“What can you tell me about the Grenell Island Yacht Club?”
I get asked that question a lot.
My answer—not much.
All I know is there’s a postcard that reads, “Grenell Island & Yacht Club Thousand Islands, N.Y. St. Lawrence River”. Go to eBay and type in “Grenell Island” and you’ll come up with a dozen of them. I’m certain I’m not the only one who has done that eBay search, which is why I get asked about the Grenell Island Yacht Club so often.
The infamous Grenell Island Yacht Club Postcard
I’ve scoured books, newspaper archives and the Internet and the only other reference to a Yacht Club on Grenell was in the book, Postcard History Series of The Thousand Islands. Again, the ubiquitous postcard is pictured on p. 12 with the caption:
“Grenell Island Yacht Club was a private operation catering to the island’s summer residents. Sailboats and smaller motor craft were kept in the boathouses in front of several clubhouses, which provided a meeting place and social venue for the islanders. All the former club facilities are now private cottages.”
Because of the postcard, I’ve come to call this section of Grenell—the south-side, deep-water bay surrounded by large cottages—the Yacht Basin. The dates on the postcards featuring the Yacht Basin range from 1906 to 1940. Despite the 40-year time span, the postcards seem to be the same image with different coloring. Sometimes the colors are vivid, almost garish, with a vibrant sunset behind and sometimes the scene is represented in subdued, mellow tones. The older postcards seem to show more of the cottages on the right-hand side, which somehow were cropped in later versions, showing only the porches.
If Grenell Island were a Monopoly game board, the cottages around what I call the Yacht Basin would be the Blue, Park Place and Boardwalk properties. They are now all private cottages, but they didn’t start out that way.
The word “clubhouse” in the Postcard History Series book is a little misleading. To today’s ears, that sounds like an expansive lobby with a restaurant and maybe a shop with yachting apparel. But from what I can unravel, the 1870s clubhouse was more like today’s “timeshare”.
The first structure on the peninsula was a small cottage built for the Carthage Band, built about 1873. Olivia Pratt refers to it as “the Band House” in her book, “The Story of Grenell.” Carthage is located about 40 miles away from Clayton, NY. Many towns at the time had municipal bands. I found a picture of the Carthage Band in “The St. Lawrence County” newspaper. I wondered when the band headed north via train if they brought their instruments and practiced while they were on the island, or if a get-away to Grenell Island was a strictly pleasure trip for them.
The property to the left of the Band House was built sometime before 1888, perhaps as early as 1877. It was originally named Susquehanna Club and later Otsego Club and was jointly owned by a group of businessmen from the Cooperstown area, which is in Otsego County. There were about twenty names listed on the deed. The cottage was built to accommodate three families, so there was a bathroom on each floor. Only very posh River properties would have had indoor plumbing during that era. I imagine that the many owners took turns using the property. The Kerr family bought the property in 1894, named it Kirmess and had the Band House moved to another location on Grenell so they could install a croquet court. Several families have owned the property in the past decades, but it has retained the name, Kirmess.
The large cottage to the right of the Band House and up on the bluff was called The Jersey Heights and later, just The Heights. Whether the Heights was built as a guesthouse or was built as a private cottage and later was used as a guesthouse is unclear. That cottage, The Jersey Heights or The Heights (I), burned the fall of 1911. The lot stood empty until in 1991 when a new cottage (The Heights II) was built.
The cottage on the upriver side of the Heights was Glimpses and was a guesthouse. The first Glimpses house burned down in the same fire that took The Heights in 1911. A grander cottage, also named Glimpses, was built on the same site in 1915 by the Kerr family.
The cottage on what was then called Front Island and now called Southpoint was probably built as a private residence, as were the two cottages on the down river side of the picture, the current day Weonavu and Holden Cottage.
Eventually, the Kerr family owned all three cottages on the peninsula: Glimpses, Kirmess and Southpoint.
The only yacht I know about was also owned by the Kerr family. They were Princeton graduates and supporters, so naturally they named their yacht Tiger after the Princeton mascot. All subsequent yachts were named Tiger as well. The Kerr family was and is an active, lively, gregarious group. I’m sure they had many skiffs, canoes, motorboats and sailing craft.
A photograph from the Kerr family album closely matches the scene in the postcard. My guess is that the picture was taken from the top of the Pullman Hotel and the Kerr family had the postcard made. As they were avid sailors, it makes sense that they may have referred to the string of cottages and boathouses as the Grenell Island Yacht Club. This is all speculation on my part.
I realize this doesn’t really solve the mystery. But it is my best answer for the oft asked question: “What can you tell me about the Grenell Island Yacht Club?”
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to “TI Life,” writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. This is her amazing 96th article! You can see all of Lynn’s articles here. (We celebrated her #80 in July, 2015!)
Editor’s note: I just received Lynn McElfresh’s February ‘17 article… and as always, I grabbed a coffee and sat back to see what Lynn has decided to share. Yes, Lynn helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing and often finds books, places and people to review… This month she provides real history… or is it. Maybe one of our readers will add to Lynn’s assumptions. Both Lynn and I hope so.