“A far-way place close to Connecticut:” What Block Island was and remains
In 1967, a travel writer visited Block Island. The writer worked for The Providence Journal, and like all reporters in the United States at the time, saw his nation divided on many social and cultural fronts. Newspaper reporters had their hands full in the summer of 1967 as civil unrest exploded across the nation’s major urban centers. In June, race riots engulfed Boston, Buffalo, and Tampa. In July, neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, and Newark
burst into flames. Over the summer of 1967 more than 150 riots transpired in American streets. Television screens across the nation revealed nightly, all-too-familiar scenes. Billowing smoke pouring into the skies above major cities and National Guard troops rushed in, attempting to restore order. This is the complicated context for this travel writer’s 1967 visit to Block Island that makes his take on our community so special. He wrote, “The hotel we stayed at bore hand-lettered instructions on the door, telling the off-season visitor how to get in in case it was locked.”
These nuggets of wisdom are the result of a small volunteer army this community had in the 20th century. Armed with nothing more than a pair of scissors and a keen eye for reading, if Block Island was mentioned in a newspaper or magazine, for good or ill, a clipping was born. One individual in this army for decades was Kathryn Champlin, who acquired a collection spanning a range of publications. Clippings document a range of diverse topics connected to our community including airplane crashes, travel pieces, controversies (literally decades worth) over the renting of mopeds, celebrities visiting the island, and construction of the sewer system in the 1970s.
I am cataloging these clippings as I spend my first winter on Block Island in 15 years. Transformations that have taken place on Block Island certainly stand out as more pronounced to me, compared to those who have been here continuously since 2007. Somewhere in my mind this past busy summer, in remembering my first summer days on Block Island of 2000 and 2001 with no high-speed ferries, I thought that while the summer visitation had increased in 20 years that the slowness of my past winters would be exactly the same. As the weeks into fall advanced, I kept waiting for signs of indications of the approaching quiet winter months. However, relatively busy traffic on Dodge Street
continued in the weekdays of November and December.
Walking to the bank from the Historical Society, I could not “look” to cross the street using my ears (simply listening for engines) as in my winters of 2005-7. Weekdays in December revealed visitors pulling baggage down Water Street. Astronomically expensive vehicles cruised into the Transfer Station on four rims and tires more expensive than any automobile I have ever purchased (to be fair to these drivers I have devoted my paid professional life to history).
And yet, this is still a pretty amazing community to be a part of. While changes have transpired these are more incremental as opposed to societal. The Halloween fiesta hosted at the Old Town Inn on Old Town Road was beyond incredible and made me feel like I was eight again. The Christmas tree composed of lobster pots is a stunning feat of community mobilization. The Island Free Library continues its unparalleled commitment to the community, with not only top-notch library services but a range of events for individuals of all ages, including a fantastic holiday community gathering.
In what other community can I walk
into the airport, talk with an actual human being working for an airline, and make a flight reservation by then simply writing my last name on a sheet of paper for the noon flight the next day? Or, where else can the entire fourth grade class simply leave school by walking downtown to visit the local museum for a tour? Not many.
We live in a community with an active senior center, which on Tuesdays puts together an amazing lunch and get-together of socializing. Tuesday nights, after my required taco at the Old Island Pub, have presented me with numerous surprises with all the opened businesses on Dodge and Water Streets. The Tourism Council’s lighting of the Christmas tree in front of the Baptist Church was such an event that even Santa Claus made an appearance. And, in what
other community can you attend a piano recital and hear third graders playing Beethoven? Carrie Todd, and her students, continue to demonstrate the power of music during the holiday season. It was especially nice to see maskless people again gathered around trays of cookies and a bowl of punch.
Another clipping from Block Island’s volunteer army of archivists from 1965, in describing our community, reads, “Block Island: ‘a far-way place’ close to Connecticut ….” While it is all too easy to reflect on these observations of Block
Island in the 1960s and long for a return to the days of when June and September were considered off season, this island remains an amazing place to live. While past images of Block Island certainly invite a nostalgic take on what has changed, in many communities, images taken 60 years ago would bear no visual connection to what exists at these locations today. While change has taken place, in my humble opinion, this is “still a far-away place close to Connecticut.