First off, you have to understand that my friend Gordon is 93-years-old so sometimes when he says, “it wasn’t that long ago,” it can be something that happened quite a while back. Gordon is a big man with a quick wit and a pleasant smile.
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The two of us are on a road trip up Route 3 to Hope Valley. I’m doing research for a story I’m writing about the villages of Rhode Island. There are probably a couple of dozen little villages scattered throughout the back roads with names like Moscow, Tug Hollow and Buttonwood Corner. There are supposed to be nine villages in Westerly alone. I decided to find out their stories.
The village of Hope Valley was settled in 1770 by Hezekiah Carpenter who dammed the Wood River and built a mill. The village was originally called Carpenters Mill until 1818 when Gardner Nichols bought the existing mills and changed the name to Hope Valley “because all his hopes were centered in the village.”
“I don’t remember it being this built up around here,” Gordon says about Hope Valley during our car ride.
“How long ago was that,” I ask.
“Not that long ago,” he responds.
“That means it could have been thirty years ago,” I said and Gordon chuckles as we both enjoy the joke.
Gordon likes history as much as I do and he has lived through a lot of it. You can always count on him to come up with an interesting story or angle. For instance, I knew Gordon had been on a submarine in the Pacific in WWII. Then one day he tells me that the Devilfish, the submarine he served on, was the only sub in WWII to be hit by a Kamikaze. The Japanese plane had actually been lodged in the conning tower. I said, “Wow, that’s incredible, what did you do?”
“Nothing, I was asleep in my bunk when it hit.” This answer was a little disappointing as I’d hoped to turn it into a story. “One thing I do remember was the buns that the cook made. They were good. I know where we can get some great buns at Sugar Bun City.”
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“It’s right in Hope Valley at the bottom of the hill on the left. I call it Sugar Bun City but it’s actually West’s Bakery. I used to stop there every morning on my way to URI for breakfast. It’s also near the old mill where they built steam engines. We let’s check it out.”
The bakery looked like a typical country eatery with a small lunch counter in back. A dozen small tables in the front face the street. We took a seat by a window and a pleasant young waitress approached and asked if we needed menus. Gordon had an almost impish smile, “No. We’re here for your excellent cinnamon sugar buns. I’d like to have one and a box of six to go.”
The waitress smiled, “Sure. We have some fresh ones that just came out of the oven.” Turning to me she asked,” What would you like?”
“I’ll have the same as my friend, but with coffee please.”
The waitress left and returned with a pot of steaming coffee that she poured into our thick white mugs. Gordon launched into a story and told her he’d stopped here for breakfast every morning when he taught at URI.
We found out that the waitress’s name is Natalie and she is the granddaughter of the man who started the bakery in 1950. She started working here at the age of twelve and her grandfather still comes in a few mornings a week. We both agreed that the sugar buns were first rate although Gordon told me they used to have more raisins.
Back in the car, looking at the map, I told Gordon that this stretch of Main Street was built in 1821 as part of the New London Turnpike for the overland stage. It connected Providence and New London and passengers could board steamships for the rest of the trip to New York City. Wyoming is where the stagecoach stopped and the old inn building is still there.
“You know this part of New England really hasn’t changed that much in over one hundred and fifty years,” I said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in it.”
Gordon nodded and said he wanted to try and find the old mill where they used to build the steam engines. It’s the site of the old Nichols and Langworthy Machine Company.
“There was a huge fire there around 1909 and people in the surrounding houses wetted mattresses and threw them on their roofs to keep their houses from burning down,” he told me.
The mill employed more than 150 people and had just begun to manufacture the new revolutionary Dock Engine but the fire brought that to an end. The village of Hope Valley never fully recovered its manufacturing prominence. Gordon remembered the mill as a big granite building with a clock tower.
We headed down Mechanic Street and there, by the dam and waterfall, was the old mill. The front of the old mill was brick, not granite, and it didn’t have a clock tower. Gordon looked puzzled, “I could have sworn when I saw this mill it was made out of granite and it had a clock tower.”
“Maybe you saw it in an old photograph, “I said.
“Could be,” said Gordon.
“How long ago was that?” I asked
“Not that long ago,” Gordon answered with a smile.