2009-11-12 / Island History

Jamestown Historical Society News

By Rosemary Enright
This year, the JHS received more than 150 new items for its collection from more than 30 individuals and eight organizations. We will display as many of the smaller ones as we can in our case in the Jamestown Philomenian Library later this month.

Some gifts resulted from our requests. In July, we asked around for different versions of the tokens used on the Newport/Claiborne Pell Bridge for our exhibit on the 40th anniversary of the bridge. Several members responded. Marion Pierce’s donation was the most unusual – the original aluminum tokens that were discontinued because they were so lightweight that the wind blew them away when motorists tossed them into the toll baskets.

Many of our gifts come during the flurry of activity that precedes lifestyle downsizing or as a result of clutter control. If you are anticipating those activities, think of us when you come across items that can tell other Jamestowners something about the Jamestown you knew.

As each gift is received, its provenance is traced and its story is recorded.

Ed Silvia’s purser’s box

Ed Silvia was the purser on the Jamestown-Newport ferry for the final years of its operation before the opening of the Newport/Claiborne Pell Bridge in 1969. This year, Ed and his wife, Irene, decided to downsize, so many of the things they had accumulated over the years, including the box that Ed had used when he worked on the ferry, were scheduled to be thrown away. Instead, encouraged by Pede Manchester, Ed and Irene gave the box and all its contents to the historical society.

Inside the box was a coin changer and a hole punch for punching the paper ferry tickets, copies of the forms Ed had to fill out every day, fare books, tickets and passes, and winter and summer ferry schedules for every year from 1958 to 1969 – all together, a physical record from which to construct Ed’s busy workday on the ferry.

Oliver Caswell’s beaded baskets

Jamestowner Oliver Caswell was one of the first Americans to profit from the mid-19th century interest in training the deaf. Born in 1836, Caswell lost his sight and hearing – making him also effectively mute – when he was two years old. In his early teens, he was sent to the newly established Perkins School for the Blind in Boston – which Helen Keller attended 40 years later – where he was taught to talk and to read.

A portrait at the Perkins School shows Caswell with Laura Bridgman, the first blind-deaf-mute person to be successfully educated in this country. Thanks to Bob Saunders, we have a copy of the portrait in our collection. Bridgman, about six years Caswell’s senior, is credited with helping him learn the new skills.

The beaded baskets Caswell made after his return to Jamestown are tiny – about two and a half inches in diameter. They are delicate and marvelously intricate, with the beads laid in colored patterns along the sides and strung in interlocking geometric shapes on the handles. According to a newspaper of the day, Caswell achieved a measure of independence with the profit from the sale of his baskets.

Nancy Caswell Mason, a Caswell descendant, has generously donated three of Caswell’s baskets, along with several other Caswell heirlooms, including a handwritten booklet called “Conanicut Our Island Home,” presented to Mrs. W.K. Caswell in 1897. The booklet is currently on display as part of our “Chronicles and Reminiscences about Jamestown” exhibit in the library.

1895 map of Jamestown and

Prudence Island

Maps are fascinating snapshots of the past. The society has collected several from different eras and at different levels of detail.

Our most recent map acquisition came from Dick Allphin, who was clearing out old papers when he came across an undated map of Conanicut and Prudence islands, with an inset of Jamestown Village. He started to toss it into the trash pile, but had second thoughts. He couldn’t remember where the map had come from. He looked at it more closely and decided he’d better call Sue Maden, the JHS collections committee chair, before he threw it away.

Sue immediately recognized the map as one from 1895. A “Proposed Canal” is shown with dotted lines through the Great Creek. Freebody Hill – now Shoreby Hill – is still Greene Farm, with only a few houses along Conanicus Avenue north of the Bay View Hotel complex. With the exception of the village, with its then-new hotels, and the densely platted area of Conanicut Park at the North End, the island is farmland.

The map is a welcome addition to our collection.

Jamestown Emergency Medical

Service uniforms

JEMS was originally organized by the American Red Cross in 1941 as part of the Second World War effort. During the intervening years, the organization’s name and the style of uniform have changed several times. As things changed, the service kept many uniforms as symbols of its history and evolution.

This year, when storage and preservation became an issue, JEMS asked if the historical society would like the uniforms. After careful evaluation, the collections committee selected uniforms that represented significant changes in the medical service, including a Red Cross volunteer dress and jacket from the early days; a jacket, skirt and hat from the pre-1949 era; and several Jamestown Ambulance Corps and Jamestown Ambulance Association outfits that reflect the changing requirements of the volunteers.

JHS accession policy

The mission of the JHS is to collect, preserve and share with others the heritage of Jamestown. To accomplish that mission, we welcome donations of manuscripts, pictures, objects or books that relate directly to Jamestown, that are in suffi- ciently good and original condition to warrant the cost of preservation, and that we have the ability to preserve and care for.

If you have material you’d like to donate, contact Sue Maden at jhs@jamestownri.com or 423- 2167.

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