In the spring of 2004, the Wolfe Island Heritage Committee led by Chair Linda Thomas, began a summertime project consisting of interviewing the senior citizens of Wolfe Island.
Their goal? Capturing memories.
“It began as a spark of an idea that grew from conversations about the wonderful ‘Island’ stories that were being lost with the deaths of a number of our very senior citizens,” said Linda Thomas. “Sarah Sorensen, our summer student, was at that time in her third year at Queen’s University majoring in History and English, and had a deep interest in the subject. Sarah started conducting interviews. From the first one, for which we later discovered the tape recorder hadn’t been working, through many trips, with a marginally better tape recorder, we have gathered a wealth, of what we think is truly wonderful material.”
“Equipped with an old cassette tape recorder, a notepad and a rough list of questions, I was welcomed into the homes of some of the nicest, most interesting people I’ve ever met,” said interviewer Sarah Sorensen. “As I listened to them talk about Wolfe Island as it was in older days, I left behind the world of today and entered a world I knew little about. As we discovered, it was a world inspired by many questions.
“Thankfully, I received many answers.”
In 2004, the Wolfe Island Heritage Committee began as a joint undertaking of the Wolfe Island Business and Tourism Association (WIBTA), and the long standing Wolfe Island’s Women’s Institute (WI WI). Those on this committee were, Theresa Broeders (WIWI), Margaret Knott (WIBTA), Maureen Lollar (WIWI), Brian MacDonald (WIBTA), Linda Thomas (WIBTA) and Linda Van Hal (WIWI). The interviewers themselves who knocked on countless doors were, Sarah Sorensen, Theresa Broeders, Katharine Church and Tabitha Baker.
Tapes were listened to, and transcribed onto paper. Meantime, in late 2005, the Wolfe Island Historical Society was founded by Island newcomer and former Montrealer Victoria Stewart. I too, became involved. Gathering photos and material for our own archives took most of the next couple of years as the WIHS slowly gained ground to establish itself. Our own committee and the original exec of the WIHS consisted of myself as president, Hank Connell Vice President, Secretary Victoria Stewart, Treasurer Brian MacDonald with Theresa Broeders, Norma Kelly, Donna Ivey and Island historian John O’Shea who turned down the role for president. Pat Casey came on board shortly after.
The subject of the Wolfe Island Heritage Committee project ‘senior interviews’ came up time and again during some of our WIHS speaker nights by several members.
I was invited to a WIBTA meeting in early 2008 and was asked if I could look over the transcripts of the many interviews. Many members of WIBTA were fans of my own stories involving Wolfe Island and St. Lawrence River history published in the Kingston Whig Standard and Thousand Islands Life.
These interviews really were a treasure trove of Wolfe Island memories. Many of which I heard while privileged to ride in the wheelhouse of the former MS Wolfe Islander as a kid, seated on a high stool next to the polished binnacle and listening to tales from Captains RF Fawcett, Harold Hogan and Buck Mullin. Why, they even let me steer the big boat, on occasion. Sadly, these captains, my own mentors, are gone now. And with them, their own voiced memories and stories of early Wolfe Island told in diction as only they could tell them. But many of these stories were now on paper. And these stapled papers were now piled in front of me. The WIBTA Committee asked if I could or would do something with them?
Well, I said I’d try.
Together, Sarah Sorensen and I developed the interviews into various themes. We found that these people lived through the most interesting and changing times of Wolfe Island’s history. The steamboat era: ‘...the ‘ol paddle wheeler continues to plug through... as if by sheer willpower she knew she must...’; the horseless carriage: ‘there’s no horse Irene... there’s no horse pullin’ it...’; crossing the frozen three mile channel of dangerous ice with ‘Tricky’ McDermott and Minnie the mare: ‘Minnie grew tired of waitin’ for him so she struck out across the ice with loaded packages on her own...’; World War I followed by the Great Depression and the coming of electricity to the farms: ‘...just ask for a hat pin Jackie (my Dad)... stick it into one of the sockets...’; the impassable mud roads during springtime and many, many quotes from Island historian and legendary storyteller Johnny O’Shea.
On Saturday, April 26, 2008 WIBTA sponsored the book launching of ‘Growing Up on Wolfe Island’ a compilation of life and stories during the early part of the last century on the biggest island of the Thousand Islands. The ‘packed house’ event took place in Wolfe Island’s Community Hall. Sarah Sorensen, Linda Thomas and I watched as the ‘authors’ gathered together for a group photograph and then signed copies of their book, answering many questions throughout the afternoon.
The interviewed Islanders themselves, are the storytellers.
Just recently, the Wolfe Island Historical Society has acquired the remaining copies of this popular history/storytelling book from WIBTA and the Wolfe Island Women’s Institute, the original sponsors. The present executive of the WIHS under the guidance of President Denis Chercuitte, felt that the books, while available at local bookstores, will now be front and centre at speaker nights, usually held every last Wednesday of the month at the United Church Hall in Marysville, available to members and guests. They will also be available in the newly renovated Old House Museum, soon to open its doors for the 2013 season.
Now in its third printing, many of the storytellers – the actual authors - who were present at the book launching are now gone. But their memories remain – and they’re all here.
Like the ‘Old House Museum’ the Island’s oldest building, these stories are about a community celebrating their history. On speaking at the celebration of the village of Marysville’s 150th Anniversary in 2008, WIHS Founder and Vice-President, the late Victoria M. Stewart stated: “One cannot buy community spirit, nor can any body, political or otherwise, demand it. It grows of its own accord, nurtured by the collective goodwill and support of those who work toward a common goal.”
These folks certainly were ‘community spirited’ Wolfe Islanders; storytellers relating their childhood experiences in their own distinct dialect. These chapters were their memories and this is how it was for them.... Growing Up on Wolfe Island.
By Brian Johnson, co-editor: Growing Up on Wolfe Island, and founding president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society.
Brian Paul Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years, recently celebrating 20+ years as captain. We often see him pass through the islands as captain of the Canadian Empress. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area he has written for the Kingston Whig Standard, Telescope magazine and the Great Lakes Boatnerd Website:“Seaway News”. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society and former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime mystery writer’s festival held on the island every August.