The trek to the post office to retrieve the mail is a daily ritual on Grenell. It’s rarely a straight shot there and back, because inevitably I encounter other islanders and stop and chat. Mail has been delivered seasonally to Grenell since 1891. Today the Grenell Island Post Office is located in the NW corner of the Grenell Island Community House. But that wasn’t always the case.
There was a tug of war for the post office in the early years. The post office was a strong draw and entrepreneurs knew whoever had the post office would attract people to their establishment. Sam Grenell was the first to bring a post office to the island in 1891. He installed his nephew, Herbert Kilbourne, as the first postmaster. But somehow, J.D Sayles, owner of Pullman House, was able to secure the Grenell Island post office for his hotel at the east end of Grenell.
Today we think of Pullman Island as a separate island from Grenell, but once it was a part of Grenell—literally. Sam Grenell’s tavern and later, Grenell House, a small hotel that could accommodate 40 people, was on the east point of Grenell Island. For whatever reason—perhaps to keep the animals from the farm in the center of the island off the property— a channel was dug along the narrow neck. A winter storm eroded away the sandy soil until what was once the east point of Grenell soon became a separate island. For years there was a bridge connecting the point to the rest of the island but eventually the bridge fell into shambles and Pullman Island was permanently separated from Grenell. (Boaters exercise caution. There is still a pier from the old bridge and in low water it is very shallow. Best to go around Pullman and not cut through.)
Olivia Pratt reports in her book, “The Story of Grenell,” that the Folger Line, a fleet of large white steamers, met trains, brought the mail and carried many people on excursions. “Mr. Sayles secured the post office for the hotel, then of course boats must stop there with the mail and we all must go there for our letters.” Which exact years Pullman House served as the Grenell Island Post Office is lost in time, but it was sometime between 1892 and 1904. Eventually the post office ended up back where it had started in 1891, the cottage most Grenellians remember as “the store.”
Various river captains carried the mail from Clayton to the islands. Captain Emmett Calhoun and his wife Maggie ran the mail in the 1940s and 1950s. The husband and wife duo also took passengers, giving them a tour of the island as they delivered mail and other supplies to islanders.
The job of postmaster fell to proprietor of the store. The last proprietors of the store were Ed and Ruth Slomczewski, who ran the store and post office from the early 1950s into the 1980s. In 1962, Ed took over the carrier route, ferrying mail from Clayton to Round Island and Murray Island as well as Grenell. There used to be two mail deliveries a day, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. Residents without a boat could catch the mail boat into Clayton in the morning, spend the day and come back on the mail boat in the afternoon.
When Slomczewski’s decided to close the store and sell their cottage, the Grenell Island Post Office needed to find a new home. Eventually, the Grenell Island Improvement Association (GIIA) decided to turn the kitchen, then occupying the NW corner of the Community House, into the Grenell Island Post Office. The sink was taken out and the door to the outside was boarded over. The GIIA purchased post office boxes from Slomczewski’s for $200.
The Community House was an easy solution as to where to put the post office, but the Community House is on an interior lot with no access to the water. Before, the GIIA had leased the dock from the Slomczewski’s and the store’s owners before that. When the store closed, Grenell Island lost its public dock. Without a public dock, how would the mail be delivered?
Luckily for residents, the Wood’s owned the lot adjacent to the Community House. “Woody” and Jean were island residents who would do anything for fellow islanders and the good of the island. Both served as officers on the GIIA over the years. Jean worked tirelessly as treasurer for the chapel for decades. Season after season, week after week, Woody mowed the Community House lawn and wouldn’t hear of any remuneration. Woody died in 1999, Jean died only last year. Their cottage has passed into the hands of their nieces. Big hearts must run in the family; the nieces are as loyal and giving as their aunt and uncle.
It’s something we on Grenell take for granted: the postmaster waiting on the Wood’s back porch and walking down the long floating dock to exchange mail bags with the mail boat. The Wood’s or their nieces could just as easily say, “No, this is private property” or ask for compensation, but due solely to their community spirit, we’ve had mail service on Grenell for the last thirty years.
Since the post office moved to the Community House, the duties of postmaster have passed through various hands: Pauline Holden, Betty Wilson and currently, Joan Rector. Probably the most excitement in our post office has had in the last 110 years was the first day issuing of the Vintage Mahogany Speedboat stamps on August 4, 2007. Clayton was the official issuing post office, but as substations, Round Island, Murray Island and Grenell Island also had first day issuing privileges. Considering the Grenell Island Post Office is a tiny post office only open from June 15 to September 15, it was a huge honor. What a flurry of activity there was that day. So unlike the calm, convivial atmosphere that usually surrounds the Grenell Island Post Office.
This fall as we were closing up our cottage and preparing to head south, news rippled across the island of post office closings. Thousand Island Park and Fishers Landing are both closing. Every year we wonder if we will see the familiar green mail boat coming around our point to the Wood’s dock or if we’ll have to go off-island to retrieve our mail. Until that fateful day—which we hope never arrives—we will enjoy the relaxed convenience and social pleasure of having a post office on Grenell.
By Lynn McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life. This month Lynn writes two articles, she explains what borrowing books is like on Grenell Island and this article about the post office. Lynn often writes about her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past two years from her musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends, taking nature walks and the importance of trees. To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn E. McElfresh.
The photos presented in this article and slide show are attributed to the McElfresh Family Collection.