Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Healthy Rivalry: Evolution of New England's Secondary Urban Centers

Boston has always been first and foremost among New England cities. Her one-time colonial rivals: Newport, Portsmouth, New London, and Norwich are comparatively inconsequential today. Occupying secondary status beneath Boston and above small
municipalities and the larger towns, are Springfield and Worcester, Massachusetts; Manchester, New Hampshire; Providence, Rhode Island; and Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut. Historian Bruce C. Daniels (New England Nation, The Connecticut Town: Growth and Development, 1635-1790, and Dissent and Conformity on Narragansett Bay: The Colonial Rhode Island Town) argues that they “represent the long-range success stories of New England’s urban history: of the nearly 1000 towns founded in the colonial period, they (along with Boston, of course) were the ones to grow and become major entrepôts in the twentieth century, while others grew relatively less, grew and declined, or did not grow at all.”

Worcester is a poster child for central place theory. There is little else in its history to
suggest it would ever become an important city. Deserted twice and utterly destroyed once before 1713, by 1790 Worcester was a typical farming community. But it did have two factors in its favor: first, it was centrally located between Providence, Boston, Hartford and Springfield, and it also lay on the “country road to Connecticut.” Geography lent crucial commercial value to Worcester’s property. Also, its central location in Worcester County made it the judicial center and county seat of the region. Court days were accompanied both a holiday atmosphere and the presence of men of significant wealth
and power, important community boosters that would contribute to the eventual rise of Worcester. The startling changes in Worcester's courthouse from 1732, when it was a simple Georgian-style single story to the 1830s, when it had become a sprawling Greek Revival compound, speaks volumes about the changing fortunes of the community.

Settled in 1636 as an outpost of Connecticut, Springfield, Massachusetts got off to an earlier and far more ambitious start than Worcester. The success of Springfield resides
with founder William Pynchon, whose vision turned a fur trading post into the economic powerhouse of western Massachusetts. The decline of the fur trade in the 1650’s did little to slow its growth, as mills, mines, factories, ironworks, were all in operation soon after the town was founded. But an early rise did not guarantee Springfield long-term supremacy over the Connecticut River Valley. Springfield faced internal division typical of many New England settlements. The town split into two parishes in 1704, and by the Revolution four new towns formed from outlying districts (the bounds of the original town actually encompassed all or part of what are today Westfield, Southwick, West Springfield, Wilbraham, Ludlow, and Longmeadow in Massachusetts, and Enfield, Somers, and Suffield in Connecticut). By 1790 Springfield’s population was less than that of either West Springfield or Northampton, an ambitious town twenty miles to the north on the Connecticut River. While one of these centers would likely come to dominate the upper Connecticut River Valley, it was not clear that center would necessarily be Springfield.

Unlike Springfield, both New Haven and Hartford always dominated their respective areas. Even after the colony of New Haven was absorbed into Connecticut, both communities retained political clout as co-capitals and the seat of their respective counties. New Haven had been founded by a group of wealthy merchants for the express purpose of establishing a commercial center, while Hartford’s Puritan ministers and merchants enjoyed a central location among Connecticut’s founding settlements. New Haven’s harbor and Hartford’s location on the Connecticut River were the keys to their commercial growth. Both were incorporated as cities at the same time in 1784, and by 1790 both had become bustling, urbane communities.

Several other Connecticut towns experienced rapid growth. Middletown, Norwich, and New London had all caught up with New Haven and Hartford by Washington’s first inauguration. But no one could have forecast the future importance of Bridgeport, which did not then go by name Bridgeport, or even legally exist until 1821. But the farmers of “Poquonnock” had considered themselves a separate entity from neighboring Stratford and Fairfield as far back as the 1650’s. The road to their eventual independence began when Poquonnock was incorporated as an independent ecclesiastical society in 1694 and changed its name to Fairfield Village. Over the next century, the community underwent several more changes in name and political status. In 1790 Newfield, Connecticut had a population 3000; its village center provided a tavern and home to number of part-time artisans’ shops. More important to the eventual rise to urban status, the community’s outstanding deep-water harbor, a resource that went unnoticed during the colonial period, was only dimly grasped for the first time during the Revolutionary War. It is unlikely anyone would have ever predicted this Connecticut hamlet would outshine every other major Connecticut center its rapid economic development.

In Rhode Island, Providence played second fiddle to Newport throughout the colonial period. Twenty miles closer to the Atlantic trade routes than Providence, Newport’s real rival was Puritan Boston; and the combination of location on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island and its religious tolerance gave Newport a significant edge over both Boston and Providence (see image left, Library of Congress. Call Number G3774.N4A3 1878 .G3.) As long as the overland road system in Rhode Island remained undeveloped, settlers preferred rowing or sailing to Newport for their goods than traveling overland to Providence. However, by the 1790s, Providence was poised to surpass Newport, whose fortunes crashed when the British occupied and destroyed it during the Revolutionary War. Providence was a far more secure port during the war, and the improvement of overland roads convinced merchants even before the war broke out, particularly the Brown family, which of the two cities to invest their fortunes. When the rest of Rhode Island balked at ratifying the Constitution, Providence threatened to secede from the state to access the economic stability promised by the new national government. By 1790, Providence had a bank, an impressive array of shops, the only college in Rhode Island (Brown University) and had developed its own commercial contacts reaching all corners of the globe. When Providence extended a series of turnpikes across western Rhode Island and into the unserviced hinterlands of Connecticut and Massachusetts (see map, below), the entrepôt became the central place for large swaths of all three states.

All roads lead To Providence

In New Hampshire, the odds-on favorite would have been Portsmouth as the most likely to succeed (see photo, left). The only relevant port north of Boston, by 1790 it had over 6000 residents, a vibrant merchant community and shipbuilding industry, and was both the first settlement in New Hampshire as well as its capital. Instead, the vision of Samuel Blodgett would lead an insignificant village called Derryfield (with a population of only 362 in 1790) to surpass Portsmouth as the primary central place in New Hampshire. Blodgett, described by one neighbor as “demented old man bent on squandering money that would profit no one.” Yet Blodgett imagined that Derryfield could become “the Manchester of America” if only a canal were built around the nearby Merrimack River rapids, rendering the river navigable to shipping. Upon Blodgett’s death in 1807, Derryfield was still just a small village on a costly canal. Yet Blodgett’s farsightedness eventually brought economic prosperity and urban prominence to his once skeptical neighbors, who in due course changed the community’s name to Manchester, as he had suggested.

