by Harold W. Reiser III
Wellesley Island, located on the St. Lawrence River, was once a true island, before the erection of the International Bridge that connected the U.S. to Canada. On this very large and desolate bed of Mother Earth there existed a way of life much different from that of the rest of the world. Hardship, hard work and heart ache were merely part of everyday life in this existence. One family that managed to survive both tragedy and toil for five generations was the Pattersons of Wellesley Island.
Chancy Patterson was born in 1904 in the Lake of Isles near Otter Point on the St. Lawrence River. He started school at the age of eight and quit at 16. By 1920 he was already hard at work on the river. His first job was trapping, and he set lines for skunk, muskrats, raccoons and mink. "A good mink pelt would fetch $16 to $18" each, he said, while a muskrat would only command 10 to 15 cents, not a huge financial undertaking. But "muskrat was table fare in those days," he remembered. "Marsh rabbits, we used to call them, the pelt went to barter and the meat went to the pot."
Depending on the season, Chancy worked at many trades. He trapped, shot and fished, and guided sportsmen after largemouth bass and great northern pike. He also helped build skiffs, delivered coal, cut river ice and carved decoys. Chancy made his first decoy in 1918 at the age of 14. At first he only made decoys for his personal use, but then friends and neighbors began asking him to make a rig. In those days he sold them for 50 to 75 cents apiece.
By 1930 Chancy had a steady summer job, employed by a well-to-do businessman from Syracuse named Oscar Westfall. He would captain Oscar and his wife Carrie around in their lake boat, a 23-foot Kerch, built by a Clayton resident with the same last name. The boat was powered by a Model-A inboard motor and had a radio onboard. Chancy said he loved to "play that old time music."
In the mid-1930s Chancy had an opportunity to take advantage of what he thought was a great deal. A local man offered to trade him a skiff for his rig of decoys. Chancy, never weighing the better end of the bargain, and always generous and quick to accommodate, took the deal. And he spent the summer enjoying his new boat. Then along came Labor Day, with talk turning toward the impending duck season. Chancy smacked his forehead, realizing he had no rig of decoys to spread. So he got into his skiff and rowed from Wellesley to Alexandria Bay to visit his dear old cousin, Chauncey Wheeler.
Chancy explained his dilemma to Wheeler, who was in his 70s at the time and never said no to anyone. He agreed to help. "We made 24 birds between us," Chancy said. "I made the bodies; he made the heads. I got 24 cedar blocks from Brooks Lumber, paid 40 cents apiece for them. I made the bodies, put on the heads, primed and painted them. And was out hunting in no time." Together Patterson and Wheeler made 18 broadbills and six canvasbacks. Few remain today.
Chancy’s grandfather, also named Chancy Patterson, was Chauncey Wheeler’s uncle. The elder Patterson, well known on the river as the "Old Blind Fiddler," lost most of his sight when he was nine years old, from a bout with the measles followed by a bad cold from the rain. "He could see a shade of you," said Chancy, "but he couldn’t tell who you was." For years the old fiddler sat on a rock near the river known as "The Fiddler Elbow," made famous today by the fiddler himself. He’d play for hours as residents and tourists went drifting by. But on August 23, 1890, tragedy struck. The old fiddler and his son were crossing the St. Lawrence in a skiff when it collided with a small passenger steamer called the Juanita. The skiff was severed, throwing both men into the river. Life preservers were tossed to save them, but the old fiddler, unable to see, met his fate and drowned. His son was rescued. As Chancy said, the family was no stranger to death.
Charles died in 1939 and Chancy passed on in 1994, both of natural causes.
The Pattersons continued to live on Wellesley Island for many years. This large farm family worked through the good times and the bad. During the Depression, to survive, they ran bootleg liquor and hired their children out to neighbors for food and tobacco. Life in those days was simply the will to survive.
For the complete story, please see the Jan./Feb. 2001 issue of Decoy Magazine.
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