In the 1980s, while working at St. Lawrence Islands National Park, I became involved with the writing of the history of Grenadier Island. I began looking at the census records for the inhabitants of the island and discovered that there were a lot of Burtches and Roots – my family - on Grenadier Island. It was then that I started to hear about the Burtches and their river connections. It did not take long before I realized how their story is intertwined with the story of the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands and more particularly with Grenadier Island and Rockport, Ontario.
One of the first white inhabitants documented on Grenadier Island was Abel Root. He was joined by Ruggles Cain, Levi Comstock and Smith Burtch.
We can trace our immediate family back to Smith Burtch who was recorded in the 1810 census living in Oppenheim, NY. By 1820, he was reportedly working in an iron mine at Rossie, St. Lawrence County, NY. He was married to Mary Elijah (Eligh). Interestingly that same year, 1820, a son, Alfred, is listed as being born on Grenadier Island, ON. I suspect that there was a lot of movement back and forth over the border with men going to where there was work and the wives staying home to run the farm with their older children.
So, we can say with certainty that the Burtches have been here on the St. Lawrence River almost 200 years beginning in the 1820s. Smith Burtch, sometimes spelt Burch, appears in the Grenadier Island census in 1842 and 1848. He was a tenant farmer with 50 acres. In 1848, Smith’s son, Charles, was farming 12 acres on Long Schooner Point, which is really an island separated from Grenadier Island by marshland.
Smith Burtch’s next son, William, my great great grandfather, was born in Brier Hill, NY in 1823. Could this be because Smith was still working at the iron mine nearby at Rossie? Or, as his name implies, was he working as a blacksmith?
It was son William who eventually moved off Grenadier Island and in 1862 owned Lot 12 Broken Front in Escott township. This is the Lot on the river on the west side of the Narrows Road at Tar Island.
The next census records William as 49 years of age, and listed as an Episcopal Methodist. He married Lorana Root, daughter of Abel Root and Jemima Fish. All of William and Lorana’s children were born in Leeds County presumably in the Rockport area, except Minnie who was born in 1866 in the United States. Chauncey Eugene, my great grandfather, was born in 1863.
At 20 years old, Chauncey, married another local girl, Mary Agnes Andress from Rockport. They owned part of Lot 8 Broken Front in Rockport and built a house on the north side of Rockport on Old River Road once known as the Old Rockport Road.
Chauncey’s and Agnes’ first born in 1884, was Allen Willard, my grandfather. The family story is that he was born in a log cabin near what is now, the Lighthouse Gas Bar and Convenience Store on Lot 12 BF, Front of Escott which is at the Narrows.
Allen’s younger sister, Florence, is recorded as having been born at the Narrows in 1893. When she was born, Chauncey planted a row of poplar trees to mark the occasion. (ARE THESE TREES STILL STANDING???) This was many years before the Parkway was built in the 1940s.
Allen Willard, my grandfather, spent his early days on the river helping his father who was a typical jack-of-all-trades: a farmer on Lot 8 BF, and Lot 12 BF, caretaker on Hadassah Island (US Summerland Group south of Grenadier Island) and eventually caretaker of Dashwood or Opahawkwa Island near the Int’l Bridge (now known as Seven Gables). At one time, Chauncey even lived in the Boldt Yacht House in the winter months as a caretaker. His brother, Willard, was caretaker on US Sport Island and Will and his sons worked as crew on the pleasure yacht Sport owned by the Wilburs of Bethleham, PA.
Allen came in contact with many summer people who may have encouraged him to gain a career. In 1906 he left the River and attended the Renouard Training School for Embalmers in New York City, to become an undertaker.
Also in 1906 Allen’s name is recorded on the books of the local supply story known as the Darling Store. His promissory note was signed by Frank Fitzsimmons another local resident. These materials could have been used to set up an undertaking business as in 1909 Allen Burtch is listed as an undertaker in the R. G. Dun & Co Business Directory for Rockport!
Soon after, in 1911 or 1913, Allen married Minnie Elva Fredenburg. Minnie, a widow, already had a seven-year-old daughter, Doris, from her marriage to Cornelius Van Camp, a Methodist Minister. We don’t have the date of Van Camp’s death, but he is buried on Wellesely Island. Allen and Minnie Elva had two children. My aunt Helen was born in 1914 and my father, Donald Willard, was born in 1917, both were born in Lansdowne.
We do not know a great deal about the family but we have pieced together a number of details. The family’s funeral home in Lansdowne was sold to A.J. Sly in September 1918. At the time the Brockville Recorder and Times stated that Allen was planning to go into the insurance business in Brockville. His brother-in-law in Smiths Falls, Ernest Foster, married to Annie, Minnie Fredenburg’s sister, was in the Insurance business.
Another news clipping record in 1927, Allen and Minnie and their children Doris, Helen and Donald were visiting their friend Frank Fitzsimmons at Hickory Lodge in Rockport. The interesting note stated that they “journeyed by car from Long Island NY.”
Allen eventually became the Estate Manager for the Dearing Family (McCormick Dearing Farm Implements) at Glen Cove, Long Island, New York
By 1933, on land purchased from Walter Seaman, Allen had built a cottage on the St. Lawrence in Rockport and called it “Four Winds.” The cottage was built by Ed Andress and the stonework was done by Red Benedict. In 1936, “Four Winds” was enlarged to become a year round residence for Allen and his family. By this time, Helen had left school and Doris was married to Harold Amy. In 1937, Donald, my father, graduated from Friends Academy of Locust Valley Long Island. He had aspirations to go on to university but these were the Depression years. He went to work with a crew clearing land for the scenic Parkway. Later he worked on the Thousand Islands Bridge approaches and then worked in the toll booth and painting the Bridge. Eventually, he took a position at the International Nickel Company in Sudbury, Ontario, and in April 1940 he joined the Army (RCHA as a gunner).
Shortly before leaving for War, his father Allen W. Burtch died and in 1943 he mother, Minnie died. As a result, I never knew my father’s family and like many of his generation, my father did not volunteer much family history. Today, as I visit friends in Rockport, travel the Old River Road or take our boat out to Grenadier Island, I am proud of my river connections. Our family helped shape the community.
By Kathleen Burtch
Kathleen Burtch spent her first few years in Rockport, Ontario, a community that had known five generations of Burtches before her. She came back to the Thousand Islands in 1983 after studying Geography at Waterloo and Queens University to work at St. Lawrence Islands National Park. Coming home, she was drawn to the rich cultural landscape of the unique area, where the rugged Canadian Shield meets the mighty St. Lawrence River. Kathleen‘s father always had a history book in his hand and inspired a keen interest in those who were here first. Also, through her work with Parks Canada at Fort Langley in British Columbia and on the Rideau Canal, Kathleen has had an opportunity to research and present cultural and natural history programs to all ages.
Kathleen now does programs for Road Scholar( formerly Elderhostel) on the Rideau Canal and the Thousand Islands.
She is the editor of and contributor to Life on the Edge - The Cultural Landscape of the Thousand Islands Area. Ms Burtch is also a keen birdwatcher and spends every spare moment exploring the natural and cultural history of the Thousand Islands.