by Peter Vermilyea
Many of Litchfield’s monuments and markers are hidden in plain sight. For example, how many hundreds, if not thousands, of hikers and bikers who frequent the White Memorial Foundation’s wildlife sanctuary pass by the engraved boulder near the intersection of the Mattatuck and Beaver Pond trails without seeing it?
The boulder honors two of Litchfield’s most distinguished residents, Alain (1880-1951) and Margaret “May” (1869-1941) White. Together they 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.
The Whites were the children of John Jay White, a New York City real estate magnate who built Whitehall, a Victorian summer estate in Litchfield that today is the main building of the White Memorial Foundation. Alain was educated as a botanist at Harvard University in the era of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, a combination that may have led to his first impulses of conservation. (It is interesting to note that White was a champion chess player, who is credited in some circles with breaking the German code in World War I, which was based upon a pattern of chess moves.)
Early Conservation of Litchfield’s Open Spaces
Fishing the Bantam River with his friend William Mitchell Van Winkle in 1908, Alain commented, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to preserve this river, lake and countryside as we see it now?” With his sister May, he would devote nearly the next half century to acquiring additional lands for a preserve dedicated to the memory of their parents. Those acquisitions included the Babbit farm along today’s Route 63, on which this boulder stands.
The White’s 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. Nor were their philanthropic impulses limited to nature. Alain was deeply involved in the establishment of the Connecticut Junior Republic and, in fact, collaborated with Cass Gilbert, the architect of New York’s famed Woolworth Building, on its design. He also wrote a detailed history of Litchfield in 1920.
May was a Sunday school teacher and avid theater aficionado who began a series of children’s performances at Whitehall. She also worked to turn the Lakeside Hotel into a summer getaway for children from New York City, an effort similar in spirit to the Fresh Air Fund and other initiatives that brought urban youth to the countryside.
Still, they are rightly best remembered today for their remarkable contribution of a 4,000-acre backyard for Litchfield, a refuge not only for animals but for hikers, bikers, birders, and kayakers. As real estate development infringes upon more and more open spaces, the words carved on the boulder are increasingly appropriate:
In most grateful memory of ALAIN AND MAY WHITE brother & sister who loved the quiet and beauty of the forest and who saved these thousands of acres for us.
To find the monument, park in the small parking area near the intersections of Routes 63 and 61. Walk east on the Beaver Pond Trail (white blazes) until it intersects with the Mattatuck Trail (blue blazes). Follow the fork to the left, onto the Mattatuck Trail. The monument will soon appear, set in the woods on the left.
Peter Vermilyea, who teaches history at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village, Connecticut, and at Western Connecticut State University, maintains the Hidden in Plain Sight blog and is the author of Hidden History of Litchfield County (History Press, 2014).