The entertainment center

Sat, 10/14/2017 - 7:15am
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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.

Today, people recognize the name Elizabeth Dickens, the self-taught ornithologist who recorded decades of avian activity from her home on the remote southwest corner of the island. She passed away in 1963, ending a life lived on land that had been in her family for generations. 

Herbert Whitman compiled a biographical sketch of Miss Dickens. He drew from her personal diaries — not the birding records which reside with the Rhode Island Audubon Society — and local remembrances of the lady who brought Bird Study to the local school.

She wrote of everyday events, weather, and neighbors, such as her student and friend, Bill Lewis, who, during WWII, unable to be home for Thanksgiving, arranged delivery of “12 American Beauty roses from Billy, who is in France.” Miss Dickens must have been relieved finally to write “Mr. Billy comes home from war.”

Bill recalled: “Back in the fifties, there was a terrible snow storm. We were without electricity for three weeks. I went to check up on Miss Dickens frequently. The snow was so deep that before I left I told my father I was going and if I wasn't back by a certain time he'd better come looking for me. I always found her doing all right, but on one occasion when I banged on the door I got no answer. I went around the house and looked in the window. There she was sitting by her oil lamp listening to her battery radio. The house was warm and comfortable and serene. She had everything she needed. She never had electricity and got her water from a well and a hand pump in the kitchen sink.”

He spoke of earlier years: “Around Easter time a bunch of us kids would take her a May basket and knock on her door. She always welcomed us and we'd go in for a party and I'd play the organ. She wasn't musical, but everyone had an organ or a piano in the house.”

It is that organ, which sat in the simple little Cape Cod house out on the windswept grassland, that now graces a front parlor of the Historical Society. It is a reminder of life in another century, before electricity and sound systems and internet, but with “everything” needed, especially, one imagines, when “Mr. Billy” sat down and played.