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

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Mill Seat at Woodville - Vestiges of a "Liminal Village"

One recently overcast day, I clambered over a guardrail and over a quite rickety foot bridge in Woodville, RI and took some up-close pictures of the former mill seat there. This site is on my list of southern Rhode Island's "liminal villages" -- communities that straddle the border of two towns separated by a river, usually centered on a textile mill. Like the mill villages at Potter Hill, Burdickville, Usquepaug, Bradford, Alton, and Kenyon, the textile mill was located in one town while much of the mill housing was built across the river in the other. In the case of Woodville, the mill seat and (what was likely) the local store, tavern, and owner's house was in Richmond (see below) while much of the worker's housing was in Hopkinton.

Here are two photos I took of the mill seat late in the summer of 2007, when the Wood River was as low as I've ever seen it. On the right (or north) bank of the Wood River is Richmond; the left (or south) bank is Hopkinton. And yes, that is a goat grazing amongst the mill ruins all the way to the right. Some of the old gears are still plainly visible through the foliage in this photo from 2007 (below).
Based on the series of "For Sale" signs along the road in Richmond leading up to the Woodville Bridge, the entire corner (including mill seat, the old store, the owners house, and several other structures that make up the former mill compound) are currently up for sale. I decided then to stop and get a closer look of the ruins before any new owners come along and clear the old mill away...

Historically, these locales had been divided in the colonial era when the state of transportation made attending town meetings on the other side of swollen, icy rivers inconvenient and even dangerous. Colonial town records suggest that the bridges of the day were precarious and frequently damaged or destroyed in floods. These locations were often the seat for grist or snuff mills, and were only sparsely populated.

Prior to King Phillip's War, Rhode Island's towns were quite large (see map at left, Rhode Island Town's, 1675). Kingstown for instance encompassed an area of 240 square miles, and originally consisted of the present-day towns of East Greenwich, West Greenwich, Exeter, Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. The white population, by contrast, was quite small; by 1670 Rhode Island's entire European population has been estimated at slightly over 2100. The majority of Rhode Islanders at that time lived in a handful of villages and settlements that hugged the coastline of the tiny colony. When Rhode Island finally held its first census in 1708, the number of residents had increased to to 7100; by 1730 that number had increased to 17,000 (see Census of Rhode Island, 1865).

The process of carving smaller towns from the two large towns that made up the King's Province began in 1722/23, when residents in the southern section of Kingstown petitioned the General Assembly to partition the town so they might more easily attend to public business. The General Assembly tabled the petition for a session to allow Kingstown's northern residents to respond. But despite complaints from the residents of Wickford, the General Assembly replied that Kingstown was “very large and full of people so that it is convenient for the ease of inhabitants and dispatching business to divide the town” (see RI Laws 1730, page 126). In the spring of 1723, South Kingstown was taken from Kingstown and what was left became North Kingstown--which was allowed to keep Kingstown's original founding date as its own. (see map King's County, 1757, below)

This procedure set the precedent for creating new towns from old in Rhode Island. Twenty years later, residents from the western section of North Kingstown as also complained that it was difficult to get to town meetings in Wickford; in March 1742/43 the General Assembly created the town of Exeter.

Westerly was similarly carved up beginning in 1738. The eastern half of Westerly was divided into Charlestown at the Wood and Pawcatuck Rivers; a few years later the section of Charlestown north of the Pawcatuck petitioned to become Richmond when "evil minded men" from the plantation area along the coast "carried our meeting several miles from the center which we agreed upon" (Petitions to the General Assembly, Vol. VI, document 145). A decade later residents of northern Westerly petitioned to be divided at the Pawcatuck and became Hopkinton (which was separated from Richmond at the Wood River at what would become Woodville). The division of Westerly clearly illustrates the dilemma geographic barriers presented to remote members of the body politic. With the exception of the boundary between Westerly and Charlestown, every other division followed the contours of a river.

West Greenwich was similarly formed by petition in 1741, though East Greenwich was a special case. In the aftermath of King Phillip's War, the General Assembly set aside the northern section of the King's Province "for the accomdatinge of soe many of the inhabitants of this Collony as stand in need of land” -- which became the town of East Greenwich. (Bartlett, Rhode Island Colony Records, Volume II, pages 587-88). Since Kingstown was not a functioning town at the time (despite it's creation by the General Assembly in 1674), no one from there complained when East Greenwich was removed from its jurisdiction. In 1729 when the Rhode Island's county judicial system was established, East Greenwich was made part of Providence County. In 1750 it became the county seat of the newly formed Kent County.

