It ended up being a love story of sorts. When one of my coworkers mentioned that her sister-in-law’s family was responsible for having built the beautiful white gazebo in Thousand Islands Park (TI Park) I was very excited for an opportunity to discover a piece of Thousand Islands history that few others might know. So I called Laura McDermott and asked her if she would share the story behind the building.
From the time she was 11 years old, Laura spent her summers at her family’s summer home in the Thousand Islands Park located on Wellesley Island. Thousand Islands Park is more than a place or vacation destination. It is a special community of people, many of whom have spent generations in their Rockwellian family homes. In fact, all of the buildings in the Thousand Island Park Historic District are either original or patterned after 19th and early 20th Century structures. It is also the only surviving example of the late 19th Century summer religious colonies founded in the Thousand Islands region.
In 1875, the Thousand Island Park Camp Meeting Association was founded by the Rev. John Ferdinand Dayan. During this time period of religious revival, Rev. Dayan envisioned a Methodist summer community where families could enjoy both spiritual and physical renewal. By the turn of the century, the Park was a dynamic summer community which included, among other things, a library, yacht club, golf course, tennis tournaments, daily concerts and Sunday services. Laura told me that there was also another structure (that pre-dates the Columbian Hotel) that was referred to as a "bandstand" that stood in the same location where the white gazebo stands today. Apparently at some point the original structure had burned down.
When he was young, Peter McDermott’s family initially rented a cottage in TI Park every summer, and purchased one of their own by the time he was in college. Even though Laura and Peter both lived in Syracuse for the rest of the year, it was because of their common love of the River and specifically TI Park that they met and ultimately got married.
For Laura’s father, John Marshall Withers, the announcement of his daughter’s upcoming wedding was a dream come true. John had always wanted to have a gazebo built there in TI Park. He had grown up in Fineview and then later purchased their place in TIP. At one time he was even the President of the Thousand Islands Park Corporation of shareholders so the idea of having a gazebo built was not new to him. He had just been waiting for the right time and opportunity. What better time than his daughter’s wedding.
As one would expect, he had to work closely with the Historic Landmark Society to make sure that the structure would meet all of the required specifications. Laura attributed his success, in part, to his good friend Trudy Fitelson who was the founder of the Historic Landmark Society and who also helped him come up with structural plans that would be in keeping with TIP standards.
John found the design for his gazebo from Sun Designs in Wisconsin – a 10-sided model called The Provincial. He then contracted the North Construction Company owned by Ralph Stowell to build the gazebo. The main builder on the project was Jamie Dickson who said that building the 10-sided gazebo with a bell-shaped roof was the hardest thing he ever did. It took four months to complete, including putting the cedar shingles on the 10-sided and curved roof. But Jamie enjoyed doing it so much that a year later he started a business of his own and spent the next 20 years working on the Victorian-styled homes in TIP.
When completed, John ended up donating it to the Tabernacle Association so it could be used for all kinds of community events such as concerts, weddings, and other religious and community events. The Tabernacle Assoc. maintains the gazebo and presently is looking to make the floor a little more weather friendly.
The gazebo was finished in plenty of time for the wedding which took place on August 6, 1988. Over 500 people attended the event many of whom were friends and family from the Park. The ceremony was officiated by Father John Morse who was the family’s priest from Syracuse and also a close family friend. Laura chuckled as she mentioned to me that the Catholic church generally doesn’t permit weddings to be held outside and that Father Morse sort of performed the ceremony “on the Q.T.” Laura’s dad rationalized that since they were married in the gazebo, and the gazebo had been donated to the Tabernacle Association, technically it wasn’t outside. Apparently, he was right. Inside or out, the marriage obviously took, with the McDermotts having just passed their 23rd Anniversary with three almost grown kids. The Watertown Times ran a front page story of the wedding the next day with a big picture of the gazebo. The day after that, Laura commented, happened to be 8/8/88.
After talking with Laura for a while, I was pretty sure I had learned everything I needed to know about the gazebo but before our conversation was over I discovered there was much more to the story. In 2001, 12 years after it was built, John Withers decided to have a special ceremony dedicating the gazebo to a man named Jack Houts. Laura explained that Jack was a former teacher of her dad’s who had been a major life changing influence on his life. He had also been a summer resident at TIP. That is where John first met Jack.
During the school year, Jack Houts was choral director at the Tennessee Wesleyan College (TWC), a small church-related Christian college in Athens, TN. He was hired by TWC in 1946, and ran the choral program there until 1961. He led a very popular traveling choral group that sang everything from hymns and church music to popular show tunes. Under his leadership, the TWC choir was well known for its musical excellence. For example, in 1956, they performed at the General Conference of the Methodist Church in Minneapolis and receive a 10-minute standing ovation.
