"The Orchards" on Grindstone Island

By: Rick Casali

Volume 15, Issue 11, November 2020

A few years ago, I read a wonderful article entitled "The Orchards" by Rex Ennis of the Thousand Islands Museum. It was about The Orchards, the Bakewell estate on Grindstone Island, and their ownership of it during the 1920s and 1930s.

The article did not include information about the later years when my family was fortunate to have owned "The Orchards." My father, Dan Casali, and his business partner, "Uncle" Harry Werksman, first rented the home for one year and then purchased the property in 1947 or 1948, when I was about six months old. We continued to call the waterfront estate our home for the next 20 years and kept the name "The Orchards." In fact, dad had a 1950 Buick station wagon with wood paneling with "The Orchards" painted on both front doors.

Over the next 20 years, The Orchards was always a place for laughter, family hallmarks, and future memories.  For example, both my fathers and Uncle Harry's birthday celebrations filled this Grindstone waterfront with lots of friends, family, and associates. The dining room, overlooking the St. Lawrence River, could seat 14 to 16. Meals became special events in this wonderful home. An invitation to The Orchards was treasured and not to be missed. Fishing for bass, pike, and muskies, enjoying shore dinners, and trips to Canada by boat or car were all treats.

A photograph of The Orchards on Grindstone Island before the fire in 1967 which destroyed the house and all its furnishings.

The cottage's understated elegance was made warm by cedar paneling on the walls and ceilings, and pine planking on the floors. It offered six bedrooms and three baths in the main section, each bedroom opening onto a sun porch beneath which was a full-length screened-in porch, all of which enjoyed waterfront views and river breezes. One could watch the passing freighters, and hear the River lapping at the granite rocks of the shoreline. The older section of the cottage had three more bedrooms and a bath, for the staff that lived with us each season.

The massive fireplace in the living room was a gathering place for owners and guests. On chilly evenings, conversation centered around the fireplace. Spacious window seats on both sides of the fireplace were perfect for escaping with a good book from the large library, or for a post-dinner nap, as the setting sun shone through the old glass windows. There were also plenty of places to find privacy for a good conversation from the small sun porch off the billiards room to the East-facing deck off the dining room, to the aforementioned sun deck and screened porch facing Bluff Island, Clayton and Calumet Castle. In colder weather, we’d gather in the older of the two kitchens around a wood-burning stove for morning coffee, or for dinner when the men were up "stag" for late fall or early spring fishing.

Many evenings were spent in spirited games of pool in the library. The previous owners, the Bakewells, had left the library intact with hundred of volumes of fiction, history, and law books. Each book contained a hand-written notation by Alan Bakewell with a date. Muskie and bass trophies from our ownership period decorated the paneled walls of the library. Adjacent to this room was a telephone closet that contained an ancient crank device to contact the other wooden phone down in the boathouse. As kids, we cranked that phone hoping to hear someone on the other end. No one, other than another pal, ever answered. However, Harry and Dad never allowed a telephone to be installed at the house, treasuring the escape from the pressures of the office and life beyond the River.

My mother and me at The Orchards!

The warmth and memories of The Orchards were enhanced by our wonderful staff. Vano Anderson was our boatman and caretaker. His wife, Mary Anderson, was our housekeeper. They and their children lived in the older section of The Orchards during the season. Adding to these fond memories were the terrific breakfasts and dinners prepared by Alice Rusho during much of our 20-year ownership.

Of course, the large, three-berth boathouse was the center of attention. We had two Chris Craft vessels and three Lymans during our 20 years, all of which were purchased from John Kellogg at Mercier's in Clayton. Vano took excellent care, treating these varnished beauties with great pride. The boathouse was the center of morning activity before going to town, and later in the day for cleaning the day's catch. As kids, we played in the boathouse, and used the upstairs as our playhouse. Once a living space for the Bakewell's boatmen, we kids played up there and escaped the grown-up world.

