The idea hit me around 35,000 feet somewhere over the North Atlantic: Grenell is an island of strong women. We were heading home after a trip to Wales where we had visited the quaint Harry Potter-like town of Llangollen. There, I heard the Legend of the Ladies of Llangollen. It goes something like this. Back in the mid-18th century, two Irish girls were given the choice to either marry or become nuns. They chose option three: run away and pursue an education on their own. They’d planned to go to London but only made it as far as Llangollen, where they settled and pursued a life of self-education, relying on the generosity of others to survive. Eventually, Queen Charlotte persuaded King George III to grant them a pension.
I loved the idea. I’m old enough to remember a time when options for women were limited, when women passed from her father’s house to her husband’s house with little education. The thought of women striking out on their own to pursue self-education at a time when women’s education was frowned upon was inspirational. Then it hit me. In the late nineteenth century, there were Llangollen-like women on Grenell Island. I pulled out my notebook and started listing names.
First on the list were the Clement sisters, both college-educated women. Annie was the principal of the Friends’ Central Intermediate Girls School in Philadelphia. Her sister Ruth was a doctor. They built a cottage on the north shore in the 1890s. Starting in 1897 and continuing for several years, the sisters annually hosted a group of six women who tent camped on Grenell.
But the Clement sisters weren’t the first educated women on Grenell; the Griswold sisters were the first. Adelia and Emily Griswold built the cottage Mont Roche, currently known as Weonavu, in 1882. Adelia was the older of the two and always of frail health. Emily was the one who attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts before rounding out her education in the French language at a convent in Quebec. Emily tutored French to children of well-to-do families but also ran a small school for girls from her home in Adams, New York. After their father died, the sisters used their inheritance to build a lovely cottage high on the rocks on Grenell’s south shore.
Next on the list were women from our family, starting with Olivia Pratt. Technically, Olivia was my husband’s grandmother’s first cousin, but she has always been affectionately referred to as “Aunt” Olivia. Both Pratt sisters attended Syracuse University in the early 1900s. Olivia graduated with a teaching degree, taught high school Greek and Latin and wrote The Story of Grenell. Edith studied fine arts, though I’m unaware if she used her art degree. Gary’s grandmother also graduated from Syracuse early in the twentieth century and became a New York City librarian.
Again on the south side of the island, we have Miss Lois Kerr. She attended Barnard College, graduating in the class of 1909. While I’m not sure of her course of studies, I know Lois was interested in art, flowers, and birds. She also was a patron of the arts. Throughout her long life, Lois was active in the Audubon Society of New Jersey and the American Association of University Women.
In 1940, only 3.8% of the women in the United States had college degrees, but fifty years earlier, Grenell was the summer retreat for several college-educated young women, well exceeding that average.
So far, my list represented only the formally educated women on the island. There were plenty of women on Grenell who may not have had college degrees but were strong, independent women. Lucy Grenell falls into this category. While Sam is given credit for naming the island, Grenell Island technically belonged to Lucy. It is her name on all the deeds and transactions. Grenell Island seemed populated with women willing to roll up their sleeves and do what was necessary to support their families.
Alice Pratt was only 37-years-old when her husband died. Her two daughters, Olivia and Edith, were 14 and 11 at the time. In an effort to keep the property, she built a second rental cottage as an income generator. And while she never held a job outside the home, Alice was able to parlay the rental cottage and what she inherited from her husband to sustain her for decades as well as putting her two girls through college.
Eunice Gardner is another Grenell Island strong woman. Even though she was married, like Lucy, it was her name on the deeds. The Gardners owned and maintained Sabbott House on Fayette Street in Syracuse, which was listed as a boarding house in the 1880 U. S. Census. In 1882. the Gardners built a cottage at the head of Grenell Island. Soon after, they built two more. They rented all three cottages. Mrs. Gardner tent camped near her cottages and was on hand to help her renters and boarders. Other enterprising women populated Grenell. Olivia Pratt tells us in The Story of Grenell that the boarding house near the store was managed by various strong Grenell women—“Misses Post and Reeves, Mrs. Donna Crans, and Mrs. Bortsch’s daughter, Mrs. Pugh.”
Many island communities were started by religious affiliations. Thousand Island Park was organized by the Methodists; Westminster Park was organized by the Presbyterians; Round Island was organized by Baptist and Summerland was settled by a group of Universalists. Grenell Island, for whatever reason, seemed to attract strong, education-minded women. Women who banded together and built the Community House in 1934. The tradition of strong women on Grenell continues today as we have several cottages owned and maintained solely by women. The Ladies of Llangollen would be proud.
By Lynn E. McElfresh
Additional photographs: 1) Annie and her sister, Dr. Ruth Clement, built this north shore cottage in the 1890s. 2) Lois Kerr canoeing. [A Kerr Family Photo] 3) Gardner Cottage built in 1882 [A Salisbury Family Photo], 4) Syracuse Post Standard, June 16, 1901.