The History of Province Island
The Province Island is the biggest island in lake Memphremagog, it is located between the border of Canada and the United States.
Province Island was at one time occupied by Martin Adams, the pioneer of Newport, 1793. He cultivated a field there. Living on the main land, he and Mrs. Adams would go to the island daily by boat. She busied herself “with spinning wool and flax, tending the dinner pot and growing vegetables, being as industrious as her husband” — (Beautiful Waters Vol. 2).
The Indians called it “MEM-TOAG” and they probably lived there at times. Today, this island is officially named Province Island, after having been called Zabrieskie Island and Howard Island. It is the largest island in Lake Memphremagog, being 77 acres, of which 7 acres, are in the United States. The frontier between the two countries passes through the south end of the island and we can see where the International Border is by the 16 foot strip cut through the woods as the International treaty stipulates.
Joseph Bouchette, Surveyor-General of Canada, indicates the island on his map of 1815, calling it Province Island. On the 1805 map, he also shows it, but does not give it a name. In a document addressed to the American Secretary of War in 1826, the Assistant Civil Engineer, De Witt Clinton, says that the 45th degree passes through a small island named Province Island. After many years of discussion the Asburton Treaty was signed in 1842 establishing the frontier as it was first established by Collins in 1772, a little bit north of the 45th degree. The Canadians thus loosing some land, because the line was erroneously traced. The “Commission de Toponymie du Québec” places it at 45 degrees and 1 minute, as do many geographical maps.
Why was the island once called Zabriskie’s Island?
According to stories, Zabrieskie was a “stowaway” who at a young age left his native Poland to avoid compulsory military service and landed in New York.
After his arrival in the United States he became a “pack peddler” and was very successful, then he started in the sugar business until he accumulated considerable wealth and became known as “The Baron of Sugar”. About 1885 he purchased the island from the estate of either Carlos Pierce or Mr. Oliver Hutchinson. In the November 30, 1886 issue of the Express & Standard one finds the following: “N. A. Beach is fully engaged on the Province Island buildings he is now erecting for A. C. Zabrieskie of New York. Mr. Beach has a great number of men under his direction in this enterprise, and when he gets through the island must shine”.
Again on June 23, 1887, the same journal, describes the work:
A small party of ladies and gentlemen from this vicinity, on Friday last took a trip to the Lake, via Reed’s Landing, taking row boats from there to Province Island. The day was fine and the country beautiful in its verdure and scenery. The first point of interest, of course, was the new residence of A. C. Zabrieskie, Esq., built for him by N. A. Beach of Georgeville. The house stands on the highest point of the island, from which fine views of the lake and mountain scenery can be had.
The house, built for a summer residence, is of the Queen Anne style, with broad verandahs or galleries. The inside is finished in native woods, with hard wood floors. The general effect is very fine, the finish bringing out the beauty of the wood in artistic designs, reflecting great credit upon Mr. Beach, to whose taste the designing was left by the owner. Most of the rooms have fire-places so, that in cool or stormy weather the inmates can enjoy the comfort of an open fire. The house is evidently thoroughly built and would be more comfortable in winter than many quite as pretentious outwardly. We reproduce a few paragraphs from “Lake Park Items” (The Stanstead Journal) as accurately describing the house:
One prime attraction just now is the elegant establishment of Mr. Zabrieskie on Province Island, which Mr. Beach, by permission of Mr. Zabrieskie, takes pride in showing to appreciative visitors; and he may well be proud of the work which he has done.
Laboring under the disadvantage of being upon an island and far from shops and manufactories, he has nevertheless achieved a success. The windows are of plate and cathedral glass and the inside finish is entirely of our native woods wrought in panels, each chamber being finished in a different kind, which gives to it a distinctive name. The assembly room with its capacious fire-place and grand stairway, is particularly attractive. The study adjoining this room, is a gem, paneled in birds-eye maple, and bears evidence to the skill of Beach junior, as a fine wood worker. The house is approached from the dock by a broad graveled drive winding up the hill with faultless curves and grades. At the north side of the dock a beautiful yatch house 40 x 60 feet is now nearly completed. Its architectural design is faultless and its constructions substantial and permanent. As architect Mr. Beach has done wonders, hampered as he has been by two serious personal accidents. His ability is first class and his energy “immense” Mr. Zabrieskie is to be congratulated on having such a man to do the work.
