Mamanasco Lake History by Jack Sanders
Mamanasco is a uniquely Ridgefield name that applies to a lake, a hill, a ridge, a mountain, and a road, and which for more than two and a half centuries has twisted the tongues of Ridgefielders who try to pronounce it. Even today, there are natives of the town who say, “Manamasco.”
There is disagreement over what this Indian word, sometimes modified in its form, means. Tradition and historians have held that it means “grassy pond,” certainly a possibility if one considers that Mamanasco Lake was probably a dying pond when the settlers arrived as will be discussed under “Mamanasco Lake.”
However, the source of this meaning may have been an erroneous interpretation of the phrasing of the deed in which the settlers bought their first piece of land from the Indians. In defining the bounds of the purchase, the deed says the line “extends to a place called Mamanasquag, where is a oak tree marked on ye north side of the outlet of water that comes out from a sort of grassy pond, which is known and called by said name…”
Note that the deed does not state flatly that Mamanasquag is the lake, but says only that it is a “place.” Quite possibly, it was the name for the whole area. “Quag” or “quog” or “ock” sounds at the end of our Indians’ words were locative, and essentially meant “place.”
Mamanasco is a name that John C. Huden, an expert on the languages of New England Indians, translates as “united outlets,” or “two sharing the same outlet.” In other words, there may have been two ponds (one grassy) where there is one today. Remember that the Bennett’s Ponds north of Bennett’s Farm Road were once one body of water, and that lakes Rippowam, Oreneca, and Oscaleta in Lewisboro were once one “Long Pond.” Often, old glacially formed lakes that are dying break up into more than one body of water as they become shallower.
Huden, incidentally, didn’t have the advantage of seeing the full, early version of the word. But the addition of the concept of “place” (from -quag or -quog) does not really seriously alter the meaning.
In fact, Mamanasco has at least 12 versions of spellings in the Ridgefield land records. Among the variations are:
- Mamanasquag (1709)
- Mamanasquogg (1716)
- Mamanusco (1741)
- Mamanausco (1745)
- Mamanusqua (1745)
- Mamansquog (pre-1750)
- Mammenusquah (pre-1750)
- Mamenasco (1746)
- Mamenasqua (1750)
- Mammenasco (1790)
- Mammenusquag (1797).
Mamanasco Hill is a very old name for the ridge to the northeast of Mamanasco Lake, a ridge that includes North Salem Road, upper Pond Road, Circle Drive, Hobby Drive, and Colonial Lane.
The name appears as early as 1717 when the town’s first official miller, Daniel Sherwood, received by deed from the Proprietors an acre of meadow “lying on ye west side of Titicus River, east of Mamanasco Hill.” The locality is further pinpointed in a 1722 deed in which Jonathan Abbott sold Alexander Resseguie an acre of meadow “lying near ye north end of Mamanasco Hill where ye Mill Brook runs into Titicus River.” (The Mill Brook is the outlet to Mamanasco Lake and meets the Titicus between Sherwood and Ridgebury Roads, a little west of Ledges Road.)
As a term, Mamanasco Hill was short-lived, disappearing from the land records by the 1720’s. Later, the name Mamanasco Ridge appeared briefly, but both terms were eventually replaced with Scott’s Ridge in the 1830’s.
MAMANASCO LAKE, POND
Mamanasco Lake, the town’s largest body of water, has long been an important Ridgefield resource, created by nature, enlarged by the pioneers, and now fighting off slowly succumbing to both natural and man-induced hazards.
The lake was probably more vital to residents before the 20th Century than it is today when it is largely decorative and recreational. To the Indians, who camped along the shore at its southern end, the lake provided food, shelter, and clothing in the fish it contained, the game it drew to its shores, and the waterfowl that landed on its surface. Many arrowheads and spearheads found along the shoreline have attested to the Indians’ interest in hunting in this area.
Mamanasco Lake was undoubtedly a good deal different in appearance around 1708 when the settlers first set eyes on it. If we are to accept the traditional meaning of “mamanasco,” it was in part at least a “grassy pond.” If we favor John Huden’s translation, “two sharing the same outlet,” we have an image of two separate ponds flowing into one stream and perhaps surrounded by swamp.
Either description is quite possible. For the Titicus River Valley was probably once the bottom of a long glacial lake that slowly died as the ice, its chief source of water, disappeared. Mamanasco Lake could be a small vestige of that lake and was probably getting smaller all the time. Hence, it was “grassy” or shallow, or was so shallow that it had separated into two smaller ponds.
