This Week in History — September 22, 1888: Ansel Ball’s firm handshake
This week in history, in their local newspaper of September 22, 1888, islanders could read about the beginning of a new cottage on a farm halfway down Corn Neck:
“Mr. Hiram A. Ball has contracted with Mr. A. D. Mitchell for a new house.”
For most of its life, including today, the two-story house has been called Cottage Farm.
Construction of the home of Hiram Ansel Ball (1851-1926) — who was widely known as Ansel Ball — was probably the last building that Amos D. Mitchell, an experienced island contractor, built before moving to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, where he would expand his carpentry business and employ 20 men. Amos died at Fairhaven, across the harbor from New Bedford, in 1898.
That same year of 1888, Amos Mitchell constructed the 1661 Inn on Spring Street, which began life as a private home. The year before he erected a deluxe, 220-foot-long barn for the Ocean View Hotel, with ornate ventilating cupolas spread along the ridge, and second floor dormers. In 1882 he built the Belleview hotel on High Street, as well as the skating rink in the middle of town, which two decades later was given the name used today, the Empire Theatre. Amos Mitchell also erected the first life-saving station on the island, in 1872 at Southwest Point. The Ocean View barn disappeared in the 1930s; and the life-saving station, at the end of Cooneymus Road, was replaced in the mid-1880s by a larger design that is now a summer home.
Amos D. Mitchell’s own house still stands: the fascinating three-gabled house in the middle of Old Town Road that is the closest thing on Block Island to an Italianate villa. Sadly, the original multi-colored painting scheme has been long abandoned and, as with most of Block Island’s old buildings, many decorative features have gone from the exterior: the balcony over the front porch, the double sets of small brackets over each window, and the nicely framed triple-panels along the base of the two large bay windows.
So when Ansel Ball picked Amos Mitchell in 1888 to build his house on the Neck, to be rendered in an adventuresome style, he felt, no doubt, confident in his choice of carpenter.
Rather than having additions stuck onto his house as the decades went by — a naturally appealing process that creates a quaint ‘casually enlarged’ look — Ansel Ball’s house was built right from the start with two ells, giving an instantly comfortable homey feeling, a place that you would wish an uncle or a grandmother owned, or even yourself.
Part of the unique look of Ansel Ball’s house, which later gained the formal name Cottage Farm, is due to the exemplary roof dormers that rise directly upwards, flush with the front wall. A bargeboard of gingerbread carving, seeming to drip frosting, hangs from all the edges of the roof.
The gables in each end of the house, as well as those in the many dormers, are covered in shingles cut in sawtooth and diamond patterns. Small brackets holding up dripboards, sculpted in different pointed and horizontal varieties, are over each window.
The effect was calculated by Ansel Ball the owner, and Amos Mitchell the builder. The elaborate, calculated style was called “Queen Anne,” as reported in July 1889 when the home was finished:
“Mr. A. D. Mitchell....has erected a new residence on the Neck for Mr. H. Ansel Ball. This house is of a modified Queen Anne type, is 28 X 32, with one ell 18 X 22, and another in the rear 12 X 14.”
When young, Ansel went to sea for a living, but as a 22-year-old was lured back home. The reason was later explained by a newspaper:
“Ansel Ball during his younger days spent most of his time upon the sea, but after his marriage on November 8, 1873, to Miss Cordelia J. Lewis, sister of ex-Senator Ray G. Lewis, he gave up his maritime pursuits and engaged extensively in farming, owning and operating one of the largest and best stocked farms upon the Island.”
Ansel’s father, Capt. Hiram Ball, had stayed much longer on the ocean, having success as captain of a ship trading cargo to the West Indies. He returned to land for good about the age of 40, settling on the farm he had bought earlier on the Neck and watching his children grow.
Hiram Ball’s old Cape Cod style house — built in the plainest possible manner, as were nearly all island buildings before 1875 — also still exists, back off Corn Neck Road behind Cottage Farm, owned for several recent decades by the Curtis family. Hiram spent the last quarter-century of his years as keeper of the North Lighthouse, living a near classic Block Island life: deep-water captain, home from the sea to buy a farm, then keeper of one of the most romantically located lighthouses in America.
That islanders in such a small town influenced each other would be expected, but in Ansel Ball’s case there were enough fine examples within his own family to propel him to success.
For instance, Ansel’s wife Cordelia was the daughter of William P. Lewis, owner of one of the largest and finest farms on the island, still in the family and well-known as today’s Lewis Farm in the southwest. William P. Lewis also built the first National Hotel in 1887, and his son Ray Lewis built today’s National Hotel on the same spot in 1903.
Ansel’s older sister Charity married Edward S. Payne, who also was born and raised on one of the island’s largest and finest farms, also well-known today as Payne Farm. In October 1877 Edward Payne laid the foundation for his new home, in anticipation of his marriage the next month on November 28. That house, still in the Payne/Phelan family, is one of the most, if not the most, tasteful and elegant designs erected here. The name Charity, incidentally, brought into the family by this marriage, has also been passed down to the present Payne generation.
Ansel’s brother, Macy Ball, owned the Eureka Hotel, built in 1887 the year before Ansel’s house, and his uncle Nicholas Ball owned the massive Ocean View Hotel, the largest hotel in southern New England.
It seems logical that Ansel would take profits from his farming prowess, and turn them into a venture to earn money from tourists.
So, Ansel opened his home to boarders.
At first called simply “Ball’s Cottage,” the local newspaper in July 1895 described Ansel’s venture, which included his wife quite prominently:
“This house is on the Neck Road, about midway between the Mansion, so called, and Lake Harbor. Its proprietor, Mr. H.A. Ball, is one of our most intelligent and successful farmers, and though he does not get much time to look after the house himself, his wife looks closely after the comfort of her guests.”
Incidentally, the newspaper reporter happened to indicate, too, how geographic names change — sort of like water flowing downhill, but in this case the easiest path between brain and tongue is what counts.
The name he tentatively used, “Mansion,” did stick, just as it adheres firmly to the present-day beach where the Mansion stood until destroyed by fire in 1963.
But the name “Lake Harbor” didn’t last long. When a channel was dug into Great Salt Pond that year of 1895, islanders were perplexed what to call it, because now there were two harbors instead of one — and just a quarter-century earlier there had been none at all.
So, for a while in the late 1890s, Great Salt Pond was given names such as “Lake Harbor” or “West Harbor.” And the first harbor, where the village was, began to be called East Harbor. But some people probably cannot tell opposite directions apart as easily as they can remember what is old and what is newer. So now we have Old Harbor and New Harbor.
The business became popular, and when Ansel died in 1926 he was missed:
“For a number of years many prominent people from Rhode Island and Massachusetts have spent their summers at his farm and these guests upon their return to the Island next season will greatly miss his pleasant greeting and hearty handshake.”