During this week the place will be open for inspection of visitors. Mr. Beach is building the hull of a 30-ft steam launch which will do duty until a larger and faster yacht shall have been completed, when, we suppose the launch will be used for marketing, etc. (The cost estimated in those days was in excess of $90,000). Zabrieskie was an enigmatic person, and his story is near legend. General Butterfield, who lived not far from Zabrieskie, decided one day to meet this eccentric. He went, in his cruiser “Kittemaug”, to Zabriskie’s wharf. Once docked, the General stood up and said: “Mr. Zabrieskie, I am General Butterfield and I have come to make your acquaintance”. Hands behind his back and in a voice without equivocation the response came rapidly: “Thank you, General Butterfield, when I wish to make your acquaintance, I will make it known to you, Goodbye!”.
Some say that he brought with him young men whom he posted like sentinels and when he dressed in a military uniform he marched and galloped on his horse shouting orders to them.
One day while accompanied by an instructor, who was showing him how to operate a new gasoline launch boat, the motor exploded. Not knowing how to swim the two men cried: “HELP”. They were saved by a young lady who was on the neighbouring Tea Table island. Zabrieskie married this lady and they had two children, a boy and a girl. On the other hand, Austin Hawes, in another report says: “Recently a story has been circulated that Zabrieskie married a local woman who saved his life when his naphtha launch burned. I feel sure that this is not so. He married a lady from New York and she had a son, came to the island once or twice but apparently did not like it”.
Mrs. Carrie M. Barbour, in a writing of 1955, tells that: “Zabrieskie was reported to be a “woman hater” and had all male servants and would have no woman on the island. This he did alter, for one reason he did have his mother there. We were none of us welcome on his island when he was there. One day I was fishing, sitting in my rowboat and a few feet off the wharf of his island, with my back to the island, Zabrieskie walked down to the wharf and small stones began to drop in the water around where I was fishing. I paid no attention to him and soon he left.”.
A tale came into being which claimed the island was haunted: because on a very black night with high winds Mrs. Zabrieskie fell ill. Her husband was away on a trip. She sent his manager to the mainland to find a doctor. On their return, Mrs Zabrieskie could not be found, and has never been seen again, except on nights of great storms when she comes back to haunt the island.
The Island’s other owners
The father of Senator Charles B. Howard bought the island in 1917. They called it Howard’s Island. Mr. Howard, a native of Beebe, had dreamt since his youth of becoming the owner of this enchanting place. He wanted it so badly that he gave a duly signed blank cheque to Captain Bullock of the Lady of the Lake, and told him to buy the island for him.
And old employee told me that the first artificial inseminations in Canada were done on the island, with the herd of Jersey cows which Mr. Howard possessed.
Around 1955 the pheasant hunts were started. Each spring 300 to 400 young pheasants were brought from a farm in Oka. They were kept in a barn for several months and then were released on the island. About 1960, the island was sold to the present proprietors: “Province Island Fish and Game Club Inc.” with Mr. Jan Pick, Dr Hector McDougall, Enest Gilbey, John J. Dunn, well known insurance broker and The Canadian Ingersoll Rand as shareholders. Since then, Robert J. Dunn and Robert Gagnon owner of the Hatley Inn have replaced some founding shareholders.
They, now, bring in 4000 young pheasants from May through July, which they feed about 30 tons of grain. At the beginning of October the pheasant hunt starts, going on each weekend until the end of November. Not more than 8 guns are used at each hunt. The pheasants become nervous but are incapable of flying across the lake to the mainland. Hunting dogs go after any escapees and bring them back. In winter the foxes and “poachers” cross the ice to pick up any survivors. During the years 1960 to 1970 the pheasants came from the State of New York. They were deposited on the American side of the island and crossed the border themselves without too many “customs or immigration” problems.
