Between the early days of commercial chewing gum popularity in this country and the crushing success of “Jaws,” there is a connection in Stonington, as straight and direct as the causeway across Little Narragansett Bay.
The common ground is Elihu Island, a 30-acre tract in the bay. It’s also been known as Ledward or Ledward’s Island, Elihu’s or Elihue’s Island, Elihu Chesebrough’s Island, and Freeman’s Island.
A debt of gratitude here to George P. Bates, of Weston, Mass., whose “History of Elihu Island,” written in 1996, has been indispensable to this discourse.
In July 1924, William W. Ledward sold the island to Robert W. Johnstone, then of Glen Ridge, N.J., for $12,500. About the same time, Johnstone also purchased what he called South East Point. The land, later known as Salt Acres, is across the bay from the island; the causeway was constructed by Ledward’s uncle, George Ledward, after he bought the island from the Chesebrough family for $1,500 in April 1870.
Johnstone, born in 1870 in Huntsville, Ala., was a businessman and manufacturer in New Jersey. As a teenager, to help support his family, he had worked in New York as a runner for a stock brokerage. At the time of the island transaction, he was operating Chicle Products Co.
His passport, initially issued in February 1919, was amended and renewed that October, according to a family history cited by Bates, “for the purpose of traveling to Great Britain and France on commercial business, specifically for the sale and purchase of crude rubber for the manufacture of chewing gum.”
“Our Family History; Johnstone, LeGrand, MacGillivary, McLaren,” published by Helen Johnstone Rose in 1981, says that Johnstone used gutta percha residue to make chicle. Eventually he produced chewing gum from chicle under the brand Mo-Jo. Chicle, the history explains, is the coagulated milky juice, or latex, derived from trees found in Mexico and Central America. Apparently it was first imported to the United States as a substitute for natural rubber.
Online sites offering vintage products and images of early 20th century Americana show a glass dispenser for Mo-Jo “pure white chewing gum,” dating to 1916 and the Chicle Products Co. labels for the gum, one featuring the head and paws of a tiger, with a squirrel on one side of its head and a parrot on the other.
“The business became very successful and employed up to 19 persons,” reads the family history. “The raw material cost two cents a pound, and four cents per pound to process the raw material. It sold for 50 cents per pound.” The business eventually moved to a new factory in Newark, N.J.
In an article in 2009, Smithsonian Magazine reported that by the 1920s, the average American chewed 105 sticks of gum per year, “creating a massive demand for chicle.” Johnstone’s business was thriving, but he did not enjoy his prosperity for long. He died in December 1926, at age 56, while in Ottawa, Ontario, likely from a heart attack.
“The secret of how to make chewing gum died with him,” according to the history. “Consequently his family could not benefit from the successful business he created.”
In the months before his death, Johnstone had been busy trying to shop one or another of this recently purchased properties in Connecticut. According to Bates’ history, in March 1926, Johnstone tried to persuade the Wadawanuck Club, the private yacht club in Stonington Borough, to buy South East Point and relocate there. The Wad Club had set itself up at the end of Stonington harbor, adjacent to the railroad tracks.
“In talking over the matter at home the suggestion was made, owing to the absolutely certain congestion that will be faced by the Club within a short time, and the very evident advantages of South East Point as home for the Club, would it not be well to place the matter before the Club before we became entangled with any negotiations for the sale of the property,” Johnstone wrote to club’s leadership on March 10, 1926.
Johnstone offered to sell the property to the Wad Club “at the actual cost to me whatever that may be at the time it is taken over.”
He persisted, without much headway, until the day he died. The next year, in August 1927, Johnstone’s widow, Caroline, conveyed Elihu Island to Clayton E. Freeman and his wife, Winifred B. Freeman, who were neighbors of the Johnstones in Glen Ridge but apparently hadn’t known them. Salt Acres stayed in the Johnstone family, which put down roots in the community. One of Johnstone’s sons, the late David M. Johnstone, was first selectman of Stonington in 1959-61, and also served the town as selectman, state representative and senator. His bust, sculpted by his wife, Katherine, is displayed on the second floor of Town Hall.
After the Freemans died, the island was deeded, in 1966, to their three children: Barbara F. Biddle, Winifred Brownell Freeman, and Dorcas F. Wesson. It was transferred to a family trust — the Elihu Island Trust — in 1974.
Peter Benchley’s wife, Wendy, was a Wesson and the family divided their time between Pennington, N.J., near Princeton, and the island during the summer. Benchley, from a renowned literary family, was trying to make a living doing various freelance jobs. In 1971 or so, he pitched to publishers a book about a man-eating shark terrorizing a community. The idea was based on a report of a fisherman catching a 4,550-pound great white shark off Long Island.
According to legend, the publisher demanded that much of the initial submission be rewritten. As The Guardian noted after his death in 2006, “Benchley worked by winter in his Pennington office, and in the summer in a converted chicken coop on the Wessons’ farm in Stonington.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at email@example.com.