Editor’s Note: Tom French, author of River Views: A History of the Thousand Islands in 3-D, recently launched a new website, Riverstories.org, as a way to share Oral Histories from along the river that he and his mother, Nellie Taylor, have collected over the years. It also features his writing about the river.
Currently the site contains recordings of Grant Mitchell recalling the Columbian Hotel Fire at Thousand Island Park in 1912, Thomas Mitchell discussing Bootlegging, Filling an Ice House, and a Tragedy at Waterson’s Point on Wellesley Island. In addition, there is video from the 1970s of Harry Chalk and the That’s Her posted on the site.
Future postings will include recordings by Chancy Patterson (local hunter, trapper, fisherman, and decoy carver), Margaret Reid (of Hornpayne, Ontario, and Potato Island near Ivy Lea), and Leon Rusho (Native and Lifelong Resident of Grindstone Island) as well as home movies from the 1930s - 70s. Details of which can be found below.
I’ve always held a fascination with history, especially along the river. Whether it was the wreck of the Riverside near the rift (of which remnants can still be seen in the shallow waters), the old stone reservoir above T.I. Park, the ruins of the Bradley estate at Wellesley Island State Park, the mansion at Batterman’s Point (once owned by my great uncle), or the quarry on Picton, these vestiges of history have always intrigued me and I have found hours of delight exploring them and pondering the footsteps which preceded mine, the incredible changes in such little time, and how different the river was on the very spots where I now stand.
This curiosity was nurtured at a very young age by my grandfather, Thomas Mitchell, who was a great talker and storyteller.
As an aspiring writer, I recognized the value of the stories he told me, so I started recording him. I had several motives. First, I knew he wouldn’t be with us forever, and I simply wanted his voice on tape. Then, there was the history — something I was interested in. And finally, there was the fodder for fiction.
My grandfather enjoyed reading my short stories, often based on events he related, even when I killed him off (something he teased me about to no end). Two of those early stories can be found in my ebook, Wind Water Waves, and several of his tales are the backstory in The Last of the Old Timers, the first story in the collection.
Often, while recording, I caught the interaction between him and my grandmother (as in Bootlegging, currently available for listening on the Riverstories.org website), but some of the best tapes are the ones my grandfather recorded by himself in his gardening shed with no one there. He would escape to the solitude of that shed and talk to me via the tape. “Now, Tom…,” he can be heard saying in many places on the original tapes. For some stories he tells me “the peoples’ names should not be used… because… their relatives are still alive” (he says something similar at the beginning of the Bootlegging story).
When I listen to those tapes, I can still smell the fertilizer stored in the shed. And I know he enjoyed telling the stories too. He recognized the value of the history he was telling, but he also appreciated the fact that I was interested in hearing those stories.
I have almost 6 hours of my grandfather telling stories, ranging from sturgeon fishing, and “initiations of the admiralty,” to deaths, murders, and snake stories. I digitized them, edited out significant pauses and distracting noises, and divided them into individual mp3 files that can be played on an iPod or other device. I burned them to CDs — four volumes that I gave to my family one Christmas. My father, Steve Taylor, tells me that he listens to them often when he’s driving somewhere in his truck.
Plus, I now have Gramp’s voice for posterity.
This instinct to record and save history can also be attributed to my mother, Nellie Taylor. At some point she started collecting artifacts of Thousand Island Park and other places along the river. It began with old family photos such as her grandparents picnicking at Waterson’s Point in 1912, or Uncle Charlie Cupernall at the helm of his boat. But physical artifacts have found their way into the collection, along with tapes, both audio interviews and videos. She helped found and curates the Thousand Island Park Museum.
In the mid 1970s, Mom interviewed her uncle, Grant Mitchell, also known as Mr. Thousand Islands because of his work at the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority and promoting the river in general. He was twelve at the time of the Columbian Hotel Fire at Thousand Island Park and the story he relates is available on the website. But there is close to an hour of stories from that tape, including stories about Miss Mary Elizabeth Dutcher (host of Swami Vivekananda at T.I. Park in the 1890s), Racing Boats, and other various recollections of life at the Park.
Mom recorded other people too. There are tapes of Chancy Patterson talking about his ancestor, the Blind Fiddler from Fiddler’s Elbow (Thousand Islands Life.com Archive Story); Minnie Hartman discussing the Densmore Church and her one-room school house days on Wellesley Island; Leon Rusho describing the creamery and dairy business on Grindstone Island as well as the Lindsey Boat and Machine Shop; and Margaret Reid recounts her life on Potato Island where she spent two winters in the 1950s. It is my intention to eventually post all these stories on the site.
And other people have gotten into the act. Jeremy Taylor recorded Hanley Cupernall in 1978 discussing boat building. Indeed, it is my hope that the Riverstories.org site will inspire people to start recording their own histories or perhaps rediscover tapes and home movies from the past now stored in boxes and attics.
It is important that these artifacts be preserved. Old cassette and VHS tapes will deteriorate with time — any tape over ten years old is at serious risk of being damaged, having warbled playback, or perhaps being unplayable. Excessive heat such as that found in attics can accelerate this deterioration. Home movie films are also subject to decay and are flammable.
My mother has obtained access to several home movies taken along the river dating back to 1937. They include films by John Zimmer, whose family, the Zimmers and Cardinauxs, still own a cottage at Thousand Island Park; and movies made by Raymond Staub, long-time Thousand Island Park cottage owner, who shepherded Thousand Island Park through difficult financial times in the early 1950s.
My plan is to edit and post these films and others on the website. One, featuring Harry Chalk of Fisher’s Landing and Molly Murdock of Murray Island, is already posted.
The work of digitizing and editing various media is time consuming, but it is my hope to update the site quarterly with new material. I will let the readers of Thousand Islands Life.com know when new material is posted to the site.
By Tom French
Tom French was raised on Wellesley Island at Thousand Island Park. His book, River Views: A History of the 1000 Islands in 3-D, was recently awarded a Silver Medal for Best Regional Non-Fiction Book in the Northeast in the 2012 Independent Publishers Book Awards. (see our Publications page for details). His work has been featured in Mac|Life Magazine, Adirondack Life, Stereo World,TI Life and The Watertown Daily Times. Several of his commentaries have aired on North Country Public Radio . In addition, he is a member of the band, The Buoyrockers.
TI Life published one of Tom’s short stories in our July 2012 issue, “Mom Makes River a Garden,” A Short Story from his new eBook now available on Smashwords and Amazon. Wind Water Waves is a collection of nine short stories reflecting on various characters' relationships with "The River."