Clayton's Premier "Citizen of the Year"

By: Cary R. Brick

Volume 18, Issue 11, November 2023

Once upon a time, I knew a man who lived his entire life in Clayton. He was born, lived, and died in the same house. He said it was “his” village, and he wasn't too happy when the summer people came to town to “disrupt everything." He wasn't a Chamber of Commerce-type of guy.

My friend’s world centered around the shops and the people along the streets, where he walked nearly every day, catching up on the local hearsay news about what was happening around town. He knew all the store clerks and owners, and they knew him. His first stop was usually at Cerow's grocery for his whole wheat bread, bologna, and all the trimmings; next was the Rothenberg sisters' Clayton Department Store for white tee shirts to replace those in his closet that had turned gray and were showing their age; sometimes, he went into Hungerford Hardware for nuts and bolts and anything else that might give his aged lawnmower a new lease on life.

He often stopped at Bob Grant's bank where he could ask Bob, the owner, if he could exchange the wrinkled and crinkled five-dollar bills he had in his pocket for crisp new one dollar bills. He was paid $5 for mowing lawns, painting the porches, and doing odd jobs for his "regulars." He said he'd rather have five bills in his pocket than one.

[Illustration by Marie-Anne Erki, ©2023, Kingston, ON]

From time to time, he stopped at McCormick’s Restaurant to chat with Vince Dee, who was successful in having tour buses stop there to offload hungry visitors, their tour guides telling them that was the best spot to dine, overlooking the River just a few feet away from their tables; then he'd cross the street to the Kittle's Ford dealership, to see if any new cars had been delivered overnight; his next stop would be Tom Turgeon's marina where he checked out the boats docked there, before sitting down in the office to swap yarns with 'Tommy' about the years long ago,  when the boat winter storage building had been a spacious dance venue where nationally known big bands drew couples from as far away as Watertown.

My friend would venture into Mercier's Shipyard to make small talk with his friend Harry Mercier before moving on to Bernie Consaul's market, to have a cup of coffee from the pot on a hotplate behind the meat case. Eventually, he would work his way up to the village's only stoplight where he talked with Jerry Hammond, who operated the Atlantic gas station at the busy intersection of four routes—one to downtown Clayton, one to Watertown, another to Alexandria Bay, and the fourth to Cape Vincent. Jerry was of the era when gas station attendants filled your tank, checked your tire pressure, made sure your engine had enough oil, and cleaned your windshield.

As an aside, I must admit I had an occasion to avail myself of Jerry's services. He came to my rescue when I slammed my dad's new station wagon into our cottage's garage door one Saturday afternoon, and I couldn't move it because the driveway in front of the garage was covered with thick ice (hence the slam). Jerry never said a word about the mishap to my dad, nor did I. But my mother asked me if I knew who was responsible for the scratches and dent on the passenger side door. She said something to the effect: "a runaway grocery cart must have hit it in the Grand Union parking lot." She smiled. I smiled. Silence reigned until I asked, "What's for dinner . . .  I'm hungry. Can I have a piece of that chocolate cake? It won't spoil my appetite, I promise." She smiled again. I had forgotten that she and Jerry were high school classmates, and that his wife, Marge, and my mom were friends. Man, that cake was good!

On July 4th,  my friend would start a countdown of the number of days until Labor Day when the summer people would close their cottages, drain the water pipes to keep them from freezing, leave their islands, and store their boats – and then “his” Clayton would begin its stroll into a too-short autumn and too-long winter.

While he and I never talked too much about it, I know my friend enjoyed the winter when trotters raced on the frozen French Bay, and cars ventured out on the ice to watch the action. Danger on the ice? No. That ice was thick enough to hold just about anything. The only danger I thought about was spilling my hot chocolate in the car. Trying to hold on to a thin paper cup while wearing thick gloves was challenging.

Like my friend, I liked autumn best of all. The colors and quiet of autumn on the River bring a peacefulness unequaled anywhere. It cleanses the soul and takes one back to the days hundreds of years ago when the Indians were gliding silently and slowly among the islands, untouched by the hubbub of the modern world, the noise, and the bustle of everyone in a rush to get somewhere, the 'progress' as we know it. How beautiful it must have been, with the only distraction being the rustling of leaves, the sounds of deer scurrying along the shoreline, the sounds of wildlife circling above, and the occasional splash of the fish below.

It seems like yesterday that I journeyed into that same serenity, carrying me back in time to that world when I was on the River. Seven in the morning, on a warm summer day, the ground still moist with dew, the absolute silence of a mirror-like River, just sitting in my boat with the engine silent and drifting about. I often left Clayton at that hour, slipping over toward Grindstone Island, and just letting the breeze carry me along the shoreline, taking me wherever it wanted, while I let my senses take over . . . the silence, the sweet smell of nature, sometimes reaching over the port or starboard gunnels to grasp a handful of the smooth and soft River to moisten my brow and bask in the rising sun to absorb every drop.

That silence sometimes included the subtle vibrations from the turning of the massive propellers of ships returning to the Atlantic from the far away Great Lakes ports of mid-America, or others heading toward those same Great Lakes ports. There is no other sound quite like the hum of the power pushing the ships of the Seaway. Back then, I wondered how River pilots boarded and disembarked those still-moving ships. I didn't find out until later in life how they did it, so skillfully, with the Cape Vincent pilot boat hugging the ships. Those pilots are unsung heroes of our St. Lawrence River.

I remember seeing the steeple of St. Mary's Church, far away in Clayton, not just a building on James Street, but a mirror of all houses of worship that invite joy, sadness, and hope to those who enter – joy to the couples professing their love while starting their lives together; sadness to those who weep and grieve for the loss of a loved one; and the comfort of prayer for those who find solace in the walls of their faith. Not unlike the River itself, which is joyful when it is calm, silent, and blue; sad when it is rolling with gray anger, threatening to swallow those who challenge it on its worst days; and bringing a sense of inner faith to those who worship its blessings. From my earliest days as a seven year old, with what I thought of as a boat worthy of competitive racing, but actually propelled by a one-and-a-half horsepower Evinrude, chugging along the shoreline of Steele Point toward a yet-to-be inhabited Washington Island (where I tried my first-and-last cigarette), always wearing the bulky orange lifejacket required by my parents, to the days as a teenager when I fished and explored the islands, and to the days decades later when I held my grandson, Myer, now a teenager, on my lap to take him on his first boating adventure into 'foreign' Canadian waters.

The River has always been part of my soul. I am a lucky man, blessed with the comforts of the St. Lawrence. I am a lucky man, too, having absorbed the riches of a magnificent part of the world. My friend, who never left the village where he was born, and who enjoyed every day of his life there, liked to say he looked forward to the post-Labor Day tranquility of “his” Clayton. I guess we can say that truly made him a local character. I know, deep down in his heart, he treasured every day there. Today, I think of him as Clayton's premier Citizen of the Year.

By Cary R. Brick

Cary Brick is a retired Congressional Chief of Staff and former Clayton Associate Justice who became a Thousand Islander in 1952 at the age of seven. His wife, Janet, is a former Clayton Town and Village Justice. He is a frequent contributor to Thousand Islands Life.

Posted in: Volume 18, Issue 11, November 2023, History, Places, People

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