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“May Irwin Gives Up Home to Join Hubby at Farming”


My thanks go to Brian Winter, the archivist for the Whitby Ontario Library for sharing this 1927 Toronto Daily Star article.   Whitby  takes great pride in the fact that May Irwin was born in this small Ontario town  in 1861.   Brian and I have collected May Irwin memorabilia for many years and we both appreciate finding these special historical nuggets.  I too am pleased to share my collection of photographs.

 

Watertown, New York, Sept. 15—Let no one think that because May Irwin, well-known actress, is disposing of her Irwin Island and its sixteen-room cottage, that she intends to desert the St. Lawrence River. Far from it. She is firmly settled on the mainland on a farm near Clayton. She has some 50 or 60 prize Jersey cattle, any of which could walk off with a blue ribbon. She has her bungalow home over­looking the St. Lawrence and she is happy. What more could she want?

 

The property which Miss Irwin is disposing of represents an expenditure of $140,000 made in those days when $140,000 goes much farther than it does now. It could not be duplicated for twice that sum today. Though the property was bid in by John C. Zimmerman of National Bridge a few days ago for $16,000, it was a protect­ive bid. Negotiations for the sale of the property are still going on.

Miss Irwin, who is a native of Whitby, Ont., is Clayton's most prominent resident. Her name was Campbell and how it came to be Irwin is a story in itself. She and her sister Flo, were booked for a sister act. The producer found Campbell too long to look good on the programs, so without consulting those most interested, he arbi­trarily changed Campbell to Irwin and Irwin it has been since. Miss Irwin is Mrs. Kurt Eisfeldt, she having married Mr. Eisfeldt in 1907. Her first husband died many years ago. Mr. Eisfeldt himself is a verteran [sic] in the show business. They are a very happy couple. Farming is the life they love and farming is the life they live.

Mr. Eisfeldt is not a gentleman farmer who walks around in knickers and sees the hired help do the work. On the day that this interview was given, Mr. Eisfeldt was busy attacking oats. Two days later he finished the job and is now getting ready for corn cutting. Early in the spring Mr. and Mrs. Eisfeldt come from New York or wherever they have been spending the winter. They remain at the farm until all the crops are harvested and everything is ship-shape for the winter. At times, when help is scarce, Mrs. Eisfeldt mounts the hurricane deck of a hay rake and does her share. And between times she "puts up" hundreds of cans of jam, canned fruit and those who have been fortunate enough to be her guest can testify as to the excellency of her skill in the kitchen.

How Miss Irwin happened to locate at the Thousand Islands is another story and it can be told in Miss Irwin's own language.

"Back in 1880 or about that year," she said, "my sister Flo and I were travelling with a show and we played a one night stand in Ogdensburg. Our next stop was Kingston and we made the trip by boat. After the performance in Ogden­sburg the captain of the boat gave a supper on board fro the members of the company and during the meal he told us that if we wanted to see the most beautiful sight of our lives to get up at 4:30 the next morning and see the sun rise over the St. Lawrence river and the Thousand Islands.”

"Everybody was up at the stated time and I was never so impressed in my life as I was with the beauty and grandeur of the view presented. At that time I said to myself, 'If I ever get rich I shall build a home up here.' I kept that thought in my mind for many years and never mentioned it to a soul, not even to my relatives or nearest friends.

"Many years later, about 1890, my sister became very ill. She had a distressing cough and became very thin and pale. I did not need to be told that she was threat­ened by tuberculosis. One night after the performance I said to my sister, 'Will you go to the Thousand Islands with me tomorrow? She said she would.”

"I didn't have any idea of how to go to the Thousand Islands, but Bob Billiard told me how I could reach there from New York by going to Clayton. I took all the money I had, paid my mother what was due her, paid the tuition for my two boys to continue school and went down town to buy a camping outfit. It consisted of a small tent, cooking utensils, a little stove that resembled nothing that I have ever seen since, rubber boots and everything that I though I would need. Then I bought my tickets to Clayton and found I had $200 left.”

"We got to Clayton all right and landed in a cheap hotel. That was just the sort we were looking for. The next morning I bought some bacon and stuff, borrowed a row boat and started out. We stopped at a small cabin and pitched the tent. That was the first night that my sister had slept in weeks. The air made her sleepy and I was so afraid that she would wake up that I sat up all night playing solitare on top of the stove."

 

And here the jovial Miss Irwin stopped to laugh as she recalled that first night.

"The next day," she continued, "we rowed to another island and there we found what we thought was an ideal place for our camp. There we planned to stay for the remainder of the summer. But we found that our larder was running low. I wandered around the island and saw a cow. I didn't know so much about cows then as I do now, but I knew that there were no wild cows and it certainly wasn't a buffalo. I reasoned that where there were cow there must be humans. And a little ways farther I saw some hens. Then I was certain we were not on the island alone. I felt some­thing like Robinson Crusoe when he saw the footprints in the sand, although I was not frightened. Rather I was relieved.”

"I wandered on until I came to a house. I went up and asked the woman who came to the door if I could buy some milk and vegetables. While she was getting the stuff for me I remarked on what a beautiful view she had. I right then and there made up my mind that I had found the place I had been dreaming of since 1880."

