Growing up in Hope, one of the small mill communities along the Pawtuxet River, author Ray Wolf was intrigued by the five neighboring villages that were flooded in 1925, leaving their foundations and roads deep below the waterline of the Scituate Reservoir, he said.
His mother, Helen O. Larson, grew up in the village of Rockland, Wolf says. When she was 13 her family was evicted from their land and forced to move out of the valley. They settled in Hope.
Confused, Larson watched her home be auctioned off, her school house disassembled and in her loss she began to write poems about the villages that would never be seen again.
Wolf’s new book, “The Lost Villages of Scituate,” released this September by Arcadia Publishing, tells the story of the villages beneath the reservoir — Rockland, Ashland, South Scituate, Richmond and Kent — and includes several of Larson’s poems.
Accessing the hundreds of photographs taken by John R. Hess, a photographer hired by the Providence Water Supply Board to shoot every single building that was taken by eminent domain and going to be disassembled, the book gives a visual as well as factual and emotional history of the eviction and the birth of the reservoir.
He wrote the book for his mother after her death in 2005, Wolf says, and his original idea was to focus only on Rockland and include photographs with her poems. After discussing the idea with Arcadia, they compromised to create the book on all the villages.
With all 700 copies of the first printing sold out within the month of September, the response to the book has been far beyond what he imagined, Wolf said.
“I’m blown out of the water,” he said. “I was hoping I could sell 100 books.” There are no more copies of the first printing left, he said, and the publisher has sent the book back to press already.
One of the reasons that the response has been so big, Wolf conjectures, is that many people whose families lived in those villages never had pictures of the homesteads that their ancestors had.
“My mother would say, ‘if only I could see the farm one more time,’” he recalled. The property in his family was on a hill, he added, and wasn’t flooded but the house was still disassembled because it was within the watershed region.
Since the publication of the book, he has had many comments, e-mails, phone calls, and conversations about the reservoir, Wolf said. “One woman called me because she had a photograph of the family that lived in one of the houses we featured.”
In spite of his mother’s experience, Wolf never took his own position on the reservoir, he said.
“I never thought of it as good or bad,” he said. “That property was taken by eminent domain — which means ‘for the good of the people’. It was not good for those people, in those villages, but it was good for the rest of the state.”
Now, roughly 60 percent of Rhode Island uses water drawn from the Scituate Reservior, he added, and working with the Providence Water Supply Board to put the book together demonstrated how much care goes into making sure the supply is protected.
One thing that the reservoir may have done, he speculated, is keep Scituate rural. Looking at other villages on the banks of the Pawtuxet there is Fiskeville, Arkwright, Harris, Lippitt, Clyde, Wakefield, Arctic, he observes, and many of these are very developed.
“I’d see Tunk Hill Road becoming like another Route 2,” he said.
The reservoir could have been made anywhere along the river, he added, it could have been made in West Warwick by flooding the valley from Wakefield hills through Arctic and Crompton.
The second printing of the book will be available for purchase at the Scituate Art Festival, on Saturday, Oct. 10 through 12, Wolf said.
All the while he was growing up, Ray Wolf listened to his mother’s stories about the village she grew up in. The sad part was that he only had his mother’s memories to create a picture of the Village of Rockland, which has been completely underwater since 1926, when the Scituate Reservoir began its long service to the Providence Water Supply Board.
Rockland was one of five villages in Scituate that were claimed by eminent domain for the construction of the Scituate Reservoir in 1915, when the General Assembly approved of what is still one of the largest public works projects in the history of Rhode Island. But it was not being a part of that project that appealed to the people who lived within the 23 square miles acquired for the reservoir. In fact, nothing about the project appealed to the people who lived there.
“They just couldn’t comprehend that someone they called ‘The Man from Providence’ could just show up one day and tell them they had to move,” said Wolf. “My mother was six years old when it started and was 13 by the time her family moved to Hope. She never got over it.”
Ray Wolf’s book, “The Lost Villages of Scituate,” was released this week and it is a tribute to his mother and the lost village of Rockland she remembered all of her life. There are few if any people alive today who have living memories of those villages. According to Wolf, 1,195 buildings were razed for the reservoir. 375 homes, 233 barns, seven schools, six churches, 11 icehouses, five halls, post offices, taverns, stores and fire stations were among the condemned. A total of 1,500 graves were moved to other locations, 1,080 to the new cemetery built in Clayville to receive them.
Wolf’s mother, Helen O. Larson, wrote more than 1,700 poems in her lifetime, many of which referred to her memories of Scituate before the reservoir was built. Wolf said that he and his mother regularly visited the site of the homestead until she died in 2005.
“Her house was on a small hill, just above the watershed, so the place where the house stood was not covered by the water,” he said. “She never got over it.”
According to retired Scituate Librarian Shirley Arnold, being put out of the family homestead was more than some people could stand.
