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From Cottage to Castle

It’s hard for me to imagine pulling a piano across a frozen river. Back in the day, that’s how a lot of “stuff” got to the islands. It was brought across the ice in the winter.

The story of our piano starts on a winter day sometime around 1890. The piano was a square grand built in Syracuse by D. L. Fry and Company.

I’ve been told that Uncle Otis, (H. O. Pratt who bought our point on Grenell back in 1880), bought the piano so his daughter, Edith could practice when she stayed at the island in the summer.

The piano was originally in the little cottage. When I first came to the island in 1975, the square grand dominated the dining room. It was far bigger than the dining room table.

I don’t know if Edith ever mastered piano playing. But I do know by the time I arrived on Grenell, the piano was getting lots of use.

My father-in-law, Bob McElfresh, is a fantastic piano player. He plays by ear. Just hum a tune and Bob’ll soon have those ivories plinking out the same melody.

Residents on the east end of Grenell remember almost nightly piano concerts in the seventies and eighties. On calm nights, the music wafted out over the water. Bob prefers music from the 1940s. Music by Irving Berlin, Hoagie Carmichael, and Rogers & Hammerstein filled the evening air. 


In the mid-1980s, Bob started a campaign to get rid of the piano. His main points: a square grand is impossible to keep in tune, there were a few keys that didn’t work in the upper octave and the piano took up so much room in the tiny cottage. Bob was all for taking an ax to the piano, chopping it up and burning it. A similar fate had already happened to a square grand that had been in the Grenell Island Community House.

Bob wanted to get an organ, which wouldn’t need to be tuned and would be more reliable. I could understand his desire of a more reliable instrument, but the piano was too beautiful to burn! It had elaborately carved rosewood legs and a beautiful scroll-cut music stand.

After much discussion, my husband, Gary, and I offered to have the piano moved to the big cottage. As the name implies, the big cottage is bigger, but the huge piano overwhelmed the living room. I remember plunking out a song or two during the times I was at the river, but my piano skills are limited at best. Mostly the piano sat unused and collected piles of stuff to be taken upstairs. The best use for the piano in those days was as a buffet table when we had an oversized crowd for dinner.

In 1999, when I began spending the season at the River instead of only two weeks, the cottage seemed to shrink and the piano seemed to grow.

It wasn’t used and it took up too much space. Yet, chopping it up with an ax and burning it was not an option. I was determined to find a new home for it.

I started making a list of who might want a vintage square grand piano. The next question was: How would we get it off the island? Who had a barge? Combining those two questions: “Who might want it?” and “Who had a barge?” left only one name on the list: Boldt Castle.

We called the operations manager, Shane Sanford, and asked him if he would be interested in a turn-of-the-century square grand piano. He made a trip to Grenell to look at the piano and immediately said yes.

On August 25, 2003, a barge from Boldt Castle arrived at our front dock, with a crew of professional piano movers. They took the legs off and wrapped each piece carefully. The hardest part was getting it out the door. Once outside, they placed the piano on a dolly and rolled it to the dock and loaded it on the barge. We waved good-bye to the square grand piano that had spent over a hundred years on our little point.

Next season we went to see our piano, now in the foyer of the castle. I took pictures to show my father-in-law.

Oddly enough, even though he has spent every summer on Grenell since 1944, Bob had never been to Boldt Castle. Bob decided he might want to go to the castle and see his old piano first hand. We called ahead and asked if he might be given permission to play the piano one last time.

The docents were all abuzz waiting for Bob’s arrival. A hush fell over the busy foyer as he sat down to play. He played two or three tunes. Applause echoed from the marble floor to the stained glass skylight.

The docents thanked him for his donation. Bob sheepishly replied that it was his daughter-in-law who saved the piano. “I wanted to chop it up and burn it,” he told them. So he did remember!

For us it is the best of both worlds. We have our living room back and our piano has become part of the most famous landmark in the Thousand Islands. We can visit our square grand any time we want in the beautiful foyer of Boldt Castle near the base of the Grand Staircase.

Grenell Grand Piano Dismantling Wrapping
Despite the name—square grand—it’s rectangular. On August 25, piano movers arrived and carefully dismantled the piano… …wrapped each piece…
Leaving the cottage to the barge McElfresh family visits
put it on a dolly rolled it out of the cottage… …and to the barge. The McElfresh family visits their square grand piano in the grand foyer of Boldt Castle.

By Lynn McElfresh

 Lynn McElfresh and her husband, Gary, spend their summers in the Thousands Islands on Grenell Island and their winters in Dunedin, Florida. Lynn is the author of Can You Feel the Thunder? published in 1999 in New York by Simon & Shuster Children's Publishing Division. It is suggested for youth ages 10-14.  She is also the ghost writer for several other children’s books. Lynn’s is a regular contributor to TI Life.


Posted in: History, Places
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Charles D. Snelling
Comment by: Charles D. Snelling ( )
Left at: 1:37 AM Friday, January 15, 2010
Rex Ennsi
Comment by: Rex Ennsi ( )
Left at: 9:12 AM Friday, January 15, 2010
What a great story! It reminded me of the Emery piano. In 1962, Mrs. Gray donated the Steinway white mahogany upright piano to the Thousand Islands Museum. The piano was purchased by Mrs. Emery in 1893 according to records at the Steinway Co., it is currently in storage at C-Way Motel dining room as the Museum does not have space.
Linda Hendley
Comment by: Linda Hendley ( )
Left at: 12:13 PM Friday, January 15, 2010
What a sweet story! It's comforting to know that beautiful piano didn't literally 'go up in smoke'. Instead, it's located in a place where each year thousands of people can enjoy it. Thanks for sharing.
Maureen elliott
Comment by: Maureen elliott ( )
Left at: 9:41 PM Friday, January 15, 2010
What a wonderful story! So nice to see a piece of River History preserved.
Don McLean
Comment by: Don McLean ( )
Left at: 2:14 PM Friday, April 16, 2010
I enjoyed the story very much. It reminded me that my grandparents Henry & Carola Kimball had a similar "square piano" in the living room of their summer home "The Mill House" in Sackets Harbor. My great Aunt & Uncle Jessie & David Otis also had one in their summer home on James St in Cape Vincent. I guess they were fairly common in those days?! Don
Kyle Petersen
Comment by: Kyle Petersen
Left at: 8:28 PM Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Living in Syracuse born and raised, we've hard lots of the local piano makers and its great to see they are still around after so many have been destroyed and beaten up, including the local museum's
Rex Ennis
Comment by: Rex Ennis
Left at: 10:01 PM Thursday, February 19, 2015
I wish the Calumet Castle piano could be saved. It is an upright built by Steinway in 1893 for Mrs. Charles G. Emery. the present owner is willing to sell it, and I a would like to buy it, but I do not have a place to put it. the finish is rare white mahogany. It is similar to one aboard the La Duchesse at the ABM. I tried the Thousand Island Museum, but they don't feel they have the room or it is just no historical enough! Any ideas I would help financially if others would find a good home for a Steinway!!