Fishing may have put the Thousand Islands on the map, but in the late 19th century, it was religion that organized the resort communities. But why would religious organizations feel the need to set up resorts?
For centuries, retreating to the country for the summer had been the domain of the very rich, but for the first time, the burgeoning middle class had the time and the means to retreat to the country-side. The word “vacation” wasn’t coined until 1866.
Religious organizations were concerned whether first time vacationers—or excursionists as they were called back then—would get it right. They feared that once away from the regular discipline of home and work, their congregants might forget their principles and stray, falling prey to alcohol, gambling or other temptations. Religious resorts provided safe, wholesome environments, where families could enjoy fresh air, but have rules and regulations to keep them on the straight and narrow.
First were the Methodists, who established Thousand Island Park in 1875. Presbyterians soon followed in 1877, building Westminster Park, on Wellesley Island, near Alexandria Bay. In 1880, a Baptist organization built Round Island House, on Round Island.
Grenell Island was a bit of an anomaly at the time, surrounded as it was by religious camps. Grenell House was built in 1878, though Sam Grenell had a crude tavern and lodging on the island for more than a decade before that. In fact, some might argue that the religious resorts were protecting excursionists from places like the Grenell Island Tavern.
Sam Grenell was far from godless. In later years, he served as a vestryman for the St. Paul Episcopal Church in LaFargeville. Never-the-less, Grenell Island was not stamped by any religious affiliation. According to this 1891 newspaper clipping, that was about to change:
On the St. Lawrence and Clayton Independent. December 4, 1891
A Colony of Friends
Our summer visitors will perhaps be pleased to learn that the peaceful and friendly Quaker is to establish a foothold at the Thousand Islands before another season. Our information as obtained from S. B. Grenell, of Grenell Island Park, who states that a number of the Friend’s Society of Philadelphia, PA, has purchased nine lots on Grenell Park. Five of the lots are situated on Highland Avenue and the remaining four on Crescent Avenue. The numbers of the lots are 130, 131, 134,136 and 138 on Highland Avenue and 137, 135, 133 and 132 on Crescent Avenue. Nine fine cottages will be built in the spring and also a large boat house, which will be used in common.
Later that month, the official notice of the sale was posted in the Watertown Times:
Watertown Times. December 22, 1891.
Lucy M. Grenell and her husband, Samuel B., of the town of Clayton, to Phillip M. Sharples of West Chester, Pa., property on Grenell’s Island Park in the St. Lawrence River; $1,000.
Who was Phillip M. Sharples? He was a machinist who invented the cream separator. In 1881, he established the Sharples Separators Works. His first manufacturing plant was in his hometown of West Chester, PA. At one point, the West Chester plant employed 600 workers and turned out about 3700 separators a year. Sharples, or P. M. as he was often referred to, became one of the foremost manufacturers of the age with a world-wide reputation. Sharples Separator Works became a global entity with subsidiary plants in Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, Dallas, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Portland, Winnipeg, Toronto and Hamburg, Germany. But more importantly to our story, P. M. descended from an influential Quaker Family, with a long line of Quaker ancestors on both his mother’s and father’s sides of the family.
Despite what the 1891 newspaper announced, the nine cottages never materialized. There is no explanation as to how or why plans changed. The Quaker project wasn’t mentioned again until 1895.
Rome Citizen. 1895
Mrs. Sharples of the Quaker Society of Philadelphia is superintending the construction of a summer home for a few families of the society, on the bluff of Grenell Island.
P.M. married Helen E. Brinton in 1884. Together they built an impressive, three-story, stone summer home on the highest spot of Grenell, almost dead-center of the island. The banquet room on the third floor has rows of windows on either side which provide excellent views of the channel and New York State mainland to the south and Murray Isle to the north. A dumbwaiter brought food from the kitchen on the first floor. P. M. and Helen named this impressive home, Bungalow.
As far as I know, this was always a single-family dwelling and not shared with other families. The only other Quakers that came to the island, around that time period, was a pair of sisters, Anne and Ruth Clements, who built a small, modest, one-story cottage on the north shore, near the foot of the island. The two sisters were also from West Chester, PA and had been schoolmates of Helen Sharples. Anne was the headmistress of a Friend’s school and Ruth was a doctor. Anne Clements was the author of the 1901 Friend Intelligencer article, “Camp Life in the Thousand Islands,” which I wrote about in the Thousand Islands Life, August, 2017 issue.
While a Colony of Friends never developed, the small Quaker enclave ended up having a dramatic effect on Grenell Island. As early as 1893, there had been talk of building an Episcopal chapel on the island. Among the early residents of the island were several ministers: Rev. Hutchinson, Rev. Stoddard, and Rev. Belden. Ironically, they were all Baptist ministers.
The first religious service on the island was held on Sunday, August 20, 1893, at the Gardner cottage at the head of the island. After the service, it was voted that services would be held at this place every Sunday until further notice. Soon, there were so many attendees that the services spilled out onto the lawn. Eventually, attendance required services to be held at Pullman House.
By the end of the season, Grenellians recognized a need for a chapel on the island. Sam & Lucy Grenell donated a lot. Plans for a small wooden structure were drawn, and over the next few years funds were collected, but not enough to launch the project. P. M. stepped in and said he would fund the project if the chapel was constructed of stone and was non-denominational. Besides the lot, the Grenell’s said they would donate stone from the island. P. M. must have also arranged for the architect, E. S. Paxton from West Chester, who drew up the plans free of charge. The chapel was dedicated on August 21, 1898.
P.M. and Helen had four children, who grew up summering at Bungalow. Soon after the children were raised and out of the house, Helen Sharples died. That was in 1911. P.M. remarried and had three more children with his second wife, Jean. Sadly, P. M. lost his fortune and Bungalow, during the Great Depression. Bungalow sat idle for nearly three decades.
I’ve not been able to find out what happened to the Clements sisters. I’m fairly certain that like many professional women of the age, they never married. Eventually, their cottage sold and has changed hands many times. Their cottage is currently known as Castle Rock.
As far as I know, the Sharples family and their dear friends, the Clements sisters, were the only Quakers to have summered on Grenell. Even though they’ve been gone from the island for a very long time, their commitment to community and tolerance of others’ beliefs, stands at the heart of our island. The Grenell Island Chapel, due to their generosity, will celebrate its 120th anniversary this year.
By Lynn E. McElfresh
Lynn McElfresh presents some history that, I bet, few knew! This, being Lynn’s 109th article, adds to her amazing scope of history and life on her Grenell Island. Once again, she asks if you can help put some of the pieces together.
Do you have family stories? If so, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will add them to the article.
Thanks again Lynn… You can see all of Lynn’s articles here. (We celebrated her #80 in July, 2015!)