“There was one man who went to Providence to see if he could stop the destruction of his home,” said Arnold. “His family asked him how it went when he got back and he said, ‘We have to move,’ and then went out to the barn to take care of the animals where his family found him later, hanging from a beam. Another man slit his own throat. There was a lot of heartache caused by building the reservoir.”
No one denies that the reservoir had to be built. The prosperity of the cities and the state itself relied on a good supply of fresh water to thrive. It was a situation that has played out in many rural communities across the country, when the public will outweighs the sentiments of a small minority of residents.
Reservoirs have traditionally displaced towns and villages to bring clean water to municipalities many miles away. According to the Massachusetts government Web site, to create the Quabbin Reservoir, more than a thousand structures were dismantled – homes, barns, churches, schools, stores. Workers painstakingly removed 7,613 graves and re-interred the dead in a new cemetery. An AP story in the Boston Globe in 1987 told of the old timers return:
“Half a century after they sang ‘Home, Sweet Home’' and watched the waters of Quabbin Reservoir swallow their houses, survivors still remember the four towns flooded to provide drinking water for Boston.
‘It was hardest for the old folks,’ said Trudy Ward Stalbird Terry, who is now 78 years old. '’We young people were just starting out on our lives.’
According to Arnold, there is only one person left who has living memories of the five lost villages and she is 99 and in a nursing home.
“Back around 2000, I recorded about five or six oral histories of the villages,” said Arnold, “but they have all passed on. Frank Spence did a video history of the reservoir and used many of the picture in my collection.”
That’s why Wolf’s book became such a passion for him. He wanted to record the memories his mother shared with him over the years, and he wanted to publish some of his mother’s poems about the lost villages but they present a filtered, nostalgic memoir that does not really reflect life in a factory town. Ray Wolf’s captions bring a little reality back into the picture.
“This photograph depicts two eight-tenement buildings William H. Joslin built to rent to his workers. A tenement in one of the building could be rented for $2 a month. They were located…just outside of the mill complex, no excuse for being late.”
Wolf also shows a picture of a company store that Joslin maintained for his workers. “…The storekeeper kept a pad to record each family’s order...when they were paid, they would stop at the store to pay the slip.” Wolf’s caption also quoted an old song about life in a mill town that had a refrain of, ‘I owe my soul to the company store.’”
One caption features a quote from a poem by his mother that also acknowledges the hardship of growing up in a mill town for a child.
“The following verses are from Helen O. Larson: ‘I used to walk the dusty roads, many miles each day / I had to go to the store for groceries, and the store was far away. At age 14 I had to go work in the mill, the family needed my pay / And once again I wonder, why didn’t I run away.’”
The person who made out handsomely from the project was manufacturer and mill owner William H. Joslin, who already had a substantial amount of wealth and built a new house up and away from the reservoir, paid for with the estimated $1.5 million he got fro his holdings, which was more that a tidy sum in those days. But it wasn’t enough to sustain his wife Corinne’s gambling habit. He was a much older man than his bride and when he died, the fortune was staked on a lot of unlucky bets.
“When she died, she was almost a pauper,” said Arnold.
But Wolf should be commended for the evenhanded approach he took to compiling the photos for the book. The pictures follow the massive construction project with clear and focused printing from Arcadia Publishing, as a part of their Images of America series.
“I can’t say enough about how the Providence Water Board and Richard Blodgett in particular, helped me with this” said Wolf. “They have pictures of every building that was demolished, before they tore them done. He gave me anything I asked for.”
For more information about the Lost Villages of Scituate or order books call Ray Wolf at 821-0016 or email Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org. The book costs$21.99.
Although the Scituate Reservoir supplies water for over sixty percent of Rhode Island, it did not come without a cost. By 1921, residents in five villages in Scituate were forced to move from the area before land was condemned and construction began.
In a new book by Arcadia Publishing, local author Raymond A. Wolf uses vintage photographs that will help readers travel back to a place that is now 87 feet below water.
Wolf regards this book as a keepsake to the descendents of the people from the lost villages of the Scituate.
Highlights of The Lost Villages of Scituate:
• Features never before seen historic photographs from private collections and those of the Providence Water Supply
• Showcases the lost villages of Rockland, Ashland, South Scituate, Richmond and Kent
• Displays numerous homes and buildings that no longer exist
• Includes maps that feature the region before and after the Reservoir
Available at area bookstores, independent retailers, and online retailers, or through Arcadia Publishing at (888)-313-2665 or www.arcadiapublishing.com.
Arcadia Publishing is the leading publisher of local and regional history in the United States. Our mission is to make history accessible and meaningful through the publication of books on the heritage of America’s people and places. Have we done a book on your town? Visit www.arcadiapublishing.com.
Ray Wolf says his mother dreamed of seeing a photo of the old family homestead, the one where she played as a little girl, before it was taken down, sacrificed when the Scituate Reservoir expanded its way through multiple villages.
