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Monday, January 20, 2014

A REVIEW: Interested in Charlestown historic buildings? Get this book

Charlestown Historical Society releases new book
By Will Collette, with photos from the book by permission of the Charlestown Historical Society

There is a new history to add to the small collection of books on Charlestown’s history called “Historic Cross’ Mills: A Self-Guided Tour” by Jean Boughton Pellam. The CHS is selling the books for $20 as a fund-raiser (click here). It’s 90 pages long, loaded with good quality photos and comes with a well-designed full-sized tour map, keyed to the text of the book. The book is also spiral-bound to make it less likely to get damaged if carried around while touring the Cross’ Mills area.

This slim volume is a good addition to the short list of books on Charlestown history. I guarantee you that you will learn a lot about Charlestown (I certainly did) by reading this book. Some of the entries in the book are especially illuminating, such as the eight pages Ms. Pellam devotes to the long and interesting history of the General Stanton Inn. You’ll also get to learn a lot about the origins of Ninigret Park before it became a Navy pilot training field during World War II in the five and a half pages devoted to that land.

The book is the next best thing to having a tour guide drive you around Cross’ Mills to show you the sights. For that reason, and to support our recently anointed (and deservedly so) Hometown Hero, the Charlestown Historical Society, you should buy this book, even though, as you read on, the book is not without its faults.

Where Cross's Mill used to be (how's that for a Rhode Island direction?)
There is a lot you won’t learn about Charlestown from Ms. Pellam’s book. All history texts are limited to the subject chosen by the author. In Ms. Pellam’s case, she chose to focus on Charlestown’s historical “downtown,” the Cross’ Mills historical village district. She uses a selection of buildings in that area to frame the book, spending a lot of time on architecture.

The story is primarily about old Charlestown, from the colonial and Revolutionary War era through most of the 1800s. While there are references to 20th century and even a couple of 21st century, the books centers on the buildings erected by Charlestown’s founding white families.

King Tom's house (long gone)
There is scant coverage of the Native Americans who originally occupied this land and little mention of what the white settlers did to them. Native Americans are mainly background players except for three pages [p. 70-72] on “King” Thomas Ninigret (b. 1736), sachem of what was left of the Narragansett Tribe after most members were murdered, enslaved or captured as a result of the King Phillip’s War.

Ms. Pellam cites the 1979 book by Frances Mandeville, “The Historical Story of Charlestown,” to describe the use of 200 slaves by Colonel Christopher Champlin, owner of the huge farm tract that covered all of what it now Ninigret Park and the National Wildlife Refuge. But where Mandeville was brunt when she reports how Narragansetts who survived the attempted genocide on them in 1675 were taken into slavery [pages 24-25], Ms. Pellam [p. 75] says “the numbers [of slaves on Champlin’s farm] may be an exaggeration.”

Given Ms. Pellam’s focus on the buildings in the Cross’ Mills area, I can understand why the Narragansetts don’t appear very much in her book. By the time those buildings were erected, the Narragansetts had been removed, with the exception of King Tom. But I’m sure the Narragansett Tribe prefers to tell its own story, its own way, as they do on their website (click here).

Ms. Pellam told the Westerly Sun in an interview that she stayed away from wars and politics.” I had wanted to ask her more about that myself, the choice to avoid talking about the engines of change that, like them or not, shape communities perhaps more than any other factors. But Ms. Pellam declined to be interviewed, saying she thought Progressive Charlestown was “too political.”

The original Library where Senator Schlesinger was one of the founders
and first board members
Perhaps that’s why Ms. Pellam chose not to acknowledge that it was politics, in the form of legislative grants secured for the Society by Rep. Donna Walsh that provided all of the funding for her book. Click here to see the article and photo of Ms. Pellam accepting one of the checks from Rep. Walsh. It’s normally considered good manners to thank people who underwrite your work.

Ms. Pellam’s aversion to politics could explain why Ms. Pellam did not include one of Charlestown’s most colorful characters, the late state Senator Lulu Mowry Schlesinger (R), who was the first woman elected to the Rhode Island State Senator. She was a founder and charter board member of the Cross’ Mills Library. The home her husband built for her over a hundred years ago still stands on Old Post Road.
The General Stanton Inn as it looked a century ago

Because of her emphasis on the distant past, Ms. Pellam’s book doesn’t delve into such subjects such as how the Arnolda neighborhood came to be what it is. Nor does it explain how Charlestown’s “historic village district” is really a mish-mosh of styles that reflect many different periods. Cross’ Mills is not Sturbridge Village but an organic patchwork of styles ranging from classic colonial to crass modern commercial.

Then there is the major political question of defining what is a “traditional village.” This murky question drives on-going battles over what can or cannot happen in the Cross’ Mills district such as Planning Commissar Ruth Platner’s ludicrous stand against the Cross’ Mills fire station being built of brick.

When you leave out politics, you leave out the essence of what makes a community.
The Ninigret Navy Auxiliary Air Field as it looked around 1940
For more on the history of the air field during World War II, click here.

I did notice that she got in a plug for the business she and her husband previously owned on Route One: “Timbers from the [Ninigret Naval Auxiliary Air Field] commissary were removed and repurposed to build the gasoline canopy roof at Michael’s Food Mart and gasoline station in Quonochontaug. [p. 79]”

Despite my criticisms, I commend Ms. Pellam for this undertaking and for adding to our knowledge of our own town’s history. Other historians will, over time, add their own scholarship and points of view to help fill in the blanks in the jigsaw puzzle that is Charlestown.

To learn more about the Cross family, here's a genealogical report uncovered by Bob Yarnall. 

There's also some overlap between this new book and a state monograph from 1981 that I recently stumbled onto. Click here to read it.