Just inside the tall black wood doors, a friendly and informative face greets you, Roberta Mudge Humble, Founding President of the Westerly Armory Restoration, Inc. a nonprofit organization. Roberta has nothing but love for the Armory and her passion for its proud history shines through. “This Armory was built in 1901 to replace the one that burned down where McQuade’s is currently located,” she said. “It was home to the State Guard, which later became the National Guard, and is the premier armory that led the way.”
What is an armory? Back in the early 19th-century, the Westerly Armory was used to store weapons and for the military to practice music and marching drills. As you walk in through the hallway and straight ahead to the back the space opens up to a 6,000 square foot Drill Hall or as it was called back in the day the head house, or drill shed. “This was the hub of the community,” Roberta said.
They had masquerade balls and dances in the early 1900’s, the military teams played basketball here, Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song” belted out her jazz tunes here, even boxing champion Rocky Marciano touched gloves in the Westerly Armory. But just like many historic structures, as decades go by and the community changes, the Westerly Armory was no longer the epicenter of the town and fell in disarray and neglect. When Roberta came onboard in 1992 the Armory was a mess.
“I touched the building and said I will restore you. It needed everything and we have tried to keep everything true to original form,” she said.
Over the last few years, Roberta and the restoration team have worked hard to bring the building back to life. For example, in the drill hall, the windows were restored, which included new green shades, interior storm windows, HVAC, and an insulated ceiling to name a few of the much-needed repairs.
The cost to operate the Armory every year, which is a town-owned building, is $75,000 not including restoration and their membership program helps immensely with approximately 500 members strong. Also renting out the drill hall for weddings, parties, and other events brings in much-needed funds for continuous restoration and maintenance.
Also holding true to its proud military and community historical roots the Westerly Armory specializes in local military and community memorabilia. The People’s Museum on the first floor is a time capsule of period history artifacts and military icons with much of the memorabilia donated from local residents.
The glass cases in front of the People’s Museum doors are donations from the old McCormicks Department Store in Westerly. There is a civil war corner, displaying a confederate flag made out of vintage wool, an authentic sword from a general, bullets and hand rusted hand cuffs, “people have given things and been generous and we welcome more community things,” says Roberta.
The original executive board chairs from the Washington Trust are displayed in the museum and a hand painted quilt displaying 18 historic armories of Rhode Island decorates the wall. And a photo of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine is displayed along with an actual piece of the subs teak deck. There are even true to form mannequins wearing military uniforms from different branches of service placed throughout the museum space; a tribute to local heroes.
On the way upstairs there are mannequins wearing wedding gowns donated from family members of local residents whose parent or wife was either married at the armory or had their wedding party in its drill hall. A WHS Class of 1896 banner hangs on the wall going up to the second floor as well as Westerly High School portraits from decades ago. on the stairs leading up to more museum rooms.
A case of a World War II Warbirds crafted by Mr. Heinhold of Hopkinson can be seen, along with a uniform on display that the enemy wore as well as an American jumpsuit that was made in Vietnam worn by the soldiers in the jungle. On another mannequin is a reproduction of a revolutionary war uniform with the metal plate or gorget hanging around the neck, a remembrance of medieval times.
The Westerly Band has its own room here on the second floor where they practice every Wednesday night, known as one of America’ oldest active civic bands, their old uniforms, posters, and instruments over 100 years old are on display finding a forever home here at the Westerly Armory.
There are old toys donated from Burdicks Sporting Goods store that used to be on High Street and lunch menus from one of the local restaurants with prices of 20 cents for a delicious peanut butter and bacon sandwich and sliced chicken costing a whopping 35 cents!
Vintage postcards dating back to World War I, C Rations from the Korean War, and MRE’s (meals ready to eat) of rice and beans, even the original Westerly trolley bell. There is something to impress, amaze, engage, and pay tribute to for anyone that appreciates memorabilia and wants to walk through memory lane.
The bowling alley and rifle range that was once down in the basement in the 1920’s is long gone, however the vault that stored military guns remains, but plans for a new community purpose among its stone foundation is in the making. With the goals of the future restoration (Marching in Time Campaign)- the lower level will house a community meeting room, museum work shop, displaying large museum items and exhibits, more rest rooms, and improved storage for museum artifacts.
“It’s alot of fun in this great old space,” says Roberta. The Westerly Armory float is stored down in the garage basement – with a mace and drum featured in the front, a symbol of military and music. The float makes its appearance every few years, spreading its community spirit in the Columbus Day parade.