Detail of a nurse bride and military groom.

Seeking Leek Island: An Interview with Pamela Robertson

In 2019, Circulating Now published two blog posts about a scrapbook NLM had recently acquired. One post related the history of Leek Island Military Hospital (the subject matter of the scrapbook), while the second post described my theory for the creator of the scrapbook—a woman named Katharine Brenneman. Soon after, a granddaughter of Katharine Brenneman, Pamela Robertson, reached out to let me know that she does not believe the scrapbooker to be her grandmother. We were thrilled to speak with her and hear her perspective on the island and the scrapbook itself.

Circulating Now: Thank you for reaching out and speaking with us about the history of this scrapbook. To start, would you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, what you do, and a little bit about your family’s connection to Leek Island?

Pamela Robertson: I grew up in Upper Montclair New Jersey and most of my grandmother’s family can be traced back to the 1600s in New Jersey. I used to teach preschool and now in my later years, I work at a store called Talbots.

A halftone photograph from an article of an aerial view of a long wooded island surrounded by smaller islands.
Aerial Photo of Leek Island in an Article
Photo by Sandy Ritson
Courtesy Pamela Robertson

Leek Island was the island near where the St. Lawrence river opens into Lake Ontario that my great grandparents bought in the early 1900s. It remained in the family ‘till I believe around the 1960’s. My great grandmother, Katharine Runyon, passed away in 1951 and left each of her grandchildren a share of the island. There were seven grandchildren, so each grandchild got a piece of the island. They all ended up selling their shares to my uncle Phil Carow, except my Aunt Karen. My uncle was trying to keep it, but at some point—because the Canadian government was turning its land into national parksreclaimed Leek and gave it its original name, Thwartway island. It was probably one of the biggest private Islands in the Thousand Islands and it has a sandy beach, which is not typical for islands up there, they’re usually pretty rocky.

CN: And now it’s a public park? What happened to all the buildings we see in the scrapbook when the island was used as a hospital?

A postcard or heavy cardstock photograph of a large wooden structure built out over the water with canoes moored in front.
Leek Island Boat House
Courtesy Pamela Robertson

PR: I think so, though I’m not sure. My great grandparents built a main cabin that was called the Contentment. Each child had their own cabin and then [their] families ended up going to them. When I was younger, around maybe 10 or so, every once in a while we would go over there and walk around and look at it. And the cabins were still there. It had little pathways and trees were down. It had not been really inhabited like it had been when my great-grandmother was alive since the 1950s. People would come over in the wintertime and steal everything out of the cabinsthey even stole the paneling off the cottages. But then, when the government took it over, they blasted away all the cabins, so everything is gone now.

I believe there was running water and electricity, but it was like a camp island. It was just her private island which she turned over for their use and the boathouse was big so people could stay there—I think it was more of a convalescent [hospital].

CN: Tell us a little more about your great-grandmother, who owned the island in 1918.

Gold Framed formal painted portrait of a middle aged white worman in a black gown.
Katharine Flower Kip Runyon
Courtesy Pamela Robertson

PR: My great-grandmother retired to the Thousand Islands in this little town called Gananoque. She started out wanting to have an antique store, so she and her chauffeur would go around to all these different farms looking for antiques. Well, if you’re a farmer and you see this woman pull up in her huge car that’s driven by a chauffeur and she’s trying to buy something from you, are you going to give her a really good price?

She realized they weren’t giving her a good price, so she started a restaurant called the Golden Apple, and then down the road a little bit, she had the Apple Tree guest house. So, she basically had an inn. My grandparents ran it after she passed away. So, starting at around 8, I spent every summer with my grandparents; going over to Leek was more of an outing for the afternoon.

CN: How did you come across our blog post and what was your initial reaction when you read it?

PR: This guy named Bill Richmond contacted me about ten years after I posted something on a genealogy board and he said that my great-great grandmother and his great grandmother had been sisters! We got an extra generation in there because his great grandmother was the youngest of ten and my great-great grandmother was the oldest of the ten. Anyway, he sent me the links [to the blogs]. So, I clicked on them and was like, Those are pretty cool! I read that the girl who wrote the blog deduced that [the scrapbooker] was Mrs. David Brenneman and I was kind of like, Yeah, no—it’s not. That is not my grandmother. Then I looked at the writing, thinking maybe she wrote it even though the picture is not her. But it wasn’t her writing.

CN: Well, thank you so much for sharing your family’s history. We’re very glad. If you hadn’t reached out we wouldn’t know any more about this scrapbook. Do you have any guess about who our scrapbooker might be?

PR: No, have no idea.

CN: Is there anything else that you’d like to tell us?

Two ladies sitting together on rocks, one with her arm around the other.PR: I’m having lunch with Flora’s granddaughter today—so that’s kind of fun! You know, Flora’s the one the scrapbooker has her arm around [in the photograph]. But, I don’t think there’s anything else. If I think of something I’ll let you know! Thank you so much for the interview—it was wonderful!

So, the identity of the scrapbooker is still an open question. If you, or anyone you know, may have information about Leek Island or this scrapbook please do not hesitate to contact us!

Visit the National Library of Medicine to view this and other photographic collections.  For questions about this album, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at NLM Customer Support.

Outdoor portait of Aliya RahmanAliya Rahman is a Pathways Intern in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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