Author's Note: I first met Mary Hewitt in the summer of 2010 and interviewed her several times near Rockport at her mainland home at Heron Point, at Tar Island's Totem Point, and during a few voyages aboard her classic wooden boat Santa Maria with her at the helm for some of the ride and her caretaker Mike DeWolfe steering us along for the rest. I interviewed Hewitt for a story for the 2011 edition of Island Life Magazine. She told me about her life on the River in a one-room cottage at Heather's Point as child near Brockville and summering here at Totem Point. She sadly passed away March 19 2011 in Naples Florida at 95. The story became a tribute. It was a privilege to meet such a regal River matriarch during her last summer at Tar Island.
Mary Hewitt was a young girl on a tour boat from Brockville when she first saw this island off the shores of Rockport. Something unusual about it captured her curiosity. Something that seemed delightfully out of place.
"There was a West Coast totem pole on the island," she recalled of the colourful artifact that still stands on the same cliff today on Tar Island.
Hewitt, 95, had no way of knowing then that this Thousand Islands landmark known today as Totem Point would later in life become her summer home for more than half a century.
But during a leisurely cruise years later with her husband Robert, she saw the totem pole on Tar Island again in 1956. "We were on Cliff Sifton's boat, the Tonerta and we saw the 'for sale' sign," she recalled. "It was called Totem Lodge at that point."
The couple, then living in Montreal, purchased the property. They lived in its historic four-bedroom boathouse for several years before building a new summer home to replace a cottage they tore down. They decided to keep the boathouse and the totem pole.
Her husband Robert Hewitt, the founder of Hewitt Equipment Limited which sold Caterpillar equipment, passed away in 1992. "He loved the River," she said. The couple spent every summer at Totem Point with their five children.
The great grandmother summered on the St. Lawrence River for nearly nine decades. Hewitt, at the helm of her mahogany boat The Santa Maria in a pink suit and pearls on the familiar ride from her mainland residence to Tar Island last summer, was truly a regal River matriarch.
"She was the consummate lady," said long-time family friend Hunter Grant. "Always turned out impeccably, but also always ready for a bit of fun and the sharing of a glass of white wine."
"In our neck of the woods, around Rockport and Grenadier Island, she
was viewed affectionately as the matriarch, and in spite of her advancing
years, would regularly invite those who have been at GICC (Grenadier Island Country Club) for a Saturday evening dinner back to Tar Island for drinks and camaraderie."
The Hewitts joined the nearby golf club in the 1950's and Mary was one of its longest standing members. Robert was the driving force behind the installation of the two clay tennis courts and served as president from 1978-82, said Grant, a GICC member and former owner of Brockville's Recorder and Times newspaper.
Mary Jowsey Hewitt was introduced to the Thousand Islands in 1924 as a child when her father Robert Jowsey took his family from Ottawa to a one-room cottage just west of Brockville. She has spent every summer since on the River. He secured the waterfront property in World War I from a soldier who kept borrowing money and used the land as collateral. His bad debt turned out to be her family's good fortune. "Father said to mother 'Would you like to go to Brockville for the summer?," Hewitt recalled. "She said 'What would we do there?" and he said: "Well, I own a property there." She said: 'When did you get that?' "And he had to confess he had loaned all this money to an officer and he now had 35 acres of land."
Her father drove her mother Myrtle, two brothers and sister, from the nation's capital to the cabin on Heather's Point. "It was a long tedious trip," Hewitt said. "It was seven hours to drive from Ottawa. It was a dirt road and lots of potholes and no McDonald's along the way. We had to pack our own lunches."
Her father built a new cottage at Heather's Point in 1930. It was the same year the dynamite-laden drill boat called the J.B. King was struck by lightning on June 26 by nearby Cockburn Island in the Brock Isles. Thirty of the 42 crew members were killed. "We arrived the next day," recalled Hewitt, of the tragedy. "It was gruesome." Today, there's a memorial plaque on Cockburn Island dedicated to the explosion's victims.
