Grenellians have an intense attachment to That’s Her. For me, the stories make her seem larger than life. I’ve never ridden in That’s Her. I remember seeing her hanging over the water in the big, gray boathouse at Chalks, but I’ve never even seen her in the water.
I’ve heard how people would stand on the dock and peer across the water to catch a glimpse of her white hull. How they would strain their ears to hear the sweet chug of her engine. How when they saw her their hearts lifted and they would point and shout out, “That’s Her!” I’ve always felt I missed a huge part of what makes you a true Grenellian because I arrived on the island too late to have experienced That’s Her. That might all change this month.
That’s Her was built in 1933 by Brainard Robbins to ferry families between Fishers Landing and the islands. Grenell Island was by no means her only stop. There were other islands she went to: Twin Island, Castle Francis, Basswood, Picton, Maple, Lone Pine. Sometimes she was hired for special events and weddings. But for the most part, That’s Her’s bread-and-butter run was between Fishers Landing, Murray and Grenell.
Her builder, Brainard Robbins, was born in 1877, about the time his father, Eldridge G. Robbins, was building and moving buildings all over the newly subdivided Grenell Island Park. E. G. Robbins, sailor and builder, ended up as a year around resident of Grenell with his family. When Brainard married in 1899 he brought his wife to Grenell to live. They eventually moved from Grenell to Fishers Landing where he set up a livery service. Eldridge evidently taught his son well about boats and boat building.
Brainard built the hull of That’s Her in the old Otis Brooks Lumber mill building that is now a part of the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton. He floated her downriver to Fishers Landing where he’d finish the cabin. A crowd had gathered that morning to watch for the new boat. As the story goes, someone spied her in the channel, pointed and shouted out, “That’s Her!” The name stuck.
In 1945, Harry and Hazel Chalk bought the livery service from Robbins. It was a family enterprise. Duane Chalk was 15 and started captaining That’s Her the same year. Of course, running That’s Her was not his primary duty. That duty fell to Harry. Hazel ran Terry, a 22-ft. Hutchinson. When they didn’t have enough people to fill That’s Her, Hazel captained Terry instead. In the early years, Duane was a combination bellhop, valet and gas station attendant. Islanders would arrive in their cars and unload their stuff on the dock: suitcases, groceries, dogs, cats, organs, refrigerators--whatever they were taking to the island that year. Duane’s job was to move the car to the parking area. Before he did, he checked the oil and filled it with gas. He would hang the car keys on a rack near the backdoor of their house. When the islanders’ vacation was over, their car would be waiting by the dock when they arrived, gassed up and ready to go.
It’s hard for us in this age of instant communication to imagine life without phones, but back in the forties and fifties, most people on the islands did not have phones. There were exceptions, but for the most part people made arrangements for pick-up when Harry dropped them off. Harry wrote all the appointments in a notebook that he kept next to him on the seat. This was his bible. Hazel was the one who would decide if they would take Terry for a small trip or That’s Her for more people.
When the Chalks bought That’s Her from Capt. Robbins, she had wicker chairs. When the water was choppy, the wicker chairs would slide across the deck. Besides, they took up so much room. Eventually, Chalks took out the wicker chairs and replaced them with benches. The benches made it easier for people to load all their stuff onto That’s Her.
That’s Her was the lifeline for the islands. She brought what we needed and took away what we didn’t. She brought babies on their first trip to the family cottage and took away the bodies of those who died on the island. When someone fell off the roof, you didn’t call the fireboat…you ran to the pay phone at the Store and called for That’s Her. No stretchers aboard, so they might improvise and use a shutter, lovingly loading the injured aboard and whisk them to Fishers Landing to wait for the ambulance. Hazel Chalk had been an RN before they bought the business and she tended to many injured people as they waited for help to arrive. No one’s bothered to count how many lives she saved through the years.
Through the forties, fifties and sixties, That’s Her was the heart and soul of Chalk’s business and the darling of the islanders. With her flat bottom and sleek design she sliced through rough water. Duane remembers being in the channel in front of the Rock Island Lighthouse one rough river day with five-foot seas. That’s Her handled the waves without too much pitch and roll. She would rise up and sink down into the water, the spray shooting over the bow and the entire length of the cabin roof and drenching the people in the very back. They might’ve gotten wet, but That’s Her kept her course and safely delivered her precious cargo.
