Monday, April 3, 2017

Sakonnet Point at Little Compton....

In line with my current reading habit of focusing on Little Compton, Newport County, Rhode Island, I just finished reading a charming little book entitled, Sakonnet Point Perspectives by James C. Gaman and Michelle G. Styer.  Sakonnet Point is the southern tip of the Town of Little Compton and extends out in between the Atlantic Ocean on the Sakonnet River estuary. In the several short trips that I have taken to Little Compton, only once have I had the fortune of seeing the Point.
This neighborhood or area of Little Compton has been the site of planning and commercial schemes for many generations.  The vast area was once dominated by the Sisson Farm, and today the only hotel in the vicinity is located in the Old Stone House, which was built by the Sissons, and is in close proximity to the Sakonnet Yacht Club and the Sakonnet Point Club.  But the history of this spot is complex.  Following the American Civil War and into the 1920s it was a resort community where people could escape the hot summer of the cities.  During Prohibition, the people of Little Compton had a great deal of financial success because it was a great place for "Rum Running" and few of these outlaws and their conspirators were ever caught. It was also the site of Fort Church, a US Army installation, during the World War II created to defend the Atlantic shoreline.  Fishing and lobstering have also dominated the location.  With public access to the water and public access to docks made it a great place for many small scale business ventures, equipped with a boat, fishing nets, and a crew, one could make a decent living--even today.

Just off shore from Sakonnet Point are East Island, West Island and the Sakonnet Lighthouse on Little Cormorant Rock.  All places with storied pasts, but help to keep to legends of Sakonnet Point to be more than just a memory.

This rugged point has seen a lot of destruction through the years and few buildings from the early days of Little Compton can be found there, unlike the area around the Commons, where 18th and 19th century buildings abound.  Sakonnet Point had virtually been whipped off the map during several hurricanes in the 20th century.  The first one of note, and the most destructive was in 1938.  It sounds as if only two structures really survived it---The Old Stone House and the Watch House (which would be demolished later).  Then there were hurricanes in 1954 and 1955.  So, needless to say, the Point was often being rebuilt.

There are two things about the Point that pique my interest as a Grinnell.  First is the fact that just west of the Long Pond is Grinnell Road.  This is clearly named for Benjamin Grinnell's farm from the mid-19th century.  Most likely he obtained this land through his wife's family the Church's.

The second area that is of interest is the Grinnell's Fishing shack, which was destroyed during the 1938 hurricane.  Who was the Grinnell?  Never named in any references yet.  There is a picture of the Point before the devastating storm and you see that the building was one of the largest buildings there and located in the vicinity where Sakonnet Point and Maryland Roads intersect.  We learn that the second floor of the "shack" is where many of the workers on the fishing boats lived during the season.  On the day of the storm, ten people were hunkered down in the building in hopes of riding out the storm, but the winds and the waves were too much for the wooden building.  It was blown off its foundation and into the river.  Of the ten, four of the occupants were lost and never to be found.  They were Al Sabin, Ebenezer Keith, and Mr. and Mrs. Vasco Souza.  This loss is considered the most tragic of the storm at the Point. (I need to know more about this place!!!!)

The book is filled with many first hand accounts of living, visiting, summering, partying, and working at Sakonnet Point.  Its a fast read but for those of us not familiar with the various names of Atlantic coast wildlife and fishing boat terms, keep Google handy.  The volume is richly illustrated and in particular the cover art is fascinating.  Both the front and back covers show a depiction of a the Point and  fishing vessels by a 19th century artist that was painted on the brick wall above a mantle piece in a home in Little Compton.  Simply beautiful!

