The Many Lives of Hiawatha Island

Sitting in a bend of the Susquehanna River between Owego and the hamlet of Apalachin is a roughly triangular, mostly-overgrown piece of land called Hiawatha Island. This 112-acre patch of land has a long and colorful history that goes back nearly 240 years. Hiawatha has evolved during that time from a recreational hotspot to sheep farm to would-be gravel pit. Thanks to activists, it was rescued from the latter fate in the 1980s and preserved as a destination open to the public.

The back story
The most comprehensive and engaging account of the island is contained in a book titled Hiawatha Island: Jewel in the Susquehanna. Written by county historian Emma M. Sedore, the book was published by the Tioga County Historical Society in 1994.

Sedore’s version of the island’s history goes back to 1769, a time when the patch of land was simply known as “Big Island.” That year, England’s King George III granted a huge tract of land, which included the island, to the family of Daniel, William and Rebecca Coxe. The Coxe family owned the island until 1830, when they sold it to settlers from Schoharie County. Over the years, the island has been bought and sold 15 times and used for a variety of purposes as owners attempted to develop the island in different ways.

The island came into its own as a place for dining and recreation in the last quarter of the 19th century. With a dance hall, refreshment stands, picnic and clambake facilities, a grandstand and croquet grounds, it became a mecca for local residents looking for fun. Steamboats traveling between Owego and Binghamton would ferry as many as 700 passengers at a time from Owego to the island. Realizing that not all visitors were locals, a steamboat company opened a two-story hotel called Hiawatha House in 1876 on the northern side of the island. A third story was added three years later, and it was during this period, according to historian Sedore, that the island began to be called “Hiawatha.”

An island for dreamers
In 1887, two Binghamton brothers, Dr. S. Andral and Jonas Kilmer, purchased the island with the idea of developing it into a health resort. Perhaps Dr. Kilmer expected to promote his elixir, called Swamp Root, but his plans never came to fruition. One year after purchasing the island, he closed the hotel to the public. Four years later, Dr. Kilmer sold his half of the island to brother Jonas, and in 1900 Jonas sold the property.

“People who bought the island had a plan, a vision for it, a dream,” historian Sedore commented in an interview. “Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t. The Kilmer brothers were going to have a new building, a covered bridge and medicinal water spigots all over the island, but their dreams flopped.”

Although the hotel was falling into disrepair, subsequent owners still used it occasionally to house guests. In the early 1900s Hiawatha Island was home to a dairy farm before it was used as a Bible camp. The Hiawatha House’s final overnight guests, who stayed there in 1920, were a group of 40 or more Methodist ministers and their wives who were there for a gathering of the Binghamton District Ministerial Institute. By 1932, the hotel was dismantled.

From fun spot to farm
Just two years after the ministers’ visit, agricultural use of Hiawatha Island intensified when Dwight D. Decker, owner of Owego’s former Ahwaga Hotel, bought the island. He used the land to produce vegetables, fruit and dairy products for his hotel’s restaurant. Decker hired caretakers and farm laborers for the operation and used a ferry and rowboats to transport the food items across the river. In 1946, Decker, who would occasionally choose to swim to the island, drowned while making such an attempt. His widow sold the property four years later to Tracy Gillette, an Owego physician.

Dr. Gillette and his family spent their summers at the island’s farmhouse. Since the house had no telephone, this could have been an issue for patients in need of their physician, but the Owego residents came up with a simple solution. If someone needed the doctor, he would call one of the farms that sat on the mainland directly across from Dr. Gilette’s island farmhouse. That accommodating neighbor would go outdoors and ring a loud bell to summon the physician for his patient.

In the mid-1950s, Gillette reestablished the island as a farm when he partnered with local farmer Edward Jackson in a sheep-raising operation. Jackson’s son, Edward (Skip) Jackson of the Iron Kettle farm near Candor, recalled: “Dad had a barn where he would keep the sheep during the winter, and Doctor Gillette would keep them on the island during the summer. They shared in the work.”

Jackson said the farm had 200 ewes, and when the lambs were born, close to 500 sheep would be roaming and grazing on the island. Gillette also rented space to another sheep farmer with about 100 ewes.

The number of sheep made moving them to and from the island difficult. “It was a fiasco some years,” recalled Jackson, who, as a teenager, spent his summers working with the sheep. “We used to take them off (the island) on a homemade barge made with 55-gallon oil drums under it and snow fence around it.” A small rowboat with an outboard motor was used to push the floating sheep transport.

