©1999 Linda M. Young
As a history buff, a few years back a series of soft-backed pictoral books called "Images of America" took my interest. There were several dozen of them published about various Rhode Island towns, neighborhoods, and institutions, and although they were rather pricey, I purchased three, one about two places close to my heart: Knightsville, where our church, St. Mary's, was, and Silver Lake, where my dad grew up.
Included in the book was a map of Knightsville from the late 1870s, with the Sprague Mansion prominent along with the company housing that became known as "The Village."
The neighborhood where I grew up was represented by a blank field with an oval drawing, and the legend "Narragansett Trotting Track."
How I laughed to think that the always sleepy little neighborhood had been so long known for speed--and how it brought me back...
When I was small, growing up in the late 50s and early 60s, there was a succession of neighborhood stores with the prefix "Speedway." My dad went to the Speedway Barbers and bowled at the Speedway Bowling Alley. When I got old enough to understand more of the meanings of words, one of the first things I asked was what "Speedway" meant.
Daddy pointed outside and told me that before the land had been sold for housing tracts, the ground on which our neighborhood stood used to be a car race track. Drivers as famous as Mario Andretti and Al Unser were in my youth raced there in the early years of the 20th century, people like Barney Oldfield, who pushed the cars of the day to the "daring" speeds of 50 and 60 miles per hour!
When there weren't races, Daddy added, they had fairs and shows. When he was a little boy, probably around 1920, he was taken to see a Wild West Show on that site.
Then he gestured into the backyard at the rusted chain link fence that separated our house from the backs of the homes on Fiat Avenue. That fence was all that was left of the race track.
I was a history-conscious little creature from when I was old enough to understand my parents' stories of "the olden days": stories about radio shows and horse-drawn ice wagons and coal stoves and the Depression. The fact that my dad had stood here as a little boy watching cowboys and Indians perform, and that a famous man like Barney Oldfield had raced here once gave an air of thrill to that quiet old neighborhood. It was almost a blow when the old fence, gaped by a hole left by the heat of the fire made when my mother burned the paper, and bent from where the boys from the junior high vaulted over it as a shortcut, had to be replaced. I consoled myself knowing that my godmother's portion of the fence still stood as a link to that exciting past.
Our neighborhood was the kind of place you hear about in nostalgic films and books--twitted for the boiling secrets that probably went on behind the quiet walls. I suppose there were shares of secrets back then, but on the surface it was serene and friendly. The neighbors, in general, all knew each other. When you were away, they would make sure no strangers went near your house. When you walked by, they said hello, asked after other people in the family, and you did the same. Most of the older Italian people had vegetable gardens, however small, in their backyard; my godmother, next door, had an entire lot, cared for initially by her mother and helped by her son-in-law (my godfather, who was also our oil man) and her son.
Speaking of gardens, sometimes it seemed as if the streets were one walking smorgasbord for a kid. If you were friendly with one of the older ladies whose children were grown and married, you could always count on them offering you a treat: there were always snacks on hand, whether it was homemade Italian cookies or grapes and cantaloupe from their gardens. One of my fondest memories is sitting in the shade of the grape arbor in my godmother's yard on hot summer days, deep in a big Adirondak chair, taken care of by "Zia Maria" (my godmother's mother) and "Zia Maria Antonia" (the mother of Victoria, who lived in the house on the other side of that historic fence) eating melon and grapes fresh from the lot.
Then there were the several stores that lined Gansett Avenue. Back then they weren't "convenience stores"--we called them "spas" or "superettes." Tom's Superette was a grocery in miniature; I don't think it was bigger than today's two-car garages, but tucked into that small space were three aisles of merchandise, everything you might run out of before you could make the two-mile walk to the supermarket, from soup to cereal to baby food to canned fruit. Tom even had a meat display in the back where he kept small cuts of beef, pork, and chicken.
For a child, however, the best stuff was up front, at the counter where Molly reigned if Tom was busy with a customer. You could dig in the big freezer in front and come out with Popsicles for 5 cents or a Fudgsicle or Dreamsicle for a dime, or there were the cones covered with nuts, or ice cream bars (all a dime as well). At the candy counter there were two sizes of Hershey bars, the standard kind you see now, which was a dime, and a smaller version if you only had a nickel. "Special Dark" bars were called "Semi-Sweet" back then and a semi-sweet and a glass of milk and a rerun of Lassie could just about solve any problem you had. And they had penny candy--for a penny! Candy buttons, Mint Juleps, banana-flavored chews, those wax bottles with the flavored liquid in them, licorice (black and red), taffy, and the incomparable Squirrel Nuts. (Not Squirrel Nut Zippers--whole different animal. The "plain" Squirrel Nuts tasted better--although on a chill day they darn near broke your teeth biting into them.)
Further down Gansett there was Joe's Spa, but I wasn't a habitual customer. Joe kept bread and other sundries, but it always looked as if his big money was made from the pool table and pinball machines kept in the back room. (As an adult I have wondered if there wasn't a numbers racket going on there as well.) Your mother wouldn't send you down there often, especially if you were a girl. "Bad kids" hung around there, smoking and presumably with a beer, using "bad language" that today would make it into a PG-rated movie. The young ladies who hung around there has "bad reputations." (It wasn't until later that many kids realized that didn't just mean they used cigarettes!) If you were a timid kid, like me, you didn't want to go anyway, especially not in summer. The awning would be out and the lights turned down to give the illusion of coolness on broiling hot days in a place without air conditioning, and with the guys smoking and the fans going, it always seemed to me to be something straight out of Casablanca.
