History of Great Mountain Forest

Great Mountain Forest Skyline

The Great Mountain Forest is one of the nation’s oldest conservation legacy organizations, and the largest conservation easement held in southern New England. Our more than 6,000 acres of woodland are located in the uplands of northern Litchfield County, part of the southern Berkshires, in the towns of Norfolk and Falls Village. We are a critical part of watersheds providing fresh water to metropolitan areas to the south.

Only two hours from New York City, the Great Mountain Forest is also part of an ecologically vital corridor which helps form a bridge for wildlife and migratory songbirds in the northeast. Great Mountain Forest is today managed as a non-profit organization focused on forest stewardship and giving you an introduction to the forest, its ecology, and our management techniques. We want to increase your understanding of cultural connections with the forest as well, showing you the ways that community is part of this historic landscape.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the largest portion of GMF was owned by the Hunts Lyman and the Barnum Richardson Iron Companies. Colliers worked throughout the forest, sending the charcoal they produced to local blast furnaces to smelt iron ore, and most of the forest was repeatedly cut over in this process. This was an intensive use of the forest, carried out with little thought to the future.

Charcoal produced to supply local blast furnaces

In addition to this, most hemlock stands in the forest were felled to provide tanbark for the local tanneries, so that by the early twentieth century, the original composition of the forest was greatly altered. It was dominated by shade intolerant saplings of pin cherry, aspen, and gray birch, and much of the land was reduced to burned-over scrub. The disappearance of the American chestnut, in the early twentieth century, only made these changes more dramatic. A century of industrial use left little of either economic or ecological value, and the land was sold or abandoned for taxes by the iron companies.

Frederic C Walcott and Starling W. Childs

In 1909, Frederic C. Walcott and Starling W. Childs acquired their first parcels of land. They began with 400 acres around Tobey Pond and established the reserve that would later become Great Mountain Forest. This was the height of Progressive-era conservationism, and the two men had public benefit in mind. GMF was to be their laboratory for conservation and management, and they continued to acquire land. By the 1930s they had several thousand acres under management.

Walcott and Childs began an experiment, as Walcott wrote, “to see what [might be] adapted to Connecticut waste woodlands.” They reintroduced deer from northern New England and also experimented with waterfowl and upland gamebirds. It was an immediate success, and within a few years, Walcott was writing to his friends describing the results:

Tobey Pond looks like a lake in a Zoological Park. We have from two to five hundred ducks there all the time now; they have stopped over on their way South, attracted by our own ducks, numbering now more than two hundred and representing fourteen different varieties. The deer from fall feeding have become quite tame and from three to five are in sight from the house every day. We saw one swimming across Tobey Pond yesterday afternoon. The pheasants are flourishing and we have quite a large number of them now – breeding stock for next spring. Altogether the place has quite an individuality and ought to grow more and more interesting. We have done a quantity of planting this fall of native shrubs, taken from the woods, which has changed the character of the entrance and the setting of the garden materially, putting in large soft-wood trees (hemlock and pine) to brighten the grounds up in winter.

Many of the birds had to be imported from Canada, and Childs and Walcott paid to import young canvas backs, redheads, pintails and wood duck which they then set about breeding in captivity in Norfolk.

All of this was a private endeavor, but it was carried out with public benefit in mind. This was clear from the beginning. As Walcott wrote to William T. Hornaday, then at the New York Zoological Society, in 1912, “there are about 150,000 acres, roughly speaking, of land that should be taken up by the State for the benefit of the public. They should be stocked with birds and deer, and intelligent forestry carried on throughout these tracts.” He hoped to get the State interested in the project, but regretted that the Connecticut was behind in this kind of conservation thinking. GMF was to be an example, and by the next year he could report some political, as well as ecological success:

We are having some very interesting and stimulating times in Norfolk. We have had quite an unusual summer there. The entire State of Connecticut is gradually waking up to the importance of conserving its forests and wildlife and rehabilitating its wild land, as a result of a campaign of education that Star and I have been carrying on for nearly a year, and the culmination of this campaign came this last week-end when the new Forest, Fish & Game Commission – consisting of eight men recently appointed by the Governor in place of the old Commission (all the direct result of our persistent efforts to clean things up) – spent the whole weekend with us. The new Commissioners are so enthusiastic over what can be accomplished, as shown by our place, that they have determined to set aside a large area of State land for a game refuge, as soon as they can find the most desirable section of country to commence.

