Many people think that a summer home on an island is a posh luxury of the privileged few. In fact, island life, for many, is occupied more by work on the buildings, grounds and boats than by carefree leisure. Nowhere has this been more the case than on Hickory Island for most of the past two centuries, and across three different families.
Hickory is the large Canadian island between Grindstone and Wolfe, nearly eighty acres, making it one of the largest of the Thousand Islands. It became a subsistence farm of the Livingston family after the War of 1812, and then, at the outset of the next century, a model farm and showplace. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that the island became exclusively a summer place.
At that time, part of the island passed from the hands of one New York City family to another. The farming ended, but the work did not. Both families have maintained their places since then by the sweat of their brows.
The Wood family, who bought the whole island at the turn of the twentieth century, has, since then, built over a half dozen summer houses, of varying designs and locations, and only occasionally with hired help. Their family members live across North America and the Atlantic Ocean, and their places on the island have served as the focal point of family identity and common life. Their vacations are largely working vacations, but entirely labors of love.
The Woods built a complex of houses and buildings in 1901, after the island had burned. The island became a destination for tour boats from Clayton, with Scottish-style gardens beside the Dutch Colonial houses. A staff of farmers, tradesmen and domestic workers maintained this large island estate.
The mid-twentieth century brought the Pfeiffers to Hickory, taking over about a third of the island in 1948, including all but one of the original buildings and most of the maintenance. My father, Dr. Raymond Louis Pfeiffer and mother, Gertrude Bard Smith Pfeiffer, hired a full-time caretaker and other help, when the children were young. Despite this appearance of gentility, for this family, as well as others, the focus then, as now, was work. Even our dog, a Shetland Sheepdog, Dusty, was a working dog, trained for obedience and held to it by his masters.
Our family was, and still is, ensnared in the Puritanical ethic of “Work hard and go, by the Grace of God.” Of course, the exact end of all this was, and is, in some doubt. But the road there, and the means of transport, were not, and, for most of us, still are not. As children in the nineteen forties and fifties, my siblings and I learned the meaning of work by being required to work, despite regular resistance that was, in fact, futile!
Routine jobs were required of my brother and two sisters pertaining to four main spheres: caring for animals, meals, the huge three-acre lawn and the boats. We took care of our cat, Suzy, our dog, Dusty, the horse, Ola, goats and baby Rayboy! He needed watching, and even, at times, incarceration, and brothers and sisters did what they had to (and perhaps even enjoyed). It was we who set the table, cleared it, washed the dishes, put them away, cleaned up, made salads and swept up. We picked up sticks on the lawn, mowed and trimmed it, raked and pitched in to help clean up when a branch or tree had fallen or been cut. But the Sisyphean task, required by Mother, not the gods, was pulling weeds for three hours weekly.
The tennis court had nailed tapes, and the nailing was as mental as it was physical. The boathouse had world-class colonies of spiders, and to us fell the odious, crawling job of sweeping them away for the day. Some old wooden boats, including a canoe and St. Lawrence skiffs, needed work, and we supplied it. These jobs occupied a large part of each day, and were done, at times begrudgingly, but often with alacrity.
On Hickory, my mother, a summer resident of the Thousand Islands from birth, born to a heritage of New England Yankees and another of immigrant Germans, worked all day, every day, only in her later years finding time to read and write. A graduate of Barnard College, she cooked, cared for her children, cleaned the house, washed the clothing, cultivated, planted, weeded and harvested the raspberry and vegetable gardens, and created a large flower rock garden. She managed the place fully, guiding the caretaker, while my father was operating on eyes and saving the sight of countless people, of all incomes, in New York City. Renewing the old clay tennis court was a project that Mother took on, and followed to completion with the help of the children. When a truck bringing gravel for it got stuck and had to dump its load, it was the children who went in and picked it out of the River. Then, later, she had dozens of huge old poplars cut down, and the children helped clean up the huge mess. She said repeatedly that we were privileged to be able to do the work that was needed.
My mother and father were practitioners and professors of the work ethic, and I could, if pressed, repeat some of their lectures verbatim! But the chief exemplar of work was the Hickory Island caretaker for thirty-nine years, Jack Andress. He arrived six days each week, by nine o’clock with milk and two cans of gasoline for the generator, and occasional messages. He had a telephone at home in Gananoque, with a party line, and made valuable contacts with specialized, skilled workers such as the climbing tree cutter, “Bingy” Jackson. But it was Jack who felled the trees, cut them up, repaired the old plumbing and the appliances, and also the engines. He scraped and painted the place every summer, and did carpentry, varnishing, and boat maintenance, as well as the opening and closing of the place. One fall, he put an entire new bottom in our plywood, lapstrake Lyman Islander.
