Above: EGHPS’s Jen Suellentrop, Rachel Peirce and Matt Carcieri with one of the new historic signs dotting the downtown area. This sign is about the East Greenwich Academy, which stood at that location for many decades, serving as the high school for EG teens and others.
A self-guided, interpretive history trail through downtown
It was a difficult decision by the East Greenwich Historic Preservation Society to sell the Old Jail at 110 Water St. a few years ago, faced with the prospect of spending every penny they had (and more they’d have to borrow) as well as all the energy they could muster to run an all-volunteer organization out of the historic Old Jail at 110 Water St. But that decision has borne fruit (and the sale was made with a historic preservation easement).
The organization set about reimagining itself, with more outreach and collaborations and, most significantly, with the installation of 10 of the 12 signs the organization created to tell various aspects of East Greenwich history. Perhaps you’ve come upon one, in front of Town Hall, the Varnum Armory, or on Peirce Street. Each one tells a different story – some familiar, like the history of the Kentish Guard, and some not so familiar, like the history of the immigrants who came to the area to work in the textile mills, including the mill on King and Water streets, where that sign was erected.
They are a fascinating combination of text, old photos, and artwork, with every word and image carefully planned. And coordination with the town a must – while EGHPS provided the signs, the town has installed them.
The core team behind the signs are Jennifer Suellentrop, Rachel Peirce, and Matt Carcieri. All three are quick to point out that they are amateur historians only, with regular day jobs. But they admit this project pretty much took over their lives once it was conceived about two years ago.
They wanted to do it right, so they did a lot of research about how communities carry out ideas like this. What history gets told? Whose voices are heard? What images are used?
“You can go a lot of different directions,” said Suellentrop. “One of the things that was important to us was to highlight unique things of the town but also themes that resonate within the American story. For example, the sign we have down at the old mill, that’s chiefly about immigration – immigration that swept the country – and industrialization.”
They decided not to tell the story in a linear fashion, i.e., earliest history to today. Instead, they decided to group it thematically.
“The Town Hall sign is about justice and the outsized role the courthouse played, and East Greenwich being the county seat, played in the town’s development,” Suellentrop said. That led to another aspect of the signs, she noted. “One of the other things we have running subtly through here is that East Greenwich punches above its weight.”
For Carcieri, that has been a particular revelation. He had been living in Ohio for 20 years before moving back to East Greenwich two years ago.
“I grew up in this town, four generations in this town, but now that I did this project, I really kind of have that amazing sense of, this town really does punch above its weight throughout its history,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the unique features of the town – the fact that we’re on the Post Road, we had a world-class harbor, the fact that we were on the main rail line. All those things elevated this town in a way that a lot of towns this size would never come close to.
Other outsize EG attributes: the East Greenwich Academy, a prestigious high school, and the Kent County Courthouse (now Town Hall), which served as the county seat.
Carcieri noted East Greenwich had one of the very first steam-powered textile mills in the nation – at the bottom of King Street. “We were really in the vanguard for using steam for power.”
One of the signs (located on Church Street just up from Main Street) is about the Black Regiment raised during the Revolutionary War – East Greenwich was the birthplace for that regiment.
The signs are all along a 1.2 mile trail, though many you will just happen on while walking around downtown. That too was by design. They learned they needed to put the signs where people would naturally walk.
She and Carcieri worked on the text; it was up to Peirce, a graphic artist, to lay out each sign. They didn’t want the signs to be too wordy so they kept to a strict word count. For images, most of the photos came from the EGHPS collection. But they tapped various experts to provide extra authenticity, including an expert about the Black Regiment; local David Drew about Scalloptown; members of the Kentish Guard; Lorén Spears, of the Tomaquag Museum; and Charles Roberts, director of the R.I. Slave Medallion project.
They also commissioned local artists to provide illustrations, including Dawn Spears of the Northeast Indigenous Arts Alliance, and EGHS grads Susan Leach and Chase Buckley.
“We really did things with such care,” said Suellentrop, aiming for diversity and representation (for instance in the Academy sign on Peirce Street there is a photo of a girls team as well as a boys team). “And we tried to be as objective as possible.”
It all comes back to the very big decision to sell the Old Jail building.
“This would not have been possible, both financially and with regard to the time spent, if the EGHPS had not sold the Old Jail,” Suellentrop said. “Our mission is to educate about the history of East Greenwich. Before, all of our energy was going into the jail building.”
And a lot of members couldn’t even access it, both because of a lack of parking and because their meeting area was on the second floor.
Today, she said, the organization is having a renaissance, with 100 members.
Unveiling is tentatively set for Sunday, Sept. 17, at 4 p.m. at the Kentish Armory. Other fall activities include “trick-or-treating through history,” with children able to collect candy at each of the signs. The EGHPS October meeting will be held at Finn’s Harborside, and will focus on rum running. You can learn more about the EGHPS, its activities and the signs at their website HERE.