P.O. Box 2385 Oak Ridge, NJ 07438-9809


The Lake Swannanoa community originated from the Ringling Estate

ANN GENADER, Rest of the Story Published 7:57 a.m. ET April 6, 2017
North Jersey.com Article

The death of Alfred T. Ringling (of the famed Ringling Brothers Circus family) on Oct. 21, 1919, in his beloved $300,000 mansion in Oak Ridge ended a memorable era of elegant living there just about 10 years before The Great Depression. He was 56 years old.

Ringling bought 18 tracts of property that included Petersburg Pond and the land surrounding it. The 500 acres that he purchased came from various owners including the Hoppers, Winterbottoms, and Chamberlains. Ringling built his 26-room mansion on a hill overlooking the pond. It was magnificent in every way.

Built of poured concrete, steel and fieldstone, the three-floor mansion was said to be completely fireproof with its two feet thick walls. There were 14 fireplaces.

One fireplace, an Italian Renaissance creation in the living room, was made by craftsmen in Italy. The music room had a Tiffany glass window and a $75,000 electric pipe organ built by renowned organ builder Arpard Fazekas. There were two ballrooms – one on the first floor and the other on the third. Eight bedrooms and six baths were on the second floor.

With Ringling’s death, the days of luxuriously entertaining literary geniuses, grand opera stars, and celebrities of stage and screen in the beautiful manor surroundings were over. The man who felt that life should be lived artistically was gone and so was the magical atmosphere he had created.

Ringling willed the estate to his wife Della Ringling and the circus to his 21-year-old son Richard Ringling. While he was alive Ringling had set his son up with a truck circus that went bankrupt. The young man had no managerial ability. After Ringling’s death, Della and Richard gradually sold off Alfred T. Ringling’s possessions.

The circus winter headquarters at Oak Ridge was moved to Connecticut and later to Florida.

The barren Ringling mansion would sit vacant until the estate was sold in 1926 to Arthur McAllister and H. Theodore Sort. The purchase price for the mansion and approximately 550 acres was $250,000.Terms were $150,000 cash with the Ringling Estate holding a $100,000 mortgage on the remainder of the money due.

Ringling had two dams constructed to enlarge the pond – which under the new owners would become known as Lake Swannanoa.

The two developers formed the Lake Swannanoa Country Club and were dedicated to the creation of an exclusive facility with a golf course.

Robert Nicholson – who shared information about Lake Swannanoa history for this story – recalled that initially there were cottages built at the club. 

From 1928 to 1930 the Lake Swannanoa Country Club leased the mansion from Ringling Manor Inc. 

One acre lots were sold for upscale vacation sites with the mansion designated as a clubhouse. All plot lines began a least 25 feet back from the shore of the lake. Access to and the use of the lake over the 25-foot strip was only obtained through membership in the Lake Swannanoa Golf Club. 

“This gives positive assurance that your neighbors will be desirable – as the Board of Trustees of the Club will pass on all applications for membership and reject the undesirable,” wrote McAllister in the foreword of a developers’ brochure. 

There was to be a sporty 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, swimming, boating, fishing, hunting and winter sports plus the finest country club in New Jersey. 

“This completes the picture that we know will appeal to the limited number of ‘real folks’ for whom this booklet is intended,” continued McAllister in his foreword in the publication. The pamphlet then focused on describing the natural beauty of the area. 

McAllister said the Lake Swannanoa Golf and Country Club would add a new and sparkling gem of modern life and luxury. The mansion was designated as a clubhouse in 1928. “Perhaps you have played Hawaii’s Volcano Course – stepped to the brink of Kilauea’s steaming crater and sent a bright new ball streaking out into the world’s most famous ‘Hole-in-one,’” continued McAllister. “Just as thrilling will be the play over this new 18-hole Lake Course. Memberships will be offered on the basis of founder, charter, resident and junior membership.” 

The plan included establishing a small airport at Lake Swannanoa – for country club members “who chose to come by skyway instead of by highway – either in their own planes or those that would taxi between the club and Newark (International) Airport.” 

Continuing, the brochure said plans were to construct a hanger for at least two planes with an instructor/pilot on duty for those instructing those who cared to learn flying. 

Patrons were advised that when they tired of the 18- hole golf facility there was always fishing at its best in the lake and mountain streams – or one could go for a more spirited game of tennis followed by a refreshing swim. 

The club members were offered boating and mountain climbing and the enjoyment of taking delightful motor trips through the surrounding country dotted with old fashioned inns. There was also a stable available for those who loved an afternoon ride along mountain trails. Billiards, dancing, and entertainment at the club were also featured. 

McAllister wanted to change the mansion into a hotel to accommodate as many as 50 guests. 

His country club plan was crushed when the Great Depression hit the nation. In the height of the financial crash in 1937, there was foreclosure of the $100,000 mortgage. Nicholson said the bank offered everything at $17,500. He said McAllister and Theodore Sorg got an investor – Sacharoff – to put up $25,000 to buy stock. 

The mansion was sold to the American Institute of Science for $100,000. In 1995, the building and several acres were sold by the institute to the Polish Foundation supporting the Capuchin Monks of Poland – who had reportedly come from behind the Iron Curtain. The mansion continues to be for sale at this time. The only resident/caretaker is Deacon Jerzy (Jerry) Krsyskow who was gracious and willingly spoke to me about the property when I recently visited him at the Ringling Mansion. 

In 1949 Wilbur Fredericks and Nicholson’s father, Robert Nicholson Sr. each put up $7,500 to purchase half interest in Ringling Manor Inc. which now encompassed Lake Swannanoa and the remaining acreage minus the mansion. They paid off the existing Sacharoff mortgage. 

From 1950 to 1965 Fredericks and Nicholson sold lakefront and lake view lots for summer homes at Lake Swannanoa. Nicholson built Norge pre-fabricated houses; Fredericks built conventional homes and McAllister built Caribou pre-fabricated homes. Many were added on to and have been renovated. 

In 1952 they sold 249 acres to Berkshire Sand and Gravel and 43 acres to Mario’s Pizza. At the time the area began to be accepted for year-round living and builders would contract to purchase 10 to 20 lots at a time for speculative construction. 

Nicholson recalled how his father turned a bad situation into a profitable one by selling lots from the former country club project – while increasing his propane gas business with the new homeowners as added customers. The son said his father enjoyed watching vacationers as they passed the Cyl Gas retail establishment on Oak Ridge Road en route to their homes – and while also knowing they were purchasing his propane gas to heat and cook in those summer homes. 

Lake Swannanoa is privately owned and operated by the Lake Swannanoa Homeowners Association, formerly known as the Swannanoa Sentinal Society, a private non-profit corporation. Membership is by deeded covenant. There is a fee to join the covenant and annual dues are accessed. Access to and use of the lake and property is by permit and restricted to members in good standing.