The first island newspaper
Trivia question: What was the first newspaper on Block Island?
Answer: The Block Island Star, copies of which were discovered by island resident Chris Blane. Blane found the newspapers one day when he was cleaning the attic of the home his mother Edie Blane grew up in.
“In March of 1987, I moved to the family home where I grew up. The house was built sometime in the 1860s, when my great-grandparents married. Bringing stuff from my old house was a problem and made me really pare things down. There was lots of cleaning and rearranging during the spring and summer. When fall arrived, I finally went up to the attic where things had gathered for generations. While cleaning the attic I came across a dusty pile of legal papers, handwritten in Palmer style. They were copies of the first newspaper, The Block Island Star.”
The Block Island Star began in the mid 1870s by Blane’s late family member Adelaide Smith, and her friend Mary Conley, who both hand wrote pieces for their newspaper at a young age. Blane noted it was unclear how many years the two women published their handwritten articles.
“My great Aunt Adelaide had teamed up with a friend to publish the newspaper. Only this week did I discover the name of the friend - Mary Conley. Adelaide was the editor, who was known as Addie. These girls were in their early twenties and they took the handwritten paper to sections of the island and read it at gatherings. I think Mary Conley was a teacher at the East Greenwich Academy. Adelaide may have taught on Block Island. I do know that both of them died in their 20s,” said Blane.
Conley and Smith would go to various locations on the island, and read their writings out loud to members of the community.
“They had no location, no printing press, and would hand write out their writings, reading their written articles to the public. It’s interesting to read the style they wrote in,” said Blane.
In the introduction to The Block Island Star, Adelaide Smith introduces the paper with a brief passage, and signs off as Editrese Addie Smith:
“A weekly paper, published in the interest of the New Shoreham Literary Association. Devoted to amusement, instruction, and moral improvements. Advertisement solicited and inserted at the lowest rates, as this paper has the largest circulation of any paper published on the Island. It is a favorable medium of making your business and wants known to the public. – Editress Addie Smith”
Smith’s writing style is evident throughout. In an editorial, Smith addresses the news of the day.
“In reading the first paper before this society, I invite your attention in the first place to the material improvements which have been made on the island during the past few years. With the first certainty that a Breakwater was to be built here, that the long talked of, long wished for harbor was assured, real estate increased in value, trade started up with renewed vigor, men put their hands into their pockets and drew them out full of money, put them in deeper and drew them out again, fuller than before, convinced that improvements on real estate would pay, not only in convenience and beauty, but in greenbacks. Trade was no longer confined within the narrow limits of home consumption but spread out in a manner our ancestors scarcely dreamed of. Many buildings have been erected, our roads are, we are told, being improved — they surely ought to be — and many physical and material achievements are to be witnessed on every hand. In the efforts to succeed in these physical and materials effects, we have, it is to be feared, overlooked mental and educational improvements, for it is just as necessary that we should keep pace with the times mentally, as materials, and the rising generations will be poorly fitted to cope with the increased cultures of the outside world, if it enjoys only the advantages, which our fathers had. The writer is glad to observe that the public sentiment which rendered the success of an advanced select school possibly, has in a measure arisen to the necessity of the hour. It is sincerely to be hoped that the interest — which has been exhibited will increase, as otherwise it will diminish as it is impossible for such a sentiment to be stationary. We welcome this Lyceum then, as a valuable and efficient aid in carrying forward the good work so efficiently begun. We shall endeavor to make it interesting to all – young and old – grave and gay. Here will be combined instruction and amusement and both season by a little wholesome excitement. The questions debated will be usually live questions of the day, in which all have a personal interest, and the assistance and cooperation of all, both in debate and in contributions to the Lyceum paper, is invited and desired.”
Throughout the papers, Smith and Conley report on stories, offer personal accounts and write poetry. Conley wrote a poem on an eagle; the theme of which was living a free life in the land of liberty. Here it is:
The Imprisoned Eagle set Free
Upward the Eagle takes its flight,
And soars to other realms away,
Seeking beyond the bounds of earth
The spot where Freedom holds her sway.
While shut within those prison walls,
Its lofty spirit pines the more
For its high home afar from man,
Where birds of tireless wing do soar.
Go, bird of the unnerving eye,
Fit emblem of a nation’s heart,
Go to the eyrie mid the wilds
Which doth thy fearlessness impart.
Go roam amid thy feathered bribe,
And seek no more the hands of men,
Thou feared not the vultures’ head,
Nor the fierce lion in his den.
Go where the radiant sun on high
Doth pour its genial rays around,
Where Freedom from her mountain height
Upon a fettered world looks down.
There make they home thou fearless one
Mid scenes that saw the natal horn,
Rocked by the tempest and the storm
Thou learned to lest the whirlwind’s power.
Proud bird, forget thy fettered hours,
Amid those senses so wildly grand
Stand forth in all thy native power
Thou chosen emblem of our land,
Whose hills and vallies, woods and streams,
Grand and majestic rise, like thee,
Great among nations now she stands
The home of peace and liberty.
Smith shares a more personal account on the discussion of animal cruelty, highlighting the importance of public activism and using each person’s voice to create a conversation:
“Wanted — to establish a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals at whose meetings can be discussed the propriety of chloroforming pigs before they are struck, and the practicability of preventing pain to fowls, which occurs when their heads are cut off by allowing to live forever if they will.”
In a time where women were confined to certain domestic duties, and assigned to roles based on their gender, it was not expected or acceptable for women to speak their minds.
Smith and Conley’s knowledge and attitude in creating a newspaper as a format for their stories and ideas, was a break in society’s expectations towards women.
“It is amazing to read the few issues I saved,” said Blane. “What spunk they had to think of doing it.”