The Block Island Times

This Week in History: The one and only “The Season”

By Robert M. Downie | Aug 02, 2012
Guests of the Manisses discover “The Season” about 1910, relaxing on hammocks and rockers underneath paper Japanese lanterns.

In the beginning God created four seasons — dedicated perhaps to the proposition that all seasons would be created equal. But it was Man who would change that and create “The Season” — meaning the all-too-short summer, which in the past began in the middle of July.

In the late 1800s in the eastern United States, shortly after the Civil War, a large middle class rose in cities and towns. That new prosperity, together with ever-better railroad services, led to the concept that most Americans should be granted leisure days, if not weeks, during the hot summers of that non-airconditioned era.

The phrase “The Season” became the short, all-encompassing term for spirits rising after a long winter, flowers blooming, and carefree pleasure seekers streaming toward the coolness of resorts newly sprouted in the mountains and along the coasts of the northeast.

A hundred and more years ago, The Season began now, about July 12 to 15, when hotel staffs would finally reach full size. This exuberant period lasted just six or seven weeks, ending in the very early days of September. Even today on Block Island, August is considered “The Month” of the summer.

The building of the breakwater at Old Harbor in the early 1870s allowed steamships to bring — to disgorge — tourists in search of that special time of year. Implications of The Season here were soon recognized by islanders, who would forever after have two parts of each year: The Season being one, and the rest of the year, which became the Off Season.

This numerical figure happened also to match Block Islanders’ uniquely bipartite view of the only two parts of the world: “The Island” and the rest of the planet, which is commonly called “The Mainland.”

When the season ended, the other part of the year began, and those months seemed to exist only to prepare for the Next Season — as demonstrated by this 1878 newspaper article, written on the fifth day of September just three years after steamships began regular summer service to Block Island:

“The season of ‘78, now very near its close, has been an exceedingly prosperous one at Block Island, and it is unmistakably evident that the place is rapidly increasing in popularity.

“Scarcely a day has passed when there has not been a steamer here crowded with passengers, and some days two or three; indeed, on one day there were four steamers here, all bringing their complement of excursionists to sniff the invigorating ocean breezes of the ‘sea girt isle,’ and ramble over her rugged hills and cliffs...

“It was considered a pretty good day when seven or eight hundred or perhaps a thousand excursionists would arrive, but when they pour in to the extraordinary number of twenty-two hundred on one steamer, as was the case on one day this season, landlords begin to look about and see if there isn’t a need of enlargement.”

By the 1960s, prosperity had ceased. There was still The Season — distinct and clearly defined as ever — but the frenzy of new hotel construction had ended a distant 50 years earlier, workers now contenting themselves in painting the handful of hotels still being maintained.

In the 1960s and 70s when college kids — always from U.S. schools — competed eagerly for summer jobs here, The Season lasted until exactly the day after Labor Day. Back then, school began that week, not the week prior to the holiday, as now.

Only two ferry trips were made to the island each summer day, and on that fateful day after Labor Day, islanders and friends would gather at the dock to see the mass exodus and participate in many teary-eyed farewells.

If you felt very adventuresome, you might stay on the island for two days after Labor Day, experiencing the silence of Water Street, the closed-up shops and hotels, the utterly empty beaches, the near shutting down, overnight, of the life you’d lived so intensely for two months.

The Season is not quite so abruptly begun or ended now, but everyone knows there are still just two parts of each year, and only two places in the world.

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