“Some years we’d be late getting them off the island,” Jackson noted, “and there’d be ice flows coming down the river. The ice would push us or we wouldn’t get the motor started, and we’d end up down the river in front of people’s yards. The sheep would be jumping off on the riverbank, and we’d be chasing them.

“There were a number of times we had the sheep in the river, but they swim pretty good,” Jackson said with a laugh. “Dad was always an entrepreneur so that was just one of those things we did.”

Jackson observed that in contrast to the overgrown appearance of the island today, during those years when the property was farmed, “it was pretty much just open fields. It had woods just around the edge and in the area where the hotel was.”

The great rescue
Dr. Gillette died of cancer in 1959, and his widow sold the island 10 years later. Over the course of the next 20 years, the island was sold three more times, the abandoned farmland became overgrown and the farmhouse was destroyed by vandals. Finally, Hiawatha Island came up for auction on August 20, 1988.

Fran Dunbar, an auction house assistant and antiques dealer who lives in Owego, said he learned about the island’s forthcoming auction from an acquaintance who told him: “A guy wants to buy it and turn it into a gravel pit.” Dunbar said he and a group of other business people and concerned citizens “formed a group and called ourselves the Hiawatha Purchase Committee. We were determined to buy the island and save it from being a gravel pit.”

The purchase committee received $42,000 in pledges from supporters. At the auction, Dunbar tried to start the bidding at $25,000 but the auctioneer refused to accept such a low bid. Dunbar then offered $125,000, and that got the bidding started. When the bidding reached $224,000, the two other bidders challenging Dunbar left the room, and the auctioneer called a recess.

When the other bidders returned – Dunbar believes those bidders formed an alliance out in the hallway – the offers rose quickly to $350,000. “I bid $351,000, and we ended up getting it for that amount, plus the 10-percent buyer’s premium, which brought it to $386,100,” Dunbar said. “I thought to myself: I just spent almost half a million dollars of money I don’t have. We didn’t have 5 cents to our name – only the $42,000 in pledges. I thought: oh, my god, what are we going to do now?”

Scrounging for money
The actual purchase of the island was made by Owego Historic Marketplace, a group of Owego business people and civic leaders. Pat Hansen, owner of The Hand of Man gift shop in Owego and a founder of the group, attended the auction with Dunbar. “When someone pointed out to me that it was a third of a million dollars, I remember my stomach doing a little flip,” she said.

A bank loaned the group $20,000 to make an immediate deposit on the purchase. The members then had 90 days to come up with the remainder of the purchase price or forfeit that deposit. John Spencer, owner of Owego’s Riverow Bookshop and president of the merchants’ group at the time, said the organization managed to raise the money by the 90-day deadline with loans from 14 individuals. He noted that both he and Dunbar mortgaged their homes to provide some of the funds.

While the purchase price totaled close to $400,000, the fundraisers actually had to collect more than $700,000 to cover interest payments and expenses involved in the fundraising effort, according to Spencer. They undertook a wide variety of projects to raise the money, including concerts, sales of lithographs of the island, auctions of Corvettes and other items, and frequent breakfasts at the island.

Spencer pointed out that IBM, which at the time had plants in Endicott and Owego, contributed at least $100,000 to the effort through its policy of matching employees’ charitable contributions with double the original gifts. “They changed the rules after we got done with them because they found out we hit them hard,” he related.

It took four years of effort to pay back those individuals who loaned the money for the purchase, Spencer said, “but it was worth it. The best news is that there are eagles on the island now. Otherwise, it would have been a gravel pit.”

A new identity
After the purchase, the merchants’ group gave the island to the Waterman Conservation Education Center in Apalachin. The arrangement included a conservation easement that requires that the island remain accessible to the public without charge, that no structures be added and that no bridges from the mainland be built.

Each year, the Waterman Center holds a “Walk Through Time” on the island in conjunction with a Native American Pow-wow, which takes place on the mainland side of the river. Last year, according to center director Scott MacDonald, close to 1,000 persons attended the two-day event.

Waterman’s various activities on the island draw close to 3,000 visitors each year, the director noted. Two pontoon boats are used to ferry visitors, who come for the annual Father’s Day breakfast, student programs or senior citizen activities. MacDonald said he hopes to be able to expand the island’s Native American garden into a “true Native American village of the 14th century.”

And the ultimate benefit from all the effort that went into saving Hiawatha Island from the developers’ designs? “From a naturalist’s standpoint, we preserved a very unique piece of land for the community,” MacDonald asserted. “It truly is the ‘jewel’ of the river.”

by Bill Wingell
Bill Wingell, a photojournalist who enjoys New York history, has a difficult time not stopping to read every historic marker he passes along the highway.
He lives in Apalachin.

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