“Sit and listen.” A century cottage, a lifetime of stories, and a special cottage chair

Published: April 8, 2020

Lini and Woodie Stevens Lini and Woodie Stevens. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

A unique cottage chair

From the time he was three years old, Woodie Stevens has spent every summer of his life at his family cottage in the Thousand Islands, a 10-minute boat ride from Gananoque, Ont. But it wasn’t until his 20th summer at the cottage, when he thought he had the Thousand Islands all figured out, that the islands and the river reached out and spoke to him and changed the course of his life.

Woodie, born Ford Woods Stevens, is today a 77-year-old American, a career dentist in the Philadelphia area, a gentle soul who can spin a good yarn. His cottage, which has been in the family for more than a century, sits atop the highest point on Wyoming Island, some 60 feet above the St. Lawrence River. It features an impressively level stone patio just outside the door, a perfect plateau of Canadian Shield granite courtesy of Mother Nature. The patio faces downriver to the east, but also offers a clear view south towards Grindstone Island, just across the invisible line in the water that marks the Canada-U.S. border.

Woodie Stevens.
Woodie Stevens. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

The Thousand Islands were Woodie’s summer playground as a kid, the place where he learned how to swim and paddle and fish, how to drink and flirt and get in and out of trouble. At age 15, he and his pal Gordie once found a giant anchor stone at the bottom of the river and decided to haul it out of the water and up to the patio. It took them five days.

By the time he’d reached his twenties Woodie was living a carefree and careless life. “I was full of beans as a young man,” he says. “Always running around, always talking.” He and his buddies in cottage country also loved chasing girls, first at regattas and beaches, eventually graduating to local bars. Then, one beautiful morning in the mid-’60s, he woke up early and saw his father, Ford Stevens Sr., out on the patio.

His dad was sitting in one of the family’s homemade chairs, which they call “island rock chairs.” They look like a prehistoric prototype of a Muskoka chair, the kind of thing an archaeologist might unearth. They have that same sloped seat, wide armrests, and tall backrest. But they are less curvy than Muskoka chairs, more angular and boxlike. The backrest is made of only two wide slats of wood. The armrests are untapered. The cottage chair looks too rudimentary to be comfortable—part of its charm.

The "island rock chairs."
The “island rock chairs.” Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

“He was having a coffee and watching the sunrise, so I got up and got some coffee and I went out, and of course I was full of bubbles and that stuff, and he just went, ‘Shh,’ ” Woodie recalls. “He said, ‘Quiet. Sit down. Sit down and listen.’ ”

Woodie sat in the island rock chair his dad had made for him when he was just a kid. Woodie obviously wasn’t inclined towards quiet serenity at this point in his life, but the chairs, with their reclined seats and backrests, have a way of encouraging people to settle. He lowered himself gently into the seat and the chair took hold of him, and he tried listening for a change.

Wartime hospital cottage

The problem was that Woodie truly had no idea what he was supposed to listen for. Voices? Motorboats? A malfunctioning septic system? “I said, ‘Listen to what?’ And Dad said, ‘Sit and listen.’ I thought I was in trouble again so I kept quiet.” Moments passed. Then his dad said, “Listen to the river. ”

Woodie listened. He was sitting on an island with the mighty St. Lawrence rushing past him on all sides, but to him the river had become inaudible. It took him a while to locate the sound of its churn beneath the loon calls. You have to listen past the wind to hear the water. Finally, he heard it and isolated the sound in his mind. Then he looked at the river anew. “My dad said, ‘This river has passed by this island for millions of years at six miles an hour. You’ve got to design your life like that.’ ”

It was an epiphany to him: those words, spoken in this place at that moment, suddenly gave him a new perspective on his life, his family, adulthood, the world. The lesson he took from the moment wasn’t that he needed to slow down to six miles an hour, and it wasn’t just that he needed to find a more sustainable pace for his life. He also understood that he needed to learn to halt life’s perpetual rush, fast or slow, and be still—and that his grandfather, as it happened, had designed the perfect chair for this very purpose. Even when you’ve got an island cottage like Woodie’s—as literal a metaphor as you’ll ever find for stepping outside the fray—it’s not an easy thing to do.

The Stevens cottage on Wyoming Island.
The Stevens cottage on Wyoming Island. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

The Stevens clan has through generations been characterized by its combination of hospitality and contemplation, which helps explain how they ended up with this cottage in the first place. The island got its name at the turn of the 20th century from its initial purchasers, two faculty members from a Methodist college and seminary in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley. They quickly decided the island was big enough for four families and, recognizing that they had a rare opportunity to choose their neighbours, in 1910 invited two of their prize pupils, young family men both, to come visit, and to buy in.

