Featured image: The pier at Grape Island, by George Dexter, circa 1900.
Grape Island is a part of the town of Ipswich, and was once a small, but thriving community of fishermen, farmers, and clam diggers. Jacob Perkins, Matthew Perkins, William Hubbard, Francis Wainwright, Thomas Hovey, Thomas Wade, Benedictus Pulsifer, Captain John Smith, Samuel Dutch, and Nathaniel Treadwell were among the owners in the 17th Century. The upland is separated from Plum Island by Pine Creek and Grape Island Creek, which protected it from roaming cattle and made it a natural location for early farming operations on its fertile land. There was an abundance of fish and fowl for the people who lived on this narrow, isolated strip of land.
By 1780, John Appleton, Jr. had become the sole owner of Grape Island, but after his death from a fall, the island went to his daughters, who sold it in lots. In 1865, James and Samuel Small, Charles A. Bailey and his wife, Emma, Samuel Kilborn and his wife Hanna and John W. Post purchased lots, and a permanent community developed around them. By the 20th Century, Grape Island had two small hotels.
In the early 1930s, the Massachusetts Audubon Society purchased 1,500 acres on Plum Island and established a bird sanctuary. In 1941 under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 3,000 acres including Grape Island were purchased by the U.S. government and added to this sanctuary to establish the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, which includes all of the land on Plum Island granted to Ipswich and Rowley in 1649. The death of Lew Kilborn in 1984 marked the end of three hundred years of continuous settlement on this small island.
Luke and Elizabeth Perkins, “a wicked-tongued woman”
Luke Perkins and his wife, Elizabeth were notorious disturbers of the peace in 17th-Century Ipswich, and she was said to have a “venomous tongue.” It was a happy day for the town in the 1680’s when Luke and Elizabeth loaded their goods into a boat and set sail for the solitary Island farm owned by his father on Grape Island. However, Luke did not fulfill the conditions, and was ordered by the Court to transfer the property back to his father. An agreement was made that upon Luke’s relinquishing all claim to the house and land, his father would convey to him another house on half an acre of land.
Luke repudiating his agreement, took it to court, lost his case, and went to jail rather than submit to the order of the court. He was released after giving bonds in the sum of £1000 not to molest his brother Abraham, who was in the possession of his property.
None of this sat well with Luke’s wife Elizabeth, and at the Quarter Sessions Court March 29, 1681 Elizabeth was “presented” for saying that she wished Luke’s father Jacob, his mother Sarah, and his brother Abraham were all “tied back to back so that she might see them carried to the gallows, there to be hung.”
Elizabeth didn’t hold back in court either: “What do you tell me of father & mother? Tell me of the devil! My mother-in-law has one foot in hell already and the other will be there quickly,” It was her scandalous charges of gross immorality against Rev. Mr. Cobbett, Pastor of the Ipswich church that drew the ire of the court, to which Luke added, “Mr. Cobbett is more fit to be in a hog sty than in a pulpit!”
The Grand Jury found Elizabeth Perkins guilty of “the most opprobrious and scandalous words of a high nature against Mr. Cobbett and her husband’s natural parents, and others of his relations, which was proved, and in part owned.” The sentence was read:
“That a due testimony may be borne against such a virulent, reproachful and wicked-tongued woman, this Court doth sentence said Elizabeth to be severely whipped on her naked body, and to stand or sit the next Lecture day in some open place in the public meeting house at Ipswich and when the Court shall direct, the whole time of the service with a paper pinned on her head, written in capital letters, for reproaching ministers, parents & relations.”
Elizabeth Perkins paid a fine rather than be whipped, but the rest of the sentence was executed. They continued to live on Grape Island, and a deed conveyed to Francis Wainwright in 1701 includes a year’s rental fee of 5 pounds from Luke Perkins for his use of the farm.
The Grape Island School
In 1843 the town of Ipswich to order that a school be built. The one-room schoolhouse provided education through the sixth grade for several generations of children living on the island. The first teacher, Edith Staniford married William Dole of Ipswich Bluffs. Cora H. Jewett from the town of Ipswich began teaching in 1881 and continue until the school closed 35 years later. School was held only during the warmer months, and Miss Jewett would board on the island but later in her career made the crossing daily by mail boat.
In August of 1883, the Ipswich Chronicle reported that the “Steamer, Carlotta, made an excursion [from Newburyport] to Grape Island on Wednesday. She had all the passengers she could carry and also had two boats loaded with passengers in tow.”