Sakonnet Point Perspectives was produced as a joint project between the Friends of the Sakonnet Lighthouse, Little Compton Historical Society, and the Sakonnet Preservation Association in 2011.  I purchase my copy from the LCHS for $12.00.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dave Johnson in the Great War, 1918-1919



Postcard from the Great War, owned by David B. Johnson

In a little over a week from now our nation will be commemorating the centennial of the US entering into the Great War, now known as the First World War.   While the war raged in Europe since 1914 the United States, led by President Woodrow Wilson remained in a neutral position for several years.  Following the German U-boats sinking of several American vessels in the Atlantic, neutrality was no longer possible and on April 2, 1917 Wilson addressed Congress and asked for a Declaration of War against Germany.  Upon the affirmative votes in the Senate followed by the House of Representatives, the United States went to war on April 6, 1917.  The war continued to rage until November 11, 1918, which was known as Armistice Day for generations and is now celebrated at Veteran’s Day here in the US.  Ultimately, 4.7 million American’s would serve in the Army and Navy during the war with approximately 120,000 killed in action. 
David B. Johnson, 1918 USS Georgia

Serving in the armed forces was a hard decision in many parts of the United States, given that there were large numbers of American’s of German descent living in both urban and rural communities, they often experienced divided loyalties.  The maternal side of my family lived in one of those communities where the German language was still being taught alongside English in many of the rural one-roomed school houses in northeastern Jackson County, Michigan.  However,  patriotism ran deep in the Johnson family and they would send two of their son’s off to fight for the US and the Allies.

Dave's New Testament
during his time in the Navy
David and Nina Johnson lived in Leoni Township and by time the US entered the war they had six children at home.  Two would go off to war.  First, their eldest son, John Vernon Johnson (1898-1970) would serve in Battery B of the 21st Field Artillery Unit, which had just recently been organized.  John would attain the rank of Sergeant by the time he was discharged and sent back home.  Then their second son David Benjamin Johnson (1900-1967) would volunteer.  Although Dave was only seventeen at the time, he lied about his age and stated that he was born a year earlier. David B. Johnson would enlist in the US Navy on 22 March 1918 for 4 years of service in Cincinnati, Ohio.  A description of him at the time indicates he was 5 foot 9 inches tall, weight 175 lbs., had blue eyes, brown hair, and a Rudy complexion.  He was then sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, located just north of Chicago and then to the Naval Operations Base at Norfolk, Virginia where on 24 May 1918 he was assigned about the USS Georgia, a Virginia-class battleship that was constructed at the Bath Iron Works in Maine.  The USS Georgia was commissioned in 1906.  During the war the Georgia would serve in the Atlantic Fleet mainly as a convoy escort for the many vessels that were transporting American Troops to France.  Dave would be ranked as a Firemen 2nd Class while on the Georgia.  
 
USS Georgia at Brest, France in June, 1919
Brest, France was one of the main ports of entries and exits for the American Troops.  We know that Dave was on the USS Georgia in Brest on at least two occasions, December, 1918 and June, 1919.  His assignment on the USS Georgia ended on June 28, 1919.  Following his service on the Georgia, he would be assigned to the USS Florida as his final vessel during his service, but this was a short 2 month assignment and it isn’t known to me what activity he may have been engaged during that time.  Ultimately, Dave was discharged from the US Navy on 7 August 1919 at the Naval Demobilization Center in Pittsburgh, PA, where he was given $16.55 for his transportation back home to Jackson, Michigan.
Souvenir post card from France, 1918

While no correspondence survives from the time Dave served in the Navy, we are fortunate that there are a number of photographs and official documents that he kept to from his war service and they help us peak into his world as a Navy man.  Once Dave returned home, we know that he went back to work as a farm hand and also worked for short periods of time on the Michigan Central Railroad.  But work was difficult to find following the war and by 1922, Dave re-enlisted in the service, this time into the U. S. Army, where he would be stationed at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii for several years.

We here in the United States are very fortunate that our service members saw such a brief period of the Great War.  Other members of the Allies, and also those of the Central Powers, experienced huge loss of lives and many soldiers that did return home were diagnosed with "shell shock," what we know of today as "post traumatic stress syndrome." So many peoples lives were devastated during this conflict, both physically and emotionally.

 John and David Johnson were fortunate to be able to return home to their families and to adjust to life after war with few major problems.  We are all thankful because they both established new generations of our family.   Thank you for your willingness to serve and know that we remember!

