When organizers started planning a celebration to commemorate East Greenwich’s 300th birthday in 1977, they had a template to work from, the 250th Anniversary in 1927. Many involved in what became EG’s Tercentenary had ancestors who’d been part of the 1927 celebration and back decades and decades before that.
As in 1927, the town centered on Main Street, where you could still buy a hammer and some nails, get a special cut of meat at the grocery store, where the high school football team played just two blocks away, at Eldredge Field.
But the town was already changing, shifting westward.
Ironically, the original land grant for the town following King Phillip’s War placed the town center to the northwest, away from the water. But no one wanted to live out there, said to lawyer and local history buff David Dumas. They wanted to live by the water, where many earned their livelihood. For centuries, life in East Greenwich revolved around Main Street – schools were there, businesses were there, residents were there.
The advent of the automobile in the early 1900s started the town’s spread, but even then growth was largely limited to areas within walking distance of Main Street, since most families had only one car. But the second half of the 20th century accelerated the move beyond East Greenwich’s original downtown.
By the early 1970s, the first houses of the High Hawk subdivision off Frenchtown Road were built, followed by houses on Adirondack Drive in the late ‘70s. Houses in Signal Ridge came in the early ‘80s.
The middle and high schools represented the westward trend too. East Greenwich opened its first public high school in 1956, in a building that would become Archie Cole Middle School when a new high school building was built on Avenger Drive in 1967. And in nearby Warwick, the Midland Mall (now the Rhode Island Mall) opened that same year, with the Warwick Mall following in 1970.
“As the population center of the town moved west, the importance of Main Street waned,” said Time reporter Mark Thompson, who grew up in EG and whose journalism career began at the Rhode Island Pendulum.
The celebration of the town’s 300th birthday, then, came just as East Greenwich life centered on Main Street was poised to disappear.
“That was sort of the end of old East Greenwich,” said Thompson. “That was the point of time where what was a small town shuffled off the stage.”
Main Street didn’t collapse, but it did struggle.
By the 1990s, Main Street had lost its grocery store, its hardware store, its department store. It wandered into bridal-land for a while, with a remarkable number of wedding dress shops. An increased number of available liquor licenses prompted the current restaurant craze. If you are looking for an espresso martini or some calamari, you will not have far to look on Main Street, even if you do have to drive to Route 2 for a hardware store or the mall for a new suit.
Seen from 2014, the Tercentenary events of July 1977 seem unimaginably quaint, with people wearing period costumes on Main Street, and Tercentenary-everything (ball-parade-pageant-regatta-concert-prayer service-art show-horse show-“boogie”-tennis tournament-carnival-Currier & Ives exhibit, etc.).
“I think the town was very proud of itself,” said Thompson. “We got a paragraph in the New York Times, which was a great victory for us, on their recommended travel routes [that summer].”
“It was amazing and so much fun,” said Nancy Lemoi, who worked on the Tercentenary Ball. “Everybody knew everybody, it seems to me…. It was just very, very different.”
“It was a memorable summer indeed, a time when East Greenwich delighted in itself,” said Laura Sullivan. “I’m wondering how that would translate into a celebration today. Would there be selfies and tweets and flash-mobs? Ah, ’twas another time, back there in ’77…!”
Author’s Note: I learned about the Tercentenary only two months ago and was so amazed by its breadth and earnestness that I just had to learn more. My husband and I moved to East Greenwich in 1989 and the town we moved to was not the same town as that town that pulled off the Tercentenary a mere 12 years earlier. I’m grateful to all those who shared their recollections with me. This is but a sliver of the story, but I hope it is the beginning of an archive to remember those remarkable days in July 1977. If you have stories to tell and photographs to share, please let me know ([email protected]). I’m happy to post an addendum!