The Carlotta and other steamers made daily scheduled stops at the island, which for a few decades was a popular getaway. The Bayleys offered cottages for rent, and the Mackinney family and John Post operated small hotels. William J. Barton wrote: “From Brown’s Wharf, the steamer Carlotta, a local steamboat owned by Nathaniel Burnham and Charles W. Brown sailed daily and carried passengers on the Ipswich River and Parker River. The Carlotta also was used as a tug boat for towing vessels up and down the river. The Carlotta carried 200 passengers with Captain Burnham as captain, plus an engineer and deck hand. Her stops on the daily trip were at Little Neck for 10 cents. The Ipswich Bluffs, 15 cents, Grape Island 20 cents, and the complete round trip to the Parker River at Newbury for 40 cents.”
The Mackinney family
In the 1840’s the Adams family of Newbury acquired a large tract of land on the island near the head of the island and built a substantial house. The house, 16 acres and buildings were conveyed in 1880 to Captain Thomas Mackinney of Newburyport, who ran it as a small hotel.
The Smalls and Bayleys of Grape Island
(Thanks to Stephanie Cobb for this family history)
Samuel Small and his family came to Grape Island prior to 1870. He had acquired the property from the estate of his father James Small. His family included wife Sarah, sons Charles and James, daughters Carrie, Hannah and Emma and her husband Charles A Bayley. Samuel and Charles were clammers and fishermen. In later years Charles Bayley rented cottages to summer visitors.
Samuel and Sarah remained on Grape Island until their death in January 1914. They died within 24 hours of each other just weeks after leaving Grape Island to spend the winter on the mainland. Their daughter Hannah married Samuel Kilborn, Carrie married James Leet and Charles married Ida Leet. They all eventually left Grape Island. Their son James married and never had any children. He lost his wife in 1926, and in 1929 he deeded his house to his niece Alice Dodge with the provision that he could use and occupy the property for the rest of his life. He died in 1940.
Charles and Emma Bayley raised 9 of their 10 children in a 2 room cottage. After 25 years there they built a new house toward the top of the island.
Their old cottage was moved to this new location and would later become the headquarters for the “Grape Island Navy Department,” an informal group formed by Charles H Bayley, the youngest son of Charles and Emma. They had no official government authority, but took pride in patrolling the shores of Grape Island, keeping a watchful eye for suspicious activity and helping out the occasional distressed boater.
Emma Bayley died in 1928 and Charles A in 1936. Just two months later the Grape Island community lost John Post the hotel keeper and his sister Maria. There was talk of the island being taken over for a wildlife refuge. The future of Grape Island was uncertain. Many of the residents let the town take their properties for the taxes owed.
Daily life on the Island
Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family’s summer camp was at Plum Island. After the Parker River Wildlife Refuge was established, she moved to a home on Great Neck in Ipswich overlooking Plum Island. In 1993, after Nancy retired, she wrote “Plum Island: The Way It Was.” Nancy Weare passed away in December, 2017. The book is reprinted on this site with permission from her surviving sister.
From Plum Island: The Way It Was by Nancy V. Weare:
For years life for permanent residents was much like that on any rural salt-water farm. Each family had a vegetable garden, and there were fruit trees and berry patches. Onions and turnips thrived especially well in the island’s soil and climate and in some cases provided a cash crop. There were eggs to be gathered and cows to be milked. Except in mid-winter, when ice prevented boats from crossing Plum Island Sound, there was much visiting back and forth to the mainland.
In the summer there was the additional work of looking after summer guests, and the girls waited on tables and made beds. Several of the island men were fishermen, and they and the boys furnished fresh fish, clams, and lobsters for the hotel dining rooms. In the fall they helped with the salt-marsh haying as well as the harvest at the nearby Jackman farm. The islanders were always quick to provide aid to ships that came ashore on Plum Island’s beach; in fact, Captain John Small, a long-time island resident, was in charge of the relief hut near Emerson’s Rocks. At least two Grape Island men joined the Life Saving Service, which later became the Coast Guard, serving at the Knobbs Beach Station two miles away.
The diary kept by Ida Leet Small, wife of Charles Small, during the year 1883 gives a day-by-day account of island life. The women visited often and sewed together: “I cut out Sadie’s dress….sewed seven squares in my patchwork.” Ida and Charles “went to Ipswich and brought back a sewing machine.” There was constant washing and starching and ironing to be done. Washing, in particular, took much planning, for water was scarce. Grape Island wells were poor, and most families had deep cisterns filled by rainwater from the roof. During a particularly dry period Ida wrote, “We did not wash. All water gone.” Later she noted, “Charles brought me water from the Neck, and we washed part of my clothes.” Trips off-island could be eventful. “Charles and I went to Rowley in the morning. Saw the circus.” When a late-afternoon thunder shower prevented their return to the island, the couple spent the night on the mainland.
The men had their own work. “Charles and his father went out fishing. Caught quite a number.” Later Ida recorded, “Sam went to Mr. Jackman’s haying.” The Jackman farm onion crop was harvested and the men took it by gundalow up to Old Town.
