White Memorial: Japanese Tea House

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Remains of the Whites’ Japanese tea house

Many of the trails that wind through the White Memorial Conservation Center were originally constructed as carriage roads for Alain and May White. Great care was taken in building this network of roads, as evidenced by the many extant bridges, culverts, and drainage ditches. Carriage rides on roads carved out of forests was a popular leisure activity for wealthy Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Rockefellers, for example, built 45 miles of carriage roads at Kykuit, their Tarrytown, New York, estate, eighteen miles or roads at their Forest Hill, Ohio, estate, and 57 miles in what is now Acadia National Park in Maine.

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Beaver Pond overlook, White Memorial Foundation

Alain White oversaw the construction of dozens of miles of roads at Whitehall, what is now White Memorial. From the 1870 carriage house, the Whites would drive their team of horses around their property. Approximately four miles from their home was Beaver Pond. High above the pond they constructed a pull off so that they could admire the vista from their carriage. And on the shore of the pond, White built a Japanese tea house. Here Alain and May could entertain friends before returning back home.

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Frederic Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860

Wealthy Americans of this period were captivated by paintings by the likes of Frederic Church and Winslow Homer of the American wilderness and looked to have their own experiences in nature. And if that could be done by constructing a Japanese tea house on ground seemingly untouched by human hands, so much the better. At about the same time, Robert Pruyn, an Albany banker and businessman, constructed an entire estate with a Japanese theme on nearly 100,000 of Adirondack wilderness in Newcomb, New York. If on a smaller scale, Alain and May White were inspired by similar ideas in Litchfield and Morris.

LHRR Series: The Fifth Mile, Whitehall and the Chickadee Bridge

As runners pass through the gates of Whitehall, the estate of the White family, they will soon enter the race’s fifth mile. The slight downhill grade provides a respite for these runners, who will soon enter the Microwave Mile and face Gallows Lane. This wooded environment was the heart of the estate.

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The Windmill Hill windmill (From Rachel Carley, Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town

There are many vestiges of the past splendor of these grounds. The shingled building to the right was the family’s carriage house. From here, they traversed the miles of carriage roads that crossed their thousands of acres. The hill behind the carriage house is Windmill Hill, so named for the wind-powered pump that filled a cistern to provide water to the home. This hill was also the site of exotic tree plantings by the family, who planted over one million trees on their estate.

Whitehall (Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation)

The current visitor’s center was Whitehall, the seat of the estate. John Jay White moved his family here following the New York City draft riots in 1863. Alain went on to study botany at Harvard, and became a master chess player, a skill that led to his recruitment as a cryptographer during World War I. May’s philanthropic spirit centered on bringing children from New York City to Litchfield for summers. The family home was designed in quintessential Victorian style, with garrets, a tower, and many chimneys. The structure underwent extensive renovations when it became the center of the White Memorial Foundation.

Note the tree stump on the right side of the image. (Courtesy of the White Memorial Foundation)

Across the street from the visitor center is a concrete tree stump, a reminder of earlier days when this area was the scene of picnics and even duck pin bowling, on an alley painstakingly leveled by Alain White for the use of the Sanctum club.

Chickadee Bridge (Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation)

A notable feature of the race for runners is crossing the Bantam River on the Chickadee Bridge. This bridge allowed the Whites to access their carriage roads on the east side of the river. The shoreline is now covered with trees, rendering this view impossible. The Whites often called this Silver Bridge, and noted that it was the farthest up the river that motorboats could venture; today, the presence of beaver dams makes this also impossible. The Chickadee Bridge stands as a reminder to runners that while they here turn back toward Litchfield, their journey is going to get much more difficult.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available).

LHRR Series: The Fourth Mile, into White Memorial

 

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The  gates to Whitehall, the estate of Alain and May White. The four mile mark of the Litchfield Hills Road Race is just beyond these gates.

Passing the third mile marker, runners enter into the forests of the White Memorial Foundation. This was the brainchild of Alain and May White, siblings and children of John Jay White, a New York real estate tycoon who relocated his family to Litchfield following the New York City Draft Riots in the Civil War. The next post in this series will focus on the Whites and their home. As runners enjoy the solitude of the woods along Bissell and Whitehall Roads, let’s focus on their philanthropic endeavors.

An early 20th century view of a scene across from the current White Memorial Visitor Center.

Together Alain and May preserved nearly 9,000 acres of land that today comprise the White Memorial Foundation, Mohawk State Forest and Mohawk Mountain State Park, Kent Falls State Park, Macedonia Brook State Park, the People’s State Forest, Campbell Falls State Park, and portions of the Steep Rock Preserve.

White family holdings along Bantam Lake

 

It began simply when Alain was fishing in the Bantam River with his friend William Mitchell Van Winkle in 1908. White commented, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to preserve this river, lake and countryside as we see it now?” With May, he would devote nearly the next half century to acquiring additional lands for a preserve dedicated to the memory of their parents. The Whites’ goal was not simply to allow nature to run its course on these lands. Rather, as historian Rachel Carley notes, they hoped to “make shoreline available for youth camps, simple vacation home and convalescent retreats” This, then, was practical conservationism.

A LHRR runner in the White Memorial section of the race. (Courtesy scottlivingston.wordpress.com)

Runners rightly best remember them today for their remarkable contribution of a 4,000-acre backyard for Litchfield, a refuge not only for runners and animals but for hikers, bikers, birders, and kayakers.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s forthcoming book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty. (Available May 2016)

The Girl Scouts’ Camp Townshend

 

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One of the remnants of Camp Townshend cabins

Beyond the White Memorial Foundation, Alain and May White contributed money and land to dozens of other ventures that have greatly impacted the Litchfield County landscape.   Among these are the Connecticut State Police barracks in Litchfield, Community Field, the land for Litchfield Intermediate and High Schools, Wamogo Regional High School, and the Bantam Civic Association.  They also donated 5,745 acres to 14 Connecticut state parks, most in northwestern Connecticut.

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A latrine

The Foundation supported the Boy Scouts by leasing Camp Boyd, adjacent to Sandy Beach (the cabin burned in the 1970s) and the Girl Scouts through Camp Townshend, located along Alain White Road in Morris. Townshend opened in 1940, and by the end of that decade over 700 campers visited the property. The property could house 100 campers and 28 staff members for each two-week camp session, which began in late June.   In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mrs. Barbara Cutler served as camp director, and the facility was overseen by a 22-member Budget, Planning, and Maintenance Committee.

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The interior of a cabin. The writing on the wall says “Cloud, Lightning, Sun, Moon, Star, Rainbow, Rainbow, Bean Sprout, Corn, Blossom, Warrior Mark, Mark of Some Offices”

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Remnants of old telephones?

While Camp Townshend closed in the mid-1970s, and was utlized by the Morris and Litchfield fire departments for  training exercises, a walk through the remains of Camp Townshend has the feel of visiting a Wild West ghost town. Even in the darkest days of fall and winter, it is easy to imagine the sounds of summer coming from the lake.

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The Camp Townshend shore line