2011-03-31 / News

Lifelong islander recalls a childhood cut short

By Geoff Campbell

Mary Vieira Ragland was born and raised in the house where she still lives.

The early life of Ragland and her siblings, Ernest Jr., Alfred, and George, tells the story of a family overcoming adversity.

The family’s story is forever intertwined with the family’s business.

Like the family, the business changed and adapted several times in its nearly 60-year history, surviving and thriving in a world that was not always fair.

In some ways the story begins with the tragic drowning of her father off of Horsehead in 1932.

On Oct. 19, 1932, the Newport Daily News reported on the event: “Ernest Vieira had gone fishing off the rocks at Horsehead with three companions. A storm driven wave swept all four into the water. Three were drowned.”

At home that day was Ragland’s mother, Louise, who was five months pregnant with her youngest brother George.

Ragland was 10 years old. Her older brothers, Ernest Jr. and Alfred, were 15 and 13, respectively.

The two boys were forced to grow up fast, foregoing most of high school and taking over the 10-year-old business.

The E. R. Vieira Company was started in 1922, the same year Ragland was born. Her father, Ernest Vieira Sr., started it as an “express business.”

According to Jamestown Historical Society’s oral history transcripts, Ernest began by carrying luggage and belongings to the homes and hotels of summer visitors and residents who arrived by ferry boat.

The company expanded quickly and often, trucking sand and gravel, and then coal. In addition, the Vieiras harvested wood from a “big farm” that they owned at the northern end of the island. Vieira Company became the chief supplier of coal to power the ferryboats on either side of the bay, according to Ragland.

Along the way ice was added to the company’s list of services, as was deliveries of fresh spring water from a now dormant spring on Southwest Avenue, Ragland said.

The business grew around the Douglas Street home, and if the walls could talk, they would tell the story of hard working first generation Americans whose parents came from tiny islands far off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula.

Born in the Azores, Ragland’s parents were from the same town on the island of Faial.

The families of Louise and Ernest first settled in East Providence and then as family members married moved on to Jamestown, Ragland said. When asked why Jamestown, Ragland responded, “The island reminded them of the Azores, except for the horrible winters here.”

Ragland spoke fondly of growing up on the island: “We had fun,” she said. Ragland recalls weekend trips in the coal truck up to Providence and back. She said she would pack a bag lunch and ride in the truck up to Providence. She pointed out that in the winter, when the West Ferry didn’t run, they would take the truck on the East Ferry and run up through Fall River to get to Providence.

But growing up was something that all four Vieira children were forced to do more quickly than others.

Ragland began working in the office of the business in 1936. She was 14, and she worked there until the business was sold to Newport Oil in 1981.

Ragland explained that her brothers, Earnest Jr. and Alfred, ran the E. R. Vieira Company in tandem, working well together until 1941.

With the onset of World War II, Ragland’s older brothers “were snatched up,” Ragland said. Ernest was drafted first, but his enlistment was postponed for two years when Alfred appealed to the local draft board to take him in his brother’s place.

Alfred headed to the Pacific where he served as a combat engineer until 1945. In 1943 Ernest was called up again and he too became a combat engineer but he was placed in the European Theatre, according to Ragland.

Ragland was a 1940 graduate of Rogers High School and began college in 1941 at Bryant College in Smithfield. With Alfred at war, Ragland said that she put herself “on the back burner,” leaving Bryant, to the chagrin of family, but thinking that one day she might return.

In 1943, when Ernest was drafted, Ragland became the boss; she would run E.R. Vieira alone for the next two years.

In 1945, tragedy struck again.

Ragland’s mother developed breast cancer. She fought the disease as best she could Ragland said, but medicine was not what it is today, she added, and shortly after Louise passed. Ragland became the guardian of her 12-yearold brother George. Ragland said it simply: “I had responsibilities.”

The brothers returned from war that same year and got back to running the business, but there was a change in the air.

According to Ragland, a friend of the family, Arthur Clarke, told the brothers of the impending change regarding the fuel of choices – he recommended a move from coal to oil.

The transition was successful and E.R. Vieira became a Gulf fuel oil distributor, according to Ragland.

In 1954 the company was expanded yet again. The Jamestown Bridge Commission awarded the maintenance contract to the E. R. Vieira Company.

For 14 of the 15 years from 1954 to 1969, the company was hired to maintain the Jamestown Bridge, under the watchful eye of the commission.

Eventually George, who served in Korea, rejoined the business, and after the sale of the company to Newport Oil, continued to work there until his retirement.

There is a sign maker in one of the Vieira buildings now, and more recently, the Jamestown Arts Center has purchased the space and is renovating the former equipment building.

Ragland chuckles at the thought of Ernest and Alfred watching the arts center take over the garage. “That’s really hilarious,” she said. “They never thought of that.”

E.R. Vieira Company ceased to exist some 30 years ago, but the story of a family and its business lives on.

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