It's hard to find neighborhood bakeries today. Most people get their cakes and pastries from the supermarket now, but back then there was a bakery in every neighborhood. Ours was the Gansett Bakery, across the street from Hugh B. Bain Junior High, where many a student, including myself, dropped in to spend five cents (later eight cents) on a sugar-sprinkled doughnut, or perhaps a lemon square. Each bakery had its own specialties; Gansett's finest offering, besides its superb Italian bread, was its hermits, a spicy cinnamon and ginger type cookie, usually made in a long flat loaf and cut into squares, dotted with walnuts and raisins, that doesn't seem to be known outside of New England. Where other bakeries' hermits were too soft or too molasses-tasting, Gansett's were perfect: crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, a spice cookie Nirvana. Alas, the baker kept all his recipes in his head, and when he died, the bakery eventually died as well, for no one could ever duplicate those hermits!
(Rinaldi's, Knightsville near the Sprague Mansion, had the usual quota of lemon squares and pastries and those long strips of pizza people bought when they had company--forget Pizza Hut; these were thick strips of dough with a thick coating of tomato and just enough cheese to give it taste; if you wanted crisp, you went for a crust end, otherwise it was just a tasty, filling blob--but their real specialty was bran muffins. Their baker had evidently solved the "dry as sawdust" problem inherent in other bakeries' muffins and the bran variety was a treat even a sweet-loving child would crave. Part of the secret, although we never found out for certain, might have been the small blob of date paste that sat just under the crown of the muffin. While I probably wouldn't have eaten a fresh date on a bet, this bit of fruit paste was something else again, sweet and fruity and delicious.
For birthday cakes or cream pastries, there was only one choice, Solitro's. Just down the road from both St. Mary's and St. Ann's churches, after Mass a line always snaked out the door, women in their best dresses and hats holding the hands of squirming children in short pants or frilly dresses, waiting to buy cornets or sfogliadelles or zeppolles for Sunday dessert or visitors. Many a lone husband sent for a loaf of fresh Italian bread in the midst of the pastry-mad mob muttered imprecations under his breath while his wife took the fretting baby home!)
In the summer, the neighborhood came alive, thanks to the lack of air conditioning in these working-class homes. On hot summer nights people sat outside on their porches or steps. Across the street in the baseball field also used for gym classes at Hugh B. Bain, the friendly sounds of guys playing baseball permeated the air. In the distance, the flashing red lights of the radio towers on Neutaconkanut Hill stood guard over the field and the houses that lined the bordering railroad track. If you took a walk on an evening when a night game was being played, you could hear the sounds of the Red Sox announcer coming from various porches and back yards. Cars moved slowly; the neighborhood kids played punchball and tag in the streets and everyone knew it. Many of my summer nights were spent sitting on the concrete retaining wall at my friend Penny's house, talking (often about the favorite topic of the day, Dark Shadows) and joking with Penny and her younger sisters and the children across the street. As the darkness deepened, we raised our arms to the cooling breeze and breathed easier in the heat, sprawling back in the cool grass and listening to the crickets sing.
In the early 70s RIPTA ran a bus down Gansett Avenue; before that we had to trudge up the hill, past Tom's and over the bridge spanning the spur line railroad used to deliver supplies to the Cranston Printworks, the bridge, like Hugh B. Bain, a product of the WPA. (The trains were numerous back then; there was no more comforting sound at night than the long-drawn shrill of the train whistle as it passed the crossing at Dyer Avenue.) In the fall that route would also inevitably take you to Cleary's for the one school supply that couldn't be had at the drugstore or at Ann & Hope.
I doubt if there are any dry goods stores left; even then Cleary's was the only one I knew. Mostly they sold sewing supplies: material, thread, needles, bobbins. However, they also provided workingmen's uniforms, and were the only source of that bane of the junior high girl's existence, the gym suit, a dowdy one-piece garment of dark green (the school colors) with hideous bloomer shorts.
Catty corner from Cleary's, across the street and next to a row of shops that some enterprising architect had designed to imitate the half-timbered Tudor style, was the most ancient relic of the neighborhood, a tiny department store called Bunn's. By the 1960s it was on its last legs, filled with fading merchandise in the square glass cases; by all appearances the interior hadn't changed at least since the 1940s. Silent, elderly employees wandered the few aisles like ghosts, wiping down the showcases and tending to the few regulars that came in. On rainy days, walking inside was like entering the past century: built before fluorescent lights, Bunn's light supply came chiefly from the outside, though a skylight darkened and begrimed by age. Dimmed by clouds like some Victorian parlor under gaslight, the wooden floors with their wide, unfinished boards echoed, the ancient fabrics and toys stirred as if by the ghosts of the past.
One by one they fell as the years ticked by: Bunn's into a flower shop, Cleary's to a very hippie head shop and then to a music store, Gansett Bakery to a foreign foods market, Joe's closed and dark. When Tom died, Molly closed the store, but its time was already past. The stay-at-home mothers had cars now and eagerly dashed to the supermarket or the closest "milk store" for those things they needed.
Thankfully, the neighborhood once made for speed has stayed fairly quiet. Joggers and walkers and mothers with strollers join the baseball players on summer nights since a track and vapor lights were put on the baseball field. Many of the kids are inside with the Nintendo now, air conditioners blast, the cry of the television--and the muffler--is heard in the land.
But the crickets still chirp their summertime song, the radio towers flash their messages in the darkness, and if you listen hard enough, on a cold winter's night, you may still hear the faint, lost echo of the train whistle as it wails in the distance of your memories.