Bob Kewin remembers being in That’s Her one foggy day en route to Grenell and wondering if Harry knew where he was. They seemed to meander around lost in the fog for sometime before suddenly coming up to the Grenell Island Store dock. If he had been lost, Harry didn’t admit it. What did it matter if he were? They were there safe and sound now. Harry seemed to have the magic touch.
When I listen to the stories I try to put my finger on what was so special about the That’s Her experience. Was it Harry? Or was it That’s Her? Perhaps it was the combination of the two that made a trip from the mainland to the island and back enchanting.
That’s Her was a labor of love for the entire Chalk family. Almost every night after dinner, you would find Harry Chalk on That’s Her, tinkering with her engine or cleaning. Anytime he returned from a trip he topped off her gas tank. She was always at the ready with a full tank of gas.
That’s Her’s hull was painted every spring. After the coat of gleaming white paint had dried, Hazel would hand-paint her name on both sides of her sleek bow. Duane might paint the hull, but it was his mother who applied the varnish. Duane explained that when it came to varnish---his mother was an artist. She didn’t paint it on, she pushed it on with the finesse of an old-world craftsman. No pollen. No dust. No streaks. No drips. Only perfect gleaming varnished wood.
But times changed. People got their own boats. The business shifted from livery service to marina. At first That’s Her was hoisted up in a big boathouse. Eventually, the old gray boathouse was torn down. That’s Her was moved from being over water to the concrete floor of the show room. Every year my husband, Gary, would stop to look at her through the glass and tell me a story about That’s Her, Harry or Hazel. She isn’t just a boat; she’s a legend.
I went to visit Duane last summer to tell him about our Grenell Island Antique Boat Parade as part of our centennial celebration. Before I could ask him if there was any way That’s Her could be ready to be in the water for the parade he said, “If any boat deserves to be in that parade, it’s That’s Her.” He had been working on restoring her. Now he had a deadline. I know Duane has been working hard getting her ready. When he’s not volunteering at the Antique Boat Museum, he’s rebuilding an icon.
Because the boat sat over concrete for so long all the boards dried out. Wooden boats like a moist environment, not a concrete slab. So Duane has replaced many planks and even fashioned a new stem and knee—parts of the prow—which had rotted. Fellow Grenellian, Stu Cough, helped Duane a few years ago replacing some ribs and bottom planks. Duane’s knees aren’t what they used to be. Stu is shorter, spry and an excellent boat craftsman besides. Duane also replaced all the pistons in her 6-cylinder Chrysler 125 H. P. engine. He made his own copper tubing apparatus to augment a fuel pump issue. You couldn’t entrust That’s Her’s engine or hull to a more capable custodian.
He’s varnished the benches, re-hung the windows, re-varnished her transom. “I learned from the best you know,” he said, when we admired how she gleamed. But that’s only the half of it. Lots of logistics when it comes to a boat that size. That’s Her is 39 feet and 8 inches and no one knows how much she weighs….let’s just say a lot. How to transport her, get her in the water where to dock her once he does. Lots of details to workout.
At the June Grenell Island Improvement Association meeting, I made the first tentative announcement. I hadn’t dared to mention it a year ago. I didn’t want to raise anyone’s hopes and then disappoint them. I told the crowd of islanders that I’d talked to Duane Chalk last week. “He’s been working on That’s Her in hopes of having her ready for the Grenell Island Antique Boat Parade on July 28th,” I told them. Heads perked up. Eyes widened. One or two gasped excitedly. The shift of energy in the room was palpable. Then came the flurry of questions. When? Where? Are you sure?
No, I’m not sure. But I close my eyes and listen for the sweet chug of her engine. With my eyes closed, I can see her white hull slicing through the water. When I open my eyes I see the excitement and anticipation of experiencing something magical on the faces of my neighbors.
Maybe this is the year I will become a true Grenellian.
By Lynn E. McElfresh
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 this summer. Click here to see all of Lynn’s contributions!