230316ind Cranston

Ally Wilcox, who once memorized the land of the dead, formally known as the Elm Grove Cemetery, was laid to rest in it in September 1956.

Up until the end of his days in September of 1956, Allie Wilcox was a bright calico patch sewed firmly on to the slightly conservative fabric of the community of Wickford. No one would ever accuse Allie Wilcox of fading into the background. Through the power of his personality, the quality of his character, and yes, the depths of his eccentricities, Allie Wilcox was a man who stood out.

Allie looked to be a tall man, his appearance made even taller by the thinness of his stature. He seemed to be all gangly arms and legs and he covered them each and every day with long army-style overcoat that ran right to the ground and a hat to go with it. He wore those same things without fail; through the bitter cold of a February winter to the summer sizzle of an August afternoon, Allie Wilcox could be seen striding through Wickford at a breakneck clip wearing those same garments.

He always seemed like he was off to somewhere with great purpose. But if he knew you, he always had time to stop, the minute he saw you, wherever he was, whether it be the middle of the road or the front door of the Wickford House where he worked off and on in the kitchen, to shout out his genealogical salutation to you.

If I had been blessed to have met him he would have surely bellowed “Greetings Timothy Cranston, son of Cyrus and little Jeannie St. Pierre, grandson of George Cranston Jr. great grandson of George Cranston Sr. and great great grandson of Civil War hero George T. Cranston for whom you are named!”  He would have pronounced this greeting with gusto and joy and then moved on to greet someone else in the same exceptional fashion.

If you were to ask him how he knew the family tree of each and every long time resident of the village and its surrounds, he’d look at you and reply with a sly grin, “Well, naturally I’ve gone to the land of the dead and memorized it.”  Which was true; you see Allie Wilcox’s cousin Ethel B. Gardiner, at that time, ran the land of the dead, Elm Grove Cemetery, and Allie, a man who worked almost exclusively in the evenings, spent his days wandering up and down the lanes of Elm Grove, reading and whispering, studying and pondering, pronouncing and pontificating, acquainting himself with the permanent residents there. Eventually Allie Wilcox had it all figured out — an eccentric genius with a perfect memory, he memorized the land of the dead.

Allie was born in 1881 in nearby Shady Lea, the only child of mill watchman George Wilcox and his wife Annie (Stone). He was educated in the local schools and worked at the same mill as his dad while in his teenage years. In 1906, Allie’s father died suddenly of heart failure; a bereft Annie left Shady Lea and with her son Allie by her side, took George’s insurance money and moved to Wickford, purchasing a small home on Prospect Avenue from Benjamin Carpenter. Allie left his mill job and worked nights for a time at the Cold Spring House, waiting on tables and washing pots and pans and the like. During the day he might wander “the land of the dead” or the streets and avenues of the village. Wickford, in the summer especially, was full of day trippers who came on the trolley from Providence and beyond; if any of them “high and mightys” gave Allie any grief he was often apt to say, “Well now it’s true I didn’t go off to school at Mr. Brown’s college up there in Providence, but I did just fine here at the Wickford Academy!”

Allie eventually got a better job as the janitor at new Wickford Telephone exchange building (now Gold Lady Jewelers). He would labor afternoons into the evening, working around the operators keeping the place neat and tidy. He kept at it for nearly 20 years until he left abruptly shortly after it was acquired by New England Telephone and Telegraph. His new boss, feeling that the janitor was quite underpaid for the work he did, called him into the office to tell him what a fine job he was doing and gave him a raise on the spot. Allie, stood full upright and pronounced that, “he would have none of that, I quit!” When his friends and neighbors inquired about it, he told them he knew what a raise meant, they would be asking him to do more and he just didn’t think he could do anything else there in the time he was given.

Allie Wilcox’s eccentricities, as you can expect, made him a bit of a curiosity to the local children in the village. He never bathed in his home, much preferring a bath in Baker’s Pond off of Prospect Avenue in the warmer months and a salt water bath in the cove behind Loop Drive when the pond froze over in the winter. Catching Allie taking a bath was somewhat of a rite of passage for young lads in the day and Allie took it in stride shooing the off saying, “You boys get on out of here, you have no business here.”  Of course, when some of those same lads got into trouble with a massive hornets’ nest in the woods behind his home, it was Allie who strode in long arms and legs flailing away and rescued them from their misery, shooing them off with the same proclamation.

Allie and his mother Annie lived together throughout her life in their little house on Prospect Avenue. They went to Church together Sunday mornings each week. Allie, never shy, loved singing the hymns with the gusto and bravado that he thought they deserved. Unfortunately the rest of the congregation didn’t feel the same; his perpetually off key voice was drowning out the organ and the choir and the minister at the time did his best to convince Allie that he ought to just mouth the lyrics and sing them with gusto only to himself. Allie, ever cooperative, did as asked while in church but then chose to sing his favorite selections just as loud as he wished while striding through the village, often dragging a great limb or branch from a tree behind him up Prospect Ave towards home to be used as firewood that evening.

After Allie’s mother Annie passed away in 1938, Allie, who was then working at either the Cold Spring House or the Wickford House in the kitchen, kept the memory of his parents close to his heart by wearing their wedding rings on a chain around his neck. This chain became as much a part of his regalia as the long overcoat was. When he’d get to his pots and pans sink, be it at the Cold Spring House or the Wickford House or later the Fiesta Restaurant in the Gregory Mill Building on Brown Street, each and every day he’d carefully remove his long coat, hat, and vest and carefully fold them and place them in a neat pile with the rings on a chain right on top. Only then would he roll up his sleeves and get to the job at hand.

Speaking of neat piles, Allie also religiously read every newspaper he could get his hands on; unfortunately he found them to be of such value that he never threw a single one away.  He literally had rooms full to the brim with carefully stacked piles of newspapers and eventually by the time the 1950’s rolled around his little house was nearly full of newspapers. They may have helped insulated his house from the cold winter winds, but they took up so much space that one winter day when a fire broke out in his house they actually saved it from burning down. The fire chief at the time remarked that the smouldering blaze near Allie’s fireplace died from lack of oxygen, the voluminous stacks of news papers took up so much space that they displaced much of the oxygen in the room. Allie came home opened up a few windows freshened up the place and went on about his business.

As Allie Wilcox got older, he began to depend upon the kindness of the folks who lived in the village he called home. Winters in the little house on Prospect Avenue were particularly trying. He had no real central heat there and despite the copious amounts of newsprint surrounding him some nights were just too cold. Police Chief Burt Moon would let him sleep in the station on nights like that.  Wickford Bank Manager Tom Peirce made sure Allie got through the Hurricane of 1954 by allowing him to stay in the Brown Street Bank with him. People in Wickford took care to make sure that Allie Wilcox, a fiercely independent but eccentric member of the village family, was okay.

When Allie finally passed away in September of 1956, he was buried in “the land of the dead” with all those folks there that he had become so familiar with. His passing diminished Wickford Village to a great degree; the staid old village was a little duller now that the calico patch was gone. He was truly a kind and gentle soul. If I had been there at his funeral, I would have said with the gusto and bravado it deserved “Allie Stone Wilcox, son of George and Annie Wilcox, grandson of George and Clarissa Wilcox, great grandson of Tom Wilcox proud constable of the Town of Exeter — welcome home.”

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

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