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Who Was Sam Grenell?

I probably have a dozen things with the word Grenell on them: t-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, rain jackets, canvas bags and even coffee mugs. Through the years, Grenell residents have named lots of things after their beloved island: dogs, businesses, even children. So who was the man behind the name?

I first saw Sam Grenell through the eyes of my husband’s Great-Aunt Olivia, author of The Story of Grenell. When Olivia first came to Grenell Island in 1880, she was two and Sam Grenell was in his sixties. According to Olivia, Sam and Lucy Grenell acquired the island when Lucy’s brother, Mr. Jennison, bought the island on the courthouse steps in Watertown. Olivia goes on to say that the couple built a long, low building at the foot of the island, which was both their home and tavern. They also built a barn, chicken house and pigpen in the center of the island. Later, Sam subdivided the 100-acre island into 177 lots and sold the sites for summer cottages. Eventually, Sam opened a store and a post office. So my first impression of Sam Grenell was as the developer and proprietor of Grenell Island Park.

Later in the book, Olivia refers to the Grenells as Uncle Sam and Aunt Lucy. My image of Sam shifted a bit from ambitious entrepreneur to a grandfatherly figure retired to his porch.

“Now that the Grenells had sold to Mr. Sayles, they had need of a home. So they chose to build, over near their tenant house and barn, the house later owned by Mrs. Stubblefield. They continued to keep their cows and chickens and to sell milk at their kitchen door. And here they lived out their lives. Aunt Lucy died on July 24, 1901, eighty-two years old if she had lived another month. For the next ten years Uncle Sam, sitting alone on his front porch, was a familiar sight. He died in January 1911.” (Note: newspaper references say that Sam Grenell died in 1910.)

Through the years, another image of Sam crept into my consciousness, mostly due to references to the tavern. Sam’s tavern did not have a glowing reputation. It was often referred to as an evil establishment, luring the weak-willed from the dry confines of the Methodist Camp at Thousand Island Park, only a short half-mile row away. So to my initial impressions of businessman and grandfather, I added an image of Sam Grenell as being a bit wild and wooly in the early days, at least by the standards of the more staid and pious.

So I began my search to answer the question “Who was Sam Grenell?” with a somewhat divergent images: wild and wooly tavern owner, ambitious entrepreneur and kindly grandfather type. I wanted to flesh out these basic impressions, but knew that was hard as he died over a hundred years ago and anyone who had personally known Sam had died as well.

As I started poking around, a new portrait of Sam Grenell emerged. First, I found evidence that Sam and Lucy were on Grenell much earlier than Olivia states in her book. Decades earlier. Most of my new information about Sam Grenell comes from the writing of A. E. Keech who wrote a series of articles in On-The-St. Lawrence under the pseudonym, The Observer. I also found a biographical sketch of Sam by John A. Haddock written in 1895, a reference to him in the Geographical Gazetteer, as well as other snippets of news items from newspapers. From these sources, I was able to piece together a new impression of Sam Grenell.

Sam was born on November 10, 1818 in Adams and lived his entire life in Jefferson County. Sam was one of five children. His father Ezra Grenell was a farmer and moved the family from Adams to Houndsfield and finally to a farm near Antwerp where Sam met and married Lucy Jennison. Sam and Lucy opened a tavern/inn in LaFargeville, closed that one and opened a new one in Omar and eventually left Omar to open a tavern/inn on Grenell Island. The island wasn’t called Grenell then, of course. The government name for the island was Stewart’s Island, but it was locally known as Jeffers Island, for a man who had once lived there in a squatter’s cabin.

According to The Observer, Sam purchased the island around 1860 from none other than Bill Johnston, the renowned pirate. (This was a shock to me, because I had never heard Bill Johnston’s name associated with Grenell before.) Sam and Lucy lived on Grenell year-round. They had a farm closer to the center of the island, across from where the Grenell Island Chapel is today. I’m not sure if they ever had any crops per se, but according to Olivia they had “orchards, cows, horses, pigs and chickens.” I’ve also read that Sam kept his pigs on Hub Island at one time. The Grenells built their tavern at the foot of the island. The long, low building was both tavern and home. The Observer claimed it was “the first public place for the entertainment of guests on any island of the St. Lawrence.” This point was reiterated and somewhat overstated in Sam’s obituary in 1910:

“Mr. Grenell died at his home on Grenell Island, Tuesday aged 90 years, to him belongs the credit of discovering the Thousand Islands. When he located on Grenell Island the beauties of the river had not become known and it had no fame as a summer resort. Mr. Grenell shrewdly saw the possibilities of the river and its countless islands as an ideal summer resort and brought attention of its beauty to the world. He sold part of his land for cottage sites and improved the rest. For many years he conducted a grocery store on Grenell Island and was postmaster there. He was a well-known figure among the summer tourists and was a man who possessed many warm friends.” (Note: Sam was born in November, 1818 and died in January, 1910 making him 91 when he died.)