Manchester, New Hampshire

All seven of these cities had geographical advantages that aided their development, but so did many other communities that never grew into major urban centers. Political forces and early settlement are two other important factors yet they are also not the sole determinant, as Bridgeport and Manchester had neither distinction. Natural and man-made transportation systems also played a significant role in the rise and fall of New England's central places. Individual initiative was another key to the success of all these communities -- exceptional individuals like Moses Brown, William Pynchon or Samuel Blodgett, group efforts by the Puritan merchants that founded New Haven and Hartford played key roles as well. However, of all the key characteristics of successful cities, this might be the most impossible to quantify of all, only serving to remind us it is the very unpredictability of the human venture that makes history such a fascinating business. Bruce Daniels reminds us that while “urban development between 1790 and the twentieth century seems smooth and organic, the inevitable quality of this evolution is a trick played on us by the arrogance of hindsight.”


Bruce C. Daniels, “The Colonial Background of New England’s Secondary Urban Centers,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Volume 14 No. 1 (January 1986).

NB: A version of this article also appears in the August 2012 Hinterlander, the monthly newsletter of the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Adventures in Archiving: A Letter From Gull Rock

I am back at work on the archiving project at the Paine House Museum (when I am not teaching, that is), after getting some advice about how best to proceed after the newspapers have been removed from the rest of the collection. The newspapers have been carefully taken off the floor and removed from piles of other documents, and
organized by title inside two plastic bins, a temporary measure until we get acid-free storage boxes. I also began labeling boxes and organizing materials according to type -- there is now a box for letters, a box for loose papers (handwritten), a box for loose papers (typed), a box for WRICHS papers, a box for Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHPC) papers, and a box for account/record books and diaries.

So far, I have been able to find almost all of the newspapers in the Library of Congress collection, though at least one title (Inside) is not in their collection at all. Others are going to require me to open them up and look for publisher information; I only want to handle them one more time, when I put them into permanent storage boxes. Most are from the twentieth century -- a record of particularly momentous national or international events like the JFK assassination, Eisenhower's inauguration in 1953, or the Soviet invasion of Hungary in '56. There are others that relate more closely to the local history of area, and some date back as far as the 1880s:
The Evening Star (Peekskill, NY)
The Farm Journal (Philadelphia)
George Washington Bicentennial News (The Alexandria Gazette, Alexandria, VA)
The Home (oversize)
Mirror and Farmer (Manchester N.H.)
New England Homestead (Springfield Mass.)
North Country
Pawtuxet Valley Daily Times (West Warwick RI)
Providence Evening Bulletin (Providence RI)
Providence Evening Telegram (Providence RI)
Providence Journal/Providence Sunday Journal (Providence RI)
The Providence Star-Tribune (Providence RI)
The Observer (Greenville RI)
Our Young People (American Baptist Publication, Philadelphia PA)
The Reminder (Coventry RI)
The Rhode Islander - Providence Sunday Journal Magazine (Providence RI)
The Springfield Newspapers
The Stars and Stripes (Washington, D.C.)
Thoroughfare Celebration in the Shepard Stores - advertisement (Providence RI)
The Young Ladies Bazaar (Chicago IL)
The Youth’s Companion (Boston MA)

As far as advice how to begin with the preliminary organization of the rest of the collection, I emailed Lori Urso and talked with Patricia Ahl, and Eleanor Langham, the Director, Librarian & Archivist, and Museum Assistant, respectively, at the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society. Lori forwarded some pictures I sent her to Patricia and warned her I was coming with questions about the library at WRICHS. After Eleanor looked at the pictures she assured me she had seen archives in far worse shape, and suggested that she would start by organizing things into boxes by types of materials. Patricia added that if more records come to light providing accession & donor information or other provenance, that would be helpful, but for now the important thing is to find out just what we have in the WRICHS library and put like things with like. Even though they are light-years ahead of WRICHS at Pettaquamscutt in terms of organization, they are still dealing with the same problem of materials "found in collection" -- boxes filled with "stuff" that comes with little or no information as to what's inside or where it came from.

So the methodology I will follow for organizing the WRICHS collection, to go back to the Basics of Archiving course, is by "Types of Materials" where
Records are divided into groups based on what they are--correspondence, diaries, photographs, and minutes, for example.
Should topics begin to emerge within or across types, that will be a further means to differentiate materials. Whenever there is any semblance of provenance or of original order, I plan to keep it, simply storing for now items in the groupings and the order they are in when they are grouped in some order. A priority that has emerged from the most recent WRICHS meetings and work on the collection policy for Paine House Museum (a whole other blog post on that is in the works) is finding all the records having to do with the Society itself. So much "institutional history" took place before any of the present members and volunteers became active that, until those papers are reorganized and gone through, the WRICHS has little sense of its "institutional self" -- we have little idea of what "we" did before we got there, if that makes any sense.

I also asked the folks at Pettaquamscutt about cataloging software (and when I spoke with Kirsten Hammerstrom at Rhode Island Historical, she gave me pretty much the same
advice); for now I should just enter basic information into an Excel spreadsheet. Most software that we might eventually use (PastPerfect, CollectiveAccess) is compatible with Excel, and any database I create now in Excel could be easily exported at some point in the future. I had already started listing the newspaper collection into a Word.doc, so I had to transfer the information over to Excel, but fortunately I hadn't gotten too far with the Word catalog. After an hour or so of copying and pasting, all the newspapers were re-cataloged in Excel.

