Most people, especially at this time of year, know the story of the burning of the British schooner Gaspee. They know as the ship was aground on Namquid Point, a group of colonialists fed up with the king’s taxes and tactics rowed out to the ship, took the crew off after injuring the captain and set it ablaze. The act preceded the Boston Tea Party by more than a year and is called the first blow for freedom.
It hasn’t always been that way. The burning of the Gaspee had its place in the history books, but that was pretty much it until a relatively modern day group, albeit more than 50 years now, decided to do something about it.
Henry Brown was one of those invited to join that brand of planners, activists and promoters.
On Saturday, as marchers waited to step off for the 47th annual Gaspee Days parade, Brown ticked off the names of those attending that first meeting at the home of Hazard Knowles. There was Hazel Kennedy, Daniel Cooney, Dave Stackhouse and Forest Sprague, “you know he was Chief of Police,” Brown said as if the group had met just last night.
And what did they talk about?
Brown paused to reflect.
“You know, I can’t remember.”
But there was no hesitation as to what Gaspee Days has become.
“It’s wonderful not only for Warwick but the entire state of Rhode Island,” said Brown. He is amazed by the sustained enthusiasm for the celebration bridging several weeks and incorporating a wide range of activities from a race and costume contest to an arts and crafts fair, colonial encampment and the symbolic burning of the Gaspee to cap events.
“Some people have religion and some people have this,” he said of the fervor some people exhibit for the event, and in particular the parade. He agrees that Gaspee Days is a good example of success breeding success.
It hasn’t always been easy, however.
“Jack Hutson has run the parade on two occasions and was committee president, the year we got sued,” he said.
Wearing the signature red shirt of committee members, Hutson was working the first half of the parade Saturday morning. Unless you looked up into the trees, spectators may have thought he had gotten an early brew at one or more Pawtuxet watering holes. Hutson trailed a float with models of the Gaspee and the Hannah, the colonial vessel the Gaspee was pursuing when it went aground on Namquid on an ebbing tide. The float weaved down Narragansett Parkway with Hutson following in the wake waving directions.
A glance at the overarching branches provided the answer. The ship’s masts reached that high and risked being torn from the models.
The year Hutson was president, 1990-91, controversy focused on action brought by Al Gemma, a candidate for office, who wanted to march in the parade. The committee said no and Gemma brought action in the Federal District Court.
He won by default, said Hutson. With only days to the parade, the court didn’t have time to rule and the committee concluded, after conferring with the judge, there would be no irrevocable harm done by allowing Gemma to march.
“We put Al in the middle of the parade behind the Clydesdales. It wasn’t planned, it just worked out that way,” said Hutson.
The upshot of Gemma’s action was adoption of a formal policy on officials and candidates marching in the parade.
“Nobody that’s a dog catcher. We didn’t want it to be political,” Hutson said.
Hutson has had a role in every parade since 1976.
“We’re always looking for some new people. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of work,” he said.
That combination of fun and work, he thinks, keeps bringing people back. But he sees so much more to the event. It goes back to that first meeting in the home of Hazard Knowles and back to June 9, 1772.
Hutson is amazed that 65 people dared to confront the rule of the king and then for the community that surely knew who was responsible remain silent despite a substantial reward. Gaspee Days is a celebration of that spirit to stand up to tyranny and despotism; that first blow for freedom.