persons came from Killingworth and surrounding towns, but other parts of the state were represented. One couple from Milford, for instance, had never been to Deer Lake but heard about the event and was intrigued. A family from East Haddam wanted to see if it was still open to Scouts. A resident of Hartford asked about kayaking and fishing. A couple from Naugatuck brought their two children to walk the property with grandparents and participate in demonstrations.

“It was fun,” said Killingworth resident Linda Shellnut, grandmother to the two youths. “I was struck by how beautiful and precious the spot is. There aren’t many places like Deer Lake anymore. Most have been developed or sold or just aren’t in your area. The kids absolutely loved it.”

To those who could remember, it was reminiscent of the annual Killingworth Town picnic that was held at Deer Lake on Labor Day weekend and involved cow chip bingo (honest), an Army/National Guard jumping team and a softball game between the Lions Club and Volunteer Fire Company. According to those who were there, it was such a popular draw that it attracted 2,000-3,000 persons.

“It could be fun to do again,” Mark Clifton said.

Maybe. But the immediate goal for Pathfinders is to raise awareness for the Save Deer Lake campaign and gain the help of volunteers interested in helping to maintain and improve the property. Sunday’s open house was a start.

“We need to do a lot of outreach,” said former Killingworth First Selectwoman Cathy Iino, a Pathfinders board member, “just to keep in touch with all those people. We need to make sure that all the folks who came through … and all the others who have supported the effort to save Deer Lake … continue to feel like part of this great project. The public needs to hear from us regularly.”

It just did.

“And it was great,” said Cohen. “I think (Sunday) highlighted the beauty of the property. You couldn’t have dialed up better weather, and everything went so smoothly. It should help people understand why Pathfinders moved forward and rallied the community as it did and why it needs the amount of help it does going forward.”