KENT – Rounding a sharp bend on Kent Hollow Road, the deep blue of a pond on the left catches the eye. Just beyond is an old dirt road that crosses between a dam and a steep gully where the river begins.
The crumbling foundation of an old mill sits at the bottom of the gully. It is all that is left of the once thriving small village known as East Kent Hamlet where in 1740 Morgan’s Bloomery Iron Forge operated, bringing people to the area. Soon a Methodist Church, a Post Office and Mercantile shops were built and Bronson’s Mills, a series of saw mills and a grist mill began operating.
The narrow, one-lane road wanders through second growth forest, past an old barn built in 1919, and ends in a meadow that stretches out for several acres. Footpaths exit the meadow in several directions.
There is little evidence left of the small community that once thrived here near the headwaters to the West Aspetuck River, or of Eli Barnum’s Farm that followed and then the camps. First there was a boys camp run by Dr. Allen, who also owned Camp Po-Ne-Mah for girls a few miles to the west. Then the Girl Scout Camp, Camp Francis, that opened in 1930, where the young women from Fairfield County came to learn how to swim, paddle a canoe, cook over a camp fire and identify trees and wild flowers.
The camp closed for good sometime in the 1990s and has stood empty and unused. The buildings deteriorated, the land was reclaimed by weeds and the pond was left undisturbed.
Last Friday, Aug. 29, the 263-acre former Girl Scout Camp re-opened in its latest incarnation as the East Kent Hamlet Nature Preserve. All morning the narrow road was crowded with cars as well over 100 people came to the opening of the preserve.
Gov. Dannel Malloy, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Rob Klee, state Sen. Cliff Chapin, state Rep. Roberta Willis and Kent First Selectman Bruce Adams were there to join in the celebration and in a small way take credit for their part in helping to save the abandoned camp as open space.
They all also wanted to take personal credit for the perfect weather, bright sunshine, deep blue sky broken up with huge white clouds, slight breeze and 75-degree temperature.
The Kent Land Trust, represented by President Bill Arnold and Executive Director Connie Manes, along with many members and volunteers were there to see the beginning of a dream fulfilled.
For the past 25 years, the Kent Land Trust has had the Camp Francis property at the top of its list of land that needed to be preserved. Rated as some of the cleanest water in Connecticut, Beamon Pond and the West Aspetuck River Watershed are now permanently protected as are the 263 acres of woods, fields and trails that straddle the Kent Warren border.
Arnold was effusive in his praise of the federal, state and local governments for their help in securing grants and funding for the project, but held his highest praise for the individuals who donated not only money, but their time and their sweat. From dream to opening day reality, it was a joint effort of many hundreds of people who collectively made the day possible, he said.
Arnold spoke about the many people he needed to thank, apologizing in advance for any he left out. He thanked Malloy for his help and support in preserving Connecticut’s open spaces, especially in regularizing the once unpredictable grant-funding program.
Arnold said state grants were offered some years and not others, and people seeking grants could not depend on them to be available when needed. The governor regularized the program by setting aside a specific amount of money in each year’s budget for grants for that year.
“I don’t need to say how important this property is. You all know it,” he said to the more than a hundred people who gathered to celebrate.
Many were former campers, counselors and caretakers of the camp; some were members of the KLT. Others were neighbors or people who had donated.
Then there was 100-year-old Dorothy Barnum Venter and her granddaughter Cammy Roffe.
Venter’s grandfather , Eli Barnum, inherited the farm that later became Camp Francis from his father. Barnum moved to Naugatuck and went into business, but kept the farm. It was in operation from 1858-1929.
This was where Ventter spent most of her summers visiting. It is where her husband proposed to her, and where her grandmother taught her to identify wildflowers such as the elegant Lady Slippers that still bloom here in the spring.
It is where, she said, “I helped my grandmother plant a row of hydrangeas.”
Looking up from the meadow to the top of the small hill, she pointed to a row of white hydrangea bushes in full bloom and asked, “Do you think those are the same ones?”
Just beyond the hydrangeas is a house-tall chimney with fireplace surrounded by a green wire fence. It is all that is left of the farmhouse.
“This is just about the most important piece of land conservation in Litchfield County,” Arnold said in an earlier interview.
