Life on the St. Lawrence River - An Oral History

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Picture Caption: Leon [Junior] Rusho, second student from right, in the one-room Lower Schoolhouse on Grindstone Island, 1950. [Courtesy of Josie Calhoun and Audrey Lashomb]


"A Boy's Life on Grindstone Island"

I wouldn't have give it up [growing up on Grindstone Island] for anything in the world. It was the best place in the world to grow up. Started driving tractors and cars when I was about six and boats. First time I ever drove a tractor was, used to help in the hay fields, and my father would put me on the hay rake, but he just put enough gas in it so that I could rake the field and it would run out of gas, "cause I didn't have, my legs weren't long enough to use the pedals to stop it. I went to school on Grindstone until the eighth grade, a one room school house....The teacher we had was, her name was Fanny Hutchinson. That was the only teacher I had all the way through from kindergarten through eighth grade. It was great. 'Course when we got older into the twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old range, we all had our own cars and we'd have parties every Saturday night and everybody'd get together and go up to the beach. So it was a lot of fun in the summer time. Winter times was a lot of fun 'cause we used to have on the weekend type things, everybody'd have alternated weekend a party at their house. Like we used to have a card party at this one's house and a card party at that one's house the next week. Lotta fun and growing up on the water with the boats and things is always, always interesting. In the fifties there was probably oh, fifteen families that lived over there. When I was in upper school, there was sixteen kids in school, in the upper school. Now it's down like, I think seven families or something like that, not very many young kids anymore.

Picture Caption: 1000 Islands guide Jim Brabant in his 1953 Chris Craft fishing boat at the village of Clayton dock, 1996. [Martha Cooper photo, TAUNY Archives]


"Remembering the Old Fishing Guides"

Roland Garnsey. I remember Roland, he had one party fish forty four years, and I've got people now that I fish for thirty some years. I've lost a lotta 'em through the years, but I still got a few left. I got some that fished with some of them old guys, some of their descendants and stuff like that. It's funny how things go. I used to fish with Nelson Bryant who wrote the "Wood, Field and Stream' column in the 'New York Times' used to come up and fish muskies with me. When I first met him, his budget was unlimited. He'd fish with me and then he'd be in Africa or some place, all over the world. Oh, he was a pisser, he was well suited for the job. The man could go any place and fit right in, smoked a pipe and he'd get just as drunk as anybody else would and loved to fish and hunt and very interesting. But with him came like Irving Hirschbein with the CBS publications, and Peter Kriengler with the 21 Club, all of these extremely nice places and stuff in New York City and they'd come in here and stay at Bertrand's, always knew exactly how to cater to these people and what they liked and they came here to fish. These older fishin' guides'd have big jobs, big bunches of people that come out of New York City and well-to-do people and, and I would get in on these big jobs. They'd need another boat 'cause the parties kept swellin' to more and more every year. But Clayton was quite active on the fishin' scene back then. I mean, there before I started fishin' I had heard it was as high as fifty guides around Clayton, and the number stays around ten to twelve, fourteen now. But it used to be a lot more than that.

Picture Caption: Fishing guides and oarsmen regularly gathered after the day's catch at 'Rock Bass Corner,' corner of James Street and Riverside Drive, Clayton, 1890s. Here they would meet customers for next day's fishing trip and swap stories of all kinds. [Courtesy of Corbin River Heritage]

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"What Was the Biggest Muskie?"

Muskies are big, and they're, they're elusive and they're hard to catch and it takes a lot. It's a lot more venturesome once you catch one on and, and boat it, it's just, you know, it's just kinda like the prize deer or the prize this or that. Some people don't care for it, but a lotta people do. That's what they come up for, catch muskies, you can troll for days and days and not catch 'em. I've seen guys go fifteen, twenty days and never catch a muskellunge, they just, they weren't bitin'. They just didn't bite. They look like a northern pike, but they think different. They hatch different. They grow different. But they're just a strain of a big, fresh water fish. I had a couple of fish over forty pounds checked and the oldest one was twenty six years old. And big bass have been checked before and some of those fish are in their twenties. They're very, very old fish. They take a long time gettin' to the age that they did. There's guides now that gets a lotta muskies, boy. They work at it. They fish right up till the end of November, and the season's closed. Back in those days Clay Ferguson and I and a few other ones were the same way. We just every day, every day, every day we had to fish, catch muskies, and that was the, be the top dog was to be the biggest, who would catch the biggest muskellunge. If I didn't have customers, I went anyway, just, that was the place to be, competitiveness. The biggest muskellunge I've ever heard of and all the old guys ever spoke of was a fifty two pounder that Harold Ferguson caught. All these old guides met and brought their customers into the same dock and weighed the fish on the same scale, and they never had one that went over fifty pounds until this one of Ferguson's, fifty two pound, Harold Ferguson's. It's mounted. It's over in O'Brien's hotel behind the bar. It's been there since '57. They weighed the fish and he bottomed the scale out and, and Roland told me that himself. The fish was weighed that night. Harold was over havin' somethin' to drink and said he only had two, two pails full. [Laughter] Well, he. weighed the fish in and that was the biggest fish around Clayton. I think that's the only question I want to ever find out, if I ever get to this place they call it Heaven, I guess. I'm sure to go there, along if you give me enough room to get in the door. [Laughter] Well, anyway, I'd like to know what the biggest muskellunge was..

