Part III: Grandmothers—And Great Aunts—of the Thousand Island: Great Aunt Margaret Griffin

By: John Kunz

Volume 16, Issue 4, April 2021
A Great Aunt Equals A Grandmother Once Removed. - John Kunz (I made that up)

A Great Aunt Equals A Grandmother Once Removed. – John Kunz (I made that up)

My Great Aunt, Margaret Elizabeth Griffin, was the third youngest of the eight children born to Major Eugene Griffin and his wife, Edith Emily Stanley Griffin. She was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, and raised as a Seventh Day Adventist. She used to tell stories about marching in Prohibition demonstrations. She and her younger sisters carried signs that read, “John Barleycorn Must Die.” She suffered a sledding accident as a child and grew up "sans the left eye." Her remaining eye always had a sparkle in it for her many nieces, nephews, and their many more children.

When Margaret’s older sister, Helen, married Charles Potter Lyon of Ogdensburg, New York, the Griffin family got their first introduction to the Thousand Islands. The younger Griffin sisters began visiting Oak Island, in Chippewa Bay, shortly after 1912. They quickly realized that life here was different than in Battle Creek. Life on the River revolved around boats.

“Taking joy in living is a woman’s best cosmetic.” - Rosalind Russell

Margaret was absolutely devoted to children. After she got her Masters degree from Battle Creek College, she taught school in Detroit for 25 years. This gave her plenty of time to take advantage of summer invitations to visit Charlie and Helen. She immersed herself in life on the St. Lawrence. One of the must-do events on Oak was fishing. She is pictured below, with her sister Helen, and a pretty decent haul of Black Bass. The fish were breaded and fried in bacon grease on many a river evening

Margaret (left) with Helen [Photo the Lyon Family Archives]

Boating of all kinds was mandatory. Let’s face it; if you live on an island and you want to go anywhere, you need to go by boat. Below is a photo of Margaret and her sisters on Sarge. Sarge was one of Charlie’s sailboats. The port side was painted white and the starboard was black. Every time the boat came about, it displayed a different hull color. Charlie was a clever prankster.

Margaret and her sisters on Sarge [Photo the Lyon Family Archives]

Boating in unfamiliar water can be a tricky business. Marg found the perfect craft to explore the shoal-infested waters of Chippewa Bay. This craft was known to us kids as the Seanut. It was a fiberglass predecessor to what would now be a standup paddleboard. Every single one of us kids who summered on Oak was on the Seanut with Aunt Marg. She would carefully paddle us around the Bay. Occasionally, we would be allowed to paddle.

Marg aboard the Seanut.  [Photo the Lyon Family Archives]

Marg never had kids of her own, and we all were the very great beneficiaries of that. She was like a second mom to all of us, the kind of Mom who would take you out for dinner and let you have dessert first. In spite of her Prohibitionist upbringing, she always allowed me to have the froth off her Daiquiris.

“I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it.” - Marilyn Monroe

Kids often dread long car rides with their folks, but not so with Margaret. She was a terrific storyteller. She had a sharp memory and didn’t hesitate to tell us all sorts of tales about the River, boating adventures, and the people in our community. We picked up many a-good-yarn on car rides from Chippewa to Ogdensburg. Often, we would stop at an old school bus parked along Route 37. The engine had been removed and under the hood was the best fresh bread I have ever tasted. We would buy two loaves; one would be eaten in the car on the way back to Chippewa, and the other would be turned into French Toast beyond compare the following day.

My Mom, Marg and the family cat Cutie on the Terrace at Oak, mid 1930’s. [Photo the Lyon Family Archives]

Margaret was a voracious reader, and she shared that passion with all of us. Over the course of several summers, my bedtime stories came from a multi-book series called “Bomba the Jungle Boy”. She read the entire series to me, with several do-overs. Times that I shall never forget!

All of us who have grown up in the Islands know the magic of boating. It can provide breathtaking excitement and the most sublime relaxation. We do everything on boats: grocery excursions, cocktail parties, racing, even weddings.

Margaret, my Mom, and Helen Lyon on Vamoose, late 1930’s. [Photo the Lyon Family Archives]

When you spend lots of time on boats, you are bound to encounter some unfortunate events. All three of the girls above were on board Finesse when it burned. Marg was in the stern cockpit when the engine burst into flames. She lost her eyebrows and a great deal of hair in the escape.

Margaret was magic for us kids, but she was also good company for adults. She was easy to be around. Her brother-in-law, Charlie, could be quite a mercurial chap. Marg was able to go with the flow. She was active in our Chippewa Yacht Club community for years. She hosted our annual CYC meetings every summer that I can remember. She had a constant stream of visitors, many from my grandmother’s travel agency. If you were a repeat customer on the travel agency’s Hawaiian Tour, you were invited to Oak Island..

“There’s nothing a man can do that I can’t do better, and in heels.” Ginger Rogers

When Marg wasn’t entertaining us kids, she was working. Every morning, the flag would be raised. Every evening, it was taken down and folded into a snug triangle. The porch and hut cushions were deployed and retired each day as well. We, the cousins, were often buried in the piles before tarping. She would call out our names, as if we were lost during the process.

Whenever I would pop over to visit, she would be hard at work. As I entered the sprawling house on Oak, I would listen for her whistling. It was usually “Lara’s Theme” from “Dr. Zhivago”. There was always that smile and sparkle in her eye, when she would see any of us. She would drop whatever it was she was doing. You felt like you were the only person in the room.

Marg with her sister Helen on the Terrace at Oak. [Photo the Lyon Family Archives]
“I do not wish to give women a first place, still less a second one – but the complete freedom to take their true place, whatever it may be.” - Elizabeth Blackwell

By: John Kunz

John Kunz and his wife Kelly are summer residents of Chippewa  Bay. They winter in Watertown, NY. Along with their three sons, they  enjoy the River on a four-season basis - Sailing, Rock Climbing and  Skijoring. In February 2016, John took us Skijoring in the Thousand Islands, and then for the past three years John and Kelly have covered the excitement of the Thousand Islands Cup: October 2018, the first Thousand Islands Cup and in November 2019, Second Annual Thousand Islands Cup.  Be sure to see them both as the photographs and commentary capture the excitement of boat racing in the Thousand Islands.

Thousand Islands Life, Thousand Islands Cup 2020
A perfect day for the 2020 Chippewa Yacht Club’s Gold Cup Race... but apparently Murphy (and his law) had found a temporary spot on the Thousand Islands Cup Race Committee...
Thousand Islands Life, Communities: Chippewa Bay
Chippewa Bay has a rich history of hunting and fishing.
Thousand Islands Life, Thousand Islands Cup 2019
The Gar Wood Speedster race took the competitors over part of the Chippewa Yacht Club’s 1905 Gold Cup course. Spectators gathered in a flotilla off the front of Oak Island. Other guests enjoyed the event from nearby Owatonna, Rob Roy and Ojibway Islands.
Oswegatchie Yacht Club’s Veiled History
The club was named after the Oswegatchie River that flows into the St. Lawrenceat Ogdensburg. Oswegatchie is an Indian name that translates roughly to: ThePlace of the Dark Waters. When I was a kid, I asked someone what Oswegatchiemeant. They quickly replied, “Oh that’s Indian for horse we got yo…

Posted in: Volume 16, Issue 4, April 2021, People, Places, History

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