Rockwell says that Mamanasco was created by beavers damming up the outlet. That, too, is a possible origin, although he must have relied on the tradition of many generations to come up with that story; there is nothing in the town records to suggest that Mamanasco was a beaver pond – and beavers were mentioned in connection with other bodies of water.
The settlers quickly saw in the Mamanasco basin an excellent place for a larger lake to store plenty of water for a grist mill, a necessary industry to supply the settlers with flour. So on Nov. 20, 1716, the Proprietors voted “yt (that) ye pond known and commonly called by ye name of Mamanasquogg Pond, with ye outlet thereof, shall be sequestered for ye use of such miller or millers successively as shall be agreed by ye said town, and Proprietors, so long as they shall make, maintain and keep in good rigg, a good sufficient grist mill there for ye use and benefit of ye town and Proprietors of Ridgefield…”
And on Jan. 26, 1717, the proprietors turned over the milling rights to Daniel Sherwood, who presumably built the first grist mill at the outlet shortly thereafter. Whether the town was dissatisfied with Sherwood, or he with the town, is unknown; but the first miller did not last long. By 1721, Samuel Saintjohn operated the place, then Nathan Whitney, then Joseph Keeler, Seaborn Burt, and a whole raft of people until the late 19th Century.
It is interesting to note that in 1779, the Proprietors, for a reason they did not clearly explain in the record, took the title to the mill away from the heirs of Seaborn Burt and sold it for 3,130 pounds to Benjamin Chapman of Salem (probably today’s North Salem). The Mamanasco Burts were noted Tories, and some headed off to British-held territory, such as Canada, during the Revolution. Some of these “deserting” loyalists had their land confiscated by the town and that’s probably what happened here (see Burt’s Pond).
In giving Chapman the title, the Proprietors used exactly the same words to demand that he keep the place in “good rig and order,” etc. They also set the exact same miller’s tolls that had been in effect in 1717: no more than two quarts out of each bushel of wheat or rye, three quarts out of each bushel of corn, and one quart out of each bushel of malt. Inflation seemed unheard of then.
In 1797, the Proprietors, a dying breed who held very little land by then, sold their last interest in the mill and pond for $50. By then whoever owned the mill owned the entire lake.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, the pond was very often called Mamanasco Mill Pond, a term that indicates how the townspeople thought of it. It had several other names, too: Reed’s Mill Pond and Burt’s Mill Pond, both for men who operated the mill, and Birch Pond, from a mispronunciation of Burt’s Pond. Note that it was always called a “pond”; not until the 20th Century, when people evidently wanted to make more of it than the word “pond” suggested, was it called Mamanasco Lake. The term Burt’s Pond or the bastardized Birch survived until very late in this century among oldtimers.
The Mamanasco Mill, as it was called, remained operating in various forms almost until the 20th Century. The remains that can still be seen near the old outlet at the end of Pond Road have no connection with Sherwood’s original mill, which was probably torn down. One mill on the site burned down, and the one whose remains still exist was probably a mid-19th Century paper mill. Sometime, probably in the 20th Century, the outlet of the pond was moved from the site at the end of Pond Road to a spot a little northeasterly toward Craigmoor Road.
Like the Indians, early Ridgefielders apparently made considerable use of the lake for fishing. In fact, it seems they made too much use of it. Evidently in an effort to conserve the fish population, the Annual Town Meeting in 1844 voted “that no person shall be permitted to take fish from Mamanasco Pond for the period from one year from this date under penalty of four dollars for each offense, one half payable into the town treasury and the other half to the person who shall prosecute (read: “squeal on”) the same to effect.”
Today, Mamanasco Lake is pretty to look at and popular for boating, fishing, swimming and ice skating. One of two state-owned boat launches in town is here. But because of a wise ordinance that forbids the use of gasoline motorboats, power-crazed boat-owners avoid the place, leaving it safe for the boaters who favor wind, oar or paddle power over ear- and water-polluting motorboats.
The Eight Lakes Community Association and other neighborhood groups have private beaches along Mamanasco Lake, but the town, despite owning the beautiful Richardson Park a long piece of shoreline, has never seriously considered creating a public beach. It is said that the water is too shallow and weedy in the park’s most likely spots for a beach, although it is much deeper near the steep rocks, from which some more daring and foolhardy of our residents still jump.
