Sycamore Island Memories

by Don Conner


Associating Sycamore Island with experiences from 1917 to 1934 will probably seem like antebellum days to some. And even to me it seems a long time ago. But these memories are still fresh and bright. Starting in 1917 and 1918 my parents rented a shack (they were never called cottages, which definitely they were not) opposite the lower end of Sycamore. A canoe came with the shack thus giving me a considerable area to explore -- and the Island was the closest. Thereafter in about 1920 my parents purchased a shack on the towpath opposite High Island and the first shack upstream from the "Magazine Lock," (lock #6) but better known as King's Lock after its keeper.

From then on I was a frequent non-invited and non-member Island visitor. Not until 1928 or so did I become a member when Roger Gessford, with whom I then worked, suggested I join. And well I should, having kept a canoe on the Island for the past several years. It had just never occurred to me to become a member!


From 1924 and some years earlier to 1934 the Island was much the same as depicted in Ruth Finkel's picture. The club house with its front porch, the canoe house facing the river with sleeping quarters on the river side at a second story level, tennis court (of a sort) alongside the canoe house and several camping spots with canvas tents on wooden platforms on the upper end of the Island. These were used only in the summer by the Gessfords, Coles, Stodders and some others.

The baseball diamond, so called, was an open spot in front of the porch and the Sunday ball games were great fun. All ages played including small children (but rarely girls). It would be a misnomer to call it a baseball. First, it was not round (or barely) and its composition was unknown -- a bit of this and some of that. A "two bagger" was a rarity and then only with the help of three or more infield errors in an effort to get the ball over to third base before the runner. It was ludicrous, but great fun. Then, as now, there was the Ferry manned by "Captain" Johnston, the father of "Boots" Johnston who ran the grocery story opposite the street car stop for the Island.

Autumn workfests, gathering wood from Upper Sycamore were well established with ladies furnishing hot drinks and food such as beef stew and sometimes an oyster stew.

Upper Sycamore [Ruppert] was known by the younger set as "Billie's Island", because on its lower end the younger swains and girls held several watermelon feasts, with Billie (Partridge) furnishing the melons. This gathering was not well known, at least to some older members. There was one such feast long remembered.

It seems as rumor had it that someone "spiked" the watermelons. Of course I wouldn't know about that, but here is the recipe:

1) Plug the melon in three or four different sides.
2) Remove and save the plugs.
3) Then with a long knife, insert and jab it repeatedly into each plug hole in all directions.
4) Drain the juice from the plug holes.
5) By turn, pour gin into each plug hole and repeat jabbing operation until the gin turns pale red . Then replace the plug. This is a vital step and it is difficult to tell the color of the juice by the light of a campfire. So it is permissible to err an the side of safety, "if one pill is good, take two or more" .
6) Slice as usual and serve.

It was, I confess, not so bad. At such feasts we would be in our bathing suits. So after eating all the melon we could hold, or more, we went swimming. Note: Care need be taken not to eat so much melon that you couldn't stay afloat.

This brings to mind several Halloween costume dances with donuts and cider refreshments.

Activities -- 1927-34

I recall only two "Labor Day Open House" parties. It was probably Francis Cole and Rodger Gessford, close friends, who drafted the invitations which were posted on all shacks on the towpath side of the canal from King's Lock, #6, opposite High Island to Schaffer's Lock, #7, at Glen Echo. The first such Open House was about 1927 or 1928. We had many guests. Refreshments were limited to a huge barrel of home made lemonade with floating cakes of ice and trays of cookies.

The theme was just plain horseplay. It featured the Indians attacking the Island using an old beat-up "war canoe"; it was not just old, it was vintage and probably hadn't been in the water for years and ultimately was sacrificed to a bonfire. The Indians wore enough paint to cover a house, some with feathered head-dress -- and one such was a genuine old-fashioned much beat-up feather duster. The canoe was some 24-26 feet long -- the type common in girls summer camps several decades earlier -- wide enough, save at prow and stern, to permit its crew to sit two persons abreast paddling on opposite sides.

The defending settlers' navy consisted of an equally old ferry boat with a painted cardboard starboard side and prow. Its armament was a long cardboard tube painted black to simulate a cannon. Harry Lowenstein was Gunnery Sergeant and with the aid of his home-made pyrotechnics he created a loud "bang" and much smoke from the cannon -- but it caught on fire, igniting the cardboard sidings. The anchor was thrown overboard and, by design, floated. The crew jumped overboard and the life saving ring which was tossed to them sank. The defending settlers were forced to swim ashore. The Indians fared no better. The canoe was not damaged by the cannon, but age and overloading took its toll. It buckled in the center as the prow and stern sank lower and lower. Thus the Indians joined the settlers in swimming ashore.

