It was the summer of 1953. Ernest F. Fetske, a prominent naval architect from New York, and his wife, Bettina, were taking a load of bricks in their boat out to their vacation home on five-acre Brockway Island in Essex, Connecticut.
They’d been spending weekends there since purchasing it in the early 1940s. Folks around Essex knew Ernest had helped design the U.S. Army’s amphibious DUKW (“duck”) vehicle, first used in World War II, and occasionally appeared in national ads for Chesterfield cigarettes. But not a lot more. Up to that point, the Fetskes had kept pretty much to themselves.
Well, Ernest Fetske had put too many bricks in his boat that day–so many that the boat partially capsized, dumping the load into the river. Now, it so happens that a bunch of Essex boys were swimming off the nearby town docks. After Ernest and Bettina managed to bail out their now-empty boat and get it over there, Ernest spoke to one of the older boys, a 12-year-old named Ned Libby: “I’ll give you a penny for every brick you and your friends can bring up–and I’ll even buy you a mask and fins to help you do it.”
Deal. Ned’s younger friend, 8-year-old Dave Hyde, would help. Some of the other boys, too. A few days later, they’d retrieved almost all the bricks. Ernest was so pleased he invited the boys out to the island for a picnic. The next weekend, too, and in fact, from then on practically every weekend. The Fetskes, childless themselves, discovered that they loved having children around. Even in the winter, they often hosted skating parties out there, and one summer Ernest designed and built a hydroplane speedboat for the boys.
But as the years went by, the boys grew up and the Fetskes grew old. Bettina passed away first, and then, in 1994, Ernest. By this time, Dave Hyde, married and with a child, was running the Essex hardware store. Ned Libby, also married with children, was a tugboat captain on the Connecticut. But, of course, with Ernest gone, everyone wondered what would become of Brockway Island, now a very valuable piece of property. They didn’t wonder long. They soon learned that Ernest had willed his beloved island to Ned and Dave.
So the story didn’t end. Over the next dozen years, Ned and Dave, now with their families, continued to spend summer weekends out there. Since the original house had fallen into disrepair, they replaced it in 1994 using the same footings.
The house on the island today has a living room with woodstove, a dining area, a modern kitchen with gas appliances, two bedrooms, a modern bathroom with shower and bath, a loft area for additional beds, and large decks on two sides from which one can watch ospreys, eagles, and deer. Yes, a small family of deer enjoys summers on the island, too. Water is pumped via a solar-powered 12-volt battery system, much the same as on an RV or boat. Also, there are lots of things like lawn furniture, linens, dishes, a grill, a 7.5-kilowatt John Deere generator, and even a TV.
Of course nothing lasts forever. As older age became a reality and their grown children began doing other things on summer weekends, Ned and Dave and their wives, Carol and Maureen, decided that maybe it was finally time to pass their beloved island along to someone else. Which is where we came into the story …
“How much do you want for your Brockway Island?” we asked within minutes of settling down in the living room of Ned and Carol’s mainland house, in the town of Deep River (a few miles upriver from Essex).
As Ned was about to answer, Dave Hyde stopped by, and the answer to our question was delayed while the four of us enjoyed coffee and fresh blueberry muffins. On all the walls around us were paintings, photographs, and beautiful models of tugboats, including, of course, the one Ned had owned for many years. It’s now in Maine–still working, he said.
Why weren’t we out on the island? Well, Ned and Carol’s home was a more convenient meeting place that day. Besides, we’d already come within 50 yards of Brockway Island, having passed by it on the RiverQuest, a comfortable cruise boat out of Essex that we’d recently been on.
“Coming up on our port side is Brockway Island,” the captain had called out over the loudspeaker. “The only island house for sale on the river–and a licensed seaplane station, too.” Of course, our moseying hat is always on. So we took photos of it and then scrambled up to the bridge, where the captain gave us Dave Hyde’s number at his hardware store. Voilà.
“How much?” we asked again, this time to both Ned and Dave.
“Nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine,” said Dave with a wink over at Ned.
“He means we’re asking just under a million dollars,” explained Carol. Would they take less? It was hard to tell from the amused look on the faces of these two lifelong friends. So we switched to another practical question: “How will the new owners get out there? Does a boat come with all those nines?”
“Well …” Ned replied slowly, “Dave has a couple of boats and so do I. I guess we could come up with something.” And he added that the island is only about a 10-minute boat ride from several marinas and yacht clubs. Getting out there isn’t going to be a problem.
Last summer Ned and Dave rented out the island for the first time, and it was rented again this summer, too. But now it’s the fall of 2009. What’s next? Well, who knows? Anyone ready to write a new chapter in the Brockway Island story?
Read more: Explore the Connecticut River Tidelands