One of those students was Woodie’s grandfather, Junius Stevens, who was studying to become an English teacher, and he could not pass up the offer. He purchased the island’s southeast corner, which happened to be its least accessible from the water yet its most majestic once scaled (funny how those things go together, adversity always leading to reward), and contracted a Grindstone Island farmer, Hiram Russell, to build a one-room camp and to complete it in time for the following summer.

Back then, it was arguably easier for Hiram Russell to build that camp than it was for Junius Stevens to go and enjoy it. The Stevens family’s voyage to their summer retreat was an annual crucible, and it is a testament to their destination’s beauty that they endured it. At 420-odd kilometres, the trip from Kingston, Penn., to Gananoque, Ont., roughly the same distance as Ottawa to Toronto or Edmonton to Banff, lasted three whole days. Junius owned a motor car and drove it—with his wife, Fannie, and their three children—on unpaved and badly potholed roads, stopping repeatedly to fix flat tires and to push through muddy ruts.

There were no hotels or motels along the way; just roadside tent camping and campfire cooking. The trip was capped by a ferry ride from Clayton, N.Y., to Gananoque, and then 90 minutes of toil in a rowboat to Wyoming Island. Nor was life any easier once they’d arrived. There were regular rowboat outings to Grindstone for milk and other necessities, and all the cooking took place outside on that stone patio. All this, in order to spend the summer in a one-room cabin with an outhouse.

Junius designed and built his original island rock chairs out in the open here as well. The original chairs he built for himself and Fannie are still there on Wyoming Island, beneath their favourite pine tree, and to look at them is to question the true origins of the Muskoka chair. An early version of the Muskoka was supposedly invented in 1903, seven years before Junius first set up camp on Wyoming. But the Stevens cottage chair looks like it predates the Muskoka by decades.

Skip forward a century or so, and that one-room camp is now a three-bedroom cottage with a full kitchen, plus a second building that features its own miniature suite and, around back, a giant workshop with every tool you could possibly need. The second suite is for Woodie’s brother Jim and his wife, Darlene; as the family has grown, so has the family compound. As their kids have become adults, they have become “shareholders” in the cottage, with everyone paying annual dues for taxes, repairs, and maintenance. It’s an unsentimental way to organize the business end of the family cottage, but it works. Once everyone pays up, they are free to indulge in relaxation and nostalgia.

These days, Junius’ 72-hour excursion has become, for Woodie, a six-hour drive from Philadelphia to the Gananoque marina and a 10-minute ride in Chips, the family’s vintage cedar motorboat. The only hassle Woodie has to put up with now is the post-9/11 battery of regulations that have tightened border control not just across the Thousand Islands bridge but even in the middle of the river.

Woodie and Lini in the boat.
Woodie and Lini in the boat. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

“We used to be able to sail over to Grindstone or Clayton for dinner and then come back to the cottage,” he says. Today, every marina doubles as a customs office. “If you want to dock on American soil you have to call ahead and let them know,” he says. “On the way back you have to call Gananoque and tell them where you’ve been. If they don’t trust your story they can make you come into Gananoque to verify you’re not bringing goods across the border.” Back when he was a young buck, scouring local beaches for fun and mischief, such rules would have cramped his style. Now that he’s a more settled septuagenarian, they’re just part of the six-miles-an-hour rhythm of his life.

“If you think you really like a girl,” Ford Stevens Sr. told his restless son back in the ’60s, “bring her here.” This was the sagest piece of advice Woodie’s dad gave his sons about choosing a mate. Island cottaging isn’t for everyone: even when you’re not alone you remain symbolically surrounded by a void, outside life’s currents, cut off from the rest of the world. Some people—the Stevenses, for example—find that liberating. Others find it suffocating. If your steady likes it here, explained Ford, the relationship has potential. If not, it’s doomed.

This is precisely what Woodie did when he met young Lini Westland on a nearby Howe Island dock in 1971. Woodie was out on the water with two friends, zipping around in one of his buddies’ motorboats, when they spotted three girls sunbathing at Bishop’s Point one summer afternoon. Lini, then 21, was on her first unchaperoned trip away from home, at a cottage rental with two friends, but she was armed with her own quick wits: her ability to swiftly size up people and situations. The boys offered them a boat ride, and Lini’s friends said yes. Lini thought the whole thing was sketchy, but she wasn’t about to leave her friends or be left alone on Bishops Point.