There was a canoe race from Upper Sycamore [Ruppert Island] to the lower end of Sycamore.

There was at least one other "Open House" which I attended as a non-participant, but I don't know how long they continued.

First Aid - Sycamore Island Style

An unwritten, if not written, rule of the Island was: "NO SPIRITS ALLOWED." However, as rumor had it, once upon a porch a lady fainted and before she could hit the floor a number of male members appeared with bottles to revive her. Presumably, definitely, not smelling salts.

I never saw a lady faint on the porch or anywhere else on the Island and never saw any spirits. Oh, "The Watermelon Feast", was not on the "Island", but on Upper Sycamore Island, more popularly called "Billie's Island".

An often heard story told of the "Island" once being a German Beer Garden. Could they have left some?

Operation - Canoe Evacuation

About 1928 there was a flood warning on the Potomac with expected extremely high water on the Island. At the time I was working with Rodger Gessford and about mid-afternoon we left the office and went to the Island. There were a number of members already there -- and we commenced to move canoes to high ground.

Canoes from the lowest racks were removed first and launched off the canoe house landing. About four or so were strung out, tied together bow to stern with the lead canoe tied to the stern of a canoe with two paddlers. They were then towed downstream and around the bottom end of the Island and over to the towpath bank. There others awaited on the shore to untie the tow and pull the canoes up to high ground.

This went on and on and at one stage the towing team had to wait until the canoe landing crew untied tow ropes to take back, as we were running out of rope. The lower racks were emptied and some from the upper racks as well as canoes stored outside. Not until dark did we stop after we secured the ferry with an extra stout and long rope to help it float out the flood. It was after dark when we finished placing all the canoes on the towpath -- the canal was not operating then, having been wrecked by the floods of 1924.

I do not recall how high the water rose, but we didn't lose any canoes.

The Sash-weight Saga

Since the days when the Gods walked the earth and before, there have been fair maidens and young men to pursue them. While all girls are fair to some eyes, other girls are fair to all eyes and some are pursued by more swains.

Now, Sycamore Island with its beauty and tranquility has surely witnessed the initiation of romances, or at least has been the setting for their prospering. However, as history tells us, the path of love is not always smooth. But, in the romance related here, it was the paddling that was not smooth. All experienced canoeists will tell you that, with a 200 pound person in the prow and a 100 pound person in the stern, you do not look for smooth paddling -- the stern person will have difficulty in reaching the water with his paddle.

Let it be noted that, while the persons involved in the romance here were by no means as disproportionate as above, there still was a fair amount of disproportionment between the fair maid in the prow and her swain in the stern. Lucy - did NOT weigh 200 lbs., not anywhere near it. By all standards she would be classified as one of the more fair among the fairest. How else could you classify such a girl with beautiful hair, eyes, face and a junoesque figure -- not lumpy but with everything equitably distributed on a good bone structure and, to top it off, a most pleasant disposition. Jack was not just tall, but strung out, and shall we say weighed over 100 pounds. You are not going to get me to estimate their respective weights.

There may be some members around who witnessed this couple's first paddling venture, but I was not one of them. However, I did hear of it. Incidentally, Jack was a very good friend, we often lunched together, and Lucy became the same.

Present true love, and love will find away. That is exactly what Jack did -- but in a manner never previously recorded by romance. Jack removed the barrier blocking the progress of his romance by counter-balancing the stern with a pair of window sash weights surreptitiously placed under his seat. This cured the steering problem and advanced the romance. Some thought Jack may have over-balanced the romance -- I mean the canoe.

Each time they went canoeing the sash weights accompanied them. Where Jack kept the weights when not in use we never knew. We searched in all likely places we could think of but without success.

Sash weight: The common variety was about 12-14 inches long and 1 or so in diameter made of rough cast iron and often with an eyehole at one end to which a rope was fastened while the other end of the rope was anchored to the inside of the window casement and ran over a pulley. Thus, with one sash weight on either side of the window, they served as a counter balance to aid in raising and lowering the bottom window half.

Oh YES, Jack and Lucy were married and are still living happily together today.