Jim Shulman |Baby Boomer Memories: Simple life, times on Pontoosuc's Francis Island
Now and then I read about people who live on their own island and think about how interesting that would be.
In the '50s and '60s, I remember that there was a house on an island on Pontoosuc Lake. During boat rides I recall waving to people at the house or on its dock.
A few years ago, I was talking with a dear friend about Pontoosuc Lake, and she shared she once lived in that house on the island. My friend, Irene Tague, her late husband, Bill, who was a Berkshire Eagle photographer for nearly 40 years and their young son, Peter, spent a summer there.
The island, known as Francis Island, was named for the Francis family, which operated the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill. In 1919 the family donated the island and their "summer cottage" to the Pittsfield Women's Club.
For over 30 years, the Women's Club let its members use Francis Island each summer for picnics and outings. Eventually the club rented the place for camping as well.
In 1952, the club built a new dock for the popular boat, the Sheila, to drop off and pick up passengers. With more motorboats on the lake, and the potential for intruders, the Women's Club started having "hosts" live in the house each summer.
The hosts would assist in the rental of rooms in the eight-room house and would oversee picnics, swimming and fishing. Up to six overnight guests could stay and pay for the use of linens and food.
The Tagues served as the Francis Island hosts in the summer of 1955. Irene shared how the couple was young and adventurous back then and didn't mind the lack of modern conveniences.
There was no electricity or plumbing, an outhouse was the only toilet and the lake served as a bath source. Renters either needed a rowboat or motorboat to get to and fro or would have wait until the Sheila was operating,
The Tagues hosted parties with varied group of guests. A group might include the City Hall custodian, the fire chief, and the editor of The Eagle among others. Everyone had a good time no matter his or her occupation, background or politics.
Each summer the club had different host families that generally included children.
For many years people respected Francis Island, and there was no vandalism.
However, in the winter of 1957 when the lake was frozen, someone came and smashed windows, pulled down curtains and threw dishes and pans, causing considerable damage.
The Women's Club made repairs for the next season, and by 1963 added gaslights and running water in the kitchen. But in April 1964, three teens did major damage to the house and contents. Once again the club made repairs with funds from various dinners and events held during the year.
The Women's Club continued having hosts for several more years. It acquired a pontoon boat in 1969, as the Sheila no longer operated on the lake.
In 1971, the Women's Club found that having the island inhabited for only two summer months was not enough of a deterrent for intruders, and so it did not operate Francis Island that year. Following a bout of vandalism in May 1971 the cottage was totally destroyed a month later by a fire of "undetermined origin."
The old building was only partially insured and hence, the lot remained vacant until 1985, when it was sold for $3,500. It has been sold at least once or twice since.
Many years have passed since I boated on Pontoosuc Lake so I can only go by the word of others. They tell me the island has never really been re- developed.
I still think about living on an island, but sadly I'm not sure it'll be Francis Island if I do.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the newly opened Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." Find information at berkshirecarousel.com.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.