About 1968, the residence of Mr. Zabrieskie was completely demolished because it was too expensive to maintain. The woodwork was sold in the cities of Quebec, New York and Montreal. The demolition took a year and a half. The blocks of granite from the foundation are at a place known as the “sand bar” on the Canadian south west side of the island not far from the boundary line between the USA and Canada.
Mr. Leopold Pruneau, of Shebrooke, lived on Province island form 1945 to 1970. After Mr. Howard death, the island became the property of his son, Charles B. Howard, who treated Mr. Pruneau like an adopted father. Charles B. Howard was the Federal Liberal Deputy from 1925 to 1940, Mayor of Sherbrooke from 1950 to 1952 and named a senator in 1940. The domain Howard or “Howardene” in Sherbrooke was, also, his property.
In November 1986 I found a wreck of a boat east of the island. Mr Pruneau believes that it is a boat named: “The Lady of the Lake” property of Senator Howard which exploded about 1945 with Mr. Belisle aboard. He was the caretaker of the island before Mr. Pruneau. Mr. Belisle suffered only burns in this accident. It also could be the boat belonging to Zabrieskie that exploded? Who knows?
Another incident reported by the manager of the island, Mr. Doyon, show that animals sense more danger than man. One night, in early winter, the widow of Mr. Benjamin Howard telephoned to have Mr. Doyon pick her up at Cedarville. Mr. Doyon harnessed the horses to a sleigh. At mid point they stopped short. The ice was not very thick, so Mr. Doyon returned and made some reins about 100 feet long and head back across the ice towards Cedarville. Again the horses stopped. He yelled at them and the horses advanced. The ice gave way and the horses and sleigh were lost.
Deer sometime swim across to the island and some caretaker are surprised to find the garden ravaged. Before the arrival of Mr. Pruneau, the local farmers brought their cattle across in the spring to pasture for the summer. In the fall they swam them back to the mainland.
One of the old caretakers told me that to control mosquitoes Zabrieskie had imported bats on the island. He said: “With the years there were so many bats that we had difficulty seeing the moon on a night of the full moon….!!!”
The island has had many out of the ordinary owners and occupations. It always has and probably will always be a much talked curiosity of Lake Memphremagog. Nevertheless, even Memphré have been sighted near this beautiful island a few times.
A last note on Zabrieskie before closing. In 1915, he has given to the Goodrich Memorial Library of Newport a collection of rare books concerning the history of our region and many times I was able to tell you stories of Lake Memphremagog coming from his archives funds. He real name is: Andrew Christian Zabriskie.
Note 1 : Illustrated History of the Memphremagog house from its axe-hewn frame, 1838, to its destruction by fire May 15, 1907 written by Dr. John McNab Currier of Newport in 1916.
Note 2 : By an act of the Vermont legislature on October 30, 1816, the name of Duncansboro was changed to Newport; and on the same day that part of Salem situated west of lake Memphremagog and “Coventry Leg” were detached from their respected owns and annexed to Newport. In 1845, S. B. Rider, an elder in the Baptist denomination, who had been trying many years to get elected representative to the legislature was successful, and was duly elected; and to show his ability as a statesman, had a bill introduced into that august body to have that part of Province island, that lies in the waters of the United States annexed to the town of Newport. The bill went through after the elder’s sanctimonious address, and immediately became a law. There was just enough dry land on which to build a log house south of Province Line; the rest of the newly acquired territory was a boggy sand beach bearing swale grass and swamp shrubs, a home for frogs in spring time. The writer was informed by one of the early settlers of the town that in that rustic log house lived a Frenchman and his wife with seventeen children. In the early part of the following winter this numerous family were attacked with some kind of an epidemic disease which hung about them all winter. They soon became a charge upon the town and Old Duncansboro now bearing the more modern maritime name of Newport had to foot the bills.
Note 3 : On November 28, 1894, a bill was approved for the annexation of Coventry Gore to the town of Newport.
(article courtesy of Mr. Jacques Boisvert (1932-2006), President, La Société d’Histoire du Lac Memphrémagog, copyright January 1988)