190314ind history

For many Rhode Islanders, no summer is complete without at least one trip to Aunt Carrie’s in Narragansett. But many visitors are probably unaware of the legacy of Carrie (Campbell) Cooper, a South County native who founded and ran the business while also raising six children.

As it is Women’s History Month, it makes perfect sense that we take a gander at the woman who may be South County’s most famous. I guess there’s probably not a Rhode Islander among us who is not familiar with the name “Aunt Carrie.” There are many who claim without Aunt Carrie there’d be no clam cakes.

I ask you, “would southern Rhode Island still be southern Rhode Island if the clam cake had not been conceived? Is it not true that this lowly fritter has become something of an institution around these parts? Why is it that no one seems to realize that Carrie “Campbell” Cooper, Swamptown’s most famous lass (yes she was born and raised in Swamptown), belongs in the Rhode Island Hall of Fame?” She not only invented the clam cake and operated one of Narragansett’s most successful summer eateries, she also ran a family and raised six children.

With all this in mind, I put a challenge out to Senator James Sheehan, the man who represents the district within which Aunt Carrie had the most impact. Let’s get this humble Swamptown girl into the Hall of Fame where she belongs.

Carrie Campbell was born in Swamptown in a farmhouse near the Kettle Hole Pond in June of 1875, to the same James and Susanna (Northup) Campbell that also raised future postmaster Ralph Campbell. She was educated at the Swamptown district schoolhouse and at the age of 19 was married to Owen Gardiner Jr. Sadly, in a time when this was an unusual event, Carrie’s marriage to Owen failed and they were divorced. Carrie Campbell was suddenly a young single mother with an uncertain future. Her luck changed though, as in the first decade of the 1900s, she met, fell in love with, and married an up-and-coming Connecticut lumber dealer with the impressive moniker of Ulysses Simpson Grant Cooper. After her marriage to Ulysses, Carrie and her daughter Beatrice left RI for their new home in Norwich, Conn. — not for long though.

The Cooper family returned to the beaches of Narragansett each summer for an extended vacation of fishing, swimming and camping. The time was around 1919 and Ulysses always complained to Carrie, and anyone who might listen, about the fact that there was no place in his beloved Point Judith to get a cold drink and a bite to eat. This got Carrie to thinking and before long she and her children were selling cold lemonade and corn fritters, to the delight of the other fisherman and vacationing families, out of a tent on their campsite. Carrie’s children, like children do, enjoyed digging clams at low tide and one day as she was making her corn fritters, perhaps she ran out of corn, who knows, she decided to substitute their quahogs for the corn in her recipe and the rest, as they say, is history. Ulysses, a man with a business sense, knew Carrie was on to something and the next season, the summer of 1920, he had a stand built where the restaurant now sits. Each season Carrie’s clam cakes, chowder and lemonade got a little bit more popular and “Aunt Carrie’s” restaurant got a little bigger. Eventually the businesses success motivated Ulysses to give up the lumber trade, and he and Carrie moved their family back to RI, settling on Narragansett Avenue in Narragansett.

Four generations later, Aunt Carrie’s restaurant is still a family-run institution. Ulysses, who died in 1953 and Aunt Carrie, who passed on in 1964 are now resting side-by-side in Elm Grove Cemetery, just a mile or so from where Carrie Campbell was born. Her memory though, lives on in the form of a wonderful restaurant and the satisfaction we all feel when we bite into a steamy warm clam cake, wherever we purchase it.

Now if that feeling, owned by every Rhode Islander since Carrie and Ulysses, and every visitor to our little state since 1920, doesn’t warrant inclusion in the Hall of Fame, well then this Swamp Yankee doesn’t know what does.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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