210527ind history

If you’ve lived in or visited Southern Rhode Island, you’re fully aware of the lasting impact of Aunt Carrie’s. But for local history lover Doris Moon, who died recently, Aunt Carrie’s was more than a business. Her actual aunt, Carrie Campbell, was the driving force behind the creation of the now 100-year-old local institution.

I lost a wonderful friend recently with the death — nearly at the age of 96 — of Doris (Campbell) Moon. She was an extraordinary person, a gifted genealogist, and a natural storyteller. We have so many familial connections through our shared Northup ancestry that she used to tell me we were “cousins four different ways.”  She was a resource for me for more than two decades and a partner in the pursuit of the big picture story of our fair town. During WWII she worked at the Quonset/Davisville base. One of the things she told me of those times had to do with processing German POWs on their way to the detention center down the road in Saunderstown. She told me stories she had heard from her elderly family members regarding the exploits of various Northup and Campbell ancestors who lived and died out in Swamptown. With all these great stories, the thing she was most proud of was her aunt, a woman familiar to all of us, named Carrie Campbell. Yes, that’s right: Doris Moon was Aunt Carrie’s actual niece; she really could call the world’s most famous clamcake aficionado “Aunt Carrie.” So, as a way to honor Doris — and her Aunt Carrie, for that matter — let’s reminisce about Carrie Campbell.

There probably isn’t a Rhode Islander among us who is not familiar with the name “Aunt Carrie.” There are many who claim that without Aunt Carrie, there’d be no clamcakes. I ask you, would southern Rhode Island still be southern Rhode Island if the clamcake had not been conceived? Is it not true that this lowly fritter has become something of an institution around these parts? Why does no one seem to realize that Carrie “Campbell” Cooper, Swamptown’s most famous lass, belongs in the Rhode Island Hall of Fame?

Not only did she invent the clamcake and operate one of Narragansett’s most successful summer eateries, but she ran a family and raised six children as well. With all this in mind, I put a challenge out to the directors of the Hall: Let’s get this humble Swamptown girl inducted, as she so rightly deserves!

Carrie Campbell was born in the western North Kingstown village of Swamptown in a farmhouse near the Kettle Hole Pond in June 1875 to James and Susanna (Northup) Campbell.  She was educated at the Swamptown district schoolhouse and at the age of 19 married 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 Rhode Island for their new home in Norwich, Connecticut; 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 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. The rest, as they say, is history. Ulysses, a man with true business acumen, knew Carrie was on to something, and during the next season, the summer of 1920, he had a stand built where the restaurant now sits. Each season, Carrie’s clamcakes, chowder and lemonade got a little more popular, and “Aunt Carrie’s” restaurant got a little bigger. Eventually the business’ success motivated Ulysses to give up the lumber trade, and he and Carrie moved their family back to Rhode Island, settling on Narragansett Avenue in Narragansett.

Four generations later, Aunt Carrie’s restaurant is still family-run and still an institution.  Ulysses, who died in 1953, and Aunt Carrie, who passed on in 1964, now rest side-by-side in Elm Grove Cemetery, just a mile or so from where Carrie Campbell was born. Her memory lives on in the guise of a wonderful restaurant, and in the satisfaction we all feel when we bite into a steamy warm clamcake, wherever we purchase it. If that feeling — experienced by every Rhode Islander since Carrie and Ulysses and every visitor to our little state since 1920 — doesn’t warrant inclusion in the Rhode Island Hall of Fame, well, then, this Swamp Yankee doesn’t know what does. Rest in peace, Doris.

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

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