Once upon a time in East Greenwich, not so many years ago, the town threw a colossal celebration in honor of its 300th anniversary – the Tercentenary. For those who were experienced it, the Tercentenary was an amazing good time. For those who moved here after this monumental effort, it’s difficult to fully appreciate just how big it was.
But we can try! Let’s go back to that summer of 1977.
At the All Star break, the Red Sox were 51-38, just behind Baltimore (still hopeful!). The original “Star Wars” movie was enthralling movie audiences. “Undercover Angel” was on heavy rotation on the radio.
East Greenwich was on its way to becoming the suburb it is today, but was still a small town in 1977.
On Main Street, there were two movie theaters and an Almacs supermarket, the Kent Restaurant served up breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you could buy a suit at Silverman’s. The western part of town was largely farmland, though housing developments like High Hawk and Adirondack were just starting to be built there.
It had been 50 years since the town fathers (and just a few town mothers) put on an impressive five-day celebration to mark East Greenwich’s 250th anniversary. For the 300th, surely East Greenwich needed to do something even bigger. And so it began.
The first thing about it was that name – the Tercentenary.
“We decided early on it wasn’t a tricentennial, but a tercentenary,” recalled Mark Thompson, the Pulitzer-prize winning writer for Time magazine who was a reporter at the East Greenwich Pendulum at the time. “It sounded more grand, less common.”
There was absolutely nothing common about the Tercentenary. It lasted two full weeks, with everything from a pageant performed over six nights, a parade that went from Frenchtown Road to Division Street, a gigantic dance featuring the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, a tall ship docked at Water Street, and fireworks several nights running.
“It was a wonderful way to spend a summer,” said Thompson, who was chairman of the publicity division. There were seven different committees organized under the East Greenwich Tercentenary Commission – executive, revenue, participation, ticket, show, publicity, and special events – involving scads of people.
That was intentional, said Gilbert – Gil – Hempel, “the driving force” behind the Tercentenary, according to Thompson and everyone else interviewed for this article.
“We tried to involve everyone in the community,” said Hempel, who at 89 still lives in town with his wife, Lilian. “If you do something, you always do it bigger than you expect to do it because if you do it on a small scale, that’s where you’re going to end up – on a small scale.”
Hempel, head of the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce at the time, was also commander of the Kentish Guard.
“People didn’t realize they have to live the history of their community,” he said. To help that along, the committee dictated that all men were to wear mustaches or beards and men and women were encouraged to buy or make period costumes (just what period of EG history was left to them).
“I got a 1840s frock coat and a top hat,” said Alan Clarke, who was the production manager at the Pendulum at the time. For something extra, he took some lace from a curtain and put it at the end of his sleeves. He already wore a beard (and does so still!).
To get everyone in the mood, they held a burial procession down Main Street for “Ray Zor” (as in “razor”), with a mock casket carried on a horse-drawn hearse, recalled Nanci Thompson of Briarbrook Auctions. Her father, Lew Thompson, followed the hearse dressed as a clown and carrying a shovel, to pick up any “leavings” from the horse.
Men who didn’t want to grow out their facial hair could buy a badge – one of the ways the Tercentenary Committee raised money to pay for the many events.
Base camp for the Tercentenary planners was the basement of the old Kent County Courthouse (Town Hall today), then home to the EG Chamber of Commerce.
Leading up to the two-week Tercentenary celebration – which went from from Sunday, July 17, to Sunday, July 31, was a Kangaroo Court held Friday evenings in June and July on the front lawn of the Courthouse. “Keystone Kops” would patrol Main Street, making “arrests” when they saw a (designated) person failing to display appropriate Tercentenary spirit (i.e. no beard or no bonnet). These poor souls were “punished for their deeds in a variety of hilarious ways!” read a description in the Tercentenary Calendar.
The calendar itself is a revelation. There were multiple events every single day for two weeks straight – starting with a Tercentenary Horse Show (at Goddard Park) and Tercentenary Boating Races (a keelboat regatta at the EG Yacht Club) on July 17. There was an art show, a skateboard derby, two tennis tournaments, a carnival, a barbershop concert, a country fair, a baseball tournament, a Yankee Steam-Up, a lobster boil, and more – all minor events tucked in between the major events: the ball, the historic pageant, and the parade.
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!