History of the Thousand Islands Land Trust
Two unrelated events generated special interest to form the Thousand Islands Land Trust (TILT). The first was precipitated by the subdivision of land on Grindstone Island in the early 1980s. This parcel consisted of the entire foot of the island with the exception of the State Parks and one section located on the east of Delaney Bay. The owners began selling 4-acre lots with a minimum of 400 feet of river frontage. However some parcels were less than the idealized four hundred foot sections. Local island residents were concerned that the density of houses at the foot would be greatly increased and would damage the bucolic nature of the area.
The second circumstance was a meeting sponsored by St. Lawrence Eastern Ontario Commission (SLEOC), in Clayton in 1984. SLEOC spoke about land protection and the use of easements. In July of that year, a boat tour around the island was arranged for two members of the Trust for Public Lands . These visitors sang the praises of land trusts as a way to conserve land in perpetuity and suggested the same for the land on Grindstone. Within a year a small group of volunteers agreed to form the Thousand Islands land Trust. The Trust for Public Land already held two easements on Grindstone Islands which they transferred to TILT. In addition they provided $1,000 to create a stewardship fund to allow TILT to monitor and maintain the easements.
The next major easement was on Carleton Island. The easement protects open space by limiting potential development to five-acre lots containing 100 to 300 feet of shoreline. It also protects a woodlot in the center of the island, a purported Indian burial ground, and a military cemetery. At the same time as the easement donation, TILT accepted the donation of historic Fort Haldimand, located near the head of Carleton. It is a former British fort that was abandoned when the US was created and claimed Carleton.
By the late 1980sTILT began raising funds to employ a land steward, establish a newsletter and create a friends group.
Over the next two decades, there were many accomplishments to celebrate. All land trusts have proud moments where easements and land are saved or secured. However, it is the people involved, past and present, who make TILT truly strong – people who have inspired others to provide financial support, or donate land or conservation agreements, often anonymously, for future generations to enjoy.
One example begins with its founding president, Kenneth Deedy, a Grindstone summer-resident. Early in 1989, the Land Trust was awarded two grants - one by the Northern New York Community Foundation, and the other by the St. Lawrence Eastern Ontario Commission (SLEOC). The grants allowed the Land Trust to study and evaluate all undeveloped islands in the United States sector of the Thousand Islands with respect to future land-management policies.
When the study was completed, it was vital that TILT investigate the ownership of all uninhabited properties with the hope that TILT would be able to preserve some of them.
Deedy had discovered that several tiny islets were considered to have no owner by New York State and he realized that TILT could lay claim to them if it could find a descendent of Elisha Camp, a Sackets Harbor settler who had purchased the islands in 1825. He asked other islanders about the former owner and was fortunate to learn that there was a preserve on Sanibel Island, Florida that was named after an “Elisha Camp”. He made a few calls to the area but was unsuccessful in locating a descendant. Soon after watching a television commercial about FedEx, he decided to try something different. Deedy sent a simply-addressed packet containing information about TILT and a request for a quitclaim deed to: Elisha Camp, Sanibel Island, Florida.
About two weeks later, TILT received a handwritten letter containing a $100 donation from Mr. Camp, a descendant of the original Elisha Camp. He also agreed to quitclaim any interest he may have inherited from Elisha Camp to all islets less than ½ acre in size and to deed them to the Land Trust. He executed two deeds and the quitclaim was successful which meant that TILT was able to protect, in perpetuity, these fragile islets that are important to the river’s wildlife inhabitants, one being the threatened Common Tern. Lady Luck was on Ken Deedy’s side but it’s really due to his tenacity, and the support of all members of the board, that these areas are protected.
Establishing land preserves seldom happens quickly and TILT’s preserves are no exception. Crooked Creek Preserve, consisting of 1,256 acres, was assembled from seven parcels of land and took ten years to complete. Similarly, the acquisition of 11 parcels of land now owned by TILT on Grindstone Island began more than 23 years ago. And acquiring Rights-of-Way for the Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail (Rails-to-Trails) took 15 years.
Zenda Farm, located on the Clayton-to-Cape Vincent road, has a unique story that was celebrated in June at the Community Picnic. It has taken TILT over a decade to complete the Zenda Farm Preserve, thanks again to the tenacity of a specific board member.
Zenda Farm evolved from the smaller farms of some of Clayton’s earliest settlers and was built on land that had been owned by Anthony Potter, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. Eventually a large, shingle-style, waterfront, summer home originally built by J. Herbert Johnson of New York was bought by James K. Hackett (1869 – 1926), a popular American actor in early cinema. He was the lead in the 1913 silent version of “The Prisoner of Zenda” In 1915, when he purchased the Johnson home, he named it “Zenda” after his favorite role.
In the early 1930s, Merle Youngs, founder of the Youngs Rubber Company, bought the home and went on to acquire several adjacent – and smaller - farms. Eventually, he owned 800 acres of farmland and established a dairy farm and a beef operation. Youngs built a modern creamery and installed the area’s first automatic bottler. His Guernsey cattle produced high-quality milk and by the late 1930s, Zenda Farm was one of the showplaces of Jefferson County.
In 1997, John MacFarlane, who had inherited Zenda Farm from Merle Youngs, together with his wife LoisJean donated 107-acres of the farm to TILT. Their generous gift forms the scenic “gateway” to Clayton. Four years later, a TILT board member encouraged the Land Trust to increase the Zenda acreage by purchasing a portion - 284 acres – that had been part of the original farm.
The board member anonymously provided the funds for the purchase of Zenda meadows, a 70-acre parcel, then owned by a developer. In 2006, TILT purchased an adjacent 46-acre parcel, also once part of Zenda Farm. This acquisition was made possible through an opportune partnership between US Fish & Wildlife's Fish Enhancement Mitigation and Research Fund (FEMRF), Ducks Unlimited and the Land Trust, along with private contributions. Together the organizations raised more than 80% of the $200,000 purchase price.
Later, through another major donation, TILT purchased the final agricultural parcel of the original Zenda farm, a 166 acre parcel known as Zenda Meadows II. In late 2008, the Land Trust celebrated a new gift of land: fifteen acres of the Zenda Woods, received from the estate of John MacFarlane. Zenda Farm Preserve is significant because it conserves historic farmland, agricultural buildings, and protects critical habitat for grassland birds of the Northeast. One of the farm buildings is used by State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Thousand Islands Biological Station. In 2009 TILT established Clayton’s first community garden on the farm, and the LoisJean and John MacFarlane Nature Trail, an accessible non-motorized footpath, was completed in 2011.
In 2009, the Thousand Islands Land Trust was accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. This designation indicates that TILT meets national standards for protecting important natural places forever. Accreditation requires a thorough examination of the land trust's standards and practices. For more information, click here to visit the Accreditation Commission's website.