Island life in a long-ago winter


C. C. Townley managed the Island House Hotel from 1869-1874. Even though he left the island, his heart was never far from the friends he made on the Island. He became involved in the Mansfield Lyceum and shared his impressions in this paper about life on the island. Townley painted a vivid and entertaining picture of Island life that is still pretty accurate today.

 "Those only who have had the experience can form but little conception of what constitutes Island life in winter. To the novice it presents itself in two different characters; that of novelty and monotony; while to those native and to the manner born, the situation is accepted as one of the most natural things in life.

Living within sight of a city where every day could be seen the smoke ascending from the chimneys of the various places of industry, where at night the pale lights were glimmering in the distance, and where the shrill whistle of the locomotive is heard as it drays its burdens of work of wealth across the land; we know that in the busy world, Trade, Commerce, the Railroad, Telegraph and the Newspaper are in active operation; that its inhabitants are passing through the various markets in quest of the mighty dollar; that the disappointments of today are forgotten in the eager pursuit of something more tangible in the future.










COMPLETELY ISOLATED - With the knowledge that this state of things exists within our sight, the sensation is not pleasant to feel that at times we are as completely isolated from its participation as though we were living at the antipodes. During the long and dreary days of isolation, we stand on the icebound shores of our little island, getting a glimpse of the outside world in the dim distance. Gazing on the scene before us, we wonder is it possible that the same busy life is there as when we left it? And wonder more, does the world still move? After days and weeks of inactivity, we try to rouse ourselves from this dull, listless life, with but little success and at times warms our blood, it seems to course the more sluggishly through our veins; we almost cease to live. We only exist with scarce a single thought or hope save an earnest longing for the appearance of the ever welcome steamer and with it a release from our fetters of ice. After living 17 weeks without seeing a stranger’s face, we feel that could we even meet a stranger dog, we would throw our arms around it in sheer gladness at the sight of something new.

THE WEATHER - We are often asked, ‘Is it Cold?’ Well, the mercury in the thermometer does not sink as low in winter as it does even in Mansfield. But when the winds blow, they are terribly in earnest, attending strictly to business; now coming in fitful gusts for a few moments, fill your eyes with the dust and passing away. But with a continuous blow for a week at a time from one direction, without changing from a single point of the compass, when these gentle zephyrs move with force sufficient to lift one from his feet, with the thermometer at zero, our experience is [that] the most eligible place to be found is within hailing distance of a red hot stove.

WINTER TRAVEL - The exigencies of the war invented the iron-clad boat for safer and quicker transit. But before the days of iron-clads, the trips across were like ‘angel’s’ visits. The pioneers tell us that when President Harrison was inaugurated, the same mail that brought an account of it also brought the sad news of his death when it occurred, as you are aware, a month later.

The water in the Lake does not always freeze. Some can cross on the ice, usually solid ice forms near each shore, leaving an open space in the channel. When this occurs our mail carrier has an iron-clad boat which rests on runners. He puts on his skates, gets behind the boat and pushes it before him over the ice till he gets to open water, then launches the boat and rows to the solid ice. By this means he gets across, but frequently having to change from ice to water a half a dozen times in the transit. The work is laborious and it takes a man with a cool head and steady nerve to accomplish it in safety.

Our mail carrier is a personage not to be despised. One whose movements are watched with greater interest than all else combined. On him depends the receipt of all news and almost our entire communication with the world. He is an introvert in a small way and makes all bow subservient to him. When he does not think it safe to cross, he hugs the stove and complacently smokes his pipe, nor heeds the complaints or urging of the impatient Islanders.

He will carry for you a very small package for a good-sized consideration. That is, he will bring you a can of oysters worth 25¢ and charge a half-dollar for carrying it across. He is always glad to have passengers along, charging a good round fare, with the understanding that they (the passengers) will not only walk on the ice, but help push the boat along as well. The boat is only for safety and to cross the gaps of water. Lady passengers without skates are his aversion for they can neither walk nor help push the boat.