After that, I took a bundle of news papers I had noticed in a stack of other materials last time I was working (left, the bundle is just visible in the pile to the left of the chair, in the yellow circle) and brought it out to the work table. This looks to be the last of the newspapers that were in the piles on the floor, though there are a few more on the bookshelves, and no doubt some still lurk in boxes I haven't yet looked in. These newspapers were inside a deteriorating paper bag and tied with string. On the outside of the bag were written the words: "The Story of the Hurricane of 1938." (below)

The newspapers, all copies of the Providence Journal, the Providence Evening Bulletin or the Providence Sunday Journal, ranged in date from September 22, 1938 (the day after the 1938 Hurricane struck) to October 9, 1938. For the first few days the headlines were all related to the storm: "Hurricane Kills At Least 125 In State" on September 22; "71 Dead, 57 Missing in Westerly…Villages Vanish; Coast Changed" on the 23rd; "Toll of Hurricane Reaches 300" on September 24. But a few days after the disaster, alongside the reports of the storm damage and the cleanup were stories of an escalating crisis and the possibility of war in Europe. The Czechs were balking at Hitler's demand for the Sudetenland on September 27th, 1938, but over the next several days "The Big Four" weighed in, appeasing Hitler and trading the Sudetenland (and in the spring of 1939, the rest of Czechoslovakia) for 11 more months of peace. For October 3, 1938 the headlines read "Sudetens Welcome Hitler."

Meanwhile Rhode Island continued with its clean-up efforts; on September 28 sharing the headline with "Hitler Agrees to 4-Power Talks" was "One Giant WPA Plan to Clear State Charted."

But as I took each paper and cataloged it I discovered, in the midst of "The Story of the Hurricane of 1938" collection, a folded letter whose letterhead identified its origin as from Little Compton. Along with the letter was a small square of white paper (right), on which is stamped "Town of Wareham Selectman's Office September 30[?] 1938," and written on it is "Pass to Onset Edward Tourtellot and Party of Four. Officer Reidy."

Onset is a village (and a beach) in Wareham, Massachusetts; Onset Bay lies off the coast of Wareham and opens up to Buzzards Bay and out to Rhode Island Sound (Onset is labeled B on map). Wareham is at the exact opposite end of the stretch of coastline that begins with Little Compton (labeled A on map). From Little Compton the coastline curves east and north until it reaches the isthmus of Cape Cod, opposite the Elizabeth Islands and western block of Cape Cod. In a hurricane storm surge, the coastline and islands would funnel the stormwaters in Buzzard's Bay higher and higher until they reach the end of the funnel. There lies Onset.

The letterhead on the paper the letter is written upon has printed in a neat maroon font:

      Gull Rock                -               Little Compton                -               Rhode Island.

The letter itself reads:
Sat. Eve.

Dear Fora [Sara?],

Quite a lot has happened since I saw you. I thought Wed. I would go out in the Atlantic house and all. Three or four times perhaps more, the ocean came under my front door, lucky the door held. I was busy mopping floors and window sills. My front screen door was damaged, half dozen or so shingles torn off below living-room windows, garage doors blew off, well curb blew over.
My house escaped but you should see my yard in front [page 2] sand and rocks. bayberry bushes. bathing house door, large rocks brought up right to my front door Moved those large boulders I had for a wall half way across the front lawn.
If you came down now you wouldn’t see any Warren’s Point bathing beach or “break-water.” All houses down and from breakwater. Big fishing bldg went floating up the river with 3 people or more in it. several drowned. Two houses next Stone House collapsed.
I had 2 suit-cases packed and planed to move up to Lowe-Smith’s [Love-Smith’s?] if I had to get out. [page 3] Richard sad I was crazy to stay in the house as long as I did. Said I wouldn’t have had a chance to get out if a wave came large enough it would pick the house right up.
To-day I came nearly setting the house on fire, melting some paraffin to cover orange marmalade. Went out to speak to mail-man, came back the kitchen was ablaze, sauce-pan ad probably tipped and wax had fallen in oil burner. I turned off burner singed my hair and dropped sauce pan on floor. I’ve been having a heck of a time I’ll say.
[page 4] coming down Wed. nite Richard had to jump from his car just below Stone Bridge. He took the road near the water thinking there would be trees falling on the highland road. A large wave came and turned the car over. He was up to his waist in water. Left the car there. The wreckers brought it down the next nite. I don’t think its any good now. It had floated down the river some distance from where he abandoned it.
Yesterday his riding-horse was taken sick. We went for veterinary said sleeping-sickness so he had to be shot. This is all I can write now as I want to write my cousin in Middleboro[?] whose sister lives in Wareham also hard hit


[in the top and side margins on page 1]
I wondered how the Nickersons at the cape[?] fared. Hope you can read this scrawl.

[in the top and side margins on page 2]
You can still get here by machine, coming around by Stone House & over Lloyd’s hill but not Warren’s Point way but it is pretty rocky going in places.

Based on the evidence in the letter, Elizabeth had probably gone to her "Atlantic house" on Wednesday September 21, 1938 without knowing that a Category 3 hurricane was approaching the coast. She was familiar enough with Richard that he was most likely a relative of Elizabeth -- a cousin, son or brother, or even possibly her husband. Conditions were still so bad Wednesday evening that Richard's car was rolled over by a wave while he was driving to Gull Rock. Both were fortunate not to have been swept away in the storm.

My father had related similar stories of his experiences in the 1938 Hurricane to me since I was a kid. He was 13 in 1938 and living in Fishtown, which was once a village outside of Mystic, Connecticut (at present there seems to be little left of Fishtown other than its old cemetery). The day the '38 Hurricane struck, as my father recalls, school let out a bit early once the teacher realized a bad storm was brewing. Before he got home, my father said the water flooding the road to Fishtown was up to the front sprocket of his bicycle and he was pedaling in a foot and half of water. A passing delivery truck stopped and the driver yelled for my father to get in. The driver threw my father's bike in the back of the truck, and delivered him safely home. Then the storm really hit. The old farm house, built in 1721, weathered the storm with some minor damage, but my father, my grandparents and my Uncle Walt (my grandmother as it happened was also very pregnant with my Uncle Bruce in September 1938) watched on as the wind blew the roofs off two barns, then tore the barns right off their foundations and rolled them across the yard.

