As a part of our long-standing effort to more closely examine the historic cemeteries of our fair town, this week we are going to tarry for a time at the burial place of famed 19th century hand weavers William Henry Harrison Rose and his two sisters, Misses Elsie and Mary Rose.
This small historic cemetery, found near the intersection of Shermantown and Slocum Roads out in the southwestern corner of town — an area once known as Dark Corners — is, without a doubt, the most unusual historic cemetery in all of Rhode Island. Indeed, it may be one of the most unique historic cemeteries anywhere. But before we explore that claim, let’s examine the life of the good weaver.
William Rose was born just a few weeks after the untimely death of the nation’s 9th president, William Henry Harrison, who served the nation for only 30 days before becoming the first Commander-in-Chief to die in office. He and his sisters were third general hand weavers and lived a life split between running their small farm and operating the many looms, both large and small, on the second floor of their ancient home perched right on the North Kingstown-Exeter town line. “Quaker Billie,” as he was known, and his sister Elsie were perhaps the most talented and accomplished weavers in the region. They specialized in superbly detailed patterned wool cloth in unique designs with names such as “cart wheels and cathedral windows.” Folks came from miles to purchase their coverlets, pillow covers, drapes and throws. You never knew who might show up at their door. Teddy Roosevelt and his wife stopped by more than once; the famed authors of the Wister, LaFarge, and Wharton families all owned Weaver Rose coverlets and drapes; and examples of Billie and Elsie’s work can be found far and wide — from Smith’s Castle here in town to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Quaker Billie was a character in his own right; a man who insisted on taking a cold water bath each and every day and almost never wore shoes except in the very dead of winter. Stopping by his place was a memorable event for those who purchased his remarkable fabric. Even toward the end of his days, as the 20th century began and intricate machine-made textiles were becoming more readily available, Quaker Billie and Miss Elsie’s work was in such demand that there was still a waiting list.
Now, one of William Henry Harrison Rose’s greatest peculiarities was his total inability to come to grips with the idea of spending eternity buried below ground. In the end, his sisters came up with a unique solution when they placed the good weaver, in final repose, into a small hollow at the bottom of an animal impound on their farm. They then had the 20’ X 30’ stonewall-enclosed pen filled in with soil to the very top. So now Quaker Billie Rose rests for all eternity buried right on the surface of his own farm. Both of his sisters joined him there when they died as well. Although as devout Quakers, there are no gravestones to mark the final resting place of the Roses of Dark Corners, their one-of-a-kind family cemetery speaks volumes about these extraordinary souls.