David B. Johnson's Discharge Papers, 1919

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The History of Little Compton (Volume II)



Some of my readers will recall that back in July, 2016 I wrote about a wonderful little book that I read by Janet Lisle entitled, The History of Little Compton: First Light Sakonnet 1660-1820, published by the Little Compton Historical Society. Little Compton, Rhode Island is one of the earliest places of settlements of my Grinnell ancestors in North America and I have been fascinated by this rural New England village since my high school days.  Fortunately, the Grinnell Family Association of America through the years hosted reunions in the vicinity of Little Compton and I have been able to visit the town on three separate occasions.  With each visit, I feel myself become more connected and pulled into this place, which is located on the Atlantic shore and situated on a peninsula just east of the Sakonnet River.  Riding down the RI Route 77 from Fall River (MA) through Tiverton (RI) and into Little Compton you see small fences made of fieldstones, large sweeping fields extending to the river, and a host of 17th & 18th century homes and barns-- all setting the stage for the feeling that you are stepping back in time.

Janet Lisle authored a second volume entitled, The History of Little Compton: A Home by the Sea 1820-1950, (2012—375 pages) also published by the historical society.  To be honest, I wasn’t going to purchase this book because my direct line of Grinnell’s had left Little Compton and Tiverton by 1796, so I told myself that I didn’t need to read this one.  Well I changed my mind and order a copy after I read Lisle first book and I’m glad that I did.

In Lisle second volume, she weaves together such vivid stories of the lives of the people in this community through the years.  You really feel like you get to know them.  The names of the families of the town are so consistent through the centuries.   Surnames like Wilbour, Manchester, Simmons, Almy and Church are always present.  While there are several times that Grinnell’s are mentioned up through the 1940’s, they are rarely main characters presented, but it drives home the point of how many generations these families have remained part of this town.  Another contributing factor to the stability of the stories Lisle presents and also reflects the stability of the community is also the size of the population:  1820—1,580 and 1950—1,556.
In the book, Lisle takes us through each decade and connects the activity in Little Compton to those of the growing country.  Specific events that take place in town are placed well into their historical context of our national narrative.  She presents how the community grows up following the maturing of the new Republic and brings to life the struggles that a small town has with law, order, taxation, care for the needy and the struggle between the role of the church and government.  Later she deals with issues about how the community dealt with the mentally ill, slavery and the abolitionist movement, the women’s movement, the Civil War, the exodus of young people, industrialization and the effect on the farming community, and the rebirth of farming in new forms.  With the industrial age, and the growth of a middle class and wealthy class in urban centers, Little Compton finds itself as a place for vacationing outsiders and some of its own returning home, juxtaposed against the growing fishing industry.  Coming into the 20th century she presents issues confronting the town too become a modern community with electricity, paved road, new school structures, fire and police service, and the mobilization for war.  Natural disasters and recovery efforts are part of the story, as well.

While this book deals with weighty issues, it is highly readable.  Lisle is an experienced writer and uses her abilities to create a publication that tells stories and instructs without being bogged down in dense language or details.  That is not to say that it should be viewed as light-weight history.  She has an extensive bibliography and has utilized primary sources and newspaper accounts as source material throughout the book.  In particular, she used oral histories collected by the Little Compton Historical Society in a very rich manner to help tell 20th century history.

Another very appealing feature of the book is the colorful illustrations used throughout.  Not only does she use photographs and images of documents, but also artwork that depicts this picturesque town in vivid colors.  Thus, she brings the 19th and early 20th century into real color and not a sepia toned dreamy state.

For all my Grinnell family genealogy and history enthusiasts, the book is well worth your time to read.  As I stated before, members of the Grinnell family are included throughout the text.  From Angelina Palmer Grinnell at her home at Warren’s Point, or her husband Thomas Bailey Grinnell’s name on a list, they are present.  Then there is Gideon Henry Grinnell’s trial for illegally fishing, and Thomas and Hannah Grinnell employ of some of the first Portuguese immigrants to the town, and finally Frank Grinnell and his large building that housed both his fishing business and its upper level that was a domicile for his fishing crew.  The building was swept off the map at Sakonnet Point by the massive hurricane in 1938….the Grinnell’s are present throughout this gem of a community history of Little Compton.