One entry noted that Carrie, who lived nearby, had a baby girl. Childbirth presented special problems. Most women chose to have their babies on the mainland but did not always reach their destination in time. On one occasion an islander rowed his pregnant wife all the way to Parker River, then up Little River to Knight’s Crossing, where they intended to board the train for Newburyport. The baby would not wait, however, and was born in the house at the Crossing.
After John Post’s departure the Mackinney Hotel continued with a new manager until 1906 when it was sold to James Cammatt. By 1915 business was sufficient for him to add a dining hall/dance pavilion at the head of the wharf. Before Prohibition, there was also a bar located in the barn.Later, part of the hotel complex mad’ also have served as a casino: the Ipswich Chronicle, in a 1935 article about the hotel, referred to it as Cammatt’s Casino. The dance hall became a well-known attraction for groups or couples who wanted an evening of dancing, combined with a boat ride, and even though the Carlotta had ceased running by 1914, there were other excursion boats that provided transportation to Grape Island from Ipswich and Parker River. George Fuller became the next owner of the hotel and cottages and had extensive repairs made on the old buildings. During his tenure, the hotel was known as the Grape Island Inn.
The resort business, which had once been so popular, faded with the coming of the automobile. Prohibition also contributed to the loss of business, since part of the hospitality offered at local hostelries depended upon a liquor license. Younger members of the island families sought their future elsewhere, and the early 1920’s saw a dramatic decline in the number of year-round residents. By 1933, the heart of the Depression, the Baileys were offering cottages at half price. That same year the Fullers closed their hotel. Two years later, in August of 1935, the unoccupied building burned to the ground from a fire that began in the barn. John Post gave up his hotel in the fall of 1935.
Although Lew Kilborn was known as the “hermit of Grape Island,” Nancy V. Weare wrote that “He was a friendly, gentle person who did not seek to be alone; it was simply that everyone else had moved away, some from choice and others because of the Refuge policy that prevented families from passing on to their heirs the occupancy rights to a former family property.”
The following is adapted from a story by Susan Howard Boice in Volume 3 of her series, “Historic Ipswich” and from an article by Beverly Perna about the last cottage on Plum Island. Photos are from Susan Howard Boice, and Samuel K. Dolan’s posts on Ancestry.com. His great great uncle was Lewis Kilborn.
The last resident of Grape Island was Lewis Kilborn who lived his entire life on the island. His determination to live without running water, electricity or neighbors made him something of a celebrity. Lew Kilborn was one of Ipswich’s legends. Some called him, “The Hermit of Grape Island.” He was born in 1902 on Lime Street in Newburyport. His parents, John and Jane Kilborn, brought Lew and his two sisters to Grape Island when he was a week old. It was to become his life-long home.
He was educated in the Grape Island School, which was a one-room schoolhouse, with classes held during the summer months. The residents who lived on the island would hire a teacher, which the town paid for. She would teach during the summer months before she would start her classes on the mainland. Cora Jewett, who at the time lived on East Street, was the last to teach at Grape Island. Kilborn went as far as the sixth grade. He then began to learn the fishing and clamming trades. He eventually became a ship captain. At one time, he had fishing boats and lobster trawls, which one would see tied up on the shores of Grape Island.
He worked hard for years, fishing and lobstering, from the Isle of Shoals to Boston, catching herring, cod and mackerel. He was also engaged in clamming, not knowing what a day off was until his retirement. Kilborn kept busy even after his retirement: chopping his own wood, digging clams for food, keeping his eight-room house in repair, boiling water which he gathered from a cistern for drinking purposes.
Occasionally, one would find him walking out to chat with some of the local clammers who would be digging in the area. He was very kind and gentle, and also very good with children. He was very well-read and was on top of all the happenings in the world. Even though the photo shows Lew with a beard, this wasn’t his general appearance. If he knew anyone was coming, he would be clean-shaven.
In later years, he cared for his ailing father who eventually died in 1946 at the age of 88. When his dad was sick and Lew could no longer leave the island to go to the mainland for food, the local clam commission and friends started bringing food from a list that Lew would give whenever someone dropped by. He never lived off the island, for, according to him, there was no need to. He referred to the mainland as “crowded.” “Some people get lonely in a city” was his remark to Steve O’Connell, who at the time worked for the local newspaper.
Many people, both family and friends, tried to persuade him to move off and on through the years, but he wouldn’t hear of it. As he stated to one reporter, “Where could one go to live for $160.00 a month?” This was the amount of his retirement pension and Social Security, which he used to keep up his house and buy food. Friends brought him groceries and coal, and would stop to chat while Lew would reminisce with great pleasure.
