Westerly, 1900

Westerly street scene
Author’s collection. Westerly, ca. 1905-1937

One day nearly two years ago, I entered a bookstore in my hometown of Westerly, Rhode Island. I had heard the store would be going out of business soon and wanted to take one last look around. After a few minutes, I came across a tan binder on the bottom shelf that had certainly seen better days. Curiously, the binder was a promotional item for Mel Scheib and Co. Wholesale Plumbing of Rapid City, South Dakota. Flipping through the contents of the binder, I found pages and pages of clippings from local newspapers – The Daily Tribune, The Westerly Sun, and The Westerly News (only the Sun remains in business today) – dating from 16 February 1889 to 24 January 1919.

The binder, I was told, was formerly the property of George H. Stone, the author of many books on North Stonington, a neighboring town in Connecticut. Realizing that my great-great-grandfather had immigrated to Westerly from Italy in 1889, I immediately purchased the binder, viewing it as an opportunity to better understand the world in which my ancestors lived and to truly see the town as they saw it when they first arrived.

Over the next several weeks, I used these newspaper clippings and maps produced by the Sanborn Map and Publishing Company to reconstruct the town as it existed at the turn of the century.[1] Many of the pieces preserved in the binder were advertisements and classified ads, and in many ways, these proved to be just as fascinating as the articles they likely surrounded. In 1889, it was possible to go down to the local pharmacy (Walter Price and Co.) and purchase an ‘Elixir of Life’ which would cure you of  ‘a disordered state of the stomach.’[2] Also fascinating were the ads for photographers such as the Schofield Bros., who specialized in cabinet portraits and utilized the ‘Bromide Process.’[3]

One feature which became apparent as my maps drew close to their completion was that nearly all of the local businesses being advertised were within a concentrated area near the center of town. This was likely due to the lack of automobiles, making travel across town a much more difficult process. Using a town directory from 1901, I found that my great-great-grandfather Natale Bonvenuto lived about half a mile from the heart of town.[4] Most likely he purchased meat at Henderson’s at 38 Main Street and deposited his paychecks at the Mechanics’ Savings Bank of Westerly.[5]

The binder also contained a wide range of advertisements and articles published on 31 December 1899, showing how local businesses and citizens prepared themselves for the dawn of the twentieth century. Many stores advertised significant sales and promised new inventory for 1900. Walking down streets where many of the buildings remain from 1899, you can almost imagine the experience of walking through town and welcoming the new century.

Wanting to know more, I turned to Westerly Memories, a compilation published by The Westerly Historical Society containing articles and essays written by members presenting their vivid memories of the town’s past.[6] The recollections of a woman named Sallie Elizabeth Coy entitled “Christmas at the Turn of the Century” piqued my interest. According to Coy, “Christmas window dressings of the big department stores were not hastily removed on Christmas Eve, to be replaced by signs of mark downs on left-overs.”[7] She then reminisces about a walk through town during the week before Christmas. She recalls that “Everyone walked in those days – no one thought of hitching up a horse at night unless it was an emergency.”[8]

Electric lights had yet to replace the gas street lamps, making it a rather dark journey through town to see the holiday sights. The detail with which Coy describes these events, nearly 70 years after they occurred, suggests how memorable and special holidays could be in Westerly at the turn of the twentieth century. While no two lives share the same experiences, using newspaper clippings and first-hand accounts of life at the end of the nineteenth century offered me powerful images of my hometown in the time of my ancestors.


[1]    Westerly, Rhode Island maps, February 1885 and August 1891, Sanborn Map and Publishing Co., http://sanborn.umi.com/ri/8106/dateid-000001.htm?CCSI=4090n.

[2]    “Advertisement,” Westerly Tribune, 16 February 1889.

[3]    Ibid.

[4]    Westerly, Rhode Island, 1901, p. 28 in “U.S. City Directories, 1822-1989,” ancestry.com.

[5]    “Advertisement” The Westerly Sun, 31 December 1899.

[6]    Westerly Historical Society, Westerly Memories (Westerly: Sun Graphics, 1989).

[7]    Ibid., p. 31.

[8]    Ibid., p. 33.

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary Garceau joined the Research and Library Services team in 2014 after receiving a master’s degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in History from the University of Rhode Island. Zack also works for the Rhode Island Department of Health as the Chief of the Office of Health Regulation. Areas of expertise: Rhode Island, French-Canadian Genealogy and Sports History. He also enjoys working on heraldic and royal research.

24 thoughts on “Westerly, 1900

  1. These serendipitous finds are golden for the genealogist and local historian. Similar materials may be lurking in many libraries and historical societies. For example, the library historical archive I oversee in Norwalk CT has similar sources and personal and news notes on town businesses ca. 1850-1900.

  2. I have family members that lived in the area at this time. Some of them worked in the quarries, others were farmers in neighboring Wequetquock. I love downtown Westerly, it still has much of the charm and history that you describe.

  3. Wow what a find! It is so rare to find such a window into the daily life of one ancestor in a single binder. I use the resources of small town historical museums, library’s and newspapers to research the daily life. A random news article read that my paternal grandfather and several friends had constructed a boat and transported it by horse and wagon over several days to enter a boat race. He was a horse and mule broker to the US Army.

  4. You were indeed very fortunate to find this treasure. It seems many of us researching our ancestors are very interested in their daily lives and a find like this is just such a wonderful thing.

  5. I had ancestors in Westerly and North Stonington in the 1700s & 1800’s. I didn’t realize that there’s a Westerly Historical Society. Thanks for all the great info!