"It must have been wonderful to live here," I said to her. 'Do you own this place? 'Yes,' she said, ' and I wish I didn't.' I told her that I wished I owned it but that I didn't have the money. She asked me how much money I had and I told her that two hundred dollars represented all my tangible assets. 'That's enough,' she said, 'pay that down and pay the rest later.' I closed the deal right then and there and went back and told Flo. She must have thought I was crazy, but the next morning the woman and I went over to Clayton and had the papers fixed up. I agreed to pay $4,000 for the place, $200 down, $1,000 on Jan. 15, another $1,000 on July 15, and so on until it was paid for. I was getting only $100 a week, so it was a tight squeeze. I economized in every way possible.

"I hired the woman to come and cook for us. One day she asked me what I did for a living. 'You probably won't believe me when I tell you,' I said, 'but I'm an actress.'

 

‘Now, isn't that queer?, she said. 'And perhaps, you know Joseph Jefferson.

‘'Know Joseph Jefferson, I said. 'I know him well,wondering all the time how many country women knew Joe Jefferson.

'"Mr. Jefferson came up here for many years,' she said 'Every summer , he and his sons, Tom and Joe, came here fishing and boarded with me.I told Joe about this afterward and he recalled the excellent fishing he enjoyed. I fixed up the old house and in 1906 and 1907 I built the present house on the island. But I have not opened it for some time. It is larger than I need and I prefer to live on the mainland."

One cannot help envy Miss Irwin her summer home. It is a simple bungalow on the river bank, out of sight from the farm buildings proper. It faces the river and on the front lawn a dozen or more Jersey yearlings graze. Miss Irwin entertains her many friends on the lawn. If one can call it a hobby, Miss Irwin’s hobby is the Clayton golf club. She doesn't play herself, but she enjoys having others play. This summer she staged an old-fashioned barn dance for its benefit. A few days later she put on a benefit performance appearing as Miss Cissie Loftus, the noted English mimic. Miss Irwin played one of her old plays using local people for the rest of the cast. It was her first appearance on the stage for several years.

Miss Irwin recently returned from a trip around the world. But to her mind there is no place so beautiful as the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands.

Reprinted from the “Toronto Daily Star”, Sept. 17, 1927.

Notes:

  • Whitby Archives: The Whitby Historical Society can take credit for establishing the Archives in 1968. In 2005 the Archives were moved to their current location in the new Whitby Central Library. The Archives houses collection of several thousand items, including over 5,000 photographs, many of which are now digitized.
  • Joseph Jefferson:  (February 20, 1829 – April 23, 1905), an American actor.

Presented by Karen Killian

Karen Killian began her working career as a school teacher and will be remembered by Thousand Islanders for her many years as manager of Captain Spicer’s Gift Shop.  No longer spending as much time in the region, Karen has not lost her passion for collecting all things May Irwin.  Over the years she has generously shared her treasures with her customers and those of us who appreciate our history.  Be sure to see “May Irwin” Historical Discoveries, compiled by Karen Killian in our History section of THE PLACE and May Irwin and her Keeper, written in April 2009 by Kim Lunman and reprints from May Irwin’s Home Cooking published in January 2013.

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Comments

Ian Coristine
Comment by: Ian Coristine ( )
Left at: 3:05 PM Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Thank you for this wonderful story Karen. May's serendipitous introduction to the islands and how they drew her in so resonates with me because it mirrors my own experience so closely. I find it fascinating that so many people over the course of more than a century are drawn to this place. I was once given a wooden plaque in the shape of a pike, engraved, "The River chooses some." Truer words were never spoken.
Kris Pinkney
Comment by: Kris Pinkney ( )
Left at: 10:14 AM Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Wonderful piece! Thanks, Karen, for sharing with us. Well done! I have heard about May Irwin while growing up in Watertown, but never knew how she came to the River!
Bruce Sherman
Comment by: Bruce Sherman ( )
Left at: 9:04 AM Sunday, April 14, 2013
What wonderful warm memories flood back to me with the reading of this story! Our family lived and I was raised on the banks of the St Lawrence River at Brockville , Ontario. My grandfather was David Morgan Sherman, a blacksmith and noted sulky horseman on both sides of the river. Though I never actually met him because of his sudden passing when my own Dad was twelve... the stories of my Grandfather's life were passed through my Dad's vivid recollections.

One of those "Grandfather Sherman" memories involves a link to this story of May Irwin. May Irwin, until this article entered my life was just a name - a vapid ghost that had no connection to my life... except through my Dad's stories. The story as related by my Dad develops more tangibility however because of an actual object which physically links David Morgan Sherman to May Irwin.

My Dad owned... and showed me often a gold pocket watch which was engraved on the back with a message which more or less read:

" This watch is given to David Morgan Sherman on the occasion of his setting the World Record for sulkies on ice at Clayton, NY (Date) driving the horse of May Irwin."

It had been given to him as a gesture of thanks By May Irwin and became one of my father's greatest momentos of his Dad's life and achievements. Unfortunately... it has disappeared (????) a kindly synonym... like so many other family treasures... when one sibling chooses takes charge of family business after parents depart. But that's not a story to share here!

Thank you for this story... it makes a great deal to me to further validate my Dad's proud tale... now that he and the watch have both disappeared from our lives! People and things must pass on... even away.

The timeless value of memories and oral story-telling traditions is that they defy being extinguished... and light the way further for those who care to pass the memory forward!

My deepest thanks to the writer Karen Killian and Thousand Island Life for greatly increasing my joy this grey morning in Rockport! I am a HUGE fan!!!


Warmest regards,
A.W. Bruce Sherman
The Paint Box Gallery
Rockport, Ontario
Canada

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