The Pratt Center was opened in 1967 as the Eliot Pratt Outdoor Education Center. In the previous years the Pratt family had pondered the best future use of his 169-acre parcel, which includes a section of the East Aspetuck River and the South face of Mt. Tom in the Northville district of New Milford, Connecticut. The land had been a dairy farm for decades. Although Eliot Pratt had purchased the land in 1934, it was not until 1946 that he assumed total management of the farm. He grew grapes on five acres, made wine from them, and maintained a farm with beef, sheep, pigs, and chickens, an extensive vegetable garden and orchard. At the same time he became increasingly proficient as a potter (two pots displaying his excellent oxblood glazes are in the Smithsonian collection) founded and edited the quarterly review Current, and was for many years President of the Board of Goddard College in Vermont.
By the 1960’s both Eliot, who was now ailing and could no longer manage the farm, and his wife Trudie, a former school teacher, were leaning toward eventually using the land for the education of children. Trudie Pratt (later Trudie Pratt McDougall) wrote:
“The Idea of starting an Outdoor Center came to me after a group of four year olds and their teachers came to visit us from New York City. When the children got out of their cars, they flew in all directions like caged birds suddenly freed. They ran up Mt. Tom and rolled down. They stood on the bridge watching the Aspetuck River rippling over the stones.
After their stay they returned to New York and wrote a book for Eliot and me called ‘My Country.’ ‘My Country’ spoke to us, making us aware of our very special place which we could share with the children of our own town and others in the surrounding communities, as well as the children of New York City.”
The Eliot Pratt Outdoor Education Center opened first under the auspices of R.E.S.C.U.E. with federal funding and enthusiastic community support. By 1971 it became independent. Under its new Board and director Dan Hart, programs at the Pratt site were gradually developed for local schools, for families on weekends and evenings, and for children of varied ages in summer. For many of the early years the focus in summer was on Native American life. Head teacher Dick Haag led in the knowledge of the use of natural materials, the construction of wikiups (teepees), Native food, and games. This program was also adapted for use in public schools, and in 1969 and 3rd grade at Burnam School in Bridgewater received the state environmental teaching award – a direct result of the Pratt Center model.
The Center continued its work with schools on the Northville site during the 70’s, but gradually the limitation on school bus funding led to an increasing emphasis on work within schools, both in classrooms and auditoriums, and, as often as possible, on natural sites nearby.
In 1980 the Eliot Pratt Education Center became the third organization in Connecticut to be designated a National Environmental Study Area. This award, given by the U.S. Department of Interior, recognized our ‘fine environmental education programs and outstanding natural resources.’
The summer program has continue to be highly popular, with many students returning as counselors in later years. A particular emphasis has been made to identify candidates for scholarships. Older children go on off-site ecology study trips, and programs continues to be lively and varied. Each decade has called for its own emphasis, and the Center’s current expanded Board looks forward eagerly to meeting the challenges before us.