Some good things start with death. When my father's Uncle Luther died in October 1952, Big Bob was glum.
"You’d’ve liked him, Dave," Bob told me, “Your kinda guy, competitive, innovative, never backed down.”
"Okay. So now what?"
"We inherited his summer house in the 1000 Islands.”
This little Victorian cottage, high in the woods above Thousand Island Park, is where Bob spent his youthful summers until 1920.
We arrived at the graceful green American suspension span of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority about one PM on a day in early July, 1953, after driving for a day and a half from Richmond, 560-odd miles.
"This bridge is the first in a series of seven that hop from island-to-island the ten miles across the Saint Lawrence to Ontario”, Bob said. “It's the biggest. A beauty, isn't it? We always had to use the ferry from Clayton when I was a kid up here."
The bridge took us to Wellesley Island. At its top 150 feet above the River's main shipping channel and its spectacular view, I said from the back seat, "WOW! Are there really a thousand islands?"
"More like 1600-odd, Dave, depending on who's counting and how he's counting 'em," Bob said.
"What do you mean 'depending'?" Frannie chimed in. "An island's an island, isn't it?"
"Well, yes and no," Bob said. "See, the river has granite rocks. We call these rock piles shoals. Some people count the bigger shoals as islands, and that ups the count."
"So how do you know whether to count a shoal as an island," I asked. "Is it according to size, or what?"
"That's the sticky part," Bob said. "No one ever agrees on that. I like the bush test."
"What's that?" Frannie asked.
“The idea is that if a shoal or rock pile grows even a single bush or stand of grass permanently above water level year 'round, then it's an island. Otherwise it's just a shoal. Even counted this way, you get more than 1600 islands."
Down on Wellesley Island, Bob drove upriver the four miles past empty fields, woods, and a few houses on the right. Cottages were below road level at the river’s edge to the left.
"Hm-m-mph." he muttered. "Road's all paved now."
Arriving in Thousand Island Park, Bob drove another quarter mile on Rainbow Avenue to the community's center, where the pavement ran out. He turned right onto St. Lawrence Avenue, an oiled dirt road, and drove three blocks to its end, a tee with Park Avenue in front of an old wooden clapboard building. The absurd naming of these dirt tracks as avenues tickled me, and I almost giggled. The building beyond the tee intersection proclaimed itself Auditorium in foot-high black block letters emblazoned across the top of its white clapboard frontage. Bob pulled into the parking lot on the right.
“A path goes up to the house behind,” Bob said. “Let's go up and have a look-see." For a big man, he seemed almost a comical overstuffed antelope, bounding up that path.
We found a tiny five-room house perched high on a huge granite boulder in the woods overlooking most of the rest of T. I. Park. It badly needed a coat of fresh white paint.
The big front porch was dangling off at a rakish, hazardous angle. The word hovel crept into my mind.
"The original house," Bob told us, working a key in the front-door lock, "Was built about 1885, had only three rooms ... a kitchen, a parlor-dining room, and an upstairs with two sleeping areas. You can't call them rooms because they have no ceilings, just dividers ... partitions. An addition about 1900 added two rooms. You'll see."
The door opened with a rusty creak and groan.
Frannie had an appalled look on her ashen face, as though Bob might want her to live here.
"Uncle Luther had this addition put on a little before I was born," Bob replied. A kid in a candy shop could not have looked happier. "I've always ever known the cottage this way. We always just called this part the wing."
Walking inside, crunching over the corpses of thousands of dead wasps on the wide pine-board floors, I peered around. I saw no interior walls or ceilings. The framing studs, floor joists for upstairs, and rafters were all bare, never finished. The partitions between living areas, however, roughly dividing the space into rooms, were naturally finished tongue-in-groove wood in good shape. I glanced at Frannie, who looked ill.
"Well, I'll be darned!" Bob said. "Plumbing! And electricity!"
He'd just noticed the cast-iron pipes and kitchen sink that Uncle Luther had installed in the 1930s. A complete little bathroom was upstairs surrounding the chimney corner. It had a four-legged cast-iron tub, a toilet, a two-tap wall-hung sink, and a real ceiling ... only ceiling in the house.
The wiring was rudimentary -- not many outlets -- but robust. It eliminated the need for kerosene lighting on all but the stormiest of summer evenings, when Niagara Mohawk's electricity supply was too rickety to withstand strong lightning.
"Uncle Luther never mentioned any of this improvement," Bob said. "But I wasn't keeping in real close touch with him either.
Bob had grown up in summers using the outhouse still attached to the back of the cottage, hauling water up the hill from the Columbian well pump in the center of the community, and bathing in the River.
The plumbing still worked well, even though unused since 1938, as near as we could tell. That was the date on the most recent National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post, and Liberty magazines that we found in the parlor.
"1938," Bob said. "That must've been about when Uncle Luther had gone blind enough not to be able to be a dentist and get up here anymore. First year for the Bridge, too. And Aunt Mattie had already died, no kids." The place had remained unoccupied and unattended for
fifteen years, more than my whole life then.
"Okay," said Frannie. "Plumbing and electricity. You'd scarcely get me to stay without those," she said, scowling at the inch-thick layer of wasps and filth on the floor. She also glanced at the wood-burning cook-stove in the kitchen corner and the wooden icebox, mentally cataloguing the absence of modern appliances. "This still isn't such a much", she concluded in her South Carolina way. She'd regained some of her natural face color.
In that summer of 1953, the cottage provided us with a northern haven away from Virginia's oppressive summer humidity in Richmond.
