A River Family Mother's Day Tradition

By: Marilyn L. Schaaf

Volume 18, Issue 4, April 2023

One of the most popular holidays of the year, to celebrate the heart of family, is Mother's Day. Traditions may change with generations, but the memories are not forgotten. I was fortunate to be born at the River with two great Grandmothers still living. One passed when I was 8, and the other Great Grandmother, Grandmother, my Mom and her siblings are the family of this tradition.

Great Grandma Capitola Dingman was born in 1891, one of 14 children from a second-generation pioneer family of Alexandria Bay. She married George Ledger in 1909. He was born in 1889 in Gananoque, Ontario, one of 8 children. His father originates in Quebec and his mother is from Carthage, New York. Cross border marriages were very common for the era.

Capitola was employed as a passenger ferry driver from Collins Landing to Wellesley Island and George worked as a barber in Alexandria Bay. They had one child, Riley O., and established cottage rentals in Goose Bay, New York in 1932. After George passed in 1949, Capitola continued to rent the cottages, with the help of her family, for another thirty years.

Grandpa Riley Ledger chose Mother's Day as the holiday for his family to celebrate together with his mother and wife. He was a fishing guide by trade, so he offered what he was best at - fishing and a shore dinner. Speculation has it that Grandpa learned from Great Grandma how to fish. She was definitely good at it. No better way to honor her than show her the adeptness of his skills and make sure we caught dinner.

The day would begin in early morning. We would split into two groups, one to fish and the other to secure and prep the picnic area at the state park. This was early May. The River, bays and inlets have just opened, clear of ice, and there were not many seasonal residents or boats around. Fishing spots and picnic areas were basically ours to choose from. I learned early on, fishing or picnic prep, I'll be fishing!

And fishing with family sure was fun! There would be more than one boat. I remember going in Grandpa's guide boat. We had contests; first fish, most fish, biggest fish, smallest fish, who lost their bait first, probably me.

Great Grandma Ledger with her signature red wool pillbox hat and the day's fresh catch. She was a petite lady, maybe 4'6" if that.

Grandpa's guide boat had a built-in bait live well, no lures or fancy rigging, just leaders, lead sinkers and live bait, the way he was taught. The bait box was like a personal aquarium that I could play in, until I stressed the bait too much and had to stop.

Grandpa could catch any minnow you wanted with his bare hands. I remember being mortified when he would hook them through the back or the mouth to bait the hooks, I liked them as pets. Then I became more interested in fishing and got over that. It is still such a thrill to hear the reel start running, this could be the big one! I do remember using lures, probably when we were more competent so as not to hook anyone.

When fishing was done, we would head to the picnic area to clean the catch, start the fire and let the feast and festivities begin. This is where you needed to pay attention to see how things were done. There was always enough fish. I think Grandpa had extra one time, because it seemed like we ate more than we caught. Watching him clean fish was an art to learn. Besides it was Mother's Day and he was in charge of the cooking, we were in charge of the eating.

Boy did we feast; hot bacon on a slice of white bread as our appetizer, the grease used for separate courses of fresh caught northern pike and French toast. Some special ingredients were used for the French toast and coffee, still a secret that some of us know. The meal would include multiple types of salads served with salt potatoes, deviled eggs, stuffed celery, pickles, olives, radishes, green onions to dab in salt, our favorite foods of the spring season.

We had this entire island park to ourselves, Mother Nature's perfect playground! There were always animals and amphibians to see: tadpoles, minnows, snakes, baby ducks, turtles and sometimes a mink.  I always enjoyed exploring the island, picking wildflowers for the tables, just a few. It is not a proper picnic table without wildflowers. There would be my favorite Lily of the Valley, trillium and other spring flowers. I used to know all the flower names.

Now fishing did not stop once we were at the park. There is always fishing from the shore, dock or boats. There also might be one final contest - who goes in the River first, willingly or not!! On a warm day it was refreshing, on a cold day not so much, but that did not matter, it was a rite of passage. Being wet was a cold boat ride home though! You might want to avoid the dock on a cold day, just saying...

Boy did we feast; hot bacon on a slice of white bread as our appetizer, the grease used for separate courses of fresh caught northern pike and French toast.

Everyone would head home in their own boats. My Dad would usually take us for a long boat ride. I called it the tour as the route was usually up the Canadian side, back down through the Rift, around the Castle, Cherry Island, Edgewood, the upper town dock and eventually home.

We did this for many Mother's Days, with family, in laws, out laws and even ex-spouses. It was always at the same place where people from both sides of the border would stop by, were welcomed to join us, have some food, drink and talk awhile. As time progressed, family moved, me included, elders passed, and our tradition became a treasured memory of family, friends, laughter and love.

Mom still has Grandpa's coffee pot and fry pan from the shore dinners, reminders of our Mother's Day tradition together. As mom myself, I can appreciate that. We have had a picnic at the island park with my parents and my children who loved it. I really envy Great Grandma. At the time four generations of her River family were celebrating together, the best gift ever!

Mary's Island State Park*, Mother's Day, May 9, 1971: Back row - Morris "Mo" Roberts, Annie Roberts, Riley W. Ledger, middle row - Jimmy Ledger, Cappy Ledger, Marilyn Roxy Shortt, Eunice " Sis" Ledger, Dianne R. Ledger and Capitola Ledger, kneeling - April Ledger, Candy Ann Ledger, David Shortt, Marilyn L. Shortt and our River dog, Sparkie the Irish Setter (guaranteed he went in the River that day). Missing from photos: Paul Shortt, James Ledger and George Ledger family.

*Note: It is charted as Mary Island, but who uses charts? We always called it Mary's Island; my Mom wrote it on the back of the photo. It was identified to us that way, from the people who knew the River's landscape and landmarks. I cannot change my memory; it is unnatural for me to call it otherwise.

By Marilyn Ledger Schaaf

Marilyn L. Schaaf is originally from Alexandria Bay and although she has lived in south Florida longer, she will always consider the River her home. She tries to visit annually and stay longer each time. Like so many of us, she says, "there is never enough time to make new memories and revisit old ones."

Posted in: Volume 18, Issue 4, April 2023, History, Sports

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