210401ind History

Angered by the way she was taught history, Alice Morse Earle penned 17 books and 42 magazine articles on a variety of local interest topics.

 This week, as our last entry for Women’s History Month, we are going to look at the exceptional India rubber brokers, the Earles of New York who summered here in South County on Duck Cove, with a special focus on a pair of the proud women of this clan.

The truth is, without a connection to a woman the Earles would have never ended up here at Duck Cove Farm each summer. You see, it was Henry Earle Sr.’s marriage to Mary Pitman, the daughter of Superior Court Judge John Pitman, that brought them here to the breezy shores of the Narragansett Bay in the first place. The Earle summer home was constructed in the 1870s and its grand front porch must have been a perfect spot to relax after a long day out on their yacht, the Gracie, and if Mary (Pitman) Earle wanted to visit with her sister Harriet (Pitman) Greene while the boys were out sailing, all she had to do was stroll across Duck Cove, alit upon the splendid footbridge constructed there by brothers-in-law Randall Greene and Henry Earle for just that purpose. I expect she was on occasion accompanied by her daughter-in-law Alice Morse Earle, wife of her son Henry, who spent summer after summer here as well.

Alice Morse was the highly educated daughter of a prominent Worcester tool manufacturer when she married Henry Earle Jr. in 1874. They lived in a brick Greek Revival townhouse in Brooklyn and summered here at Duck Cove each year. After raising her four children, Alice, who had a nostalgic penchant for New England history, decided she would become a writer. And write she did. Between 1890 and 1904, she wrote 17 books and 42 magazine articles on subjects that ran the gamut from “Old Stagecoach and Tavern Days” to a book called “old Narragansett,” written largely about the villages of Wickford and Little Rest, to a treatise on Colonial-era punishments. Her motivation, beyond her love of the past, can be described in a quote ascribed to her. “She intensely disliked the way she had been taught history….her childhood textbooks were a series of ill-balanced facts in dull pages,” one of her daughters, Alice, wrote in a memoir written after her mother’s passing. “This indiscreet woman of genius worked and corrected each night until broad daylight, when the maids began their early morning duties.” History writers and critics at the time, most of whom were men, described her work as descriptive and anecdotal books about colonial life that amounted to nothing more than “pots and pans history”. Of course none of those masculine detractors ever mentioned that each one of her books sold in the tens of thousands, and she was truly known, certainly here in Wickford, as an accomplished writer and historian as well as a beloved individual.  In January 1909, Alice Morse Earle was involved in a frightening maritime accident as she began an excursion to Egypt when the steamer she was sailing upon, the Republic, was struck in the fog off Nantucket by the ship Florida. Alice was thrown into the water and nearly drowned. She was rescued by Italian sailors from the ship Baltic which was sailing nearby and brought back to shore. She never really recovered from this incident and died less than two years later at the age of 59. She was visiting her son Alexander at the time. Most certainly one of the Earle women who attended Alice’s funeral was her nephew William Earle Jr.’s wife, a young lady she would have known from their shared summers at Duck Cove, Genevieve Winifred Earle.

Genevieve Beavers, too, was a young lady born into a well-heeled New York family when she married William Earle Jr.  In spite of her privileged upbringing and subsequent marriage into an equally prominent family, Genevieve was a woman of strong moral conscience and of privilege who not only railed against injustice but stood up and took action. She traced the roots of her quest for social justice to one single moment of her childhood. “While riding with my mother on the Third Avenue Elevated rail in New York City, as the train clattered along that dirty thoroughfare, I gazed into the interiors of those dark, untidy, and crowded flats with a profound sense of shock,” Genevieve had said. “I asked my mother why people had to live that way. She explained that they were poor and could afford no better.” Genevieve grew up profoundly affected by that moment. She went on to college and studied to be a social worker, and then waded right into the heart of the city to do right by those folks she remembered. After years of this work she realized, “that as splendid and essential as these efforts were, I was trying to bail out an ocean of misery with a teacup. I became convinced that the city itself was our greatest social worker.” With that eureka moment, Genevieve set out to do the unthinkable at the time — she decided that she, a woman in a time and place dominated by men, ought to have a hand in the running of New York City. Like everything else she set out to do, Genevieve Earle just jumped in and made it happen. In 1937, Mayor LaGuardia himself swore in Genevieve Winifred Beavers Earle as the first female councilperson in New York City. Not too bad for a woman who spent summers on a broad expansive porch just outside of Wickford.

The fine big Earle summer cottage on Duck Cove is long gone now, destroyed by a suspicious fire many decades ago. The elegant footbridge that carried Earle and Greene women back and forth between the two houses is gone as well, swept away by the “big one” in 1938. The remnants of its footings are still there, though, and standing in the exact spot that the Earle Brothers’ summer house once stood is the equally grand home of one of the Cardi Brothers, of local furniture fame. The view from the Cardi place is just as wonderful as it was from the Earle place, and I expect that just as many wonderful summer memories are made there now as were then. But boy I sure do wish I could have been a “fly on the wall” when Earle men were trading tales of India Rubber trading and yacht racing while Earle women sat quietly in the background discussing their plans to impact the world.

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

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