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Thomas Mitchell at home on the corner of Home & Oak, Thousand Island Park. Photo courtesy Tom French.
Thomas Mitchell at home on the corner of Home & Oak, Thousand Island Park. Photo courtesy Tom French.

Stories of Thousand Islands life, one cassette tape at a time

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Many people wish they had captured the stories and histories of their parents and grandparents before they were lost. Some of us did make a journal or tape or video recording.

A Potsdam man went a step further. Tom French catalogued recordings he made of his grandfather, Thomas Mitchell, of Thousand Islands Park on Wellesley Island. He sorted them by topic and made them available to listen to on a website. Taken together, they're an oral history of life on the St. Lawrence River through a good chunk of the 1900s.

Tom French told David Sommerstein he just gave his grandfather a microphone and tape recorder and let him take the lead.

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Tom French: He would take the tape recorder and go into his little storage garden shed and record in there. And I know when he’s in there because you can tell the tone of the quality of the recording is much better in many ways. It’s just him and there’s no excess noise, and he’s telling his stories. Every now and then you’ll hear an airplane going on overhead.

David Sommerstein: So tell us about Thomas Mitchell. Who was he, what was he like, what did he do?

TF: Well he was born in the Thousand Islands Park. And pretty much lived and grew up in the Thousand Islands Park. He actually graduated from Saranac Lake high school because during the Depression he had to go live with his older sister. His father was a construction guy at T.I. Park, and my grandfather sort of helped develop the business there in the construction field, Thomas Mitchell & Son. His stories were often stories of survival. I mean, he has stories where he tells about living through the Depression, and having to go out and fish for food or trap for food on the table sometimes.

DS: So you put these stories on a website, and it’s really cool, I think it’s something that a lot of people wish that they could do. Take stories that they’ve gathered of their elders and put them up with pictures, and you have little zippers to just click play, and you hear them talking about a specific topic. He talks about catching sturgeon, which were once plentiful in the St. Lawrence River. There’s a picture of the fish that is literally the height of your grandfather.  It’s literally as big as he is.

TF: Yeah that’s a great picture, too. The sturgeon is as tall as he is and he has this great smile on his face. It looks like he’s laughing and having a blast. The best time for fishing sturgeon was in the spring, right after the ice went out. And in that story, he talks about going off and having a thousand-foot line and hooks every 3 feet and the water being cold and numbing to his hands.

Thomas Mitchell: Now the bait had to be the size of your thumbnail and had to be a perch. You start in tying these damn bait on in the cold water. So if your hands be numb, sometimes your stomach would ache from the cold. Now the bait, even when it was colder, as the ice went out of the river the first night was one of the best nights that they would get on. The second night the bait was the very best night, the third night it would slop off and the fourth night--forget it because they wouldn’t touch the old bait.

TF: And then he talks about the thrill and the exhilaration of hauling these large 70 to 100 lbs. fish up into the boat.

TM:  And the first night we had two fairly good sturgeons, and man these things were big. When you had one on, you threw the grapple line up, and the minute you got the line up, you could tell if you had a big fish on. When you pulled them in, you could see them coming up, you had to get these monsters into the boat. When you see a 65 or 75 or 100-pound. sturgeon underwater, you’ve seen a fish. As he got up near the boat, one of us would gaffe him just under the mouth, right behind the gills, and get him into the boa.  And then we threw life preservers in bags and get ahold of the damn fish. He pounded so hard on the boat we were afraid he’d sink the boat and we’d hike back to shore. Immediately, quit everything, get the fish to T.I. Park, and get him in the fish cage before he died.

The barge of the 1000 Islands Navy, or the Admiralty. Photo courtesy Tom French.
The barge of the 1000 Islands Navy, or the Admiralty. Photo courtesy Tom French.
DS: There’s another story about the Admiralty, which is sort of this boy’s club, part frat-boy, part charitable organization, that he was a part of, and that I guess still exists today?

TF: Yeah I only found out recently that it still exists today. It was the Thousands Islands Navy, or the Admiralty of the Thousand Islands, it was started by my grandfather’s brother; his name was Grant Mitchell. He was the executive secretary of the Thousands Islands Bridge Authority for close to forty years and he was instrumental in the building of the bridge. He was known as Mr. Thousands Islands--he was very keen on promoting the Thousand Islands, and he started this little club.

They called it the Thousand Islands Navy, or the Admiralty of the Thousand Islands. It was a service organization really dedicated to promoting the Thousand Islands. Although there was a fraternal aspect of the club as well, so sometimes they would do some crazy things and they had a little initiation.

TM: I wanted to bring one of these sturgeons down to the rough camp to initiate the new neophytes into the Admirals.  So come the day of the big doings of the Admirals we had this big sturgeon and we got a big water tank for cows, and we set it up in inside the building and got people into the tank to hit the people over the head with the end tail of the sturgeon. He wasn’t too big of a sturgeon, like a 40 or 50 pounder but it was a big one.

TF: One example of how they promoted the Thousand Islands is there was a song by Arthur Godfrey, called The Thousand Island’s Song. It was from a Broadway review in the 1940s. And so they took my grandfather’s barge and they drove around the St. Lawrence River with a piano on this barge, it looks like a grand piano in this picture. They were all dressed up and they drove around the river supposedly trying to find Florence of the St. Lawrence, which is supposedly some lines from the song.

DS: How did doing all of these recordings with your Grandfather change your relationship with him?

TF: Well we certainly became much closer. And I was listening to some of these recordings on the way to the NCPR studio. Sometimes I can feel my eyes get a little watery when I listen to his voice, because I miss him deeply. But he makes me smile because he was a great storyteller. Sometimes he embellishes I’m sure, but I do believe that the history he’s giving and the stories that he’s telling are based on the facts as he recalls. This is the way life was on the river.

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