Sarah “Sallie” Wright Robbins had made up her mind. And – as usual with her – she was determined to follow through on it.
In 1951, at the age of 31, she signed the papers and bought the 8-acre island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, between the New York State mainland and Grindstone Island, known alternately as Pine or Beckwith Island. Her purchase came as a complete surprise to her husband William and their three children, as well as to her family members at Long Point on Grindstone Island. Her father, Wilson Darling Craig Wright, had bought the Wright family summer home in Aunt Jane’s Bay in the early 1920’s, for his wife, daughters, future grandchildren, and guests. His often-stated single-minded purpose for this purchase was to enable everyone to enjoy the property in perpetuity.
Instead, beginning that year, Sallie and her own family would spend many happy summers on Pine Island, living in the beautiful French Provincial-style house that sits regally atop the island. The house gazes down at the 60-foot dock below, and at the two-slip boathouse, the residence of their 1929 26-ft Chris-Craft speedboat, and the 24-ft powered St. Lawrence Skiff, commissioned by her father and named the Sallie in her honor.
Sallie was the very definition of a blonde bombshell: tall, shapely, blessed with thick waves of long blonde hair, and striking blue eyes that mirrored the color of the River on a perfect summer’s day. Inspired by both a strongly independent streak and an irrepressible sense of humor, Sallie was avidly pursued by suitors captivated by her beauty and her fun-loving personality. She was compared by more than a few to Veronica Lake, the Hollywood movie star of that era. Indeed, her portrait was taken by Bachrach, the famous photographer to high society, top fashion models, business barons, and Hollywood’s elite.
One such admirer was Joe Watson, a handsome and dashing figure, whose own family home still sits at the tip of Grossman Point on Grindstone. When Sallie was 16, and living with her parents and younger siblings at Long Point, Joe Watson would thunder into Aunt Jane’s Bay driving the Invader, a Gar Wood speedboat that boasted a massive Hall Scott Invader 168 model, 998 cc engine in its hold. Swinging into the dock to pick her up for a date – much to her mother’s dismay – Joe would spirit her away for private River adventures!
Sallie delighted in shaking things up and doing the unexpected, regardless of possible prudish disapproval. Throughout her life she wrote limericks – some slightly on the ‘naughty’ side – and she was also well known for donning various wigs, including a favorite bright orange ‘fright wig’, to take her husband by total surprise upon his always-unsuspecting returns home.
Over the full span of her life, Sallie was a deep and abiding lover of the Thousand Islands. She adored boats and being out on the water. As a young woman she sailed the St. Lawrence aboard the sailboat commissioned by her father for his entire family to enjoy.
At Craig Wright's direction, the family’s boat captain, Henry Thibault of Clayton, built that sailboat as well as the Sallie; the Betty (named for another Wright daughter, Elizabeth); the Caroline (named for both Craig Wright’s wife and their youngest daughter), and several other craft. Obviously enamored of the leggy blonde beauty, Captain Thibault would often affectionately sing the strains of “Long Tall Sally” to her (not the Little Richard rock ‘n’ roll tune, but an earlier and quite different song).
In later years, in addition to the Sallie, she drove a companion motorized St. Lawrence Skiff that she named the Puddleduck, which was the workhorse at Pine Island and hauled everything from groceries to garbage.
Very much the ‘ugly duckling’ to its much more sleek and polished sister skiff, it sported lengths of canvas firehose on its gunwales which served as permanent bumpers. Most significantly, it bore Sallie’s trademark coat of thick green house paint, which she notoriously applied by brush to everything from that boat to – years later, and to his utter shock – her eldest son’s rambling, rusting, wreck of a first car . . . an act wholly unbeknownst to him, at the time she did it!
Sallie and Bill Robbins loved River life, and especially their summer home, so much so that they made it a point in the middle of every off-season to come to Clayton to check up on it. Braving the snow, the ice, and the frigid winds of a North Country winter, they would climb aboard an ice boat in Clayton and skitter and slide their way across the frozen water to Pine Island.
Once on the island, they would inspect the shuttered house, boathouse, and “Kohler shed” to ensure their well-being until next summer’s arrival (at that time, electricity for Pine Island was supplied by an ancient Kohler gasoline-powered generator, which had the unfortunate habit of breaking down regularly but unpredictably—usually at night!).
How they managed to avoid severe frostbite during these annual trips remains a mystery. Sallie would arrive – and travel in the iceboat – wearing nothing more than an overcoat and standard shoes; this was long before the wonders of modern winter wear were available to keep one warm in such bitter cold!
Ever the River lover regardless of the weather, Sallie was simply happy to be back on the St. Lawrence, and it showed.
In those days, wooden and metal punt-style ice boats were the common means to travel across the River. Driven at the stern by engines spinning an airplane propeller, or by sail power, they could slither over the ice but upon encountering open water, they would revert to float-mode until they met the next frozen patch. Modern aluminum versions of these craft cross the St. Lawrence today.
Sallie Wright Robbins adored every moment that she spent at the River – whether in the height of a St. Lawrence summer, sailing and driving classic boats in the sun-sparkled blue waters; or in the depths of a frigid winter, voyaging across the icy expanse to visit the island property that she had fallen so fully in love with and bought as a young woman.
The Thousand Islands were her true home, and were always in her heart.
[Photographs courtesy Robbins Family Collection]
By Tom Robbins and illustrated by Sarah Coate
A third-generation summer resident of the Thousand Islands, Tom Robbin's career has taken him from the White House to Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and now Silicon Valley. His lifelong love of the St. Lawrence parallels his personal and professional interests in film production, photography, and writing. See Tom's TI Life articles here.
Sarah Coate is a lifelong River Rat; she attended the Rhode Island School of Design and owns a marketing company for TV commercial production companies. Sarah is also Tom's big sister! (Lucky guy, eh!)
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