As I delve into Grenell Island history, the newspaper archive is a treasure trove of information. Sporadically throughout the decades, the Thousand Islands Sun has had a column on Grenell Island. Several Grenellians have served as correspondents. I’ve found clippings written by Ethel Gardner and Barb Kewin. But most of the columns have come from one location on Grenell---the Smith Compound.
The Smith family is one of the “founding families” of Grenell. Olivia Pratt describes their introduction to the island in The Story of Grenell:
It happened that Miss Anne Clements who had a cottage on the north shore of Grenell* sang in a church choir in New York City and took a fancy to the boy violinist who played there. So she invited young Freddie Smith to visit at her camp. His family came up to see the place and that was the beginning of a devotion to Grenell, which has not ended. For several years the Smiths paid Mr. Grenell three dollars a year for tenting privilege, and camped in two large tents on the land where their cottages now stand.
*widely referred to as the Bierley Cottage but currently owned by Dan and Leslie Owens.
That was written in 1946, 68 years ago, and the descendants of the Smith family in their four-building compound continue their devotion to Grenell.
In 1902, Robert Smith built the first of the three cottages, the easterly one currently occupied by Smith descendent, Katie DuBon. Then the two daughters and the mother built a cottage on the lot next door. This cottage has been rebuilt not once, but twice by the Hendleys, also Smith descendents. In 1912, Fred married and Mr. Sharples, who owned the large summer home on the crest of Grenell, gave Fred and his new bride a half lot as a wedding gift, where Fred built a new cottage for his bride. That cottage, believed to be a Sears and Roebuck kit house, celebrated its 100th birthday in 2012. The three cottages share one boathouse and dock.
Fred’s daughter, Gwen Smith, was the first from the Smith family to pen the Grenell column for the Thousand Islands Sun. Gwen was a schoolteacher in Brooklyn; of should I say, Gwen was a Grenellian first and a school teacher second, for she would stay on the island until October, pick up whatever job she could find upon her return---usually as a substitute teacher. But whatever situation she found in October, she would abandon it in May, well before the last day of school, because Grenell was calling.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Gwen, but I’m told by those who did that she was a passionate angler. I got to know Gwen through her columns that started on August 20, 1959 and went through October 21, 1971. A total of 184 columns spanning 13 years.
Reading them, I could tell three things about her. First, Gwen liked to fish. There was almost always some mention of fishing in every column. Next, Gwen was a regular chapel attendee. During the summer, when the Grenell Island Chapel offered weekly services, Gwen usually wrote about what happened at chapel that Sunday. Her description included the preacher, the sermon and the music. Gwen played the piano and sometimes sang. And lastly, through her T.I. Sun columns, I learned Gwen was a bit of a poet. I loved her descriptions of the river, the islands and the seasons.
July 30, 1964
That little word IF—the most important word in this life. If only the weather would stay glorious year round, then we could stay here forever, and le the world go by.
July 30, 1964
The river temperature is marvelous and invites one to swim many times. Water skiers and sailboats are other signs of joy. I wish a poet were here to express the beauty and happiness this wonderful territory brings to ones heart. One can spend a day just listening to the birds singing. Nearby a little gold finch is taking a dust bath—slowly stretching out his wings and then fluttering the dust about.
July 13, 1967
Perhaps it seems repetitious, but thank you dear God for these islands, on the St. Lawrence. Here the beauty of the world overwhelms the disagreeable. When the Indians made up the legend that the Great Spirit created the perfect land, they were right. For many of us, this territory will be the closest place to heaven we will ever know on earth.
Interspersed throughout her column were tidbits of life on Grenell. From her columns I found out when properties were sold, when cottagers added a new room or changed the paint color of their cottage. Each entry a delectable morsel of information from Gwen’s sharp perspective.
Her last column was on October 21, 1971. It was short and clearly a goodbye:
Well, once again we leave our beloved St. Lawrence and the beautiful islands which have been our source of spiritual strength for these many years. I remember Miss Kerr telling me, “Gweny, I just hope I can make it, to come up next summer.” Thank you dear God for creating this place of serenity. Now I say goodbye to you all.
Gwen died of breast cancer not too long after she penned her last column. When she left Grenell that season, she knew she would never return.
By the time I arrived on Grenell in 1975 there was no Grenell column in the Thousand Islands Sun. Polly Daw of Murray Isle would sometimes write about “Grenell doings.”
In the 1990s, Katie DuBon took a stab at writing the Grenell Column for the Thousand Islands Sun. Katie was spending the summer on Grenell with her three sons: Matt, Drew and Steven. She decided that perhaps she could write for the Thousand Islands Sun like her Aunt Gwen.
Katie remembers her aunt typing her entries, but Katie usually wrote hers longhand. Katie’s tenure as Grenell Correspondent was short lived though. “After awhile, I felt like I was only writing about what my kids were doing and not really collecting information from around the island,” she said. Besides being busy with three active boys, Katie served as president of the Grenell Island Improvement Association for eight years, the longest term of service of any president to date. But Katie sells herself short, she had a knack of weaving in bits of history with current events with a generous sprinkling of poetic awe of island life. As I read through the three years of columns she penned, I saw some of the same wit and poetic flourishes that I saw in her aunt’s writing.
As in this July 31, 1991 column:
Grenell’s critter population doesn’t compare to nearby islands, but we thrill with what we have! I wish I could share with you the glee of my 4-year-old when he discovered a bullfrog beside the canoe! Swallowtail butterflies are in abundance and more loons have been sighted or maybe it’s just one in a lot of different places.
After Katie stopped writing, there was no Grenell column for a very long time until a 14-year-old girl announced at a Grenell Island Regatta that she was going to write the Grenell Column. Her name was Paige Steiding. I first met Paige when she was nine, but she had been coming to visit her Tutu (grandmother) on Grenell since she was six. Paige had a passion for writing and knowing I was a writer she would come to visit. At age nine, she had already penned a novel manuscript.
Paige can’t remember now if the idea had been her own or if she had been coaxed to write the column. Either way, it wasn’t until after she decided to write the column that she learned of the family history. Paige’s aunt is Katie DuBon and Gwen Smith was her great-Aunt.
Despite her tender age, Paige was a diligent correspondent. No need to rush to ABay with the article like her Aunt Katie or Great-Aunt Gwen. Paige now had the ability to email her column to the Thousand Island Sun.
Paige attends the University of California at Davis. Her days on Grenell are shorter as college and working life intrudes. She was only able to write two columns this past summer as she traveled to Turkey to work at a camp, teaching English to kids. She is ready to pass the pen to some other Grenellian. As of this writing, no one yet has stepped forward to accept the challenge.
So happy that back in 1897, Anne Clements invited that Smith fella to the island. Our lives are much richer with the Smith family on the north shore and I have a folder of columns to prove it.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
What a wonderful winter of Lynn McElfresh stories! Lynn is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. Not only that, but Lynn and her husband Gary, continue to give us a special look at Island life in the past and just yesterday. When not on their beloved Grenell Island, or literally travelling around the world they winter in Dunedin, Florida. See all of Lynn’s 60+ articles here.