Her village, Rockland, went the way of Ashland, South Scituate, Richmond and Kent, obliterated by 1925, lost to the Reservoir, but revived in Wolf's recently-released book, "The Lost Villages of Scituate," in which a photo of his mother's home has finally surfaced.
His mother, Helen O. Larson, longed to see that white house, craved it almost, but died well into her 90s with its image only a memory. No tangible reproduction of the two-story house where she was raised with four brothers existed, her son thought.
What Wolf didn't realize, he explains, is that a photo of her home, and of the other 1,194 buildings razed by the builders of the Scituate Reservoir, existed a short distance from his own Hope Village home, in the files of the City of Providence Water Supply Board. The board had deep records, detailed photos taken by John R. Hess who was hired to photograph the condemned buildings some 90 years ago.
"I used to take her back to see the foundation. It was up on a hill so it didn't go underwater but was in the watershed area, so they took it anyway."
Wolf didn't make the discovery about the photographs until after his mother had died.
It was during an in-town candlelight cemetery tour, in 2006, when Wolf was introduced to town historian Shirley Arnold, that he learned of the archived images.
Many hours of research alongside Richard Blodgett of the City of Providence Water Supply Board, he said, led to Wolf's recently released "Images of America Series, The Lost Villages of Scituate," with many of the book's photos coming from those archives, including the image of his mother's home.
"It was sitting right there. If she could have only seen it. I didn't think they (photos) existed," he said Wolf.
Wolf, 67, dedicated the book to his mother, "who was born and brought up in the lost village of Rockland." She was born in 1910, and attended the Rockland School, before it, too, was taken. By 1925, the village was gone.
Wolf started out putting together a book dedicated to his mother's lost village, and her prolific poetry, after she died in 2005. In looking for a publisher, he stumbled upon Arcadia Publishing, he said, but they were more interested in the specific villages lost to the reservoir, and less about his mother's poetry. So he switched his focus, the subsequent book bringing together in photo captions information about the loss of the villages, with portions of her poetry weaved within.
Wolf said she produced two suitcases filled with poetry during her 94 years.
He'll be offering the 127-page book at the 43rd annual Scituate Art Festival, Oct. 10 to 12. He'll be positioned in front of the North Scituate Library on Route 116, he said, and hopes to donate some of the proceeds to the library building fund. It is also being sold by way of the Scituate Preservation Society, where email requests sent to RISPS@cox.net will be forwarded to Wolf.
"My mom was born and brought up in Rockland and she told many stories about how the man from the city came and put up notices saying the buildings where they lived would be torn down," Wolf related.
Just prior to the outbreak of World War I, Rhode Island's General Assembly, he said, in seeking new sources of clean water for the city, gave significant powers to a newly-organized Providence Water Supply Board to find property in the long-considered Scituate area with its "numerous waterways...
This led to the condemnation, by eminent domain, of 14,800 acres of land and buildings in the reservoir and watershed area," Wolf wrote.
Though the story is by now one long told in local schools and historical societies, the passage of time doesn't take away the sting in considering the numbers listed in Wolf's book.
"There were 1,195 buildings razed, of which there were 375 homes, 233 barns, seven schools, six churches, 11 icehouses, five halls, post offices, taverns, general stores, blacksmith and wheelwright shops, cider mills, two fire stations, 30 dairy farms," not to mention how some 1500 graves had to be exhumed, and prosperous mills dismantled to take advantage of the available clean rivers, he said.
"When the condemnation notices went out, people could not understand. These are places where they had lived for generations. How could they just take their property? One guy told his daughter he was going out to tend to the cows in the barn. She found him hanging from a beam.
"Their whole life was there, working in the mills, buying from the local store. They just couldn't understand," Wolf said.
As he interprets the legal power of eminent domain, "for the good of the people," Wolf says "at the time, it wasn't good for the people that lived there in the five villages, but basically it was good for the people of Rhode Island."
Wolf, an assistant manager at TJMaxx, says looking back on that time period is "sad," but practically speaking, "what would we have done without the Scituate Reservoir? They needed water. Clean water. Something had to be done."
Still, the photos in Wolf's book illustrate the magnitude of tangible loss to the townspeople in terms of their history:
Page 23 shows a clean and sturdy Rockland School, two little girls standing in its meadow; page 24 shows the upright Rockland Christian Church aside the Remington Mill Pond; page 30 shows the Old Rockland Cemetery, its graves having to eventually be dug up and relocated; page 44 shows the village of Ashland, neighborhood house next to neighborhood house.
His mother continued thinking of the life she left behind as a youngster where the post office was in the general store. She'd stop there on the way home from school to pick up the mail.
Though she remained in the area, Wolf says "she never got over the village being torn down. Her neighbors were dispersed, some never to be seen again."
By bringing these photos together documenting that era in Scituate history, Wolf has created his own legacy to his mother, making sure that her dear village of Rockland is not forgotten. His book begins there, in his mother's lost village, and ends with more than 220 photos later.