I attempted to locate "Gull Rock" on maps of Little Compton, including this one from 1925 that the Little Compton Historical Society has "zoomified" on its website, but not that map nor any others I have looked at has a location marked Gull Rock. Based on Elizabeth's descriptions, it was probably not far from the beach since waves reached to her front door and rolled her stone wall around. There are other clues in her letter too -- Stone Bridge, for instance, and Lloyd's Hill, that might help piece together where in Little Compton Elizabeth and Richard weathered what has been described as the worst hurricane to strike New England since the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635. Elizabeth's letter, dated only "Sat. Eve.," was probably written on Saturday September 24, 1938, and the pass from the Wareham selectman, appears to be dated September 30, which was the following Friday (the day that the Providence Journal reported "Czechs Accept Big-Four Terms"). Likely there is a connection between the reference to Wareham in Elizabeth's letter and the document from the selectman's office -- had they heard from Elizabeth's cousin or her cousin's sister? Conditions in Onset were bad enough that selectmen had apparently closed off access to the area without their permission. And speaking of the selectman's pass, why is this with the letter sent from Little Compton? Was Fora (or Sara) one of the "party of four" led by Edward Tourtellot that traveled to Onset on that late September day, and who later bundled together all the newspapers, the letter and the pass and gave it to the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society for posterity?

Altogether, there may be enough to eventually identify who Elizabeth and Richard were; the one clue that would almost certainly have identified everyone involved -- the envelope the letter was mailed in -- was not with the letter or in the newspaper collection. Someone at the Little Compton Historical Society might be able to help piece this mystery together. As far as the person the letter was addressed to -- Fora, or possibly Sara, the WRICHS records in the PHM library might have clues as to who that might have been. I also have a feeling that this discovery is only the first of many just waiting inside the next box or under the next pile of documents in the WRICHS archive... For now, just that we know that that we have this letter is an important first step in organizing this collection.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Remembering (and Forgetting) General Isaac P. Rodman

In little less than a month Americans on the other side of the survey line separating Maryland from Delaware and Pennsylvania will mark 150th anniversary of the Battle of Sharpsburg, better known on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line as the Battle of Antietam. Exactly one month from now and 150 years ago, Rhode Island Civil War General Isaac P. Rodman (left) lay dying, mortally wounded leading a bayonet charge late in the afternoon of September 17, attempting to prevent the Union's left flank from being rolled up at Antietam by the forces of Confederate General A.P. Hill.

Isaac Rodman, a native son of South Kingstown, Rhode Island, was the highest ranking officer from Rhode Island to fall in the Civil War. Antietam National Battlefield had "Rhode Island Day" on August 11, 2012, and held a memorial to General Rodman. The Pettaquamscutt Historical Society, which is planning to open an exhibit in remembrance of General Rodman on September 17, currently has a display at the visitor's center at Antietam that features "General Rodman's sword and the photograph from which the
posthumous formal portrait was painted (which is on a wayside on the Battlefield), and Patrick Lyons photograph and his diary opened to the entry about discovering Rodman had been mortally wounded" (quote and photo of the Rodman display at Antietam National Battlefield courtesy of Lori Urso, director of the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society; Lori has also posted on the PHS website an account of her visit to Antietam last summer retracing General Rodman's footsteps at his last charge at Antietam). Thousands of visitors this summer will see these relics of Rhode Island history and reflect on the sacrifice made by Isaac Rodman and the 52 other Rhode Islander's who also died at Antietam in "the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with about 23,000 casualties on both sides."

Isaac Rodman was born in South Kingstown, RI, in 1822, and save for the last 15 months of his life when he served in the Union army, he lived his entire life there. Rodman came from solid New England stock. His first American ancestor, Dr. Thomas Rodman, was a Quaker from Barbados who arrived in Newport in 1675 as King Phillip's War was about break out. His son, Thomas Rodman Jr, was also a doctor. He moved to Kingstown to take up residence on 1000 acres of land the town of Newport had gifted his father for his services as a doctor. Thomas Jr. died in 1775, exactly one century after his father had arrived in Newport, and the year that the American Revolution broke out.

In 1799, Isaac Rodman's grandfather Robert married into the Hazard family, South Kingstown's pioneering industrialists. Isaac Rodman had himself been named after Isaac Peace Hazard, who had taken over the Peace Dale mills in 1819 with his brother, Rowland Gibson Hazard II (after whom Rodman's younger brother was named for). In 1835 Isaac's father Samuel Rodman bought the small mills at Rocky Brook in South Kingstown
just to the north of Peace Dale, and there rebuilt a single, more substantial mill seat. Samuel Rodman's mills manufactured woolens and jean cloth for southern markets, and Isaac entered into the family business by managing the Rocky Brook Store, selling dry goods and textiles to the mill hands and local neighborhood (ads are from the Narragansett Times, January 14, 1860). By this time Samuel Rodman had followed his wife Mary (née Peckham) into the Wakefield Baptist Church, and Samuel had become a staunch supporter of the local temperance movement. Despite a long family association with the Society of Friends, Isaac and his brothers and sisters were all raised as Baptists.
In the 1840s, like their namesakes the Hazard brothers, Isaac and his brother Rowland became textile manufacturers, entering into a partnership with their father that was called S. Rodman & Sons.

Along with managing the mill, in 1847 Isaac married Sally Lyman, the daughter of former RI governor Lemuel Arnold and entered into town politics shortly after. Isaac and Sally had seven children between 1848 and 1860, and Rodman served on the school committee from 1849 to 1854, and again in 1859. In 1856 Isaac was appointed to the board of trustees of the Wakefield Institute for Savings Bank, and was also appointed director of the Wakefield Bank. That same year S. Rodman & Sons bought the Wakefield Mills from Stephen Wright, a South Kingstown blacksmith who moved west in the 1830s and after the discovery at Sutter's Mill in 1848, struck gold himself by setting up the very first bank in San Francisco. Wright had decided to move back to California, and the Rodman's took over his industrial holdings. Isaac Rodman ran for town council on the National American Party ticket and won in 1858, winning the second highest number of votes that year. He
led the effort to organize the Narragansett Library Association and build a library in Peace Dale on land donated by the Hazard’s. Rodman organized the Wakefield Trust Company around this time. In 1859 Rodman canvassed the town’s voting list, apportioned the town’s highway tax, made out the list of jurors, and at the June town election was voted both auditor of the town treasury and first tax assessor (see June 1859 town election results, above). On April 4, 1860 Rodman was elected state senator for South Kingstown, and town moderator at the November 1860 town meeting.