Mamanasco also has its problems. With so much development along and above its western shore, pollutants from septic systems drain into the lake. These substances are chiefly nutrients that encourage the growth of plant life.
Aside from being unattractive to view and to swim through, the plant life can lead to the slow death of a lake. As the plants die each year, they sink, decay, gradually build up the bottom, and at the same time add to the nutrient content of the water, accelerating the growth of more plants and further raising the bottom. Over the years residents of the lake neighborhood through the Mamanasco Lake Improvement Fund have been fighting the plants with both chemicals and a weed-harvester, a boat that pulls up the weeds so they can be dumped on shore. They may succeed in putting off the lake’s death – just as the pioneers slowed the dying process by damming up the outlet and making the lake deeper. But it’s an expensive battle.
Even the dam has been a source of contention for some. Attorney Herbert V. Camp, a former state representative from Ridgefield, is the current owner of the dam. He maintains that the spillway at the dam is at the proper level. At least one homeowner across the lake disagreed, and unsuccessfully argued for years, sometimes in court, that the lake was too high and that it flooded his septic system.
An odd phenomenon that used to occur at Mamanasco until the 1920’s or so was the rising and sinking of small grass islands. One of these remains toward the south end of the lake, but it no longer sinks. The islands would surface in the spring, float around in the summer, and sink in the fall, apparently supported by gas build-ups from decaying matter underneath them.
The existing grassy island is a popular nesting spot for many birds of different species. Since there is no high and dry land that man or sizable beast could set foot on, they feel relatively secure. Another nearby island, consisting largely of rock, is a popular spot for visiting boaters.
Earlier in this century, the Peatt family operated a small resort on the northwestern shore of Mamanasco. The resort consisted of cabins, a beach, and a main lodge, where food was served and supplies could be purchased or boats rented. The restaurant and beach remained in operation until the early 1980’s, and the cabins are now long-term rentals or have been sold.
MAMANASCO LAKE PARK
Mamanasco Lake Park is the name of the 1957 subdivision on the southern end of the lake that includes Lisa Lane and Christopher Road. It was developed by James B. Franks (1922-1995).
In 1809, the Proprietors surveyed and laid out to David Scott nine acres “lying on Mammenasco Mountain, northerly from sd. Scott’s grist mill.”
Scott’s mill at this time was either the Mamanasco Mill or one eastward of it – he had interests in two mills. The “mountain” was probably the hill, about 650 feet above sea level, at Richardson Park, west of Ridgefield High School and at the northwestern end of the lake.
The term appears only this time in the land records.
When Jonah Foster sold Thomas Hyatt 36 poles of land in 1797, he described it as “east from Mamanasco Ridge.” This is probably the same locality as Mamanasco Hill, later Scott’s Ridge (q.v. both), the ridge crossed by North Salem Road in the lower Mamanasco Lake area.
An old road, Mamanasco Road existed before 1856 when it appears on the first detailed map of the town. Until early in this century, it was little more than a dirt path around the lake, providing access to its shores for fishing.
Development came to the road more than a half-century ago when William Peatt Sr. built his resort, consisting mostly of summer camps. The beach and recreation area were functioning until the early 1980’s. At around the same time Peatt arrived, the Helmuth Cottages were built there, also to serve as summer camps.
Later, in the early 1950’s, more land along the road was developed in connection with the huge Eight Lakes subdivision. Like the Ridgefield Lakes, this area was zoned “R-4” back in 1946, when zoning was adopted, allowing summer cottages to be built on 2,500 square foot lots. That’s 25 by 100 feet, or about one-20th of an acre.
According to the old zoning regulations, only summer camps could be built on lots that small; year-round houses erected in R-4 zones had to comply with the R-3 zone lot size – at least 7,500 square feet. However, many of the cottages were converted to year-round dwellings over the years, even though the lots were too small to properly support year-round septic systems, one reason why Mamanasco Lake has suffered from too many nutrients that encourage growth of vegetation that chokes the lake.
Farrar Lane, which runs between North Salem Road and Tackora Trail, was once considered the southern end of Mamanasco Road.
Lake Mamanassee is a peculiar variation of Mamanasco that appears on some official State of Connecticut highway maps, including those aimed at tourists. The spelling comes from a cartographer’s misreading or misunderstanding of the actual name, and perhaps confusion with the Dutch “zee,” for sea.
Some commercial mapmakers, such as Champion, have also copied the mistake.