By Walter W. Woodward
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2019
In 1926 a group of eastern Connecticut investors, seeking to capitalize on the state’s expanding highway system and growth in leisure-time activities, purchased Cheney Hollow, a large spring-fed wetland in Andover, Connecticut. During the next year they cleared trees, cut new roads, and built a 550-foot-long, 15-foot-high dam that created the beautiful—and privately owned—Andover Lake. With full-page ads in The Hartford Courant touting it as a “lake nestling among the hills of Andover,” in 1928 the Andover Lake Corporation began selling cottage sites in its private “summer colony, where the restrictions will meet with your approval.” These “pleasing restrictions,” according to historian and journalist David Rhinelander (The Hartford Courant, February 26, 1999), were explicit prohibitions on the sale of lots to Jews or blacks.
The investors’ dream of creating an exclusive resort was thwarted at first by the Great Depression and then by World War II. By 1950, though, Andover Lake was sufficiently cottaged that a new property owners’ association was formed, and it created its own kind of “pleasing restriction.” Henceforward, to use the lake, people—even property owners—had to be accepted by a two-thirds majority secret-ballot vote of the membership into the Andover Lake Property Owners Association (ALPOA).
William M. Philpot, an African-American minister from New Haven who had purchased a cottage in 1955 from a white Hartford minister, believing the purchase included an easement to use the lake, applied for ALPOA membership and was rejected on three different occasions over an eight-year period. In 1963, a month after the Civil Rights March on Washington, James Tsuffis, another property owner and supporter of Philpot, asked Governor John Dempsey to intervene on Philpot’s behalf. Dempsey met with Philpot, then turned to the state’s attorney general and civil rights commission, which found Philpott had been excluded solely on the basis of his race. Undaunted, ALPOA claimed that as a private group it could restrict membership at will.
The Andover Lake question became a year-long focus of media attention and divided people across the state. Although half of the property owners had voted to admit Philpot and the local Congregational church strongly supported his efforts, resistance included burning a 7-foot-high, five-foot-wide cross in Tsuffis’s yard, The Courant reported on October 20, 1963.
The following spring, with no resolution in sight, Philpot announced to The Courant on April 28 that he and his family intended to swim in the lake that year. Word of his prospective “Wade In” provoked a flurry of media coverage, but the swims proved uneventful. Philpot—seeking to avoid a media frenzy—reported after the fact that he and his family had swum at the lake on two occasions. Greeted by the children of his white neighbors with “Hello, Mr. Philpot,” the minister said inThe Courant, on August 3, 1964, “I was really having a ball. I felt as if I belonged to this community.” Yet he also realized the importance of his action. “If I failed here,” he said, “I did feel that many others will be victimized.” And, he noted, “We will swim again this year if we feel like it.” The association responded by seeking a court injunction to prevent the Philpot family from using the lake. The case dragged on for three years, ending in a Connecticut Superior Court decision favoring Philpot in late 1967. The following summer the lake association changed its bylaws to permit any lake property owner to become a member. The Philpots could henceforward swim at peace among their neighbors, and, today, it seems, life at Andover Lake goes swimmingly for all.
Walter Woodward is the Connecticut state historian. Listen to his podcasts at ctexplored.org/listen or gratingthenutmeg.libsyn.com and visit todayincthistory.com.