Had the Civil War not interrupted, quite likely Isaac Rodman, a well-regarded South Kingstown businessman and politician, would have continued his cursus honorum, perhaps entering (like his colleague on the town council, Elisha R. Potter, Jr.) into state and national politics. That he might have lived to see his great-grandchildren and the first decades of the twentieth century is good possibility too; he certainly came from long-lived genes. In an age before modern medical procedures and antibiotics, his male ancestors going back to Dr. Thomas Rodman all lived at least to age sixty; some had even made it into their late eighties and early nineties, and his father lived to age 82. However, as the United States slid inexorably toward Civil War in the late winter and early spring of 1861, Isaac Rodman arrived at the sudden, fateful decision that the only option left to defend the Union was to take up arms. He burst into the office of Rhode Island's secretary of state and demanded that the Narragansett Guards, South Kingstown's long-defunct local militia, be resurrected. At the company's first drill on April 19, 1861 Rodman was voted its captain. In late May, S. Rodman and Sons went into receivership; orders of negro cloth had come to a halt in the wake of southern secession, and the Rodman's lost their Rocky Brook mills as well as their factories in Wakefield. At the June 4, 1861 town meeting, Isaac Rodman’s last official act for South Kingstown was to submit his audit of the town treasurer’s account to the town meeting; later that morning he said goodbye to his wife Sally and led what had now become Company E of the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment to the Kingston Station. A little more than a month later, at the First Battle of Bull Run, Rodman led the Rhode Island company in a desperate bayonet charge not unlike the one at Antietam that would take his life fourteen months later .

Above: The Battle of Antietam. Rodman's final maneuvers in the battle are on the lower left. Attribution: Map by Hal Jespersen,

Below: The officers of the 1st Rhode Island. Isaac Rodman is leaning against the tree; Ambrose Burnside is sitting to Rodman's lower right.

The Battle of Antietam was a turning point in the Civil War. Though General McClellan's inexplicable caution during and immediately afterward have led military historians to deem the battle a tactical draw at best, the fact that Lee
left the battlefield first meant that the North had won a strategic victory, as Abraham Lincoln had been waiting for just such a victory to unveil a piece of critical policy. On September 22, even as Isaac Rodman lay dying in a field hospital from a Minié ball that had torn through his left lung, the President acted on the basis of a Northern victory at Antietam to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This transformed the Civil War from a limited war to restore the Union to a total war on the institution of slavery and upon the southern plantations that were the economic engine of the southern war effort. The Proclamation also made it all the less likely that the public in France or Britain would support their government's involvement in a war to preserve Southern slavery, and neither would enter the conflict on behalf of the Confederacy. Less than a year later on July 4, 1863, dual Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg all but sealed the Confederate's fate.

Isaac Rodman returned home to a hero's welcome. Flags across Rhode Island were lowered to half-staff, and his funeral was held in Providence's State House, the first time that the capital had been used for a public funeral. Newspapers across the state devoted their front pages to detailing the somber ceremony. Senator Henry Anthony delivered these words for Isaac Rodman's funeral oration:
“Here lies the true type of the patriot soldier. Born and educated to peaceful pursuits, with no thirst for military distinction, with little taste or predilection for military life, he answered the earliest call of his country, and drew his sword in her defense. Entering the service in a subordinate capacity, he rose by merit alone to the high rank in which he fell; and when the fatal shot struck him, the Captain of one year ago was in command of a division. His rapid promotion was influenced by no solicitations of his own. He never joined the crowds that throng the avenues of preferment. Patient, laborious, courageous, wholly devoted to his duties, he filled each place so well that his advancement to the next was a matter of course, and the promotion which he did not seek sought him. He was one of the best types of the American citizen; of thorough business training, of high integrity, with an abiding sense of the justice due to all, and influenced by deep religious convictions. In his native village he was by common consent the arbitrator of differences, the counselor and friend of all.”

- from Robert Gough, "South Kingstown’s Own," page 84

In the town clerk's office at the South Kingstown Town Hall, a large brass plaque commemorates Isaac Rodman and the men of South Kingstown's Company E, many of whom had worked for Isaac Rodman in one of his textile mills before the war. I had idly glanced at the plaque many times when signing in and out of the town records' vault during my MA research, noting the familiarity of many of the names (including Isaac Rodman's) in the town records, but usually giving little thought to the larger historical importance of Isaac Rodman or his men to the Civil War effort. Thinking back on my education, not once did Isaac Rodman's name come up in a high school discussion, not even in college history courses I had taken at URI. Indeed, even the academic building named "Rodman Hall" on the Kingston campus is named after some other Rodman, as it turns out. Isaac Rodman's sacrifice, like many other important pieces of South Kingstown's past, has been all but forgotten by both his town and his state.

Rodman's body was brought back to South Kingstown, and he was buried less than a mile
from the Town Hall in the Rodman Family Cemetery (South Kingstown Historic Cemetery #30). Local veterans and then the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) Post in Wakefield held graveside memorials every year until, in the early twentieth century the G.A.R. post closed and the veterans of the Civil War died off. In the intervening years, the Rodman lands have been sold and resold, and the hill-top cemetery where General Rodman is buried is now in the midst of a large gravel operation (below). The current Google Maps image of the site (left) was likely taken in the winter or early spring of 2012; the General's obelisk casts a long thin shadow on what appears to be open ground. A visit to the Rodman Cemetery last month however, revealed the extent of the neglect of the final resting place of Rhode Island's only Civil War general killed in the line-of-duty.

The view of the cemetery from the satellite shows that the owners of the gravel operation have purposely left area around the cemetery site alone. However, what is made clear from space is even more evident on the ground -- the excavations have so thoroughly isolated the Rodman cemetery that it has essentially been forgotten. When the General was interred, the landscape around his grave site would have been mostly (if not entirely) cleared off. The view from Rodman's final resting place was of fields and pastures dotted with farmhouses and barns, crossed by lines of fences and ribbons of dirt road leading to nearby clusters of mills houses around textile factories. But the trees have since been allowed to fill in the area between the cemetery on the hill and the villages of Peace Dale and Rocky Brook, to block the altogether unattractive view of an industrial gravel operation.

