Candle in the Window

Thu, 12/24/2020 - 5:15pm
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With this dark year coming to a close, the Historical Society launched a last minute effort to brighten our building and our corner, with sponsored battery-operated candles (blockislandhistorical.org for further info).

I was reminded, again, of five years ago, when the Historical Society was approaching its seventy-fifth landmark anniversary. I was talking with now out-going Block Island Times editor, Lars Trodson, batting around an idea we had been batting around for some time, a little feature of various pieces in the museum’s wide and varied collection.

It was during one of the earlier conversations that Lars remarked upon the little organization’s founding in 1942, and the uncertain state of the world at that time.

It was a fact I had always known, I grew up hearing stories of first the founding and then the purchase of the Woonsocket House three years later. Still, it was a part of the fabric of a time in the shadow of war, always dwarfed by the impact on this tiny place of that global effort.

The most oft-told tale was of a meeting in Providence surrounding the securing of a Society home in 1945. My dad was able to get leave from his duty on a net-tender at the Groton Navy base and meet my mother, then living with her widowed father in Mansfield, Mass. It may have been one of those “what have I gotten myself into?” moments for her. “We were walking down the street on the East Side. . .” she would relate, expecting to attend a gathering of the Historical founders who were preparing to purchase the old Woonsocket House. They ran into a group my dad knew to be elders of the Baptist Church and, of course, stopped to chat. They were, they informed my parents, in Providence to attend the same meeting because they wanted to buy the same hotel.

“And your father laughed,” she would say, “He thought they were joking.”

The grand Baptist Church on Chapel Street had burned by that time, and the church records show there was significant conversation about how to proceed, to build a new building, to stay at the “temporary”Adrian Hotel, which they did own, or to try to buy another old hotel, a property upon which the Historical already had an option.

Small wonder my dad laughed.

The enormity of the initial founding was often lost to this-truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale, the high point of which was a lady banging the floor with her cane, her long earrings swinging, demanding of the Historical Society lawyer “What do you mean, young man, professed Christians!?”

A few years earlier, in 1942, the founders had felt they needed to move quickly, to create an organization that met the requirements of the will of Lucretia Mott Ball. It was 1942, the world was at war. On Block Island people had blackout curtains for windows facing the ocean, the Coast Guard had re-activated a Lifesaving Station in addition to the Station at the cut and Guardsmen patrolled the shore, walking the beaches and driving along the cliffs, always on alert for German U-boats. Goods were rationed here as they were everywhere. My stubborn Scots grandmother, widowed in early 1941, her sons going off to fight, had to carry a government issued ID card, and was hard pressed to abide by a dusk curfew.

The state talked of evacuating the island, the quick dismissal of which led to a January 1942 commendation by the House of Representatives, “extended to the citizens of the town of New Shoreham whose patriotic fortitude in rejecting proposals for their removal is a splendid instance of the inflexible spirit that made Rhode Island.”

How much the Depression impacted the Island beyond its already depressed state is arguable; the boom that had come with the building of the harbors had waned years earlier as means of transportation changed, crops that had been exported could as easily be brought from other parts of the country with mobile refrigeration.

The great hurricane of 1938 did great damage to the largely — if not wholly — uninsured fishing fleet, including a blow rarely mentioned, the ruination of the ice plant in Old Harbor. Already struggling farms lost barns and old orchards toppled.

Then came the war and the start of an exodus of scores of young men — and two women — going off to join the cause. 1942 had to have been a dark year, but the Historical founders had faith in a brighter future and they seized the opportunity to create at least an illusion of normalcy, perhaps their own way of keeping those home fires burning, that candle in the window.

We have weathered years much worse than 2020.

Thank you, Lars, for shining a light on that extraordinary 1942 effort in the context of its time, and giving me an ever deeper appreciation of all those upon whose shoulders we stand. On behalf of everyone at the Historical, thank you for all your guidance and perspective and encouragement over these past years