The Courthouse, aka The Courthouse

by | Jun 8, 2014

By Alan Clarke


Every day a little bit of East Greenwich disappears. This is to be expected, of course. Progress takes many forms. It was as recently as 60 years ago some children took their baths in galvanized wash tubs. Water was heated on a stove after being brought up to the sink by a hand pump. I remember hand pumps in houses. I remember my grandmother washing clothes on a wooden rack that had a washtub on one side, a rinse tub on the other and a wringer in the middle.

No one washes clothes — or children — in washtubs any longer. If there isn’t a washer and dryer somewhere in the house, there’s a laundromat down the street. If the bathtub is upstairs in the house and you don’t want to go upstairs, there’s a shower downstairs. This is progress and welcome progress, to be sure.
Just this morning my coffee group was discussing someone being somewhere and I piped in “that’s where Gino’s useta be!” Everyone understood exactly where it was even though Gino’s hasn’t been there for over 30 years. We geezers have long memories. Things change daily in East Greenwich but we old timers don’t keep up and usually describe a place with a “useta be” suffix. We don’t have a clue, and often don’t care, what’s there now. As near as I can remember, the only business that’s still where it used to be is the hotel.
It wasn’t too far back that a woman in a car stopped me on Main Street and asked me how to get to Eldredge School. I told her to keep heading south and take a right where Benny’s useta be. I wonder if she found the school without having to ask someone else farther down the road. “We don’t know who lives there now but Jimmy Smith used to live there.” Jimmy Smith has been dead 50 years but he once lived in that house.
And speaking of Eldredge School, does anyone even have a clue who James H. Eldredge was? I do, of course. I’m an historian of sorts and took the time to find out. But a big brick school building, a water fountain, and a cross once in the middle of the road, say nothing about the man except he must have been here to have these things named after him. Well, he and his father before him, were the big medical men in town in the 1800s. If you had a baby, cut your finger, got bitten by a horse, or caught the plague, Dr. Eldredge come knocking at your door. 
So why don’t we change the name of the school to some current dignitary as did the old Main Street Garage building at 333 Main Street. It has a new name on it unrelated to anything townish that I recall. Well, we don’t usually do that sort of thing on public buildings. A few years back, the Warwick School Committee tried to change the name of the Potowomut School from General Nathanael Greene School to Senator John H. Chafee School. Few even knew the school was named for the number two general in the Revolutionary War, a local chap, but after several riotous-uproarly meetings, the School Committee backed off and found it easier to knock the school down instead. Not that Senator Chafee wasn’t also a local hero too, it just wasn’t right to dethrone one hero for another on a public building. At one time, for a year or so, the town’s name was changed to Dedford, but that didn’t last long and no one knows why Dedford came and went. We don’t change names! Period!
And now to the point of all this. There’s them that work for the town who think the Courthouse in which they labor should now be called the Town Hall, since, well, that’s what it is. Truth is, though, it was the Kent County Courthouse for 200 years, 200 years… and it is the second one on that site. The Town Hall, for most of us living today, “useta be” on Peirce Street and for many of us even older folk, it was on Main Street where stands a parking lot now, the Town Hall parking lot. Truth is, the old/new town hall on Peirce Street was more often called the “Town House.” Since the term “town hall” is already taken so the new/new Town Hall will forever be the Courthouse because it was from the steps — well the pre-Sequinoian steps — of that Courthouse that young attorney and Revolutionary War dispatch rider Jacob Campbell read aloud the terms of Cornwallis’ surrender to the assembled masses. When he finished reading, he keeled over and died a few weeks later from consumption. That was a big deal, announcing the end of the War of Revolution! Nothing quite that historic has taken place inside or outside that building since then. 
So how does history allow for that venerable old building to become something else? In use? Sure! Progress. Remember? But in name? Never! Fact is, if this town — under the plasticly tourist-beckoning “Hill and Harbour (sic.) District” sobriquet — is so proud of its historical heritage earned with the blood of those buried hereabouts … this town should continue to say the town hall is in the Old Kent County Courthouse at 125 Main Street or some such, lessened in length and more fitting to the occasion, I suppose! The building, even with its Twentieth Century warts, appendages, and flora arrangements, still reeks with Colonial splendor. Much too grand for a town hall. 


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