I had never been to Emmet Lane or the Rodman Cemetery before, and PHS director Lori
Urso and I went there to scout out the feasibility of holding a graveside memorial she would like the historical society to officiate for General Rodman next month. The basic outlines of the Rodman property emerge from a visual survey of the nearby streets on Google Maps. The cemetery is about one-quarter of a mile north-east of the site of the former mill seat of S. Rodman and Sons (left, known now as the Peacedale Mills Association); two mill ponds still flank the mill site, which is directly across the street from where Rodman Street ends at Kingstown Road (RT. 108). Further south of the cemetery is Kersey Road, named after the coarse slave cloth that was a staple of South Kingstown's textile business up to the Civil War. To the west of the cemetery is Samuel Rodman Lane; Lori also pointed out two houses in the area that once belonged to the Rodman family.

At one time passers-by would have seen Rodman's obelisk from half-mile away or more; now it is almost impossible to see the monument from inside some parts of the cemetery. Briars, poison ivy and dense thickets of brush have taken over, and in places the foliage has gone so long there are now trees grown nearly as tall as Rodman's obelisk. The rest of the General's family is faring almost as well. The markers for Samuel Rodman and Isaac's brother Rowland (himself a Civil War veteran severely wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg) are both overgrown with brush and poison ivy; foot-stones peek out from under thick tufts of grass and knots of weeds. Clearing the site is made all the more difficult because beside being on top of a fairly steep hill a thousand feet or more from the nearest road, the cemetery's wall also lacks a gate or entry-way in which to bring in mowers or other landscaping machinery.

Below: views of the southern approach to Isaac Rodman's grave site.

View of Isaac Rodman's obelisk from the north.

Headstone of Samuel Rodman, Isaac Rodman's father and owner of S. Rodman & Sons.

Headstone of Rowland G. Rodman, Isaac Rodman's brother and Civil War veteran.

Foot-stones of veterans.

The view looking toward Peace Dale from atop the southern wall surrounding the Rodman Family Cemetary.

The task of a late-summer clean-up is well beyond the capacities of a push lawn mower that could be easily handed over the wall. A machine like a DR brush-cutter or even a (very carefully driven) tractor with a brush hog would be the best way to clear the brush and vines from the site now. The problem is there is no way to get such machinery over the substantial four-foot walls. An professional-strength "weed-whacker" equipped with a circular saw blade and a chain saw would be the heaviest equipment that could feasibility be brought into the site. Cutting down all the brush and trees and then hauling all the debris over the wall would take a crew of workers several days or a week at least to accomplish. A boy scout troop has expressed interest in cleaning up the cemetery but all pledges aside, I doubt they are truly prepared for the amount of work this project will take. It remains to be seen whether a graveside memorial that could be open to the public on September 30 is going to be feasible, or if it will be held "at your own risk."

General Rodman's epitaph.

Text Sources

John Russell Bartlett, Memoirs of Rhode Island Officers who were engaged in the service of their country during the Great Rebellion of the South (Providence, S.S. Rider & brother, 1867). Also available electronically on the Internet Archive.

Kathleen Bossy and Mary Kean, Lost South Kingstown: With a History of Ten of Its Early Villages (Kingston: Pettaquamscutt Historical Society, 2004).

J. R. Cole, History of Washington and Kent Counties, Rhode Island, Including Their Early Settlement and Progress to the Present Time; A Description of Their Historic and Interesting Localities; Sketches of Their Towns and Villages; Portraits of Some of Their Prominent Men, and Biographies of Many of Their Representative Citizens (New York: W. W. Preston & Co., 1889). Also available electronically on the Internet Archive.

Robert E. Gough, "South Kingstown’s Own: A Biographical Sketch of Isaac Peace Rodman Brigadier General" (2011). Special Collections Publications. Paper 20.


Monday September 17, 2012, on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society (in Kingston RI, at the old Washington County Jail) opened an exhibit remembering the life and sacrifice of Isaac P. Rodman that will run through November 17 (the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 PM). Rhode Island Public Radio also aired a piece on remembering both the Battle of Antietam and General Rodman. Reporter Flo Jonic interviewed Pettaquamscutt director Lori Urso as part of the piece and made mention of the exhibit.

And most importantly, exceeding all my expectations to the contrary Kingston Troop 1 quite successfully cleaned up the Rodman Cemetery on Saturday September 15.

Kudos to boy scout Joshua Beck and his team for leading a herculean effort -- what a transformation!

(Photograph and text courtesy of Lori Urso and the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Adventures in Archiving: Where to Begin?

I have more than just a passing interest in the science (or art?) of the archive, the result of spending countless hours in town hall vaults, libraries and archives while researching my MA thesis. I have seen a wide range of efforts at preservation, organization and access to materials, and I have become a true believer in the power of digital tools to improve access, analysis, and preservation of historical materials. Now that I have finished my History master's I haven't ruled out going back for my MLIS in the conservation and preservation of historical documents. When I joined the Western Rhode Island Civics and Historical Society this year, at the first meeting I attended one of the tasks planned for this summer was inventorying the Paine House Museum in preparation for application for a CAP Assessment. I immediately volunteered to catalog the library and organize the manuscripts in their library, as an opportunity both to help out the WRICHS and to gain some first-hand experience in archiving before investing in an advanced degree in the field. After the May 22 meeting, some WRICHS board members took me for a tour through the house, and I got a first look at the library: two rooms on the second floor of the Paine House piled with printed books, papers, manuscripts, newspapers and other documents.

When I began working in the library yesterday, I quickly realized the scope and complexity of the task ahead of me. The materials had never been cataloged or given accession numbers. Essentially it was a tabula rasa -- as was I, since I had never cataloged or archived anything, years of researching in libraries and archives notwithstanding. It all seemed rather daunting -- where to even begin?

But, between May 22 and yesterday I had taken "The Basics of Archives," a distance learning course offered by the American Association for State and Local History. Gwenn Stearn at the Rhode State State Archive was kind enough to send me the course on a CD-ROM, courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Records Advisory Board.