Picture Caption: Clayton fishing guides gathered around their wood fires to prepare shore dinners for their fishing parties of summer residents and guests, ca. 1890s. [Courtesy of Corbin's River Heritage]

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"1000 Islands Guide's Shore Dinner"

A party of six go out for a day on the St. Lawrence River with local fishing guide Russ Finehout of Clayton. After catching bass, pike and lots of stories, the group heads to Finehout's private island to prepare a traditional shore dinner, comprised of the catch of the day, corn on the cob, fried potatoes, and green salad with 1000 Islands salad dressing. Three local traditional specialties of the meal include boiled coffee, an 'appetizer' of a BLT made with rendered fatback [melted over a hot open fire for deep frying the fish), and 1000 Islands Guide's French toast: deep fried quickly and served with heavy cream, maple syrup and a shot of bourbon!

A nine minute documentary module produced by Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and North Country Public Radio as part of a series of 20 programs of various regional and ethnic food customs and events in northern New York from 1991 to 1993. Written and produced by Varick Chittenden and Lamar Bliss.

Picture Caption: Lawrence Balcom, pictured here with 1000 Islands visitor Little Johnny of Phillip Morris advertising fame, around 1950. Balcom was captain of the tour boat The Island Princess which ran out of Clayton. [Les Corbin photo, courtesy of Corbin's River Heritage]


"Some Very Cool Fish Bait"

The old fishing guides in Clayton hung out on a downtown corner called Rock Bass Corner. They had two large benches there and the guides would sit there after they came in from fishing and that evening they'd get another party for the next day. The Corner was near the hotel and the wealthy visitors knew this was where they could find the guides. Well, in the middle of one August, it was one of those blistering hot days calm, dead calm on the river and the boys all got back and they were all complaining, the fish wouldn't bite. They couldn't get any fish. This one character, Johnny Paige, he says, 'Yeah, I had the same experience. I went over to Calumet,' he says, 'You could look down there, you could see these fish, but you couldn't make 'em bite. But,' he says, 'I finally got the limit.' 'What do you mean you got the limit, nobody else caught anything?' somebody asks. 'Well, you see, Johnny says, 'I got an idea and I says I'm goin' back into Clayton to get some bait that will work. So we came over and then we went back over there and,' he says, 'you know, within fifteen minutes we had our limit.' 'C'mon,' they said, 'what was you usin'?' Then Johnny started walkin' away and he says, 'Cracked ice!'

"Junior Bootleggers"

During Prohibition, it was also the Depression, but along the river here, we never knew that, 'cause almost everybody was a bootlegger. My first experience, I was nine years old, and my neighbor was ten, and my grandfather had built a little fourteen foot sharpie, which is just a flat bottom boat with a bow on it. We would go around town and we'd collect cardboard boxes. We'd take these boxes to the bathing suit factory and they would give us a nickel apiece for them. And we'd save up until we had fifty cents, sometimes a dollar, not very often a dollar. And on Saturday we'd row over to Gananoque and we'd each buy a pint of whiskey. It was twenty five cents a pint. At that time there was a whole row of small boathouses in Gananoque and we'd row over there, and whoever was selling the whiskey at the time had a shamrock, and whichever boathouse that shamrock was hangin' over, that's the one you went in and bought your whiskey. We'd row back to Clayton and we'd take the whiskey up to a fella here named Bill Bartlett and he would give us 100 per cent profit on our money. Fifty cents a pint for it. So, if we made a dollar that day, boy, we made a lot of money! That was great. Bill had a speakeasy right there by the ball field and all sorts of people kept running off the field into his place. Now, we had a ferry running from Gananoque to Clayton, and every time they'd land in Clayton the customs officers would go aboard and they'd search and normally they'd find eight or ten bottles of whiskey every trip. Some people would take the corks out of the bottles and drop them over the side. Now, because of the specific density of the alcohol, the bottles would float for awhile, so when the ferry left, we would dive down and put the bottles up on the pier. Then, after dark, we'd go down and sneak it up to Bill and sell it to him. So, I guess we were junior bootleggers!

"Fizz LaClair"

Fizz LaClair, he was another character. One time, his father had bought him a new Whippet car, and he got the bright idea he'd go downtown and solicit people: 'I'm goin' over and get a load,' he'd say. And they'd all invest in this load he was gonna bring over. So he'd take the ferry over at Clayton and he bought the whiskey in Ivy Lea, and he had them take the tires off'n the car and they'd fill the tires full of these bottles of whiskey and put hay around 'em and then blow the air up again. And as he got on the ferry goin' to Alexandria Bay, he was one of the first ones on, 'cause he wanted to be the first one off. Well, about the time they were gettin' into the dock in Alexandria Bay, the tires started popping. The customs guys on board were all concerned, so Fizz, he got in line with the people and he left his car right there. He walked off! Somebody says, 'Well, jeez, Fizz, aren't they goin' to find out from the registration of your car?' He says, 'Nope! It's in my wife's name!'

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