Joanne Willey Talks About Life on Pond Island

By Terry Hussey

"I was not quite one year old when I made my first visit to Pond Island," said Joanne Willey of Cherryfield, talking to members of the Milbridge Historical Society and guests on June 13. "After that, I spent every weekend from Memorial Day until October and all of the month of August on the island. Even during World War II when gas was rationed, we got to the island—even if we had to row over," she continued.

Located just off Milbridge, Pond Island, about 360 acres in size, lies in Narraguagus Bay. The entire island, excepting three acres surrounding the Narraguagus lighthouse, was purchased in 1876 by four Cherryfield men: Joseph Strout, Eli Foster, Fred I. Campbell, and David W. Campbell. These men and their families and their descendants have summered on the island ever since.

"The season" in the Big House

The three-story Pond Island House, affectionately known as the Big House to residents, opened in 1878. It had 8 regular bedrooms, plus two open dormitory rooms on the top floor, and two small bedrooms for the cook and kitchen helper.

The four families from Cherryfield came to the island each summer where they enjoyed a very formal, structured life on the island during "the season" in the 1920's and 1930's. None of the outlying cottages had kitchens, so everyone ate three meals a day in the Big House.

According to Willey, breakfast was served promptly at 7 a.m. "One of my first jobs as a child," said Joanne Willey, "was to get hot water from the tank on the stove and deliver a pitcher to every room. I'd knock on the door, set the pitcher inside, and go down and get another one. When the house was full, this took quite a while. And I had to get it all done in time for folks to get to breakfast on time. I received my pay in doughnut holes."

In mid-morning the boat arrived from Smith Cove on the mainland with the mail and the day's groceries, and any new people who were arriving. "We all played croquet, badminton, horseshoes, and sometimes two or three rounds of golf a day," she said. The nine-hole course, constructed over the rocky island terrain in 1928, is challenging to say the least. Sometimes in the afternoon, the ladies lined up in rockers on the porch and enjoyed shelling beans or peas."

"A penny for 100"

"Another job I remember is pulling up the little trees that tried to sprout in the middle of the paths and on the golf course. After there were no longer sheep on the island, these had to be removed by hand or the place would have gotten overgrown very fast. We got a penny for 100 little trees," said Willey.

"We went swimming almost every day, and we had races on the rocks around the whole island, with our bare feet," said Willey. "I don’t know how we did it."

"When Russell Turner delivered a load of firewood for the stove and fireplace, we all gathered on the beach, some with wheelbarrows. We formed a chain, passing each log from person to person up the beach until a wheelbarrow was filled, and that was wheeled up to the house. That continued until all the wood was neatly stacked. Again, we got paid in doughnut holes," she said
The big meal of the day was served at noon. "Sometimes there were as many as 50 or 60 in the dining room. "Meals were served family style, and table manners were closely monitored. "We ran around in shorts and bare feet all day, but we were expected to come to dinner neatly dressed and with our hair combed," said Willey.

Evening supper was a light meal, and the children were usually sent to bed shortly after sunset.
"In the evening, the adults played cards, cribbage, checkers, or just enjoyed the sunset from the piazza. Sometimes the kids were allowed to participate in the games. Sometimes we did other things. Like finding a sheep's skull, putting a flashlight in it, and holding it up to the window on the stick," said Willey.

"I remember that one of the ladies had a wig. We rigged up a fishhook on a line over one of the doorways. I don't know if we stayed around to see the wig come off or if we were too scared," she said.

"I remember one of the visitors who was a Boston astronomer, who set up a telescope on the lawn. We spent many a starlight night looking up and learning the constellations. We promptly forgot what we learned, but he tried," she said.

"When I was a girl, we were allowed to take a kerosene lamp up to the third floor with us," said Willey, but that's not allowed anymore. We were country folks and we knew about kerosene. With more and more visitors coming from the city, we worried about the danger of fire, so no kerosene lamps are allowed upstairs," she said.

Room and board: $1.38 a day

Our groceries came over each day from Al Strout's store. "There was no refrigeration, but there was a cold cellar under the trap door in the pantry, where we kept eggs and butter cool. Everything else came over daily," she said.