My notes from the BACE course offered this sage advice on arranging manuscript collections under two guiding principles:
Provenance: the practice of keeping groups of records together based on who created them.
Original Order: maintaining records in their original order reveals how the creator used the records.
Next the BACE suggested that I look for "Collections and Series," and gave advice for the following three scenarios:
Case 1)
The records are well organized, record series are easy to determine, and the arrangement necessary seems almost obvious.
Case 2)
The records are relatively organized, but more work needs to be done to analyze collections and record series.
Case 3) The records are a mess.
I went with Case 3. BACE supplied me with two possible scenarios for Case 3 collections:
Scenario A: You can identify records series
Scenario B: You cannot identify series or original order
As I looked at the piles of newspapers and scrapbooks on the floor, loose papers on shelves and piles of books, manuscripts in boxes on chairs and under a 48-star US flag, it was clear that the original order for almost everything save some of the shelved books had been lost long ago. Provenance might be locatable in WRICHS meeting records dating back to the founding of the Society in the 1940s, but I'll need to find those first (they are probably somewhere in these piles of papers), and then read through them all before I will know whether that information can be recovered for any of these other documents. BACE suggests that
In these cases you may be forced to create an order for the records. Archivists generally arrange these kinds of collections in one of four ways.
• If you must impose an order on the records, pick one of these arrangement schemes and stick with it.
Types of materials
• Records are divided into groups based on what they are--correspondence, diaries, photographs, and minutes, for example.
Functions or roles of the creator
• Records are divided into groups based on activities. A college professor’s papers might be divided into personal life, teaching and research, professional service, and community service.
• Regardless of the type of record, everything is placed in chronological order.
• Topics are identified and the records grouped by topic. The topics should reflect the person’s life or activities—not the subjects the archivist thinks people will want to research because research trends change over time.
So I would need to impose some semblance of order on the collection. Two concerns immediately arose. First, the BACE course had red-flagged the potentially destructive presence of paper and especially newspaper in a collection.
• Paper created before about 1840 was made primarily from cotton and flax rags turned into pulp. This paper is strong and quite stable. When stored correctly, this paper can last for hundreds of years.
• After 1840, modern paper production used trees as the source of pulp. This paper produces acid when exposed to air and moisture.

Newsclippings within a Collection
Newspaper is particularly unstable due to the large percentage of acidic ground wood pulp in the manufacturing process and the lack of protective alkaline buffers.
• The best way to save your old newspaper clippings is to make photocopies onto good quality archival paper and discard the originals.
• Old newsclippings can contaminate other records around them because the newsprint is highly acidic.

A conversation back in June with Kirsten Hammerstrom, the Director of Collections at the Rhode Island Historical Society, only reinforced my suspicion that my first task should be to catalog and isolate the newspaper collection. So the safest place to start seemed to be with the newspapers, and I began cataloging and storing the newspaper collection. I am sure there are more buried under things I haven't moved yet, but all the newspapers piled on the floor under the west window
have been gathered and temporarily stored in open plastic bins lined with acid-free tissue paper.

I came back today and worked for a few more hours. I had picked up some storage boxes, and brought those in. I cleared everything out of what had once been a pantry except for some maps on one of the shelves that are in such fragile condition I don't dare move them for the time being. I tidied up the random piles, and took out some empty cardboard boxes that are really just garbage, leaving them to be "de-accessioned" by one of the board members. I also removed the 48-star flag and the table from the middle of the library space. The table fits perfectly in the now-cleaned-out pantry, and may make a good work space once I get going again. It is possible to walk across the room once more.

But my second concern. I want to talk to people with training and expertise in this area, to find out how in a general way they might impose some semblance of order on the materials, before I do something that would be difficult or time-consuming to undo later on. In the meantime, I have gotten a start on what looks to be a lengthy and quite interesting project!

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Brief Intermission

The past several weeks have been incredibly busy -- so much so I have not had the time to finish the several articles I have begun for this blog, which are all currently in various stages of incompletion. The end of the school year, always a busy time, has become increasingly backloaded with testing and portfolio assignments. Along with the usual end-of-year work at work I have also been busy with several work-related initiatives, from successfully meeting the objectives established for my evaluation this year under the new state mandated system to participating in the state panel that met last Monday June 4 at Rhode Island College to expand the History GSEs (Grade Span Expectations) to include geography, economics, and culture. The group I worked with completed a draft for grade 9-12 geography. (All those years of teaching middle school geography finally paid off!) This summer, if the state can find PD funding for us, we'll reconvene to work on the economics and culture GSEs. The underlying theme of all that work was of course the Common Core -- we used language from the Common Core History/Social Studies Standards where ever possible so we won't be re-writing the GSEs again in a couple of years when the Common Core hits... I also have a "brainstorming" session to revitalize the Rhode Island Model Legislature program coming up in about a week. Myself, state coordinator Joe O'Neil and a number of the other high school advisors will look into how we can return Model Legislature to its former greatness. The Pettaquamscutt Historical Society is holding its annual meeting on June 20--this past Friday the Pettaquamscutt hosted Lindsay Leard-Coolidge's most informative lecture "A Sense of Place: The Painters of Matunuck, 1873 to 1941" at the Hale House, about the impressionist painters colony established by William Weeden and E. E. Hale in late 19th century Matunuck. This was also the first time I have been inside the Hale House since the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society renovated and opened the house to the public.

Finally, the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society June meeting is coming up June 26--which reminds me! I have some phone calls to make and information to put together before that meeting...a future blog post on the details of our summer's work there is in the pipeline too.

I also graduated on May 17 with my masters degree in history -- I found it somewhat odd I was the only Rhode Island College MA history student to graduate in either the August 2011, January 2012, or May 2012 semesters -- when I first started there were at least dozen students pursuing the thesis-optioned MA in history. Talking with my thesis advisor Dr. Ron Dufour this past spring, he prophesied that the History MA degree at RIC would likely be phased out in the next few years... I wonder too what effect the proposed replacement of both the Board of Governors for Higher Education and the the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education with an 11-member k-20+ Board of Education is going to have on ALL public education in Rhode Island.

On a lighter note, I walked into a CPT meeting last week and discovered the History Department got a delicious cake last week to celebrate my graduation and another department member's successful acquisition of the guidance position she has been working toward for about as long as I've been working in my thesis. Cake is good!

