Knowledge of Pie

Thu, 10/24/2019 - 7:30pm

It is October and we are not on the edge of another storm, there is no gloom and doom in the forecast, at least for a few days. The clocks don't even kick back until Nov. 3 although these beautiful sunsets are already happening before six as it is.

And the Harbor Church has made it though another Roll Call Dinner.

The tradition, then a service and dinner and another service, began in 1900 when the church was on Chapel Street, where the Hendrickson House now sits. It was a grand structure, with a pipe organ and bell tower, built first as a non-denominational summer chapel for visitors, then adapted for winter use, hence the need for a heating system, hence the Roll Call fund raiser.

Unfortunately, that edifice burned to the ground in December 1944; that only it was lost on a windy night stands as a miracle.

There was nothing left of the building, even in the 1950's when my aunt's house, Chapel Cottage, across the street, was a frequent destination on summer nights, a stop on visits to the Harbor. That aunt bemoaned the loss of the old church, as did many of her generation, and insisted that Roll Call was never the same thereafter. I am sure it was not, especially at first, in the years the congregation argued about whether to build a new building or add onto the Adrian Hotel.

Last night, despite iffy weather, we had a wonderful turn out, the whole building seemed filled with the aroma of turkey and the knowledge of pie, with friends and fellowship, a respite to the world around us. It is hard to imagine it being any better.

People rarely look at the historic items in the case in the foyer — although one caught the eye of a curious child last night. I hurriedly speculated that the big key was from the old hotel that used to be the building in which we were standing, which caused confusion complicated by his grandfather joking “it was like a Ramada Inn.”

The oldest photos of the Adrian Hotel show an elegant building on a sloping lawn. The best accommodations back in the last 19th century would be Spartan by today's standards, the rooms small, the closets tiny, the bathroom down the long hall.

It was left to the Trustees of the First Baptist aka Harbor Church by the will of Lucretia Mott Ball. It was supposed to be an “old folks home” I remember people older than I stating with great indignation, as though they, personally, had been robbed. While the contention was manifestly absurd it never seemed worth the struggle to say “umm, that's not quite true.”

And explaining, which would entail acknowledging, Lucretia was against family policy.

A copy of her will, written in 1939, is, nonetheless, one of those things I have in my house, cluttering up the landscape. I had it first because I was on the Nathan Mott Park Corporation, created by that document to hold in trust forever, “my father's farm.” It was meant to be a park, Block Island's first true dedicated open space. A sizeable chunk of it was devoured by the airport; the endowment, significant at the time of her death in 1941, became insufficient to manage the land and, following lengthy negotiations, the remaining acreage was turned over to The Nature Conservancy and Block Island Conservancy, who were better suited to ensure the long term meeting of Lucretia's wishes.

I held onto the document because my family has been involved in the Historical Society since its inception a year after Lucretia died. It was a provision of her will that made a group of Islanders rally to keep here what might have left the the Island for a mainland institution. That a little museum would be established was beyond her dreams, held in check by reality.

There were other bequests, and — full disclosure — the basic disinheriting of my father's family, her late husband's grandchildren, a long and complicated story.

Oh, and the Old Folks Home? What she wrote, with the assistance of one Ivory Drybread, Esq:

“As a memorial to my late mother, Phoebe C. Mott, it is my will that said property shall be owned, managed, and operated by the Trustees of the First Baptist Church on Block Island as part of the charitable and social welfare activities of said church, by forever maintaining said property as a place where worthy persons of impaired or ill health, who would be benefited by a temporary stay in the health giving climate of Block Island, but are without the means to do so, may come for any or all of the resort season, either without charge or at reduced rates, as said Trustees may consider best. It is my intention and purpose that the property shall be operated only such part of the year as it has heretofore customarily been kept open and that it shall be conducted as a charity of the character indicated in so far as the income from the trust hereinafter provided shall permit, giving to said Trustees, however, the right in their discretion to adapt the charity to needs that may arise under changed conditions in the future.”

She was well aware the limitations of an endowment and she had witnessed enough in her life to know conditions do change, sometimes drastically.

And so they did, three years after her death when the Chapel Street church burned, “a total loss” that rattled the congregation of which she had been such a part.

Last night, watching the flow of people through the still-elegant one-time hotel foyer, headed for Roll Call Dinner, passing, whether they realize it or not, the portrait of Nathan Mott, for whom the park is named, and a plaque memorializing his wife, Phoebe, in whose memory the Adrian Hotel was bequeathed, it is hard to imagine Lucretia would be displeased.

Thank you, one and all.