210429ind history

The Old Narragansett Church in Wickford was built over 300 years ago and was home to many generations of local church-going children, including town historian Tim Cranston, who recounts his experience pumping the bellows on the church’s little organ in a harder-than-it-looks summer job in 1970.

Here is just one more story focused on a South County historic site that you can enjoy now that spring has come and COVID-19 restrictions are being relaxed. Built 314 years ago, The Old Narragansett Church is a gem. I expect this reminiscence will bring back memories for a number of former Wickford children.

I guess I felt like I had a pretty sweet deal. It was the summer of 1970, and I was sure I had just discovered a goldmine. Back in a time when the minimum wage was $1.60 and the best a babysitter could hope for was fifty cents an hour, I was going to get paid $1.00 per church service to pump the bellows on the little organ at the Old Narragansett Church down on Church Lane in Wickford. Heck, that’s the same money I was being paid to mow a small lawn; how hard could it possibly be to pump little bellows on a dinky little organ like the one that sat in the upstairs gallery at the old church? Besides, I had to be at Church every Sunday anyway, and this way my twin brother and my sister wouldn’t be able to sit in my lap throughout the whole darned service, making me all sweaty! I figured this was going to be a piece of cake. I almost felt guilty taking the money; after all, this is a church.

 Back then, I felt like I got this “sweet deal” because my choir director, who was also the church organist, Mr. Bob Foreman, felt bad for me.  I was a 13-year-old puberty victim; once the up-and-coming star of the St. Paul’s children’s choir, I was now a vocal wreck, my voice lurching and cracking through every hymn and psalm. It was obvious to everyone, particularly the patient congregation, that my days as a boy soprano were behind me. I think Mr. Foreman saw the dejected look on my face as I sat there that spring during my final choir practices. The reality of the situation had finally sunk in; I knew this was the end of my days in the church choir. It was then that he offered up this proposition. As I listened, my eyes lit up and I eagerly agreed. I felt like the “cat that had swallowed the canary” as I left choir practice that evening.  I hadn’t an inkling of what I had gotten myself into.

The first Sunday in July came quickly, and I met Mr. Foreman a little bit before the service began — up by the little organ, as we had arranged. He explained my duties: “Pump the organ bellows at a steady pace — speeding up or slowing down will change the way the instrument plays — you’ve got to keep the pace consistent.”

That sounded easy enough, I figured. Before I knew it, the opening hymn was underway and I was off and pumping. In the beginning, keeping an even pace was easy — no problem, I thought, this is money in the bank. But as the six-verse hymn continued, I began to realize that this was not going to be the “piece of cake” that I originally thought it was. As the hymn continued on and on, my arms began to tire and my pacing got a bit erratic. A friendly nod from Mr. Foreman brought me back to my senses and I finished up — with a flourish, I thought. By the second hymn, a couple of flies had found me and seemed to delight in tormenting me as I pumped my way through “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” I began to think, if he’s “such a bulwark, never failing,” then why couldn’t he make these flies go away while I was helping Mr. Foreman sing his praises?  Each time I’d slack off the pace a bit to swat one of them off of my nose, Mr. Foreman’s friendly nods gained a renewed sense of urgency. By the time of the Offertory Hymn, the sweating had begun. I’ve got to tell you, that little Church could get hot. I finally fully understood what my grandfather was talking about when he had told me that the upper gallery was reserved for slaves, indentured servants, native Americans and other souls not fortunate enough to have a box pew on the main floor. As the sweat dripped off my nose and stung my eyes, I, pumping all the while, thought about heat rising and cool air falling as I looked down at my sister Julie with the twins sitting in her lap. She appeared comfortable and cool to me through the haze of my fogged up glasses — which, thankfully, kept slipping down my nose and knocking the fly off its preferred perch there. As Mr. Foreman played delightfully appropriate background music throughout the communion, I realized my entire body was soaked in sweat and was calling out to every mosquito throughout all of the ancient “Narragansett Country” that this colonial meeting house once served.  Mr. Foreman’s friendly nods were heading toward the realm of glares as we lurched through the closing hymn, “Amazing Grace” — including, of course, as was the colonial tradition, all of the additional verses. By now, my arms felt like they were on fire. I was fully aware of how uncomfortable the hard bench next to the organ could be; I was dripping sweat from every pore that had not been affected by the unrelenting attention proffered by the mosquitoes, and I didn’t even seem to care where the two flies perched themselves anymore. As the hymn ended, I truly comprehended the phrase “a wretch like me” as I, with damp hand extended, grabbed hold of that fresh dollar bill offered up by Mr. Foreman, who said something about a “good first effort.” When I got downstairs, my mother asked me, “Did you have fun?” before complaining about the sweat-soaked condition of my church clothes.

I’ve got to tell you, my mother and I had a little bit of an argument later that evening, after I had recovered my senses enough to fully grasp the magnitude of what I had just been through. In the end, though, things worked out just as they always did between us. With a mention of the key family phrases of “you made a commitment” and “sense of responsibility,” I realized I was in this for the long haul. It may have been the toughest eight dollars I ever earned.

That very same late 19th century pump organ stills sits up there in the gallery of the Old Narragansett Church, along with an extraordinary earlier organ that may be the oldest working pump organ in all of America. Stop by any Thursday-Sunday afternoon in July and August to visit them, and take a gander at this historic and architectural gem of a building sitting right here in Wickford.

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

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