Preserving a treasured place: Grindstone Island fills many hearts on the St. Lawrence River

Barns dot the rural landscape of Grindstone Island. Photo by Leah Buletti / NNY Living

Grindstone Island is a place that seems to straddle two worlds, stuck somewhere between a simple agricultural past in which children attended a one-room schoolhouse and the sole town consisted only of a post office, store and church and a modern world where summer residents occupy well-manicured farm houses and 300 eager boaters flood Potter’s Beach on a typical summer Sunday.

Driving through Grindstone’s bucolic countryside — 15-square-miles of forests, wetlands and farms interspersed with about 130 homesteads — on an ATV, the contrast is apparent, history peeking out from every orifice. The island has a private air strip, but no cars, and hard-packed, well-maintained dirt roads alternate with winding trails in various states of overgrown. But lining the road that leads up from the island’s only public dock are about 15 rusting trucks and cars, slowly becoming part of the landscape, used by some in colder times when the St. Lawrence River freezes enough make the 1.27 miles to Clayton passable.

A private vineyard owned by the Purcell family on the property of an obscured house is only a short distance from the white clapboard lower schoolhouse, closed since the 1960s, an antique truck with Florida license plates parked on the neatly mowed lawn. On a bluff overlooking the river, Island-native Sylvia Anderson-Shoultes now spends summers with her son, the island’s mechanic, in a simple farmhouse with a newly renovated barn, the well-manicured lawn stretching to the river in the sun-drenched distance.

Barns, some owned by the Thousand Islands Land Trust and resplendent in their deep red hue against the seemingly limitless blue sky, and some slipping into disrepair, their necessary repairs outside anyone’s budget, dot the undeveloped landscape.

Some farmhouses, while showing their age only on close inspection — a back window falling in, a door shut a little too firmly — look well-kept, possibly only in need of another coat of white paint, but lie abandoned by the farmers and quarrymen who once formed the backbone of a vibrant island economy. The cheese factory, shuttered in the 1950s and now owned by the bank, is boarded up and slipping into decay, a no-trespassing sign prominently affixed to the front, the days when milk was processed in two immense vats long past.

Grindstone’s first residents — Algonquin Indians who came in the 1600s — were defeated by the Iroquois around 1660. The Senecas controlled the island in the 1700s, selling lumber to the English, which led to the Grindstone Island War — a conflict that arose because of the American militia’s attempt to stop timber sales. The island was settled in the early 1800s by lumbermen who sold logs in Montreal or Quebec City.

The first settler is thought to have been Amariel Howe, on the east side of the island near Thurso Bay in 1802.

The island became private land when the international boundary line was drawn through the Thousand Islands in 1822, making it U.S. property; the first patent of sale was in 1823 to Elisha Camp of Sackets Harbor.

Grindstone Island was called Gore Island in an 1816 survey, after Sir Francis Gore, who first served in the British Army and became lieutenant governor of Upper Canada in 1806, but it was known locally and predominantly as Grindstone before and after the survey, according to Susan W. Smith, who published a book titled The First Summer People: The Thousand Islands 1650-1910.

Red granite quarrying began on the island in the late 1870s when Robert Forsyth of Thurso, Scotland, started quarrying the granite to use in his cemetery monument works in Montreal, where he had settled, Ms. Smith said.

Although the days of productive quarrying were short lived — a strike closed the quarries only about 16 years later — they employed nearly 250 men and “had prodigious effect on the island landscape: the great landfills, the immense scars cut into the hillsides around Thurso,” according to a book titled Grindstone: An Island World Remembered, based on the manuscripts of lifelong island summer resident Stanley Norcom, and published in 1993.

Quarrying laid the groundwork for future economic development; Kate Kelly, wife of quarryman David Black, became the first post-mistress in Thurso in 1886.
Around the same time that the quarries shuttered, Grindstone’s cheese factory was built and became its main economic and social locus. For nearly half a century, 33 farmers brought their milk each morning to the factory, located at the center of the island.

