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Isle St. George and Its Attractions,

with Adventures of an Island Doctor

1913 text from reference (15) in the Bibliography

Go Back to John Yates Beall - 1913

 

On every alternate day when the U.S. mail and passenger steamer of the island and Sandusky line reaches Put-in-Bay, and has discharged the bulk of her freight, there yet remains a little side trip that is both interesting, and pleasurable; namely, to the furtherest outlying Bass Island, four miles northward, tri-weekly trips to Sandusky and return being regularly afforded islanders there residing. Runs thither are also made in the early morn, while Put-in-Bay residents - some of them at least - are still in bed. Summer visitors and others who fail to catch the morning boat find a staple attraction, therefore, in an evening trip to Isle St. George.

 

Clearing from the "Bay" wharves, the steamer, thither bound, rounds slowly that portion of Gibraltar, picturesquely showing "Perry's Lookout," and the "Needle's Eye" - now luminous in the broad pathway of gold cast by the setting sun over waters westward lying, To leftward, "Green" and "Rattlesnake" Islands bask in the evening glow, and on rounding a northwesterly projection of Middle Bass, Isle St. George looms clearly into view.

 

White curving beaches of sand and gravel, with interspersing lines of pictured rock, girdle its shores. Viewed in early summer, when Nature with lavish hand showers the choicest of her adornments, and when blossomed gardens, and orchards, riot running vines, and green sward form settings for the neat cottages and elegant residences of its dwellers, the island at this season forms a most attractive spot. Seen even in the sombre dress and beneath the dull lights of late autumn, the island is still redolent of charms, which brown leaves and denuded vineyards are powerless to destroy.

 

From a sheltered niche of St. George's shore, projects a pier, commodious, and well built, with a warehouse and office at its outer extremity. This is the landing place of the island steamer.

 

The old appellation, North Bass, still clings, though the more romantic, and euphonious - Isle St. George - is in popular favor, not only with the majority of residents, but with "Uncle Sam," by whom it has been officially adopted as a post office name. To the prosaic officials of Huron county, who in 1820 made out its first tax duplicate, it was known as “Bass Island No.3.” The island being a part of the Connecticut "Firelands," or Western Reserve, an agent thereof paid taxes accruing from 1820 to 1825. After this date, according to a local historian, the title was transferred to an individual named Demming. Later on, the title was again transferred from Abigail Demming to Horace Kelley of Kelley's Island. It also included North Bass and Rattlesnake Islands, consideration for the whole being $2,800.

 

Regardless of these transfers, there seems to have been no permanent occupancy of the island until 1844, when the first settler, Rosswell Nichols, arrived in a small boat bearing a few household goods, his wife, and two brothers-in-law, Scott by name. Though "squatters", they built and furnished a cabin and made other improvements. How it happened is not stated, but from the fore- going it is inferred that the Firelands Society had regained ownership of the island; since according to historian, above quoted, Rosswell Nichols finally leased the property, the consideration being that he (Nichols) should pay the taxes annually amounting to five dollars. Dr. Townsend, who later became a resident of the island, acting as agent, visited North Bass in 1845, for the purpose of arranging business pertaining to said lease. To make the round trip consumed a full week of the doctor 's time, which, forming quite an adventure, is here related in his own words, as follows:

 

"I was practicing medicine in Rochester, N. Y., at the time, and having business in Sandusky the owner of North Bass Island (Champion) gave me power of attorney to procure lease of Rosswell Nichols, who occupied the island as a squatter. There were no steamboats and to reach the place was a question. I finally got set over on to the peninsula in a row boat. From there I hired an Indian to take me across to Put-in-Bay in his canoe. Thence, I succeeded in getting passage to North Bass. I found the said Nichols, his wife and the two Scott Brothers, sole occupants. Making known my business, Nichols asked me upon what terms he could lease the island. He had made a small clearing on the spot which afterwards became the property of Peter Fox. I proposed that he should pay the taxes, and send receipt to Rochester each year; fence at his own cost the land he had cleared, without recourse to owner for any improvements he chose to make, he to have all of the avails. Nichols accepted the terms but made request that we furnish him $150, towards building a barn, and he would do the rest at his own cost. I counted out the money and drew up the lease. The barn was built according to agreement and now stands just east of the wine cellars on the Peter Fox premises."

