Lake Waramaug Association celebrates 100 years

Vacation homes have replaced the dance halls and hotels that once circled Lake Waramaug, but the ideals held by lakeshore residents eager to protect the waters have persisted for 100 years.

“It started as a summer-type project of several concerned residents in 1917,” said Anne Block, co-president of the Lake Waramaug Association, which is celebrating its centennial. “They came together because there was interest in protecting what had become a state treasure.”

The 655-acre lake, one of the largest natural lakes in Connecticut, was formed when glaciers melted after the last Ice Age. Today, it is bordered by the towns of Kent, Warren and Washington.

The mission of the association is to protect the ecology of the lake and its surrounding watershed. It started with 25 members and now reaches 300 people. Members pay $50 dues each year.

“We love this lake,” Block said. “We think it’s a special place and we want to protect it.”

Among the association’s accomplishments, working hand in hand with the separate Lake Waramaug Task Force, is the reduction in algae blooms and invasive species in recent decades. The group was instrumental in limiting the number of boat-launching spots, so boats could be inspected for invasives before entering the water, and in installing an aeration system to boost the lake’s oxygen levels.

“In the ’80s, the lake was essentially dead, but the task force and the association brought it back from algae and invasive plants,” Block said.

The association also started an annual Fourth of July fireworks show 10 years ago and hopes to make last weekend’s centennial picnic an annual event, Block said.

Another project is educating homeowners about building and renovating homes in an environmentally friendly way, which Block said can be challenging.

Changes at Lake Waramaug

The lake’s history goes back some 10,000 years, said Stephen Bartkus, curator of the Gunn Memorial Museum.

Native Americans, especially the Wyantenock tribe, visited the lake for thousands of years. In the 1700s, the tribe was led by Chief Waramaug, who moved his people to the lake from nearby New Milford during the summer.

European colonists arriving in the 18th century used the lake and the connecting East Aspetuck River to run more than 20 mills. Bartkus said they developed a technique using sand from the lake to cut marble quarried in the nearby hills — a technique that was patented in 1800 and later used throughout the country.

“It was a very different type of place during that time,” he said. “I can imagine it being very loud and dirty.”

The lake was a major vacation spot in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when some 15 inns and boarding houses lined the shore. Summer cottages popped up along the shoreline as wealthy New Yorkers sought to escape the heat and grime of the city.

During this era, two steamboats would bring tourists to their lodgings because a road had not yet been built around the lake. The Shepaug Railroad made it easier to travel to the lake from New York City, Bartkus said.

John Tallmadge’s grandparents were among the New York crowd that flocked to the lake. His grandfather started the association in 1917 as a way for residents to keep an eye on each other’s homes while their neighbors were gone.

Around this time, the Lake Waramaug Country Club opened for golfers, and in 1920 the state bought 95 acres along the shoreline in Kent for a state park. Dance halls, restaurants and bars surrounded the lake as late as the 1940s.

“In the ’20s and ’30s, the lake used to be a very rocking and rolling lake,” Block said. “It was sort of a wild west at one time.”

In the 1970s, Tallmadge’s father revived the association by attracting more members through social events and recruiting influential people who wanted to improve the lake’s water quality, which led to the Lake Waramaug Task Force.

Tallmadge, who grew up in New Jersey, said the lake was busier when he was a child, with more boats and water skiers than now. He remembers exploring the nearby woods, mines and hills with friends and family members.

“For me, the lake was a wild, rustic place,” he said. “A lot of my fondness for nature started at Lake Waramaug.”

Most of the small summer cottages that lined the lakeshore decades ago are gone, replaced by larger and more imposing homes. In fact, the lake is undergoing a building boom that has some association members worried about overdevelopment.

Celebrating 100 years

Block said the association is always looking ahead.

“I’m proud to be part of this association and take it into the next 100 years,” she said.

The association launched a program this year in honor of the milestone: planting 100 trees and preserving 100 acres of watershed.

These goals were presented by Heather Allen, the association’s centennial chairwoman, whose family has lived on the lake since 1898. She is the third generation to serve on the association’s board of directors.

“Trees have been central to our centennial, both for the vital role they play in maintaining a healthy environment, and for their inspiration and symbolism,” she said. “In planting a tree and caring for the land, as in all of our actions, we plant the future today.”

KKoerting@newstimes.com; 203-731-3345