Photo © Ian Coristine/1000IslandsPhotoArt.com
 You are here:  Back Issues      Archive Search   

“That’s Her” Story…


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!

 

  • Barry and Duane Chalk next to That’s Her.

    Barry and Duane Chalk next to That’s Her.

  • Duane admires the model that Brainard Robbins made to aid him in constructing “That’s Her”.

    Duane admires the model that Brainard Robbins made to aid him in constructing “That’s Her”.

  • Stuart Clough helps with the ribbing.

    Stuart Clough helps with the ribbing.

  • "That's Her" ready to go...

 

Print this story
Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.

Comments

Lynn McElfresh
Comment by: Lynn McElfresh ( )
Left at: 7:04 AM Sunday, July 15, 2012
Thanks Susie for making my words and pictures looks so good! Duane told me that there was an old 8mm movie of That's Her. Very excited when I read in Susie's In TIL This Month about Riverstories.org. There is a video of That's Her! Thousand Islands LIfe is such a treasure. Thank you Susie for all the work you do!
Jan Hampton
Comment by: Jan Hampton ( )
Left at: 12:43 PM Sunday, July 15, 2012
Loved this story and seeing great old photographs !.
Karen Reed Lafave
Comment by: Karen Reed Lafave ( )
Left at: 8:17 PM Monday, July 16, 2012
Living there I would go on Thats Her with my girlfriends ,with Harry at the wheel. Every trip was different and exciting. We would jump off the boat tie it ,and help all the Islandeners off so they could spend their best time of the weekend away from the city, to the most relaxing place in the world ,to the Islands.





Skip Tolette
Comment by: Skip Tolette ( )
Left at: 9:08 AM Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Barry says we may have an opportunity for a ride!!! Can't wait. Joan & Skip
Ann Ward
Comment by: Ann Ward ( )
Left at: 1:09 PM Tuesday, July 17, 2012
I so enjoyed reading this article, and looking at the photos, as the Ward photos have my handwriting on them, and that is my family. Such memories! My children continue to visit Grenell regularly (Cordes, Ward and Spagnuolo) and their children and my great grandchildren love it still!!
Kim Smith
Comment by: Kim Smith
Left at: 5:48 PM Saturday, July 21, 2012
I am from Murray, and we always took That's Her! My biggest memory is of when I was 12. I was in a full body cast from scoliosis surgery and they loaded me in on a handmade stretcher and took me to the island. My Mom told me years later that so was so afraid the whole way that Harry would hit a shoal and I would sink along with the boat! (Low water year, I guess)!!!!
Ted Bradford
Comment by: Ted Bradford ( )
Left at: 9:55 AM Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Great story. I love these old boats. Kudos to those that have the passion and skill, (not to mention, money) to keep them going. I look forward to seeing "her" on the water this summer. I only wish that someone would do what has to be done to get the "Island Heritage" back into the water. It was once a Snider Boat Line craft and then spent many years as part of the Ivy Lea fleet. A wonderful little tour boat and it's a shame to imagine her on blocks deteriorating.
Don Nims
Comment by: Don Nims ( )
Left at: 6:08 PM Tuesday, July 31, 2012
After dropping my family off at Grenell I remember the thrill of riding in the back of That's Her to help others load and unload. Quarter tips went far back in the day. It was nice to see her back on the water.
marilyn strine colangelo
Comment by: marilyn strine colangelo ( )
Left at: 11:21 AM Friday, August 3, 2012
I also remember seeing this beauiful boat making her trips across the river, and hearing her engine especially when it was foggy or gray. Terrific seeing her now back on the river. In the 1950's and 60's we had a trailer on Wellesley Island on the rivers edge across from Chalks.
Thanks for a great article and pictures and to Chalks for the memories. Marilyn
lyle maldoon
Comment by: lyle maldoon ( )
Left at: 8:53 AM Monday, August 20, 2012
My wife is Rita Chalk, Duane's sister and the daughter of Harry and Hazel Chalk. In fact, the top picture of this story shows Harry, Hazel and the young lady kneeling between Harry and Hazel is Rita. Rita also had a Captain's License at the age of 18. Rita and I were married in 1955 and spent summer weekends in Fishers Landing helping at the marina. Our two daughters (Dawn and Shari) have very fond memories of helping Grampa Chalk on That's Her. Our family and Duane's family (except Johnny who had to work) were ALL on board That's Her for the beginning of the Grenell Boat Parade. WHAT A THRILL THIS WAS FOR ALL OF US.
Nick Cerretani
Comment by: Nick Cerretani ( )
Left at: 11:23 AM Monday, December 24, 2012
What a great story, and what wonderful memories! Like so many other kids, my brother and I often rode with Harry as he ferried people to the islands. He always had a smile and a kind word for us, and made a point of teaching us how to safely navigate the river. I can only imagine how many more props we would have destroyed without his guidance. After all these years, I still remember the childhood excitement of getting to ride up front with Harry in That's Her. Thanks for the excellent story.
Carolyn Nastasi Fame
Comment by: Carolyn Nastasi Fame ( )
Left at: 11:36 AM Thursday, October 10, 2013
Most of my greatest childhood memories involved vacationing at Thousand Islands .. Grenell Island; and arriving on the island sometimes by That's Her.. we still have our cottage on Grenell and love watching our kids making their memories as well.
Lynn McElfresh
Comment by: Lynn McElfresh ( )
Left at: 5:02 PM Thursday, October 10, 2013
So many memories! Isn't Grenell grand?
Timothy Freeman
Comment by: Timothy Freeman ( )
Left at: 12:11 PM Monday, March 17, 2014
Fond memories spent my childhood summers on basswoood island in the mid 50s went to chalks to get gas rode boats many times
Mike Shoemaker
Comment by: Mike Shoemaker
Left at: 3:31 PM Monday, September 8, 2014
I am so glad to read this article, and all the comments people wrote about my Great Uncle Brainard
Robert Charron
Comment by: Robert Charron
Left at: 9:55 PM Tuesday, July 12, 2016
I just saw Duane Chalk and That's Her at the Thousand Islands Chapter of ACBS (the Antique and Classic Boat Society) Boat Show in ABay. They have been a fixture at boat shows on the River for many years. I think it's time to arrange a ride with Duane on this wonderful vessel. How do I contact him?
Charlie Hofer
Comment by: Charlie Hofer
Left at: 3:39 PM Saturday, July 8, 2017
I am a direct descendant of Eldridge and Brainard Robbins, Eldridge is my great-great-great Uncle and Brainard is a cousin, I knew they were builders and heard stories about them on the water, but I never saw anything they built, thats a fine ship and I am so proud that something built so long ago is so well preserved and maintained. Beautiful story and ship.

Post Comment

Name (required)

Email (required)