My father, Robert Gareth Service, had many talents: gifted writer, creative artist, in spite of being color blind, and a self-taught musician on piano and trumpet. He did an impressive take-off on Louis Armstrong. He was also a great story teller, but always reluctant to allow his family, to record for posterity, the stories of his childhood and as a young adult, experiencing the gaiety and intrigue of the 1000 Islands, during the “Roaring Twenties,” and the era that followed.
It was not unusual on the banks of the St. Lawrence, for courtships to easily cross the international border and marriages would follow. We all know, from what our mothers told us, “Love goes where it is sent.” My father was born into one of these international families; his father, Newell T. Service, was from Rockport, Ontario. His mother, Edith White, was a native of Alexandria Bay. During the early years of their marriage the couple spent the summer seasons living and working with my great-grandparents, Robert and Zilpha Service.
Robert and Zilpha owned the Island View Hotel, a river bank establishment in Rockport. The end of the season made it convenient for the family to migrate south and spend winters in Alexandria Bay, near Edith’s family and siblings. The arrival of children did not necessarily coincide with the dates of residency and as a result, Gareth and his brother Seth, celebrated winter time birthdays and were citizens of the United States. Their sister Elaine, a summer baby, was a Canadian citizen until she applied for U.S. citizenship, when she was a 40-something wife and mother of 3 little girls living in Mexico, N.Y.
According to my father, a young boy could lead a pretty-much unfettered life, in a busy resort hotel. Days were spent hanging-out with the employees and probably getting under everyone’s feet. Many of life’s earliest lessons were learned by following the boatmen, hanging out in the kitchen, and one of his favorites, being coddled by the chorus girls and vaudeville entertainers, who were regulars in the hotel family. He told of learning to swim under his grandfather’s supervision by repeatedly jumping off a dock, with a rope tied to his waist. He learned to pull himself back to a place where he could climb out and do it again, until swimming was a fait accompli. The quality of that education was much different from the formal education he and his sister Elaine received. During the late spring and early fall the youngsters made the daily trip alone by steamer, to and from Kingston, where they attended elementary school. The remainder of the school year was spent as students at the Alexandria Bay School. Seth was nearly 15 years younger than his siblings and did not spend as much time, during his formative years, living at the hotel.
The 18th Amendment, also known as the Prohibition Act, may have heralded the rise and fall of the Island View Hotel. In 1920, at the age of ten, my father was responsible for entertaining the entertainers. His job was to take the pretty ladies rowing in a skiff every afternoon, or whenever they had a whim. He was in love with all of them and was sure that one day he could win the heart of one of these lovely troupers, because they all fawned-over him so much. The traveling troubadours visited a number of establishments in their busy schedules, but most returned for a regular appearance each summer.
With the influx of a thirsty clientele from the American side of the river, the proprietors and staff made a few subtle changes of accommodation. The tasty meals and pastries formerly prepared by Edith in the kitchen, were seldom seen on the menu. The dining room became a lounge, catering to entertainment and the enjoyment of alcoholic beverages. In order to meet a requirement that the establishment serve food, my father recalled his mother and grandmother preparing token cheese sandwiches, which were placed on each table, during the hours of operation and then wrapped-up in wax paper, to re-appear the next day.
His tales included stories of the ingenuity of known bootleggers, smugglers and other reprobate,s in their efforts to outwit and evade the authorities, who pursued them. When the Prohibition Act was repealed in 1933, business at the Island View Hotel dropped off. Without any explanation of how it happened, apparently Robert and his son Newell, both died within a short time of each other. It appears Zilpha was named as owner, in records of the sale of the hotel and property about 1932 or 1933. No records, and a story that was never told, leaves the family pretty much in the dark on the circumstances of the rest of her life.
My grandmother Edith and her son Seth continued to live in Rockport, until the mid-1950s. I recall trips to visit “Nana and Seth” in a small house near the waterfront. They had no car and led a very simple way of life, lighting the house with kerosene lamps and heating with a pot belly stove. During the early years of living in Rockport on their own, it was not unusual for the two of them to walk across the ice to visit her family in Alexandria Bay. The channel did freeze at times and the Seaway had not been anyone’s dream yet. A good winter could create the right conditions for a highway on the ice. I have taken some artistic license to re-create one of those trips my father told of a crossing, that which probably took place about 1937 or 1938.
Time to go said Nana to Seth; “Sunday dinner’s at 12 and we can’t be late.”
Donning her warmest coat, boots and hat, in a bustling hurry to meet her fate.
Seth grabbed a pole as they went out the door; it was leaning against the shed.
Never can trust the might St. Lawrence; it’s a good thing he used his head.
They’d made the trip many times before; it could have been like any other.
Crossing the ice wouldn’t take much time, for long-legged Seth and his mother.
A path was worn in the crust of the snow - a highway for folks from both sides.
Some liked to walk, others might ski, no one often had rides.
Nana and Seth made good time that day; were almost as far as Heart Island.
Just a short way to go, across the frozen channel and soon they’d set foot on the mainland.
She was savoring a hot cup of tea; I understand she liked it quite weak.
When a jagged crack appeared up ahead; then came the ominous c-r-e-a-k.
Seth heard the ice break, saw her go down; she slipped into that treacherous hole.
He lay on his belly and slid toward the opening, gingerly pushing his pole.
He stretched and he stretched, telling her, “Reach for the pole; c’mon Ma, Hold on tight.”
Then he gently pulled her from the icy water, straining with all of his might.
Did they turn and go home, no more to roam? Not this River Rat pair.
Dinner was waiting, a fire to warm them, and plenty of gossip to share.
Nana was a life-long “river live-er” between Rockport and Alex. Bay
Because, on that day in mid-winter, on the St. Lawrence River, Seth had saved the day.
Written by Martha Grimes, March 2014
Edith and Seth Service lived out their days in Alexandria Bay, where their hotel experiences of earlier years once again were put to work. She was employed as the housekeeper and cook at Bonnie Castle when it was owned by the White Fathers of Africa and served as a seminary for the young missionaries. Seth worked as a handyman and custodian at the Monticello Hotel, until it closed.
By Martha Grimes
Martha Grimes was born and raised in Alexandria Bay. She and her husband Hunter, raised a son and daughter to love and appreciate the River as much as they do. During her career as an educator Martha taught various Primary Level grades at Alexandria Central School. Since retiring she has been actively involved with the Alexandria Township Historical Society and the interpretation of the Cornwall Brothers Store & Museum, in Alexandria Bay, NY.