Grenell’s tavern/inn initially could only accommodate about 20, but was enlarged in 1877 to hold twice that number and given the name Grenell House. The Observer described Sam’s early patrons as “in summer, the transient tourists and fishing parties, the regular, all-the-year standbys being hunters, trappers, fishermen, shiftless tenant farmers.” Olivia described Sam as a “good humored, easy going host.”

The Observer claimed that Sam was a man “radical in his belief in the constitutional right to eat and drink whatever he wished without interference from the government.” In order to avoid liquor license fees and other taxes, Sam claimed Grenell Island was in Canada. To underscore this claim, Sam had his mail sent to a Fishers Landing hotel addressed to Grenell Island, C.W. (Canada West) This ruse appeared to have worked for several years.

Then Sam made a terrible mistake. He voted in the 1864 U. S. Presidential election in Clayton. Authorities pointed out that if he was a citizen in the United States, then his island was not in Canada, but in the United States and therefore subject to U.S. laws. According to The Observer, after the election of 1864, the tavern was raided almost weekly. Authorities ripped up floorboards etc. searching for illegal liquor. This was not a one-time incident. Sam’s disregard for liquor laws continued for decades. I found newspaper notices of liquor license violations as late as 1883. Sam’s legal issues went well beyond liquor licenses. According to The Observer, authorities notified Sam that even if he had purchased the island from Bill Johnston as he claimed, Bill Johnston had never owned the island. Sam Grenell did not own Grenell Island.

According to Haddock, “The island had belonged to the daughter of Henry Yates, but she had died and the property was thrown into the courts and the judge had appointed a referee to sell the property.” Mr. Jennison, Lucy’s brother, went to Watertown to buy the island. I’ve always wondered why Lucy’s brother bought the island instead of Sam. Perhaps Sam wanted to avoid further confrontation with authorities. Perhaps by putting the island in his brother-in-law’s and then wife’s name would shelter him from further investigations. Perhaps Sam wasn’t able to make the trip. Olivia offered the explanation that Mr. Jennison’s gift was “to make sure she [Lucy] always had a good home.” For whatever reason, Mr. Jennison bought the island (as well as four other surrounding islands, Basswood, Long Rock, Woronoco and Lone Pine) for a sum of $67 and gave the islands to his sister, Lucy. Olivia glossed over the date in her book, but the year was 1865.

As I said, I thought Sam might have been a bit wild, especially in the early years, so I was surprised to learn from The Observer in an article titled, “Sam Grenell’s Whiskey,” that Sam was almost a “teetotaler.” Even though he was “a dealer in intoxicating liquors for more than sixty years,” Sam reportedly rarely consumed more than two alcoholic beverages a year. Olivia quoted Sam as saying, “I buy the best Canadian whiskey and cut it right in half with the good St. Lawrence River water, and that won’t hurt any one.” The Observer reported that when Sam couldn’t get his hands on good Canadian whiskey, Sam attempted to make the best facsimile. He would bake old shoe leather in the oven, than soak the baked leather in a keg of alcohol until it obtained the robust caramel color of bourbon. Revelation of “the unique formulas and ingredients” he used in the home manufacture of cheap whiskies was only shared with “confidential acquaintances” and then only years after he had retired form the tavern business. Perhaps knowing what went into the liquor he served was the reason Sam did not imbibe.

In 1890, Sam sold Grenell House to J. D. Sayles. The tavern was torn down and replaced with the three-story, 50-room Pullman Hotel. Sam moved from the foot of Grenell near his farm, but was far from retiring. He opened a store and a post office, and had a nephew run the business. Haddock wrote in 1895 that two lots of Grenell Island Park had been set aside for a hotel. These were Lots #29 and #30 and would have been east of the store. They are still empty.

Sometime in the 1890s, Sam constructed a model home at the head of the island perhaps in the hopes of becoming a contractor as well as a developer, but as far as I know that idea never caught on. Sam also donated the land and served as one of the first trustees for the Grenell Island Chapel, which was opened in 1898.

