On the corner of...

Wrecking Cloth Dress
Fri, 03/31/2017 - 11:15am

Ed. note: The Block Island Historical Society was founded in 1942. To help celebrate its 75th year, the Society’s Diamond Anniversary, The Block Island Times will be publishing sketches and photographs of items in its collection. For those interested in joining or donating to The Block Island Historical Society, please visit blockislandhistorical.org.

The number of ships fetched up on Block Island shores can be misleading; many vessels were re-floated and sailed away on the next tide, their cargo intact.

We know the ultimate fate of some that did smash on the rocks. The building on Ocean Avenue that currently houses Offshore Properties was built in part from the wreckage of the Spartan, as the Big Barn at Lewis Farm was from the Jacob S. Winslow. Timbers hauled off the beach became beams and sills in old houses, still bearing silent witness to another era. 

Some cargoes were precious. The contents of a coal ship kept island families warm one winter with the rare luxury of hard, hot-burning coal. 

A whole generation held the collective memory of the aftermath of one wreck: paper labels identifying the contents of cans of food tossed into the sea floated off, so: “You never knew what was for supper!” a child of that time recalled.

Found pieces were saved for use: blocks and tackle for boats and barns, and even the odd piece of china for the table; or, for remembrance, hinges from the Larchmont, a maritime disaster recounted on the front page of The New York Times.

The Warrior, a tall two-masted schooner which drove ashore on the long bar of Sandy Point in 1831, was another vessel truly wrecked. Some crew members perished and are buried in the local cemetery under a monument telling their own tragic story. 

Legend has it, some of the cargo of the Warrior became part of our lexicon. Yard goods, spread to dry on a hillside that gave it the look of a quilt is known today as Calico Hill.

One of the founders of the Historical Society recalled her grandmother speaking of material stamped in a “Mincemeat” pattern, a small red-brown print alternating with plain stripes of brown, recognizable from household to household. One year dresses, including one made with this “wrecking cloth,” were on display in a room in the museum with a view of neighboring Calico Hill, a fanciful connection across time on the corner of past and present.