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Tobey Pond—From Glacial Kettle to Local Swimming Hole

By Christopher Sinclair

Several thousand years ago a glacier inched its way through the southern Berkshires, and upon its retreat left the patch of land that would later become Norfolk, Connecticut, with a parting gift. Tobey Pond, the locally famous and universally beloved swimming hole, is that gift —nearly as pristine now as it was when those icy waters first filled its 58-acre confines. While the records do not extend back quite that far, there is evidence of a transfer in the ownership of the tract of land containing Tobey from one Michael Pupin to the ever present Isabella Eldridge in 1897. In the early 20th century, the strip of land between what is now the Norfolk Country Club and the pond itself was comprised of the nine holes of the old Norfolk Downs links course, the rustic clubhouse of which still stands by the far right corner of Golf Drive, just before the Tobey gate. There are accounts of townspeople enjoying the main beach as early as the 1920s. One wonders what elaborate silk umbrellas may have been wedged in the pale sand to shade tired golfers from the sun, what snacks early beachgoers packed in their baskets to sustain them for the afternoon.

A fisherman casts into the lagoon beside the town beach.

A fisherman casts into the lagoon beside the town beach.

Several generations after Isabella Eldridge, the ownership of the land passed from her heir Isabel Battell Griswald to Ted Childs in 1948. People continued to use the beach as an unofficial swimming hole until the early 1960’s, at which point a lease agreement was signed between Ted Childs and the town of Norfolk. The language of the original lease agreement reveals the spirit in which it was drawn up. The beach was designated specifically “For the enjoyment of the town of Norfolk,” and the lease was set at one dollar per year, a figure that stands to this day. Also present in the original lease agreement were various stipulations that have ensured that Tobey remains as clean and pure as possible, such as a complete prohibition on motorized crafts (the more recent ban on all boats of any kind was enacted as a result of the spread of zebra mussels, an invasive and potentially damaging species which attaches to the bottom of canoes and other boats). In addition to being an act of generosity, the lease was also likely signed for issues pertaining to liability, as the beach became more and more popular. As the lease itself only costs the town one dollar per year, the town is compelled to carry the insurance and budget for all costs associated with the beach and its maintenance.

Great Mountain Forest, which became a privately operating foundation in 2003 and is a legacy of Ted Childs, acts as the caretaker or steward for the beach. GMF is responsible for overseeing maintenance projects, such as the excavation of the left side of beach five summers ago, which was undertaken to prevent the inlet portion of the pond from becoming cut off and turning stagnant and fetid. The town paid for this dredging and will pay for any future dredging that needs to be done. Hans Carlson, of GMF, commented that the organization and the town have a “really great, cooperative relationship.” All financial business and day-to-day operations, however, fall to the town, which is responsible for hiring and paying lifeguards, selling parking stickers, etc. According to Sue Dyer, Norfolk’s first selectman, the town sells an average of 300 stickers per year, at a variable cost determined by the board of selectmen (stickers sell this summer for $50, $25 for seniors). To be eligible to purchase a sticker, an individual or family must have a physical street address in town. During the fiscal year of 2014, maintaining and operating the beach cost the town roughly $40,000, the majority of which went toward paying lifeguards. During the same fiscal year, the town collected about $10,000 in sticker sales. At various points in the pond’s history swimming lessons have also been offered through the town, although the insurance policy mandates that individuals must be swim-instructor certified to conduct swimming lessons, and being a certified swim instructor is currently not a prerequisite requirement for employment as a lifeguard.

Norfolk has always been a place that takes joy in sharing its beauty, with which it has been amply blessed. Tobey Pond is, in the eyes of many, the town’s crown jewel, and it promises to be prominently featured as such for many years to come, thanks to the generosity of those in times past, and the dedication and hard work of a group of individuals in the present.

Russell Russ and Hans Carlson contributed research for this article. Photos by Bruce Frisch.

6 Responses to “Tobey Pond—From Glacial Kettle to Local Swimming Hole”
  1. Kathy Ernest says:

    What a great article on one of my favorite places on earth. Norfolk and Ted Child’s were ahead of their time with the “no motorboat” rule. You could easily see the bottom of the pond from the top of the second raft, thanks to the clear water. The best part? We went “home” two years ago and Toby Pond remains crystal clear and open to Norfolk’s residents. Can’t wait to visit again.

  2. Mary deManbey says:

    On this glorious summer day, I ‘m remembering being one of the first families to swim at Tobey Pond, right after Hurricaine Diane. The Childs were good friends of my family and I’ll never forget those summer days at Tobey. So sorry I’m a nonresident and am not able to experience this little piece of summer joy.

  3. Aaron Allison says:

    Haven’t been there since sometime in the mid to late 70’s. My grandparents lived across the street from a family named Sinclair on Grant st. I’m wondering if the author is related in anyway. We moved to Michigan in the summer of 69, But once a year we made the trip “home” to Norfolk.

  4. Jeremy Payne says:

    Honored to be featured in both photos! 😉

  5. Maria Quinlan Leiby says:

    Michigan’s Great Lakes are wonderful, but after 40 years here, I still miss Tobey!

  6. Dale Andrews says:

    Remember when Al Perry was the lifeguard at Toby. The cleanest pond I have ever swam in, thanks to the agreement that NO motor boats be allowed.

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