The capitalists, the builders of our country, made the Thousand Islands their playground in what we call today the “Golden Age” of the Thousand Islands. It was a time when there was no income tax and living in the grand style was common among the nation’s wealthy. Still, there was an undercurrent of Populism and even Socialism!
Perhaps the single most intriguing example of this dichotomy was the relationship between the Reverend Bouck White and the Thousand Island’s millionaires. In White’s 1903 book Quo Vaditis? he wrote about the capitalist system;
“And already monotony of gain is jading the soul of this People, until now they flog their spirit with drugs and the cup of staggering.”
The Rev. Bouck White, was born Charles Browning White Charles Browning White, in Middleburgh, New York, the son of Charles and Mary White on 20 October 1874. He graduated from Harvard University’s Boston Theological Seminary, and the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. On 1 July 1904 he started his second pastorate at the Congregational Church of the Thousand Islands in Clayton, New York, better known as the Clayton Congregational Church.
How did White end up as pastor in Clayton at the time a capital of capitalism? As they say, “God only knows”. On top of that, he spoke in the parlor of the “capitol of capitalism” at the luxurious New Frontenac Hotel. White was pastor in Clayton for only three years when he was succeeded by the Rev. William H. Rowe.
In Clayton, White accomplished much with young people. The formation of the Clayton Boy’s Club was his major contribution. The Boy’s Club was described in a 1936 article now at the Thousand Islands Museum.
“Mr. White built club rooms in the basement of the church, and a gymnasium, where both old and young enjoyed bowling, basketball and other sports. Excellent reading rooms were available to the use of everyone. A printing press was installed, and the members of the Boys’ club printed a monthly magazine called the “Muscallonge.” A fife and drum corps was organized and some 40 young men were provided with instruments and furnished with uniforms through the generosity of a member of the river colony. A Kodak club was organized and many other things, beneficial and interesting not only to members of Mr. White’s church, but to the general public.”
The Clayton Boy’s Club was favored with support from the prominent capitalists that summered in the Islands. Irene Emery, Charles G. Emery’s second wife, took up the cause and organized a “lawn fete” each year at the New Frontenac Hotel on Round Island to support the club. Irene enlisted May Irwin, well known actress and Clayton summer resident, to perform.
These fund raisers were attended by many of the Frontenac’s wealthy guests. In 1904, Irene Emery, Mrs. H. L. Roming, and Mrs. E. R. Holden each donated $100 for the gymnasium. This and subsequent “lawn fete” committees were populated with a virtual plethora of society women. Emery, the tobacco millionaire of Calumet Island fame, donated $1,000 for a club bathhouse, a sum equal to over $23,000 in 2008.
At the same time these captains of industry and fabled robber barons were donating to White’s Boy’s Club and the general support of the Clayton Congregational Church, White was preaching sermons with a decidedly Socialist tone. A few of his sermon titles: “God and America’s Working Classes,” “God and America’s Wealthy Classes,” and God and the Panama Canal.” White frequently spoke in the parlor of the New Frontenac and in 1905; Grace Bickford the hotel stenographer wrote the following home to her parents:
“The next Sunday night the Rev. Buckwheat (White) got up here in the parlor and in his pompous way announced "my salary is $800 a year and I give one tenth of this to the Lord.” I think I have told you how he always talks like he had a potato in his mouth.”
After White’s pastorate in Clayton he went on to New York City where he led a tumultuous life as a member of the Socialist movement. He founded The Church of the Social Revolution in New York when he could not find a church which satisfied his need for social reform. On several occasions he ended up in jail usually on a charge of disorderly conduct. In 1917, during WW1 he was arrested along with a number of his supporters for burning an American flag. At his trial Assistant District Attorney Alexander Rorke described White as an “egotistical humbug….If an American in his indignation had shot White dead on the night of the flag burning, I doubt if you could find a juryman who would vote to convict him.” White got a $100 fine and thirty days in the “workhouse” for the flag burning.
White was respected by prominent socialists like Eugene V. Debs, who was the Socialist Party’s perennial candidate for President during the early 20th century. Upton Sinclair, journalist and social reformer, in a letter to a judge on White’s behalf, once referred to White as ‘Jesus’ because of the persecution he suffered for social causes. Convicted of disrupting John D. Rockefeller’s Calvary Baptist Church during a service so that he might debate the merits of Socialism with the pastor, White got six months in jail. He used the time to write and in Letters from Prison, published in 1915, gives us an idea for his mixture of Christianity and Socialism in the first line of his creed:
“I believe in God, the Master most mighty, stirrer-up of Heaven and earth. And in Jesus the Carpenter of Nazareth, who was born of proletarian Mary, toiled at the work bench, descended into labor's hell, suffered under Roman tyranny at the hands of Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”
White married Andree Emilie Simon, a 19 year old French girl, on 21 April 1921. However, the marriage did not last long after returning to the US with his young bride she soon learned of White’s radical agenda. She sued for divorce on 29 May 1921. Miss Simon said that when she met White in Paris and she found he spoke French well and was amusing. He did not inform her of his plans for social and political revolution until their arrival in the US. White tried to radicalize her, but she was not a good student; he offered to send her back to France.
As an anti-prohibitionist in 1919, White had a most intriguing idea. He urged the New York City Board of Alderman to mitigate the effects of the Eighteenth Amendment by seceding the City of New York and establishing an independent wet republic.
White was the author of numerous books and pamphlets promoting his form of social Christianity, perhaps the best know is The Call of The Carpenter published in 1912 by Doubleday. Bouck White died on 7 January 1951 in New Scotland, New York, near Albany. He lived his last years as a recluse, in a self built castle in the Helderberg Mountains making pottery and continuing to write.
Paul H. Friesen in “Socialism and Christianity in Early 20th Century America” published by the American Society of Church History, 2001; summed up White’s life:
“Bouck White drifted through the Methodist Episcopal ministry, the Congregational ministry, and a stint as an Episcopalian lay youth worker, before founding the Church of the Social Revolution and exasperating all socialist and ecclesiastical organizations he encountered, before descending into notorious eccentricities in the mountains outside Albany, New York.”
As a side note the Clayton Congregational Church Sunday School held its annual picnic for many years on the foot of Grindstone Island, presumably at the newly created Canoe Point State Park. The church closed, but the building remains, it is currently Clayton’s Knights of Columbus meeting hall. It is rumored that the original stained glass windows are still in place, but covered.
By Rexford M. Ennis, Copyright 2010 All Rights Reserved
Syracuse Post Standard, 10 July 1911, 4 July 1904, 24 August 1904
Buffalo Morning Express, 15 March 1917(p.1)
White, Bouck. Letters from Prison, Boston: Richard G. Badger. 1915
New York Evening Telegram, 2 July 1916
“Desecrating the American Flag” Robert Justin Goldstein, Syracuse University, Press, Syracuse, NY 1996
Thousand Islands Museum, Churches Notebook
“Harvard Class of 1896” Harvard University Press 1896
“Bouck white Case in Calvary Pulpit” New York Times 18 May 1914
“Bouck White Sued By French Bride” New York Times 29 May 1921
Rex is a longtime volunteer at the Thousand Islands Museum, Clayton, NY. and has written several articles for TI Life. His bio is recorded in Contributors in December, 2008. Until this fall Rex and his wife Janet, spent several winters on Grindstone Island. Currently they are experiencing their first winter in Tennessee, where Rex is completing a biography of Charles G. Emery.