“Necessarily almost every farm on the island was represented there in each morning’s queue of wagons. It was one of the primary spots where news and views as well as dairy products were exchanged,” according to Mr. Norcom’s manuscripts.

Ms. Anderson-Shoultes, who grew up on what is now Flynn Bay Farm on the southwestern side of the island, said that Grindstone Island cheese was “known all over” and shipped to hotels as far away as New York City and Chicago. Her grandparents were Finnish immigrants and bought a dairy cattle farm on the island in the 1930s. She recalled traveling first by horse and wagon and later by tractor to the factory and waiting in line for the cheese maker to test the milk for the correct amount of butter fat and absence of bacteria. Of course, there was a treat for the children who road along — cheese curd.

“You could hear that cheese squeak between your teeth,” Ms. Anderson-Shoultes recalled. “That’s the mark of good cheese curd.”

Before electricity arrived on Grindstone in 1955, the factory was closed when regulations prohibited cheese-making with unpasteurized milk.

But its days of productivity led to construction of the Upper School in 1885. The Lower School, located up the island near Rusho Bay and built in 1840, and the Upper School, today the Grindstone Island Research and Heritage Center, still stand. The Upper School was the last operating one-room schoolhouse in the state, not closing its doors until 1989.

The quarries and factory also led to a still-operational church and a general store, built in 1888, which housed the post office and sold cigarettes, candy, soft drinks, canned goods and fresh bread that came with the mail from Clayton. After the store closed mid-century, the post office was shuttled around to various homes before permanently closing in 1976.

Today, Brian C. Parker has a contract with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail by boat to Grindstone year-round, and to Murray Isle, Round and Grenell islands from mid-June to mid-September. The old store, called Dodge Hall, is still used for dances and social events and forms the backbone of the island’s social community.

With the quarries, factory, store, schools and post office relocated to mere relics of days gone by, the island’s future can seem like it’s hanging in a somewhat tenuous balance.

Mr. Norcom’s manuscripts leave off on a note of profound nostalgia for the island’s heyday.

“Even the church is no longer a preserver of the old life of the island, however,” he writes. “It lives on because it has accepted the island’s new populations and expresses their life and interests. The summer people do not know the old social world of the island and they cannot be its saviors.”

The Thousand Islands Land Trust protects about 39 percent of the Island. The 885 protected acres are spread over: Potter’s Beach (20 acres, the largest naturally occurring sand beach on the American side of the Thousand Islands), Potter’s Forest Preserve (200 acres), MidRiver Farm Preserve (165 acres), Douglas Howard-Smith Preserve (130 acres), Rusho Farm Preserve (140 acres), Delaney Farm Preserve (80), Heineman Forest Preserve (100 acres) and Grindstone Nature Trail (50 acres). TILT acts as steward of another 900 acres of wetlands, forest and grasslands on privately held property through conservation easements.

The forest and grassland preserves are mowed and kept as habitats, including the Heineman Songbird Forest on the northern point of the island for neo-tropical migratory songbirds from central and South America. The thousands of birds that come include meadowlarks, sand pipers, gold finches, thistles, yellow warblers and bobolinks, said Ken Deedy, TILT trustee and longtime summer resident of the island who seems to know its every crevice and story. Mr. Deedy has spearheaded many of TILT’s conservation efforts on the island.

At the wetland preserve at Delany Bay, a dam keeps water in the grassland to preserve the habitat and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry has installed a fish ladder to study and spawn fish. TILT has been working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to reclaim some of the grassland habitats at the Howard-Smith and Rusho preserves, which were once farmland. Along with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, TILT manages the Grindstone Island Nature Trail, which connects Canoe Point and Picnic Point State Parks at the foot of the Island.

TILT Executive Director Jake R. Tibbles said the trust plans to conserve additional land on the island and is working with SUNY ESF using Geographic Information System analysis to develop a strategic conservation plan. That analysis includes factors like soils, endangered species, wetlands, forest lands, rare plants, hydrology, demographics and development pressures.

