"The Man Who Made Witches Woods Lake"
by Margaret Houlihan, March 2006
We love the natural beauty of this lake and feel truly blessed to be able to raise our family in such an idyllic setting. All of these feelings made me curious about the man who created this delightful community within the rolling hills of Woodstock. Who is Joe Campert? Why did he decide to make a lake? How did he build the lake? Lots of questions and no real answers, until now...
I met with Joe Campert in the afternoon on Wednesday December 28, 2005. He invited me to his home on Little Horn Lane on Lake Bungee. Joe Camperts’ house is a wonderful log home nestled in the trees on a peninsula. He met me at the door with a big smile and ushered me into his lovely home. We walked in on the lower level, crossed a tiled entryway and proceeded up a handsome wooden staircase to the main floor. He explained how he had built the house using native Woodstock timber, most of it taken from the Bungee area. He installed Victorian era (I think) light fixtures that his father had collected. I admired the kitchen cabinets he built from scratch and I was truly delighted by the afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows. It is a beautiful home and a wonderful place to remember the past.
My first surprise while talking to Joe was discovering his initial attempt at creating a lake was Ashford Lake. He grew up on a family farm in Ashford Connecticut. Joe and his friends would walk through the swamps on the farm to go swimming in Crystal Pond. Joe said that he had noticed how well the terrain of the wetlands were naturally suited for a lake and in his own words out of laziness he proceeded to build Ashford Lake. The laziness comment stemmed from the fact that Joe never liked having to cross the swamp to go for a swim. Joe cleared the entire lake area (roughly sixty acres) by hand or with a rented, one hundred plus pound chainsaw. He would cut trees in the winter months and work on the dam in the summer. He never did develop the property around the lake. His family sold the land to a group of businessmen from Manchester Connecticut.
In 1951 the Campert family bought the one hundred and eighty acre Sumner Farm in Woodstock Connecticut. At the time, the area that would become Lake Bungee was owned by nine families. Their backyards were swampy and densely wooded. Once again, Joe could see the topography of the area was a natural place for developing a lake. It took Joe a year and a half to acquire the land and a permit to build a dam and in 1952 construction began. Woodstock town government was changing at the time. A town plan was being put into place which would control the development of the land and a fledgling planning and zoning board was beginning to flex their muscles. Aerial photos were taken of the increased activity in the Bungee area revealing the shape of the lake. This resulted in the town making changes to the regulations to prevent this development. The flurry of changes forced Joe to hastily file his lake development plans into the town record. A professor from UCONN helped Joe make survey maps of Bungee lake to submit to the town. Joe believed people should be able to live in the environment close to trees and wildlife but the town did not want the area developed into a lake community. If the survey maps were submitted at a later time more of the original stonewalls could have been retained as natural property boundaries. Any changes to the initial survey maps would have forced the entire project to meet all new regulations.
During the winter months Joe continued tree removal on Bungee using two cordwood saws with 30 blades that cut parallel to the ice. He also attempted to submit a plan to develop Witches Woods Lake as a campground. His proposal was rejected by the board because of the increased traffic concerns at the time. Eventually the commission was disbanded by town voters and construction of Lake Bungee was completed. An engineer from Hartford bought the first lot on the lake in the spring of 1955. This was the same year the Bungee dam was almost breached because of the flood. The water had risen to the top of the dam board fence but floating brush and debris prevented the water from splashing over the dam.
Joe chose the Indian name bungee because it means peaceful and serene according to another Woodstock native, Maggie Jordan. This contrasted to the reputation of the Bungee Indians that lived in the area and are said to have been the aggressors against their peaceful and serene neighbors, the Wabaquassett Indians.
In 1964, Joe started acquiring the Witches Woods Lake property from 4-5 landowners. Surveyors determined the shoreline, roads and high water mark before Joe touched a single tree. Jack Williamson and Oden Johnson helped Joe build Witches Woods Lake. They used tractors to plow along the ice to snap off small trees and branches. They made rows of debris planning to burn everything on top of the ice. The ice melted too soon and left a heck of a mess in the water as Joe recalled. They used a WWII raft with a winch and big forks in the front to pull the debris to shore. Eventually the lake was completed and the lots were sold by professionals. The Planning Zoning commission was resurrected and refused to allow Joe to put up any signs for Witches Woods Lake. He resorted to using cutouts of witches heads to help people find their way to the lake.
Clarence Lyon told Joe the following story of Witches Woods: There use to be a hotel past the Eastford Baptist Church. The proprietor had sent his black handymen to pick up a wagon load of provisions in Putnam. That same night as they were returning home, the rear wheel fell off the wagon. The handymen unhitched the horses and leaving the wagon behind, they headed for the hotel for assistance. When they returned, someone had thrown all of the supplies into the swamp and turned over the wagon. The handymen said the witches did it. So, that is how Witches Woods came to be named.
For seventeen years, Joe also owned and operated Woodstock's one and only ski slope, O-Ho-Ho Ski Area and Christmas Tree Lodge. He enjoyed skiing and decided to build a ski slope. He started with two tow ropes eventually adding a third tow rope and a T-bar. Joe built the lodge for skiers to rest and enjoy some refreshments. During the holidays, Joe would outline the wall of windows with lights in the shape of a Christmas tree thus the name Christmas Tree Lodge. The lodge was also used as a dance hall by the Bungay Fire Brigade. Jack Williamson and Andy Quiglley would make snow at night using about 35 gallons of fuel oil per hour. Joe fabricated all of the snow guns by hand and from his own design. The O-Ho-Ho Ski Area was shut down in 1987 after many years of providing unique, family oriented winter fun in the quiet corner. Joe also enjoyed flying a Piper four seater, single engine airplane. He actually built the airstrip on his property to takeoff and land in his own backyard.