The kids have been very busy with softball, swim and dance, which means Tara and I have been busy since none of the people can drive themselves yet to any of these activities. But this is the last week at work -- major course assessments for seniors finished last week and underclass exams are this week. Light at the end of the tunnel! Next week, Inara will turn 4, on the same day that the 2011-2012 school year will come to an end. Huzzah!

Everyone has been working hard on the garden. Tara has done much of the work this year, and it's entirely to her credit the garden is doing very well. We still need to plant some hill vegetables and tomatoes and maybe some peppers if we can find room. The legumes and lettuces are all starting to come up. We are also doing two farm shares this summer (I feel a juice fast coming on soon!) Just this past weekend we located several sources of locally-produced chicken and beef, which I intend to write more about in a future blog post.

Finally, in what I interpret as a good omen for the yard and garden this summer, yesterday morning we discovered an eastern box turtle sunning itself on the front step. The turtle became very curious of me sitting in his (or her?) vicinity and tried to crawl up -- first my shoe, then the steps -- to get a closer look at me. Kitty Man then became very curious of the turtle, but Tara shooed Mr. Man off before any possibility of a Cat vs Turtle war tournament could break out in the herb garden...and at that point the turtle took leave and very quickly hustled off.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

"I Am Providence" - Reflecting on the Legacy of H.P. Lovecraft (or lack thereof)

Phillip Eil's feature on H.P Lovecraft this week in the Providence Phoenix poses the question -- are Rhode Islanders finally ready to recognize Providence-born H.P. Lovecraft's legacy as a horror writing hero? Given Lovecraft's contribution to the genres of science fiction and horror, his affinity for New England in general and Providence in particular, it's odd that Providence (a city which since the 1990s prides itself for its attention to culture and the arts) has done...not much in promoting itself as Lovecraft's hometown. Eil's article points out that beyond Lovecraft's grave site (right) and a plaque at the John Hay Museum (quoted below), there are no other memorials to Lovecraft anywhere in Providence. Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, even Robert E. Howard and Zane Grey are among the long list of literary figures that have museums or houses devoted to their memory. It is time to establish a similar historical institution devoted to H.P. Lovecraft. I argue that if such a museum were to be founded anywhere on Earth (other than beyond a nameless mountain range in Antarctica), it should be in Providence, Rhode Island.

The dearth of a official plaudits is not for lack of local enthusiasm for Lovecraft. Donovan Loucks, who operates the extensive (and award-winning) website, The H.P. Lovecraft Archive, has identified all the relevant Lovecraftian sites in Providence and a walking tour designed to take aficionados to see them.

For a few years local fans also ran the aptly named NecronomiCon, but it fizzled when the organizers apparently burned out after running the Lovecraft memorial every odd-numbered year from 1993 through 2001. Lovecraft's birthday is still celebrated annually with visits to the Ladd Observatory and graveside readings by Lovecraft stalwarts.
I never can be tied to raw, new things,
For I first saw the light in an old town,
Where from my window huddled roofs sloped down
To a quaint harbour rich with visionings.

Streets with carved doorways where the sunset beams
Flooded old fanlights and small window-panes,
And Georgian steeples topped with gilded vanes—
These were the sights that shaped my childhood dreams.

                        - H.P. Lovecraft, XXX. Background, Fungi from Yuggoth                         (Appears on Lovecraft's Memorial Plaque, John Hay Library, Providence RI)

Lovecraft clearly loved the old colonial architecture of Providence's East Side, aptly described here in a poem that was otherwise an ode to fungus on a gigantic trans-Neptunian world. At right is the house on Angell Street in Providence where Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 (image from The H.P. Lovecraft Archive). What a beautiful old Victorian house! Unfortunately it was torn down in 1961 -- it would have been perfect for a Lovecraft museum . Luckily there are many other locations with a "Lovecraft" connection in Providence. It is time for a concerted effort to establish a an H.P. Lovecraft museum or house in Providence, preferably somewhere connected to his life or his writing, if that is possible. I think there is sufficient interest to support a Lovecraft museum from the "sci-fi and horror communities" and knowledgeable tourists looking for something interesting to see while in Providence. Given the current state of the real estate market, there will never be a better time to move forward with such a project.

I also think that along with celebrating the originality, the brilliant eccentricity of Lovecraft's writing, that the numerous criticisms leveled at him should be part of the exhibit as well. While some might argue against celebrating the work of someone who was clearly as racist as Lovecraft, presenting Lovecraft's less savory aspects in the context of his times should be part and parcel of the exhibit. America at the time of Lovecraft's writings was easily as racist as he was, nor was antisemitism confined only to Nazi Germany. Attitudes toward the aboriginal peoples around the world (with the exception of anthropologists and a few enlightened missionaries) mirrored Lovecraft's label of "savages." These aspects of his writings and personal beliefs are just as important to providing a complete picture of Lovecraft and early 20th century America, just as the inclusion of Sally Hemings at Monticello is vital to the understanding of Thomas Jefferson and the late 18th century. Lovecraft's foibles provide a "teachable moment" for those visitors who come because they wanted to visit the museum for the author of the "Cthulhu Mythos," but when they would leave they would have an increased understanding of what America was like 75 to 100 years ago, and how far it has come since then.

That others find his writing sophomoric should not inhibit our efforts to establish a serious institution devoted to Lovecraft either -- haters gonna hate. Even as Lovecraft biographer L. Sprague de Camp described Lovecraft's prose as "turgid, verbose, and overwritten," it was a far more charitable assessment than what Colin Wilson and other critics had to say of Lovecraft's stylings of the otherworldly. But despite numerous naysayers, H.P. Lovecraft has had an indisputable impact on modern media and popular culture -- from the movie Alien to Stephen King and Clive Barker to Metallica and even French philosophers -- promoting Lovecraft as a favorite son can only have a positive multiplier affect on the cultural cachet of the capital city.

In a state where some residents were half-serious when they proposed that the Big Blue Bug represent the Rhode Island on the state's quarter, it's time for Howard Phillips Lovecraft to take his rightful place as a literary icon of the state.

But the stream of Time, swift flowing,
Brings the torment of half-knowing --
Dimly rushing, blindly going
      Past the never-trodden lea...

-excerpt from "Despair", poem by H.P. Lovecraft (February 1919)

Lest we fall into despair at the horror of our past...

(image of a not-so-invisible whistling octopus after all from