Sycamore Memories, II
by Claire Collins Conner
About spring of 1924 or 1925 my dad -- W. Hayden Collins -- bought a canoe and he and my mother, Adrienne, and I paddled up from the Washington Canoe Club to Sycamore Island. My first view was one of gorgeous green trees, a club house at almost ground level and a separate boat house facing the river.
We were assigned a canoe rack and taken on tour of the club house with its screened porch overlooking the lower point of the Island, a nice-sized club room with a ping-pong table (scene of much fun and many contests), kitchen with screened back porch on the canal side. The men's lockers were behind the kitchen. I don't remember any ladies lockers, but there was a rather large ladies room off the club room containing several tables and shelves.
The boat house had sleeping quarters at the 2nd floor level; a hanging sheet or canvas separated the men's from the women's area. Many of my frequent visits were with Alice Whitman and her mother along as chaperone (in those days young girls had to have one). We often spent the night and the mosquitoes were so terrible we always undressed in the dark. Mrs. Whitman wore her hair in braids around her head. At night she undid her braids and plaited them into pigtails down her back. The first night Alice and I were already in bed and, when Mrs. W. started to lie down after fixing her hair, the electric light came on. Startled, she sat up in bed and the light went off again. She had plaited the string hanging down from the base of the bare bulb into her hair.
Our group was very congenial and often had community breakfasts together -- all except Charlie DeMaine who ate with us but always ate shredded wheat. Wirt Kinsley volunteered to cook pancakes for the group and all was fine until one of the ladies saw him surreptitiously sifting "skippers" out of the flour! In those days we had no deep freeze in which to store flour to keep away the meal worms. Good bye, Wirt!
The next volunteer breakfast cook was Harold Gray who cut a round shaped piece of cardboard the size of a pancake, dipped it into batter and fried and served it to some helpless person. All great fun.
From both porches we could see who came over on the ferry -- a big wide one manned by "Captain" Johnston, father of "Boots" Johnston who ran the Sycamore Store at the top of the hill by the car stop. In those days it was on Conduit Road -- now re-named MacArthur Blvd. And the path was straight down and steep to the bridge over the canal. Although it was a tough climb, I think the stones were not quite as slippery as our new walk from the scenic road with its pedestrian overpass and parking. We all helped white-haired Captain Johnston pull the rope to haul the ferry back to the Island after he responded to our "ho hoo."
We had a dirt tennis court -- of sorts -- alongside the canoe house with a few benches for the "cheerers" and "Jeerers." One Sunday morning Alice Whitman missed an easy return shot and her mother exclaimed, "I don't know why Alice isn't doing better; she is taking tennis at college." Poor Alice never lived it down.
From each side of the tennis court there was a U-shaped path, rather overgrown and weedy, leading to the upper end of Sycamore and back. Along this path several tents with wooden floors were pitched in the summer. Visitors -- other Island members -- were discouraged by rumors of snakes in the area. We stayed away.
There were many community activities; we were a congenial group
Woodfests every fall with the ladies serving bean stew
Walks up the towpath in summer evenings to visit Glen Echo
Canoeing solo and in groups
Swimming out to sit on a big; later we swam out to a big float
We also met in each others' homes particularly in the winter to visit, play card-games, etc.
I had a wind-up victrola which we set on a soap box in the canoe and drifted down the river, or sometimes we paddled across to the Virginia side to go through Lover's Lane (with its hanging grape vines and lots of mosquitoes and hot muggy weather). Sometimes we took picnics, sandwiches or fried chicken. Opposite Sycamore on the Virginia side we paddled over to a path leading to a spring. Always we stayed away from the falls.
Once we had to raise money for something so each member took a "table" for $2.00 One such event was held at my parent's house. We had 20 card tables of "bridge", "400," or what have you. The place markers and/or score cards were cheap baggage tags and Dad made Welsh Rarebit. I still have the receipt for "Four hungry Sycamoreans or eight normal folks." We raised the necessary money.
On meeting nights, held on the Island once a month, at least 4 men went together in one car -- Doc Custis, Charles DeMaine, Roy Henley and my father (Hayden Collins) -- to be met at the Island by Harry Lowenstein, Reese Thomson, Francis Cole, Roger Gessford, Carl Stodder, the Ackad brothers, etc.
Once we had a week-end camping trip to Bear Island and Harry Lowenstein decided to beat the mosquitoes by sleeping in his canoe and covering it with netting. When he crawled in several mosquitoes went in with him and in the morning he was a mass of welts. Edith Gray showed me the mysteries of digging a round hole in the hard ground for my hips and fanny. I never did get my round hips acclimated to the depressions I dug in the ground.
We overheard the men outside our tent discussing a latrine for the ladies and one said, "You have to remember a woman shoots forward" and they built one accordingly. I remember seeing (and smelling) a baby buzzard, all pure white. A great thrill.
When it came time to go home down river via canoe -- we carried them up on top of autos -- I was put out on a big rock to watch while all the others went through the rapids. Big disappointment to me but I guess the "fellows" thought my father couldn't handle the rapids even though he had helped start the Washington Canoe Club. (The first meeting was in his office.) This club (Sycamore) was originally for taking girls canoeing, and not for shooting rapids. I guess the "fellows" put me on the rock also because they did not want to risk my mother's wrath if anything happened to her darling daughter.
The street car ride to Sycamore Stop was beautiful and particularly so if you were lucky enough to get an open air summer car. The hillside was covered with all sorts of green leafy trees, the river shimmered below in the sunshine, and the Virginia side also was gorgeous and spectacular with its palisades -- no houses or roads to intrude. Just beautiful country.
My dad was President of the Sycamore Island Club about 1929 or 1930. I think pretty much everyone was interested in Sycamore and its welfare and took turns being president and doing what they could. We were a very diverse group of people bound together by our love for the Island. I still exchange occasional letters with Dena Thomson, Mary Jane Johnston (now Mrs. Walters) both from Florida, and Margaret Custis.
... My husband has twisted my arm forcing me to include this tidbit. Dick Ackad drew me as a partner in a canoe race long remembered by him. When the gun went off at the finish line to indicate the winner, I stopped paddling much to Dick's chagrin. But I think we did fairly well. We were still "fourth" but only five canoes were in the race.