By the time I first arrived on Grenell Island in 1975, my husband’s family had already been on the Point, for nearly a hundred years.
In 1877, the island we call Grenell went up for auction on the courthouse steps in Watertown, NY. A Mr. Jennison purchased the island for $67 and presented it to his sister, Lucy Grenell. Lucy and her husband, Sam, built a farm on the foot of the island. Their house, a long, low building, served as both home and tavern.
In 1879, Sam Grenell sub-divided the island and sold lots. The first lots to sell were all on the foot of the island around a little bay that faced Hub Island. This part of the island was close to the Grenell Tavern, but also close to Thousand Island Park, which was established in 1874.
H. O. Pratt was among the first to purchase lots. Mr. Pratt was my husband’s grandmother’s uncle. We affectionately refer to him as Uncle Otis.
Lost to time are all the juicy details. How did Otis hear about the island? What brought him from Syracuse to Grenell? Had he been to the area before? The only words we have left are those of his daughter, A. Olivia Pratt, who wrote in The Story of Grenell in 1945:
In the summer of 1881, my father, H. O. Pratt, of Syracuse, built on the lot he had purchased, the first summer cottage on Grenell. At the time it consisted of one room, the kitchen, with two tents for sleeping and a boathouse. I can remember falling out of bed one night, and slipping down between the tent floor and the canvas side, and being pulled up from among the kettles and pails sitting under the edge of the tent fly.
This is the map on the back of the Grenell Island Directory. It’s an adaptation of the original map that Sam Grenell commissioned Hinds, Moffet and Co., Engineers of Watertown, NY to draw in 1879. The first lots sold are highlighted in red.
Olivia goes on to tell how her father carefully positioned the house to face east:
…the carpenter who built the room was a member of the Masonic Lodge, as was my father, and my mother used to tell how the two of them squinted across the front porch at the north star, so that the house should face the east exactly!”
It had always been my understanding that Uncle Otis had purchased the first lot, but careful reading of Olivia’s book gives another account. The first lot to sell was #52, purchased by Henry C. Hodgkins for the grand some of $50. Fifty dollars seemed like such a bargain until I remembered the entire island had been purchased for $67 only two years before.
Lot #52 is the current site of the Wayne Richard’s cottage. Olivia states that “Mr. Hodgkins never built on his lot and apparently never returned to Grenell.” Uncle Otis bought Lot #56. Four lots were sold in 1880: #45(Geers), # 49 (Hinds), # 51 (originally Fits, now Walsh ) and #56 (Originally Pratt, now McElfresh).
As Olivia describes, the cottage started with one room and other rooms were cobbled on through the decades. A fireplace room, three small bedrooms and eventually a bathroom were added. The porch was screened in the early 1970s.
Uncle Otis died in 1893 and his widow, Alice Pratt, built a two-story cottage next to the original cottage in 1895 as a rental, with the idea that the income from the rental would pay the taxes. Many families who eventually built on Grenell had their introduction to Grenell in the Pratt rental cottage.
The first boathouse was on the southeast side of the Point and still stands as a workshop/laundry room. A second dock and skiff house was built on the northeast side of the Point after the turn of the century. That first skiff house burned sometime prior to 1909 and was rebuilt, this time with a rounded roof to match the southeast boathouse.
When I first came to the island in 1975, there was a boathouse on the west side of the Point. That boathouse was torn down, but the walls of that boathouse were used to build the big boathouse on the east side of the Point in 1983.
When Alice died, the property passed to her daughter, (Alice) Olivia Pratt who summered here until the mid-fifties. Olivia was a teacher and not married so she passed the property to her cousin, Mabelle Ogden, my husband’s grandmother, who passed it to her daughter, Margret McElfresh, my husband’s mother, and now us. What started as two tents and a kitchen, is now, as my father-in-law is fond of describing, a five-building compound (two cottages, a boat house, a skiff house and a workshop.)
Uncle Otis labeled the property Pine Point on his map in 1879, which perhaps was more of a description than a name. From 1880s to 1950s it was known as Pratt Point, then Ogden Point from 1950s to early-1980s and then MarMac Isle from 1980s & 1990s (short for Margret McElfresh). We currently call it Rum Rock. Why? That’s a whole other story.
The names have changed, the buildings occasionally updated, but for the most part, the pine point on the NE corner of Grenell remains the heartbeat for 1000 island life for six generations of our family.
By Lynn McElfresh
Lynn E. McElfresh, once again. provides a special story about the island she loves the most – Grennell. Lynn is the author of children stories and is currently working on several projects as a ghost writer. Lynn explains that she came to Grenell Island for the first time to meet her fiancé’s family in 1975. Lynn became part of the family and the island became part of her life. Lynn and her husband, Gary, are now back in Dunedin, Florida, where they spend their winter.
Grenell Island taken from the air by Ian Coristine shows the bay at the foot of the island where the first lots were sold in 1880.