This book has continued to feed my longing to experience Little Compton in a more personal way.  Floating in my head are plans to make it the location of a future vacation, where I can breathe in the area and explore that land where my ancestors walked and worked.  Visit the Town Clerk’s office and do some research to establish the location of their land, worship in the beautiful Little Compton United Congregational Church on the Common, experience the beauty that Janet Lisle has so richly described in her volumes….It will be an excellent vacation for sure!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Day to Remember

No one today can recall the special occasion that  happened in our family on Wednesday, January 10th 1906 because it was more than one hundred and ten years ago and none of us were alive to witness the joyous event.  On that day, Florence Mabel Reams and Amos Randall Grinnell were married in a ceremony at the residence of the bride's brother and sister-in-law, Martin and Lola Reams at 175 West Street in Battle Creek, Michigan.  I have assumed for years that this was probably a simple affair with a few family members gathered to join in on the event, but I might have been wrong with new evidence shedding some light on the events of the evening.  Both the Battle Creek Daily Journal and The Morning Inquirer carried detailed accounts of this solemn event on the following day.
Mabel Reams and Amos Grinnell, 

The ceremony started at 8 pm, so it must have been dark and there was probably snow on the ground which would have been typical of a Michigan January.  Rev. William S. Potter, the popular preacher from the First Presbyterian Church of Battle Creek officiated at the wedding with 40 friends and relatives in attendance. Miss Reams is described as wearing

"a very becoming white gown, with lace trimmings, and carried pink carnations." 

While this description is confirmed by the photographs that have been passed down in the family, the actual color was not known due to the sepia tone images captured by J. Howard Baker, a well-known portrait photographer of Battle Creek.

Lottie Grinnell the sister of the groom was the maid of honor and Earl Reams, the nephew of the bride was the grooms attendant.  Earl was the oldest son of Martin and Lola Reams, who were the hosts for the ceremony.  Although Earl was Mabel's nephew, they were only a year apart in age.

Wedding Invitation
We learn from the newspaper accounts that there was indeed music at the festivities.  Pearl Reams, the daughter of Martin and Lola, played the piano for the guests and ushered the bride and groom in with the sounds of the wedding march.  Ms. Fern Rogers (later Mrs. Jeffs) sang the popular song "Oh Promise Me," which must have been a special treat for those gathered.

This song was written in 1887, music by Reginald De Koven and lyrics by Clement Scott, and was a popular performance at wedding ceremonies for decades.  Its lyrics are:


Oh, promise me that someday you and I
Will take our love together to some sky
Where we can be alone and faith renew,
And find the hollows where those flowers grew,
Those first sweet violets of early spring,
Which come in whispers, thrill us both, and sing
Of love unspeakable that is to be;
Oh, promise me! Oh, promise me!

Oh, promise me that you will take my hand,
The most unworthy in this lonely land,
And let me sit beside you in your eyes,
Seeing the vision of our paradise,
Hearing God's message while the organ rolls
Its mighty music to our very souls,
No love less perfect than a life with thee;
Oh, promise me! Oh, promise me!

(Click here to listen to Jan Peerce perform the song in 1947 on YouTube. A more modern version was made popular in the 1950s by the Platters.)
Marriage Certificate

Today, our impressions are often colored by the fact that we have only black and white or sepia toned images to help us look into the past.  Therefore, it was delightful to read in the articles that the house was decorated with greenery and the dining room was deck-out in white and pink.  Not surprising when you think about today's weddings with all the trappings and themes, but perhaps to us knowing that their surroundings were filled with such happy hues of color places helps confirm that this was a very joyous occasion.

Although I have many treasured documents related to my grandparents wedding, the discovery of the newspaper articles breaths some reality into these pages of family history.  Amos and Mabel had seven children, twenty-one grandchildren, and at least forty great-grandchildren who celebrate their memory.

Martin Reams Residence, 174 West St. Battle Creek (c1940),
now demolished (pic from Willard Library of Battle Creek.