Thomas Jefferson Hill and his superintendents at the Rhode Island Malleable Iron Works and the Elizabeth Mill realized that it would be to their benefit to provide recreational and religious activities as well as employment and housing for their workers. Villagers in Hill’s Grove in the 19th century relied upon their Sunday schools to provide for their recreational, as well as spiritual, needs. Among the most cherished memories were those of excursions to Rocky Point. Many church organizations in Rhode Island arranged for a day at the state’s most popular resort.
Fun on a Sunday at Rocky Point
A report of Children’s Day, July 15, 1876, tells us that a number of Baptist Sunday schools from Providence united to come to Rocky Point and swelled the ranks of people there. The report says, “There were estimated to be 1,300 children on the grounds at noon, and their bright faces were seen at every turn … The majority of the children went down at 9:30 … and in a few minutes … gathered around the monkeys. If some of the monkeys at Rocky Point were not sick last night, they need never fear indigestion, for the quantity and variety of delicacies which those grave, impish animals consumed yesterday was simply enormous …”
Santa at Hillsgrove
Sunday schools were also active during the winter season as well. A newspaper report from the Henry A.L. Brown collection dated Dec. 28, 1876, notes that, “The members of the Hill’s Grove Sunday School have been very busy for some time, and Saturday evening found their hall prettily decorated with evergreens, and in front of the platform stood two trees loaded with handsome presents …” There were recitations and singing of carols by the school children and then Santa Claus made his appearance.
The report continues to say, “The numerous gifts were speedily distributed, making glad many hearts.” In addition, the following Monday, “a member of the school, who has often contributed to the pleasure of the children, invited the school to take a sleigh ride...twenty-eight persons filled the sleigh and formed a merry load for the four horses.”
The narrative concludes with, “they visited the Universalist Sunday School … and passed a pleasant evening, being agreeably entertained and returned home about 10 o’clock, enlivening the way with cheerful songs, etc. All united in calling this the best time they have had, and its memories will not soon be forgotten.”
A Methodist church
is called for
The Hill’s Grove Union Evangelical Sunday School met at the old schoolhouse on Kilvert Street and within a few years became affiliated with the East Greenwich Methodist Church. For a short time, church services were held on the second floor of the schoolhouse, but it was quickly realized that there was a definite need for a Methodist church in the village.
On May 7, 1884, the “Methodist Episcopal Church at Hill’s Grove was organized, and George E. Dunbar was appointed as the first minister. With the encouragement of the superintendents of the Elizabeth Mill and the R.I. Malleable Iron Works, plans were made to build a church. The first meeting of the building committee was held in the office of the Elizabeth Mill and both the mill owner, Thomas J. Hill, and the mill superintendent, William G. James, were on the four-man building committee.
The church building was erected on a lot donated by Hill, who also gave $3,000 toward the cost of the church. His wife Elizabeth contributed a great deal to the furnishings for the church, as did William James.
During the mid-19th century, many of the churches could only have built in the mill villages in Warwick with the assistance of the mill owners. These very wealthy individuals assumed a paternalistic view of society and felt that building a church was a positive contribution. The fact that the churches were often built to bolster their own particular religious views and were often controlled to please the mill owner seemed a well-accepted fact. When the Methodist Episcopal Church at Hill’s Grove was built in the 1880s, the $3,000 contribution of Thomas J. Hill seemed a fortune to the villagers. This was a time when wages were very low and the amounts of money raised by the congregation were very small in comparison.
According to the History of Hillsgrove Methodist Church, written in 1984 to commemorate the 100th anniversary, “The total cost of the lot, building and furnishings came to $8,000, which was rapidly paid.” Much of the money raised was from large donations by people such as Thomas J. Hill and William G. James, the Elizabeth Mill superintendent.
In one of the early church fundraisers, a Washington’s Birthday Supper on Feb. 23, 1899, the price charged for a meal consisting of “cold meat, brown bread, white bread, doughnuts, cheese, pickles and pies” was 20 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. As might be expected, the receipts of a meal such as this rarely raised more than $20 for the church fund. Perhaps the church found that the children ate more than was anticipated for. During their November Harvest Supper, they raised the price for children to 15 cents. By the socials as in 1901, a bean supper only netted the group $5.
While receipts from fundraisers were small, so too were the projects attempted by the Ladies’ Helping Hand Society, organized by Mrs. Phoebe Westcott. In May 1898 they voted to furnish curtains for the minister’s study and added that the curtains should not cost over 40 cents. Another major project for the Ladies’ Helping Hand Society was knitting a comforter for the pastor.
While there was not a great deal of money that exchanged hands at church activities, there was certainly a great opportunity for a good time. Many of the suppers around the turn of the century boasted both good food and excellent music, which was provided by the Hill’s Grove Band. The congregation in 1903 held a “Tree of Knowledge Social,” which was well attended, and in 1905 chartered a trolley car to take the villagers to Narragansett Pier for the day.
Fortunately, many of the wealthy parishioners provided for the church’s needs. Very prominent among the early benefactors was the James family. In 1895, William G. James donated a church bell valued at $150, and later he and his wife gave a “costly and beautiful chandelier and several wall lamps” to the church. Other gifts given by the James’ consisted of a pipe organ, Communion table, flower stands and chairs for the choir. In 1934, Mrs. James donated funds to upgrade the organ and provide other improvements.
The story of the Hillsgrove Methodist Church will be continued.