In 1849, the seclusion of the Nichols-Scott settlement was broken by the arrival of the Wires family - George Wires, who came from the mainland, having purchased there a tract of 137 acres. The same year Nichols bought 114 acres, the consideration being five dollars per acre.

 

In 1853, Simon and Peter Fox came as settlers to the island from Pt. Au Pelee, having purchased all of the remaining portion of land still unoccupied.

 

Fruit produced by wild grape vines on North Bass were of such quality that one of the islanders, Simon Fox, was led to believe the soil and climate peculiarly adapted to the culture of improved varieties, such as the Concord, Delaware, and Catawba, and by way of experiment put out an acre of the same. The vines flourished, producing in time a splendid crop, and proving in every way a success. Having thus discovered that to which the soil was best suited, the price of land suddenly advanced, subdivisions of the larger tracts being made to fill the demands of purchasers, all of whom began the culture of grapes. Results transcended the islanders’ most sanguine expectations, the largest, best flavored, and most delicious clusters ever produced, loading the vines. In a few years after the first planting of grapes, the whole island - barring occasional tracts of pasture land, gardens, and orchards - luxuriated in vineyards. Concord grapes then sold at from four to five cents a pound; Catawbas, from six to eight cents, and Delawares from eight to ten cents a pound. Some additional pioneers of the island, and of grape cul- ture, were P. Cummings, Dr. C. D. Townsend, Dr. Morton, H. G. Fox, Geo. Fox, J. Snide, C. K. Minor, C. Reichel, G. H. Smith, Gen. Lindsley, Wm. Axtell, and others.

 

The fishing industry, carried on for years by North Bass, or, more poetically and properly speaking, Isle St. George residents, has grown to be an extensive and profitable occupation, reefs, and feeding beds around the island covering miles in extent, and inviting large schools of fishes, including black bass. Fish houses, fishing boats, fish nets - by mile lengths, fish net reels and the tarry fisher himself, are among picturesque objects seen at Isle St. George. Among veteran fishermen is oft mentioned Captain Sanderson, who, during a residence of over thirty years, proved a most successful manipulator of twine and canvas. Henry Kimmel, another hardy fisher, still haunts the isle, though latterly residing elsewhere. The Fox brothers and numerous other resident fishermen have quite distinguished themselves along this line.

 

Practically all of the islanders are adventurers, in fact, on water, as well as on ice, conditions peculiar to so isolated a location having conspired to render them such - the island lying four miles from Put-in-Bay, sixteen from Pt. Clinton and twenty-four miles from Sandusky, the nearest trading centers. All the marvelous, not to say blood-curdling escapades, for which its inhabitants have been famous since the island's first settlement, would afford material for a whole series of entertaining novels. Old settlers used habitually to jeopardize their lives in reaching mainland points across the ice, when supplies were needed; also to procure and dispatch mail matter, or to transact business. Present day inhabitants inherit the spirit of adventure - having been born thereto.

 

Among early pioneers, Peter and Simon Fox are especially remembered for their hazardous undertakings. A cold bath - to the neck - from breaking through the ice, they regarded as laughable incidents, only. The breaking in, and submergence of a horse was a little more serious, but they generally succeeded in getting the animal out of its predicament.

 

Simon Fox, on one occasion, it is related, was crossing from St. George to Put-in-Bay with horse and sled; when about midway between these islands an easterly wind sprung up, suddenly parting and breaking up the ice in all directions. Simon noted the newly sprung seams of open water and jostling ice floes just ahead, and the long and gradually widening crack extending rearward between him and Isle St. George. Here was that which even the most intrepid would admit as "real danger.” A few moments' delay, as he saw at a glance, would cut him off entirely from land, and would send him adrift down Lake Erie. The crack was already too wide for the horse and sled to cross without getting into the lake. There was but one alternative. It required dextrous and rapid movements, and strength as well. When making the leap of his life, Simon cleared the crack, landing safely upon solid ice, and later reaching shore. Marooned on an ice floe in the meantime, horse and sled drifted outward towards the open lake. Simon, however, did not propose letting his equine companion go by the board. Securing a boat, the assistance of a neighbor, and plenty of rope, the two pulled rapidly outward in pursuit of the fugitive horse and sled. Regardless of the sea that had risen and was already sending spray showers upward from between the running ice cakes, the horse - a quiet animal - maintained its position, evidently wondering what all the fuss was about. With great difficulty the men finally succeeded in fastening ropes to the floe bearing horse and sled. The ropes fortunately held, and the floe and its cargo were towed ashore and the rig safely landed.

