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!