It was a nostalgic trip back in time for the opening exhibit at the Westerly Library Art Gallery celebrating Westerly’s 350th anniversary. Visitors walked around viewing a historical timeline depicted through vintage photos, display cases filled with memorabilia, mannequin’s dressed in Victorian pieces, and military uniforms.
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Presented by the Babcock –Smith House Museum and the Westerly Historical Society, the exhibit is a timeline dating back before 1669 up to 2018, stories of the events, history, and progress through time of our proud community.
“I’m glad people have been enjoying it so much, we’ve had a really great turn out and I’m really happy about it,” said Zachary Garceau, who is part of the committee that put the exhibit together and an archivist for the Westerly Historical Society. “I actually did a little bit of everything, but my biggest roles were finding items we could use, tracking them down, writing labels for the items, and I constructed the map which shows where various historical events happened in town.”
Visitors stopped before the mounted black and white images on the walls and conversations came alive as longtime residents reminisced about the old Woolworth 5 and 10 cent on High Street that burned down in 1977 and was replaced with a parking lot, the steamboats that cruised up and down the Pawcatuck River that brought guests to the hotels, and the 1938 hurricane that demolished much of the town and changed the topography for the future.
There was a poster-size reproduction of the special Hurricane Edition of The Sun with the headline reading: Misquamicut Wiped Out; Napatree Point Gone; 50 Dead; Scores Missing. The article went on to describe all the damage that occurred during the 1938 hurricane and listed the names of those dead and missing from the area.
During that time period there was no local radio station and the hurricane edition was printed on a hand-fed press on the second floor of the Westerly Sun. There were actual blown-up photos of other floods and blizzards that swept through the area and what the streets looked like, Canal Street was flooded during one particularly bad storm as well as Pleasant Street and the Pawcatuck Bridge had a raging river running through it during a flood that occurred in 1886.
In one of the display cases there was “hair art” that was a popular craft that young women enjoyed doing during the Victorian era. They took hair from friends and family both alive and dead and from the locks of hair tied it in swirls and circles using tiny ribbons of color.
Black and white photos showed what the Westerly Library, town buildings, and churches looked like, horse-drawn carriages and trolleys were seen dotting the streets as well as the World War II memorial outside of Wilcox Park.
During the mid 19th century Westerly experienced rapid growth in their industry and commerce with the boom of granite, shipbuilding, and textile. A series of storyboards and photos depicted rugged looking workers sitting amongst their piles of granite, with proud smiles from their hard work.
With the expansion of Westerly’s trade and manufacturing industries, this led to an emerging consumer class and Westerly became a destination for visitors to enjoy fishing, sailing, and surf. People arrived by steamboat, railway and trolley from New York, Connecticut, and Cincinnati and by 1840 Watch Hill was a popular seaside resort. Before it got demolished in the 1938 hurricane, The Larkin House was one of the largest hotels that served as many as 400 guests in a season.
The exhibit “is a celebration of Westerly’s history and everything that has happened over the last 350 years including the people who made the town what it is today,” says Zack. “It has gotten a lot of people thinking about the importance of not only knowing our history, but preserving it.”
There are many events happening over the next year to celebrate Westerly’s 350th! The Westerly Historical Society and the Babcock-Smith House are collaborating and hosting free events as well as actively collecting items to document local history, check out how you can become involved