It’s only a 5 x 8 book with 108 pages, but this little dynamo powers my unquenchable interest in Grenell Island history.
When I kayaked over to Pullman Island last summer to find out more about the history of the tiny island, Dorothy Lore greeted me on the dock with the most pristine copy of The Story of Grenell I’ve ever seen. “This is all I really know about the history of the island,” she said. “Have you ever seen this book?” I nodded. I’ve seen it, read it, indexed it and cursed it more than once. (Olivia’s prose has sometimes proved frustrating.) Still, whenever I have any question about Grenell Island, The Story of Grenell is the first place I look.
Grenell’s “little green book” book, as it is often referred to, is special to those who have lived and loved Grenell Island. There were only 250 printed in 1946 and it hasn’t been available for decades.
It was my husband, Gary’s Great-Aunt Olivia—technically his grandmother’s first cousin—who wrote the book with the help of her sister, Edith. Gary’s mother, Margret McElfresh, drew the illustrations for the book.
Our family, understandably, had a few copies so we decided that for the 100th Anniversary of Grenell Island Improvement Association we would donate one copy for the auction. I thought it might go for as much as $200. So you can imagine my surprise when the little book passed that mark. Doubled that mark. When the gavel fell, The Story of Grenell, fetched the highest price of the day at $450. I suppose that alone should tell you what a special spot this “little green book” holds in the hearts of those on Grenell.
Only recently has my interest moved from the book itself to the woman behind the pen. Alice Olivia Pratt was born Nov. 10, 1878. In her younger years, she went by Ollie and as an adult, she was always called Olivia. She was two when her father H. O. Pratt bought the little point of pines on the northeast corner of Grenell. She summered here for the next 77 years.
So many things she saw in those 77 years! She would have watched as cottage after cottage was built on the island. She would have seen Castle Francis when there was a turreted cottage on it. She knew Sam and Lucy Grenell. She went daily to buy milk from Lucy. She was here before the Pullman Hotel was built. She went on search light cruises.
She was also at the dedication of the Grenell Island Chapel. She described in The Story of Grenell the day the Columbia hotel burned on Thousand Island Park, taking 100 cottages with it. She was on the island when Lucy died. She was a member of the Grenell Island Improvement Association Ladies Auxiliary. She watched the Community House being built. She organized the library in the Community House and was the first librarian. No wonder after she retired, she felt compelled to write a book about the little island.
She must have enjoyed writing even when she was a teenager. At her high school graduation in Syracuse in 1879, she read an essay she wrote about the school flower. She attended Syracuse University from 1879 to 1901, where she studied the classical courses. She graduated Salutatorian of her class in 1901. She was a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. She was very active in her sorority through out her life and her sorority sisters were often guests on Grenell Island:
Syracuse Post Standard, July 5, 1899
A party of Kappa Alpha Theta girls from Syracuse University has invaded Grenell Island and will spend a couple of weeks in one of Mrs. A. M. Pratt’s cottages at the foot of the island. The girls are guests of Miss Olivia Pratt, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta and of the class of 1901 of Syracuse University. The girls have the cottage all to themselves and are raising high jinks They have decorated it with black and gold. , the colors of the fraternity and orange of the University.
June 29, 1901
The members of the Kappa Alpha Theta fraternity of Syracuse University, who are camping on Pratt Point, at the foot of Grenell Island, the guests of Miss Olivia Pratt, 1901, gave a corn popping last evening to a few of their friends.
After college she taught first at Albion High School, then Glen Falls High School and finally settling in at Port Chester High School where she taught for 31 years. In her years as a teacher, she taught Greek, Latin, German and English. She loved books and was an active member of the League of Women Voters and the Association of Universalist Women.
After retirement, she divided her time between Syracuse and Pasadena, California where she had cousins. She was in her sixties when she penned the The Story of Grenell. Her younger sister, Edith, wrote the section about the Girl Scout camp that the two had on the island the summers of 1938 and 1939. Edith also wrote a segment titled, A Fish Story, which was picked up and used in the Riply’s Believe it Or Not Newspaper column.
Edith died in 1948. By then their first cousin Mabelle Roberts Ogden and her husband James W. Ogden were spending summers on the island helping Olivia with maintenance. Mabelle had been coming to the island since she was a child. Mabelle graduated from Syracuse in 1915, “having taken the library course.” I’m sure Mabelle helped Olivia set up the library in the community house in 1935. Mabelle served as librarian for Grenell Island library after Olivia passed away. Mabelle wrote in her diary, “Over the years, the Grenell Island Library has given me much happiness and I will never forget watching the children grow from pre-school to collage. I am very fond of all of them.” Although written by Mabelle, I’m sure Olivia had similar sentiments toward her tenure at the Grenell Island Library.
Those who grew up on Grenell in the late 1940s and early 1950s remember Olivia as a kind woman who would find odd jobs for the kids so they could have spending money at the store. For 25¢ an hour they could deadhead the daylilies that grew in great abundance on the front of Pratt Point. And once a week she would pay 50¢ to have a young lad row her to the Whippoorwill Lodge on Wintergreen Island for Sunday dinner.
I never met Olivia, but we have much in common: a love of languages, learning, libraries and books and most importantly a passion for this place we call Grenell and a desire to piece together the history of the island and share it with others.
[Photogrqphs from the McElfresh Family Collection]
By Lynn 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. Yes she continues to give us a special look at Island life in the past and just yesterday.
This “Story of Grenell” or as it is known the “Little Green Book”, provides a unique glimpse of the ladies of the past and present! Lynn pays tribute to the ladies who wrote the history, in 1946, while TI Life pays tribute to this particular McElfresh lady, Lynn, who is certainly the modern day Grenell historian. See all of Lynn’s 60+ articles here.
Editor’s Note: Lynn McElfresh is pictured on the far right of the “Current Women of Grenell.” It is safe to say Lynn has equaled the passion and dedication for capturing Grenell’s stories in recent years as “Gary’s Great-Aunt Olivia—technically his grandmother’s first cousin who wrote the book…” did the past. Our thanks to Lynn!