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.