    1. Hello Patty – So did I. Maybe we are cousins. Are any of these families in your tree:
      Larkin, Babcock, Miner, Chesebrough (various spellings), Kenyon, Cottrell, Crandall?

      Dick Larkin, Vienna, Virginia

      1. To Dick Larkin and Patty:
        My Edward Robinson ancestor migrated from Scituate, Mass, to Newport, RI, in mid 1600s. His sons, Edward and Francis Robinson migrated to Westerly area in late 1600s, establishing a Robinson farm in what became Hopkinton, RI. At that time the border of RI and Conn were disputed and the farm included part of North Stonington and Hopkinton. Edward is listed on the Hopkinton founders monument. Note Robinson street North Stonington which included the Robinson farm. After the revolution the farm was sold and a son Francis Robinson and brothers migrated to now Washington County, New York, to the town of Greenwich in 1789. The RI names referenced above, Kenyon, Crandall, Larkin, Babcock, Robinson, Tefft and others can also be found in Greenwich, NY, today. That’s where I was born in the 1930s. I now live in Alexandria, VA.

        Edward C.Robinson

        1. Hello Edward, I saw this reply of yours while researching my Robinson ancestors. I believe my direct ancestor Jedediah Robinson is the grandson of the Francis, (born 1680, died 1762), you descibed. I know Jedediah’s father was a John Robinson of Hopkinton. I believe this Francis had another son Edward. if you any other info to lead me to this conclusion about Francis, son of Edward being the father of John, grandfather of my Jedediah, (whom is buried at the Flynn farm cemetary in Valley Falls NY,) i would greatly appreciate it. Thank you !

        2. Hello Edward, I also have your Edward, father of Francis, from Scituate as a direct ancestor. Francis had at least one son John, and he was the father of Jedediah, (and 3 other children). whom I have family records for. I have many records including a copy of Jed’s last testament will. My grandfathers grandfather Rowland, was Jed’s grandson. I would be interested in sharing any Robinson history to fill in my tree. My Wiki tree….Robinson-12004

      2. (Elder) John Crandall is an ancestor of mine. I hope to achieve membership in Colonial Dames XVII Century through him. I live in southwest Georgia. Merry Christmas!

  6. Great article! Thanks for including the citation link to the Sanborn maps. Where did you access your map? Do you have a subscription to them? If so could I have your opinion of the value for the cost idea. Do you know if they have a genealogical non-for-profit group rate? Do you know if ProQuest has a similar program fro Sanborn maps for Canada?

    1. I found them at http://sanborn.umi.com/ri/8106/dateid-000001.htm?CCSI=4090n. I believe NEHGS has a subscription, as I was not able to access them from outside the building without a subscription, unfortunately, I do not know much regarding the cost or the subscription process, however, I can say that the selection of maps available through this site is diverse and very useful for historical research.

  7. Have you seen George Stone’s two books of autobiography/local history, published by the North Stonington Historical Society some years ago? He lived to age 104, saw everything, and knew everybody. He and his wife are buried in the Union Cemetery, North Stonington. My friend Anna (whose sister Jean had helped him with editing the first book) knew Mr. Stone for many years, and introduced me to both books. I hope you’re able to get down to Westerly and hang out with the old-timers every so often. During much of the year the North Stonington Historical Society serves lunch every Wednesday at its HQ in the Stephen Main House in North Stonington Village.

    1. I am able to get to Westerly as often as possible, and I love learning about all of the local history, so this would be perfect, thanks for the info!

  8. I immediately went to the full article when I received the notice via email. Westerly, Rhode Island, was the home of my Clark ancestors from 1669 to about 1800 when the Clark family started their trek westward through New York State, Iowa, and eventually to near Brookings, South Dakota in the late 1800s where my grandmother was born in 1889. I’m always looking for articles about places my ancestors lived.

    1. Thankfully, there is a wealth of resources on Westerly. While it was first published in 1878, Frederick Denison’s “Westerly and Its Witnesses” is still one of the better resources available: https://books.google.com/books?id=oNAaMBIFWtcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=westerly,+rhode+island&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAGoVChMIkpOnlNecyQIVR-0eCh2VlAk7#v=onepage&q=westerly%2C%20rhode%20island&f=false

      As you may know, there is a village in North Stonington, which borders Westerly, known as Clark’s Falls, which was named after Alfred Clark who operated a carding factory there until 1895. The surname Clark is one which has a long and significant history in the southwestern Rhode Island and Southeastern Connecticut area.

  9. My wife’s Payne family ancestors migrated to Westerly in 1898 and many are still living there or in the area. The related families I have researched are principally Payne, Fisher, and Percey. Several of the children in the first family to migrate did work in the Westerly Granite quarry at the top of the hill off of Route 1. They lived on Chestnut Street in a house that was still in the family until the late 1990’s. In addition the more recent generations married with families who had been in Westerly/Watch Hill/Pawcatuck/Stonington area. Many of the family are buried in Riverbend Cemetery.

  10. I am a descendent of Elder John Crandall, one of the founders of Westerly, and am always eager to learn more about him and the area. Also his son Samuel and Samuel’s son Samuel. Can’t find much about the first Samuel. This summer I had the opportunity to visit Westerleigh in England.

  11. My great great grandmother, Carolina Benvenuto (Bonvenuto) was your great great grandfather Natale’s sister! So, Zachary, I think we are related! I would love to share with you the family history I have dug up in Westerly, and I would bet you have some interesting tidbits as well!

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