The Block Island Times

This Week in Block Island's history: June 1, 1900

"For summer use only"
By Robert M. Downie | Jun 01, 2013
Courtesy of: Robert M. Downie In 1890, on the north side of Old Town Road, an ex-mayor from Kansas posed with his family at their summer home — the first Block Island house to be sold and converted to seasonal use. Both the house and the windmill are long gone.

This week in history 113 years ago: In early June 1900, a mayor from the Midwest was traveling through Europe on a round-the-world trip.

In what has become a tradition in recent years for those who own a home on Block Island, he wrote from Paris to the local island newspaper Mid-Ocean, to say hello and establish some bragging rights. And who wouldn't want to mildly boast of a trip abroad — which back then was an event nearly impossible for the average man to experience:

“Capt. W. M. Fortesque, of Levenworth, Kansas, who has for years been a summer resident, has, since the close of last season, made a trip around the world. Accompanied by Mrs. Fortesque, he left San Francisco last November ...

“A recent communication from Capt. Fortesque, of Levenworth, Kan., who owns and occupies ‘Kansas Cottage,’ here during the summer, was dated Paris ...”

The use of "Capt." was not used by the island reporter in a nautical sense, for though William M. Fortesque, at age 65, was circumnavigating the earth, his role was solely as a wealthy passenger.

But he well deserved to be called “Captain,” having fought for the North during the Civil War, rising through the ranks of his West Virginia cavalry regiment and participating in several of the war’s important battles.

Fortesque hailed from Philadelphia and West Virginia, but settled on the Great Plains after the war, where he rose once more, becoming a store owner — selling boots and shoes — and establishing branches in several Western towns. From 1879 to 1882 he was also the mayor of his adopted city in Kansas.

After being freed from those duties, he became one of the very first summer cottagers here, appreciating the cool, comfortable ocean weather of Block Island summers.

While nearly all visitors in the tourist boom of the late-1800s stayed in the island's many rambling hotels at Old Harbor — which sprouted additions and annexes each summer to keep up with increasing demand — a handful of mainlanders began establishing permanent summer lodgings here in the mid-1880s.

For instance, the summer home on the bluffs called “Bit o' Heaven” was constructed in 1886 for a lawyer from New York. The presence of summer homes was hardly noticed, though, and a quarter-century later, in 1910, there were still only about a dozen of them on the island. The great rush by mainlanders to build here would not occur for another 50 years, in the 1960s.

Quite significantly, though, William Fortesque was the very first to buy an existing home here.

In late-1887 and early-1888, the Providence Journal chronicled Mayor Fortesque's real estate purchase on the island, and the changes made to the house soon after by an island carpenter --- which sounds similar to the pattern of recent decades:

“Ex-Mayor Fortesque, of Levenworth, Kan., who purchased the homestead of Captain Joshua Dodge, will remodel and repair the house, and make other improvements.

“A. D. Mitchell has several jobs under way ... he has been making great changes in the old Joshua Dodge homestead now owned by ex-Mayor Fortesque ... part of which consists of the addition of nearly one hundred feet of piazza, eight feet wide, around the lower story.”

Capt. Joshua Dodge was a real sea captain, having commanded a schooner between New York and Canton, China. But when his wife Lucretia — also a Dodge by birth —passed away in July 1887, the 71-year-old Joshua was presumably taken-in by one of his many capable sons, all captains of local Block Island boats.

So, Joshua Dodge sold his farmstead to ex-Mayor Fortesque in 1887, and passed away four years later.

The house stood about two hundred feet north of Old Town Road, opposite the driveway of today's Pennington-Sprague Lumber Yard. It exists now only in old photographs.

In the 1890s the flourishing island was in its heyday, with three profitable industries all thriving: farming, fishing and tourism. Would any of them fall away in importance to become non-existent? Who would have guessed the result on an island at sea with so much bounty of land and water — that farming and fishing would essentially disappear.

Mayor Fortesque, coming from 2,000 miles away had set the pattern, and within a short span of eight decades Block Islanders had chosen to sell the vast majority of their pastures and homes to mainlanders, for summer use only.

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