Under Changed Conditions

Thu, 03/28/2019 - 7:30pm

We come to the end of March, Women's History Month.

And so I go to the stack of paper that occupies the left-hand corner of my desk. It does not contain timely paperwork, rather bits and pieces of history, of things I might “need” someday.

It is, to my credit, slowly diminishing, but there are some things I cannot throw away, a copy of the hymn “Safe Within the Vail” which we learned in elementary school for the 300th anniversary of the European settlement of Block Island. Dressed in the “colonial” garb sewn by our mothers, we sang as the boys, in whatever could be collected to make them resemble fishermen of old, held the line to an off-stage boat.

There is an intriguing guidebook with hand-drawn maps, printed in 1955, to be “revised yearly as required” and a Christmas card from Hattie and Lester (Dodge) bearing a penned image of the steamer New Shoreham.

Today, it is the will of Lucretia Mott Ball I am seeking. It is there, a typed copy, three pages that bear the mark of a rusting paper clip. Disclaimer: she was not a blood relative, this second wife of my great-grandfather.

She left an extraordinary legacy, parts that deserve being put in one place.

She died a widow, her only daughter having predeceased her without issue. Her Hoosier son-in-law had no interest in returning to this place.

Lucretia left a bequest to a church in Indiana in memory of that daughter: $25,000, a considerable amount in 1939.

A “faithful servant” about whom I know little, was to be provided “with a comfort consistent with his station in life” and buried in the lot of her late husband, with a suitable stone. She must have had second thoughts; John Carroll Taylor, of Jackson, Mississippi, graduate of Tuskegee Institute, died in 1940, a year before Lucretia, and was buried beside her parents, Nathan and Phoebe Mott, also a place of honor.

She left to the WTCU of Rhode Island $4,000; to the Trustees of First Baptist (Harbor) Church $2,000; and to the Trustees of both the Free Will Baptist (West Side) and the Methodist (Center) Churches $1,000; those three then the year-round houses of worship. Again, real money in those days.

There was perpetual care for some cemetery lots — before the Town cared for the whole place — and token bequests to most of her stepchildren.

There came the more far-sighted provisions. She willed her father's Adrian Hotel, as a “memorial to my mother,” to the Trustees of the First Baptist Church “as part of the charitable and social welfare activities of said Church, by forever maintaining said property as a place to which worthy persons of impaired health or in ill health, who would be benefited by a temporary stay in the health giving climate of Block Island, but without the means to afford it, may come for part or all of the resort season” to be operated as such only during the summer season, leaving the Trustees some latitude, giving them the right in “their discretion to adapt the charity to needs that may arise under changed conditions in the future.”

A very few years after her death, the Baptist Church on Chapel Street burned to the ground and “changed conditions” led to court dissolution of what would have certainly proved a worthy but doomed — and only seasonal — venture. Finally, all these years later, the whole Adrian, or Harbor Church, building has year-round use.

It was her father's farm, a great tract west of Center Road, that she left as the island's first dedicated green space “to be maintained forever as a public park.” She named a board of Directors, and provided an endowment for the Nathan Mott Park.

The state decided to build an airport and seized the whole east end of the park, moving Center Road to the west, to curve around the end of the runway, and years later took even more land for the no-longer standing approach lights. Eventually, the Corporation turned the land over to Block Island Conservancy with a secondary agreement with The Nature Conservancy. The towers of lights came down, clearing was mandated, and today the park is free and open, with maintained trails and some mowed meadows.

Lucretia left her personal property “as shall be of historical or genealogical interest. . . to such museums or historical collections. . . giving preference to institutions located in the state of Rhode Island or in the New England states.” Again, the end was not quite what she called for, but it is hard to believe it would not meet her approval: the Block Island Historical Society.

The reset and residue of her very substantial estate — she was believed to the the largest landowner, commercial around the harbor and farm in the center, on the island at the time of her death — was to be liquidated, and put into funds for chosen charities. That created an extraordinary tangled tale, a story of its own; her estate was not closed for decades.

While little turned out exactly as she decreed, the end results have been good.

There are bits and pieces of history that drift away and fall outside admission; years ago, looking for something in the Land Evidence books, I found a General Release from the Town to Lucretia. While I had long ago heard she had vied to gift a site for the school to be constructed the in early 1930s, it was with the condition the school be named for her late husband and who in a small town wants a school with their – my! — name on it; I was just grateful it never happened.

Then I read the release on the land she had purchased, adjacent to her father's farm. It was 12 acres, free and clear, which the Town turned down in favor of a significantly smaller parcel. One has to wonder the backstory to that decision.