Jack had learned his diverse skills from his father, Raymond Andress, the last owner and chief craftsman of Andress Boat Works. It was located for three quarters of a century on the east side of the Gananoque River next to the swing bridge. Jack was a veteran of the “prairie war” during World War II, serving as an airplane body mechanic somewhere out in the Canadian prairies. A man of wit and good humor, he attributed to his Yankee forefathers whatever virtues you might think that he had. They were from New England and were, he explained, good people who had gone awry: They were “Yankees who bet on the wrong horse.” That is, they were United Empire Loyalists who fled new England and the misguided American Revolution. In the end, though, it was also their fault that he had to undergo the humiliation of the “Diefendollar.”
Jack Andress was more than a caretaker. He was my companion all day, most days, for many years, until I was about fourteen. He was, for us, the entertainment of the day, and never begrudged our company as he worked. My sister, Jean, had followed him around as he did his jobs, and responded to her comments and questions. He did the same for me, answering an endless barrage of questions on every subject that I could think of. The amazing thing was that he endeavored to answer nearly all of them, and never lost his patience, even as he was painting at the top of a ladder and I stood below talking and listening, or as he was under a boat sanding the bottom paint and breathing the dust. When, in junior high school, I read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, I began to grasp the wisdom and appreciate some of the insights of working people. By the time I came to appreciate Jack’s wit, humor, patience and good judgment, it had become clear that he was, in fact, a part of the family.
My father, an ophthalmic surgeon at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan, regularly encouraged all family members to ask Jack’s advice about any ideas regarding boats and related subjects. Each year, during my father’s two or three-week vacation, he would tackle a major project with Jack. Before beginning, and as they proceeded, they would talk over the various approaches they might take. They worked as partners, each one sharing ideas and critiquing them in a dispassionate way. After he retired, Jack was fond of telling people “In thirty-nine years, Dr. Pfeiffer and I never had a cross word!”
Together, my father and Jack rebuilt porches, built masonry walls, remodeled the little house, extended and repaired plumbing, and electrified buildings. They constructed an outdoor granite fireplace, repaired a dock and built a completely new one. One year, they lifted the entire big house and put in new sills throughout. They once demolished the old ice house and built a new shop and utility building in its place. For several years, they used heavy equipment to haul giant "garnick" out of the water to build a sea wall to slow erosion of the soil in front of the big house.
For all of these projects, my Brother, Bob, my sisters, Nancy and Jean, and I would help by doing some of the important unskilled labor such as fetching needed tools, carrying equipment, and helping in a variety of ways to improve the efficiency of the process. We learned respect for people as well as for hard work, and to this day pride ourselves on our abilities to relate to those we employ and who employ us.
My father had come to the St. Lawrence in his thirties, as a guest of my mother’s father, attracted by opportunities to fish, picnic and play tennis. But owning Hickory changed the nature of my father’s vacations, which came to consist mainly of a different kind of work than he did for a living. The intellectual challenge was different but significant, the experience of teamwork was rewarding, and the sense of accomplishment was a motivator. Leisure activities, for him and for my mother, took place largely to entertain guests.”Work first, and play later” was a motto they lived.
None of this is to deny the reward adults could claim on Hickory only at the end of a good day’s work: a gin and tonic or a Manhattan cocktail. It was those late afternoon hours on the veranda, that my father shared his vision of the Hickory estate continuing in the family. And this would only be possible if all members of the family shared in the work of the world and the island as they could.
The children, of course, found times to play with friends from other places on Hickory and neighboring islands. They reveled in opportunities to swim and row old punts in the huge waves that occasionally built up off the ledge rocks on the west end of the island. They fished with success for bass off the rocks, and pike in the weed beds. They played croquet often with adults, and card games in the evenings, as well as tennis, hide-and-go-seek and also sardines, in the wonderful, huge barn. Once, Mother hosted a barn dance for teenagers, and twice, a field day on the lawn with diverse games for all ages. In those days, the winners won and the losers lost, and all could feel good about competing in the fun.
As the years passed and lives came to their ends, the work has not declined. Neither has the need for it or the effort dedicated to it among Pfeiffers now living on Hickory, on Tip Camp on Grindstone Island, on The Punts Islands, or their cousins on Grenell. They all learned its rewards during their summers in, on and among the Thousand Islands. Island life is a life of work, and it is the work that makes the moments of play so sweet.
Note: All photographs in the article and slide show, courtesy of the Pfeiffer Family Collection.
By Raymond S. Pfeiffer
Professor of Philosophy Emeritus from Delta College in Michigan, author of three books and over twenty scholarly articles, he is a lifelong summer resident of the Thousand Islands, sailing his St. Lawrence skiff at every chance, residing on The Punts Islands, and writing daily. An active member of the community, Raymond has served on the Board of the Arthur Child Heritage Museum and is currently serving on the Board of the Half Moon Bay Foundation.