Our former mail carrier, an old pioneer, was a character in his way, equally cool in every emergency and never at a loss to extricate himself from difficulty. On one occasion, while crossing with the mail on foot, his companion unfortunately stepped on thin ice, which broke through, plunging him into the lake. The old man came to this assistance in lending a helping hand, but the ice being slippery, he was afraid of being deluged also, when a happy thought struck him, telling his companions to ‘hang on a minute.’ As the weather was intensely cold, he gruffly got down on the ice and his clothes were frozen to the substance, when as he expressed it, he ‘got a foothold an’ and pulled his companion safely out.

The mail carrier is a thankless position, as he scarce ever attempts to cross without incurring great danger and is poorly paid by the Government for his labor.

The greatest difficulties encountered in crossing is caused by the vast fields of moving ice that are almost constantly in motion by the changing water currents. Crossing at that time is attended with great danger and seldom does anyone attempt to brave it.

A CLOSE CALL ON THE ICE - The writer will never forget his terrible experience in crossing these fields last winter. In company with two or three he started from Sandusky one afternoon in February and had got within three miles of the Island when the boat became lodged in what is called ‘mush ice.’ This is the most treacherous ice we have to encounter, being too soft to sustain one’s weight and too compact to work through without great difficulty. The men labored for more than an hour not making the boat’s length of headway. The wind began to rise, the darkness was coming on and we saw ourselves gradually and almost certainly going down the Lake. The horror of the situation of the writer was the more intense, being helpless to assist the others who were making such heroic exertions for our lives. At last when despair had almost taken possession of us, the men succeeded in getting the boat into an opening and free from the treacherous ice. The recollection of that terrible night out in the lake, in a frail boat surrounded by the moving ice, floating to almost certain destruction, the fierce howling of the wind, the beating of the rain still awakens feelings of horror in our memory that never will be erased; and with them a prayer of thankfulness to the overruling Deity and our…gratitude…[to them], who by their exertions saved us from a watery grave.

When the Lake is frozen over in one unruffled surface of sufficient strength that horses can be driven on it, then comes the Islander’s carnival. Every morning can be seen a procession of sleighs drawn by horses and filled with people anxious for a little change, wending their way across the Lake, giving Sandusky a harvest that it sometimes surely needs. A 12 mile ride on the clear blue ice is one of the most enjoyable pleasures imaginable. No charge for admission into skating rinks in those days, for old and young have a skating park that extends to Detroit and possibly to Buffalo. The Islanders, male and female, put on their skates and make a social visit to Sandusky, to Put-in-Bay, and the far off island of Point au Pelee in Canada, with as much ease as one goes shopping in a city. This is one of the bright sides of winter life and is entered into with great zest by nearly all the inhabitants.

LARGE-HEARTED PEOPLE - The Islanders are generally a large-hearted, intelligent people, well up to the ways of the world with the happy faculty of making money and disbursing it judiciously. Isolated a greater portion of the winter, they are thrown upon their own resources for amusement, consequently nearly all take an active interest in any pastime that will help shorten the long winter. They are all great readers, not only keeping themselves thoroughly posted on the leading topics of the day but readily devouring nearly everything readable that comes in their way. Statistics at the Post Office show that there are more newspapers, magazines, etc. delivered there than at any other office of similar population in the country.

There are several churches, good schools…well attended, a source of great pride and great interest to the Islanders, an amateur dramatic club of equal interest, a Lyceum, several gatherings and many incidentals that go to fill up the time.

ENTERTAINMENT - As dancing is considered one of the most attractive and harmless of amusements among these people, from the gray-haired pioneer to the child of five years, this amusement is alike enjoyed with equal zest. As an evidence of how it is looked upon, we remark that the first New Years party of our residence there, was duly announced in the regular weekly prayer meeting of the church the evening previous. We have seen the superintendent, who on the Sabbath day morning points the way upward to the little child in the Sabbath school, at another time leading the same little one through the intricate mazes of the dance. We speak of these things with no feeling of levity, for all who know the minister and his people will readily vouch for their consistent Christian lives, possessing we believe, less guile than many with greater pretensions toward stricter discipline. It is sufficient excuse for them in countenancing this, that it helps to wear off the ragged edges of winter life.

