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Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches
Debra A. Barsotti
Research Journalist
Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River
and Its Tributaries, Inc.

The Maurice River Reaches Project - River Recollections
Julie Smalley
Once Upon a Time on a River Island

Julie Smalley bought a kayak. It wasn't the folly of a senior moment. Those who know Smalley's age might call her adventurous. But those who know her realize that buying and mastering a kayak in her silver years is nothing unusual for Julie. She's not one to sit in the comfort of her house. Just ask her about her adventures on Acorn Island!

In the thoroughly modern era of the 1960's, Julie, her husband Donald and their three children became the residents of an uninhabited island. True, the island was not in one of the places that people would label "exotic." And also true was the fact that the family only spent the "fine weather" days there. On the other hand, they spent their summer seasons there without a TV - or without any electricity at all, for that matter. And they had to build the shelter that they came to call "their summer home."

In the early 1960's, the Smalley family built their two-room cabin on the little island that sits in the middle reaches of the Maurice River, at the mouth of Acorn Gut. It was a tiny tree-covered oasis just off of Gerry Moore's Sweet Meadows. The use of past tense is important to note because Julie said that there are no longer any trees on the island. And when Gerry Moore passed away, Sweet Meadows became a memory. Julie's not even sure whether the sign that Gerry had hanging on the property is still there. Even his old house has a new look - and new owners. And Julie's husband Donald has passed on, too.

The current owners of the Moore house are Bob and Laura Johnson. Not long ago, they invited Julie and her grown sons, Steve, Clif and Neal back to the island for a visit.

It had been quite sometime since they packed up and left for their summer getaway. They hadn't summered at their Maurice River hideaway since the 70's. School, jobs and other distractions closed that chapter in their lives.

Thirty years later, the first reaction was how little the place was. Julie's sons remembered how big their world seemed when they were swimming, fishing and hanging out on their dock. Julie was impressed that their little cabin was still intact. "It's still nice," she smiled.

Julie smiles a lot when she talks about the time she and her family spent on the island.
They got up with the birds, went to sleep when the skies darkened around nine…unless it was a full moon, she said. The river was their backyard, the critters were their friends - including a pair of loons who hung around for a couple of years, Julie recalled.

Julie talked about the daily routine: She'd cook fried potatoes and eggs for breakfast for her guys on most mornings. Fed and fortified, they'd head out to the river. If the tide was high, they'd get in some water-skiing or do some fishing from their dock. "The boys liked to swim, too" Julie said. "They were in the water constantly, like fish." The family would enjoy the full days of summer, and head in around 5:30 for their dinner.

Julie's husband, Donald, saved a good bit of vacation time for the summer, but he did have to work some shifts. He was a freight conductor for Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line (then Conrail), where he worked for 42 years. He'd work the evening shift, so he'd head out right after dinner, Julie said. Donald would take the sneakbox over to the Yawp Shore where his truck was parked. He'd have to anchor the boat in a place where he knew he could get it after his shift. That meant paying attention to the tide. Julie explained, "If the tide was out you would get stuck in the mud." When he returned around 11 o’clock, the family's dog Cinder would hear him coming. "I'd be asleep and she would go to the door - like she wanted to go out. She would hear that motor before I did every time."

Donald and Julie got married and moved to Millville in 1946. They didn't buy a house on the Maurice River, but they had a boat. And they loved to water-ski. The newlyweds thought it would be terrific to launch their water-skiing adventures from the banks of the Maurice River. One day they happened to mentioned that thought to contractor Gerry Moore, who was building a garage for them. Moore told the Smalleys that he had a little island on Acorn Gut that he was willing to rent to them. The Smalleys offered to buy the property, but Moore wasn't selling. He did give them permission to build a little cabin there. "We decided to rent! Why not?" Julie said. "We'd have a little place out there. I thought it would be kinda neat."

Julie Smalley talked about the process of building that cabin. "We didn’t have money," she admitted, adding that they just wanted to build a place where they could go when they wanted to swim and fish. They planned to build a two-room summer bungalow.

"We had to buy some wood," Smalley said, then added that their budget wouldn't allow for much more. "But you would be surprised what you can find if you ask and scrounge around," she continued. She said that her husband called his acquaintances to see what kind of scrap materials he could scrounge up. " Donald talked to someone who worked for Bell Tel," Smalley recalled. The man had access to about 20 old telephone poles. The Smalleys picked them up and hauled them out to the island. "All the beams inside here are telephone poles," Smalley said, pointing to a family photo. Someone else had an old chicken coup. "If we'd tear it apart, we could have it, they told us," she said. Someone else had some old siding that they were replacing, The Smalleys took it right off the house and made good use of it. They needed a roof so they bought sheets of aluminum. "Boy, did it sound nice when it rained, and when the birds landed on it," Smalley remembered, smiling at the thought of the birds coming in to shore to roost.

"We had a dock there, too," said Smalley. "And a wooden walkway to the dock." She remembered how the telephone poles were put in place to support the dock. "You pump and drill the water; you stick the telephone poles in the mud." She said that they wouldn't come out. "Some of them are still there," she said, "adding that when the river froze, the ice would weaken and dislodge them.

The words "I need", also brought a generous response, Smalley remembered. "We got a table and chairs - from Donald's sister, who was redoing her house. We got two cots. And we got a daybed," she said, which was perfect for the family of five.

The Smalleys painted the dock with whatever paint they got for free. "Mostly gray," she said. "The first time we painted it, we didn’t realize that when you painted it, and your feet were wet, it became real slippery." The discovered a little trick to keep them on their feet. "A little bit of sand in it - just a little bit," was added to the paint to add some grip.

The first things Smalley added to the finished cabin were screens. She doesn't recall where the screens or the screen door came from, but she knew that they came in handy. She remembers well the mosquitoes!

There was no electricity to the island, but they used bottled gas for the stove and refrigerator. "We had a pitcher pump. We had a chemical toilet. And of course, when the tide was high, you took your bath," Smalley said with a grin.

She described the process of transporting the 'appliances' to the cabin. "We had a couple of boats. We had one that was called a sneak box," she said, explaining that her husband liked to hunt duck. "A sneak box it lays flat. It's good for duck hunting," she said. She laughed at the memory of her husband and a neighbor floating the refrigerator and the stove to the cabin. "Honestly, it looked ridiculous! We were hoping a big boat wouldn’t go by - because it may have swamped us," she said.

Smalley said that her sons made their own memories. "They used to go out early in the morning when the tide was low. They would go to the Yawp Shore. They'd get out their net and put out for minnies. They'd bring them back in their bait box alive and fish off the pier for their little sunnies." Smalley said that her sons learned to clean their catch and cook them up "with flour and butter and black pepper…nice and crisp."

It was a simple life there on the banks of the Maurice River. "We went down there and we didn’t have much money, so we had to make do," Smalley confessed. Her kids certainly knew how to have fun. Smalley gave an example of one of their favorite acitivites. She said that they'd make pellets from the blue mud on the river bottom. After the little round balls dried in the sun, they'd use them in their slingshots.

She also said that her sons also had to help build the cabin - even though they were little at the time. "Most of the wood had nails in it. They had to get all the nails out - and straighten the nails out so we could reuse them. They learned how to do things like that. They learned how a house is built."

And the house that they helped build is still standing. From the Spring Garden Boatworks, it was still visible. "If you look across, you can see the cabin. It's my cabin," she said nostalgically, smiling a bit because she thought it did look a bit odd. "There's nothing around except this little cabin."

Julie Smalley may travel parts of the Maurice River on her kayak, buoyed by the memories of her Acorn Island summers. "Those are really happy memories for me," she said.