Beginning on Saturday, July 5, 2008 and appearing every Saturday through Labour Day Weekend, Kim Lunman's series entitled " Island Treasures", was published in the Brockville Recorder and Times. The newspaper has allowed Thousand Islands Life, the magazine, to publish these stories. As the Recorder and Times suggested these stories "takes readers on a tour of some of the Thousand Islands' best kept secrets."
THOUSAND ISLAND PARK N.Y.
The Thousand Islands has a thousand secrets and this 19th-century village on the edge of Wellesley Island is just one of them.
This heritage resort transports visitors not only to a unique place but to a different time. It's not just the gingerbread cottages, The Guzzle Ice Cream parlour, or the historic post office where U.S. president Harry Truman's name still graces the wall.
No, it's more than that.
T.I. Park, situated on a bank overlooking the St. Lawrence River, is in another country only a half-hour drive from Brockville on one of the largest Thousand Islands just west of Alexandria Bay. But it might as well be in another world. Maybe it's the fact it's only accessible to vehicles on both sides of the border by the Thousand Islands Bridge that makes it seem so far away.
But the village of 1,500 summer residents comes to life this time of year when the favourite mode of transportation - golf carts - line the main street by the Wellesley Hotel while children swim and play by the restored turn-of-the-century pavilion and boat dock. At precisely noon, the Thousand Islands chapel's chime play the U.S. national anthem and "God Save the Queen."
Even the street names are idyllic. Row upon row of candy-coloured cottages line Island Avenue, Sunrise Avenue and Paradise Street along sidewalks leading to the waterfront.
This 19th-century gingerbread cottage is typical of the heritage architecture preserved on Thousand Island Park, a private summer resort on Wellesley Island.
"It's the atmosphere," explains Edna Vay, a sales clerk at Park Antiques, a quaint shop filled with reminders of the area's past, including china, furniture and vintage Thousand Islands postcards. "You feel differently once you cross over the bridge. It's like a step back in time."
Like many summer residents, Vay is from Rochester, N.Y. She has spent the last 26 summers at T.I. Park.
The community - run by a private corporation - has 315 heritage cottages and its own fire department, and a stately one-room library built in 1903.
The largest resort town on a Thousand Island, the village was first founded as a Methodist campground in 1874. Its religious roots are still evident with a tented community hall once used for prayer services now serving as a movie theatre.
A landmark in heritage tourism, T.I. Park is a welcome escape from the modern-day world.
"It's very special," said Trude Fitelson, a Rochester realtor who has an office in T.I. Park and is a third-generation summer resident. "It's a preservationist's dream."
Fitelson, whose grandfather was a Methodist bishop when her family first took up summer residence at T.I. Park, spearheaded the move to preserve the village's cottages and buildings, including its tiny main street post office.
Wellesley Hotel innkeeper Brenda Robak keeps residents and visitors informed on the ships scheduled to pass by Thousand Island Park through the St. Lawrence River on Wellesley Island daily on a blackboard under the words: Shipping News.
The entire community was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1982. It is not run as a municipality but a corporation with title to the land and buildings. The cottages are sold with 99-year property leases.
Fitelson, a founder of the Thousand Island Park Landmark Society, has fought for the past several decades to protect the cottage colony from demolition or inappropriate alteration.
She recruited the late Paul Malo, a Syracuse architect, professor and author of three books on the Thousand Islands, in her campaign and credits him with helping the village preserve its buildings.
T.I. Park has retained much of its original character despite the fact two of its hotels were lost to fires in the early 1900s.
The Wellesley Hotel - a four-room inn and fine dining restaurant - is at the centre of the community. A blackboard with the words "Shipping News" on its wraparound veranda festooned with American flags informs residents and visitors daily of ships scheduled to pass by the village through the Upper Narrows.
Innkeeper Brenda Robak, chalking up estimated times of arrival for ships, said many of the village's visitors simply stumble onto the place while touring the rest of Wellesley Island, better known for its golf courses and campsites.
"People come here from around the world, but a lot of them seem to come here accidentally," she said.
Visitors like Wayne Mills, an Oklahoma City lawyer who discovered T.I. Park last summer after he and his wife Gaye bought a boat in Alexandria Bay.
"We'd never heard of it," said Mills, who returned this summer for a second tour. "Thousand Islands dressing was as close as we got. We think it's fantastic."
His friend, David Wade, a doctor from Oklahoma City, called the village "spectacular" after a quick stop at The Guzzle.
"It's just like stepping back in time," he said. "I'm just drop-jawed."
Longtime residents remain equally enchanted by the village, which has a sweeping vista of the river and neighbouring islands steeped in their own history. It's located across from the lighthouse on Rock Island Light State Park, where the notorious pirate of the St. Lawrence, Bill Johnston, lived as lighthouse keeper in the mid-1800s.
"I just love the ambiance," said Mamie Heath, the village librarian of 46 years. "It's very unique and the people are very friendly and lovely."
"It's a very special place," said Gerry Brinkman, the chef and owner of the Wellesley Island Hotel. The culinary arts instructor from Rochester has been coming here every summer for over three decades.
"I characterize it as the most beautiful place on earth," he said. "Not just because of the heritage cottages. There's a certain vortexy atmosphere here."
Perhaps that's what attracts some of the area's more eclectic residents to the island.
The 1960s counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman went into hiding in nearby Fineview while on the lam from the authorities on cocaine charges in the mid-70s. Living under the alias Barry Freed, he became a crusader for an environmental campaign to save the St. Lawrence River before surrendering under a national spotlight in 1980.
One of the "Chicago Seven," Hoffman was tried and convicted for conspiracy to incite to riot in anti-Vietnam protests that led to violent clashes with police. He died of a drug overdose at 52 in 1989. His story is the subject of a new Steven Spielberg movie.
And a wandering monk from India known as Swami Vivekananda discovered T.I. Park as a tranquil retreat long before Hoffman. The Hindu swami, who introduced yoga to the Western world, came to the village to hold summer retreats at a cottage owned by a devotee follower named Elizabeth Dutcher in the 1890s. His followers from around the world still hold annual pilgrimages at the Dutcher cottage, nestled on a secluded hill in the village, every summer.
It was reported Swami Vivekananda shouted "I bless these Thousand Islands," from a steamship as he left T.I. Park for India the last time before the turn of the century.
Like the wandering monk, others keep finding this hidden treasure of a place as intact as it was 100 years ago.
T.I. Park's timeless charm continues to cast its spell on newcomers and residents alike.
"I think it's the best kept secret in the United States," said Fitelson.
Kim Lunman is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Reader's Digest, The Calgary Herald and other newspapers. She has returned to her hometown of Brockville, "City of the 1000 Islands," where she is a staff writer and photographer for the Recorder and Times. She recently finished a series on the Thousand Islands called Island Treasures to be reprinted by the Recorder and Times as a souvenir magazine Sept. 29.
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