He reiterated that sentiment in his speech citing the importance of the water and wildlife. It was a fulfillment of a dream that at times he was never sure would happen, he said.
“Then,” he said, “an anonymous donor called me. She said she wanted to make a substantial donation and wrote a check for a $100,000. That was inspirational. It was when we knew we could do it.”
The Girl Scouts of Connecticut were asking $1.5 million for the property. Arnold said that the KLT Board under the direction of Alice Hicks raised over $600,000 in private donations, we obtained a $500,000 grant from the CT DEEP, a $520,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, substantial donations from the Highlands Conservation program, and the Warren Land Trust and $110,000 donation from the people of the Town of Kent.
“I was inspired by the people in this community—not many other towns could have pulled this off,” Arnold said.
One of the restrictions on the DEEP grant was that the deteriorating buildings had to be removed. Work was done by Jack Nelson of South Kent, owner of Environmental Construction.
Some of the others Arnold singled out were Brent Kallstron, owner of Cold Stream Farm in Kent Hollow, (who also has a long history with the camp and helped with the clearing and kept the road plowed during the winter); David Bain, who was in charge of the trail clearing; Laurie Doss, KLT Board member and head of the Science Department at Marvelwood ; The Housatonic Valley Association; and KLT Executive Director Connie Manes, whose “energy and organizational skills”, he said, “kept us going.”
Arnold was followed by Kent’s First Selectman, Bruce Adams, who brought his two young grandsons, Ashton and Charlie, with him to the podium. He introduced the two boys saying, “These are the reason for protecting this place.”
“There are still people who believe this should not be protected,” Adams said. “I hope they come and walk the trails and when they leave say, ‘Wow, am I ever glad we did this.’”
Manes took the podium, and before introducing DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee, she read a letter from Mary Barneby, the chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of Connecticut, who was unable to attend.
Barneby wrote, “This land bears the legacy of the laughter of Girl Scouts who came here to enjoy its beauty, to learn new skills, build lasting friendships and have new experiences that would in many cases transform their lives. Here they built confidence and character and took with them memories that would last a lifetime… If you listen you can still hear their giggles and squeals…. We thank the Kent Land Trust for taking stewardship of this scared place and for making it accessible for everyone…. To us—it will always be Camp Francis. But to everyone else we hope it becomes a place to retreat from the day to day world; to come closer to the wonder of the outdoors.”
After mentioning that he often brought his 4- and 5-year-old children with him as he began his tour of all the state parks and forests under the jurisdiction of the DEEP, Klee said that “this was a collaborative effort of a whole lot of cooks.” He thanked Chapin and Willis for their efforts in obtaining the DEEP grant and noted that Connecticut is the third smallest state in area, has 125 land trusts and is third in the most protected land.
“No single entity can do it alone,” Klee continued. “We need partnerships, and this is one of the great examples of cooperation between local, state, federal and private entities.”
Malloy noted that during the 14 years he was mayor of Stamford, he was involved in the preservation of several areas of the city and reiterated his commitment to conservation and land preservation. As a young Boy Scout, he said, “I attended Camp Toquam on dog Pond in Goshen and never knew until today where the girls went!”
The speeches ended and everyone crowded behind a wide green ribbon fastened to two wooden posts on either side of the beginning of the trails.
Arnold stood next to the governor and handed him an oversized pair of scissors. On his right was 80-plus-year-old Ky Anderson who for many years operated a riding stable next to the camp and spent many hours guiding riders over the trails in the camp. There are two gates along the property line – one called Camp Francis Gate and the other Hallelujah’s gate (after one of Ky’s horses). The gates are marked on the map of the trail system created by local architect John Baker and available at the entrance to the preserve.
With great ceremony, Malloy cut the ribbon and people divided themselves into groups, one to take the 20-minute trail and one to take the longer, one-hour hike.
The East Kent Hamlet Nature Preserve is open to the public for passive recreation only, like hiking and bird watching. Parking is limited and cars are not permitted past the parking area.
Three trails are currently open. For additional information, visit the KLT website at www.kentlandtrust.org or call their office (located at 170 Kent Rd Kent, CT 06757) at 860-488-9185.