"Albert Nickels kept a logbook, which kept track of every meal you attended. At the end of the summer, he would take all the bills for the season. Bills for food, firewood, gasoline for the boats, everything. He would divide it over the number of people there. In the last logbook that I found, you could have your room, three meals a day, hot water delivered, and your mail from Milbridge, and the cost was the princely sum of $1.38 per day," said Willey.

"During World War II, we had to observe the blackout, especially on the east side of the island. There are still big frames over there, covered with black paper. We used them to cover the doors and windows before we could light the lamps in the evening," said Willey.

"My father taught me to drive the old 1934 Ford truck on the island. The way he taught me to drive was to start the engine, and get out. I stopped when I either hit the brake or hit a tree," she said. The truck was there to help haul things around the island, and it wasn't supposed to be used to anything else. Now we have a couple of tractors to help haul luggage up from the beach.

All the children learned to drive the boats, as well as the land transportation. They learned to read a compass, and how to row.

"There's a thunder hole on the island that beats the one at Bar Harbor, hands down," said Willey. And there's the punch bowl, another unusual rock formation that creates strange effects with the incoming tides. All these provided entertainment for generations of children and their parents.

Sailing down from Cherryfield

"Sometimes on a starlight night, my father would decide to go down to the island [from Cherryfield on the high tide. We would leave around midnight, and sail down the river. When we got to Milbridge, someone had to open the bridge for us. The boat could squeeze through the opening with just about six inches on each side. We tried not to leave any paint on the bridge. The first time I sailed through that opening I had to close my eyes as we squeezed through," said Willey.

There were many special events on the island in August. "There was always a golf tournament in August, and we always had a putting party. Prizes and trophies were made from what we could find on the island. We were allowed to use any broken or chipped crockery, but nothing that was whole. We used birch bark or shells," she said.

"We had an annual picnic on Flint Island, and we always had at least one big lobster feed on the beach, with the fire below the high tide mark, so that the incoming tide would wash away the coals," she said.

Willey spoke with great affection about the Turner family who helped the island families over the years. First there was Russell Turner, and then Ed and Bea Turner, who lived in Smith Cove in Milbridge. They watched over the cottages off-season, and opened then in the spring. They provided transportation back and forth to the island, and delivered the mail and groceries each day. "They told us what to do and what not to do and kept us from getting into too much trouble," said Willey.

Sheep on the Island

Sheep were always part of the history of the island. They roamed freely there year round, seeking shelter around the big house in winter. They helped keep the open spaces free of grass and trees, and there was a side benefit of profit from the meat and wool. Sheep shearing in June was a big production. They would gather as many people as possible and start at the south end of the island, making as much noise as possible, to drive the sheep to a pen on the north end. "Sometimes it took all day just to get them into the pen," Willey said. Later they erected a fence to contain the sheep in one area of the island.

Jennie Cirone of Addison took over management of the sheep in 1961, and cared for them until 1973, when she took the remainder of the flock to join another flock on Nash Island.

Summer On the Island Today

Over the years, shares of the ownership were passed down from one generation to the next. After several generations and in large families, this became increasingly complicated. A family who once held a 1/8 share in island ownership evolved into individuals holding 1/96th share of ownership. In 1976, the owners incorporated in order to assure the continuity of ownership and to establish guidelines for the management of the island. Only immediate relatives (child, parent, sibling) are eligible to acquire shares.

There are quite a few more cottages on the island, and each has its own kitchen. Owning families can stay at the Big House for $15 a night, but they must bring their own bedding and food. The assessment for each share is about $200 a year.

"The board worried about having too many cottages on the island, but it hasn’t happened. We do, however, have zoning that says where you can build a cottage and where you cannot build one," said Willey. "They have tired to keep them with lots of trees between and far enough apart that your neighbor's dog isn't a pest."

The Dameron family now owns the lighthouse on the east side of the island. There's no good landing place near the lighthouse, so they land on the west shore and haul their baggage in a cart to their lighthouse home. They must haul their water from the island's west side as well.

"Growing up on an island is an experience not many people get to have. It's not a bad place to be," said Willey. "When my kids first came to the island, I fussed about them climbing on the rocks and running about the island. My Dad said, "You grew up here, didn't you?"

One can read more about life on Pond Island in a delightful book entitled "Pond Island Heritage," written in 1992, by Anne C. Nash. The book is available at the Milbridge and Cherryfield libraries and at the Milbridge Historical Society.