THE GRAPES - The success of the grape is the beginning and end of the Islander’s hopes. To many their very existence depends on it. With this their expenses are kept up, their taxes paid, and their ministers supported. When it fails, many are nearly in as deplorable condition as the grass-hopper plagued people of Nebraska.

COURAGEOUS - The average Islander is a queer compound, a curious study to the novice. Reared near the water, he is more at home in the element or on the ice than he is on the shore. Seeing danger in its various forms, he becomes reckless and careless of his own life. Warm-hearted and generous to a fault, he never hesitates in going to one’s assistance in distress. He takes the world easy and like Mark Tapley, is jolly under all circumstances. If his vineyard gives a generous yield, or if successful in fishing, well and good. If on the contrary, the blight is on his grapes and the fish go in a different direction from the nets; well and good. Again he cares but little for the future and lets tomorrow take care of itself. With all this he is not wanting in heroism.

The writer, having occasion to cross the Lake in winter, remembers with such feelings of gratitude as to cause a lump to rise in his throat, when he thinks of the tender care received from the hands of these brave men. ‘Tis a point of honor among these men never to talk of any services they have rendered to those in distress, but for all that, lesser deeds of heroism have ere thus been embalmed in story and in song.

DAILY LIFE - Your average Islander has some notable traits that are consistent with his daily life. He will walk across the Island at midnight or row a boat to Sandusky to do you a kindness without thought of remuneration; but if you want to hire him for a day’s work he will refuse. Or if after urging he accepts, he will half do your work and then charge you four prices for his labor. When he arises in the morning he first looks at the thermometer then ascertains in what direction the wind is blowing after which he again returns to his downy couch and makes the ‘partner of his broom’ get up and build the fires. It takes him till after Christmas to get fixed for the winter.

In January he visits his neighbors and puts in the balance of his time at the store. In February he stays more at home, having become tired of seeing the same faces and in March he ceases to consult the looking glass, having become disquieted with the sight of himself. Everyday for weeks he stands on the shore and casts a wistful eye towards the bay for the first sign of smoke to appear from the chimney of the expected steamer.

The winds never blow so fierce, nor the snow so deep, but that he can get to the store. No matter if his wife has to cut the firewood or wade through the same snow for a bucket of water. When the sidewalks become impassible, he coolly takes to the bare spots in the middle of the road. A half hours’ labor with a shovel would be considered among the impossibilities.

THE STORE - The Store, the rendezvous alike for the man of business and the idler, is a study to the novice. The arrangement of the goods would astonish the fastidious tastes of the city dry-goods man. Here everything is sold and everything is arranged for utility and convenience. You can always tell what was the last thing called for, whether it be a crow-bar or a calico dress, a paper of pima or a pitch fork, for the article that was last shown is always on top and when anything else is wanted, the merchant digs down and skirmishes till he finds it. Here every item of news or gossip is discussed and sifted, from the latest conversation on the main land to the best remedy for a sick cow. Here Presidents are made, the Alabama claims adjusted, the question settled as to what is best done about that little Virginian’s affair, and here the financial affairs of the country are properly fixed up. In his discussions at the store, the astonishing amount of wisdom that is some time displayed would throw Jack Bunsby of the ‘Cautious Clara’ [from the Dickens story] into convulsions.

Given a fair prospect for a crop of grapes, a checker board, and an empty nail keg to sit on, the average Islander will never sigh for a greater Elysian. Such an imperfect sketch of winter life and some of its characters, with all of its little drawbacks, the pleasant avocations connected with the five years’ residence there, will ever occupy a warm place in our memory and the many kindnesses received from those warm hearted people will never be forgotten.”

C. C. Townley

Author: Leslie Korenko