Some summer days I think I am like a stationary cab driver, offering history of Block Island to visitors who ask leading questions and seemed interested, a reaction that only encourages me.
It somehow wraps to the original town center being the literal center of the island for the first two hundred years after the European settlers arrived. “Town” was located at the crossroad of the main north-south and east-west arteries, at the foot of what is most easily called Airport Hill (it is usually easy to tell which ones want to hear Strip Gut). A memorial marker in the little green space across from the aptly-named Old Town Inn enumerates the variety of establishments, a district school for the lower grades and an island high school, library and town hall. There were stores, a pound, blacksmith shop, if I’m remembering correctly, and a church.
Then the government harbor was built and the center of commerce gradually shifted toward the Old Harbor. It is, I posture, why we have no cohesive town center, rather, instead of a white church and a village green, a we have church on a hill attached to an old hotel, above a green lawn and a park that exists
only because of a complicated family story. The library is where the man who left his family house and land and funding for a new building lived, by chance on Dodge Street. The public safety complex is toward the other harbor, on the site of a grand hotel that burned and was never rebuilt; the big burying hill,
once down “Cemetery Street” from the old center seemingly located, as it likely was, at least in part, for its view to the east.
There was a lovely hotel up the road, with a smaller annex and an incongruous grain grinding windmill in its yard, a place for summer vacationers to pose for the occasional photographer. The annex remains, one of the island’s beautiful, single-family mansard-roofed houses.
The church at the old center was not part of that older grouping; it was built after the congregation of another, on the side of Airport Hill, moved to Chapel Street then above the harbor. The repurposed church building at the old center wasn’t built until the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. My own theory, my admittedly very own theory, is that a new congregation was formed of folks who just didn’t want to move “downtown.”
The old town around it waned. The vacated church burned; the high school, library and Town Hall, all housed in the same structure, met a like fate on Halloween night in 1923. The newspaper account blamed a smoker.
Things scattered. The Clerk’s office remained in a private house, as it had been for generations; a library was re-established in rental space near the Old Harbor landing, as was space for Council meetings. High School met in the lower floor of the Masonic Hall on High Street, a place from which young men could run off at lunch and make 16 cents setting pins at the bowling alley down the street. It was a comment in my dad’s diary, certainly a Christmas gift by
the entries, fading away by spring but painting an interesting picture of 1930’s life, which it lasted. Unfortunately, it was years after his death before I ever
saw it, a boy’s chronicle of getting up, doing chores, going to school, missing the bus home and the like, but for these quirky little items like that 16 cents
which leaves me wondering whoever was bowling in the middle of the day?
Or, perhaps years after my death someone will find a diary in a box, confirming my theory on that church at the center...
This little thumbnail history of Our Town was prompted by the sky earlier, not the glorious rose gold that owned the northwest at sundown but of the eerier
bronze-gold in the southeast just before the latest little storm.
That district school at the center was only one of five that were slowly eliminated. By the time the high school was on High Street in the Masonic Hall only
two remained, the one at the center and the original part of the present Town Hall, the simple central piece housing the meeting room which anxiously awaits the return of live meetings.
Then the present school was built — not after the town turned down twelve acres of land, twelve acres they been gifted just west of Center Road for and
only for a school — on the corner of Payne Road and High Street, the little school near the old center was sold and the Harbor School remained in the ownership of the town.
I remember my parents going there to vote when I was very little and some old school seats and desks still in place; offices and regular office hours did not start there until the later part of the 1960’s.
It was, though, an open space for occasional exhibits, especially in 1961 when there was for a few days in August, an Arts and Crafts Show, sponsored by BIRA, part of the community-wide Tercentenary calendar. It was quite the exceptional experience, canvas upon canvas, most produced by summer residents, hung from what must have been panels set in place for that express purpose.
One day a lady who did watercolors put on an exhibition, for children, for everyone, I don’t remember, only that she worked on a painting, including a stripe
of before-the-storm bronze.
“You all know how a sky looks before a storm?” she asked and I, alone, seemed not to know. As she worked on the painting that near orange slash faded
until it was just a hint of an odd light but it obviously made an impression. Even all these years later, I remember that little bit of time, a magical moment of creation that made a lasting impression.
Tonight, before the storm, I was again reminded of that time.