In the early 1940’s the federal government designated Plum Island and Grape Island as wildlife refuges and sought to evict everyone living on it. As part of the federal government’s eminent domain takeover of the southern end of Plum Island, cottage owners were given the option of fair-market payment for their properties or leasing their plots until the owner died, but succeeding generations were barred from residing there, and no new residents were allowed access to the island. The Kilborns also had a second home on the island, which commanded a view across the channel toward Ipswich. The government gave them a choice of houses. Lew was unmarried and his two sisters decided to spend their lives elsewhere, so the family chose the old family home as you can see in the picture. The other house was torn down.
Kilborn stayed on in the old six-room house after his father died in 1946. That also marked the end of a generation on Grape Island. Lew watched as his friends and neighbors moved away or died. The very next day would find bulldozers smashing down the vacant homes. By 1969, the last of his neighbors, an elderly couple, moved away…. and their house was torn down like the beach houses before. That must have been a sad day for Lew.
After many years of living on the island alone, Lew had a system with his friends. His nephew Jack Dolan, the late former state representative, brought him groceries. If an emergency occurred, he would raise a white flag over his house. Later, many would go down to the Yacht Club over looking the river and beep their horns four times and turn on their lights. Lew then would proceed to find his boat if he had one, and come to the Yacht Club to see his friends and pick up his supplies, for he would have given a list to people the last time he saw them.
The last few months before his death, his arthritis was bothering him, so he could no longer dig clams, fish, or tend to his garden as he formerly had. Lew Kilborn died in 1984, at the age of 81 just where he wanted to, on Grape Island.
Susan Howard Boice ends her story, “Today, there is no indication that there was ever an active community on the island. As one looks across from Great Neck, Grape Island looks quite barren. The endless waves pound against deserted beaches. The last house has been destroyed. No chimney sends up smoke. No flag flies to summon help. No twinkle of light from a kerosene lamp indicates human presence.”
Jeff Dolan adds, “Having the opportunity to spend time on Grape Island with my Great Uncle, Lew Kilborn, as a child was one of the most amazing experiences of my life…..I got to peak into the world of the19th century; the world before electricity and running water and TV…..At night I would fall asleep to the hum of herring boats as they lied their way long the channel torching for herring. He would take me to his fishing holes where we would catch dinner. I would spend endless hours roaming the marshes both afoot and by boat, exploring and entertaining myself in the solitude of that wonderful place. Today I live in Arizona, partly in the city of Sedona and partly in the remote area of northern Arizona known as the Arizona Strip near Lee’s Ferry. It is up in the Vermillion Cliffs of Northern Arizona and on the Navajo Reservation that I often think of Uncle Lew and his wonderful world that I got a chance to share. My father once, in the winter when we were delivering coal to the island, paused, looked out across the bay and said; There’s kind of a ruthless beauty to it all isn’t there. I live for the ruthless beauty……..”
Becky Dolan writes, “This is a very good story about my great uncle Lew. I never liked hearing him called a hermit because he wasn’t. He was social and had lots of company. When winter rolled around, it must have been so hard. My father, Jack Dolan, told me Lew once said that no one knew what real loneliness was like. This was when he was getting up in years. I always loved it if I got home from school and Lew was sitting in my mum Lucy’s kitchen, with his big hip boots on and smelling of sea salt and kerosene. He was lean shaven. Here is a photo of my son Michael Dolan Penniman with his great great uncle Lew.
Sam Dolan writes, “Lew was a character, and there’s a few of our old clan around who knew him, and others in the area that remember him. My grandfather, who died in 2013, had many fine stories of Lew, as does my father Jeff Dolan. My father would take me out to see Lew before the old timer passed away. I’m really glad I was able to know him.Lew and his father shot a lot of ducks during the Depression, which they sold to help make ends meet, along with the fish they caught and the clams they dug. Ipswich paid a bounty on seals in those days, and they killed a large number of seals over the years. As my grandfather told it, they would get paid $5.00 for every seal nose they turned in at the town hall. Our family is mighty proud of the fact that one of our own was the last man on Grape Island, and of our connection to that special place, myself especially. My father’s people were old time sailors and fishermen from Ipswich. They were honest, hard workers and I’m very proud of that.”
- Publications of the Ipswich Historical Society
- The Family of John Perkins of Ipswich Massachusetts
- Plum Island: The Way It Was by Nancy V. Weare
- Susan Howard Boice in Volume 3 of her series, “Historic Ipswich”
- Beverly Perna article for the Ipswich Chronicle
- Harold Bowen, Tales of Olde Ipswich
- Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Volume 8
- Stephanie Cobb: photos and information from the Small and Post families of Grape Island
- Findagrave: Lew Kilborn