Every once in a while, a “what’s it” turns out to be the last physical reminder of a page of an episode in the history of our fair town. The ruins on Cornelius Island, the concrete and brick chimney on Old Baptist Road and the mill foundations on Featherbed Lane are artifacts such as this; they are all the last tangible reminders of something that was an important aspect of North Kingstown’s history many years ago. Sort of like Newport’s stone tower, folks drive by them day in and day out, fully cognizant of their existence, but not having a clue as to what these relics represent; what story they might tell us.
The old foundation on the Hummocks is such a thing. You can’t wander out there without encountering it. You see it without understanding the how and why of it each time you mosey out to the Hummocks’ end. What a story it has to tell. You see, that old foundation was a part of something extraordinary; it was the home base of Frank Johnson and his clan, the family that operated the Johnson’s Hummocks—a place that ought to be a holy shrine to all across New England that love a good clambake.
Now, take any place you’ve ever been to for a real New England clambake, and yes, I’m even including venerable old Yawgoo Bakes out in Slocum, and expand it exponentially and you might get a hint of the scale of the operation that went on week in and week out, summer in and summer out, from the 1890s right up to 1940 out at Johnson’s Hummocks.
At its peak, around the time of World War I, the Johnsons had a covered outdoor dining pavilion capable of seating nearly 1,500 hungry clambake aficionados and Frank, assisted by his son Henry and the rest of the Johnsons, kept most of those seats full every weekend night. The place was so popular at that time that the nearby Hamilton Village stop on the Sea View Trolley was unofficially known as the Hummocks stop.
Yes, the Hummocks was truly the clambake Mecca, and bake masters Frank and Henry C. Johnson were its undisputed kings. Every grange chapter, every civic organization, every political party, every fraternal group had to fight for space with every wedding, anniversary and family reunion staged across New England for space under Johnson’s pavilions. Back in the early 1900s no summer could be considered a success in the region if you hadn’t gorged on lobster, steamers, corn and all the fixin’s at the Hummocks at least once.
Heck, when the old Rocky Point Shore Dinner Hall opened up, folks used to remark: “This place is something, alright, but it ain’t the Hummocks!”
All that ended for a time in 1925, when a giant blaze destroyed the big pavilion and all the outbuildings on the Hummocks—every building, that is, except for the Johnson family summer house; the building that sat on the very foundation we are talking about today. That home base was enough, though, because after a time, Henry Johnson rebuilt the pavilion and ran the Johnson’s Hummocks again, right up until the time that the 1938 Hurricane had other ideas and wiped the Hummocks clear off the face of the earth just as effectively as the big fire in 1925 had.
Just like with the fire, though, the Johnson Homestead house survived the storm and remained a factor in the Johnson’s family life until 1945 when they sold the property to Providence Police Chief John Murphy, who used it as a summer home. By that time, the Johnson clan had moved their well-tuned operation up to the capitol city, where they opened a seafood restaurant near Allen’s Avenue appropriately called “Johnson’s Hummocks.”
Chief Murphy used the house as a summer getaway until April 1956, when a 13 year-old boy who lived nearby set it ablaze. The home that stood up to the big fire in 1925 and the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954 was consumed by a conflagration set by a boy who did it because, “Heck, I just like fires.”
So, next time you stroll down past the old foundation on the Hummocks, stop and close your eyes and imagine the area as it is in the accompanying photograph taken around 1910. The Johnson Homestead is just “out of frame,” around the bend among a grove of trees and I bet that, in just a minute or two, a whole slew of Model T Fords are going to pull into view, hurrying up the lane on their way to the best clambake that they ever had.
The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.