Around 1906, Sam was embroiled in a legal battle, which ultimately caused him to “lose all his holdings on the island.” From what I can piece together, the lawsuit arose over the building of a boathouse/cottage on Lot #34 (the former Brooks boathouse cottage, currently owned by Maier). This is the lot next to the double lot where Sam hoped to build a hotel and this “coastal building” somehow threw a monkey wrench into those plans, so Sam sued. Sam lost the lawsuit. How this lead to Sam “losing all his holdings on the island,” I’m not sure. But perhaps it meant that the covenants, rights and restrictions that Sam envisioned could no longer be enforced.

In a box of items on Grenell Island history, I found the following clipping. The date, 1916, was penciled in at the bottom, but I have no idea who wrote the piece or where it was originally published. It read:

“I remember a remark made by a wealthy resident at the mainland at the time [1860]. He said to Mr. Grenell: Sam I have a common yearling bull calf in my farmyard and I wouldn’t give him for all the islands you own. The calf died some years ago but the islands are still there. Mr. Grenell sold his hotel [Grenell House] not long ago and laid out Jeffers Island into lots and called it Grenell Park. About forty fine cottages have been built and today “Uncle Sam” can stand on the highest point and view a million dollars’ worth of property without turning his head.”


In 1895, Haddock described Sam as:

“…a pleasant gentleman, and one who never tires of pointing out the beauties of his surroundings. He is enterprising, not satisfied to settle down and merely enjoy what he has acquired, but like the typical American, is anxious to keep near the top, and improve on what his ancestors have bestowed upon him.”

William Horton wrote in the book he edited, The Geographical Gazetteer of Jefferson County, NY 1684-1890, under the heading of “The Men I Have Met Upon The Great River”:

“I even own up that I knew Sam Grinell when he pastured his cow on his island, now studded with many beautiful cottages and joyously welcomed the thirsty dwellers on Prohibition-Thousand Island Park to his dispensary of contra-band Whiskey.”

The Observer described Sam this way:

Map picture

“Mr. Grenell was an easy-going, pleasant disposition man who never exerted his mentality in the effort to ascertain knowledge of affairs of his neighbors, who generally was over-slack in many things that directly effected his own interests.”

From these snippets I have a new picture of Sam Grenell. I see a man who loved his island and once he found it, remained there all his days. A man who chaffed at laws that taxed him and didn’t think twice about bending those rules. A man who had dreams and goals, but perhaps not the attention to detail or business savvy to bring them into reality. A man who was outgoing and accepting of others. A man willing to give of himself for the community good. That fact that many on the island referred to him as “Uncle Sam” tells me Sam Grenell was more than just a proprietor, but a person who instilled a feeling of family on Grenell Island, a feeling that remains 100 years after he passed on.

By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island

This month Lynn McElfresh presents this fascinating history of the man whose name is so well known – Sam Grenell.  She also presents the history of the paths around her island – paths that have seen generations of islanders pass by.   Throughout the  year Lynn is helping capture the history of her Grenell Island as it prepares for its centennial. .  Last month Lynn also  wrote two articles, in Borrowing Books…she explains what borrowing books is like on Grenell and the Post Office on Grenell.    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.


Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Bill Munger
Comment by: Bill Munger ( )
Left at: 7:41 AM Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Thank you. Enjoy articles such a these.
Sue Smith
Comment by: Sue Smith ( )
Left at: 1:26 PM Saturday, January 14, 2012
really enjoyed your article - thanks
Kate Walsh
Comment by: Kate Walsh ( )
Left at: 7:38 PM Sunday, January 15, 2012
This was so informative Lynn! Loved learning all the background on Grenell!
tom walsh
Comment by: tom walsh ( )
Left at: 8:05 PM Sunday, January 15, 2012
Thanks, lynne. Another great article and history lesson. Very meaningful

Tamara Jennison Barrows
Comment by: Tamara Jennison Barrows
Left at: 8:29 AM Tuesday, August 4, 2015
Randomly came across this very interesting story,. ironically after having just returned from the 1000 Islands. Very interested in the Jennison side of the story. I don't see Mr, Jennison's first name here. Do you know what it is?
Lynn McElfresh
Comment by: Lynn McElfresh
Left at: 4:26 PM Tuesday, August 4, 2015
Tamara--The source I have didn't include Jennison's first name. I'll poke around and see what I can find.