Block Island’s rich history

Historical Society’s new exhibit
Fri, 07/14/2017 - 9:45am
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Historical Society Executive Director Pam Gasner reads one of the many plaques providing information about the Block Island Historical Society’s 75-year history. Photo by Lars Trodson

Twenty-five years ago, on the occasion of the Block Island Historical Society’s Golden Anniversary, Martha Ball, in her weekly column, wrote that “Organizations tend to be formed in reaction to a singular catalytic event or particular needs.” In the case of the Block Island Historic Society, the catalytic event was the death of Lucretia Mott Ball in 1941. At the time of Lucretia Ball’s death, there was no Block Island Historical Society to give her heirlooms to, so in her will she simply stated that they be given to a historic institution, “preferably in New England,” said Ball just this past week. The founding of the Historical Society is not just island history, it is also a personal story for Martha Ball: Lucretia was the second wife of her great-grandfather, Cassius Clay Ball.

The core of the current collection is, as Ball wrote in 1992, “a grandfather clock, a music box, and her own elaborate wedding dress, as well as furniture...” and other diverse items. Now, some of these very items are part of the latest exhibit at the Historical Society, curated by Gerry Abbott — a member of the Board, and assisted by Executive Director Pam Gasner — which is called “Surrounded by Sea.” The exhibit will be on display through the end of the 2017 season. The Historical Society is located in Bridgegate Square.

“This came about because of the 75th anniversary of the Historical Society,” said Abbott, who has been involved in the Society since 1982, when it was a youthful 40 years old. “We wanted to celebrate our history, which is an interesting history.” Included in the collection is a photo of Lester Dodge standing in front of a large boulder and two millstones on their sides, speaking to a small group at the Society’s at the dedication of the Society’s “Civic Center” historic marker on the corner of Center and Old Town Road in the early 1940s. One can imagine that the idea of founding the Historical Society was imbued with a much larger purpose. The group was engaged in preserving items that were emblematic of the American way of life at a time when that very way of life was threatened by enemies to the east and west. The founding of the Historical Society might then have seemed like something other than just a good idea; it might have felt like a moral imperative.

In 1945, the nascent Historical Society voted to purchase the building that is home to the Society today.

When Abbott got involved in the Society, he helped put together several exhibitions that were meant to showcase more of what was in their collection, in part because the upstairs rooms in the building were no longer being rented out.

Abbott worked with famed photograph preservationist Jose Orraca in New York and put together the “Block Island Images” exhibition in 1982. “That was the first exhibit in these reclaimed rooms on the second floor,” Abbott said.

“Surrounded by Sea” is much more diverse. There is everything from sheet music to a baseball uniform from 1945 — made of wool so thick and coarse one wonders how it ever could have been worn in summer. There is a map created by a cartographer who must have had so little interest in the island that it is represented as a shapeless blob (but noting that the island had no natural harbor). There is a lovely portrait of Gladys Steadman, which was painted in 1982 and was done to commemorate her work at the Society, which started at its founding. There is also a very beautiful painting by George McCord, an American artist from the Hudson River School of painting, called “Moonlight at Block Island,” and a 1940 photograph of a jammed New Harbor that also shows off something new in the fishing industry: motorized boats. 

On two floors, in the old Woonsocket House, as it was known when it was purchased near the close of World War II, is the ever-evolving, continually rich, history of Block Island.

For more information on the Historical Society, visit blockislandhistorical.org.