Additionally, the two workshops were places of mystery with tools, an iceboat built by Vano, and ancient fishing gear. Before power came to Grindstone in 1953, it was also the site of the noisy gasoline-powered generator. One could tell when someone was reading late at night as the generator chugged on into the darkness.

A modern photograph of The Orchards boathouse, until recently the home of Martin and Enika Zonnenberg. 

Our independence from outside power sources was aided by a windmill on the southwest point of the property. The windmill pumped water from the River up to a large (spooky) water tank in the woods, well above the main house. We would sit beneath the windmill, listening to its squeaky gears, and wonder what on earth this spindly device did for our beloved summer residence. At night, you could hear it doing its duty, regardless of the temperature or weather.

The eight acres of The Orchards were unforgettable.  From the points of land with great views of The St. Lawrence, to the swimming rocks and sandy beach, to the grass tennis and croquet court, The Orchards had many special appeals. One could find a spot to fish, swim, read, talk, play and relax--- without infringing on another's privacy.  Another gathering spot was the massive barbeque that Dad and Uncle Harry built from native Grindstone Island granite.  Harry and Dad would prepare thick steaks from Burn's Market in Clayton on this massive grill.  Martinis complimented the business partners' cooking.

Coincidently, the Bakewells, my family and the Werksmans all hailed from Pittsburgh. This common bond of the cottage to Pittsburgh showed up in a number of instances, and it made our connection to Grindstone all the more special. Just getting to Clayton from Pittsburgh was not easy back then. In the late 40's and early 50's, a few times my family boarded a train in Pittsburgh prior to dinner. An elegant Pullman car was our home for the next 16 hours. Meals were in the sparkling dining car with fresh flowers, and multi-course meals. Arrival in Clayton was after breakfast the next day. Once the interstate highways were built, the 14-hour drive was cut to just eight. Eventually, my father and Harry purchased a private aircraft, which reduced travel time from Pittsburgh to Dexter to just two and one-half hours. Bad weather occasionally forced us to divert to Rochester for the night.

Sadly, we sold The Orchards in 1967. My father had just undergone lung surgery and my Uncle Harry and his family were building a new home in Rancho Mirage, California. The sale of their business, Helm's Express, and other life changes resulted in The Orchards being put on the market. My father continued to come to The River, and he was there fishing when The Orchards burned to the ground. He heard the sirens from his room in Clayton, and saw the smoky remains the next morning. It was like losing a best friend, and he never stopped regretting selling this special spot on Grindstone. When we sold The Orchards, we left the house intact with most of the books, antiques, artwork, furniture, and treasures left by the Bakewell's in addition to those we had acquired. One item we retained was a china plate embossed with a black and white photo of The Orchards, which is pictured in this article.

Today, my wife, Anne, and I own a cottage on Tennis Island North on Wellesley Island. While we love our new home in the Thousand Islands, I find myself returning to the spot on Grindstone where my childhood and teen years were spent. One day many years later, I walked around the property and spied the old croquet set by the grass tennis court where we spent many hours as kids. All the wooden balls had sat there undiscovered for years in the tall grass. Yet, the eight acres looked empty to my eyes without the majestic home we called The Orchards.

Our days are now filled with new friends, visits with old friends, and hosting family and friends on the River. Recently, I met Ross Rollins who once owned the property and farm, as well as John Tyo and Mike Flood, who were the owners when the fire struck during renovations. The house is totally gone including the granite foundation, but the charm of the cottage is still fresh in my mind. The house, my parents, Uncle Harry and his wife Mary, and many others are all gone now. But The Orchards lives on in the memory of those who were lucky enough to have lived and visited there.

By Rick Casali

Rick Casali is a part-time yacht broker who divides his time between Wellesley Island and Stuart, Florida. He and his wife Anne cruise the St. Lawrence River in a Seaway 24 called "Miss Annie", a 21 center console built in Maine, and a 1950's mahogany runabout called "Rumba". In October 2020 he wrote, "Forty Love" a Chris Craft 24 Sportsman.

Posted in: Volume 15, Issue 11, November 2020, History, People, Places

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