This Week in History — March 12, 1887: Remembering the “Pepper Party” and the “Blue Shutters”
This week in history 125 years ago, on March 12, 1887, Elias Littlefield died at the age of 73.
He was born on Block Island during the War of 1812 against England. Elias might have been seen in his mother’s arms by the British soldiers who roamed the island at will during that three-year conflict, just as they had done a generation earlier during the Revolution.
Elias’s house, though, was even older than that, having been built about 1750. For a Block Island house tour in 1950, it was said that “this house is the original wood from the Island trees, all put together with wooden pegs, over 200 years old.”
The house has been owned during recent decades by Joan Dolan. To anyone living on Block Island, that fact instantly identifies the home’s location as the house near the end of Corn Neck, at the bottom of the big hill down to Sachem Pond. It's a good place for a lemonade stand.
Just imagine: in the mid-1700s, the family living in the home could take a walk and see original island trees, growing when the settlers came in 1661.
By 1800, though, those had largely disappeared, and the island turned into one vast open farm encumbered only by crisscrossing stone walls.
For more than another 150 years, the home’s owners could look easily from their windows and see Sachem Pond just down the road, with the sand dunes of Sandy Point and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
Until 1829 they would have seen only darkness at night across that panorama. That year the first North Lighthouse was built, the gleam cast by oil wicks in the lantern probably seeming preternatural, then ultimately comforting.
Elias’s ownership of the house had been so secure during much of the 1800s that in the minds of his fellow islanders this had been his “homestead,” and that is what a newspaper article called it eight months after his death, when his son and two daughters sold the six-acre property together “with Dwelling House, barn and other buildings” for $1,000 in November 1887.
The purchaser was John Hayes, who lived only until 1892. His three grown sons became well-established on Block Island, as did his grandson John “Frank” Hayes, who became the preeminent builder of the island’s grand Victorian-style hotels and houses, beginning his carpentry in the 1880s and continuing until his death in 1936.
In 1921 the home was acquired by a newcomer to the island, William Webb, and its story went off on a different tack, across the uncharted, unexpected decade of the 1920s era of Prohibition that had begun the year before. As Americans rebelled instantly against the idea of liquor being illegal, some newspaper articles about Block Island began to be written in a sort of code, some of which can’t be cracked today.
One article from July 1921 was straightforward enough:
"The rum laden ship which lay off the Island last week succeeded in landing several consignments of contraband moonshine safely on the Island under cover of darkness, with the assistance of a certain fishing craft.”
Just a month later a story appeared requiring some thought to understand:
"Last Saturday night was indeed a weird night for Block Islanders. For some good reason or other the MOON must have become greatly peeved at its celestial neighbors and, deserting them, dropped some million miles nearer to the Isle of Manisses, with the result that two-thirds of the nocturnal strollers frequenting the village streets were visibly affected by the close proximity of its SHINE ... According to general observation, Captain John Barleycorn is meeting with alarming success in gathering recruits for his Bromo Seltzer Brigade ...”
The following newspaper story, though, also from 1921, and the sole piece of anecdotal record left for future generations by William Webb during his eight-year stay on the island, can only be wildly guessed at:
“Bill Webb, proprietor of the Sachem Pond Casino entertained a number of his friends at a Pepper party one night last week.”
All I can think is that pepper, like salt, does make a person thirsty.
In the late 1920s the property was purchased by a mainland woman, Susan Morgan, remaining with her through the Depression, the World War II years, and into the quiet decade of the 1950s, by which time her place was christened the “Blue Shutters” house.
Morgan would spend some of her time on the island hand-coloring black-and-white photographs of local homes, for instance Alice Huggins’s Cape Cod style house a mile away on Corn Neck next to Mansion Road.
Happily Susan Morgan’s family kept ownership throughout the 20th century, during recent decades in the person of Joan Dolan.
As a real estate promoter would point out, though, the once-grand views of Sachem Pond, the North Light, and the ocean have been wiped out by the thick growth of brush on Block Island since the 1960s, the unnecessary fate of many homes on the island.
The house also, the reasoning might go, is too old and should be torn down. And to justify the expense of building a new home on the site, there should be the largest number of bedrooms and bathrooms possible, to make the new house more rentable. That’s common sense “Block Island style.”