Tar Island stretches about 250 acres and is dotted with historic cottages, boathouses, and former farm lots. In 1873, British surveyors noted it derived its name from having tar manufactured on the island from Pitch Pine trees.
Today passing boaters know Tar Island for its colourful trio of totem poles. An Indian legend refers to the Thousand Islands as Manitouana: the Garden of the Great Spirit. But while this region is rich with aboriginal history, totem poles are typically carved by Northwest Coast First Nations.
The totem pole that caught Hewitt's eye as a young girl was first erected on Tar Island in 1905 by the Eaton family of New York City. It's believed it was carved by the Klingit First Nations in the Pacific Northwest. It overlooks Island 104, also owned by Hewitt, which she renamed Thunderbird Island.
The Eaton family sold Totem Lodge to the Thing family of Rochester N.Y. in 1920. The Hewitts soon after added a second totem pole at Totem Point which they purchased at Harrison Hot Springs B.C. The red and black pole was carved by a First Nations family of carvers from British Columbia.
The Hewitts became actively involved in Rockport, known for its scenic waterfront. The tiny village attracts busloads of tourists from around the world every summer to take boat tours to see Boldt Castle on Heart Island and Singer Castle on Dark Island.
During Expo 67 in Montreal the couple entertained "about 1,500 guests," said Hewitt. But the well-travelled couple returned to Totem Point each summer.
"So many summer residents are just that - summer residents - but Mary and her former husband Robert supported the Church of the Redeemer, the Rockport Recreation Hall and the people," said Wendy Merkley, a Leeds and Thousand Islands Township councillor, who owns Andress Boat Works with her husband Art. "She truly was a grand lady as well as someone who loves to laugh, entertain and enjoys people in all walks of life."
Tar Island's original totem pole went missing in August 2007. Hewitt's daughter, Nattanya Hewitt, found a piece of the century-old artifact on the island's walking trail and the rest of the vandalized pole was soon after discovered. Mary's grandson, Jonathan Hewitt, was able to put the totem pole back together.
Hewitt commissioned a third totem pole in 2007 by native artist Calvin Hunt of Fort Rupert B.C., who is related to Tony Hunt, a famous aboriginal carver. She held a ceremony on Aug. 24 2008 to erect the totem pole at Totem Point including First Nations drummers.
The new pole, perched on the property's southeastern edge, has a bald eagle on top. Hewitt received a unique honour a few years ago when a joint government program monitoring juvenile eagles in the area named one of the eaglets 'Mary.'
"Mary was a very determined, generous, and charming grand lady of the Thousand Islands," said retired Canada Parks employee Bud Andress, a Canadian co-chairman of the St. Lawrence Bald Eagle Working Group, who named the eagle after Hewitt. 'Mary' the eagle was one of six eaglets monitored by transmitters. But she only gave one signal from central Quebec after leaving the Thousand Islands before disappearing.
"It was very disappointing that one of the birds we lost was 'Mary,' said Andress, also a Grenadier Island Country Club member. "Many of us tried to keep up with Mary when she hit the dance floor," he added. "Really, despite her 90 plus years. At a rockin' 90th birthday party at (neighbouring) Baby Tar Island for Barbara Johanssen, a friend of ours and many many others at the club, Mary wished Barbara a Happy Birthday....to her younger friend!"
"Whenever I saw Mary I thought about how she represented a wonderful generation of people that once plied the Thousand Islands," said Andress. But unlike her wayward eagle namesake, this Mary always returned to the River.
"She was a constant in times of change" said Grant. "She truly was a remarkable and lovely lady.
By Kim Lunman, email@example.com
Kim Lunman is the owner and publisher of Island Life Magazine (http://www.islandlifemag.ca) based in Brockville, Ontario. Kim's 2012 magazine will be distributed in May in local newspapers in eastern Ontario and northern New York. A special Islander Edition will be on sale in local book stores in both the United States and Canada in the summer. Last summer Kim visited many islands and met their owners and we can all look forward to reading their stories in the coming months. This story first appeared in Island Life Magazine 2011 edition.
Editor’s note: TI Life paid tribute to Mary Hewitt in TI Life in April ‘11 edition.