 

Perhaps the most strenuous experiences known to the islanders, occur when medical aid is urgently needed, and a terrific storm of two or three days' duration is raging; or in winter when both storm and running ice must be encountered.

 

For the doctor it is also a strenuous undertaking, if especially he is new in the field, though as a "passenger", he is not expected to take a hand at the ropes, oars, pikepoles, or axes - as the case may require - unless for his personal diversion or possibly for a warming exercise.

 

Isle St. George once boasted two doctors, but that was long ago. One of the number, Dr. C. D. Townsend, now dead and gone, has left a record of some of his exploits, noted as below:

 

Adventures of an Island Doctor

 

“A mail carrier and a doctor doing a traveling business among these islands frequently have some pretty tough experiences, and no mistake.”

 

The speaker patted and smoothed the fur muffler he held in his hand while he stood in front of the big baseburner trying to thaw himself.

 

"The fact is," continued he, after a moment's reflection, "I don't believe there is any class or condition of men upon this terrestrial ball that see more of a rough-and-tumble existence than they, unless it is a Rocky mountain stage driver or an Arctic explorer."

 

"I have roughed it on 'Old Erie' for years; not as a sailor, but as a doctor, traveling by steamer, skiff, sail and on foot. Like the flying Dutchman, I am forever on the wing, beating about in all weather, over all creation and a part of Canada."

 

"Indeed! so your practice extends to the Canada shore ?"

 

"Oh, yes" replied the doctor, "I have had practice in Leamington, Kingsville, and other points along the Canada main as well as at Point au Pelee, Kelley's, the Bass Islands and the Peninsula.

 

"I have traveled back and forth so much that I have pretty nearly lost my identity, and hardly know whether I belong to United States or Canada.

 

“When I'm here Uncle Sam claims me, and when I go over the lake they try to annex me to the queen's dominions.”

 

"I suppose you find it risky business traveling over the ice sometimes?"

 

"Oh, yes, indeed. It's all solid enough this winter, but I have been called from one island to another when it wasn't fit for any human being to cross.

 

"I have traveled for miles from one point to another when I had to bridge the whole distance with boards, the ice being all broken up."

 

"How did you do that?"

 

"By means of two boards, one laid in front of the other. When I stepped from one board to the other I pulled up the board I stepped off and put it down in front, and so on across. Once I remember, I came pretty near going down, boards and all. I tell you I had to lay my bridge and get over it just about as lively as anything you ever saw.

 

"I am not a member of the church, and yet I suppose I have been immersed in Lake Erie often enough to make me one.

 

"I crossed the channel once when the ice was very treacherous. I carried a long pike pole in my hand and picked my way carefully for a time. At last I got careless, and, being in a hurry, did not watch my footing, when all at once the ice gave way under my feet and in I went. The long ends of the pole saved me, however, catching on the ice and holding me waist deep in the water. With the energy of desperation, I grasped the pike pole firmly and threw myself right over it, landing upon the ice. The weather was intensely cold and when I reached the shore my clothes were frozen stiff and covered with ice like a coat of mail.

 

"'You look as if you had been in the lake', said a man whom I happened to meet.

 

"'Maybe I have,’ I replied, and hurried on to the nearest house.”

 

At this point the departure of the mail cutter for Port Clinton caused a break in the narrative, and buttoning up his overcoat, the doctor hurried away to visit a patient upon an adjoining island.

