In late August, I received a copy of Thousand Island Park: The Story of an American Eden, authored by Clayton J. Butler. He had given me a special gift: a well-crafted, well-researched, and well-written book about one of the special communities that make up the Thousand Islands.
The book was “hard to put down.” Surprisingly, it was written in 2010 as Butler’s senior class thesis at Pomona College, a liberal arts college in southern California, and there-in lies a story.
Butler came to the Thousand Islands as a baby, and he is one of the lucky ones in that he has spent a part of every summer at Thousand Island Park. Growing up in Larchmont, New York, he knew, early on, that history was not boring! Although it was his favorite subject he decided to attend a liberal arts college to see where his interests might lead.
Located in Claremont, CA, 25 miles east of Los Angeles. Pomona was incorporated in 1887 by a group of Congregationalists who wanted to create, “a college of the New England type,” to allow these students in the west to have the same experiences as those who were attending a traditional college in the east. Now in the 21st century, few of his professors knew about the Thousand Islands, but the subject of the Methodist revivals of the late 19th century was both interesting and important. Thus, Butler’s decision to use its history as his senior-class thesis was accepted.
Helen P. Jacox and Eugene B. Kleinhans, Jr. wrote Thousand Island Park: One Hundred Years, and Then Some. Until now, this was the first readily accessible history of the Park. A much-appreciated book for those of us who wanted to know the Park’s history, it provided sound background material. But, at the time, Jacox and Kleinhans stated, “We hope that his book will encourage a great appreciation and discussion of the Park’s history. There is much more material to be discovered….”
Butler’s narrative shows, "how it [TI Park] was subject to the changing social tides of American history, and why it survived and found a niche for itself after other resorts of the St. Lawrence had faded into disuse.” He presents his material in chronological order, but expands the subject to include the early settling of the Thousand Islands as a whole and not the Park in isolation. His chapter on the Founding of the Park: “We will Sing His Praises in the Islands” describes the inspiration and dedication of Rev. John Ferdinand Dayan. Dayan joined the Methodist Church in 1842 and was admitted to the Black River Conference in 1844. He served in more than nine communities in the North Country, including LeRay, Adams, Clayton, and Cape Vincent.
Butler writes: “While living in Watertown he attended a camp meeting at Felts Mills, opposite what is now Fort Drum. At the gathering, Dayan suffered a paralytic shock brought on by “over exertion” in worship. He was made to retire from his posts, with a pension, stripped of his duties and confined to bed rest. It was during this interval that Dayan first conceived on the idea of what was to become Thousand Island Park.”
The chapter goes on to describe the early years and the revivalist movement not only in the Park, but throughout the United States.
One section described the visit to the park in 1877 by Reverend Henry Highland Garnet. Butler says, “perhaps the most distinguished American speaker ever to do so. Garnet’s appearance at the park speaks volumes about its politics, values, and its rapid rise to prominence in the early years.” He goes on to explain that Garnet was born a slave in Maryland, before escaping with his family to New York when he as nine. He was ordained in 1843, becoming the first pastor at the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church. Butler records, “What he said in the Park was not recorded, but societies were later formed on the Park to aid freedmen.”
The next section of the book allows the reader to experience “The Hotel Years – 1883-1912”.
Butler notes, “By the early 1890’s the number of cottages on the Park peaked at somewhere between five and six hundred summer homes, and the population during the summer season was consistently estimated between 7,000 and 10,000. These numbers, which greatly exceed those today, can be explained by the existence of the many boarding houses in operation on the Park in the 1890s, and indeed well into the 20th century.”
However the sections describing the devastating fires that destroyed, first the Thousand Island Park Hotel (1890) and then the Columbian Hotel (1912) , provides a warning of how quickly life can change.
It is here that we learn more about Swami Vivekananda, "Vivekananda was the chief disciple of the 19th century mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and considered a key figure in the introduction of Vedanta and Yoga to the Unites States.” “Vivekananda was not to have a profound effect on the Thousand Island Park, but, as he himself said, it had a profound effect on him and the millions of people (including professedly, Mahatma Ghandi) who were touched by the celebrated philosophy that he would develop there.”
The final chapter, “A Place in Time: Thousand Island Park in the 20th Century” provides a look at the Park today and echoes Paul Malo in paying tribute to Trude Brown Fitelson, “A Park resident whose grandchildren represent the 5th generation of her family to summer in the Park.” It was Trude who organized the move to the National Registry and helped found the Thousand Island Park Landmark Society. This chapter also provides some of the few factual descriptions of the rum-running days between 1920-1936.
Houses on Coast Avenue ca.1880s and 2010.
Photo courtesy C. Butler (click to enlarge)
Many university scholars use the easiest material (known as secondary sources) for their research. These are books, articles, and materials, already presented elsewhere. Butler took advantage of the Jacox and Keinhans work, giving well referenced credits. He also appreciated the reference materials housed at Queen’s University Library and Archives in Kingston. It was there he was able to first peruse another early history of the Park written in 1877 by Arthur W. Moore, The Thousand Island Park at Wellesley Island. However, Butler was also adept at finding other material - The Swami Vivekananda material came from an 1985 biography, Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries by Marie Louise Burke. He also found references in many Christian periodicals, and North Country newspapers – each giving valuable material not available in early histories.
When I asked Butler what was the most interesting or exciting piece of original material he found, he did not hesitate for a moment: “learning about the Prohibition Days from the stories told by the late Thomas H. Mitchell," who was born in Thousand Island Park in 1913. His daughter, Nellie Taylor, Butler said, "very generously" gave him access to Mitchell's audio memoirs, which helped to evoke life in the Park in the early 20th century. Mitchell had recorded valuable stories of life in the winter, in addition to more piquant tales of rum-running and cars finding their way to bottom of the river, which Butler relates.
Butler set out to make his thesis a narrative about life on the St. Lawrence River and TI Park. His last words capture what many of us feel: “…Many residents do not know the full history of Thousand Island Park, but they can feel it. Well into the 21st century, ask any resident young or old, they will invariably tell how much they love the River and long to return to the Park every summer. The community founded by Reverend Dayan is still carrying out his design.”
Where is Clayton Butler today? He continues his passion for history, working for the Civil War Trust in Washington DC.
Hats off to Clayton for his lovely book on Thousand Island Park. It is selling like hotcakes in the islands. It is wonderful to know that the younger generation of Thousand Island Park has such passion and lets us older residents know that we leave our beloved and special historic community in such capable and loving hands.
Thank you Clayton,
Trude Brown Fitelson, September 12, 2011
By Susan W. Smith, Editor, Thousand Islands Life Magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org
Thousand Island Park: The Story of an American Eden, is available at Corbins Heritage Book Store, Clayton, NY or the Thousand Island Park Landmark Society through email. You may also contact Clayton Butler directly email@example.com