“The cultural, historical, ecological and agricultural character of the island has been conserved for present and future generations,” Mr. Tibbles said. “Grindstone Island represents a unique balance between development and land conservation and historic preservation.”

Mr. Deedy said that there have only been three or four non-farm transfers on the island in the past four years, in part because not much is for sale, and in part because what is doesn’t sell quickly; two waterfront houses sold this year, but were on the market for about five years. He believes Grindstone will always have a population of summer residents, but added that island living is not suited to everyone.

Summer resident Sally Boss, whose ancestors owned the Potters Beach property sold to TILT, has a summer cottage near the point facing Gananoque and has been coming to the island her whole life.

“Potters Beach was always part of my family,” she said. “I said to my husband, ‘don’t take me from the St. Lawrence River, it’s in my blood,’ and he never has.”

For summer residents, too, the travails of island life of old aren’t far away. Pennsylvania residents Jonnie Muckley and Gary King bought 170 acres on the island 28 years ago for a cattle farm. Mrs. Muckley said that she and her husband loved the area and were looking at buying on various smaller islands but decided against it because they thought that in three years, they “would know every rock.”

She recalled the first night they stayed overnight on the island in tents with no electricity or water. In the morning, she said, a neighbor and native islander brought over hot water and coffee — exemplifying the spirit of all the island’s residents, whom she called “family.”

“The people on this island might fight or disagree, but if you’re in trouble, there’s no question they’d come to help you,” she said. “That’s the kind of people they are.”

Mr. Norcom’s manuscripts echo the idea of a sort of unspoken bond webbing through the islanders’ hardy blood: “No one lorded over Grindstone Island. Not even a deputy sheriff lived there. The islanders lived by their own internal law.”

Mrs. Muckley and her husband spent several years living in tents inside the home’s living room when they came up for weekends or weeks at a time to maintain the farm as they gutted the house. It wasn’t until last year that the house even had a bathroom. The house now has heat and water inside and Mrs. Muckley said she comes to the island as often as possible, on weekends or when she can get time off, up until it’s no longer passable to get to the island by barge. Her husband travels to the island at least every two weeks in the winter, using an airboat, to maintain the farm.

Their farm is one of only four active beef farms on the island today. Only about eight people still live on the island year-round, including 90-year-old Madgil Brown.

Ms. Anderson-Shoultes, who attended the one-room schoolhouse from first to seventh grade before traveling to Clayton for school, walked to school or the dock regardless of winter conditions and recounts harrowing stories of whiteouts en route. Without refrigeration until the late 1950s, families kept everything in ice houses with ice brought by horse-drawn sleighs in the winter that lasted all summer and produced nearly all of their own food. Though Ms. Anderson-Shoultes left the island to attend college in Syracuse and now only spends summers on Grindstone, she struggles to articulate the depth of meaning in her connection to the island.

She believes people will always live on the island and said most islanders “want the island to stay the way it is,” without a bridge or other development. Other than more modern conveniences, people live “about the same” today as they once did, she said, and could easily live without electricity if need be.

“We take care of our own,” she said. “It’s peaceful and quiet.”

And the island is intrinsically rejuvenating. When battling breast cancer in 1994, she said she begged to return to the island during a break in chemotherapy treatments. Within a week, she felt like her strength had doubled and like her energy was returning, she said.

“When I’m here, I feel so much better,” she said. “You have a purpose here. I look outside every morning and say ‘I’m glad I’m alive, this is so beautiful.’”

Being on the island also keeps her in motion, mowing the lawn, appreciating the outdoors and running her gift shop, Acorn Studios, where she sells clothing embroidered with a Grindstone Island logo and various other fabric items like blankets and handbags.

“Here there’s a purpose,” she repeated, adding that many of the older women who have lived on the island, including her mother, who stayed “up until almost her last breath” at 82, echoed a similar sentiment.

“If they couldn’t come to the island, they would rather die,” Ms. Anderson-Shoultes said.

Leah Buletti is a staff writer for NNY Magazines. Contact her at 661-2381 or lbuletti@wdt.net.