Wickford Tales


According to the gazetteer, Wickford, Rhode Island (pop., 2,437), ” noted chiefly for its fine eighteenthcentury buildings, for its oyster and lobster fisheries, and for the manufacture of elastic braid. But a lady who has known the town well since 1885 has written for us a considerably more lively account of it. “I was always glad to get back from Europe,” she says, “to Wickford, where things were happening.”—The Editors


My father’s family were simple people. The men, most of them, followed the sea. For years my grandfather sailed the packet carrying the mail from Wickford, a village on Narragansett Bay, over to Newport, on the other side of the bay, and all his boys, as they grew old enough, helped him.

The boys were all very tall and fine looking. Nick, the oldest, grew fast and was always tired, as most overgrown boys are. One winter day he decided he had worked long enough and needed a rest. He told his father his foot hurt him, so he couldn’t make the trip. “Let’s see, Nicky. My, that is serious. You must not put your shoe on. But no one will notice. Come along just the same.” Captain Baker picked up poor Nicky’s shoe, and for two days Nick travelled one shoe off and one shoe on, in the bitter weather. Then he humbly begged his father for his shoe and grate- fully put it on. His brothers never let him forget that episode and many times in life asked him, “Where’s your shoe, Nick?”

Miss Willie Cotter, a cousin, who was very fond of Captain Baker, worried about his winter trips and finally called on him and said, “Captain David, I feel it is my duty to warn you to give up taking the mail to Newport. Something will happen to you. Your grandfather was lost at sea, your father was lost at sea, and your brother was lost at sea.”

“All right, Miss Willie, but don’t you ever go to bed again. Your mother died in bed, your father died in bed, and your grandfather died in bed.” Captain Baker kept on sailing, and he, bless his heart, also died in bed.

My father, David Sherman Baker, Jr., was a captain, with his papers from the customhouse, when he was thirteen years old. He was six foot three then and never grew after that. I grew with the same rapidity and reached five foot ten when I was thirteen. Thank God, I stopped growing. When I was a child and went to the public school in Wickford for one term, between governesses, I heard a visitor say, “What is that woman doing in the class with all those children?” I was eleven.

My father and his brother Ben, after they had finished school in Wickford, went to the East Greenwich Academy, seven miles away. They walked there in the fall when the term began, and soon grew very home- sick. Many days they would walk back till they could look down on Wickford and their home from the hill back of the town, be comforted that it was still there, and walk the seven miles back to East Greenwich. They felt it was not fitting to visit their family until the term ended.

I wonder if Father ever told his mother about that. Probably not. His mother loved him so, and was so proud of him and her six other sons and one daughter. Three of the sons, including Father, worked their way through school and college to become lawyers.

My Grandmother Baker was well disposed toward everyone, and very witty. She came of a race of giants. She was nearly six feet tall and her seven brothers were all over six foot six, and the tallest seven foot four. (It is from her, I suppose, that my father and later my brother and I got our height.) She could always tell a funny story, and possessed the rare gift of being able to laugh at herself. Poor darling, she needed all of her humor the last years of her life, for she became afflicted with an odd disease: she would go in just the opposite direction from where she wanted to go, and the harder she tried not to, the worse it got. If she wanted to go out in the garden she would go into the kitchen.

Once, I remember, I was all dressed up to go to church and went to call on her first. She wanted to come into the parlor and see me and she got under the bed and couldn’t get out. I got under, too, and tried to push her out, but she was as big as I was, and heavier. In some way she got me wedged in, and Grandpa and Father had to lift the bed up to get us out. I was ruined for church.

Grandpa got religion quite late in life. It came on him all of a sudden, and in winter. He wanted and insisted that he be baptized at once, in the Baptist Church. The Baptists immersed for baptism and the minister wanted Grandpa to wait until warmer weather. He said Grandpa had waited fifty-five years, and a few more months couldn’t hurt him.

But Grandpa had great zeal, so they all went to the river—it is said that the crowd was large—and cut the ice, and the minister and Grandpa went in. Grandpa was much bigger than Parson Dawes, and when the Parson immersed Grandpa he sort of let go and Grandpa’s head got under the ice, and one of the deacons had to help pull Grandpa out and help them both to shore, they were so numbed with the cold.

Grandpa said it did him a lot of good and he tried to make his sons be immersed. Some of them were, but they waited till summer.