Located near the foot of the island, just down the sidewalk from the Grenell Island Chapel, stands the heart of Grenell—the Grenell Island Community House. It’s not a fancy building. The inside is unfinished: four walls with exposed studs, exposed rafters and a wooden floor. For most of us on the island, the Community House has always been there. We have no memory of it not being there. It’s where we pick up our mail, grab a book or magazine to read, blow off steam by playing a little ping pong or gather for a Grenell Island Improvement Association meeting.
It might come as a surprise to some Grenellians, that the Grenell Island Community House was not built by the Grenell Island Improvement Association (GIIA), but rather by the Ladies Auxiliary of the GIIA. Some have heard me say that the women were not allowed to join the GIIA in the early days and that’s why they formed the Ladies Auxiliary. I was wrong. The GIIA was open to property owners only and there were women who owned property back in 1912—Lois Kerr, Alice Pratt and Lena Lynn to name only a few. Women held GIIA offices even in the early years. The Ladies Auxiliary came about because the ladies were more interested in providing social activities.
Hard to think of living on the island today if you don’t own a boat, in fact it would be almost impossible. But in the early days of the island, it wasn’t odd for families to not own a boat. If they had any boat at all it was a rowing skiff. Ferry services brought families to the island and with a store on the island there wasn’t a need to leave. It wasn’t unusual for mothers and the children to stay on the island for the entire summer, with father joining perhaps on the weekends occasionally or an extended stay sometime during the summer. In the first half of the 20th century, the island was filled with women and children, most with no boat and no way to get off the island. Hence, there was the need for social activities on the island.
he Ladies Auxiliary was formed on September 2, 1931 with 36 members. At the August 1932 meeting the minutes read: Mrs. Lynn, Mrs. Morse and Mrs. Brooks were appointed as a Committee to meet with the Association at their business meeting, to see if they would allow the “Chapel” for a “recreation center” for the young folks of the island and if not, to ask if they would help build a community house or a covered platform, or some place, where the young folks could spend their evenings, and to be supervised by a Committee appointed by the Auxiliary President for each week.
There is no mention of the response, but knowing that a year later construction began on a Community House, funded by the Ladies Auxiliary, I can only assume that the answer was no to using the chapel and no to building a recreation center. It seems the Ladies Auxiliary took on the persona of the Little Red Hen and said, “Then we’ll do it ourselves!” And “do it ourselves” they did.
Alice Pratt donated two lots and $400 cash to get the project started. Back in 1932, $400 was quite a chunk of change worth about $3,000 today. Over the summer, the Ladies Auxiliary held Benefit Card Parties once a week, usually collecting around $1.65 at each gathering. In addition to the card parties there were little craft bazaars and bake sales. The money trickled in pennies at a time.
It was the Great Depression and people needed work. Relatives of the Earle Brooks family, Irving Brooks and John Shirley, were hired to build the Community House at what price I haven’t discovered.
The Otis Brooks Lumber Company in Clayton (of no relation to the Brooks family on Grenell) was kind enough to take the down payment on the materials and float a loan with no interest. The Grenell Island Community House opened in 1934 and was dedicated July 4, 1934. There was a kitchen, a library, a square grand piano and a 48-star flag tacked to the wall. For the next three years, the ladies worked hard with bake sales, white elephant sales and benefit-card parties to earn money. They paid off the final loan to the lumber company in September 1937.
The Ladies Auxiliary, which eventually changed it’s name to Women’s Auxiliary, continued on for two more decades earning money for maintenance and insurance for the Community House and planning activities for the young people of the island. In the 1940s there were movies for 25 cents, skits, pie socials, box socials, and sing-alongs. In the 1950s, they held potlucks and square dances.
But times changed. A questionnaire sent out in 1961 by the Women’s Auxiliary says it all: The Community House on Grenell Island was built and dedicated to be used by the residents for their many varied group activities. In the last few years, these activities have been rather limited. Perhaps this is a sign of the times. Quick transportation to the mainland, the fact that many of the islanders are weekend commuters, and our desire to come for just a rest perhaps decreases the need for a community center.
When the GIIA incorporated in 1961, the Women’s Auxiliary turned the building over to the Association. The Women’s Auxiliary eventually slipped away. The piano fell into disrepair and was unceremoniously drug out of the Community House chopped-up and burned. The kitchen was eventually dismantled in 1982 and replaced by the post office. The library spilled out from behind locked doors with the children’s section now in the main room of the Community House. (More on the Grenell Island Library and Grenell Island Post Office in coming months.)
The Grenell Island Community House was renovated in 1993-94, the foundation shored up, the roof redone and siding put on, ending the need for yearly scraping and painting.
The 2006, GIIA President Dusty Sauda pointed out that we had lovely gardens on Grenell, but the Community House had no landscaping. He asked Anne Sweetapple to chair a Gardening Committee. By the annual picnic, the next year, the project was completed. A year later a flagpole was added, surrounded by a perennial garden.
Today the Community House is the gathering place for GIIA meetings, the Annual Picnic and Sunday School. There are two ping pong tables, a fussball table, a library and a post office.. During a stretch of raining days, the Community House is a godsend for parents with young kids. It’s a place to go and play ping pong, or pick up puzzles and games. The Community House has also hosted many special events. There have been wedding receptions, milestone birthday parties and occasional entertainment.
Next year, the GIIA will be celebrating its 100th anniversary. The island is preparing for a wonderful three-day celebration. This spring we had a logo contest. There were over twenty entries and competition was close. Drawn by Diane Cordes, the winning logo was the only entry that incorporated a picture of the Community House. It’s easy to see why her logo was so popular. For the current generation, all the memories of GIIA events are rooted to that building. Even though the Grenell Island Community House was not around in 1912, it’s the heart of the island community and GIIA activities today. We have the women of the Ladies Auxiliary to thank for this enduring symbol of Grenell’s Community Spirit.
By Lynn McElfresh
This article is the first in a series of articles on Grenell Island History. Lynn McElfresh’s summer has been filled with research and interviews of long-time residents. She is looking forward to sharing her discoveries about Grenell Island history in Thousand Islands Life. Grenellians can check out more history of Grenell and plans for the Party of the Century on Facebook at Grenell Island Improvement Association.