221020ind history

This property on Tower Hill Road in North Kingstown may look quiet to outside observers but in the late 19th century and early 20th century, it was owned by one of the biggest local celebrities around as former vaudevillian performer John E. "Jack" Jenkins called North Kingstown home when he wasn't traveling the country with his famous slack-wire act.

The home located at 401 Tower Hill Road in North Kingstown was constructed in 1892 by the Sherman Brothers of Wickford for Dr. Curtis Maryott and his wife Maria (Hawkins) on a portion of the Sam Phillips farm they had purchased in 1887. Sadly, a year after moving into the house Maria died of cancer. A year later Dr. Maryott married the widow Ida Rebecca (Irons) Phillips, whose husband Edwin had died in 1891 in Glocester where they and Maria Hawkins were originally from. Dr Curtis and Ida Maryott continued living here in the house until his sudden death in 1903 at the age of 62. A year later Ida remarried, this time to Ernest Ward Phillips. In 1907, Ida Rebecca (Irons) Phillips Maryott Phillips, sold this house to local merchant and former vaudevillian performer John E. “Jack” Jenkins.

From the end of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century, Jack Jenkins was an honest-to-God local celebrity. The town newspaper regularly ran updates on the progress of his intriguing career as he traveled across the country astounding, astonishing and amazing the thousands of folks who saw him perform. He was truly North Kingstown’s favorite son at the time, and everyone wanted to know what was going on with The Great Javelle — one of the nation’s most famous slack-wire walkers.

The Great Javelle was born John E. Jenkins in June of 1868 in a forgotten village in the north end of Providence known as Wanskuck. His family moved to West Wickford while he was a boy, and young Jack developed an unusual set of abilities while growing up here. He was a natural when it came to juggling, and his sense of balance was truly amazing.

He took up the art of slack-wire waking, which was like tightrope walking, but more difficult because the slack-wire could easily begin to sway out of control once the walker began to lose his balance. He combined it with his juggling skills in a way that few had ever seen before. His talents, which regularly amazed his family, friends and neighbors, eventually caught the attention of Benjamin Franklin Keith, a New Your City-based vaudeville promoter, and young Jack Jenkins, as The Great Javelle, was on his way to the big time.

That big time took the form of what was called the Keith’s Vaudeville Circuit, a well-defined set of long-standing club and show hall dates across the United States. B. F. Keith owned many of these performance venues, and he had a stable of performers that would work their way around the circuit in several performance troupes.

From the Gay 90’s right through the roaring 20’s, the Keith’s vaudeville troupes included some of the nation’s premiere entertainers. The famous dance Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a Keith performer, as was talented young musician Eubie Blake. The song, dance and comedy styling’s of famed vaudeville teams Gallagher & Shean and Montgomery & Stone were big headliners as well. And right up there on the marquee along with all of them was The Great Javelle—the nation’s finest juggler and slack-rope walker extraordinaire.

Jack’s career in vaudeville came to an abrupt end around 1902, when his mother called on him to return home due to a severe illness in the family. Jack ran a barbershop in town for a time, and then changed careers again when he opened up a popular ice cream shop in Tower Hill Road in the building just north of Jitters Coffee shop. In fact, the Jitters Coffee shop building also has a connection to the Jenkins family, as it was once the home of a sandwich shop run by Jack Jenkins and his clan when it was located at the intersection of Phillips Street and Tower Hill Road on the land that now houses the Phillips Street Medical Office Building.

The ice cream shop eventually was moved to the Phillips Street location and was slowly transformed into Jenkins & Rockwell, a well-known and well-loved family-run grocery store. In the late 1950’s the small building that held the sandwich shop was relocated to its present location on Tower Hill Road and, as I mentioned, now houses Jitters.

Although he gave up his vaudeville lifestyle to come to the aid of his family, Jenkins kept his hand in the juggling trade until the very end. From time to time, he could be coerced into entertaining his fans with a display of his skills and, when he died in June of 1957, he was the oldest member of the International Jugglers Association. Upon his death, the house was left to his daughter and son-in-law Reginald and Harriet (Jenkins) Rockwell.

Reggie and Harriet Rockwell were involved in the operation of the very popular family run grocery store on Phillips Street near its corner with Tower Hill Road. For nearly the next 40 years, this home was occupied by various members of the Rockwell family. In 1998, Jacquelynn (Rockwell) Alarie sold the house, after 91 years of Jenkins/Rockwell family ownership.

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

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