Later, in the early decades of the 19th century, the grist and snuff mills at these river crossings were bought out by local entrepreneurs to build the first water-powered textile mills. What factors went into deciding which town the mill proper was to be built? Why was most of the mill housing often built in the town "across the bridge?" How for instance did residents decide where to build the local church? What attracted workers to settle in one mill village rather than another? How permanent or transient was the workforce? These questions for now remain unanswered. Answers to other questions about these liminal villages can be derived from what is generally known about 19th century American society. How was it resolved which town got the village post office? After the election of Andrew Jackson, the so-called spoils system determined the location of the federal post. In years that a Democrat was President, the post office was likely located in the business or home of a stalwart Democrat; when the nation had a Republican (or Whig) President, the post office was relocated to the shop of a similarly suitable partisan. Woodville's post office was established in 1853, and was closed down in 1925 (see R.I.H.S. Postal History), which provides us with some indication of the heyday for this particular mill seat. As for the taverns, their location was determined once the temperance movement began in earnest in the 1840s. If one side of the village "went dry," a grog shop would simply reopen on the other side of the village across the river, so long as liquor licenses might still be had there. Even if the town wasn't dry, town councils shared information with neighboring councils about "common drunks" who had been "posted" or banned from being sold alcohol within the town limits, so they would not simply carry on their dissipation in the next town over. In a liminal village like Woodville, the Hopkinton town clerk had only to cross the bridge to put the notice on the tavern door in Richmond to shut off the local tosspots.

To date, there has been little scholarly research done on the village at Woodville. The Rhode Island Historical Preservation Society conducted a preliminary survey of Hopkinton in 1976. A brief entry for Woodville Historic District notes only that it was:
A small settlement along both sides of Wood River, extending into the town of Richmond. There remains today in Hopkinton a group of five residences dating from the middle-to-late nineteenth century. One has been maintained; the other four are deteriorating. To the west are several other dwellings associated with the community, and an undistinguished mill is located along the nearby river. About 1666, when the area was part of Westerly, James Babcock, began the manufacture of iron and continued until his death in 1698; the business subsequently continued in operation as the "Lower Iron Works." In the 19th century the textile industry was introduced to Woodville. (1870 - Woodville, Woolen Mill, and several buildings.) (page 18)
But seeing as this is a liminal village, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Society's survey for Richmond, conducted in 1977, also reported on Woodville. It is somewhat more informative:
At Woodville (13), several miles downstream [from Hope Valley], a gristmill was established on the Richmond side in the eighteenth century. Later, Simeon Perry built a gristmill and also manufactured iron at "Perry’s Iron Works"--the lower works on the Hopkinton side. Subsequently, textiles were produced and iron manufacturing ceased. About 1861, a stone factory which manufactured socks was built on the Richmond side. A small community evolved along the river, at one time including the Woodville Seventh Day Baptist Church, built in 1847, and a railroad depot. Today, the mill, church and depot are gone, and there are few indications that Woodville was ever a manufacturing community; only a few houses have survived around the picturesque dam and falls. (pages 8, 10)

13. Woodville Historic District: An area along the Wood River in the western part of town. Industry began here with a gristmill on the Richmond side and an iron manufactory, begun by Simeon Perry, on the Hopkinton side of the river. It was then known as Perry’s Iron Works. In the middle of the 19th century a stone factory was built on the Richmond side, which later was run by the Rhode Island Hosiery Company to manufacture cotton and woolen socks. The village developed along both sides of the river, but the Hopkinton side grew faster and today retains most of the village structures. In Richmond there remains a dam and several early houses. (1831-Perry’s Iron Works.) (page 28)
The aforementioned short-line railway that connected Locustville and Hope Valley to the main Providence-Stonington Railroad at Wood River Jct. passed through the village to the north of the mill seat. As this map from Jim Spavin's model railroad site indicates, a second bridge was built over the Wood River to carry the train. According to my father (who moved to the area in 1940 when he was about sixteen), he and his friends would run behind the train as it left Wood River or Hope Valley and jump on, pretending to be Depression-era "hobos" riding the rails.

Many of the so-called "shoddy mills" stayed in business into late 19th and even early 20th century before succumbing to competition from the larger factories, which in turn declined with the rise of textile manufacturing in the Dixie Sunbelt. By WWII most were empty buildings. The Woodville Mill endured a few year after as a storage building for a local cloth and remnant merchant; the site has been abandoned now for decades. The larger concerns have been slowly dying too, one-by-one, over the past 30 years, killed off by cheap textiles from Mexico and China. The Charberts factory in Alton closed two years ago, leaving the textile factories in Kenyon and Bradford as the only surviving "liminal" manufactories in the area.

Another view of the "big gears."

A second extant "big gear."

The owner's house / store / tavern, currently for sale, and the decrepit bridge over the tail race.

Metal pegs that once held the door jamb fast in the doorway.

The doorway, looking into the mill.

The basement may have had water running directly through it when the mill was in operation. I had a friend in elementary school who lived in the old mill (then converted to an apartment) in Charlestown at Cross Mills--the water ran directly under his house, and similarly large sets of gears remained there as well.

The masonry wall is still in good shape that runs north to the tail race.

A last look.