We were to stay that first summer for only two weeks. Although the main part of the cottage and wing were firmly planted on solid bald granite, and still quite sound, most of the entire front porch had fallen into eroding soil and merely dangled. The fifteen years of accumulated dead wasps, dust, and other assorted filthy debris inside made the place uninhabitable without major cleanup. We retired for a week to T.I. Park’s one remaining hotel, the Geneva.
For the porch repairs, Bob contracted with a summer boyhood chum, Chancy Patterson. An iron man from years of hard outdoor living and toil, Chancy looked as though he had leprechauns as ancestors. At 50, his charming wizened smile had a boyish quality, revealing worn and weathered yellow teeth. His big triangular ears projected rakishly from his hair-shy head and sported great tufts of fur. An artist with his gnarly hands, he was equally adept either with the delicate carving and painting of a duck decoy or the brute-force hand-sawing of a four-sided point on the top end of a ten-by-ten porch corner post.
I helped Chancy the best I could. I fetched him tools and pieces of lumber. He talked non-stop while working, sometimes muttering to himself or to his work pieces, and at other times regaling me with stories. He made his living with work like this in summer. In fall and spring, he guided dudes on fishing forays or duck hunts. Through the winter and early spring, he trapped for fur ... mushrats, as he called them, being the mainstay, with an occasional prize fox or beaver.
"Dave," he said one day, "Some of them old outboards was hard to start, wasn't they?" Chancy was good with outboards and would often get a call from a cottager just to start a cranky engine.
"I remember one fall years ago," he recounted, "I had a duck-hunting party. Oh, geez, it was cold that morning! Skim ice all over. Couldn't bail the bottom of my sharpie for all the ice! Slipperier than mushrat guts on a linoleum floor! Couldn't hardly stand in it to crank the ol' outboard." I learned later that a sharpie is a flat-bottom, blunt nosed, homemade utility punt. I hated to interrupt Chancy's story to ask.
"Well, doncha know," he continued, "The ol' Lockwood wouldn't start. I cranked and cranked, choked and choked. Them was the old motors you hadda wind the rope around, you know. It was slow going. My hunters started fidgeting. I even lit some of the gas off on the carburetor in case it was iced."
"You set fire to your outboard motor?" I gaped.
"Well, sure, Dave. Just a little fire, you know, just in front. It's one of our old River tricks in the cold. It burns right off, and then you can start in roping her again. Works most every time."
I wasn't sure whether he was pulling my leg, part of the fun about Chancy's stories.
"Anyway," he continued, "I roped her some more. Still no go. I was getting pretty steamed. Then one of my hunters said something to me. Forget just what it was right now, but it really made me mad. I hunkered in my boat and just stared at that ol' motor for awhile. I got madder and madder. So I picked up my shotgun and shot 'er."
"You shot the outboard motor?"
"Yep, you betcha. Shot the gas tank right off'n her! I aimed pretty careful. Didn't really want to hurt her too much. 'Well, Boys,' I said. 'I guess we'll just hafta do this some other day.' I felt a lot better after that. It was too blue and cold for ducks that day anyways," he concluded.
Chancy had an endless stockpile of such incredible stories. I almost never heard him swear ... oh, perhaps a really rare damn or hell when he was irked beyond mere irritability. His abiding patience with almost everything seemed to eliminate most opportunities for swearing ... or for shooting his outboard motor, for that matter. I really had to wonder about that, and about many of his stories. On the other hand, just watching the way he went about things daily lent a lot of credibility to his stories.
While Chancy and I labored over the porch repair that week, Bob began scraping and painting the long-neglected cottage exterior. He used Sears Best White House Paint. Bob believed in Sears & Roebuck. He referred to their catalogue as the Wish Book and used it for most major household purchases. Our house in Richmond had several new Kenmore items: stove, washer, and vacuum cleaner.
Frannie swept and shoveled the dead wasps and other dust and filth. She kept my little sister, Susan, busy and out of trouble with an old feather duster she'd found. Frannie also found an old Hoover from the 1920s or early 30s in the alcove under the back stairs, and it still worked. She used it with delight on the floors after scooping up the big chunks. A steamer trunk in the front bedroom was full of bedding: sheets, quilts, and blankets, all nicely preserved in mothballs. She flung these over Chancy’s new upstairs porch rail to air for a day. At the end of that first week, we left the Geneva and moved in ... a breakthrough!
Frannie convinced Bob to stop work on his painting, at which he was too methodical and slow anyway.
"Honey," she said, "This is your vacation. Why don't you ask Chancy to finish painting after we leave?”
And so he did, relieved for permission to get his seventeen –stone off the ladder.
That beginning led to my summers -- and two winters -- residence in the Thousand Islands for the ensuing twenty years. Now I am just a regretful exile.
By Dave Whitford
Dave Whitford was a professional technical writer for IBM. However he is quick to report his overall background is “an exiled River Rat; boat mechanic at Reed's, Mercers, & Central Florida; and as a general misfit”. He now lives in East Virginia near Williamsburg. He is a contemporary of Dick Whithington and first wrote TI Life when he read about Dick’s experiences in Winter Islanders. His short story “Duck Hunting”, was published in TI Life in March 2010. In September 2011, he wrote “Tinkering” giving a tribute to the late Riggs Smith and Smith’s outboard racing days. “Tinkering” had previously been published in the literary magazine - Righter Monthly Review, In October, 2011 he wrote About Hunter Grimes. This article is is a true account of his family, friends and TI Park memories.