Marilyn Lee stepped out of the classic wooden boat Teal and onto the shores of Fairyland Island for the first time in 47 years. Her eyes swept up to the lodge's familiar veranda and over to the grand estate on neighbouring Estrellita Island connected by a bridge over the St. Lawrence River.
"It's as if nothing has changed," she said, walking up a path with her husband Larry leading to the house called 'The Folly,' to greet owners Peter and Catrine Charron and their five-year-old daughter Cosette on a sunny August afternoon.
Fairyland Island possesses a timeless tranquility that Lee knows only too well. She spent several summers as a young girl here when the property was owned by a red-haired multi-millionaire contractor from Tulsa named A. Ray Smith. The native Texan lived big and built big. A. Ray owned a string of Mid-West baseball teams as well as the company Standard Industries that made his fortune and constructed the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Lee's stepfather, Tom Heckin, piloted A. Ray's DC-3 to the Thousand Islands in the summers, and she and her mother would accompany him for their summer vacations. A. Ray was a sports fan and lavish spender who liked to throw parties on the island, inviting some of the New York Giants football players for a visit in 1963.
The island is home to a residence over the River's edge known as 'Broomstick Castle,' the rocky ruins of an estate called Fairyland, white storybook bridges and paths lined by French poplars.
How Lee returned to Fairyland after all this time started with a few strokes of computer keys last winter. She googled 'Fairyland Island' and found a story I wrote for thousandislandslife.com [Broomstick Castle in Fairyland] last year about the island and The Folly, once a lodge where gentleman retired for brandy and billiards after dinner as guests of former owners on Estrellita.
Marilyn emailed thousandislandslife.com about her childhood summers on Fairyland and her plans for a trip to the Thousand Islands with Larry. The Charrons graciously invited the couple, Estrellita's owners Charles and Adrienne Snelling, George and Wendy Textor of nearby Douglas Island, and myself for lunch on Fairyland. George had photographs of A. Ray's time on the island. They wanted to compare notes about its history while I asked if could take some.
The island first caught my curiosity over two years ago when I started writing about the Thousand Islands after spotting the enchanting name in the Manhattan Group on a nautical chart. Who could resist researching an island called Fairyland? For Marilyn, who spent summers there between the ages of nine and thirteen, the question was: 'Who could resist returning to Fairyland?'
"Larry and I had talked about visiting," said Marilyn, who said she was excited about showing the island to her husband of 39 years.
"I couldn't have been more perfect. It's was a beautiful day. It was so nice to be in the Thousand Islands again."
"They are the kindest people," she said of the Charrons. "I just couldn't believe it," she said of the invitation to revisit Fairyland. "It's such a unique special place. It was just meant to be."
The Lees made a special weekend of the nostalgic trip, staying on Dark Island in the Singer Castle's Royal Suite with a visit to the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton and boat tour around the area including Heart Island's Boldt Castle enroute to Fairyland. They arrived aboard the ABM's Teal and received a tour of Estrellita, now for sale, by its long-time owner Charles Snelling.
Lee's visit - and memories - shed some new light on another chapter of Fairyland Island, said Peter Charron. "I think genealogy in the Thousand Islands is so important to everyone here," said the native of Ogdensburg. "It was important for her to come. She's part of the history of the island."
That chapter explained how professional football players came to Fairyland. George Textor recalled how A. Ray brought some of the most famous football players of the day to the island in 1963. Don Chandler, the Giant's all pro kicker, worked for A. Ray Smith in the off season. A. Ray invited Don and several of his teammates up for a weekend after the Giants pre-season exhibition game against the Bears at Cornell University. "A. Ray sent his private plane to pick up the players and we went along, watched the game and came back with the team," George said.
A. Ray, who bought the Tulsa Oilers and later owned a tenth of the Cleveland Indians, bought the property in the mid-1950s but sold it in the 1960s due to financial troubles.
The Charrons, of San Francisco, have been charmed by the idyllic island retreat and Fairyland's folklore since they purchased The Folly several years ago. They also share an interest in the island's history, collecting vintage postcards and archived articles, including one in Harper's New Monthly magazine in the 1880s in which the author concluded: "Each season sees Fairyland grow more and more suggestive of its even now appropriate name."
Fairyland was once the playground of the Hayden family of Ohio during the area's Golden Age. They made their fortune manufacturing horse collars. Fairyland, which later burned down, was once one of the most lavish vacation homes in the Thousand Islands.
The Harper's New Monthly magazine article explained the name Fairyland came from the story of a wealthy family (thought to be the Haydens) who carried an "invalid daughter" to the island "in an almost hopeless search for health."
Legend has it the sickly child spent the summer slowly recuperating in its fresh air, swimming and rowing along its shores.
Still others suggest Fairyland's name stems from subsequent owners who strung lights around the island. Meanwhile, Catrine says Cosette finds her island's fabled name in the fireflies alight outside the Folly's windows at night. To the little girl, they truly are the fairies of Fairyland.
And so the lore of its name keeps changing. But perhaps an island named Fairyland is best seen through the eyes and imagination of its children, past and present.
By Kim Lunman
Kim Lunman has been writing about the Thousand Islands since her return to her hometown of Brockville in 2008. In fact, we have published more than 33 of Kim’s articles in TI Life. At the beginning of May 2010, Kim's new company, Thousand Islands Ink, distributed 25,000 copies of Island Life, as an insert in eastern Ontario with distribution through the EMC papers and in New York through the Thousand Islands Sun. This summer she gathered new material for next year’s magazine. This story she said, was a delight to write as she had the opportunity to see, first hand, how TI Life was able to link islanders together.