Walcott became a champion of both public and private game preserves, giving lectures and publishing on the subject. He travelled to other reserves across the country and corresponded with those who were involved in the effort to bring wild game to the eastern United States. All of this led one local official to note Great Mountain Forest’s “considerable importance to students of natural history.”

The State Park Commission held its first meeting in September 1913, and after three years of effort Walcott, Childs, and others convinced them to buy a 15,000 acre tract – woods, lakes and mountains – and Massachusetts to co-operate with a similar piece. Walcott wrote to his sister, “I am going to show them what we have been doing in reclaiming land and preserving game.” On September 24, 1915, the Commission toured GMF. That evening, Walcott gave a talk, illustrated with slides [he was an accomplished amateur photographer] covering English estates, private parks, and game preserves. His goal was to emphasize the possibilities of this kind of action on public lands, and he and Childs were not alone in these kinds of efforts. The whole history of forest and park development in Connecticut involves the combination of progressive government action and the support of private citizens, like Walcott and Childs.

Darrell Russ and Ted Childs

Edward C. “Ted” Childs, Starling W. Childs’ son, took over his father’s half interest in the property, after graduating from the Yale Forest School, in 1932. Together he and Walcott then continued to add additional tracts, including many farms during the 1930s and 1940s. When Frederic Walcott died, in 1948, Ted Childs bought the Walcott interest and with additional acquisitions increased the forest to its present size. Starting in the 1930s, the focus of conservation at GMF had shifted from managing game species to managing the forest as a whole. Ted Childs continued this, hiring Darrell Russ to be Forest Manager, a job he held from 1950 to 1992, and both worked to implement a management program that would increase forest health and benefit local economy and community. This continues to be a focus at GMF.

Yale Forestry Camp

In 1938, a hurricane swept through New England and leveled Yale University’s research forest, in eastern Connecticut. Because the storm passed to the east, GMF was left relatively unscathed, and to support his alma mater, Ted Childs gave the university seven acres within GMF and built them a camp. In 1941, the Yale School of Forestry began using the newly constructed Yale Forestry Camp, and this relationship continues to the present. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the camp was used extensively for field training for forestry students. Today the camp is used for summer programs, including orientation of incoming Yale Forestry and Environmental Studies graduate students.

In addition to supporting Yale and other university research, Ted Childs began an intern program, in 1948. He brought young forestry students from around the country to work with the GMF forestry crew, giving them an opportunity to apply their classroom education in an actual forest. Research and education were central to Ted Childs’ vision of forest management, and this too continues as a focus at GMF.

GMF Interns

GMF Interns

Ted and Elisabeth Childs

Ted Childs died, in 1996, and his wife Elisabeth inherited the forest. She and the family then placed the forest under protection, in 2003, with the sale of the development rights to the Forest Legacy Program of the U.S. Forest Service. They then put the forest under the control of a non-profit responsible for its management. Great Mountain Forest is now permanently protected under the easement and its status as a 501 © 3 tax-exempt private operating foundation.

Great Mountain Forest exists today because of the foresight of Frederic Walcott and Starling W. Childs, beginning in 1909, the decades Ted Childs spent supporting conservation and education here, and the commitment of Elisabeth Childs and the family to protecting that legacy. With its long tradition of forest and wildlife management, GMF is recognized for its sustainable forest management, the protection of unique natural areas, and its support of education and research. This land ethic will be carried into the future.