The yearbook describes the TWC choir as follows: “As in years past the Tennessee Wesleyan College Choir has provided many hours of fun, hard work, and spiritual inspiration for its members. The forty-five voice choir under the able and much beloved leadership of Jack Houts has toured the various churches in the Holston Conference bringing religious inspiration to its congregations as well as to its own members. “
But Jack Houts was much more than just a talented choir director to those who had the privilege of working with him. In 1953 the students dedicated the TWC yearbook, The Nocatula, to him with the following dedication page that explains how his students felt about him:
One would have a hard time finding a person interested enough in young adults to dedicate, his life to them. Such a man, who will always be young in heart, is "Maestro" Jack Houts. His tremendous personality and overwhelming enthusiasm have inspired his choirs to singing heights which are hard to surpass. His excellent musicianship has been demonstrated from year to year by his musical achievements with groups that have no longer than one year to work together. He teaches forty individuals to blend their beliefs and individualities in as perfect harmony as he is able to direct their voices in song. The only payment he asks is that his students go away leading richer and more meaningful lives, for having shared a profound religious experience in music. Jack Houts is much more than a fine choir director. He is a personal friend to all of us in and out of the choir, and, unknowingly, a guide to many who observe and realize his fine sense of humor, his high ideals, and general philosophy of life. It is with unforgettable memories, and with our untold thanks, that we dedicate this Nocatula to you, Jack Houts.
Jack Houts was far more than just a gifted musician. He was a man whose deep faith in God manifested itself in him taking interest in the lives of his students and not just their musical skills. He wasn’t just their teacher but was an inspiration and a positive influence to those who had the privilege of working under his tutelage. One of the many students profoundly transformed by Jack Houts was John Withers.
Jack was hired as the summer Tabernacle director at TIP and was also given a cottage for the summer. That is where John first met him. Jack was in charge of church services which included a wonderful choir, as well as the community recreation program. When he took the position as the Tabernacle choir director, many of Jack’s devoted choir members from TWC followed him to TI Park and continued their practices with him there. Most of the students worked at the “Rochester Hotel” waiting on tables, singing for the dinner guests and occasionally putting on musicals at the Tabernacle for TI Park residents.
John Withers, who was a student at Colgate at the time, loved to sing and ended up joining Jack’s choir. A summer of singing under Jack’s leadership convinced John to transfer to Tennessee Wesleyan from Colgate which ended up changing the course of his life. Laura explained that at that time her dad was a bit of a troubled teen heading in the wrong direction. It was a glorious celebration complete with music and song provided by the reunited alumni in Jack’s honor. He also became close friends with many of the other young people in the choir. John kept very close to the Houts and other college friends all his life.
John’s sister, Marilyn (Withers) Thomas, who is still a resident of TIP today, agreed that her brother’s transfer to TWC was a “fantastic move” for John. She explained, “An important person in both John and my lives was Jack Houts. He was a remarkable man and had an enormous influence on all of my family. He spent many years at TIP and his relationship with the community (particularly the young people ) was wonderful. My brothers decision to dedicate the gazebo to him was very meaningful and emotional for all of us. We, who were close to him were very lucky. I don't think there has been another person who influenced our lives as much as Jack.”
When Laura and Peter announced their wedding plans in 1988, John finally had his excuse to have the gazebo built. But it wasn’t until 12 years later on August 16-19 of 2001 that the white gazebo would have its formal dedication. John had been ill for a while. Perhaps knowing that he wouldn’t be around too much longer, John decided to dedicate his gazebo to Jack Houts (who had passed away in 1972) and he paid for all of his beloved alumni and fellow choir members to be at the dedication. It was a glorious celebration complete with music and song provided by the reunited alumni in Jack’s honor. John passed away two years later on the same weekend that the dedication took place, on August 19th in 2003. He went to join Jack in their new choir.
The story of the white gazebo in the Thousand Islands Park ended up being quite an amazing story – a multifaceted love story. Laura loved Peter and the TI Park, Laura’s dad loved Laura and his teacher. John’s sister loved her brother and Jack Houts. Jack Houts loved God and his students. God, of course, loves everyone, and everyone, at least in this story, loves the white gazebo and the River.
By Patty Mondore
Patty and her husband, Bob, are summer residents of the Thousand Islands. Patty is a published author and a singer/song writer. Her books include River-Lations: Inspirational stories and photos from the Thousand Islands (2011), To Love, Honor and OH BOY, A Good Paddling, Proclaim His Praise in the Islands, and Perennial Faith. She and Bob, co-authored Singer Castle, and Singer Castle Revisited published by Arcadia Publishing, and co-produced Dark Island?s Castle of Mysteries documentary DVD. Patty is a contributing writer for the Thousand Islands Sun. Her column, ?River-Lations?, appears in the Vacationer throughout the summer months. The Mondores are online at www.gold-mountain.com.
Editor's Note: If you have memory of the Gazebo, add a comment below.