New book traces Block Island back to the ice age

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 6:15pm
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Island resident Steve McQueeny has published a new history of Block Island, titled “Block Island: From the Glaciers to the Wind Farm.” He subtitled the book, “Everything you wanted to know about the island, but didn’t know who to ask.”

The Block Island Times had an email chat with McQueeny about the book.

BIT: First of all, congratulations! You have a new book about Block Island that starts when the island was formed by glacial activity. Tell us when you got the idea for the book, and how you started your research process?

SM: I have always had a keen interest in local history. In the 1970s I wrote a history of my hometown of Briarcliff Manor, New York. As time went on, I developed the same interest in our adopted home of Block Island, where I have now spent more than half my life. I would say that my interest in Block Island was sparked by my friend and neighbor, Richard “Dickie” Kiley, former First Warden who loved all things Block Island. I began by reading in detail “Livermore's History of Block Island, Rhode Island,” published in 1877 by the Reverend S.T. Livermore, and soon realized that, since then, more than 140 years later, no continuing history of the island had been written and that Livermore's account begins with the explorer Verrazzano some 20,000 years after the island was deposited here by the glaciers. Of course many books have been written since, but none I could find that “connected the dots,” so I set my mind on that. The process began several years ago.

Q: How many books, articles, magazines did you read during your research phase? Can you give us an idea?

A: In my bibliography I mention 27 reference books. Some contain mere morsels of information, others a virtual treasure trove. In today's world much can be confirmed by the internet. (However I was careful not to use the internet or Wikipedia as a primary source.)

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Block Island that you, and the rest of us, may not have known?

A: The most fascinating factoid for me was the account of Captain William Kidd as related in Richard Zack's Pirate Hunter, which documented the notorious pirate’s relationship with Block Island.

Q: The book is generously illustrated. How difficult was it finding the right images for the various stories you tell in the book? What sources did you use for the photos?

A: Pictures of the island prior to the invention of the camera are hard to find, but I want to thank my neighbor Charlie Dodge, whose mom Edrie Dodge amassed a massive collection of early post cards, and to Stan Geer, whose uncle Robert Geer was a pioneer in photography, and Richard Miles Stinson for sharing their collections.

Q: Did you start to write the book while you were researching it, or did that process start when you were done with that phase?

A: The project “grew like Topsy” as one discovered fact led to another requiring additional research, revisions, and additions. In many ways it became a treasure hunt for information.

Q: Which part of the process did you enjoy the most, looking things up, or writing?

A: One of the most challenging projects was coming up with a name; we decided on “Block Island, From the Glaciers to the Wind Farm” with a mammoth glacier on the top and a wonderful picture of the five wind generators and the island pictured on the bottom of the front cover. The back cover features a model of a “Block Island Double Ender” as created by Charles Likites, an early guest at the Sheffield House and former model maker for the U.S. Naval Academy. It was presented to me by my wife Claire and our children on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Q: Tell us why this book is different from the other Block Island books that have been published?

A: The book tells the whole story of the island from its formation, its flora and fauna, original inhabitants, its colonists, commercial developments up to its current residents and visitors into the 21st century.

Q: How long have you lived on Block Island and what originally brought you here?

A: My family has had a long association with the Rhode Island coast. My parents having narrowly escaped the “Great Hurricane of 1938” while vacationing in Misquamicut. In the 1950s the family bought a cottage in the Haversham area of Westerly overlooking the barrier beach and Block Island on the horizon; however, few mainlanders ventured there. While in our early teens my future brother-in-law Richie Hosp and I escaped via the Charleston inlet, toured the Great Salt Pond and had to agree — nothing much went on out there. In the late 1960s my business partner Bill Schwartz purchased a dilapidated barn and chicken coop on Southeast Road, replete with outhouse, and converted it into a comfortable cottage. We rented that house and many others for summer vacations until “taking the plunge” in 1982. The rest is history.

Q: You dedicate the book to your late wife, Claire. What can you tell us about her, and how she helped you with the manuscript?

A: My wife Claire was a very talented person. In Briarcliff, she finished her bachelor’s degree, was an active member of the Junior League of Westchester-on-Hudson, Volunteer for the Ossining Senior Center, member of the Ladies Guild of the Briarcliff Volunteer Fire Department, and co-founder of a successful catering business. Once on the island, she ran the Sheffield House B&B for 20 years, founded and ran several other enterprises including Block Island Wedding Flowers, B.I. Linen Service and B.I. Baby Service. She served the island as President of the Tourism Council, Saint Andrew’s Ladies Guild and the Historic District Commission. She was a member of the Block Island Economic Development Corp, and ran the Lunch Bunch program for many years. Not only was Claire my best friend and cheerleader in writing the book, but helped with careful editing and wording as the project unfolded. Unfortunately she did not live to see the printed copy.

Q: Who else would you like to thank for helping with this project?

A: In addition to those mentioned above I would like to thank Kristen Kiley whose expertise in the publishing industry make this a most attractive volume. To my friends, neighbors and relatives, I say thank you.

Q: Where will we be able to find the book?

A: As we all know these are not normal times and one cannot go the store and buy the book right now. However, one can go to the internet to: BlockIslandTradingCompany.com and have a book delivered. When this emergency is over the book will be available at several island retailers.

Q: Finally, what do you hope readers will get out of the book after they’ve finished it? What do you hope their reactions will be?

A: My hope is that the reader will derive from this book that Block Island is not just another pretty place, but rather that it is a place where pioneers of this great country, despite all odds, eked out a hardscrabble existence and over centuries developed the island we know today. In addition, many descendants of those original families remain here, helping to keep the island pristine.