 

Isle St. George has produced many staunch and worthy seamen - Capt. Arthur Fox, Capt. J. C. Fox, Capt. Seitz, Capt. Tulian, Capt. McNelly, and others. Capt. Arthur Fox, formerly of the steamer “Frank E. Kirby,” was recently placed in command of the new steamer "Put-in-Bay." This well-known and thoroughly trustworthy seaman received a practical test of courage and endurance when, as mail carrier during the winter season between the Bass Islands and mainland, he had many thrilling adventures on the ice:

 

Concerning the establishment of post offices on the Bass Islands in “Auld Lang Syne,” is related the following reminiscence.

 

After the location of an office at Put-in-Bay, or South Bass, application for a similar institution was made by the inhabitants of North Bass. This island, lying four miles from the former place, was granted the privilege.

 

Application was then made by the people of Middle Bass, but the petition was refused on the ground that the island lying but one mile from Put-in-Bay, the inhabitants of both islands could obtain their mail from the same office. The gentleman through whom the application was made now called into requisition the services of his daughter, an adept at the brush. The young lady was instructed to paint a picture, or diagram, representing the islands and their relative localities. In the channel which separates Middle Bass from Put-in-Bay was portrayed a tremendous sea tearing through the passage at cyclonic velocity, while a small vessel, dismantled and forlorn, appeared wildly beating through the channel at mercy of the gale. To emphasize the tossed and terrific appearance of the channel, all of the surrounding waters of the lake were pictured calm arid motionless as a summer sky. This diagram was forwarded to the post office department at Washington, as an explanation why Middle Bass people couldn't get their mail at Put-in-Bay.

 

In an incredibly short space, a reply was received from the officials at Washington, granting the establishment of said office, and asking permission to retain the diagram, as it represented “some remarkable and phenomenal conditions,” and they wished to place it on file.

 

The first post office incumbent at St. George was Peter Fox. The office at present time is filled by Miss Axtell.

 

On alternate days when the island steamer does not touch at St. George, the mail is carried across the channel in a launch by Captain McNelly, and placed on board the steamer at Middle Bass.

 

Thrift is the word that best explains how an isolated community like that of Isle St. George has not only managed to live, but to build up, with evidences of genuine prosperity. In general intelligence, and culture, these people are correspondingly up-to-date; and though owning and occupying a little world of their own, they manage to keep well in touch with the bigger outside world and its doings.

 

One church, Congregational, serves the isle and its people. The church is a neat and attractive structure. A hall used by the Knights of Maccabees, a fine school building, and a club house, occupied during the outing season by the "Up and Up" club of Cleveland, are principal of the public buildings.

 

A lady of poetic imagination, who recently visited the isle, duly christened it "The Gem of Lake Erie" and the denizens readily concede, and are of course proud of the title. The poem follows :

 

THE GEM OF LAKE ERIE.

(Tune: Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.)

By Mrs. Alice Bartow Van Emmons.

                       

                        I.

Oh, St. George is the Gem of Lake Erie!

The home of the good and the true,

The Mecca of trav'lers aweary,

My heart offers tribute to you.

My tongue and my pen sing thy praises,

As thy manifold beauties I view;

Thou art favored indeed of the Graces

With thy skies and thy waters so blue.

 

                  

Thy skies and thy waters so blue!

Thy skies and thy waters so blue!

Oh, St. George is the Gem of Lake Erie,

The home of the good and the true!

                        II.

When tired of the world's tribulations,

And worn with its burdens and care;

I turn to thy true consolations,

Full sure of a warm welcome there;

Where the sea and the sky blend in union,

And the people in harmony dwell ;

Where with friends I may hold sweet communion,

Those who love me so truly and well.

 

                    CHORUS:

Oh, those hearts all so loyal and true!

Oh, those hearts all so loyal and true!

Oh, St. George is the Gem of Lake Erie,

The home of the good and the true.

 

                    Ill.

Then hail to the Gem of Lake Erie!

St. George is the Isle of the Blest ;

With its people so brave and so cheery,

Its vineyards and fruits of the best,

May Love, Joy and Peace e'er attend thee,

And fortune in kindliness smile;

May nothing molest or offend thee,

O beautiful, beautiful Isle!

 

 

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Reproduction without written permission is forbidden for any purposes other than personal use.

Revised: 21 Jul 2008 07:49:46.

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