“The other two boys were slobs, and I would never go with slobs,” Lini recalls. “But Woodie was a gentleman.” The two of them hit it off immediately. Woodie told Lini he was planning to go back to school and become a dentist. “When he told me that, I thought, I already know he’s not a slob, and now I know he’s not a loser.” Woodie was deeply enamoured too. They immediately had chemistry. Their conversation turned easy and intimate while Woodie’s buddies were still trying hard to impress the other girls. Later that afternoon the group split up, and Woodie, though he’d known Lini for no more than a couple of hours at this point, didn’t see any point in wasting time. He brought Lini to Wyoming Island for the litmus test.

Lini in the window.
Lini in the window. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

She liked it from the outset. “I thought this whole place was really beautiful. And his father liked me right away because I paid attention to the stuff on the walls.” She also got her first taste of the Stevenses’ unique, homemade family cottage chairs on the stone deck and made a point of saying how comfortable they were. “I asked about everything and told him how wonderful it all was, and I meant it.”

Lini and Woodie spent a week at the cottage alone later that summer. Within 12 months, Woodie achieved the following milestones: he proposed, he and Lini were engaged and then married, and Woodie built Lini her own rock chair.

When Lini gushed to her future father-in-law about the family cottage, it was no small compliment. The walls of the Stevens family cottage are replete with built-in shelves, hooks, mantels, and plate rails, the better to festoon them with tchotchkes and quirky artifacts. It’s a living family archive that puts their values on display.

Inside the cottage.
Inside the cottage. Photo by Daniel Ehrenwoth

And it’s a display so rich that it’s actually hard to see the walls themselves. Toby jugs. Commemorative plates. Family photographs. Model boats. Muskie mounts. Busts of ship captains. Two American flags in triangle fold, tributes to relations killed in war. A ship’s wheel. Regatta silverware galore, from medals to banners to plaques. Beer steins. Family sayings and poems burnt on panelling, including this one by Junius himself:

I have an understanding with the islands at sunset,
When the slanted radiance fills their hollows
And the great winds let them be.

What Lini noticed in particular—what everyone notices—was the bedroom door off the dining area that doubles as a logbook. It’s a beautiful old door, solid wood with four recessed interior panels. Every inch of that door—the panels, the borders, top to bottom—has a log entry inscribed into it. One side of the door, unpainted, covers the period ranging from the interwar years to the 1960s. The other side of the door, painted blue and white some 50 years ago and never to be repainted, contains entries running from 1971 to the 1990s.

The door that doubles as a logbook.
The door that doubles as a logbook. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

The door looks better than it reads—if you parse the Stevenses’ door log you’ll learn that they got a new dishwasher and electric range in 1972, you’ll read about water levels and first swims and first paddles, you’ll find the names of dinner guests, and you’ll see the outlines of their kids’ feet, showing how they’ve grown over the years—but cottage logbooks aren’t meant to be great literature. They are meant to convey a sense of permanence, to mark the passage of time in a place where time stands still. No one bothers keeping a logbook of their city home; we buy and sell urban dwellings like the commodities they are, and when we move from one to the other we leave not a trace of ourselves behind. But our cottages are truly ours, and we make our mark indelible upon them.

When Woodie’s dad first told him to be quiet and listen to the river, it felt to Woodie as though his dad was passing on a piece of wisdom he’d always known, a lesson he always knew his son had to learn, and that he had just been waiting to impart to him when the time was right. But of course that’s not true: his father was also a restless young man once, and he also had needed to learn to be still, as did his father, Junius. Which is surely why Junius invented his own cottage chair.

Original plans for the island rock chair.
Original plans for the island rock chair. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Despite its rudimentary appearance, the Stevens cottage chair is the most comfortable version of the Muskoka-Adirondack chair I’ve ever slid my keister into. The angle of the seat is not as steep as in a true Muskoka chair, making it easier to get in and out. And your spine fits neatly into the space between the two backrest boards, allowing shoulder blades to press flat against the backrest.

In the Stevens chair you also sit a little taller, making it easier to converse with others. Or to read, or to write in a notebook on the armrest. Or to simply look out over the horizon and listen for the river, and to feel its power even when you’re not immersed in it. Island cottaging teaches you to step outside the current and watch its flow, and not react nor respond nor go with the flow nor against it. The only way to be still is to sit still.

National Magazine Award winner Philip Preville has a deep and abiding respect for the power of river currents.

This story originally appeared in the Aug/Sept 2019 issue of Cottage Life.

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