“How many cottages are on the island?”
This is usually the first question I’m asked when I begin to describe life on Grenell. You would think that after 35 seasons on Grenell, I would have a definitive answer to that question, but I’ve always had to guess. I usually said about 64, but really didn’t know.
Last spring, with clipboard in hand, I walked around Grenell counting each cottage on the island. Before I left, I had to clarify in my head exactly what I was counting. Grenell bristles with buildings. There are boathouses, pump houses, bunkhouses, storage sheds and workshops. I decided that a kitchen and a bathroom were necessary, if I were going to consider a building to be a cottage. I was surprised that there were 70 cottages. Adding Weehouse on the little island in South Bay brought the total to 71. I had thought there were only 64. I had been way off.
Then, in preparation for the Grenell Island Improvement Association’s 100th anniversary this year, I started collecting cottage histories. It got very complicated.
I’d assumed most Grenell cottage histories would mirror our family cottage histories. The condensed version looks like this: first, our cottages were built on the island (the little cottage in 1880 and the big cottage in 1895) and passed down from generation to generation with our grandkids waiting in line as 6th generation. But I was wrong. Most cottages histories weren’t like that at all. First of all, many of the cottages weren’t built on Grenell. Many cottages were built somewhere else and brought across the ice or via barge to the island. Cottages built on the island were often moved around like pieces on a checkerboard. They were moved from one side of the island to another side. They were moved from the shoreline to the hillside. One cottage was turned 90 degrees for a better view.
Sometimes, cottages started out as other buildings and were converted into cottages. Other times, cottages were turned into boathouses. But the reverse was also true: boathouses were turned into cottages. In more than one instance, old icehouses were turned into cottages. At least one cottage was stripped of its porch and turned into a storage shed.
Over the years, Grenell has lost cottages. Several were lost to fire, some were torn down and one cottage was moved from Grenell to the Lake of the Isles.
If the cottages stayed in one place, it was the people who moved. Some families have been on the island for generations, but have lived in as many as three different cottages.
It seems the good life on Grenell is contagious. After coming to visit cottage owners on Grenell for a week or two, relatives or friends might buy an existing cottage or build their own somewhere on the island.
There are clusters of cottages belonging to a group of relatives as in the Smith/Hendley/DuBon compound on the north side of the island. Sometimes family cottages were scattered around the island. Jesse L. Hinds built 3 cottages on Grenell—one for each of his daughters—on lots dotted about the island.
And through the years there have been many summer romances with someone from a long time island family marrying another person with long time roots on Grenell. Hence, some residents grew up with both sets of grandparents owning a cottage on the island. I soon realized that it was almost impossible to understand the history of families and cottages on Grenell without genealogy charts.
As if that wasn’t hard enough, there were families with either the same or similar surnames, who are not related. Not so odd to have two different Smith families, but I find it hard to believe that there were two Schnabel families on the island that aren’t related. And what are the odds of having Hines, Heinz and Hinds within a stone’s throw of each other?
Most cottages were built between 1880 and 1920. Only a handful of cottages were built on the island after 1920. Other cottages have undergone dramatic remodels. One-story cottages became two-story cottages. One-bedroom cottages morphed into three-bedroom cottages. Many cottages were piecemealed together through the years. Our little cottage being one of those. It started as a tent platform that they added walls to form a kitchen, while they slept in the tent. Then through the years different rooms were added. Today it has a kitchen, dining room, living room, 3 bedrooms, a bath and of course a porch.
While most were built as family summer cottages, other cottages were built as rentals or boarding houses. Our big cottage was built as a rental in 1895. Aunt Alice was a widow by then and built a second cottage for the chief purpose of raising money to pay taxes each year. Other cottages were built as boarding houses. Many Grenell families got their start in these rental or boarding house cottages, fell in love with the island and either bought an existing cottage or built a cottage of their own.
Some of the cottages are huge. Some are tiny. It’s hard to say who has the smallest cottage on the island, but it’s easy to say who has the largest cottage. Grenell has it’s own castle perched on the tip-top center of the island. Originally built in 1895 by Philip M. Sharples, inventor of the cream separator, the large stone cottage currently belongs to the Hummel family. The dining room is on the third floor with a dumbwaiter to the kitchen below. Windows on either side of the dining room provide sweeping river views on either side of the island.
Some cottages have been well preserved with nearly original kitchens and others have been taken down to the foundation, leaving one wall standing so it’s considered a rebuild and totally reconfigured.
Big or little, meticulously updated or painstakingly original, our cottages are a labor of love. As I said in “Cottage Life Isn’t for Sissies” (ThousandIslandsLife 6/10):
Most of us consider that we don’t own these homes as much as we are stewards of them for this generation. In our case, three generations have maintained these cottages before us and two generations are waiting in line for them. Maintaining the cottages from water intake to leach field from foundation to roof peak is like paying homage not only to this place, but the generations that came before us
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past three years from Lynn McElfresh’s musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends, taking nature walks and the importance of trees. Currently she is helping to compile the history of Grenell for its 100th Birthday coming up this summer. We thank Lynn for providing another answer to “How many cottages on the island?”
To see all of Lynn’s island experiences search TI Life under Lynn E. McElfresh.